Three Cosmogenic Myths by Dh. Ratnagarbha – an introduction to three of the most influential myths of the origin of the cosmos, and some thoughts on the influence they may have had on different civilisations.
Myths concerning the origin and purpose of the universe are certainly amongst the most fascinating to be found in the world’s ‘myth-kitty’ – to borrow Larkin’s memorable phrase. Whilst this treasure store can contain humour, satire, even rabelaisian farce, it is fundamentally a serious matter, and myths of creation especially so. I would suggest that such stories and images contain, in a highly condensed, implicit manner, the fundamental views that a people or a culture hold in common. To borrow a word sometimes used by modern scholars, in appreciating the myths of origin maintained by a culture one may come to understand a great deal about its imaginaire – that is the underlying views and images about the world and how it functions that underpin, and to a significant extent determine and construct, people’s everyday experience. For example, there have been groups of people in the past, in hellenistic Egypt, in the middle East, and elsewhere, who maintained that the physical universe was to be likened a gigantic prison, created by an evil and demented being to trap its unwitting inmates in an illusory reality. This ancient cosmogenic view appears to have made a remarkable comeback in the obsessions of some of the more extreme modern conspiracy theorists. In the ancient world it seems to have thrived mostly as a minority view, and almost certainly indicates some kind of despair or disillusionment with the wider culture and its values. On the other hand many other cultures, throughout history, have seen the entire cosmos as the creation of a beneficent deity, well adapted to our needs if only humanity will make good use of it. Such a view can survive external disasters – famine, plague and war – so long as an optimism about the overall teleology of history is maintained. Then there is the view that the universe simply arose from impersonal natural laws, which, in the West, goes back to the pre-socratics. Such naturalistic laws may be purely material, or, as in the Buddhist East, conceived more broadly in psycho-spiritual terms. In the past at least they have tended to go along with a cyclical view of time, articulated in terms of vast time scales, and to have bred… what? Resignation and political passivity is too extreme a diagnosis. A degree of simple serenity and cheerfulness unusual in monotheistic cultures? Perhaps. We are dealing here with thousands of years of cultural history, spread over a vast continent, and must be wary of glib generalisations; but equally clearly, images and ideas of this kind are not neutral things – they will certainly have had a profound effect on those who held them.
With this in mind, in this essay I will look at three of the most influential cosmogenic myths that human beings have devised and make some attempt to consider their spiritual and psychological ramifications. From this necessarily rather tentative and impressionistic exploration – for it is a task of extreme difficulty, to isolate the effects on a culture of one particular strand from the total body of understanding, lore, fable and fact maintained overall – I will draw some conclusions about the continued relevance of these ancient stories. Then briefly I will attempt to compare their subjective effects with the ways in which the dominant modern paradigm regarding the cosmos and its origin may be influencing, indeed moulding us all.
I have chosen to look at three ancient systems that I believe between them cover the main possibilities for cosmogenic myths. They can be summed up succinctly like this:
1. God made the cosmos and it is good, but it is only a shadow or a copy of the real thing.
2. An evil or ignorant god made the cosmos but he (or she) made a big mistake. It is to be understood as a trap or a prison.
3. We fabricated the cosmos ourselves out of ignorance. It is to be understood as being like an illusion conjured up by a magician.
So these, as should be clear, are the cosmogenies of Platonism, Gnosticism and Buddhism respectively. I would suggest that they are the developed, philosophical origin myths which have most influenced humanity over the last two and a half thousand years. Older creation myths, with their bewildering variety of gods and goddesses, not to mention the Book of Genesis with its single creator God, have continued to be significant of course. Even in the 21st century there are still large numbers of people – mostly living outside the big cities – with traditional beliefs in the creation of the world by various deities, or from impersonal mythic structures, such as a cosmic egg. And of course, many millions of people in the Americas, both urban and rural, are inclined to take the Christian creation myth as literal truth. Indeed, not only does the book of Genesis provide the central creation myth for Judaism and Christianity but the same story, in its essentials, is found in the Quran.
