Monday, 5 January 2015

Creation Mythology: India

India probably has more creation stories than any other culture. Some of these come from the Rig Veda; one of the earliest and most important religious texts of ancient India. It is the oldest of four collections of hymns and other sacred texts, which are known as the Vedas. As with many cultures, the information contained within the Rig Veda was first spread orally for hundreds of years before being written down between 1500 and 1000 BC. The following hymn, known as the Nasadiya, doesn’t give an explanation of creation, it merely speculates and questions before concluding that perhaps no one knew of how it all came into existence.

Non-Existent by DKF
Then was not non-existent nor existent:
there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? And what gave shelter?
Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal:
no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider.
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature:
apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness
this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less:
by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning,
Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought
discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.
Transversely was their severing line extended:
what was above it then, and what below it?
There were begetten, there were mighty forces,
free action here and energy up yonder.
Who verily knows and who can here declare it,
whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world’s production.
Who knows then whence it first came into being?
He, the first origin of this creation,
whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven,
he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

The Taittiriya Brahmana, dating to between 900 and 700 BC, tells a creation myth where Prajapati is credited for creation.  Prajapati is sometimes interchanged with Brahma.

Prajapati/ Brahma
The Tears of Prajapati

Prajapati emerged, but as soon as he was conscious, the Lord of All Creatures wept, for he could see no purpose in his existence. As he cried, his falling tears became the Earth. The tears he wiped away became the air, and those he brushed upwards became the overarching sky. He wanted offspring and settled down to practice religious austerities. He gave birth to demons, then put aside his body, which became night. He created himself anew, made men and women and cast his body aside, which became the moon. He then assumed a new self, creating the seasons from his armpits and the dusk and dawn from his body. Finally he made the gods from his mouth, and when he put aside this next body, it became the day.

Another creation myth, which can be found in the Rig Veda, Prajapati begins the process of creation by bringing Brahma, the creator god, into existence.

The Creation of Brahma

Lotus Flower by DivineLightAngels
Prajapati, Lord of the Universe, meditated, and as he meditated a seed appeared in his navel. A lotus tree sprouted from the seed and as it grew, the tree was bathed in brilliant light. From this lotus and the light around it, Brahma was born. The light spread out through the cosmos and Brahma spread with it and mixed with it, so that Brahma became the essence of all things and the power contained within them. Brahma also became the essence of time – a single day of his life lasts 4,320 million human years. When these millions of years have passed, the cycle of creation will start again and a new age of the cosmos will begin.

Other Indian creation myths tell of how Prajapati or Brahma, depending on the version, emerged from a golden egg to begin creation. The following myth comes from the Satapatha Brahmana.

The Golden Egg
The Golden Egg

In the beginning there was only the primeval sea – the waters. It was the waters who wished to reproduce, and through devotions became heated enough to produce a golden egg that floated about for a time. Then from the egg came Prajapati. It took a year for him to come, and so it takes about that amount of time for a woman or a cow to give birth. After he broke out of the egg, Prajapati rested on its shell for another year or so before he tried to speak. The sound he made – the Word, his sounded breath – became Earth. His next sound became sky. Other sounds became the seasons. After waiting another year Prajapati stood in his shell. He could see even then from the beginning of his life to its end in one thousand years. Prajapati gave himself the power of reproduction. Some say he created the fire god, Agni, out of himself. With his hot breathing up into the sky (div), he created the gods (devas). With his breathing down Prajapati created the Asuras and the darkness of the earth. To avoid the cosmic struggle between light and dark, Prajapatti overcame the Asuras with evil. Now there were, however, day and night.
Prajapati realized that by creating beings he had created time, and we know that Prajapati is, in a sense, time.

Brahma - God of Creation by molee*
A similar myth, or perhaps a reworking of the above myth, comes from the Upanishads, or learning sessions, written between 800 and 400 BC. Here Prajapati becomes the creator god Brahma.

There was only Non-Being in the beginning. Non-Being developed into an egg. After a year the egg broke into two parts, one silver, one gold. The silver part is earth; the gold part is the sky. The various inside parts of the egg are the mountains, rivers, clouds, and so forth. The sun was born from the egg. At his birth, everything rose toward him. The sun is Brahma.

