Modern Cosmology & Vedanta (1)- Does the universe have a beginning?

Mandala of the universe by Matthieu Ricard

Mandala of the universe by Matthieu Ricard

We (Neema & Surya) have often been asked about the position of Vedanta on the origin of the universe and more specifically the Big Bang theory. We decided to address this question in the form of a live conversation; the result is the following animated dialogue. The second part should follow soon…

Question: In the field of cosmology, Big Bang is the theory that best explains the formation of the universe. It is accepted by the majority of scientists and stands until now confirmed by various empirical data and experiments. It says in short that the universe was created about 14 billions years ago as an unimaginably small, dense and hot concentration of energy exploded, creating in the process time, space and matter.

What does Vedanta have to say about the beginning of the universe? Does the universe have a beginning?

Answer: There are two aspects to answering this question. One, for Vedanta, the universe is cyclical in nature, meaning there are cycles of manifestation and resolution. A given manifestation of the universe follows an order which can be recognized in the form of various laws that exist in the universe. Because of the presence of the order, science has been able to arrive at the beginning of the present cycle of creation. It is quite amazing how scientits could trace back the beginning of the universe… The story is that, everything began 14 billion years ago; the whole universe expanded after the creation of time and space and became more and more organized and complex. The universe got differentiated into matter as the temperature of the universe cooled down; this led to the emergence of elementary particles of matter such as quarks and electrons, which further caused creation of stars, galaxies, planets, the beginning of life on Earth up to the birth of human beings.

According to us, what astrophysicists and cosmologists have discovered during the twentieth century is only the story of this present cycle of creation. In our vision, this is not the beginning of the universe; there have been infinite cycles of creation and dissolution of the universe. The entire universe was indeed in an unmanifest condition before the current manifestation, and will again become unmanifest. This is how we think about the creation.

The position that we hold is supported by examination of what is present now and at any given point in time. If you look at the present, things are constantly shifting from an unmanifest to a manifest condition. Even while the universe is there, every fraction of a second, things which are not manifest are becoming manifest either one second later or several thousands or even millions years from now. There is nothing like a static universe. It is true at the level of the cells of our body and also for all tiny particles constituting any object, which appear and disappear all the time; in fact we can say that everything is changing constantly. In the process, things which are not manifest now become manifest.

You can then transpose what is happening now to the beginning of time itself. There must have been something even before the Big Bang. There must be something which is the origin of this immense primordial energy. Logically, it cannot come from nothing. Then, what is the cause of this energy itself?

Physicists say that they can only describe what happened 10-43 seconds after this immense explosion, which is called the Planck time, when the diameter of the universe was 10-33 centimeters, the Planck length. Science admits it does not know what is the nature of the universe or its characteristics before the Planck time. Known physical laws are not valid any more behind the ‘wall of Planck’.

What we say is that you cannot postulate there was nothing and that everything came out of nothing. The universe must have been there in a potential form which then manifested in the form of the universe according to a certain order. It is because of the presence of an order that science can trace back what happened but only to the accuracy of 10-43 seconds ‘after’ the big bang.

Question: You are right, physicists say that they cannot arrive at the source or the origin of the universe because the mathematical models they have, with the extreme conditions that were existing at that time, are not applicable and therefore find their limit. This is why cosmologists say that modern physics have not found the key to the origin of the universe, the ultimate cause but can only describe its early beginnings. Etienne Klein, who is a French physicist at the prestigious CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) says,

We very often mix the origin and the beginning. Indeed when one listens to those who speak about the origin of the universe, time, matter or life, one rapidly discovers that they speak mainly and only about beginnings, evolutions, genealogies.

Thus, the Big Bang theory does not reveal the absolute origin of the universe but rather the events which go along with the decrease of the temperature of the universe. Etienne Klein adds that,

Telling a story [of the universe] is not equivalent to revealing its origin. Science only evokes dates of beginning, or the contexts or its first appearance. Because it needs, to build upon something that is ‘already there’.

