Archæology

The assorted finds of Artefact Publishing

Knowledge about the nature of the universe

Michael asks me to provide some examples of knowledge about the nature of the universe that a religious method has produced. I doubt he’ll consider the following knowledge about the nature of the universe (quite apart from any question of investigation), but here’s Chapter 5 of Book 1 of विष्णु पुराण (Viṣṇu Purāṇa):

Maitreya.―Now unfold to me, Brahman, how this deity created the gods, sages, progenitors, demons, men, animals, trees, and the rest, that abide on earth, in heaven, or in the waters: how Brahma at creation made the world with the qualities, the characteristics, and the forms of things.

Paraśara.―I will explain to you, Maitreya, listen attentively, how this deity, the lord of all, created the gods and other beings.

Whilst he (Brahma) formerly, in the beginning of the Kalpas, was meditating on creation, there appeared a creation beginning with ignorance, and consisting of darkness. From that great being appeared fivefold Ignorance, consisting of obscurity, illusion, extreme illusion, gloom, utter darkness. The creation of the creator thus plunged in abstraction, was the fivefold (immovable) world, without intellect or reflection, void of perception or sensation, incapable of feeling, and destitute of motion. Since immovable things were first created, this is called the first creation. Brahma, beholding that it was defective, designed another; and whilst he thus meditated, the animal creation was manifested, to the products of which the term Tiryaksrotas is applied, from their nutriment following a winding course. These were called beasts, etc, and their characteristic was the quality of darkness, they being destitute of knowledge, uncontrolled in their conduct, and mistaking error for wisdom; being formed of egotism and self-esteem, labouring under the twenty-eight kinds of imperfection, manifesting inward sensations, and associating with each other (according to their kinds).

Beholding this creation also imperfect, Brahma again meditated, and a third creation appeared, abounding with the quality of goodness, termed Ūrddhasrotas. The beings thus produced in the Ūrddhasrotas creation were endowed with pleasure and enjoyment, unencumbered internally or externally, and luminous within and without. This, termed the creation of immortals, was the third performance of Brahma, who, although well pleased with it, still found it incompetent to fulfil his end. Continuing therefore his meditations, there sprang, in consequence of his infallible purpose, the creation termed Arvaksrotas, from indiscrete nature. The products of this are termed Arvaksrotas, from the downward current (of their nutriment). They abound with the light of knowledge, but the qualities of darkness and of foulness predominate. Hence they are afflicted by evil, and are repeatedly impelled to action. They have knowledge both externally and internally, and are the instruments (of accomplishing the object of creation, the liberation of soul). These creatures were mankind.

I have thus explained to you, excellent Muni, six creations. The first creation was that of Mahat or Intellect, which is also called the creation of Brahma. The second was that of the rudimental principles (Tanmatras), thence termed the elemental creation (Bhuta sarga). The third was the modified form of egotism, termed the organic creation, or creation of the senses (Aindriyaka). These three were the Prakṛta creations, the developments of indiscrete nature, preceded by the indiscrete principle. The fourth or fundamental creation (of perceptible things) was that of inanimate bodies. The fifth, the Tairyag yonya creation, was that of animals. The sixth was the Ūrddhasrotas creation, or that of the divinities. The creation of the Arvaksrotas beings was the seventh, and was that of man. There is an eigth creation, termed Anugraha, which possesses both the qualities of goodness and darkness. Of these creations, five are secondary, and three are primary. But there is a ninth, the Kaumara creation, which is both primary and secondary. These are the nine creations of the great progenitor of all, and, both as primary and secondary, are the radical causes of the world, proceeding from the sovereign creator. What else dost thou desire to hear?

Maitreya.―Thou hast briefly related to me, Muni, the creation of the gods and other beings: I am desirous, chief of sages, to hear from thee a more ample account of their creation.