In keeping with the general style of the Quran this is not in the form of a connected narrative – there are scattered references to the biblical creation story throughout. Here Allah does not have a rest, after undertaking the Creation, on the 7th day (in fact Islamic scholars tend to be rather dismissive of the idea that God would need a rest). Also in contrast with Christian thinking the word used for day in the Quranic account can be interpreted flexibly to mean a very long period of time – i.e. a day in the life of God – and so Islamic scholars declare that the Quran can much more easily be fitted in with modern cosmological time scales than the Bible. In the garden of Eden, in the Quranic version, it is not the tree of knowledge of good and evil that is forbidden but the tree of Life. Eve is tempted by the prospect of the same immortality that the angels enjoy to eat the fruit of the tree. In the book of Genesis Adam and Eve have already been given immortality (which they lose when they are banished from the garden of Eden) but are tempted with the god-like knowledge to be obtained from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Much more could be said about this but it seems significant that in the Quran it is not the hunger for knowledge that brings sin and the fall from innocence into the created world, but a hubristic longing for God-like immortality.
In any case for both the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East it was the Platonic view of the universe that provided the intellectual underpinning to the simple story in Genesis, and for the better part of two millennia was the root source of more detailed, scholarly, philosophical accounts of the universe and man’s place within it. Thus it is the three narratives listed here, I would suggest, that have had the widest intellectual influence on human civilization before the modern era.
However, Gnostic dualism, with its sharply contrasted deities of light and darkness (strongly reminiscent of the stark, theistic dualism of pre-Islamic, Persian Zoroastrianism) has had, for the most part, a widely diffused, more underground influence. So in very broad terms one could say that Plato and the Buddha have divided the world between them, since the 3rd century before Christ. In fact it was only in the post-Alexandrian Greco-Bactrian kingdoms of present day Afghanistan that these two mingled and obviously influenced each other. By and large it is possible to say that these two systems have divided the entire Eurasian continent between them, with a rough faultline to the east of the Iranian plateau.1 The great 20th century mythographer Joseph Campbell summed up this situation in his celebrated study of world mythology The Masks of God:
The geographical divide between the Oriental and Occidental ranges of myth and ritual is the table land of Iran… throughout the Orient the idea prevails that the ultimate ground of being transcends thought, imaging, and definition. It cannot be qualified. Hence, to argue that God, man, or nature is good, just, merciful, or benign, is to fall short of the question. One could just as appropriately – or inappropriately – have argued, evil, unjust, merciless, or malignant. All such anthropomorphic predications screen or mask the actual enigma, which is absolutely beyond rational consideration; and yet, according to this view, precisely that enigma is the ultimate ground of being of each and every one of us – and of all things. the supreme aim of Oriental mythology, consequently, is not to establish as substantial any of its divinities or associated rites, but to render by means of these an experience that goes beyond: of identity with that Being of beings which is both immanent and transcendent yet neither is nor is not. Prayers and chants, images, temples, gods, sages, definitions, and cosmologies are about ferries to the shore of experience beyond the categories of thought, to be abandoned on arrival; for, as the Indian Kena Upanishad states: “To know is not to know, not to know is to know.”… In the Western ranges of mythological thought and imagery, on the other hand, whether in Europe or the Levant, the ground of being is normally personified as a creator, of whom man is the creature, and the two are not the same; so that here the function of myth and ritual cannot be to catalyze an experience of ineffable identity. Man alone, turned inward, according to this view can experience only his own creaturely soul, which may or may not be properly related to its Creator. the high function of occidental myth and ritual, consequently, is to establish a means of relationship of God to man and man to God.2
These days Campbell himself might be accused of orientalism in such passages, but one must, of course, bear in mind the milieu in which he was writing. His analysis of the tensions within the mythic structures of the West, of submission to the divine balanced against individualism, which he goes on to outline in this passage, still seems pertinent. But so far as the East goes one does detect here, and likewise in some of his lectures, a certain aura of mystification. Campbell almost appears to suggest that no one from east of Iran ever separated themselves from some mysterious ‘group mind’. As if Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism and dozens of other Eastern systems did not have, in their own ways, a deeply practical emphasis on individual ethical practice.
