Hindu cosmology

From Bharatpedia, an open encyclopedia

Hindu cosmology is the description of the universe and its states of matter, cycles within time, physical structure, and effects on living entities according to Hindu texts.


All matter is based on three inert gunas (qualities or tendencies):[1][2][3]

There are three states of the gunas that make up all matter in the universe:[1][3][4][5][6][7]

  • pradhana (root matter): gunas in an unmixed and unmanifested state (equilibrium).
  • prakriti (primal matter): gunas in a mixed and unmanifested state (agitated).
  • mahat-tattva (matter or universal womb): gunas in a mixed and manifested state.

Pradhana, which has no consciousness or will to act on its own, is initially agitated by a primal desire to create. The different schools of thought differ in understanding about the ultimate source of that desire and what the gunas are mixed with (eternal elements, time, jiva-atmas).[8][9]

The manifest material elements (matter) range from the most subtle to the most physical (gross). These material elements cover the individual, spiritual jiva-atmas (embodied souls), allowing them to interact with the material sense objects, such as their temporary material bodies, other conscious bodies, and unconscious objects.

Manifested subtle elements:[10][11][12][lower-alpha 1]

Manifested physical (gross) elements (a.k.a. pancha bhoota or 5 great elements) and their associated senses and sense organs that manifest:[13][14][15][lower-alpha 1]

  • space/ether > sound > ear
  • air > smell > nose
  • fire > sight/form > eye
  • water > taste > tongue
  • earth > touch > skin


Time is infinite with a cyclic universe, where the current universe was preceded and will be followed by an infinite number of universes.[16][17] The different states of matter are guided by eternal kala (time), which repeats general events ranging from a moment to the lifespan of the universe, which is cyclically created and destroyed.[18]

The earliest mentions of cosmic cycles in Sanskrit literature are found in the Yuga Purana (c. 1st century BCE), the Mahabharata (c. 3rd century BCE – 4th century CE), and the Manusmriti (c. 2nd – 3rd centuries CE). In the Mahabharata, there are inconsistent names applied to the cycle of creation and destruction, a name theorized as still being formulated, where yuga (generally, an age of time)[19][20] and kalpa (a day of Brahma) are used, or a day of the Brahman or of Brahma, the creator god, or simply referred to as the process of creation and destruction, with kalpa and day of Brahma becoming more prominent in later writings.[21]

Prakriti (primal matter) remains mixed for a maha-kalpa (life of Brahma) of 311.04 trillion years, and is followed by a maha-pralaya (great dissolution) of equal length. The universe (matter) remains manifested for a kalpa (day of Brahma) of 4.32 billion years, where the universe is created at the start and destroyed at the end, only to be recreated at the start of the next kalpa. A kalpa is followed by a pralaya (partial dissolution, a.k.a. night of Brahma) of equal length, when Brahma and the universe are in an unmanifested state. Each kalpa has 15 manvantara-sandhyas (junctures of great flooding) and 14 manvantaras (age of Manu, progenitor of mankind), with each manvantara lasting for 306.72 million years. Each kalpa has 1,000 and each manvantara has 71 chatur-yugas (epoch, a.k.a. maha-yuga), with each chatur-yuga lasting for 4.32 million years and divided into four yugas (dharmic ages): Satya Yuga (1,728,000 years), Treta Yuga (1,296,000 years), Dvapara Yuga (864,000 years), and Kali Yuga (432,000 years), of which we are currently in Kali Yuga.[22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29]


The individual, spiritual jiva-atma (embodied soul) is the life force or consciousness within a living entity. The jivas are not created, and are distinctly different from the created unconscious matter. The gunas in their manifest state of matter, cover the jivas in various ways based on each jiva's karma and impressions. This material covering of matter allows the jivas to interact with the material sense objects that make up the material universe, such as their temporary material bodies, other conscious bodies, and unconscious objects.[30][31][32]

The material creation is called maya ("that which is not") due to its impermanent (non-eternal), temporary nature of sometimes being manifest and sometimes not. It has been compared to a dream or virtual reality, where the viewer (jiva) has real experiences with objects that will eventually become unreal.[33][34]

Through these interactions, a jiva starts to identify the temporary material body as the true self, and in this way becomes influenced and bound by maya perpetually in a conscious state of nescience (ignorance, unawareness, forgetfulness). This conscious state of nescience leads to samsara (cycle of reincarnation), only to end for a jiva when moksha (liberation) is achieved through self-realization or remembrance of one's true spiritual self/nature.[35][36][37][38][39]

The different schools of thought differ in understanding about the initial event that led to the jivas entering the material creation and the ultimate state of moksha.

