THE NATURE OF MATTER
Forms of Life in the World of Mattar
Reflections on Tribal Cosmology
The following reflections are based on tribal myths of north-east India.1 Myth2 may be defined as a body of revelatory knowledge of the unseen reality that flows eternally in time and space. As a self-reflective and self-validating statement of the true nature of the phenomenal world, it is founded in faith that supports all knowledge. Myth, believed and lived from inside, expresses the believers’ conviction of truth. It is not an empirical description of the natural phenomena; it is a symbolic expression of the experience of the mystery of cosmic existence.
The Fivefold Order
Tribal cosmogony refers to a fivefold order that sets forth the timeless sequence of creation, preservation and dissolution of the world of matter. Let us discover its fundamental intuition.
First Order is set in ‘nothingness’: In the beginning there was nothing, nothing at all but water, or clouds and mist, or two eggs soft and shone like gold.3 In that state of ‘nothingness’, life was there above the primeval water, hidden deep in the clouds and mist, or in the two whirling eggs.
With such vibration of life, the beginning was not an absolute vacuity.
Second Order causes primary creation of elements from the element of the First Order.
The First creation was asexual: The golden eggs collided and both broke open. From the one came the earth, from the other the sky.4 Subsequently, creation became a male-female principle: When the sky made love to earth, every kind of tree, grass and all living creatures came into being.5
The world was created in phases by a number of vibrant bodies and not by a single creator: The order of creation began with the formless spirits,6 and then the sun-moon7 and all the rest. At first there were two or four or eight or nine suns of an unbearable brightness. The radiance of one of them was gradually reduced to the cool and gentle light of the moon.8
The early phases of creation were marked by total integration of all that exists; there was no difference between man and non-man.9
Every element has its own life. Elements of nature are interrelated.10
What activates or transforms matter is the transcendent life, but life itself is not matter.
Third Order causes natural identity and differentiation in terms of colour, direction and form. Smell is another element of the Third Order. It makes communication between the form and the formless possible.11
Fourth Order causes the return to primordial state: Water is the self-existing element from which all other elements originate and to which they all return.12
Dissolution is a process of regeneration or rejuvenation, not chaos or disorder.
Fifth Order is the order of all orders: It creates the scenario of the world in which everything has its proper place, and everything grows and allows others to grow. It is inviolable.
Cosmic Intelligence revealed itself: The universal knowability lay in the cosmic eggs. Priests of all creatures were born at the beginning of creation.13 Primordial knowledge came to man from birds and animals.14
Not a single event takes place without any cause. As there is a cause, so there is an effect or viceversa. Cause can be found, but not under ordinary condition. Through rituals one may return to the primordial conditions of life represented in such form as an egg (unmanifest), cowrie-shell (manifest water), hen (manifest earth) and rice (life-maintaining substance) to determine the cause.15
Consciousness is created by Cosmic Intelligence (Hiranyagarbha). Patterns of cultures are derivative expressions of cosmic forms.
This world of matter is continuous with the other world or worlds. There are also transition zones filled by primordial water.16
Life in this world is repeated in the other world, in a similar order.17 Worlds are communicable.18
Of the other worlds some are structured up in the sky, and others down below the earth.19 Earth is the axis mundi of the pluriverse.
The Same Life But Different Forms
Four operant ideas emerge from tribal cosmogony: (i) That life, as primal energy, manifests itself from ‘nothingness’ and is hence indestructible; (ii) that forms of the primordial elements such as water, fire, earth, sky and air are predetermined, and they in turn determine the form of the creatures of the Second Order; (iii) that life is the source of origin of all, but forms are different; and (iv) that the reality of the subtler plane is responsible for the grosser plane.
Transcendental creation is the primal process of bringing the form and the life together. Life is self-existent, and hence indestructible; forms are predetermined. Both are intrinsically related.
The predetermined forms of species are filled by matter, that is, primal elements of earth, water, sky, etc. Each form is thus a microcosm.
Form is natured by life; but life itself is formless. By entering into a form, life acquires qualitative distinctions in terms of species or form.20 The same life is called by different names.21
There are stages in the formless existence of life.22 What retains the breath of life in man, animal and other creatures is the same; it is often identified as soul or spirit.
The physical form, or the state of matter, can alone be seen growing, weathering and converting into new forms. But the behaviour of life during its transcendental transformation as a formless substance cannot be empirically verified. Transition in matter does not cause transition in life. What happens in the situation is the translocation of life from one form to another and from form to the formless or vice versa.23 The same life may concurrently be present in two forms.24
As a substance, life gives expressions to different forms of matter. In a formless state it performs wide ranging functions: Formation (creation), affirmation (preservation) and negation (dissolution) of elements.
The following may be taken as proper annotation for tribal viewpoint on forms of life in the world of matter.
A fivefold order governs the cosmos.
In the beginning there was nothing. The primal ‘nothingness’ was not an absolute vacuity: As thought comes from the unthought, the manifest comes from the unmanifest. The unmanifest encompasses the vibration of life.
The first principle of the cosmos is "one-two-and many". Creation was originally asexual, but subsequently it became a male-female principle. There is no single creator. A creature becomes creator of another creature. This interrelatedness of creature-creator makes the cosmos the one undifferentiated reality. The world came into existence in phases. The early phases were characterized by total integration of all elements. Creation causes differentiations; dissolution is the return to primordial state of undifferentiation. There is no intrinsic disorder in nature.
The world of matter is continuous with the other world or worlds. Earth is the axis mundi of the pluriverse. Source of life is not matter, but what activates, or transforms, matter is life. Life is self-existing and self-expressing; forms are predetermined and transitory. Both are intrinsically related. Transcendent life is the cause; form its effect. Matter fills the form but form itself is not matter. Life expresses the unity of all; but forms are different. The same life exists in a formless state as also in many different forms.
Tribal epistemological thought is characterized by the assumption that patterns of life and culture are derivative expressions of the cosmic forms.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi