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Hindu cosmology is the description of the universe and its states of matter, cycles within time, physical structure, and effects on living entities according to Hindu texts. Time is infinite with a cyclic universe, where the current universe was preceded and will be followed by an infinite number of universes.
Each universe lasts for 4.32 billion years in a time period called a Kalpa or day of Brahma, where the universe is created at the start and destroyed at the end, only to be recreated at the start of the next Kalpa. A Kalpa is followed by an equal period of partial dissolution (Pralaya or night of Brahma), when Brahma takes rest from his creative duties and the universe remains in an unmanifest state. Further divisions of time are a Manvantara, each with Chatur Yuga (a.k.a. Maha Yuga), each with four yugas: Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga.
- Pradhana (root matter): gunas in an unmixed and unmanifested state (equilibrium).
- Prakriti (primal matter): gunas in a mixed and unmanifested state.
- Universe (matter): gunas in a mixed and manifested state.
Pradhana, which has no consciousness or will to act on its own, is initially agitated by a primal desire to create. The different schools of thought differ in understanding about the ultimate source of that desire and what the gunas are mixed with (eternal elements, time, jiva-atmas).
The manifest material elements (matter) range from the most subtle to the most physical (gross). These material elements cover the individual, spiritual jiva-atmas (embodied souls), allowing them to interact with the material sense objects, such as their temporary material bodies, other conscious bodies, and unconscious objects.
- space/ether > sound > ear
- air > smell > nose
- fire > sight/form > eye
- water > taste > tongue
- earth > touch > skin
Prakriti (primal matter) remains mixed for a maha-kalpa (life of Brahma) of 311.04 trillion years, and is followed by a maha-pralaya (great dissolution) of equal length. The universe (matter) remains manifested for a kalpa (day of Brahma) of 4.32 billion years, and is followed by a pralaya (partial dissolution, a.k.a. night of Brahma) of equal length. Each kalpa has 15 sandhya (junctures of great flooding) and 14 manvantara (age of Manu, progenitor of mankind), each manvantara lasting 306.72 million years. Each kalpa has 1,000 and each manvantara has 71 chatur-yuga (epoch, a.k.a. maha-yuga), each lasting 4.32 million years and divided into four yugas (dharmic ages): satya-yuga, treta-yuga, dvapara-yuga and kali-yuga, of which we are currently in kali-yuga lasting 432,000 years.[b]
The individual, spiritual jiva-atma (embodied soul) is the life force or consciousness within a living entity. The jivas are not created, and are distinctly different from the created unconscious matter. The gunas in their manifest state of matter, cover the jivas in various ways based on each jiva's karma and impressions. This material covering of matter allows the jivas to interact with the material sense objects that make up the material universe, such as their temporary material bodies, other conscious bodies, and unconscious objects.
The material creation is called maya ("that which is not") due to its impermanent (non-eternal), temporary nature of sometimes being manifest and sometimes not. It has been compared to a dream or virtual reality, where the viewer (jiva) has real experiences with objects that will eventually become unreal.
Through these interactions, a jiva starts to identify the temporary material body as the true self, and in this way becomes influenced and bound by maya perpetually in a conscious state of nescience (ignorance, unawareness, forgetfulness). This conscious state of nescience leads to samsara (cycle of reincarnation), only to end for a jiva when moksha (liberation) is achieved through self-realization or remembrance of one's true spiritual self/nature.
The different schools of thought differ in understanding about the initial event that led to the jivas entering the material creation and the ultimate state of moksha.
Creation and structure
Brahma, the first born and secondary creator, during the start of his kalpa, divides the universe, first into three, later into fourteen lokas (planes or realms)—sometimes grouped into heavenly, earthly and hellish planes—and creates the first living entities to multiply and fill the universe. Some Puranas describe innumerable universes existing simultaneously with different sizes and Brahmas, each manifesting and unmanifesting at the same time.
Rigveda on creation
The Rigveda presents many speculative theories of cosmology. For example:
- Hiranyagarbha sukta, its hymn 10.121, states a golden child was born in the universe and was the lord, established earth and heaven, then asks but who is the god to whom we shall offer the sacrificial prayers?
- Devi sukta, its hymn 10.125, states a goddess is all, the creator, the created universe, the feeder and the lover of the universe;
- Nasadiya sukta, its hymn 10.129, asks who created the universe, does anyone really know, and whether it can ever be known.
According to Henry White Wallis, the Rigveda and other Vedic texts are full of alternative cosmological theories and curiosity questions. For example, the hymn 1.24 of the Rigveda asks, "these stars, which are set on high, and appear at night, whither do they go in the daytime?" and hymn 10.88 wonders, "how many fires are there, how many suns, how many dawns, how many waters? I am not posing an awkward question for you fathers; I ask you, poets, only to find out?" To its numerous open-ended questions, the Vedic texts present a diversity of thought, in verses imbued with symbols and allegory, where in some cases forces and agencies are clothed with a distinct personality, while in other cases as nature with or without anthropomorphic activity such as forms of mythical sacrifices.
