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Cosmogony and Cosmology in Major Upanisads

K. V. Mande

The UpaniÀads represent the epitome of philosophical insights provided by ancient India. They have tried to search into the purpose behind the cosmos, and provided a philosophical interpretation regarding the theory of creation. At the same time they are not mere esoteric ideology, but have a practical legitimisation in term of life as lived here and now.

UpaniÀads contain philosophical discussions on different issues relating to man, nature and cosmos. UpaniÀadic seers generally explain these ideas on three levels - ¡dhidaivika ¡dhibhautika and ¡dhy¡tmika or waking state, dream state and deep sleep state. According to philosophical point of view the universe originates from Supreme Being. Materialistic (bhautika) viewpoint holds that the five elements are the root cause of the world. The third way of interpretation takes help of similes and explains the origin of the world. Now let us take a closer look at these three interpretations regarding the origin of the universe.

Philosophical Interpretation

Just as a physicist would explain the nature of the world with the help of physics, the UpaniÀads, give a philosophical interpretation. UpaniÀad means the secret knowledge which has all the while philosophical bearing. Therefore, the philosophical interpretation is taken first. As it is observed in Taittir¢ya, the Supreme Being is that from which all the beings come forth, in which they sustain and in which they merge at the time of dissolution.1 The major UpaniÀads have mainly accepted the lord in an unmanifested form, still the superimposition of emotions takes place. Regarding the creation, UpaniÀads have accepted two processes, viz. mental and physical. At some places the thinking process is introduced before the actual creation starts. Such as, in Aitareya it is said that He foresaw, I should create the worlds,2 or in Ch¡ndogya, He foresaw, I should be many and then He created the lustre,3 etc. The verb used aikÀata is very significant. One can guess that the Lord might have drawn a picture of the whole world before his mind, and then the creation might have started. On the other hand, in Pra¿na, III.3 and in Taittit¢ya, II.1, respectively the direct process is mentioned as 'from that Supreme Being the vital breath is originated'4 and 'from that Ëtman the ether is manifested'.5 Perhaps this may be cosmic creation which ultimately turns into the visible world. It means from that Highest Soul the space is produced. Space creates wind, which means some sort of movement starts. Then the heat which naturally comes out of any sort of action. The water indicates sort of flow, and ultimately the result is earth as a gross element. By keeping in mind the Upanisadic device of describing a thing from a subtle point of view to gross, this passage is interpreted in this manner. Mu¸·aka also believes that the whole manifestation is due to that Highest Being.6

Material Interpretation

Though it is a fact that the whole world is created by the Supreme Being, still, it does not come out at once, but has a certain sequence. This is UpaniÀad's scientific method. Taittir¢ya describes this order which is already mentioned above. It starts from the space to the human being.7 Human being is at the centre. Really speaking it is a human intellect which has discovered the theory of cosmogony and cosmology. Therefore how a human being comes in this world is a basic thought. In this regard UpaniÀad's scientific reason is very remarkable. declares that the pair was produced from the self and the human beings came into existence.8 Aitareya gives a detailed description of the birth of a human being.9 Ch¡ndogya correlates cosmos with human beings in the famous Paµc¡gni vidy¡.10 Another note worthy point is that from the symbolic sacrifice a human being is born. UpaniÀads think of the inanimate world also, but in terms of animate things, e.g. sat and asat unite with each other. Then the egg comes forth. After one year it breaks into two. One is silver that is earth and the other is gold that is ether. The outer skin of embryo constitutes the mountains. The clotted portion is cloud. The tubes of human body are rivers. The abdominal water is the sea. From that the Sun is born. After it the melodious noise, all the beings and all desires are born.11 Theory of threefoldness is UpaniÀadic device (triv¤tkara¸a) which is the source of the theory of fivefoldness of Advaita Ved¡nta. The three entities are lustre, water and food.12 The conclusion thus made is that there are three categories of beings, viz. those born out of egg, out of embryo and by breaking the earth.13 Aitareya adds one more, viz. those who are born from sweat.14

In Pra¿na cosmological viewpoint is very skilfully introduced - Bh¡radv¡ja asked Pippal¡da about âo·a¿akala PuruÀa.  Pippal¡da answered that the originator of the sixteen digits dwells in the body. He (the PuruÀa) started thinking, "by whom should I be uplifted and established?" For that reason he created the vital breath. From it ¿raddh¡, five gross elements, sense-organs, mind, food, semen, penance, spell, deed, worlds and name manifested. That person has no digit.15 According to UpaniÀads, the presiding deity entered the sense-organ, with a specific task, e.g. in Aitareya it is mentioned that fire being speech, entered the mouth; wind being breath, entered the nose16 and so on.