Nevertheless, it is certainly true that Buddhism has never had the interest in an objective cosmos constructed by some kind of external agency, or objective material laws, which has dominated the West in one way or another since the time of the pre-socratic philosophers of the 6th and 7th century BCE. And very broadly speaking it is reasonable to suggest that in the lands east of Iran it has long been held that the ultimate nature of reality is impersonal and utterly beyond definition, not to be pinned down by a set of deities or a system of ideas.
West of that axis or fault line, as already mentioned, since the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, classical Greek philosophy has been highly influential in both Europe and the Middle East. In terms of cosmology this came to fruition with the writings of Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE. Derived from Plato via Aristotle, the Ptolemaic model features concentric spheres surrounding a fixed Earth, and a complex system of epicycles, that is orbits within orbits rather like gear-wheels, to model the apparently wandering motions of the planets without deviating from a fundamental basis in the perfect form of the circle. Ptolemy’s system, together with the notion of creation by divine emanation in a series of descending levels, derived from Neoplatonism, provided the educated picture of the universe for both Christianity and Islam for the best part of two millennia. Likewise in the east from the time of the great Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka onwards – about 100 years after Alexander – the Buddhist worldview began to dominate the entire Eastern half of the Eurasian landmass, including eastern central Asia, and Southeast Asia (3).
The Buddhist Cosmos
Having divided the world between Buddha and Plato, so to speak, I will start with Buddhism, as the Awakened One lived about a century earlier than Plato, from 563 BCE to 483 BCE according to the usual chronology.
The Buddha, so far as we know, was simply not interested in the ultimate nature of the external universe. He seems to have strongly discouraged speculation about its ultimate boundaries – that is, about whether or not the cosmos is infinite and eternal. However, the Buddha is also represented as encouraging a view of the universe that expands the imagination with vast panoramas of space and time. According to all extant Buddhist traditions the universe is certainly extremely vast, with uncountable numbers of world systems like our own solar system. In one account (that of the Theravada school) a thousand world systems make up one small universe, a thousand small universes make up a middle-size universe, and a thousand middle-size universes make up a great universe, containing a billion world systems. As it happens scientists currently think there might be as many as 10 billion inhabitable planets in our galaxy, so the Buddhist tradition is certainly within the same order of magnitude as modern science in this regard. As already mentioned the Buddhist tradition refuses to speculate about the ultimate age of the universe but it is certainly regarded as being incalculably old as we shall see. Now, according to the Mahayana schools many of these billions of world systems contain Buddhas and advanced Bodhisattvas teaching via celestial bodies made of light. And in some cases these god-like beings create their own ‘pure lands’ where the faithful may be reborn in ideal circumstances. There is what might be termed a ‘visionary science fiction’ element to the later tradition. Nevertheless the principal focus of the entire tradition, as is well understood these days, is on how we create our suffering moment by moment, in a causal nexus of fettering mental events. Then, the path or system of practice, the Dharma, consists in methods for reducing and then stopping completely that suffering and reaching Nirvana, a state of liberation which is timeless, unconditioned and beyond the endless cycles of death and rebirth.
According to the Pali Suttas (the most frequently studied canon of early Buddhist texts) our deluded consciousness constructs our experience in terms of mental states and objects (nama and rupa are the Pali terms); an immediate consciousness of apparently objective objects gives rise to more complex perceptual labelling, together with feelings of pleasure or pain, which in turn give rise to tangled emotions of grasping or aversion, and chains of proliferating thoughts. But such compulsive chains of mental events, based as they are on the fundamental delusion of a fixed sense of ‘Me-ness’ or selfhood, have at best no more than a provisional, conventional truth to them. The implication of this is that whatever we experience as being an objective world ‘out there’, is not literally non-existent, but has an illusory quality, it is neither truly existent nor yet non-existent, as the Buddha makes clear in the Kaccayanagotta Sutta, from Samyutta Nikaya section of the Pali Canon:
By & large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. (SN 12:15 translated by Thanissaro Bikkhu.)
