The Infinity of Starting Points


Suryakanthi Tripathi (Former DG, ICCR and Indian Ambassador to Spain)

Celestial Fireworks – NASA Image* see footnote

In the beginning…

What was there in the beginning and even before it? How did the beginning begin? And why? Each culture and age has asked these questions. The great mystery of it has been alive from the time the cavemen first gazed up at the stars and wondered. It has been the impulse for the greatest of philosophy, literature, art and scientific endeavor.

The Nasadiya Suktam of the Rig Veda says there was neither existence then, nor non-existence; neither death not immortality. In the vaulted splendor of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, God seems to reach out to Adam in awesome majesty to grant him a glimpse of our origins. But Adam perhaps was not yet ready for this awakening. The Hubble Telescope doggedly outlasts its expected life, entranced by the displays of gigantic stellar fireworks in one minute edge of our universe. We are all still thirsting for an inkling of an answer.

In the beginning.

Every culture has a story about the origin of the universe, the creation of the world and of all living things. Many share the themes of creation by a supreme being, through an inexplicable self-generated impulse, through some manner of divine coupling, from a cosmic egg, or through the gradual securing of earth from undifferentiated waters. But the regional and tribal variants of these themes and the details with which they are embellished are a multitude.

Each story embodies the fertile conjecture in a pre-scientific age of this mystery by a particular community. The creation myth is symbolic. It is a narrative of a community’s belief of the beginnings of the world, and of its own beginnings. These creation myths, hence, are at the root of what a people basically believe in, their sense of relationship, priority and belonging.

There has been considerable discussion among scholars about myths and folktales. Some view myths as a type of folktale, while others see folktales as a genre of myths. While an absolute distinction is not possible or perhaps even required, the tendency is to view a myth as attempting to serve an underlying purpose or expound a deeper theme, by dealing with dilemmas beyond those generated by simple social situations.

It has been said that the understanding of a culture is never complete without a careful study of its creation accounts. The cosmogonic myth enjoys special prestige because it shapes the religious beliefs of a community and thus also impacts on its social and economic interactions.

In a sense, the creation myth tends to be the mother myth. It gives a definition and a form to the reality as it is currently observed starting from a point when such reality was not. It is of the origin and processes of the universe, and of man’s centering and space within it. This, therefore, shapes how an individual must act and interact with others in his group, with other human communities, with non-human life, with nature and with earth.

Moreover, since no strictly logical explanation is available for the multiplicity of life and circumstance, the structure of the myth is not a limiting or a limited one. Not circumscribed by rational parameters and undeterred by the irrational, the creation myth begins to abound with profound import as well as symbols, and its theme eventually becomes the progenitor of subsequent myths. It stimulates philosophical and religious enquiry into cause and being. It is ultimately at the root of what separates for us our notions of the sacred and the profane, the mysterious and the mundane.

As de Fontenelle, a French scholar, said in the eighteenth century, there is a universal human predisposition toward mythology. It is obviously true since, from across the globe, we have myriads of creation myths, staggeringly distributed both in space and in time.

These stories evolved too as human emphasis changed from the magical to the religious and then to the empirical and scientific. Distinct myths also emerged as a result of interaction with other communities, as they did in the light of greater understanding and growth in knowledge.

Thus, myths of creation by seeking to go back to the absolute origin of existence and of the universe, legitimize the freeing of imagination. By their very nature, they give birth to allegories for one has to speak of the infinite in finite, comprehensible terms. That is how they stir the creative imagination in the telling of other myths, and so have a significant influence on the customs and even the non-mythic expressions of a community, thereby becoming an inseparable part of its culture.

Ritual is generally seen as a sanctified means to summon and to placate the unfathomable and fundamental power—- the one which is in a sense responsible for this creation and, hence, of our present existence. The creation myth, therefore, while not necessarily acting as a stimulus to ritual, has a fundamental impact on the character of ritual expressions and, often thereby, in our cultural values and representations.

Many of the eastern cultures hold that creation takes place through its constituent elements —- from which the material world is composed and into which it eventually disintegrates. At a very fundamental level they refer to the five bhutas: earth, water, fire, air and sky.

With the elements as their basis, for example, the tribes of Arunachal have developed a vivid and highly sophisticated cosmogony. The elements themselves are not exactly identical to the five bhutas, nor do they constitute just a single creation layer. According to their oral myths, the primal elements — water, egg, cloud, rock, wood and the Supreme Being are responsible for the creation of the secondary elements which, in turn, generate the third level of elements.  Acting together therafter, they help create knowledge.

