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Gist of Cosmological Ideas in Vedas

Srinivas Madabhushi

Cosmology is an important aspect of ancient Indian thinking and wisdom. Vedas, the towering monuments of human race contain some important ideas on cosmology. Before attempting to examine the cosmological insights revealed in the Vedas, let us examine some of the modern scientific theories on the origin of the universe.

The modern views of cosmogony are summarised by Richard J. Ordway (1971) in his book Earth Science. Kuiper's 'protoplanet hypothesis' in a way is a modification of the 'nebular hypothesis' of Kant and Laplace. The latter presupposes a great cloud of slowly rotating hot gaseous material as the starting point of the universe. As this cloud cooled, it shrank and rotated more rapidly. The cloud got gradually compressed at polar regions into a lens-shaped disc which gradually left off masses of gases which cooled down first to a liquid state and then to solid state, giving rise to planets. If this hypothesis were to be valid, the gases should disperse instead of collecting into planets; the sun should be rapidly spinning and all satellites  should be revolving in the west-to-east direction. This  and a number of other theories like the 'binary star hypothesis' unsuccessfully attempted to explain cosmogony. According to Kuiper's 'protoplanet hypothesis', the solar system originated from a hot gaseous cloud or nebula, perhaps one-tenth as massive as the sun, that surrounds a large dark central mass that would subsequently form into a star. As the nebula contracted, and flattened, it becomes unstable, and divided into a number of separate  clouds of 'protoplanets'. Solid particles accumulated into a central core in each protoplanet and became surrounded by a very large gaseous envelope. The composition of the nebula was chiefly hydrogen, with some helium, and 1 to 2 per cent of heavier elements. The protoplanets were of different sizes, but all were far larger and more massive than the present planets. The satellites were also formed in a similar manner, but they were relatively closer. The rotation of the protosatellites was slowed down by tidal friction until they rotated and revolved at the same rate and in the same direction. Thus they remained spherical and did not subdivide further. The original nebula rotated in a counter-clockwise direction. The tidal attraction of the sun on the protoplanets stretched them into elongated shapes and kept their long axes always pointed towards the sun. This made the direction of rotation the same as the direction of revolution, with periods of rotation and revolution once equal.

By this time the central mass had contracted enough to become a star. As the sun's temperature rose, its radiations and ejected particles ionized the gases around it. These gases interacted with the sun's rotation and transferred most of its angular momentum to the particles in the nebula; they moved faster as a result of the transfer. This solar wind of raditions and ejected particles gradually swept off into space the remaining portion of the nebula and most of the lighter gases of the protoplanets. A comet's tail is directed away from the sun for the same reason. Only a small fraction of the original nebula remains as the masses of the present planets.

Thus the most modern theory on cosmology assumes the pre-existence of a rotating, hot gaseous nebula, but is silent on how this came into being, and which motivated such rotation. With this background let us examine the cosmological ideas and cosmogony in Vedas.

Îg Veda

The Hymn of Creation (X.129) explains the origin of the world as the evolution of existent from non-existent. Water came into being first; from it was evolved           intelligence by heat.

          n¡sad¡s¢nno sad¡s¢ttad¡n¢Æ A

There was not the non-existent nor the existent then.


          tama ¡s¢ttamas¡ g£lhamagre 'praketaÆ salilaÆ sarvam¡ idam A

Darkness was in the beginning hidden by darkness. This all was water.

The Aitareya UpaniÀad states:

          ¡tm¡ v¡ idameka ev¡gra ¡s¢t  A n¡nyat ki´cana miÀat A

                                                                       (I. 1.1)

In the beginning this was but the absolute self alone. There was nothing else whatsoever.

          sa im¡Æ¤allok¡nas¤jata A ambhomar¢cirmaram¡po . . . .

                                                              (I. 1.2)

He created these worlds, viz., ambhas; mar¢ci; mara and ¡paÅ.



áatapatha Br¡hma¸a

          praj¡patirv¡ idamagra ¡s¢t A . . . tasm¡tpuruÀ¡ttaptad¡po j¡yante A. . . . ap¡Æ tapt¡n¡Æ pheno j¡yante A                           (V1.1.3)

In the beginning there was only the Creator. From him the 'water' was formed; from the water heated, the 'foam' was formed.

The B¤had¡ra¸yakopaniÀad says

          naiveha kiµcan¡gra ¡s¢t A m¤tyunaivedam¡v¤tam¡s¢t A

          tanmano'kuruta so'rcannacarat A tasy¡rcata ¡po'j¡yanta A

                                                                           (I. 2.1)

In the beginning there was nothing. The universe was enveloped by death alone. He produced mind. He moved about worshipping himself. As he was worshipping himself, water was produced.

          vkiks ok vdZ% rn~;nika 'kj vklhÙkegU;rA lk i`fFkO;Hkor~A

          ¡po v¡ arkaÅ tadyadap¡Æ ¿ara ¡s¢ttamahanyata A s¡ p¤thivyabhavatA                                                                                     (I.2.2)

Water verily is arka. What was there as froth of water hardened and it became earth (the cosmic egg, embryonic state of the Universe).

