HINDU BELIEFS ABOUT COSMOLOGY, HEAVEN AND RIVERS

HINDU BELIEFS

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Hanuman, Fall of Laxmanai
Hindus believe in four purushartha (aims of the living, or instrumental and ultimate goals): 1) artha (material prosperity); 2) kama (satisfaction of legitimate desires); 3) dharma (moral conduct and duties associated with one’s station in life); and 4) moksha (obtaining release from the cycle of deaths and rebirths). These aims are thought to apply to everyone, regardless of caste, from Brahmin to Untouchables.

According to the advaita philosophy the world and everything in it is an illusion and is one. There is only one divine principle in Hinduism and all the different gods are manifestations of this cosmic unity. Hindus often say, "We believe God is everywhere...We believe God is you, too." The only essential truth and desire is the one that is possessed within. Other things found in life are generally distortions and untruths.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “From its beginnings, Hinduism has possessed a remarkable ability to assimilate rather than reject new ideas. It has developed complex overlays of beliefs, cults, gods, and forms of worship. Hindus recognize no single founder or prophet. There is no single holy book similar to the Bible or Qur’an; the religion is not supervised and interpreted by a hierarchy of priests, and its great texts were not inscribed but handed down as an oral tradition. Hindu worship is based on a one-to-one relationship between devotee and god rather than being congregational. This practice intensified beginning in the seventh century with the popularity of bhakti, passionate personal devotion to an individual god or goddess. Over the centuries, a number of important poets and musician-saints emerged from the bhakti tradition whose works, such as the Gita Govinda, became classics of Indian culture.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Many Hindus view life, existence and cosmology as too complicated to be followed a simple creed. It is therefore up to an individual or group to pick the aspects of the religion that they feel applies to them.

Monotheism and Hinduism, See Hindu Gods

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures

Hindu Universe and Creation

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The Hindu universe is much larger and multidimensional that the Christian one. It is conceived as an egg with 21 different zones (made up of six heavens, one earth, seven netherworlds and seven hells) or a mandala with a square divided into a number of small squares around the Supreme Deity, which is the source of all existence and has been compared to a radioactive spider at the center of a web emitting energy that is absorbed by all other objects in the universe.

Western religion has traditionally divided the world into the mortal and non-mortal with a clear time line to the future or the past. Hindus see many more possibilities. According to Hindu philosophy the universe is eternal but always changing. Everything is continually being born, growing and dying and being reborn. All matter is composed of five basic elements: earth, fire, water, space and sky. Humans are part of nature and susceptible to the same rules as everything else. The thing that separates humans from animals is their sense of inner consciousness, and the ability to understand the cosmos.

"For the Hindu," the historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, "the creation was not a bringing into being of the wonder of the world. Rather it was dismemberment, a disintegration of the original Oneness. For him the Creation seemed not the expression of a rational benevolent Maker in wondrous new forms but a fragmenting of the unity of nature into countless limited forms...For the Hindu our very notion of creation was reversed. Instead of transforming nothing into everything the Hindu creation broke into countless imperfect fragments what was already there." [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

The Vedas do not say much about a Creator or Creation. In one story the universe was prepared by a primeval Lord of Beings named Prajapati, who was sacrificed before the universe was created. How he was created and who sacrificed him is not clear. In the Upanishads the original human is an Adam-like man who asks for company and then is pleased when a female is made from his body.

Creation in the Rig Veda

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In the Hymn of Creation the Brahma poets in the Rig-Veda raised doubts about how and what occurred at creation could ever be known:

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation.
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin.
he, whether he fashioned it to whether he did not.
he, who surveys it all from the highest heaven.
he knows?or maybe even he does not know.

The Hymn of the Primeval Man tells how the castes were created before the heavens:
When they divided the Man
into many part did they divide him?
What was his mouth, what were his arms.
what were his feet and feet called?
The Brahma was his mouth
of his arms was made the warrior
His thighs became the Vaisya.
of his feet the Sudra was born

The moon arose from his mind
from his eye was born the sun
from his mouth Indra and Agni
from his breath the wind was born.
From his navel came the air.
from his head there came the sky
from his feet the earth, the 4 quarters from his ear. thus they fashioned the worlds.
With sacrifice the gods sacrificed to Sacrifice
these were the first of the sacred laws.
These mighty beings reached the sky.
where the eternal spirits, the gods.