The Rigveda contains the Nasadiya sukta hymn which does not offer a cosmological theory, but asks cosmological questions about the nature of the universe and how it began:
Darkness there was at first, by darkness hidden;
Without distinctive marks, this all was water;
That which, becoming, by the void was covered;
That One by force of heat came into being;
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
Gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whether God's will created it, or whether He was mute;
Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not;
Only He who is its overseer in highest heaven knows,
Only He knows, or perhaps He does not know.
Deborah Soifer describes the development of the concept of lokas as follows:
The concept of a loka or lokas develops in the Vedic literature. Influenced by the special connotations that a word for space might have for a nomadic people, loka in the Veda did not simply mean place or world, but had a positive valuation: it was a place or position of religious or psychological interest with a special value of function of its own. Hence, inherent in the 'loka' concept in the earliest literature was a double aspect; that is, coexistent with spatiality was a religious or soteriological meaning, which could exist independent of a spatial notion, an 'immaterial' significance. The most common cosmological conception of lokas in the Veda was that of the trailokya or triple world: three worlds consisting of earth, atmosphere or sky, and heaven, making up the universe.— Deborah A. Soiver
- Satya-loka (Brahma-loka)
- Svar-loka (Svarga-loka or Indra-loka)
- Bhu-loka (Earth plane)
However, other Puranas give different version of this cosmology and associated myths. The Puranas genre of Indian literature, found in Hinduism and Jainism, contain a section on cosmology and cosmogony as a requirement. There are dozens of different Mahapuranas and Upapuranas, each with its own theory integrated into a proposed human history consisting of solar and lunar dynasties. Some are similar to Indo-European creation myths, while others are novel. One cosmology, shared by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts involves Mount Meru, with stars and sun moving around it using Dhruva (North Star) as the focal reference. According to Annette Wilke and Oliver Moebus, the diversity of cosmology theories in Hinduism may reflect its tendency to not reject new ideas and empirical observations as they became available, but to adapt and integrate them creatively.
The Hindu texts describe innumerable universes existing all at the same time, some larger than others, each with its own Brahma administrator with a comparable number of heads. Our universe is described as the smallest with a Brahma of only four heads. The Hindu concept of innumerable universes is comparable to the multiverse theory, except nonparallel where individual jiva-atmas (embodied souls) exist in exactly one universe at a time. All universes manifest from the same matter, and so they all follow parallel time cycles, manifesting and unmanifesting at the same time.
Every universe is covered by seven layers — earth, water, fire, air, sky, the total energy and false ego — each ten times greater than the previous one. There are innumerable universes besides this one, and although they are unlimitedly large, they move about like atoms in You. Therefore You are called unlimited.
Because You are unlimited, neither the lords of heaven nor even You Yourself can ever reach the end of Your glories. The countless universes, each enveloped in its shell, are compelled by the wheel of time to wander within You, like particles of dust blowing about in the sky. The śrutis, following their method of eliminating everything separate from the Supreme, become successful by revealing You as their final conclusion.— Bhagavata Purana 10.87.41
The layers or elements covering the universes are each ten times thicker than the one before, and all the universes clustered together appear like atoms in a huge combination.
And who will search through the wide infinities of space to count the universes side by side, each containing its Brahma, its Vishnu, its Shiva? Who can count the Indras in them all--those Indras side by side, who reign at once in all the innumerable worlds; those others who passed away before them; or even the Indras who succeed each other in any given line, ascending to godly kingship, one by one, and, one by one, passing away.— Brahma Vaivarta Purana
Every thing that is any where, is produced from and subsists in space. It is always all in all things, which are contained as particles in it. Such is the pure vacuous space of the Divine understanding, that like an ocean of light, contains these innumerable worlds, which like the countless waves of the sea, are revolving for ever in it.— Yoga vasisthaSource
You know one universe. Living entities are born in many universes, like mosquitoes in many udumbara (cluster fig) fruits.— Garga SamhitaSource
- In Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna says "Air, water, earth, fire, sky, mind, intelligence and ahankaar (ego) together constitute the nature created by me."
- The concept of four cosmic periods (yuga) is also found in Greek, Roman, Irish and Babylonian mythologies, where each age becomes more sinful and of suffering. For example, the Roman version found in the early 1st-century Metamorphoses of Ovid calls it Silvern (white), Golden (yellow), Bronze (red) and Iron (black) ages. Plato too divides the concept of universal time into ages, and suggests time being cyclic. The total number of years in the Babylonian mythology is the same 432,000 years (120 saroi) as the Indian mythologies.
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