K¤À¸a Yajurveda

The Taittir¢yopaniÀad says:

          asadv¡ idamagra ¡s¢t A tato vai sadaj¡yata A

          tad¡tm¡naÆ svayamakuruta A tasm¡ttatsuk¤tamucyata iti AA


In the beginning all this was unmanifested. From that emerged the manifested. The Brahman created Itself by Itself. Therefore it is called the self-creator.

The Ka¶hopaniÀad says:

          na tatra s£ryo bh¡ti na candrat¡rakaÆ nem¡ vidyuto bh¡nti                              kuto'yamagniÅ A

          tamevabh¡ntamanubh¡ti sarvaÆ tasyabh¡s¡ sarvamidaÆ vibh¡ti AA

                                                                                     (II. ii.15)

There the sun does not shine, neither do the moon and the stars; nor do these flashes of lightning shine. How can fire? He shining all these shine; through his lustre all these are variously illuminated.

Atharva Veda

          y¡r¸ave'dhiÆ salilamagra ¡s¢t A

                               (K¡¸·a; XII. 8)

Earth was formerly water upon the ocean of space.

          rohito dy¡v¡ jaj¡na A . . . . aja ekap¡do'hahaddy¡v¡ p¤thiv¢

          balena . . . .

                                                                           (XIII. 6)  

Rohita produced heaven and earth. The one footed goat, the sun made firm the heavens and earth with his strength.

The Mu¸·aka UpaniÀad (II.ii.10) reiterates the words of Ka¶hopaniÀad (II.ii.15)

          etasm¡jj¡yate pr¡¸o manaÅ sarvendriy¡¸i ca A

          khaÆ v¡yurjyotir¡paÅ p¤thiv¢ vi¿vasya dh¡ri¸¢ AA                                                                                                (II.1.3)

From him originate - vital force, mind, all senses, space, air, fire, water and earth that support everything.

          tasm¡dagniÅ samidhayo yasya s£ryaÅ A

                                                    ( II.1.5).

From him emerges the fire (heaven) of which the sun is the fuel.

The M¡¸·£kya K¡rik¡s say:

          svapnam¡ye yath¡ d¤Àte gandharvanagaraÆ yath¡  A

          tath¡ vi¿vamidaÆ d¤ÀtaÆ ved¡nteÀu vicakÀanaiÅ AA

                                                                   (II. 3.1)

Just as dream and magic are seen to be unreal, or as is a city in the sky, the whole universe is known to be unreal.

The Pra¿na UpaniÀad (III.8) equates the Sun with pr¡¸a, Earth with ap¡na, Space with sam¡na, Air with vy¡na and Luminosity with ud¡na.

          pr¡¸¡cchraddh¡Æ khaÆ v¡yurjyotir¡paÅp¤thiv¢ndriyaÆ manaÅ A


From pr¡¸a, Space, Air, Fire, Water, Earth were created.

In addition to these traditional four Vedas, the Paµcama Veda Mah¡bh¡rata also has important observations on cosmogony:

          ¡k¡¿¡dabhavadv¡ri salil¡dagnim¡rutau A

          agnim¡rutasaÆyog¡tatassambhavanmah¢ AA

                                       (á¡ntiparvan, 180.16)

Water was formed from the space; from water, fire and wind, and from their reaction the earth was formed.

          agnipavana saÆyukta kh¡t samukÀipate jalam A

          so'gnim¡ruta saÆyog¡t ghanatvamupapadyate AA

          tasy¡k¡¿¡nnip¡taÅ sneh¡ttiÀ¶hati yo'paraÅ A

          sa saÆghatv¡m¡p¡tto bh£mitvamanugacchati AA

                                         (á¡ntiparvan, 180.15)

The water produced in the sky by fire and wind attains solid state owing to the reaction of fire and wind. The oily quality of the water produced from the sky takes the form of the earth.