Each of the primal elements is itself associated with a fascinating creation myth. For example, according to Professor Baidyanath Saraswati, who has studied the cultures of the Northeast extensively, in the tribal vision there is no single creator of the universe, but creators for each element. He has recounted the Arunachal wood element myth as follows: Everything was water — water as far as the eye could see. But above the water rose the tree. As time passed, a worm was born in the tree and it began to eat the wood. The dust kept falling into the water, until gradually the world was formed. Then, when at last the tree fell to the ground, the bark on the lower side of the trunk became the skin of the world, and the upper bark became the skin of the sky. The trunk itself turned into rock, and the branches into hills.

Professor Baidyanath also states that some oral myths do have parallels in Hindu textual myths, such as the tribal notion of creation from water, or the cosmic egg, or through the transformation of a superior being.  Tribal cosmogony also shares motifs such as the lotus, snake, boar, fish, tortoise, mountain, etc with classical versions, although the tribal hierarchy of the generation of elements is unique to them. Wood, for instance, is also not an element in the local classical texts, but interestingly is said to figure in East Asian traditions.

Clay is also central to many creation myths across the globe, reinforcing the imagery of man emanating from clay. In many parts of India and Nepal, the potter, in fact, is called Prajapati, or the creator, because he is the shaper of the clay. Clay is the earth itself, one which everyday reveals to us the eternal cycle of birth, death and regeneration, a cycle that creation is also subject to according to several eastern beliefs.

In one creation myth of Manipur, for example, the earthen pot is the metaphor for the womb. As a result of prayer, a golden child emerges from a clay pitcher and is responsible for populating the water, air and earth with living creatures, before he finally creates the human being. Even today, pottery plays an important role in rituals. For example, the placenta of the new born child is kept in an earthen pot, to affirm the sanctity of childbirth in creation. Such instances abound which link creation myths with present-day beliefs and practices.

The Santhals of Bengal, prolific in their poetry and music, use the occasion of marriage to sing their songs of cosmology.  Marriage, a union of opposites without which no creation happens, is seen in the larger context of the creation of the world. Long ago, the Santhals sing, the sun was above the sea in the sky and the sun became angry living in the dark and his anger produced light.

Another marriage song is about how the Supreme Being, who failing to create man, instead creates two celestial birds, Has and Hasin, who boldly decide to perch on their very creator’s head.

Water is above, it is below the sky.
The two, the Has and the Hasin weep
Where will they sit, where will they sleep?
The Has and Hasin are not tired of flying
They will sit on the head of god, they will sleep there!
The two, the Has and the Hasin are alive!

So rich and vivacious and free is the poetry of creation!

The tribal faiths of the region, for example, attain a generally frictionless merging of very ancient indigenous beliefs with the rituals and lore of Hinduism and other religions. Some say that the universe was hatched out of an enormous egg, while many refer to an unending expanse of water on whose surface earth was formed by divine agents using diverse means.

Verrier Elwin, in his book, Bondo Highlander, on the small Bondo hill-tribe in Orissa, gives an interesting account of their relationship with the ‘immortals’  based on their unusually large range of creation myths. In fact, not only was the world created, the stories tell of how it was recreated several times over. One of them, common with those of several Indian tribes, recounts of how the original world was submerged in a great flood and then had to be reconstructed. These different strata of myth eventually constitute a basis for personal conduct and social interaction in their daily lives, their ethics, and which is the cornerstone of their unique culture.

The Bondos shared some of their creation myths with other tribal communities, while at the same time incorporating into their traditions a motif drawn from the Rig Vedic hymn about the cosmic man, the  ‘Purusha Sukta’ in which the human form itself transforms into the material universe.

While it is said that there are as many cosmogonic myths as there are human cultures, it is fascinating to observe some common traits in those spanning several communities. This is particularly noticeable of the tribal cultures of India, although there does not seem to have been much interaction amongst them given their geographical isolation. It is also worth noting, that our tribes did not restrict themselves to just one creation myth each, but in full and unrestricted fecundity ascribed many stories and feats to their respective Mahaprabhus and Bada Devs.

The indigenous mythology and folklore of central India, for example, is most fascinating, laced as it is with humour and generosity. The story of how Bada Dev, sitting on a lotus leaf, decided one day to create the world is told with much vigor and rich gesture. The crow, the crab, the earthworm and the spider are critical to Bada Dev’s enterprise.  How the crow gets the earthworm to spit out the soil, which is the latter’s food, is told with several variations by several tribes. When there was just water and water everywhere, without this soil how could the earth be shaped, even by the great Bada Dev himself?

The mythologies and cosmogonic narratives of the peoples of this subcontinent are so vibrant and diverse that they reflect and explain, even to this day, their distinct socio-cultural values and preferences.  According to the Todas, a tribe in the Nilgiris, the divine being first created their special breed of buffalos and only then made the first human, a Toda. Other breeds of buffaloes and men do not seem to inspire great telling.

