The Hindu Creation Story

What is the Hindu creation story? We have to look at the tradition of the Aryans and specifically the Veda, Hinduism’s holy book. The Aryan civilization honored how this world came into being and the Veda offered several different explanations. It doesn’t seem to be a problem that the stories of the world’s creation are often at odds with one another. Even today, the Hindu tradition contains dozen of different accounts of creation.

One of the most intriguing of the cosmogonies is a short hymn that is intended to astound and confuse rather than to explain. It has been the subject of hundreds of commentaries throughout Hindu history. As I write here an English translation I will also give my own commentary. This is called the hymn of creation:

“There was neither non-existence nor existence. There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. There was neither death neither immortality. There was no distinguishing sign of day or night. That One breathed by its own impulse. Other than that, there was nothing beyond.”

This Vedic cosmogony opens by taking us to the limits of our capacity to think. Our ordinary ways of thinking depend on dualities: yes and no, subject and object, is and isn’t. This song presses beyond this duality by invoking a time that is no time, a place that is no place. It is a time and place where there is neither nothing nor not-nothing.

The hymn introduces an entity only known as That One. The identity of That One is not clear, but we do know that it breaths by its own power:

“Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning. With no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force was covered with emptiness. That One arose with the power of heat.”

The story gets more complicated and obscure. It now suggests that there were primordial waters with no distinguishing marks, similar perhaps to that water and chaos of the Biblical account of creation. That One now appears to be identified with the life force. The heat is a creative energy that is associated with the god Agni.

“Desire upon That One in the beginning. That was the first seed of mind. Poets, seeking in their hearts with wisdom, found the bond of existence in non-existence. Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above?”

With these verses the hymn seems to have become impenetrable. Perhaps it is suggesting that That One began to desire as a result of his creative heat. Desire and heat are often associated with one another. Desire is the seed of thought, the beginning of the process by which the world was brought into being.

When we think we see some clarity in the hymn it introduces poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but even Shelley didn’t imagine such a grand role for poets in the world’s creation. These poets, however, are more that just word smiths. They are sages, saints and philosophers.

Where they came from and what role they played in the world’s creation is not clear. Some commentators have suggested that the hymn maintains that the poets bring That One into existence through their meditating powers. Others think that the poets merely discern the structure of existence through wisdom after the world’s creation.

Then, rather surprisingly, the hymn takes an unexpected turn. After making these pronouncements, it becomes profoundly humble:

“Who really knows? Who here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? The gods came afterwards. Who then knows whence it has a reason. Perhaps it formed itself or perhaps it did not. The One who looks down upon it in highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he does not know?”

There is something refreshingly honest about these concluding verses. Without reaching a point of cynicism or nihilism it reminds us that thoughts about the origin of the cosmos remain speculative. From the beginning we are enveloped in a mystery.

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