Paraśara.―Created beings, although they are destroyed (in their individual forms) at the periods of dissolution, yet, being affected by the good or evil acts of former existence, they are never exempted from their consequences; and when Brahma creates the world anew, they are the progeny of his will, in the fourfold condition of gods, men, animals, or inanimate things. Brahma then, being desirous of creating the four orders of beings, terms gods, demons, progenitors, and men, collected his mind into itself. Whilst thus concentrated, the quality of darkness pervaded his body; and thence the demons (the Asuras) were first born, issuing from his thigh. Brahma then abandoned that form which was composed of the rudiment of darkness, and which, being deserted by him, became night. Continuing to create, but assuming a different shape, he experienced pleasure; and thence from his mouth proceeded the gods, endowed with the quality of goodness. The form abandoned by him, became day, in which the good quality predominates; and hence by day the gods are most powerful, and by night the demons. He next adopted another person, in which the rudiment of goodness also prevailed; and thinking of himself, as the father of the world, the progenitors (the Pitṛs) were born from his side. The body, when he abandoned it, became the Sandhya (or evening twilight), the interval between day and night. Brahma then assumed another person, pervaded by the quality of foulness; and from this, men, in whom foulness (or passion) predominates, were produced. Quickly abandoning that body, it became morning twilight, or the dawn. At the appearance of this light of day, men feel most vigour; while the progenitors are most powerful in the evening season. In this manner, Maitreya, Jyotsna (dawn), Ratri (night), Ahar (day), and Sandhya (evening), are the four bodies of Brahma invested by the three qualities.

Next from Brahma, in a form composed of the quality of foulness, was produced hunger, of whom anger was born: and the god put forth in darkness beings emaciate with hunger, of hideous aspects, and with long beards. Those beings hastened to the deity. Such of them as exclaimed, Oh preserve us! were thence called Rakshasas: others, who cried out, Let us eat, were denominated from that expression Yakshas. Beholding them so disgusting, the hairs of Brahma were shrivelled up, and first falling from his head, were again renewed upon it; from their falling they became serpents, called Sarpa from their creeping, and Ahi because they had deserted the head. The creator of the world, being incensed, then created fierce beings, who were denominated goblins, Bhutas, malignant fiends and eaters of flesh. The Gandharbas were next born, imbibing melody, drinking of the goddess of speech, they were born, and thence their appellation.

The divine Brahma, influenced by their material energies, having created these beings, made others of his own will. Birds he formed from his vital vigour; sheep from his breast; goats from his mouth; kine from his belly and sides; and horses, elephants, Sarabhas, Gayals, deer, camels, mules, antelopes, and other animals, from his feet; whilst from the hairs of his body sprang herbs, roots, and fruits.

Brahma having created, in the commencement of the Kalpa, various plants, employed them in sacrifices, in the beginning of the Treta age. Animals were distinguished into two classes, domestic (village) and wild (forest); the first class contained the cow, goat, the hog, the sheep, the horse, the ass, the mule; the latter, all beasts of prey, and many animals with cloven hoofs, the elephant, and the monkey. The fifth order were the birds; the sixth, aquatic animals; and the seventh, reptiles and insects.

From his eastern mouth Brahma then created the Gayatri metre, the Ṛg-veda, the collection of hymns termed Trivṛt, the Rathantara portion of the Sama-veda, and the Agnishṭoma sacrifice; from his southern mouth he created the Yahur-veda, the Trishṭubh metre, the collection of hymns called Panchadaśa, the Vṛhat Sama, and the portion of the Sama-veda termed Uktha; from his western mouth he created the Sama-veda, the Jayati metre, the collection of hymns termed Saptadaśa, the portion of the Sama called Vairupa, and the Atiratra sacrifice; and from his northern mouth he created the Ekaviṃsa collection of hymns, the Aṭharva-veda, the Āptoryama rite, the Anushṭubh metre, and the Vairaja portion of the Sama-veda.

In this manner all creatures, great or small, proceeded from his limbs. The great progenitor of the world having formed the gods, demons, and Pitṛs, created, in the commencement of the Kalpa, the Yakshas, Pisachas (goblins), Gandharbas and the troops of Apsarasas the nymphs of heaven, Naras (centaurs, or beings with the heads of horses), Rakshasas, birds, beasts, deer, serpents, and all things permanent or transitory, movable or immovable. This did the divine Brahma, the first creator and lord of all; and these things being created, discharged the same functions as they had fulfilled in a previous creation, whether malignant or benign, gentle or cruel, good or evil, true or false; and accordingly as they are actuated by such propensities will be their conduct.