Literary Interpretation

In spite of deep philosophical insights, the UpaniÀads are also important because of their literary significance, being a record of an ancient civilization and culture. As literary pieces, they have great poetic flavour, marked by a curious mixture of classicism and lyricism. Therefore a literary interpretation of cosmology is possible by resorting to the use of similes in the UpaniÀads. There are many similes in the UpaniÀads but three of them are useful in this regard. Out of them one helps to explain cosmological aspect, while the other two exhort themselves in explaining cosmogonical aspect. The whole universe is originated from that imperishable entity. Mu¸·aka interprets this fact with the help of three similes viz. spider, earth and person.17

In the case of the earth and person respectively, they are the causes of herbs, plants and hair. But in respect of the spider, the seer points out two types of deeds, viz. origination and dissolution.

Again in the same UpaniÀad the seer declares that just as thousands of fire particles come out of the well-kindled fire, in the same manner form that imperishable entity all sorts of beings come forth and again merge into it.18 The simile in this case should be understood properly. In the case of the fire he uses the term "particles of the same forms", but not in the case of the imperishable entity, for the very reason that the forms differ, their essence does not. Further, the fire particles come out of the fire but nevertheless do not enter again. With regard to the Supreme Being, all beings come out of it and again at the end enter the same entity. So in both these similes, the similarity lies in their difference.

The third simile highlights the cosmological aspect. It is said in Pra¿na that all universe establishes itself in that Highest Soul, just as all birds find stability on the tree where they dwell.19 The simile is clear and needs no explanation.

Mah¡bh£ta as Deity

The scope of this concept of the Mah¡bh£ta is wide. As it is divided above on three planes, it can be further divided. There is a unanimous opinion that all these five gross elements come out of that imperishable soul.20. In Pra¿na it is stated that these are the gods holding the living beings.21 Neither the word adhi precedes there, nor any other explanation of the word deva is given. It is an example of Mah¡bh£tas being mentioned as devas.

Connection with Symbolic Ritual and Meditation

It can be said about this concept that it is rather a popular one. In Pra¿na the deities of the four gross elements are connected with the four vital breaths.22 It is a basic principle of the UpaniÀads that the one which lies in the body can be visualised well in the world. This may be the reason for the equation of vital breaths with the gross elements. Like B¤had¡ra¸yaka Ch¡ndogya is well-known for its symbolic ritual. In the latter regarding Udg¢tha, the earth and the fire are connected with tha and the wind with g¢.23 Again in Paµcavidha S¡man the earth is related with hi´k¡ra and nidhana, the fire with pratih¡ra and hi´k¡ra and the wind with prast¡va.24 In B¤had¡ra¸yaka, except the earth, remaining four elements are included in the symbolic meditation. 25 In the same UpaniÀad all the live gross elements are present in the famous madhuvidy¡.26 Further in that very UpaniÀad these five gross elements are declared as embodiments of the highest reality.27 Symbolic ritual and symbolic meditation are two branches of the UpaniÀadic system, the one leading to religion and the other catering to philosophy. It also shows the gradual development of the UpaniÀads from the Br¡hma¸as, where the ritual had a primary role to play.

Victory Over Mah¡bh£tas

In B¤had¡ra¸yaka the gross elements are stated as the symbols of the Highest reality. ávet¡¿vatara goes a step further and declares that far one who conquers these five elements there is no disease, no ageing and no death.28 Further the UpaniÀad points out that the omniscient one rules over action which comes into effect including five gross elements.29

To sum up, two ways of interpreting the concept of Mah¡bh£ta have been highlighted here. The previous interpretation involves philosophical, material and literary viewpoints. They hold that the Supreme Being is the creator, sustainer and the destroyer of the universe. Some other sources hold the view that there is a gradual development (as it is in the evolution theory) and in that sequence the world is manifested. Both these views are supported by theories and views pertaining to cosmological and cosmogonic ideas.

In the second interpretation again there are three levels. In the first one, the Mah¡bh£ta  are treated as the principal agent or the deity, as it is in the Pra¿na, II.2. At the second level, they are regarded as the embodiment of that Highest Reality, which can be found in B¤had¡ra¸yaka , III.7.3,4,7,12 and 14. At the third level they are considered the creator of the world. A specific mention of this can be seen in the Taitt, II. 1. Keeping in mind all these references it can be said that these gross elements have a foremost position in the major UpaniÀads.


Ait           :              Aitareya

Ch¡ndo    :              Ch¡ndogya

Taitt        :              Taittir¢ya

Pra¿na     :              Pra¿na

           :              B¤had¡ra¸yaka

Mu¸·       :              Mu¸·aka

áve         :              ávet¡¿vatara





Eighteen Principal Upaniâads-Vol. I, ed. V.P. Limaye and R.D. Wadekar. Poona: Vaidika SaÆ¿odhana Ma¸·ala (1958).


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