The cosmos and the natural world
Prescientific Indian ideas about the cosmos were much more complex than prescientific ideas in the West. Hinduism has not just one creation story but a number of creation stories and even of creators. Moreover, the universe is not created only once, but over and over again. One creator is Brahma who is often portrayed as seated on a lotus flower growing from Vishnu’s navel as Vishnu rests on Shesha, the king of the Nagas (mythological snake-like beings) between acts of creation. There is also ‘the One’ who is described as the sole existent ‘breathing breathless’, though this account in the Rig-Veda (10.129) is speculative and hedged about with doubt and uncertainty – no one really knows how everything began, maybe not even the One. Among the creation stories is the Sacrifice of Primal Man, also in the Rig-Veda (10.90), whose dismemberment by the gods produces, among other things, the three Vedas and the three worlds (earth, sky and atmosphere and heaven) as well as human beings of the four varnas (classes). Another creation story is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk found in the Mahabharata and in both the Bhagavata and Vishnu Puranas, in which the gods and their rivals cooperate to retrieve the elixir of immortality (amrit) from the depths of the ocean, using Mount Mandana pivoted on Kurma, Vishnu’s tortoise avatar (descent form) with the Naga Vasuki as a rope to churn the ocean. This process yields goddesses such as Shri Lakshmi, sacred animals such as Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow, and treasures such as Parijata, the ever-blossoming tree, before Dhanvantari, the divine physician, appears cradling the elixir in his hands. The gods tricked the demons and kept the elixir of immortality for themselves.
Creation is generally regarded not as creation out of nothing but as a specific shaping and structuring of the components of the universe. For example, in Samkhya, Prakriti (Nature) as cause is regarded as containing all effects in a potential state with three constituents, the gunas (qualities) of sattva (purity, goodness), rajas (passion, activity) and tamas (dullness, inactivity), that in different proportions manifest in the objects of the world, including people. Similarly, in Vaishesika, material substances are composed of atoms (in the ancient Greek sense of the smallest unit, not the modern scientific sense) that in varying combinations produce physical objects. While the building-blocks of the universe endure, the universe itself does not. An analogy here might be toy bricks that can be used to construct different things, first a car and then a rocket for instance, where the bricks remain but their configuration as vehicles differs. The concept of the four yugas (ages) of decline and degeneration from a state of perfection to one of chaos emphasises the cyclic pattern of periodic dissolution and recreation.
The Puranic (see Sacred texts) picture of the cosmos (e.g. Vishnu Purana 2.4) is complex with numerous realms contained within the shell of Brahmananda (World Egg). Horizontally, there are lands separated by oceans arranged in concentric circles, the innermost land being Jambudvipa (the land of the Roseapple Tree) of which India constitutes one-twelfth and the best part, centred on Mount Meru. Vertically, there are many worlds including heavens and hells with Bhurloka (Earth) in the middle as the region where work produces merit. The World Egg is situated within a still vaster universe of water enclosed by fire, enclosed by air, enclosed by ether, enclosed by the gross elements, enclosed by the first principle, enclosed by the limitless cause of all World Eggs. In spite of this complexity, as the Vedic concept of rita (law, truth) and its later counterpart dharma (duty, righteousness) indicate, the cosmos is ordered and harmonious.
Although the impression is sometimes given that all Hindus believe the world to be unreal, this is the analysis of Advaita Vedanta which considers it to be maya (illusory) and in general many Hindus, not least those who follow other versions of Vedanta, consider the world to be real, if not independently so. Theistic forms of Hinduism value the natural world as the glory and wonder of the divine nature is to be found in all things, on the other hand the physical world can be viewed as a product of divine playfulness (lila) rather than profound purpose. Although it can be argued that the world lacks ultimate importance because the highest goal, moksha (release, liberation), lies beyond it, it is also the object of divine care and protection as illustrated by the story of Varaha (the boar, an avatar of Vishnu) who rescues earth from the depths of the cosmic ocean where she had been cast by the demon Hiranyaksha.