While there are many different myths within Hindu mythology, one of the most well known involves the creator god, Brahma, who here uses both meditative power and his sexuality to create everything in existence.

Prajapati by Aguaplano
Brahma and the Dawn

First of all Brahma contemplated the cosmos, which was nothing but swirling chaos without shape. As Brahma meditated, the cosmos began to take shape; order started to be revealed from chaos. But the creator realized that he still did not know what the universe would be like, and his very ignorance turned into a dark being, which Brahma then threw away in disappointment. This being turned into Night. Some say that as he continued to meditate, Brahma produced a succession of further beings, from the stars to the gods, before he produced a beautiful daughter, the Dawn.
When Brahma saw his beautiful daughter the Dawn, he became sexually aroused. He made advances to her, but she turned herself into a deer. Brahma responded by transforming himself into a stag. According to one version of the story, Brahma’s daughter would still not let him mate with her; he spilled his seed on the ground and this grew into the first man and the first woman. In the other version of the myth, the pair mated again and again, continuously changing their form, so that their children became the first members of every animal species on the planet. When creation was complete, Brahma took up his dwelling on top of Mount Meru, although he is said to be everywhere. He continues to meditate to give strength to the universe.

Another version of this myth states that the universe had always existed as the spirit of the universal man, Purusha.

Purusha by amorphouskat
Purusha come into being when he became self-conscious and declared ‘I am.’ He had the shape of a man and, looking around, felt the sensation of being entirely along. Purusha longed for a partner – his desire brought a wife into existence and from their union the first humans were born. But the union had been incestuous and Purusha’s wife was ashamed. She fled, transforming herself into a succession of animals. But every time she transformed, Purusha assumed the same form and mated with her. The process continued until all the species of animal on earth had been created.

Purusha can be found in another Hindu myth of creation. The following myth, called Purusha shukta or ‘Hymn to the Person’ (Hymn to the Primeval Man) tells of the sacrifice of Purusha and the following creation of the universe.

Purusha shukta: Hymn to the Person

The three quarters that are set down in secret they do not bring
into movement. The fourth quarter of the Holy Utterance is what men
The Purusha has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, and a
thousand feet. He, encompassing the world on all sides, stood out
ten fingers’ length beyond.
The Purusha alone is all this universe, what has been and what
is to be. He rules likewise over immortality and also what grows
for food.
Such is his greatness, greater indeed than this is Purusha than this.
A quarter of him is all beings, three quarters are the immortal in
Being born he projected himself behind the earth as also before

Purusha: The Beast of Sacrifice
When the gods performed the sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation,
the spring was its clarified butter, the summer the sacrificial ritual,
and the autumn the oblation.
The sacrificial victim, namely Purusha, born at the very beginning,
they sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With
him as oblation gods performed the sacrifice, and also the Sadhyas
and the rishis.
From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses
and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial
formula was born from it.
From it horses were born and also those animals that have double
rows of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and
When they divided the Purusha into how many parts did they
arrange him? What did his mouth become? What his two arms?
What were two thighs and his two feet called?
His mouth became Brahman (priest), his two arms the rajenya (ruler),
his two thighs the vaishyas, from his two feet Shudra were
The moon was born from his mind, the sun from his eyes, from his
mouth Indra and Agni, from his breath Vayu (wind) was born.
From his navel rose the atmosphere, from his head the heaven,
from his two feet the earth, from his ear the directions, thus they
fashioned the world.

With Sacrifice the gods sacrificed to sacrifice – these were the first
of the sacred laws.
These might beings reached the sky, where are the eternal spirits
the gods.