In the many forests and hills of India, myths abounded about the beginning of things when the world was not and later when the world was still young. Of how in the beginning, people remained young forever and did not know what it meant to weep. At that time, death had no place. But then people began to grow old and their sorrows increased. It was death that then relieved them of the burden of having to live too long. But again death was not the end of things. Villages exist beyond, much like our own villages, and we are all headed there. In the wisdom of creation, both habitations were planned because the beginning, in its exuberance, could not countenance an absolute end.

The creation myths therefore also tell us a lot about how a people think, how they feel and how they react during the great crises of their lives. In a very broad sense, it tells of an individual and his setting, and how no person can be entirely extracted from his background.

The South Asian tradition has generally been very accommodating to myths, with its philosophical adherence to the contrast between the One and its manifestation as the Many, and the search for unity in a pluralistic reality. Thus we are the inheritors of an exuberant mythology that has been an inexhaustible source for many story-tellers across the world.  Further, if this region is rich in dance, drama and music, it is because our myths have provided their basic sustenance.

In this subcontinent, with each community so prolific in art and expression, the documentation and study of the myths of creation of our region demands attention. Our myths can help explain how our people revel in their uniqueness and how they engage with the other, all contributing to the whole. We need to gather our myths and we need to read them.

Within the SAARC region itself, there are government and non-government bodies that have attempted to compile the creation myths of the different peoples of this region. These efforts are, however, fragmented and of inadequate scope. There is no authoritative compendium of these myths or any concerted effort to study them and compare their evolution. It would be an interesting project reflecting the diverse cultural streams of South Asia, narrations of what our ancestors and the ancestors of our ancestors imagined of our beginnings. And it needs to be done before these myths get completely eradicated from our memories.

Scholars have acknowledged the dynamic link between cosmogonic myths, the body of other myths and a community’s cultural expression. Preserving these myths is not about creating regional and ethnic compartments. It is instead a call to recognize their value in understanding how ethnic divergence is valid and can come together in the human articulation and interpretation of the yet unknown.

The Nasadiya Suktam reaches its poetic climax in magnificent doubt — Whence this creation? He who surveys it all from the highest heaven, perhaps He knows. Or perhaps He does not.

Therefore, till He knows, or at least till we do, we have to keep each of humanity’s creation myths alive. Till then, let us not judge any of them to be naïve, simplistic or irrelevant. One creation myth is not more authentic than another because it is better told or told by a larger number. Each, after all, resonates with human experience and imagination, and is necessarily complex and multi-layered. And since we are united in our longing even if differing in our verbalization, it is enriching for all to be knit together in this ceaseless imagining of our common beginning.

Our myths are real, because they still have ethical and cultural value, and are a great testimony to our plurality. But we face the danger of losing them because of the reasons that most of us are well aware of. Poverty, loss of livelihood, relocation, ignorance and indifference of the state and the media, the ubiquitous vehemence of corporate-sponsored entertainment, along with lack of encouragement and support for local initiatives are destroying this vast mosaic of myths across our countries.

The great cultural diversity of the region and our millennial traditions are fading because the power to make decisions vests with the city dwellers, those who have forgotten the magic of myth and the allegorical power of ancient knowledge.

We come from an infinity of starting points, of origins and of beliefs. It is important to nurture this prolific creativity lest all of us grow tediously alike. It is important, therefore, to grow to like the other and to respect the other, so as to keep the infinity intact, to keep alive the validity of wonder. To say, I am creative because you have been. I am because you are.

Our beginnings may well be hidden in our myths. Our future is certainly going to be colourless if we decimate their abundance with our insensitivity, greed and the lazy need for uniformity.

Let us please not forsake the myth maker and the myth teller.

*Celestial Fireworks

Like an Independence Day fireworks display, a young, glittering collection of stars looks like an aerial burst. The cluster is surrounded by clouds of interstellar gas and dust — the raw material for new star formation. The nebula, located 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina, contains a central cluster of huge, hot stars, called NGC 3603.

This environment is not as peaceful as it looks. Ultraviolet radiation and violent stellar winds have blown out an enormous cavity in the gas and dust enveloping the cluster, providing an unobstructed view of the cluster.

Most of the stars in the cluster were born around the same time but differ in size, mass, temperature, and color. The course of a star’s life is determined by its mass, so a cluster of a given age will contain stars in various stages of their lives, giving an opportunity for detailed analyses of stellar life cycles. NGC 3603 also contains some of the most massive stars known. These huge stars live fast and die young, burning through their hydrogen fuel quickly and ultimately ending their lives in supernova explosions.

Star clusters like NGC 3603 provide important clues to understanding the origin of massive star formation in the early, distant universe. Astronomers also use massive clusters to study distant starbursts that occur when galaxies collide, igniting a flurry of star formation. The proximity of NGC 3603 makes it an excellent lab for studying such distant and momentous events.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, R. O’Connell (University of Virginia), F. Paresce (National Institute for Astrophysics, Bologna, Italy), E. Young (Universities Space Research Association/Ames Research Center), the WFC3 Science Oversight Committee, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


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