Creation of Self, Women, Cows and Animals

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According to the Hindu creation myth, at the beginning of time, Self ( Atman ) sat alone. Looking around and seeing only himself, he said, "This is I" (That is why even today men and women identify themselves first as "I"). Since the Self had incinerated all the evil that had existed before, he therefore was a person ( purusha ). When faced with the thought of loneliness, Self said, "As there is nothing but myself, why should I fear?" [Source: Brihadaranyaka Upanishad]

With his fear gone, Self realized that a lonely man can feel no delight. Since he was as large as a man and woman together he divided himself in two and created his wife Yagnavalkya, who said after coming into being, "We two are thus (each of us) like half a shell." In the great void Self embraced his wife and men were born. [Ibid]

Afterwards Yagnavalkya said, "How can he embrace me after having produced me from himself. I shall hide myself." She then turned herself into a cow. Self then became a bull and embraced her, hence cows were born. She then became a mare and he stallion, producing horses. Asses, goats and sheep were created in a similar fashion, and so it went until all the members of the animal kingdom were created, even ants. [Ibid]

Hindu Cosmology Cycles

Hindus and Buddhist view life and time in a cosmological sense as an "unending universe of unending cycles." They generally do not have end of the world scenarios. Even creation is seen as something that occurs again and again. By contrast Jews, Christians and Muslims all have end of the world scenarios, foretold by natural disasters and other calamities, that feature the accession to heaven by the faithful. Cosmos , incidently, is a Sanskrit word for justice.

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Cosmological Mandala with Mount Meru
The basic cycle in Hindu time is a kalpa “a “day” in the life of Brahma. Each kalpa lasts 4.32 billion earth years. A “night of Brahma'”lasts the same amount of time. A “year of Brahma” is comprised 360 such days and nights, and Brahma lives for one hundred such years. Each kalpa marks another Re-creation of the world. During each kalpa-night the universe is once again gathered up into Brahma's body, where it becomes “the possibility of still another Creation on the next day."

Each cycle begins with Vishnu lying asleep on the thousand-headed cobra Sesha . From his naval grows a lotus that give birth to Brahma, who creates the universe. Vishnu awakes and governs over the kalpa, which ends when he goes back to sleep and the universe once again is sucked into his body.

Each kalpa contains fourteen smaller cycles, manvantara , each of which lasts for 306,720,000 years Within each of these cycles a new Manu, or presiding god, is created and he in turn re-creates the human race. Within each manvantaras , there are seventy-one aeons or mahayugas , a thousand of which comprise a kalpa. Within each mahayuga there is a cycle of four yugas , each of which is a different age of the world, including in turn 4,800, 3,600, 2,400 and 1,200 'years.' Each of the four yugas shows a decline in civilization and morality from the yuga just before, until finally the world is destroyed by flood and fire to be prepared for yet another cycle of Creation. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

Change on earth is slower than man can grasp. We are currently in the Kali Yuga, the last, darkest and most miserable cycle in Hindu cosmology. This cycle is said to have begin with the battle described in the Bhagavad Gita . Following it will be a period of light, expressed in the 1960s as the Age of Aquarius.

Hindu Heaven and Hell

Hindus believe that all living creatures---from bacteria to blue whales, and even some plants---have souls, which are essentially equal, and all these life forms are manifestations of the unity of the universe. This is why Hindus are vegetarians and abhor killing animals; and ahimsa , the belief that it is a sin to harm any living creature, is an important precept in Hinduism. The concept was eluded to in the Upanishads and contrasts sharply with doctrines of Western religions which holds that mankind is a special creation on a plane higher than other creatures.

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Yama, Hindu hell

Life and death are seen as meaningless cycles. Life itself is often characterized as a dream that has little to with relevance of the true nature of things in terms of the universe, cosmology and forces behind life. Reality is like an onion whose successive layers have to be pealed to reveal the universe eternal truth. On this subject Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: Do not say God gave us this delusion.” You dream you are a doer. You dream that action is done. You dream that action bears fruit. It is your ignorance. It is your delusion That gives these dreams.

Hindus believe in Paramatman (the eternal, blissful self), which contradicts the Buddhist belief in the impermanent and transitory nature of things.

Mt. Meru

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Kailash, Mt. Meru
Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

Reincarnation is a belief found in most Asian religions and is a cornerstone of all the major religions found in India except Islam. The Hindu idea of reincarnation is roughly the same regardless of which Hindu god an individual venerates most.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Hindu Holy Rivers

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Pouring Ganges Holy water
Hindus regard India as the Holy Land. There are seven holy rivers in India, of which the Ganges is the holiest and most well known. They are all associated with Shiva. According to one legend, Shiva leaped in the water of the Ganges as it fell from heaven to the earth. The water matted his hair and divided into the seven holy rivers.

