In the Vedic tradition the unknowable nature of the origin of creation is emphasised by the use of a variety of names. Brahmá, Vishńu, Śiva and Íśwara, Hari, Vásudeva, Purushottama, Rudra are all clearly different aspects of the one supreme nature. The progression from the source to the pure polarity of being and non-being, then to the elemental forces, and the sensory realm, until the material universe is gestated, is mapped out with astonishing and graphic detail. The cosmic scale of the vision is underlined by the depiction of Brahmá days, and Brahmá nights, during which the world of form is successively created and destroyed, and recreated once more. This provides a template for our personal experience of body and soul, and refers to a cyclical interplay embracing both spirit and matter.
The transformation of spirit into matter is plotted very carefully, involving nine different realms. From the oneness that contains all, and is contained in all, comes the creative force, the indiscrete principle, or the spirit. The third level, Mahat, is the power of discernment, the polarity that abides within all matter and distinguishes one thing from another. The fourth level is Ahankára, is the origin of sensation, and refers to the realm of vibration. The fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth are fire, ether, air and water, and finally, at the ninth level, the earth becomes manifest.
Equally graphic and explicit is the image that three prototype worlds were created and destroyed prior to this one. We are now in the fourth material creation.
The Vishnu Purana was translated from Sanskrit by H.H. Wilson in 1840. It is a primary text of the Vaishnava branch of Hinduism. The explanation of creation contained herein was developed over millennia, and passed down through the ages and, as the narrator wryly comments, “was originally imparted by the great father of all.”
OM! GLORY TO VISHŃU, who is known as: Puńd́aríkáksha (heart of hearts), Víswabhávana (creator of the universe), Hrishikeśa (lord of the senses), Mahápurusha (supreme spirit), and Púrvaja (living soul).
Lord Vishńu, spirit of both Brahma and Íśwara (Being and Non-Being); cause of creation, preservation, and destruction; origin of nature, mind, and all other aspects of being; may you bestow upon us understanding, abundance, and final emancipation.
Maitreya: Master! You have instructed me in the whole of the Vedas, and in the institutes of law and of sacred science. Oh you who art profound in piety, I am now desirous to hear how this world was, and how it will be? What is its substance, oh teacher, and whence proceeded animate and inanimate things? How were the elements manifested? Tell me of the oceans, the mountains, the earth, the sun, and the planets? And the four ages? All these things I wish to hear from you, grandson of Vaśisht́ha. Incline your thoughts benevolently towards me, so that, by your favour, I may be informed of all I wish to know.
Paráśara: Well inquired, pious Maitreya. Your questioning has induced in me the memory that was once narrated by my father’s father, Vaśisht́ha, and originally imparted by the great father of all (Brahmá).
Glory to the supreme Vishńu, the cause of creation, existence, and the end of this world; who is the root of the world, and who consists of the world. He is the smallest of the small, in all created things. He is the unchanging, imperishable, eternal and incorrupt, known by the manifold forms he takes. He is both subtle and corporeal, indiscrete and discrete.
The world was produced from Vishńu. It exists in him. He is the cause of its continuance and cessation; he is the world. Who can describe him, who cannot be apprehended by the senses, the ultimate, supreme self-existent soul? He who is exempt from birth, vicissitude, death, or decay? He who is the eternal oneness? He who abides in all things, and in whom all things dwell? He is Vásudeva, Vishńu, Brahma, lord eternal, the discrete and the indiscrete. There was neither day nor night, earth nor sky, darkness nor light, save only One, inapprehensible by the intellect. That which is Brahma is also Pumán (spirit) and Pradhána (matter), and these are none other than the essence of unmodified Vishńu. From this one essence that is all things, came the forms: Pumán (spirit) and Kála (time), Pradhána (primary matter or nature) and Vyakta (visible substance). The wise consider these to be the pure and supreme condition of Vishńu. From these four forms, in their due proportions, came all the phenomena of creation.
Pradhána is the subtle cause of the visible world. It is unending and self-sustaining and comprehends what is and what is not (or both causes and effects). Devoid of sound or touch, it has neither colour nor form, but is endowed with the three qualities – purity, passion and darkness; it is the mother of the world. Endless and formless, it is the foundation of creation. The essence of Time is without beginning, and its end is not known. The revolutions of creation, continuance, and dissolution succeed without end: for when spirit is detached from matter, then Vishńu abides in the form of Time.
The supreme Brahma, the substance of the world, the lord of all creatures, the universal soul, Hari, of his own will entered into matter and spirit, agitated the mutable and immutable principles, the season of creation having arrived. In the same manner as fragrance affects the mind from proximity alone, so the Supreme influenced the elements of creation. Purushottama is both the agitator and the agitated; being present in the essence of matter, both when it is contracted and expanded.
From Pradhána came the quality of Mahat or Discernment, which in turn gave rise to the power of sensation (Ahankára), with it’s threefold nature of goodness, passion and darkness. This was the origin of the subtle elements, and of the organs of sense. The rudiment of sound produced ether. From ether came the rudiment of touch. When touch became productive, it originated strong wind. Then wind produced the rudiment of form (colour). The rudiments of colour and touch combined and enveloped the wind, and Light (or fire) was formed. Light produced the rudiment of taste, from which originated water. The waters engendered the rudiment of smell, which is the property of earth, and from which earth originates. Once formed, ether, air, light, water, and earth combined together with the properties of sound, touch, sight, taste and smell, and assumed, through their mutual association, the character of one undifferentiated unity, an egg, which gradually expanded like a bubble of water.