Thus it is made clear that the way the cosmos appears to us (and for that matter the way our own mind appears to us) moment by moment is largely a fabrication of the heart/mind, which hungers for and grasps after fixed, independent entities. However, from a broader, collective-temporal perspective, as we will see, the cosmos is best understood, so far as the Buddhist tradition is concerned, as the creation of natural, psycho-spiritual laws, reaching over vast periods of time.
Nevertheless in the suttas these central teachings do not have a cosmological focus. It is more accurate to say that the links of ‘dependent origination’ are a technical description, for practical purposes, of how the mind works. The question of the exact ontological and epistemological status of rupa, that is the apparently objective formal content of any perceptual situation (colours, shapes, sounds, positions in space etc) does not get addressed directly in the suttas, as it is not considered to be of practical relevance. Nevertheless there is a general sense that it is mind, not matter and the laws of nature, that is the most important determining aspect of reality. As the first stanza of the Dhammapada (that famous collection of aphorisms from the suttas) says: ‘All states of being are determined by mind, it is mind that leads the way.’ (4).
But can Nirvana itself be understood as a cosmological principle? In Nirvana, it is said, all the normal functions of human consciousness have ceased as defining characteristics. From one point of view consciousness itself has ceased – the Buddha himself is still represented as very clearly aware of people and things, but this activity no longer defines what He really is: He is ‘the trackless one’ as the Dhammapada says. What then is Nirvana? It is, so the suttas tell us repeatedly, the utter cessation of the suffering of conditioned existence, of the endless round of rebirths. It is also ‘the deathless’ – permanent, unfabricated, uncaused, undivided, unarisen, beyond death and birth, neither eternal existence, nor yet cessation or non existence, and completely beyond all possible conceptual formulations. So this Nirvana is clearly not a cosmological principle in the usual sense. It is not said to be the true reality that is behind, or within, the nexus of unenlightened mental events. According to the Pali scholastic tradition – starting with the very early and canonical systemization of the sutta material contained in what is known as the Abhidhamma basket or pitaka – Nirvana gives objective knowledge of the fundamental constituents of reality, which are not things and persons but momentary, conditioned dhammas, or events, some of which are material and some mental. Thus, in the Abhidhamma, rupa has been concretized to some extent. It is now definitely impersonal and objective, if knowable only by means of direct spiritual perception. Nirvana is its own unique dhamma: eternal, unitary (not put together, asanskrta) and unarisen. So there cannot in this view of things be a separate, merely personal Nirvana ‘experience’ for each and every Buddha. But at the same time this non-dual nibbana (to use the actual Pali word rather than the more widely known Sanskrit term) is an absolute with a strong bias towards the practical, as it were ‘existential’, priority of escaping the flawed, often miserable contingencies of human life. It is a state or ‘sphere’ in the broadest possible sense, and, like the One of Plato’s Parmenides, utterly beyond being and non being.
It was only much later in Buddhist history that the notion of Enlightenment as a certain kind of consciousness arose. The notion of all dhammas as being simply mind apprehending mind (subject and object, ‘grasper’ and ‘gasped’ being but provisional conventions) was advanced by what later became the Yogachara school from the 2nd Century CE onwards. Later still, and especially in China and Tibet some masters went a stage further and promulgated the notion that the special consciousness of Nirvana, pure, blissful and luminous, which knows or is this non-duality of mind and object, was in some sense the basic ground or root of all appearances. This naturally led to an increased stress on the essentially illusory nature of the phenomenal world. Whilst this is arguably a dilution by, or a productive compromise with, Brahminical Vedantic notions, the early (essentially pre-Hindu) suttas also give hints in this direction. However, these are no more than poetic hints; the suttas scrupulously avoid positing as a definite metaphysical entity any kind of reified, absolute consciousness.