Therefore the very origin of the universe itself is not arrived at by the theory of Big Bang. This theory only describes what happened a few seconds after the Big Bang. Still, why should the universe be cyclical and not have any beginning? Why do we transfer the question of origin to previous cycles, which are, if I understood well, infinite in number? It seems easy to do that and claim that everything is cyclical and use the egg-chicken or seed-tree analogy to support this statement. Is there any reason that would make us understand why it is tenable?

Answer: This is precisely the second aspect I wanted to speak about. First I said that with reference to the universe, we talk about the cyclical nature of universe. While doing so, we did not yet question how real the world is. If the world is absolutely real then it must have a real beginning and hence, you should be able to go back in a linear fashion and find the origin of the universe. If we discover that the world is not as real as what we think, we need not look for a linear answer to the question of the origin of the universe. Vedanta unfolds that even though this universe is cyclical in nature and follows an order because of which we are able to describe with precision and trace back to few moments after the big bang, when we examine the reality, we find that there is no ‘real’ creation at all…

How is this tenable? Let us look at anything here and now, whether it is a sentient being or an insentient object. It all resolves into something else. If we take a table as an example, table has no existence apart from the wood it is created from. The wood itself has no existence other than the molecules the tree is made of. The molecules are themselves nothing but atoms, and then particles. When you reach the level of particles, you cannot find any tangible or solid basic substance about which you can say categorically that this is the building block of matter, the ultimate substance from which everything is made. It means that when you look at things which are manifest, you find that they themselves resolve into something else and again something else. Ultimately, you are not able to say what is the substance from which comes everything that is manifest.

Vedanta says that when we look in to things that are here and now, we can appreciate the presence of all pervading intelligence that appears simultaneously as atoms, molecules, fibers, wood and table. The source of all manifestation is only that all knowledge and power from which everything has come. Things which are not manifest right now will come to manifest next second or in 1 million years according to a certain order which rests ultimately in all knowledge and power. It is important to understand that this all knowledge and power is what brings forth cycles of manifestation and before any manifestation, it is very much present but as potential which is unmanifest. Vedanta gives us the useful analogy of the dream world we create several times during the night to assimilate this fact. From deep sleep, where our own knowledge rests in an unmanifest condition, comes the dream world, which is only the manifestation of our knowledge and power to create. The dream world goes back to a potential undifferentiated state, in deep sleep, where our knowledge is very much present in a latent condition, before we make the next dream world appear.

Question: There are two ideas in what you said. First, there is no beginning because the creation is cyclical. The other is that the universe is not as real as we think. What is the link between these two ideas? In what sense the idea of all knowledge and power can lead us to appreciate that there is no real creation? Can you elaborate on that?

Answer: We do not accept the world as having an absolute reality. We say that the universe is mithya in terms of reality; as it depends upon all knowledge and power. When we speak about cycles of creation, we say that this all knowledge and power when it manifests in names and forms (we call it creation of universe) and when it goes to unmanifest (we call it resolution of the universe),

This understanding of the nature of the universe is supported when you observe what is here and now. While the creation is there, as indicated through the example of table, this table is nothing but molecules, atoms, particles etc. All the way, the creation that we say is manifest is found to be mithya in terms of its reality. If everything is mithya, has a dependent reality, we need to know what is it that it depends upon, ultimately.

To this, science has no answer because it tries to go back in a linear manner to find the first cause. In fact, if we examine the nature of universe there is no linearity anywhere. For example, we can not find the beginning of anything in the universe, a river, a human being, a flower, etc. It is like a child who would ask you what is causing the rain. Then you have to say the water in the clouds. What is the origin of water? You have to say rivers. What is the origin of rivers? Some smaller rivers, and so on until you are stuck by your child persistence.

While the universe exists, the sun exists, what is the first cause, the first father, the first cell, you cannot find. What we talk about holds, because the whole universe is mithya; it resolves only in all knowledge and all power which is everything, and which was there even before the universe got manifested. That ‘entity’ exists always. There is no beginning for this ‘entity’.