Creation and structure[edit]

According to Richard L. Thompson, the Bhagavata Purana presents a geocentric model of our Brahmanda (cosmic egg or universe), where our Bhu-mandala disk, equal in diameter to our Brahmanda, has a diameter of 500 million yojanas (trad. 8 miles each), which equals around 4 billion miles or more, a size far too small for the universe of stars and galaxies, but in the right range for our solar system. In addition, the Bhagavata Purana and other Puranas speak of a multiplicity of universes, or Brahmandas, each covered by seven-fold layers with an aggregate thickness of over ten million times its diameter (5x1015 yojanas ≈ 6,804+ light-years in diameter). The Jyotisha Shastras, Surya Siddhanta, and Siddhānta Shiromani give the Brahmanda an enlarged radius of about 5,000 light years. Finally, the Mahabharata refers to stars as large, self-luminous objects that seem small because of their great distance, and that our Sun and Moon cannot be seen if one travels to those distant stars. Thompson notes that Bhu-mandala can be interpreted as a map of the geocentric orbits of the sun and the five planets, Mercury through Saturn, and this map becomes highly accurate if we adjust the length of the yojana to about 8.5 miles.[40]

Brahma, the first born and secondary creator, during the start of his kalpa, divides the Brahmanda (cosmic egg or universe), first into three, later into fourteen lokas (planes or realms)—sometimes grouped into heavenly, earthly and hellish planes—and creates the first living entities to multiply and fill the universe. Some Puranas describe innumerable universes existing simultaneously with different sizes and Brahmas, each manifesting and unmanifesting at the same time.

Rigveda on creation[edit]

The Rigveda presents many speculative theories of cosmology. For example:

  • Hiranyagarbha sukta, its hymn 10.121, states a golden child was born in the universe and was the lord, established earth and heaven, then asks but who is the god to whom we shall offer the sacrificial prayers?[41]
  • Devi sukta, its hymn 10.125, states a goddess is all, the creator, the created universe, the feeder and the lover of the universe;[42]
  • Nasadiya sukta, its hymn 10.129, asks who created the universe, does anyone really know, and whether it can ever be known.[43]

According to Henry White Wallis, the Rigveda and other Vedic texts are full of alternative cosmological theories and curiosity questions. For example, the hymn 1.24 of the Rigveda asks, "these stars, which are set on high, and appear at night, whither do they go in the daytime?" and hymn 10.88 wonders, "how many fires are there, how many suns, how many dawns, how many waters? I am not posing an awkward question for you fathers; I ask you, poets, only to find out?"[44][45] To its numerous open-ended questions, the Vedic texts present a diversity of thought, in verses imbued with symbols and allegory, where in some cases forces and agencies are clothed with a distinct personality, while in other cases as nature with or without anthropomorphic activity such as forms of mythical sacrifices.[46]

The Rigveda contains the Nasadiya sukta hymn which does not offer a cosmological theory, but asks cosmological questions about the nature of the universe and how it began:

Darkness there was at first, by darkness hidden;
Without distinctive marks, this all was water;
That which, becoming, by the void was covered;
That One by force of heat came into being;

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
Gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whether God's will created it, or whether He was mute;
Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not;
Only He who is its overseer in highest heaven knows,
Only He knows, or perhaps He does not know.

— Rigveda 10:129-6[47][48][49]

Three lokas[edit]

Deborah Soifer describes the development of the concept of lokas as follows:

The concept of a loka or lokas develops in the Vedic literature. Influenced by the special connotations that a word for space might have for a nomadic people, loka in the Veda did not simply mean place or world, but had a positive valuation: it was a place or position of religious or psychological interest with a special value of function of its own. Hence, inherent in the 'loka' concept in the earliest literature was a double aspect; that is, coexistent with spatiality was a religious or soteriological meaning, which could exist independent of a spatial notion, an 'immaterial' significance. The most common cosmological conception of lokas in the Veda was that of the trailokya or triple world: three worlds consisting of earth, atmosphere or sky, and heaven, making up the universe.

