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Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Purāṇas

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By David Reigle on September 1, 2012 at 5:54 am

Part 2. “In the Beginning” as Derived from the Original Purāṇa-saṃhitā

The first verse of the actual creation or emanation (sarga) account from the Vāyu and Brahmāṇḍa purāṇas is repeated in so many other sources that we can feel sure it is from the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā.

The initial nine lines of this account are repeated in enough other purāṇas that we may assume all nine are from the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā.

These nine lines describe the stage “in the beginning” (agre), before creation or emanation has begun, directly parallel to stanza I of the “Book of Dzyan.”

As we know, the purāṇas have undergone revision, in many cases extensive revision, and this account found in them is no exception.

When following this account from one purāṇa to another, we see things changing, until it says something entirely opposite of how it started out.

Like a drama or mystery novel, in which we never know who did what to whom, so we never know what to expect in any given purāṇa as to what emanated from what and by what.

It may therefore be worthwhile to start introducing the cast of players.

The purāṇas follow a Sāṃkhya model of cosmogony overall, so that two of the main players will be puruṣa and prakṛti, often translated as “spirit” and “matter.”

This “matter” is not physical matter, as “matter” has now come to be understood, but rather is an unmanifest something that manifests as everything from the principle of intelligence (buddhi) to the principle of self-consciousness (ahaṃkāra) to mind or thought (manas) to the sense-faculties (buddhīndriya) to the great elements (mahā-bhūta), included in which latter is physical matter.

I will therefore translate prakṛti as the slightly better “substance” rather than as “matter,” although we still must remember that it is unmanifest “substance”; and that when it does manifest, we must remember just how non-physical most of its manifestation is.

A much-used synonym of prakṛti is pradhāna, meaning “primary,” so I will translate pradhāna as “primary substance.”

Another common synonym for prakṛti (“substance”) and pradhāna (“primary substance”) is avyakta, the “unmanifest,” often seen in the phrase, vyaktāvyaktajña, the “manifest” (vyakta), the “unmanifest” (avyakta, i.e., pradhāna or prakṛti), and the “knower” (jña, i.e., puruṣa).

It is this term, “unmanifest” (avyakta), that begins the first verse of the creation or emanation (sarga) account from the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā. Here is that verse, as found in the Vāyu (4.17 or 4.18-19) and Brahmāṇḍa ( purāṇas:

avyaktaṃ kāraṇaṃ yat tu nityaṃ sad-asad-ātmakam |

pradhānaṃ prakṛtiṃ caiva yam āhus tattva-cintakāḥ || 4.17 ||

“The unmanifest (avyakta) is the cause, eternal, and of the nature of existence and non-existence. Those who contemplate the principles of reality call it primary substance (pradhāna) and substance (prakṛti).”

The first verse of stanza I of the “Book of Dzyan” begins: “The Eternal Parent (Space), wrapped in her ever invisible robes, . . .” Blavatsky comments (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 35): “The ‘Parent Space’ is the eternal, ever present cause of all . . . .”

Here, “parent” clearly corresponds to the “cause” of the purāṇa verse, and both call it “eternal” (nitya). Blavatsky continues: “. . . whose ‘invisible robes’ are the mystic root of all matter, and of the Universe. . . . Thus, the ‘Robes’ stand for the noumenon of undifferentiated Cosmic Matter.

It is not matter as we know it, but the spiritual essence of matter, and is co-eternal and even one with Space in its abstract sense. . . .

The Hindus call it Mulaprakriti, and say that it is the primordial substance, . . .”

Here again, “invisible robes” clearly corresponds to the “primary substance (pradhāna) and substance (prakṛti)” of the purāṇa verse.

The unmanifest primordial substance is called “absolute abstract Space” in the explanation of the first fundamental proposition of the Secret Doctrine (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, pp. 14-15). Along with “absolute Abstract Motion representing Unconditioned Consciousness” (i.e., spirit or puruṣa), it is one of the two aspects under which the “one absolute Reality,” the “Infinite and Eternal Cause,” is symbolized.

When symbolizing it thus in our dualistic thought, we are asked to note that (p. 15): “Spirit (or Consciousness) and Matter are, however, to be regarded, not as independent realities, but as the two facets or aspects of the Absolute (Parabrahm), which constitute the basis of conditioned Being whether subjective or objective.”

This is exactly how the Sāṃkhya ideas of the purāṇas differ from those of the Sāṃkhya philosophical system as it is now known.

Rather than taking puruṣa and prakṛti as two distinct ultimate principles, the purāṇas unite them in the absolute brahman.

As Fitzedward Hall observed long ago: “And still different are the Puranas, in which the dualistic principles are united in Brahma, and—as previously remarked—are not evolutions therefrom, but so many aspects of some supreme deity” (The Vishnu Purana, trans. H. H. Wilson, vol. 1, 1864, p. 22 fn.).

The next seven lines of the creation or emanation account from the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā in fact equate the unmanifest cause found in the first two lines, there called primary substance (pradhāna) and substance (prakṛti), with the highest (para) brahman.