There is however a more definitely cosmological tradition to be mentioned here. In the ancient scholarly commentaries of the Pali tradition, and similarly in the commentaries of the other main exegetical traditions, it is said that it is the aggregate of the deluded streams of consciousness within any world system that ultimately give rise to the objective universe, which is either very impure or relatively pure, depending on the collective karma of the beings that inhabit a world. Consciousness is indeed the primary creative force in Buddhism. However the power behind any particular material world system is simply a collective aggregate of millions upon millions of variations on the very same consciousness that we ourselves experience moment by moment. (It should be borne in mind, however, that one’s stream of consciousness, which is said to contain the accumulated good and bad karma of untold life times, would encompass in latent form much that is normally hidden from us.) Such a non-materialist viewpoint, while being at the same time naturalistic, avoiding any notion of divine fiat, is indeed very foreign to western ways of thinking, whether ancient or modern. To modern ways of thinking, whilst being a stimulating and provocative view, it may suffer from the defect of proposing a ‘big picture’, whilst failing to identify the mechanism that brings it about.
In fact this cosmological theory is simply an extension of the karma theory, in which the effects of ethical or unethical conduct act like seeds in the mind, and determine future lives. These ethical seeds, or streams of influence, have a collective as well as an individual effect and are capable, when similar karmic inheritance is shared by a large number of minds, of being, over the longest time scales, the primary determinant in the arising of an entire world, or loka, heavenly, hellish or in between. How exactly this happens is not explained nor intended to be. There is a parallel here with the platonic World Soul, which similarly is a collective entity that is the underlying cause of the structure of the material universe. However, the World Soul is a benign entity, responsible for impressing the divine, intellectual Forms on matter so far as is possible. In Buddhism the collective level of mind contains volitional karmic energy, both good and bad, and is altogether a more ambivalent beast. As regards exactly how this all works one needs to accept that for the traditional follower of the Buddha, similarly to other religions, certain matters are largely hidden from the worldly mind, and cannot be understood properly until one has achieved a high degree of spiritual insight.
Along with this fairly austere view of cosmogenis, the Mahayana schools from their earlier days around the second century CE, had a parallel view based on what they regarded as the almost unlimited magical powers of cosmic or celestial Buddhas (the historical Buddha being simply one particular time-limited representative of this celestial host) and advanced Bodhisattvas. This is the mythology of the pure land, in which a Buddha or other advanced being is able by their power of mental concentration to create an entire world system, which is said to provide near perfect conditions for unenlightened beings to practice within. Such pure lands were the focus of intense religious aspiration towards rebirth there after death, and were seen as being very far distant, ‘in a galaxy far, far away,’ so to speak (the most well known example Sukhavati, the blissful pure land of the Buddha of infinite light Amitabha, being a case in point). But it was a natural extension to this mythos to suggest (as in the very popular and fairly early Mahayana text, the Vimalakirti Nirdesa) that even our own world might be a pure land created by Buddha Sakyamuni, or his celestial counterpart, to provide us all with ideal conditions for Buddhist practice. The merely apparent lack of perfection hereabouts being simply what we need to mature our weak practice of the Way! This view, only mentioned in passing occasionally, was clearly not intended as a serious refutation of the idea that the universe is essentially a condensation of our own karmic volitions, but as an alternative (one supposes more mythical or imaginative) view to run in parallel with it. The Avatamsaka Sutra, often seen as the pinnacle of Mahayana sutras, does indeed run these two views very closely in parallel. In its all embracing, paradoxical profundity this sutra does not see any problem with the apparent contradiction involved between on the one hand the purely automatic operations of the impersonal law of karma, ‘built in’ to the nature of things, and giving rise to external conditions, as delineated since the early days of Buddhism; and on the other a tailored environment, pure yet apparently impure, produced by an apparently external ‘magical’ power, and designed to facilitate the spiritual growth of its inhabitants. Karmic consequences after all are understood as simply ‘what happens’ and not necessarily designed to facilitate anything, as we pragmatically know to be the case – people often suffer far more than they can bear and this may bring out the worst rather than the best in their character. Incidentally, if one were to consider these two views as somehow illustrating different perspectives on the same process, such that the karmic results of skilful and unskilful actions were somehow being ‘tailored’ by an omniscient agency, then one would arrive at something like the immanent, providential intelligence, woven through the material universe, posited by the Stoics.
