In Our Time: Hindu Ideas of Creation

In the In Our Time episode that we listened to on Sunday Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and University of Oxford), Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad (Lancaster University) and Gavin Flood (University of Oxford) discussed the ideas about the creation of the universe that are present in the Hindu religion. One thing that they brought up fairly early in the programme is that there isn’t An Answer that everyone must believe. In the earlier texts that survive there’s a pervading sense that this is a mystery and the writers are speculating about the possible answers. Frazier quoted a hymn that asks the question what was before the creation happened, which says that maybe the god in the highest heaven knows, but maybe he does not.

In the Hindu stories about creation the world/universe is not created ex nihilo, nor is it necessarily a one off event. Flood talked about the ideas about recurrence – which include metaphors like the cycle is god breathing out (emanating the universe) and in, or god waking and sleeping. There are two sorts of stories – in one sort the divine emmanates the world from it’s own divine self, and in another sort the world is created from an egg of the stuff that was there previously. These can be quite complex – for instance one has the divine being producing from himself another being with whom he has children. These children then go on to create the world from themselves – this reminded me of Egyptian cosmology, and they also talked in the programme about similarities with the Gnostic tradition of the demiurge who is created by the divine being then creates the material world. The other sort of story with the creation from pre-existing material gives rise an idea of the divine as craftsman or architect.

These early texts are generally not much concerned with how the world is made or created – there are these stories but much more space is devoted to how society is and should be organised, and rituals and so on. As I said in the first paragraph they told us that the mystery of it was part of the point for the early thinkers. But one thing these stories were useful for in the context of the rest of the texts was setting out that the nature and hierarchies of society were divinely ordained in the original creation. For instance one of the stories has the different castes being made from different parts of the divine being’s body – like the warriors from his strong arms, and so on. So the castes of society are all the necessary parts of the body of society.

I think they said these early texts were from around 3000 years ago, and obviously over time the Hindu thinking about creation has changed. Around 2000 years ago they said that Hindu scholars began to approach the idea from a more philosophical direction. Rather than being happy with a central mystery and speculation they began to think about how it might’ve worked and why the divine would create the world anyway. I think this is where one of the experts told us that one of the ideas for why the divine created the world is that it was to incarnate in the world and enjoy all the pleasures it had to offer. Which is an interesting counterpoint to Christianity where the incarnation of God as Jesus is fundamentally about the suffering of the world.

Later yet, around 1000 years ago, the stories about creation began to take on a more theological cast – the stories began to be about named gods, and more specific in detail. This is where Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva come in as the actors in the creation stories. However there is still (and still remains) no sense that there is One True Answer to how the world was created. Ram-Prasad told us that different families have different traditions for which gods and stories they give prominence to. There is also no sense that the stories are literal truth, so there’s not any conflict between Hindu religious belief and modern physics – the creation stories were always metaphors and speculation.

One other thing Bragg brought up (but Flood shot down quite quickly) was that some of these metaphorical stories can be perceived as matching up quite well with modern scientific ideas about the beginning of the universe. But as Flood said, it’s important not to get carried away with oneself about a coincidence.

(I found this rather hard to write up for some reason, hopefully I haven’t mangled it too much in trying to make it coherent!)