Host Morgan Freeman searches for the stories of creation as part of his understanding of God and spiritual practices from various religions around the world, in the upcoming episode of “The Story of God,” airing Sunday, April 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, on the National Geographic Channel.
His guide in India, scholar Binda Paranjpe, explains something that most people don’t realize: Hindus don’t have a single story of creation… There is no single scripture that starts with “In the Beginning,” that one can liken to the Book of Genesis that Christians have. During my first assignment when I studied in the Ecumenical Theological Seminary, I had to write about the story of creation. I was so overwhelmed by the various sources and multiple stories of creation that Hindus have, that I almost dropped out of the class! Soon after that, I was asked to write a piece for our local temple magazine to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and was able to leverage what I learned to explain how the Hindu stories of creation don’t conflict with the scientific theory of evolution. And Dr. Aseem Shukla, my fellow Board member at the Hindu American Foundation, took this particular issue to the mainstream, in the Washington Post/Newsweek’s “On Faith” column, explaining how “ancient Hinduism enlightens the modern notions of [creation and] evolution.”
It has been interesting that in Christian-majority America, there has been a lot of debate around the compatibility of creation and evolution, in contrast to Hindu-majority India, where it has not been a contentious issue. Classical Christian doctrine says God creates “ex nihilo, out of nothing,” but literal interpretations of the account of creation in Genesis have given rise to theories of creationism and intelligent design. Those who believe in the literal story of Genesis (which was actually written after other portions of the Bible) have strong objections to accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many Hindu schools of thought do not treat scriptural creation myths/hymns literally. Often the creation stories themselves do not go into specific detail, so there is the possibility of incorporating at least some theories in support of evolution.
The central account of creation in Hinduism – the one that I think of first (“Sahasra sirsha purusha…”) – is found in the Rg Veda: the Purusha Suktam, the hymn of the Cosmic Man, Purusha, who was sacrificed by the Gods to create man. This sixteen-mantra poem is regarded as the oldest work on cosmic anatomy and ecology. It reveals that the universe is an infinite continuum of energy. Yet it describes this energy as a living force, with eyes, ears, arms, legs, hands and feet and heads watching over all of existence. Just as the universe guards the many limbs and energies of its infinite structure, so each of us is meant to become aware of the greater life force within us and its many aspects.
Further elaborations of the story of creation are told in the Puranas, Dharma Shastras, and other Hindu scriptures. The Hindu view of God’s creating the world from Himself is described in the Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.7: “As the spider sends forth and draws in its thread, as plants grow on the earth, as from every man hairs spring forth on the head and the body, thus does everything arise here from the Indestructible.” Manu Dharma Shastra 1.11-119, describes the creation of heaven and earth, of the soul, and of individual creatures. Manu, son of the first being, performed tapas, very difficult austerities, to create ten great sages who then created seven other Manus, who are progenitors of the human race in each age. Many scriptures talk of the creation as leela, a play of the divine. One couplet of the Dakshinamurthy Stotram – a hymn to Siva from the Advaita Vedanta tradition written by revered Hindu guru Adi Shankaracharya – refers to creation (viswam) itself “like a dream existing oneself or like a city seen in a mirror but appearing externally due to maya…” (viswam darpana drisya maana nagari tulyam…).
The conversation between Freeman and Paranjape closes with a dialogue and reference to the Nasadiya Sukta, from the Rg Veda (Ch. 10, Hymn 129, verses 1-7):
1 THEN was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider.
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.
4 Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.
5 Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it?
There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder
6 Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
7 He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.
The questions and the contrasting pronouncements that it contains allude to what Paranjape points out, that the story of Creation“is difficult to comprehend … [it’s] beyond us.” And Freeman takes it further: “Hindu philosophy is not to solve the riddle of creation that happened long ago – it’s to give thanks every day for the forces that allow us to be here, and continue to sustain us…. [Hindus believe that] the Gods weren’t even around at the original creation… even we if don’t share a common story of creation, all of us can share in one thing. The wonder and gratitude that we are here at all. Our beliefs have the power to unite us.”
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