Perhaps the most important point to bear in mind amidst these dizzying perspectives is that in neither the austere early nor the later more speculative traditions regarding ultimate Reality, are the Buddha or Nirvana seen as the personal, volitional, creative power behind the actual, concrete state of things. Even the mythical world-creating Buddhas, credited with such miraculous powers in a somewhat off-hand way by the Mahayana, are not said to have created the conscious beings within those worlds – thus severely curtailing their absolute creative agency within the phenomenal order. Generally speaking the notion of the pure land seems to function simply as an encouragement to those for whom Enlightenment by one’s own efforts seems far away, but also as a metaphor pointing to the renovation of perception – one’s world here and now would be pure if perceived in the right way. In any case, more definitely theistic cosmogenic notions, with their inherent, arguably highly productive tensions, regarding the creation of a world infested with evil by a perfect being or principal, are largely absent in Buddhism.
However, this is not the full story. In addition to the cosmic theory of collective karma presented in the commentarial tradition, the suttas themselves contain some simple, colourful stories and images, regarding the universe at large, which certainly have broad cosmological import. Firstly and most importantly, the Buddha is presented in many suttas as painting a picture of the external cosmos as being very, very old. The key concept here is the kalpa, which is roughly 16 million years according to some traditions. A ‘Maha-kalpa’ (kalpa is Sanskrit, the Pali word is kappa) which is the equivalent of 80,000 standard kalpas is a staggeringly long period of time – about 1.3 trillion years according to one strand of the Pali scholasticism. This is in fact about 100 times greater than the scientific consensus on the current age of the universe, which is ‘only’ about 13.8 billion years – but of course scientists don’t know how much longer it might last – there isn’t even a consensus estimate on that tricky topic, as modern cosmological theories about how and when the universe might end are varied and highly speculative. In the Pali suttas, instead of wielding very large numbers the Buddha puts forward a colourful simile to try and convey some sense of the vast period of time of the maha-kalpa.
Imagine a huge lump of rock, the Buddha declares in the Samyutta Nikaya section of the Pali Canon:
—a league long, a league wide, a league high, uncracked, uncavitied, a single mass—and a man would come along once every hundred years and rub it once with a Kāsi cloth. More quickly would that great mountain of rock waste away and be consumed by that effort, but not the eon. That’s how long, monk, an eon is. And of eons of such length, not just one eon has been wandered-through, not just one hundred eons have been wandered-through, not just one thousand eons have been wandered-through, not just one hundred-thousand eons have been wandered-through. (5)
We see here clearly that cosmological speculation is not the focus of these mind boggling numbers. The Buddha as represented here wishes his monks to understand the universe in a very personal way. Their mind stream has wandered blindly and painfully through endless kalpas, the only answer is the final escape of Nirvana. Elsewhere in the suttas it is revealed that there are virtually infinite numbers of world systems, each with its own sun, moon, earth and continents etc, and each one of which lasts for a maha–kalpa, before being consumed in a great fire at the end of the age. This is all somewhat reminiscent of the vistas opened up by modern cosmology. However, within each world system, a simple geocentric, effectively geo-stationary, picture is painted. The Earth itself, in the suttas, is considered to be a flat disc with the continents arranged around seven rings of mountains centered, like a terrestrial mandala, on a gigantic central mountain – mount Meru. Above Meru is a complex hierarchical system of deva-realms or heavens of increasing subtlety and luminosity. Below are realms of various demons and then finally, the dark hell realms, where punishments are just as unbearable as in the Christian hells, and of long (depending on the severity of the sins committed) but certainly finite duration. Clearly, although it was worked out in great detail in the Abhidhamma tradition and then in later commentaries, this is a purely mythical picture, much less physically accurate than the spherical Earth pictured by the Greeks. Nevertheless, compared to the single, tidily arranged universe of Plato the ancient Indian multiverse is, I would suggest, a vast, terrifying and sublime picture.