Rivers are regarded as sacred and treated with deep reverence because of their purifying effect. Bathing in a sacred river and/or drinking its waters can wash away a lifetime's worth of sins and being cremated on the shores of holy river and having your ashes thrown in the river can allow you to escape the cycle or reincarnation of be delivered directly to heaven.

For many Indians the Narmada River is just as sacred as the Ganges. Lepers have claimed to be cured after taking a dip in it. Every year thousand of Hindu pilgrims perform a pradakshina of the Narmanda and walk every inch of both banks. The Brahmaputra in Hindu cosmology is the only male river.

Ganges

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Ganges Bathing Fair
The Ganges flows for 1,560 miles from the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south. It drains an area of 450,000 square miles and directly affects the lives of 300 million people. The Ganges Plain which was covered by a shallow sea as recently as 10,000 years ago. A third of India's people (200 million) live in the Ganges Plain, where the population averages over 1,000 people per square mile, one of the highest in the world.

On the banks of the Ganges and other river you will see dhoti-clad men doing yogic push ups, wrestling or swing huge stone-headed clubs over their head. At Hindu temples along the Ganges pilgrims bathe in the water, make offerings, touch the temple walls, ask advice of sadhus, receive blessing from priest and gather water in jugs to take home.

The Ganges is named after Ganga, a river goddess who descended from heaven and had her fall broken by Shiva’s hair. She is the second wife of Shiva. Her sisters are Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. Prayers honoring all these holy relatives are recited in the holy river when the bathers submerge themselves to be purified. The Ganges is sometimes referred to as "the liquified from of God."

Ganges and Hinduism

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For Hindus the Ganges is the sacred river known as Gangaji, or Mother Ganges. It is comprised of amrita (“the nectar of immortality”) that flows to earth from heaven. Hindus believe that bathing and/ or drinking it waters can wash away a lifetime's worth of sins. Being cremated on its shores and having one’s ashes thrown in the river can allow one to escape the cycle or reincarnation of be delivered directly to heaven.

Ganga represents fertility because she provides water for land and is considered a second wife of Shiva. She is often depicted with a bowl of water in one hand and lotus flower in another, sitting on a makara, a legendary sea monster.

The Ganges is regarded as the link between heaven and earth. In one Hindu story, the Ganges fell from the foot of Vishnu, the preserver, and traveled across the Milky Way before getting lodged in the foot of Shiva, the destroyer and restorer. On top of mythical Mount Meru in the Himalayas, Shiva calmed the river and let it fall to earth.

In another story, the Ganges River was created by the goddess Ganga to wash away the condemned souls of King Sagar's 60,000 sons who had been burned to a crisp by the gaze of the sage Kapali. The sons had cursed Kapali of stealing their father's horse (which had placed in the sage’s ashram by the mischievous thunderstorm god Indra). Ganga was summoned by King Sagar and the god Shiva was called in to catch Ganga, lest she wash away the entire earth. Shiva ensnared her in his hair---the Himalayas---and she remained their until she managed to escape near Gangotri, where upon she dropped from the mountains and flowed to the sea redeeming the souls of the Sagar's 60,000 sons.

Bathing in the Ganges

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public prayer in Haridwar
Hindus bath in, drink and throw the cremated ashes of the dead in the Ganges. Sprinkling holy water from the Ganges over one's head is believed to wash away sins, purify unclean souls and heal the sick. Bathing in the Ganges even once is supposed to ensure salvation. If a person dies in the Ganges or a has a few drops of Ganges placed on his tongue as he breaths his last breath it is believed he will achieve absolute salvation, escape the toil of reincarnation and be transported to Shiva's Himalayan version of heaven.

Every morning Hindus gather on the shores of the Ganges to bathe and pray for liberation from the world. The pouring of marigolds into the Ganges is a traditional peace offering. The river carries the petals to the oceans and the far corners of the world, carrying the promise of peace with them. Many people collect water from the Ganges in bottles. Some devoted Hindu take Ganges water to drink when they travel abroad.

According to the maharajah of Varanasi. "It is only after my ritual bath and while I am eating that I cannot touch anyone other than members of my household who have performed the same purification rituals. To do so would make me ritually impure. But goodness does not come only by touching and eating with people; it comes from much more.” [Source: John Putman, National Geographic October 1971]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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