If I say everything resolves in all knowledge and power, you could very well ask when did this entity itself begin? This is again coming from the same linear type of thinking. We say that this all knowledge and power is always there, it does not depend upon the creation. When it manifests as names and forms we call it creation, and again becomes unmanifest and again manifest. This is what we mean by one reality (all knowledge and power) manifesting (creation) and un-manifesting (resolution) in cyclical way.

This postulation works even when you look at things here and right now. You have all knowledge and power within which at every point in time there is manifest and unmanifest. If I cannot not find the beginning of anything in the world here and if I postulate a beginning for the universe, I am bound to be confronted with contradiction which is irresolvable.

When I look into this manifestation, I find only all knowledge and power. And within the so called manifest creation also, what I find is an on going interplay of manifest and unmanifest. So that kind of understanding with reference to the creation is very much in keeping with what we discover now. This is how Vedanta treats the question of the beginning of universe.

Question: Even though you say there is no beginning of the universe, still you postulate that there is some kind of principle that you name all knowledge and all power which  is manifest as the universe and which is also what brings the universe itself to manifest from an unmanifest condition.

The word all intelligence or knowledge you are using is loaded with some connotations which makes it difficult to accept. In western philosophy, one of the attempts to prove the existence of a creator of the universe was based on the argument that since there is so much harmony, complexity, and order present in the universe, there must be necessarily an intelligent creator for it. This so called teleological argument (or argument by design to prove the existence of God from the fact the universe is ordered) is today much debated because of the progress of science. What is surprising is that even though you say that the universe does not have a beginning in time, contrary to the prevalent concepts of creation in Judeo-Christian theologies, Vedanta seems to have a quite similar view of the nature of the creator or God when it uses the terms ‘all knowledge and all power’. Then, you have to tell us more about the nature of this creator of the universe according to Vedanta. Is it a personified God as described by Judeo-Christian theologies or some principle present everywhere in the universe? What is exactly this all knowledge and power? And what is its relation with the universe?

Answer: This is a good point. Let us examine the idea of ‘all knowledge and all power’ further. When you see something that is intelligently put together, you suppose that it has a creator. For example, if you see a watch, then it is not difficult to imagine that there must be a creator, even if you have not seen him/her. It is not wrong to assume that there must be a creator somewhere or even several creators scattered in different locations who coordinated their work to create the watch.

In the case of the whole creation, you cannot assume the presence of a person somewhere because you cannot find it locally. Still, humanity has to somehow account for the creator for the creation which constitutes intricate arrangements, an amazing complexity, predictability, and presence of laws governing the behavior of everything. Since people could not find anybody locally, then they naturally turned their faces towards the sky and said the creator must be residing up, somewhere, in heaven. And seated in heaven, God created the universe. This is a general belief of so many people; humanity seems to be committed to a God sitting somewhere.

This is something that we do not accept. Because we can ask the question if God seated in heaven created the world, who created the heaven? And if you say God created the heaven, we can ask ‘where was God before he created the heaven?’ Another problem is that if you insist that God is located in a physical place in the universe, it is limited and must have a form. What form will you give to God? Male or female or something else? Also, an entity who is in time and space framework, with a particular form, cannot be told to be omniscient and omnipotent. In trying to answer these questions, one can get into some logical absurdities.

The nature of the cause of the universe according to Vedanta is completely different. What we say is that any creation has two kinds of causes. A material and an efficient cause. According to Vedanta the creator is both efficient and the material cause of the creation. To understand this, let us come back to our example of a watch; a person is the efficient cause (creator) of the watch while the wires, steel, etc. are its material cause. Just as creator(s) of the watch must have adequate knowledge and capacity to create the watch, the creator of the whole universe must have all knowledge and capacity to create the whole universe.