This vast egg, composed of the elements, and resting on the waters, was the natural abode of Vishńu in the form of Brahmá. There, the lord of the universe, whose essence is inscrutable, assumed a perceptible form. This egg-womb was composed of continents and seas, stars and planets, gods and demons, and creatures of the world. The mighty oceans filled its cavity. Around the egg were seven natural layers, like a coconut covered by husk and rind. Water, air, fire, ether, and Ahankára were enveloped by the power of discernment, and the Creative Force surrounded the whole. Inside, the Earth, and the whole universe of forms, was incubating.
The lord of all, himself becoming Brahmá, engaged in the creation of the universe. Vishńu with the quality of goodness, and of immeasurable power, preserves created things through successive ages, until the close of each Kalpa, when the same mighty deity, invested with the quality of darkness, assumes the awful form of Rudra, and swallows up the universe. Having thus devoured all things, the Supreme reposes on his mighty serpent couch, to sleep a Brahmá night; when Vishńu awakes, once again he becomes the author of creation. Thus The Supreme Lord takes the designation of Brahmá, Vishńu, and Śiva, accordingly as he creates, preserves, or destroys.
Vishńu as creator, creates himself; as preserver, preserves himself; as destroyer, destroys himself at the end of all things. He is the object and author of creation. Vishńu is infinite form: he is the supreme, the fountain of all being.
Maitreya: How can one who is without qualities, limitless, pure, and free from imperfection be inspired to create?
Pasaras: The infinity of forms of Brahma are inseparable from his essence, as heat is inherent in fire. Time is one of the four forms of Vishńu; this is how it is applied to measure the duration of Brahmá. Each year for the gods consists of three hundred and sixty mortal years. The four yugas (Krita, Tretá, Dwápara, and Kali) combine to make one Kalpa, or great age, of twelve thousand divine years (4.32 million years). One thousand great ages make one day of Brahmá. At the end of this day the universe is dissolved, and all worlds are consumed by fire. Brahmá sleeps upon his serpent-bed for a night of equal duration to his day; at the close of which he creates anew. Of such days and nights is a year of Brahmá composed; and a hundred such years constitute his whole life.
Brahmá is the instrumental cause of all things to be created; the things themselves arise from nature as a common material cause. Thus the one instrumental cause is the cause of causes; imperceptible substance becomes perceptible substance according to the powers with which it is originally imbued.
When Brahmá was first meditating on creation, there appeared the world of immovable things. It consisted of ignorance, obscurity, illusion and darkness, without intellect or reflection, void of perception or sensation, incapable of feeling, and destitute of motion. Brahmá, beholding that it was defective, designed another; and whilst he thus meditated, the second creation came into being. This animal creation also had the quality of darkness. These beings were destitute of knowledge, uncontrolled in their conduct, and mistook wisdom for error. Beholding this creation also imperfect, Brahmá again meditated, and a third creation appeared, abounding with the quality of goodness. The beings thus produced in the third creation were endowed with pleasure and enjoyment, unencumbered internally or externally, and luminous within and without. This, termed the creation of immortals, was the third performance of Brahmá, who, although well pleased with it, still found it incompetent to fulfill his end. Continuing therefore his meditations, there sprang, in consequence of his infallible purpose, the fourth creation from indiscrete nature, the products of which abounded with the light of knowledge, but the qualities of darkness and of ignorance predominated. Hence they are afflicted by evil, and are repeatedly impelled to action. They have knowledge both externally and internally, and are the instruments of accomplishing the object of creation, that is the liberation of soul. These creatures were mankind.
I have thus explained to you, excellent Maitreya, the six creations. The first was the creation of Brahmá . Thence came the elemental creation. The third was the creation of the senses. These three were the developments of indiscrete nature, which flowed forth from the oneness. The fourth or fundamental creation (of perceptible things) was that of inanimate bodies. The fifth creation was that of animals. The sixth creation was that of the divinities. The seventh creation was that of man. There is an eighth creation, which possesses both the qualities of goodness and darkness. And there is a ninth, in which spirit and matter are reunited. These are the nine creations of the great progenitor of all.
Whatever may be apprehended by the mind, whatever may be perceived by the senses, whatever may he discerned by the intellect, all is but a form of thee. I am of thee, upheld by thee; thou art my creator, and to thee I fly for refuge. Triumph to the essence of all wisdom, to the unchangeable, the imperishable; triumph to the eternal; to the indiscrete, to the essence of discrete things; to him who is both cause and effect; who is the universe; the sinless lord of sacrifice; triumph! Thou art sacrifice; thou art the oblation; thou art the mystic Omkára; thou art the sacrificial fires; thou art the Vedas, and their dependent sciences; thou art Hari, the object of all worship. The sun, the stars, the planets, the whole world; all that is formless, or that has form; all that is visible, or invisible; all that I have said, or left unsaid; all this, Supreme, thou art. Hail to thee!
This prayer is uttered by Prithivi, the Goddess Earth, on beholding Brahmá, come to re-create her anew, at the commencement of each Kalpa, or Brahmá day.
H.H. Wilson. The Vishńu Puráńa. Vol. 1. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1864.