In This Article Cosmogony

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Rig Vedic Cosmogonies
  • Cosmogony in the Brāhmaṇas
  • Upanishadic Cosmologies
  • Āgamic Cosmogonies
  • Tantric Cosmogonies
  • Shakta Cosmognies
  • Art-Historical Studies
  • Comparative Studies
  • Anthropological Studies

Hinduism Cosmogony
by
Alf Hiltebeitel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0068

Introduction

Hinduism has numerous cosmogonies and no single or standard cosmogony. Earlier cosmogonies tend to supply pieces of later ones, which tend to emerge along with new movements and the textual genres they generate. We will proceed historically from Rig Vedic cosmogonies to a few found in the ethnographic present, all of which are too complex to summarize in any more than their most salient details. There is a long history in scholarship on Hinduism of placing cosmogony at the center of things and then turning to other matters. As this bibliography will show, many entries date from an early period—up to about 1940—when it was of interest to know how a religious tradition like Hinduism conceived of the creation of the universe, to compare this either implicitly or explicitly with biblical and Christian concepts, and to theorize the origins of such “unrevealed” views, most often as arising from “nature religion” or “speculation.” A second period of heightened interest can then be located during the 1960 and 1970s, marked by two trends: the magnetism of Mircea Eliade’s writings on the prestige of the cosmogonic myth, which elicited essays from major scholars on India, which were published the journal History of Religions, which Eliade edited; and the work of Madeleine Biardeau in demonstrating the systematic theological and philosophical complexity of Indian Puranic cosmogonies.

General Overviews

With the link between cosmogonies and textual genres and the rise and fall of interest in the topic, no one has yet undertaken a thorough overview of Hindu cosmogonies from the earliest ones to the present. Kramrisch 1962–1963 and Kuiper 1970 are interpretative overviews focused on the Rig Veda. Two of the most celebrated Rig Veda cosmogonies are referenced frequently in this bibliography and may be mentioned at the outset. These are the Puruṣasūkta (RV 10.90), about creation from the sacrifice of Puruṣa, “the (cosmic) Male”; and the Nāsadīya (RV 10.129), named after its opening verse, which begins, “At that time there was neither nonbeing nor being.” Macdonell 1974, Gonda 1975, and Eliade 1979 trace cosmogonies from the early Vedas through the Brāhmaṇas. Beck 1993 and Pintchman 1994 are the most ambitious attempts to cover cosmogonies over a long period, from the Vedas into classical Hinduism, but they do so in relation to specific components of the cosmogonies they discuss—in Beck’s case, primal sound; in Pintchman’s, female energy.

  • Beck, Guy L. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses Hindu cosmogonies from the standpoint of Hinduism’s distinctive treatment of sacred sound “as its heart and soul” (p. 6).The cosmogonic potential of sound in the syllable Oṃ, in mantra, and in śabda-Brahman or nada-Brahman as “eternal word” or “sound,” is traced in Rig Vedic, Brahmanic, and Upanishadic understandings of sound, in treatments in Hindu philosophies of language, in music and yoga, and in theistic and tantric understandings.

  • Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas. Vol. 1, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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    A summa of Eliade’s life work on the history of religions, describing cosmogonies as providing the central myth around which religions expand their mythic and ritual conceptions. Good on the cosmogonic implications of the combat myth between the god Indra and the demon Vṛtra. Identifies four other types of Vedic and Brāhmaṇic cosmogonies, viewing them as Indian “revalorizations” of archaic cosmologies found also in other cultures.

  • Gonda, Jan. Vedic Literature (Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas). History of Indian Literature 1. Wiesbaden: Otto Harassowitz, 1975.

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    An omnibus contextualization of cosmogonic hymns and motifs within the Rig Vedic corpus, notably those called “speculative hymns” in Book 10, and in the Atharva Veda. Discusses cosmogonies in the Brāhmaṇas in terms of identifications, deductions, and homologies, focusing on the emergence of Prajāpati to a primary cosmogonic role in “place of Puruṣa,” in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa. The continuance of Prajāpati’s creative activity is accomplished by his reintegration through sacrifice.

  • Kuiper, F. B. J. “Cosmogony and Conception: A Query.” History of Religions 10.2 (1970): 91–138.

    DOI: 10.1086/462623E-mail Citation »

    Posits two stages in Vedic cosmogonies: a primordial undivided condition without a stable point or support, and some kind of catalytic action enabling differentiation. Kuiper considers that the earliest Rig Vedic family book hymns were composed for a New Year ceremony, yet maintains that Vedic mythology in its entirety is needed for the interpretation of Rig Vedic cosmogonies. He also asks whether psychoanalytical studies of prenatal experiences of conception offer a helpful analogy.

  • Kramrisch, Stella. “The Triple Structure of Creation in the Ṛg Veda.” History of Religions 2.1–2 (1962–1963): 140–175, 256–285.

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    A bold but also rather imaginative attempt to forge an unfolding narrative out of the array of Rig Vedic creation motifs, working things out around figures and structures that represent the cosmogonic “sacred numbers” 1 and 3.

  • Macdonell, Arthur Anthony. Vedic Mythology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    First published in 1898 and dated by its “nature mythology” approach, this is still the best overview on Rig Vedic mythology. Macdonell sees two “theories” at work in the early Rig Veda: the universe results from “technical production,” as by a carpenter; or from “natural generation.” The Puruṣasūkta (the world coming from a giant “is very primitive”) and the Nāsadīya (“very sublime”) go beyond these types. Indra’s conquests are atmospheric myths.

  • Pintchman, Tracy. The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Centered on goddess traditions and representations of primal feminine energy, this is an effective overview of continuities in Hindu cosmogony from Vedic to classical texts. Traces the rise of goddess traditions as mirrored in concepts of the six Brahmanical philosophical systems and recounted in myths about energy (śakti), illusion (māyā), and matter (prakṛti) with its five elements—and most recurrently water.

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