— Deborah A. Soiver[50]

Fourteen lokas[edit]

Upper seven Lokas in Hindu Cosmology
Lower seven Lokas in Puranas

In the Brahmanda Purana, as well as Bhagavata Purana (2.5),[51] fourteen lokas (planes) are described, consist of seven higher (Vyahrtis) and seven lower (Patalas) lokas.[52][53]

  1. Satya-loka (Brahma-loka)
  2. Tapa-loka
  3. Jana-loka
  4. Mahar-loka
  5. Svar-loka (Svarga-loka or Indra-loka)
  6. Bhuvar-loka (Sun/Moon plane)
  7. Bhu-loka (Earth plane)
  8. Atala-loka
  9. Vitala-loka
  10. Sutala-loka
  11. Talatala-loka
  12. Mahatala-loka
  13. Rasatala-loka
  14. Patala-loka

However, other Puranas give different version of this cosmology and associated myths.[54] The Puranas genre of Indian literature, found in Hinduism and Jainism, contain a section on cosmology and cosmogony as a requirement. There are dozens of different Mahapuranas and Upapuranas, each with its own theory integrated into a proposed human history consisting of solar and lunar dynasties. Some are similar to Indo-European creation myths, while others are novel. One cosmology, shared by Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts involves Mount Meru, with stars and sun moving around it using Dhruva (North Star) as the focal reference.[55][56] According to Annette Wilke and Oliver Moebus, the diversity of cosmology theories in Hinduism may reflect its tendency to not reject new ideas and empirical observations as they became available, but to adapt and integrate them creatively.[57]


The Hindu texts describe innumerable universes existing all at the same time, some larger than others, each with its own Brahma administrator with a comparable number of heads. Our universe is described as the smallest with a Brahma of only four heads. The Hindu concept of innumerable universes is comparable to the multiverse theory, except nonparallel where each universe is different and individual jiva-atmas (embodied souls) exist in exactly one universe at a time. All universes manifest from the same matter, and so they all follow parallel time cycles, manifesting and unmanifesting at the same time.

Every universe is covered by seven layers—earth, water, fire, air, sky, the total energy and false ego—each ten times greater than the previous one. There are innumerable universes besides this one, and although they are unlimitedly large, they move about like atoms in You. Therefore You are called unlimited.

Because You are unlimited, neither the lords of heaven nor even You Yourself can ever reach the end of Your glories. The countless universes, each enveloped in its shell, are compelled by the wheel of time to wander within You, like particles of dust blowing about in the sky. The śrutis, following their method of eliminating everything separate from the Supreme, become successful by revealing You as their final conclusion.

— Bhagavata Purana 10.87.41[60]

The layers or elements covering the universes are each ten times thicker than the one before, and all the universes clustered together appear like atoms in a huge combination.

And who will search through the wide infinities of space to count the universes side by side, each containing its Brahma, its Vishnu, its Shiva? Who can count the Indras in them all--those Indras side by side, who reign at once in all the innumerable worlds; those others who passed away before them; or even the Indras who succeed each other in any given line, ascending to godly kingship, one by one, and, one by one, passing away.

Every thing that is any where, is produced from and subsists in space. It is always all in all things, which are contained as particles in it. Such is the pure vacuous space of the Divine understanding, that like an ocean of light, contains these innumerable worlds, which like the countless waves of the sea, are revolving for ever in it.

You know one universe. Living entities are born in many universes, like mosquitoes in many udumbara (cluster fig) fruits.

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 In Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna says "Air, water, earth, fire, sky, mind, intelligence and ahankaar (ego) together constitute the nature created by me."


