Religious Studies

Hinduism: beliefs about creation and evolution

Many of the world’s religions have ideas and beliefs about the origin of the universe, including people and animals. Usually these take the form of creation accounts in the sacred books of the religions concerned.

The origins of the universe

There are many different stories and beliefs about creation contained in the Hindu scriptures.

The sacred sound Aum is believed to be the first sound at the start of creation. Hindus believe that brahman (the one ultimate reality) has three functions and these are shown by the three gods, Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. These three are sometimes shown as three heads merging into one and are known as the Trimurti.

  • Brahma is the Creator and source of all creation
  • Vishnu is the Preserver and responsible for keeping all good things on earth
  • Shiva is the Destroyer and is needed because some things are harmful and because change is necessary for the creation of new things

In the Chandogya Upanishad (a Hindu sacred text.) creation is described as the breaking of an egg.

In the Vedas (knowledge) one of the accounts says that the creator built the universe with timber, as a carpenter builds a house.

In the Rig Veda (the first scripture of Hinduism, containing spiritual and scientific knowledge) it says that the universe was created out of the parts of the body of a single cosmic man Purusha when his body was sacrificed. There the four classes (varnas) of Indian society come from his body: the priest (Brahmin) from his mouth, the warrior (Kshatritya) from his arms, the peasant (Vaishya) from his thighs, and the servant (Shudra) from his legs.

The Hymn of Creation

Another attempt at explaining the creation of the universe is found in the Hymn of Creation in the Rig Veda:

Then was neither non-existence nor existence: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.

Death was not then, nor was there anything immortal: no sign was there, the Day’s and Night’s divider.

Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that One.

In the Chandogya Upanishad it says that in the beginning was the Brahman, and through heaven, the earth, and the atmosphere and the three seasons of summer, rains, and harvest he produced the entire universe.

Scientific ideas

Cosmology

  • Cosmology is the study of the universe, and humanity’s place in it.
  • One of the theories put forward by cosmologists is the Big Bang theory. This suggests that about 15,000 million years ago there was a massive explosion. This was the point at which all matter in the universe began; space and time began then too. Over time the universe that we know, and human and animal life, emerged.
  • This theory is generally accepted by scientists as being the best theory they have to explain the origins of the universe.
  • If this theory is true, then it could mean that the universe ‘just happened’ and that it did not emerge as a result of the activity of a creator God.
  • Some people suggest parallels between the process of creation as described in the Hindu sacred texts and the scientific understanding of the universe, especially the Big Bang Theory.
  • Some scientists have suggested that, following the Big Bang, the process of the expansion of the universe will eventually be reversed and at some distant point in the future will start to contract, eventually imploding into a `Big Crunch’. This could lead to another ‘Big Bang’, with a new universe being formed. This presents a picture of the universe as a process of creation and destruction occurring over vast timespans.
  • In Hinduism, the Vishnu Purana describes Vishnu as creator, sustainer, destroyer and then re-creator of the universe. This process takes place over a vast period of time called a Kalpa (nearly 9 billion years). The creation, sustaining and destruction of the universe is also told in the stories about Shiva, who is often shown as ‘Lord of the Dance’.

Evolutionary biology

  • The idea that life might have evolved was first mentioned as early as the 4th century CE by St Augustine, who wrote that God probably only created very simple life forms and that these developed over time.
  • Today we associate evolutionary science with scientists such as Charles Darwin who wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859. He argued that life began with very simple cells and later developed into what we see today. He said that Natural Selection was one of the major mechanisms driving evolution.
  • Darwin upset many people with his views and even some respected scientists such as Philip Gosse argued that the fossils, which were discovered in the ground, had been placed there by God deliberately to fool people.

Hindu perspectives

For most Hindus, however, the issues and concerns raised by modern science are not important. Some Hindus are interested in these issues, and study them at a high level, however for the majority they are more focused on the purpose of life, which is to reach moksha (the ultimate freedom from reincarnation).

Science and Hinduism represent two contrasting understandings of the universe.

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