The S¡Ækhya system of Dar¿ana considers the origin of the paµcamah¡bh£tas in the atomic form by means of combinations of the tanm¡tr¡s:

k¤À¸ap¡d¡c¡rya (tattvatrayavivara¸am)atr¡yaÆ kramaÅ - bh£tadeÅ ¿abdatanm¡traÆ j¡yate, ¿abdatanm¡traÆ bh£t¡dir¡v¤¸oti, tata ¡k¡¿o j¡yate, tato'sm¡t ¿abdatanm¡tr¡t spar¿a tanm¡traÆ j¡yate, spar¿atanm¡traÆ ¿abdatanm¡tram¡v¤¸oti, evaÆ ¿abdatanm¡trav¤t¡d ¡k¡¿asah¡yak¡t spar¿atanm¡tr¡d v¡yurj¡yate, tato'sm¡t spar¿atan-m¡tr¡t r£patanm¡traÆ j¡yate, r£patanm¡traÆ spar¿atanm¡tra-m¡v¤¸oti, evaÆ spar¿atanm¡tr¡v¤t¡d v¡yusah¡yak¡t r£patanm¡tr¡d tejo j¡yate A evam¡di A

The ¿abdatanm¡tra produced the Space and also the spar¿atanm¡tra and the combination of the Space with the spar¿atanm¡tra produces the Atmosphere (V¡yu). The r£patanm¡tra is produced from the spar¿a tanm¡tra and envelopes the spar¿atanm¡tra. From the enveloped spar¿atanm¡tra, the r£patanm¡tra with the help of the V¡yu produces the fire etc.

The cosmological ideas in Vedas can thus be summarised as:


    1.  In the beginning there was neither the non-existent nor the existent.

    2.   The Supreme cosmogonic force by the sheer Will to produce the universe first in the form of darkness enveloped in darkness.

    3.   The cosmological waters ambhas got manifested next in the form of undifferentiated fluid in darkness where there was no light whatsoever.

    4.   From the cosmic waters, combined with the motivation to move and probably as a consequencce of the friction, fire called arka got generated.

    5.   Due to the action of the fire and water, wind was produced and the combination of wind, fire and water produced a froth which got solidified subsequently to form the earth.

    6.   The Supreme Brahman who is like an uplifted thunderbolt, makes the entire universe to emerge and to move. Thus the cosmic fluid originates due to the motion induced by the Will of the Supreme Soul moves the undifferentiated atoms into an undifferentiated cloud of dark fluid which because of the friction of motion attains heat and gives rise to the cosmic earth (the cosmic egg or the embryonic state of the universe), which is the protostar of the modern concept of cosmogony. The further motion of the cosmic fluid along with the cosmic earth produced the ekapada aja, the sun. The sun is the Pr¡¸a and from this Pr¡¸a the Paµcabh£tas originated.

The specific contributions by Vedas to the cosmogony, in superiority to the most modern cosmological concepts, thus include: (a) The concept of non-existent and non-non-existent state simultaneously; (b) The Supreme Will which motivated the non-differentiated atoms to combine to get differentiated into various forms like the nebula - ambhas; the frictional fire - arka; the protostar - cosmic earth (brahm¡¸·a) and finally the sun which is the pr¡¸a which differentiated the paµcamah¡bh£tas.

In spite of the unprecedented advancements in the science and technology, we are still as enlightened as the Vedic seers and their philosophical idea -

          iyaÆ vis¤Àtiryata ¡babh£va yadi v¡ dadhe yadi v¡ na A

          yo'sy¡dhyakÀaÅ parame vyoman so a´ga veda yadi v¡ na veda AA

                                                                             (]ÎV, X.129)

Where from has this cosmogony come; who is its chief architect? whether he knows or not - is still as valid and as beautiful as when it was composed.


Aitareya UpaniÀad : Gambhirananda, Eight UpaniÀads, Vol. II pp. 1-76, Ramakrishna Mission Publication.

Atharva Veda: Sattavalekarah, Sripad Damodara, 520 p.

B¤had¡ranyakopaniÀad : Ramakrishna Mission, Madras.

Ka¶hopaniÀad: Gambhirananda, Eight UpaniÀads, Vol. I, pp. 91-220, Ramakrishna Mission Publication.

M¡¸·£kyopaniÀad : Gambhirananda, Eight UpaniÀads, Vol. II, pp. 173-404, Ramakrishna Mission Publication.

Mu¸·akopaniÀad : Gambhirananda, Eight UpaniÀads, Vol. II, pp. 77-172, Ramakrishna Mission Publication.

Ordway, Richard, J., 1971, Earth Science, 705p. Affiliated East-West Publication.

Pra¿nopaniÀad : Gambhirananda, Eight UpaniÀads, Vol. II, pp. 405-506, Ramakrishna Mission Publication.\

Îg Veda: Arthur A. MacDonnel, 1971, A Vedic Reader, Oxford Publication.

áatapatha Br¡hma¸a : Ed., by A. Chinnaswami Sastri, 1984, Chowkambha Publication.

S¡´khya: Krishnapadacharya, quoted in Gaur, D. S., and Gupta, L.P., 1970, Paµcamah¡bh£ta with special reference to Ëyurveda, I.J.H.S., Vol. 5, no.1, pp. 51-67.

á¡ntiparvan: Mah¡bh¡rata, Ed. by S. Suktankar, Vishnu.

Taittir¢yopaniÀad : Gambhirananda, Eight UpaniÀads, Vol. I, pp. 221-398, Ramakrishna Mission Publication.


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