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A text by Heike Oberlin with reference to Heinrich von Stietencron*

Hinduism | The creation of the world

Talking about »the Hinduism« is a challenge, as it is a complex socioreligious or rather religious and cultural term, which has been trying to capture a pluralism of intertwined Indian religions and cultures since the 19th century, which have all developed their own liberal way of coexisting and interacting with each other.

One can therefore easily imagine that there is no such thing as »the« creation myth in Hinduism. Let’s take the oldest texts handed down in India as an example: the Vedas. The texts, which originated in the second half of the second pre-Christian century, include hymns to the Gods, which were mainly sung as part of a sacrifice ritual and which have been passed down by word of mouth only. In the Rigveda, the »knowledge of verses«, we learn about the cosmic order: at the beginning father sky and mother earth were lying so close together, that there was no space left between them. The children, who this union brought into existence, were unable to develop due to the lack of space. This was until one of the Gods’ sons (Varuna, Vishnu or maybe even Indra) forcefully separated the parents, sky and earth, so that there was space for the wind, which constitutes the breath of the world and through this the foundation of all life (Rigveda 6.70.1; 7.86.1). This creation of (air) space was the first and fundamental cosmogonic act. The fact that this action was assigned to different Gods over time shows that the hierarchic structures in the Vedic realm of Gods were not decided once and for all or remained unchanged.

In the later texts the creator deity is often referred to as Prajapati, the lord of creatures. The glowing heat of his ascetic willpower creates some of these beings. Others are created by union, sacrifice or artistic formation. One also comes across the idea of an initial single thing, which creates a second thing, with which it then unites.

In late Vedic times, i.e. in the second half of the first pre-Christian century, speculations regarding sacrifices were so dominant, that the creation of the world was also thought of as something resulting from a sacrifice. One of the few comprehensive songs about the creation from the Rigveda describes such a process of creation (10.90). The Gods offered Purusha (literal meaning: the man) as a sacrifice. Purusha, a primal being, is a cosmos that is thought of as anthropomorphic and that carries in it the entire diversity of what is. He has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet – this image already illustrates the entire swarming richness of beings. Not only one world rests in him, but many: the present one, the past one and the future one. He is both the lord of immortality, thereby incorporating what is everlasting, including Gods and the laws of the world, as well as the lord of transience, hence, everything that grows through nutrition and is thereby reliant on it in order to live. It is not only the earthly space and animals that emerge from this sacrifice but also the verses, melodies, metres and the sacrifice saying, thus the most important priestly elements required for a sacrifice. Social classes develop, whereby each class is associated with one of Purusha’s body parts – something that has not been decided arbitrarily. The Brahmin, whose main task is the word, namely to speak, sing and recite the holy word of the Vedas, is associated with the mouth. In the case of the nobles, it is the bow and sword which suggest their association with the arms. For the merchants and landowners of the middle class one can find reference to the reproductive organs, which symbolise the area of fertility as a domain of the farming profession. The serving Shudras develop from the feet, as does the earth itself, i.e. the foundation that carries society.

Lastly, there is one more important concept to mention, which explains the creation of the world: it is the imagination of a cosmic egg, swimming on the endless primal waters, and in which inner core a creator deity develops thanks to his ascetic power and who creates all beings and worlds on his part. This concept, too, can be found in the later hymns of the Rigveda. The image of the egg is almost an invitation to the corresponding image of brooding heat. According to old yogic tradition and experience it is exactly this heat, however, which can be reached in asceticism through the sheer force of will and which can be transformed into a creating power. As a cyclical conception of the world arose, according to which new worlds would develop and vanish over and over again, the image of the world egg’s golden seed (Hiranyagarbha) became a symbol for what is lasting in the midst of what is fleeting. Since then the creator deity Prajapati was given the sobriquet Brahma, as he was seen as the embodiment of the creative force of the Vedic word (Brahman). In the Vamana Purana (Saromahatmya 22.17-19; 30-34), for example, it says: a long time ago, when the living and non-living things got lost in the huge ocean again, an egg appeared amongst the floods. It was the source for the seed of all beings. In it was the God Brahma, sleeping. It took a thousand world ages before he woke up. He saw that the world was empty. He broke the egg open. Then the syllable Om was born through him.

According to late Vedic tradition, Om is the sound, which holds all sounds of the Indian alphabet and with them, all words, things and thoughts. Om is the beginning and end of all that is – alpha and omega, if they are considered as the entirety of everything that lies between them. After Om, the three sounds Bhuh, Bhuvah and Svah came out of the egg, which carry in them, the earth, the air and the sky. From these the sun developed as a glowing ember, which immediately started to dry out the water of the sea. To begin with the dried area became a foetus, then an embryo and finally solid earth. Due to its solidity and because it carries all creates, the earth is described as Dharani, the carrying one.

These chosen examples of myths from the Vedic era and early Hinduism reflect the close connection between creation and sound, which Musica Sacra International has dedicated this year’s festival to.


* With verbatim use of unpublished text excerpts from Heinrich von Stietencron’s last public lecture in 2008 on the topic »Indian Myths«, copyright granted.

Hinduism | The creation of the world - A Text by Heike Oberlin

Hinduism_The creation of the world.pdf (72.5 KiB)

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