  1. 1.0 1.1 James G. Lochtefeld, Guna, in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M, Vol. 1, Rosen Publishing, ISBN 978-0-8239-3179-8, pages 224, 265, 520
  2. Alban Widgery (1930), The principles of Hindu Ethics, International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 40, No. 2, pages 234–237
  3. 3.0 3.1 Theos Bernard (1999), Hindu Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-81-208-1373-1, pages 74–76
  4. Axel Michaels (2003), Notions of Nature in Traditional Hinduism, Environment across Cultures, Springer, ISBN 978-3-642-07324-3, pages 111–121
  5. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Bhagavad-Gita, a New Translation and Commentary, Chapter 1–6. Penguin Books, 1969, p 128 (v 45) and p 269 v.13
  6. Prakriti: Indian philosophy, Encyclopædia Britannica
  7. "Mahattattva, Mahat-tattva: 5 definitions". Wisdom Library. Retrieved 10 February 2021. Mahattattva (महत्तत्त्व) or simply Mahat refers to a primordial principle of the nature of both pradhāna and puruṣa, according to the 10th century Saurapurāṇa: one of the various Upapurāṇas depicting Śaivism.—[...] From the disturbed prakṛti and the puruṣa sprang up the seed of mahat, which is of the nature of both pradhāna and puruṣa. The mahattattva is then covered by the pradhāna and being so covered it differentiates itself as the sāttvika, rājasa and tāmasa-mahat. The pradhāna covers the mahat just as a seed is covered by the skin. Being so covered there spring from the three fold mahat the threefold ahaṃkāra called vaikārika, taijasa and bhūtādi or tāmasa.
  8. David Bruce Hughes. Sri Vedanta-sutra, Adhyaya 2. David Bruce Hughes. p. 76.
  9. Swami Sivananda - commentator (1999). Brahma Sutras. Islamic Books. pp. 190–196.
  10. Elankumaran, S (2004). "Personality, organizational climate and job involvement: An empirical study". Journal of Human Values. 10 (2): 117–130. doi:10.1177/097168580401000205. S2CID 145066724.
  11. Deshpande, S; Nagendra, H. R.; Nagarathna, R (2009). "A randomized control trial of the effect of yoga on Gunas (personality) and Self esteem in normal healthy volunteers". International Journal of Yoga. 2 (1): 13–21. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.43287. PMC 3017961. PMID 21234210.
  12. Shilpa, S; Venkatesha Murthy, C. G. (2011). "Understanding personality from Ayurvedic perspective for psychological assessment: A case". Ayu. 32 (1): 12–19. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.85716. PMC 3215408. PMID 22131752.
  13. Gopal, Madan (1990). K.S. Gautam (ed.). India through the ages. Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. p. 79.
  14. Prasad Sinha, Harendra (2006). Bharatiya Darshan Ki Rooprekha. Motilal Banarsidass Publisher. p. 86. ISBN 9788120821446. Retrieved 18 March 2015.
  15. "PANCHA BHOOTAS OR THE FIVE ELEMENTS". indianscriptures.com/. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
  16. Sushil Mittal, Gene Thursby (2012). Hindu World. Routledge. p. 284. ISBN 9781134608751.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  17. Andrew Zimmerman Jones (2009). String Theory For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons. p. 262. ISBN 9780470595848.
  18. Dick Teresi (2002). Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Baby. SimonandSchuster. p. 174.
  19. Template:Dictionary.com
  20. Sundarraj, M. (1997) [1st ed. 1994]. "Ch. 4 Asvins⁠—Time-Keepers". In Mahalingam, Dr. N. (ed.). RG Vedic Studies. Coimbatore: Rukmani Offset Press. p. 219. It is quite clear that the smallest unit was the 'nimisah' ['winking of eyes'], and that time in the general sense of past, present and future was indicated by the word 'yuga'.
  21. González-Reimann 2018, p. 415 (World Destruction and Re-creation).
  22. Doniger, Wendy; Hawley, John Stratton, eds. (1999). "Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions". Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. p. 691 (Manu). ISBN 0877790442. a day in the life of Brahma is divided into 14 periods called manvantaras ("Manu intervals"), each of which lasts for 306,720,000 years. In every second cycle [(new kalpa after pralaya)] the world is recreated, and a new Manu appears to become the father of the next human race. The present age is considered to be the seventh Manu cycle.
