The Mythos of Creation

Some of the most fascinating stories invented by humans are their creation myths. What, if anything, can we learn from such myths? Two things come to mind: One, we can gain an appreciation of how pre-scientific notions may influence our thinking. What is it, as humans, that we are looking for? Clearly, wishful thinking influenced the astronomer Percival Lowell, when he described the activities of the Martians. Are we being steered by internal myth generators? Are the concepts of "beginning" and "end" mythological constructs which force us to think in certain patterns?

Second, we can attempt to decode the meaning of the myths, in terms of statements about the world, and we might get to marvel at the level of insight attained by our forebears who created explanations without the benefit of the scientific method and without the advantage of powerful instruments. What they had was the power of imagination paired with a deep need for being at home in the universe. At times, there emerges evidence for surprisingly acute observation and straight thinking.

Among the oldest sacred writings of humankind are the "Vedas", poems and prayers and instructions for ritual which originated in ancient India around 1500 to 1000 B.C. They are written in "Sanskrit", an extinct language which has elements familiar to Europeans (san, holy; skrit, scripture; veda, wisdom and seeing, cf. video; rigveda, right wisdom). It was brought by people from the west, some of whom stayed in Iran, while others moved into Kashmir and the Punjab.

The Vedas contain a complex cosmogony and a plethora of gods changing their character according to rules that are very difficult to understand even for the experts. One fascinating and basic element is the treatment of infinite time, by postulating endless cycles of creation and destruction. In the cosmogony called "Puranic" (after the name of the supreme being) we are told that when a new universe is to arise (after a long night of nothingness) the Purana becomes an egg, the Brahma Egg, which inaugurates a period known as mahakalpa (great cosmic cycle). From this egg comes forth the Brahma, the supreme god of the mahakalpa, causing the universe to take shape and ruling it for 100 Brahma years. Each Brahma year has 360 cosmic Brahma days or kalpas, each a world in itself. (A kalpa, roughly, is the lifetime of a typical star.) One such kalpa has 1000 mahayugas, each with 4 yugas with a total of 12,000 divine years, each of which lasts for 360 human years. In case you lost count, this comes out as roughly 10,000 times the modern estimate for the age of the universe. Thus, our mahakalpa has barely begun; we are just into the fourth kalpa of 36,000. According to myth, we are within the 4th yuga (the bad yuga) within the present mahayuga.

Each of the cycles tends to end in calamity, whose impact is commensurate with the size of the cycle. (Not a bad guess for the nature of risk of catastrophe.) The end of the world comes, according to the Purana cosmogony, when the Sun expands and sets everything on fire, as Kala-Agni (calamitous ignition). A new world then builds on the sacrifice of the old. Note that a mahayuga is 4.32 million years. As upright walking apes, then, we have been around for about one mahayuga. Life has been around about a thousand of those cycles: one kalpa.

The immensity of cosmic time is a major contribution to human thought. The Vedas express it through cycles within cycles within cycles. It is not by chance that the numeral zero, which allows the communication of large numbers, is a Hindu invention. The infinite time postulated by the Vedas presage the Steady State Universe model of Hoyle, Bondi and Gold. The concept of a beginning of the universe (from the Brahma Egg) can be mapped on the Big Bang model, which now rules scientific cosmology owing to the discovery of the "smoking gun" of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

The Vedic tradition of immense time spans and cycles within cycles within cycles may be contrasted with certain calculations based on Judeo-Christian tradition, which have, given a certain interpretation, yielded extremely short time spans for the age of the Earth (e.g., the estimate of Bishop Ussher). Of course, it is not necessary to consider the "days" of creation in the Bible as the kind of days we are familiar with. In fact, before the Earth was created, it is hard to see how this familiar type of "day" could have any meaning other than "step" or "period."

This congruency may simply reflect straight thinking on the part of the writer. (If there is a beginning, there is a beginning for light, and it had to be dark before that. If all things are created, the period before that had formless emptiness. For dry land to appear, the water had to run off into basins, and only when there was land and sea, different living things could grow there. To populate the place they had to multiply. Finally, if humans were made too early there would be nothing to eat.) Alternatively, the authenticity of the account may reflect divine inspiration. Science cannot decide on such matters.