Here are all nine lines as found in the Vāyu (4.17-21 or 4.18-22) and Brahmāṇḍa ( purāṇas:

avyaktaṃ kāraṇaṃ yat tu nityaṃ sad-asad-ātmakam |

pradhānaṃ prakṛtiṃ caiva yam āhus tattva-cintakāḥ || 4.17 ||

gandha-varṇa-rasair hīnaṃ śabda-sparśa-vivarjitam |

ajātaṃ dhruvam akṣayyaṃ nityaṃ svātmany avasthitam || 4.18 ||

jagad-yoniṃ mahad-bhūtaṃ paraṃ brahma sanātanam |

vigrahaṃ sarva-bhūtānām avyaktam abhavat kila || 4.19 ||

anādy-antam ajaṃ sūkṣmaṃ tri-guṇaṃ prabhavāpyayam |

asāmpratam avijñeyaṃ brahmāgre samavarttata || 4.20 ||

tasyātmanā sarvam idaṃ vyāptam āsīt tamomayam |

4.17. The unmanifest (avyakta) is the cause, eternal, and of the nature of existence and non-existence. Those who contemplate the principles of reality call it primary substance (pradhāna) and substance (prakṛti).

4.18. It is without smell, color, or taste, devoid of sound or touch, unborn, constant, imperishable, and always remaining in itself.

4.19. The unmanifest was assuredly the womb of the world, the great element (or great being), the everlasting highest (para) brahman, the embodiment of all beings.

4.20. In the beginning there was brahman, without beginning or end, unborn, subtle, having the three qualities (guṇa), the origin and cessation [of the cosmos), timeless, and unknowable.

4.21ab. All this (universe), consisting of darkness, was pervaded by its (brahman’s) self (ātman).

The last line immediately reminds us of verse 5 of stanza I of the “Book of Dzyan”: “Darkness alone filled the boundless all, . . .” With “darkness” we have an obvious terminological parallel; with brahman in verses 19 and 20 we have a less obvious but philosophically profound parallel.

In this account from the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā, the absolute, the highest (para) brahman, is clearly and unambiguously equated with primary substance (pradhāna) and substance (prakṛti).

We do not see this in other Hindu texts, and it became modified in a number of the purāṇas.

We recall the rather startling statement by the Mahatma K.H. in Mahatma letter #10, “we believe in matter alone.”

This, too, it seems, was hard to accept, and it became displaced in Theosophical writings by more familiar teachings.

Yet, that this was the actual teaching of the Theosophical Mahatmas was understood by their highly regarded chela, T. Subba Row.

As we saw in the comparison of the Book of Dzyan with the Mokṣopāya, Subba Row wrote:

“The Arhat Cosmogony accounts for the evolution of the manifested solar system from undifferentiated Cosmic matter, . . .”

He was distinguishing this from the much more well-known teachings of Advaita Vedānta.

He continued: “. . . and Adwaitee Cosmogony accounts for the evolution of Bahipragna from the original Chinmatra.”

Here, the absolute brahman is equated with pure consciousness (cin-mātra).

For Subba Row, the two systems are complementary, and “The eternal Principle is precisely the same in both the systems.”

In standard Advaita Vedānta, however, unlike in Subba Row’s esoteric version of it, primary substance (pradhāna) was demoted to the status of illusion (māyā).

This occurred when the Śaṅkarācārya who lived around the eighth century C.E. wrote the now extant Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣya, in which he refuted the then prevalent Sāṃkhya teaching that equated brahman with primary substance (pradhāna).

He defeated the Sāṃkhya school so thoroughly that it died out as an independently existing philosophical school.

Where Sāṃkhya teachings are found, they are now interpreted to mean that their eternal puruṣa, “spirit,” is equivalent to brahman, and hence is above primary substance (pradhāna).

The two are no longer taken as equal and eternal twin principles, as the Sāṃkhya school of philosophy had taught.

This Śaṅkarācārya also equated brahman with God (īśvara), and this idea soon became the dominant one.

The same thing happened with the purāṇas, too, as they were revised over the centuries.

The creation or emanation account from the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā equated the highest (para) brahman with primary substance (pradhāna), as had the so-called Arhat system of the Theosophical Mahatmas.

The “great” principle (mahat) arose from it, and the world arose from the “great” principle.

So the “great” principle (mahat), as the purāṇa account says, is also known by many other names, including Brahmā, the creator god (not to be confused with the absolute brahman), and God (īśvara).

But as the idea of God (īśvara) came into prominence, and the idea of an ultimate primary substance (pradhāna) fell into disfavor, the original account of creation or emanation was reversed in some of the purāṇas.

Some of the purāṇas now have God (īśvara or maheśvara) creating primary substance (pradhāna), rather than arising from primary substance.

This is despite the fact that primary substance is described as being eternal, so could never be created.

The attempt to trace the cosmogony account from the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā through its changes in the now extant purāṇas is interesting, but that is another story for another day.

Translation Note:

4.17a. The words avyaktaṃ kāraṇaṃ are often translated as the “unmanifest cause,” where avyaktaṃ, “unmanifest,” is taken as an adjective. I have taken avyaktaṃ as a noun, “the unmanifest,” on the basis of its usage as a Sāṃkhya technical term meaning pradhāna or prakṛti, and on the basis of parallels in the Mārkaṇḍeya-purāṇa 45.32ab (pradhānaṃ kāraṇaṃ yat tad avyaktākhyaṃ maharṣayaḥ), where primary substance, the cause, is called (ākhyaṃ) the unmanifest, and in the Liṅga-purāṇa 1.70.3ab (avyaktaṃ ceśvarāt tasmād abhavat kāraṇaṃ param), where the unmanifest was (abhavat) the highest cause.