And the creator displayed infinite variety in the objects of sense, in the properties of living things, and in the forms of bodies; he determined in the beginning, by the authority of the Vedas, the names and forms and functions of all creatures, and of the gods; and the names and appropriate offices of the Ṛshis, as they also are read in Vedas. In like manner as the products of the seasons designate in periodical revolution the return of the same season, so do the same circumstances indicate the recurrence of the same Yuga, or age; and thus, in the beginning of each Kalpa, does Brahma repeatedly create the world, possessing the power that is derived from the will to create, and assisted by the natural and essential faculty of the object to be created.

I’ve kept some of the formatting of the edition I am quoting (that of H.H. Wilson’s translation), but by no means all.

As I said, I doubt you’ll consider this knowledge; if you don’t, I can but shrug and say that that is exactly my point.

Posted by jamie on August 7, 2003 21:35+12:00

Comments

I'm quite willing to treat your sample as knowledge (my definition was: things that you believe to be true about the universe), if that's your claim.

Such knowledge has two major problems:

  1. It can't be reliably transmitted: I'm sure your understanding of the text is quite different from the understanding of many others. If this weren't the case, doctrinal disputes wouldn't happen.
  2. There is no method for distinguishing it from beliefs that are false. As someone who believes your sample to be true, what's your opinion of Genesis 1. Is that also true? If so, what constitutes false knowledge? If not, how do you tell that Genesis 1 is false?

So you can't be sure that what you have in your head is an accurate reflection of the intended meaning of the given document, and you have no way of distinguishing false knowledge from true knowledge. Doesn't look like much of a method for investigating the nature of the universe to me.

Posted by: Michael on August 8, 2003 11:39+12:00

There are numerous techniques people have used to investigate the world. There are practices to achieve γνώσις (gnosis, a direct apprehension of truth) in various traditions. For example, Buddhism has the Noble Eightfold Path, part of which involves meditation by which one comes to see the true nature of existence. This allowed Gautama Buddha to see such things as प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद (pratītyasamutpāda, the law of codependent origination) in action.

That’s an example of an investigative technique. Consider, however, that while some people value personal investigation (scientists and Buddhists, for example), that’s hardly the view of everybody, and it may not be considered as something for everyone. Science may be in theory an egalitarian pursuit, but some people don’t have a problem with knowledge and inquiry being the province of a few, whether because few become shamans, not everyone is born a Brahmin, or whatever.

As for reliable transmission, this is relative. Just as other aspects of human life are transmitted, often with little change in understanding, so can some knowledge. In the case of personal investigation, transmission is not of such importance — there was a group of monks at the monastery who felt that there was no need for a library, since sitting under a tree is enough.

I don’t know what sort of techniques were used to determine truth between two conflicting sources. In the Hindu tradition there is a hierarchy of authorities, with श्रुति (śruti, that which was heard directly from the divine) at the top, followed by स्मृति (smṛti, that which is remembered, the words of the sages), etc. That presumably makes it simpler to determine what is in accordance with the truth.

I like this thread, since it gives me an excuse to use non-Roman scripts, even though my browser (Mozilla Firebird on GNU/Linux) doesn’t handle देवनागरी (devanāgarī) at all well (short i vowel placed after the previously sounded consonant, rather than before, and no compound glyphs).

Posted by: Jamie on August 8, 2003 12:56+12:00

I like this thread, since it gives me an excuse to use non-Roman scripts, even though my browser (Mozilla Firebird on GNU/Linux) doesn’t handle देवनागरी (devanāgarī) at all well

But it does. Why can't I see the Hindi section?

Posted by: आलोक कुमार on November 28, 2003 01:12+13:00

Ah, I didn’t know about the CTL-enabled builds. I shall have to try one out. Thanks for the pointer आलोक!

Posted by: Jamie on November 28, 2003 08:36+13:00