The Hindu vision of the universe is similar except that the Vedic commentaries give the gods a grand part in the cosmic drama. By contrast the complex cosmology developed in the Abhidharma tradition has its roots in suttas whose intention appears to be partly satirical. This comes out most clearly in the Agganna Sutta (6). According to this sutta at the end of an age one of the infinite number of world systems will contract, then go up in flame and be destroyed. Sensibly nearly all of the beings in that universe migrate to a very exalted formless, heavenly realm, which escapes the great conflagration, and where they remain for millions of years in a blissful existence. However they are not immortal gods. Eventually, because of unresolved karma, they start to get interested in the residue of materiality, which is just a sort of black soup, a primordial substrate. As they do this substrate begins to solidify and condense into a new universe. Then, one of the most powerful gods falls out of the highest, formless heaven into the most ethereal level of this new universe, a kind of heavenly mansion. Just as this god is beginning to feel lonely, some other beings, who have also exhausted their top level karma, also fall down into the heavenly mansion. The first god thinks that he must have created them and proclaims himself to be the omnipotent, almighty God. As he had the good fortune to have got there first the other gods tend to the conclusion that he must be right and begin to worship him as the one supreme deity. (There are strong parallels with gnosticism here as we will see). After a few more million years in the heavenly mansion, at the top of the new universe, the gods begin to get more interested in its lower levels. Eventually they descend down to the new earth and start to feed on the fertile, nutritious scum which is condensing on the surface of the primal soup. Later on proper soil and plants begin to appear on the earth. As the material universe evolves, the gods devolve, their bodies get thicker and heavier, they divide into male and female, and so the human race is formed. The various different castes arise simply from decisions made in the community, as some people become traders, while others sit around under trees reciting religious texts and so forth. Thus the former gods must go through many reincarnations on the human plane.
So this is certainly a creation myth of a kind. Not of the absolute beginning but of a cosmogenic process that is endlessly repeated, in which there is no God but where consciousness plays a key role. It seems that the principal aim of the story was to give a more naturalistic (less than flattering to the Brahmins) explanation of the origin of the caste system than that found in the Vedas. However, we must allow that the general picture of world systems evolving and then devolving over millions upon millions of years, while conscious beings, in contradistinction, devolve and then evolve back up to heaven, had its own pedagogical purpose. I suppose one might call it a view of ‘cyclical spiritual evolution’. It is designed to be spiritual in the sense of clearly not being a species of materialism, and yet natural, unfolding according to impersonal laws, but without any final end within time – short of the release of Nirvana – that the mind might erroneously grasp after. Such a view of the cosmos is consistently referred to throughout the suttas. Thus it is reasonable to state that Buddhism has a cyclical cosmogenic myth, albeit one that never received the kind of central focus accorded to the story in the book of Genesis. Nevertheless, it has been understood and referred to throughout Buddhist history. In Tibet for example, until the last few decades, as travellers’ tales reveal, most people took the picture of world systems, Mount Meru, kalpas etc, quite literally. It was the backdrop to their lives. (7)
The Platonic Universe
Plato’s cosmological ideas have some general similarity with Buddhism. According to Plato the universe is essentially a mixture of immaterial soul and physical matter. It is geocentric (though definitely single) and geo-stationary. Here the universe does have a definite beginning. The mixture of soul and matter was made right at the beginning of time. Individual souls are part of the larger World Soul, and they are reincarnated time and time again on the earth until they achieve perfection, and are able to return to their home in the stars. However, it is clear that Plato would have been scandalised by the Buddhists’ failure to take the gods seriously. One imagines he might even have banished them from his imaginary Republic along with the poets and other malcontents. For Plato it was natural enough to be somewhat sceptical about the gods and deities of the Homeric myths, with their incestuous dalliances and petty squabbles. However, these are not the true, philosophically significant gods. The highest gods live in a changeless, perfect world of immutable intellectual forms. For Plato, as is well known, the intellectual realm is something far beyond normal, rational thought. The forms grasped intuitively by intellect are beyond time as we know it. They are what is, and never becomes. They have true being. The created cosmos consists of that which is always becoming, but never is. It can only be the subject of opinion, never of true knowledge. I need not elaborate further on the fundamental principles of Platonic thought as many modern commentators have dealt with them insightfully.(8) Suffice it to say that this dualistic metaphysics is at the very heart of Platonism. By contrast, it is worth noting, the Buddha of the suttas rejected absolute dualism. For him Nirvana is certainly the ultimate Truth, perfect and pure, the opposite of the conditioned world of suffering, without arising or cessation; yet it also lacks fixed being or selfhood, just like this world. It is an experiential state of liberation, not an object to be grasped.