The final myth of creation from India that I have for you today is not a creation myth, per se. According to Hindu mythology there are endlessly repeating cycles of creation and destruction. This famous myth describes how one of these creations was missing particular elements and how the gods managed to retrieved these elements in order to continue the cycle.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk Edwin Binney 3rd Collection
Churning of the Ocean of Milk

Throughout all the cycles of creation, thoughout all the ages of time, the devas and asuras have been enemies. Throughout all the cycles of creation, throughout all the ages of time, those same gods and demons have needed the offerings of amrita, the butter of immortality, to ensure their continues power.
Now it so happened, at the beginning of the second cycle, that the new universe that arose was incomplete, for from it were missing fourteen precious things, among which was the amrita. Anxious that without the sacred butter they would lose their supremacy, the gods conferred as to what they should do. There was only one solution: they would have to churn the great ocean of milk until they brought out of it all the precious things that were missing.
The gods knew, however, that they could not accomplish this task unaided, so they asked the demons to help them in churning the milky ocean, promising a share of the amrita in return. Enticed by this thought, the demons agreed. But a fish is soon caught that nibbles at the first bait, and if the demons had not been so greedy they would have realized that the gods had no intention of sharing anything with them.
And so the great work began. For a churning stick the gods and the demons uprooted Mount Mandara, and wound around it Vasuki, King of the Serpents, to use as a rope to rotate the mountain. Then, with the demons at his head and the gods at his tail, the assembled company began to haul on Vasuki, pulling first one way and then the other, until slowly, with much creaking and groaning, the huge mountain began to revolve.
As the gods and demons pulled harder and harder the mountain began to turn faster and faster. And so great was the heat from its spinning that it set the mountain slopes alight, and the fire would have consumed every plant, every animal, every birth there, had not Indra, Lord of the Rain and the Storm, sent a rainstorm to quench the blaze.

Vedic Creation Myth by Eduardo-Tarasca
And so great was the weight of the mountain that it would have broken through the earth itself, had not Vishnu the Preserver assumed the form of Kurma the turtle and borne on his back the weight of the mountain. And Vishnu was both the turtle beneath the mountain and the god sitting in glory on top.
And so great was the labour of Vasuki King of the Serpents that a torrent of venom began to pour from his jaws that would have killed gods, demons and all living things, had not Shiva the Destroyer drunk the poison and so saved the world. But as Shiva swallowed the poison, a little of it burnt his throat leaving a blue mark, which is why he is called Nilakantha, which means ‘blue throat’.
And at the end of a thousand years of churning, the gods and demons were at last rewarded, for the precious missing things began to appear out of the ocean of milk. First came the great cow Surabhi, wetnurse of everything living, and then other treasures followed – Varuni, Goddess of Wine; Parijata the Tree of Paradise, whose scented flowers perfumed all the world; the Apsuras, Nymphs of Grace and Beauty: Out of the milky sea, too, rose the sun and Soma, God of the Moon and of Amrita. And there also, floating on the creamy waves, seated in a lotus blossom and crowned with flowers, was Lakshmi, radiant Goddess of Fortune and Plenty, and consort to Vishnu.

Dhanvantari holding the amrita
Finally came the treasure that all the gods and demons had been waiting for – the amrita itself, contained in a cup held by the physician god Dhanvantari. As soon as the demons saw him, they lunged at him and would have made away with the amrita, had Vishnu not assumed yet another form, this time that of a voluptuous woman named Mohini. Seduced by her beauty and filled with desire for her, the demons agreed to allow her to share out the amrita. But no sooner had the gods received their portion than Mohini mysteriously vanished, with the faintest echo of a tinkling laugh, leaving the demons empty-handed.
And that is how the gods kept the amrita for themselves, and how they continued to reign supreme over all of creation.

That’s all for today. Next time we will explore the creation mythology of Australia.

Useful ResourcesMany Many Many Gods of Hinduism by Swami Achuthananda
DK Eyewitness Companions: Mythology by Philip Wilkinson & Neil Philip
Ancient India’s Myths and Beliefs by Charles Phillips, Michael Kerrigan & David Gould
Exploring the Life, Myth, and Art of India by Chakravarthu Ram-Prasad
From Bharata to India: Chrysee the Golden by M. K. Agarwal

Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia by David Adams Leeming
Hamlyn History: Myths Retold by Diana Ferguson
e Rig Veda translated by Ralph T. H. Griffith