  23. Krishnamurthy, Prof. V. (2019). "Ch. 20: The Cosmic Flow of Time as per Scriptures". Meet the Ancient Scriptures of Hinduism. Notion Press. ISBN 9781684669387. Each manvantara is preceded and followed by a period of 1,728,000 (= 4K) years when the entire earthly universe (bhu-loka) will submerge under water. The period of this deluge is known as manvantara-sandhya (sandhya meaning, twilight). ... According to the traditional time-keeping ... Thus in Brahma's calendar the present time may be coded as his 51st year - first month - first day - 7th manvantara - 28th maha-yuga - 4th yuga or kaliyuga.
  24. Gupta, Dr. S. V. (2010). "Ch. 1.2.4 Time Measurements". In Hull, Prof. Robert; Osgood, Jr., Prof. Richard M.; Parisi, Prof. Jurgen; Warlimont, Prof. Hans (eds.). Units of Measurement: Past, Present and Future. International System of Units. Springer Series in Materials Science: 122. Springer. pp. 7–8. ISBN 9783642007378.
  25. Penprase, Bryan E. (2017). The Power of Stars (2nd ed.). Springer. p. 182. ISBN 9783319525976.
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  27. Graham Chapman; Thackwray Driver (2002). Timescales and Environmental Change. Routledge. pp. 7–8. ISBN 978-1-134-78754-8.
  28. Ludo Rocher (1986). The Purāṇas. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 123–125, 130–132. ISBN 978-3-447-02522-5.
  29. John E. Mitchiner (2000). Traditions of the Seven Rsis. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 141–144. ISBN 978-81-208-1324-3.
  30. Johnson, W. J., 1951- (12 February 2009). A dictionary of Hinduism (First ed.). Oxford [England]. ISBN 9780198610250. OCLC 244416793.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  31. Brodd, Jeffrey (2003). World Religions. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5.
  32. Krishna, the Beautiful Legend of God, pages 11–12, and commentary pages 423–424, by Edwin Bryant
  33. Teun Goudriaan (2008), Maya: Divine And Human, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120823891, pages 4, 167
  34. Richard L. Thompson (2003), Maya: The World as Virtual Reality, ISBN 9780963530905
  35. Mark Juergensmeyer; Wade Clark Roof (2011). Encyclopedia of Global Religion. SAGE Publications. p. 272. ISBN 978-1-4522-6656-5.
  36. Jeaneane D. Fowler (1997). Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Sussex Academic Press. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-1-898723-60-8.
  37. Christopher Chapple (1986), Karma and creativity, State University of New York Press, ISBN 0-88706-251-2, pages 60–64
  38. Flood, Gavin (24 August 2009). "Hindu concepts". BBC Online. BBC. Archived from the original on 11 April 2014. Retrieved 31 July 2015.
  39. George D. Chryssides; Benjamin E. Zeller (2014). The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 333. ISBN 978-1-4411-9829-7.
  40. Thompson, Richard L. (2007). The Cosmology of the Bhāgavata Purāna: Mysteries of the Sacred Universe. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. p. 239. ISBN 978-81-208-1919-1.
  41. Charles Lanman, To the unknown god, Book X, Hymn 121, Rigveda, The Sacred Books of the East Volume IX: India and Brahmanism, Editor: Max Muller, Oxford, pages 49–50
  42. Charles Lanman, Hymns by Women, Book X, Hymn 125, Rigveda, The Sacred Books of the East Volume IX: India and Brahmanism, Editor: Max Muller, Oxford, pages 46–47
  43. Charles Lanman, The Creation Hymn, Book X, Hymn 129, Rigveda, The Sacred Books of the East Volume IX: India and Brahmanism, Editor: Max Muller, Oxford, page 48
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  48. David Christian (1 September 2011). Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. University of California Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-520-95067-2.
  49. Robert N. Bellah (2011). Religion in Human Evolution. Harvard University Press. pp. 510–511. ISBN 978-0-674-06309-9.
  50. Soiver, Deborah A. (November 1991). The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective. State University of New York Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-7914-0799-8.
  51. Barbara A. Holdrege (2015). Bhakti and Embodiment: Fashioning Divine Bodies and Devotional Bodies in Krsna Bhakti. Routledge. p. 334, note 62. ISBN 978-1-317-66910-4.
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  59. Mirabello, Mark (15 September 2016). A Traveler's Guide to the Afterlife: Traditions and Beliefs on Death, Dying, and What Lies Beyond. Inner Traditions / Bear & Co. p. 23. ISBN 9781620555989.
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  64. Yoga Vasistha
  65. Garga Samhita (59)


External links[edit]


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