Indian Religious Stories of the Origin of All Things

Some religious views, most notably Buddhism and Chinese religions like Confucianism and Taoism, accept such a view. It is not for us, they say, to address such ultimate questions, which are irrelevant to the practical problem of eliminating suffering where we can and finding a way of living in harmony with the balance of the universe, freed from suffering, hatred, greed, self-delusion, and attachment.

Still, even such religious views do make claims about the nature of ultimate reality. For instance, Buddhists generally believe in rebirth and think that humans have had many past lives in different forms. We may not know what our first origin was, but, according to Buddhists, we do know that we have had many lives and that what we are now is a result of what we did then.

Confucians believe in a Way of Heaven, a moral order that is built into the universe. In other words, these religions deny a purely materialistic view of the universe, a view that the universe is morally indifferent and purely random or accidental. There is a spiritual or mental reality, whether it is called "the will of heaven" or "nirvana," the state of liberated existence. And there is a moral law, a set of rewards and punishments for conduct, built into the universe.

It might be said to be the most general and basic religious belief that there is a moral causal order in the universe and that there is a nonphysical or spiritual aspect to the universe. The point of human life is to live in conformity with the moral order and in union with spiritual reality. This is far removed from a materialist philosophy. Yet it is a philosophy, a belief about what sorts of things ultimately exist and about how human beings ought to live. But no attempt is made at an ultimate explanation of origins, of how things came to be as they are or of how they began.

In fact, the whole idea of a "beginning" of the universe is often denied, especially in the Indian religious traditions from which Buddhism sprang. These traditions are set out in the Upanishads, a major part of the scriptures of orthodox Hinduism, thought by traditional believers to have been dictated by the gods to ancient seers.

The Upanishads are both complex and diverse in the approaches they take, but their central doctrine is that the whole universe is the manifestation or expression of Brahman, the Absolute Reality. Brahman is not a reality separate from the universe. It is the inner nature of the universe itself. Brahman "is the life that shimmers through all contingent beings" (Hindu Scriptures 1966, Mundaka Upanishad 3:1.). "It consists of all things" (Hindu Scriptures 1966, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:3). It is the reality of which all physical things are appearances.

That reality is certainly not physical—"Brahman is understanding, bliss" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3:9). It has the nature of consciousness and enjoyment. As such it could well be termed the "Supreme Good," since it finds complete satisfaction in the contemplation of all possibilities in its own self. It is, as Aristotle put it in the Metaphysics (book 12), noesis noeseos, literally, "thought that thinks itself," a reality that is supremely happy in the contemplation of its own perfection.

This is very similar to the classical Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) idea of God as a being of supreme perfection or goodness. But, in the Indian tradition, it is thought of not as a reality distinct from the universe but as the ultimately real nature of the universe itself. And so the key question is not about how the universe began (was it originated by a spiritual god?), but about what reality underlies the appearances of space and time.

It does not matter to Hindus whether the universe began or not. In fact, it is usually thought that this space/time is only one of an infinite series of space/times. This space/time may have had a beginning, and it may move through a set of phases or "ages" (usually from better to worse), until it ceases to exist. But if so, it was preceded by an infinite number of other space/times, and it will be succeeded by an infinite number after it.

All of them are manifestations of Brahman, the only ultimate reality. Yet each universe may be thought of as created by Brahman. "It was Being alone that was this in the beginning—one only, without a second" (Hindu Scriptures 1966, Chandogya Upanishad 6:2). This Being thought, "Would that I were many." "He knew that he was creation, for he had brought it all forth. Hence he became creation" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:4)

This points to what seems like a major difference between biblical and Indian views of creation. In the Bible, God creates a universe that is different from the divine being. But in the Upanishads, the creation is part of the divine being. The universe is, as the twelfth-century Indian sage Ramanuja put it, "the body of the Lord." So, whereas the prophets of Israel tend to advocate worship of God as a distinct and superior reality by worshippers who are unworthy sinners, the seers of India tend to teach that all of us really are parts of God and so divine.

At the heart of each finite self is the divine self. "This Self [Atman] is Brahman indeed" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:4). The spiritual path of Upanishadic Hinduism is to overcome the illusory self, enmeshed in desires and self-delusions, and discover the true Self (Atman) within, which is identical with the one Supreme Reality. The religious life is a journey "from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality" (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:3, 28).

The Hindu doctrine of how humans originate is that we originate in and are parts of one supreme Self of all. We have somehow become ignorant of this because of our selfish and materialistic desires. But through meditation and discipline, we can achieve knowledge of our essential natures. Then, "to him who has freed himself from ignorance . . . this same world of pain presents itself as essentially blissful. . . . [He sees himself as] a plaything of Brahman, whose nature is supreme bliss," as Ramanuja writes (The Vedanta Sutras 1962, 306).

If we ask about the reason for creation, Ramanuja says, "The highest Self, desirous of providing himself with a variety of playthings . . . so modifies himself as to have those elements for his body" (The Vedanta Sutras 1962, 405). The word plaything is not a very happy translation, and we may prefer a term like companion, which I think renders the sense better.

It is important to be aware that Ramanuja's is only one interpretation. Other interpreters, most notably Sankara, would disagree on many points. For Sankara, there is not a conscious decision on the part of the Creator to generate the universe. Rather, all finite names and forms arise from the One through ignorance (avidya), and they have the nature of illusion. They are not willed. They arise by necessity and have no positive purpose or goal that is to be achieved by means of them.

The major differences in the Upanishadic traditions are about whether Brahman is more or less personal in nature (is a supreme Lord or an Absolute without qualities), about whether creation is positively willed or just occurs through a mysterious arising of ignorance, and about whether liberated souls merge into Brahman and cease to be individuals or will continue to exist in a liberated, more blissful realm. But most commentators on the Upanishads agree on the general explanatory scheme for the existence of the universe.

This scheme is that there is one Supreme Reality of intelligent and blissful consciousness. It emanates from itself many worlds, in which beings become ignorant of their true identity with the supreme Self. The law of karma, of moral cause and effect, causes souls to be reborn in many worlds. The spiritual goal is to be liberated from worlds of suffering, and to reestablish identity with the Self. But worlds (that is, universes) will continue to exist, to be continually created and destroyed, as souls work out their karma, and the supreme Self becomes manifold, generating from itself an infinity of names and forms, perhaps out of lila, the joy of creation, or perhaps out of a necessary fall into ignorance.

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