The pertinent question to ask here is: what is the material out of which the universe was created by the efficient cause of the universe? If you say the material already existed, then the creation is already there and somebody else has created the material. Then you have to ask who has created that material? There is another God who created the material for this God to use it! When you consider only the efficient cause and do not consider the material cause, you again get into problems…This is why we say that material cause cannot be other than the efficient cause – all knowledge and power. At the time of the manifestation of the universe, all knowledge and power becomes the material cause. Being the material cause, it can not be away from creation like wires and metals, etc, from which watch is made, cannot be away from the watch.

If all knowledge and power is not only the efficient cause but also the material cause of the universe, then it must necessarily be everywhere in the creation. This is what Vedanta says. God is not somebody sitting some where, it is not a given thing or entity. All what is here is only knowledge which is manifest in different names and forms. If all knowledge and power is the material cause, then you should be able to see it everywhere. You could ask, ‘Why do not I see it anywhere, I see only animals, living beings, mountains, rivers, etc. I do not see all knowledge and power!’ Vedanta makes you see that. Even if what you see are forms, if you look at them closely, everything, as I said before, is mithya; it ultimately resolves in all knowledge and power. This all knowledge and power manifests through an order so that the world appears with all its varieties, qualities, differences, etc. which depend only upon one thing that is there. This is our understanding of the cause of the universe.

End of part 1

Is all knowledge and power the final reality ?

Discover the answer in part (2), which will be posted soon…

Go further with Discover Vedanta, the yoga of objectivity

[1] The equation ‘You are that’, the cause of the universe

[2] The equation ‘You are that’, the nature of ‘that’

[3] Article in pdf format, The vedic vision of God

[4] The crux of Vedanta, Orders of reality


5 responses to “Modern Cosmology & Vedanta (1)- Does the universe have a beginning?

  1. Interesting blog, I’ll try and spread the word.

  2. Do you think that a more palatable definition of the world could be “Anitya” (Impermanent) rather than “Mithya” (Illusory)?

    • Dear Sriram,

      Interesting point. Let me first clarify that mithya is a technical term in Vedanta that describes our understanding of the reality of an object. It does not mean an illusion, hallucination or a subjective reality as it is commonly believed.

      For example, when we say a pot (made of clay) is mithya, it simply means it does not exist independently from clay; it has no being apart from clay. The pot has a certain empirical reality that cannot be denied as illusory or subjective, because I can hold it and it carries water. But in terms of its reality, it is only a name for a form, whose truth is clay. Mithya is then ‘that which cannot be categorically said as being (absolutely) real, or as non existent or non-real’. It is a kind of in between reality, which we call the empirical reality.

      As I inquire into the whole universe with the help of the Upanishads, I can appreciate how everything is dependent upon something else for its being all the way. Let us go back to the example of clay, clay that we thought was real compared to pot, itself is mithya as it depends upon molecules, atoms, particles, etc. to take a modern physics approach. The same applies to every object including body, mind, etc. They are all only names and forms and hence, mithya in terms of reality.

      If this is understood, what about the word anitya, impermanent or subject to time? It is a very important word to describe the nature of things. It is true that everything is always changing, in constant flux; but it does necessarily indicate that even while an object is changing (like pot which is subject to time and changing), it really does not have any independent existence (like pot has no existence independent from clay). In other words, if we say everything is impermanent, we may still believe that there are tangible, solid things, real entities that are the ultimate building blocks of universe, which are changing and combining themselves all the time.

      In fact what we want to convey is that not only things are changing, but when we try to find what is it that is changing, you find everything depends upon the other thing, and we can not even find the final substance (which is building block) that is changing. Then, we say, everything depends only on all knowledge and power which is the building block for everything and not any given object. That is why it is so essential to have with us the term mithya in addition to anitya.

      For more details on the different orders of reality taught in Vedanta, you
      can visit this link


  3. On the similar lines of mithya and anitya, I often wonder why Buddhists end-up in “Shoonyata” rather than “Infineteness”. Shoonya is un-definable and so is Infinite, no boundaries. I would be more comfortable with the use of “ananta” than “shoonya”. Can you comment on this?

  4. Just found your site .. interesting.

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