Plato on the other hand was convinced that a purified intellect can grasp true being. By contrast material things can at best be the subject of trueish opinions or ‘likely stories’. As is well known Plato’s ‘likely story’ about the universe is found in the Timaeus. Intriguingly this is also the dialogue where the story about the island of Atlantis is found, which he depicts as a city state founded on cosmological principles. Surely one of the most influential philosophical texts ever written, the Timaeus was one of the very few ancient classical texts that remained in circulation in Europe after the Fall of the Roman Empire. For over a 1000 years it provided the intellectual underpinning to the simple story of God creating the world found in the Book of Genesis.
Briefly this is how the Timaeus explains the creation of the world: to start with, before time, God Is all alone, a perfect, transcendent being. Because He is perfect and therefore entirely lacking in jealousy He decides to try and make the material universe resemble himself as closely as it can. In this myth, matter in a formless state is already in existence, waiting to be worked on. All of the imperfections in the universe arise simply from this prima-materia resisting the creative power of God. In order to work on his material God of course needs a plan or a model. He uses as his plan the most perfect things, the immutable, intellectual Forms. Put simply these are the living thoughts within his own mind. God in Platonism is often conceived as completely transcendent, the unmoving source of all unity, the One. But here He is pictured in his secondary, active aspect, as a craftsman, the Demiurge. This image of the Demiurge or divine craftsman was to have a strange and fruitful afterlife within the Christian tradition as the incarnate Word – the early church father Justin Martyr went so far as to suggest that Jesus Christ should be seen as the demiurgic aspect of God the father. And the idea of the Demiurge was taken up in a very different way by the Gnostic tradition, as we will see.
The craftsman sets about making a copy of the world of divine forms which is as nearly perfect as it can be. His first step is to create a soul for the body of the universe, to give it unity, life and Intelligence. This is the World Soul about which the later Platonists had much to say. For example in the Chaldean Oracles from the Second Century CE, the World Soul is pictured as Hekate, a powerful cosmogenic goddess, who, after being impregnated with the Divine forms by the Demiurge, gives birth to the world. In the Timaeus it is simply stated that Soul is woven together with matter very closely:
The soul was woven right through from the centre to the outermost heaven which it enveloped from the outside and, revolving on itself, provided a divine source of an enduring and rational life for all time. The body of the heaven is visible, but the soul invisible and endowed with reason and harmony, being the best creation of the best of intelligible and eternal things. (9)
So the universe in Plato’s thought is essentially a single, divine living thing. Not only is it full of Gods, but it is woven through with a single divine soul. This is very much a pantheistic universe. Plato calls it rather beautifully ‘a shrine for the living gods’. Now, as it progresses from the level of intellect this World Soul is rationally ordered. The universe it animates is in the shape of a perfect sphere. Furthermore its inner structure is a series of rings, surrounding a fixed Earth, and founded on various mathematical ratios. These ratios are also the basis of the musical scales. The rings rotate, carrying their heavenly bodies. The outermost ring of the fixed stars rotates once every 24 hours with a perfectly uniform smooth motion. The other seven rings rotate in the opposite direction, those of the planets with less smoothness and uniformity, hence their wandering motions. As time went by this basic image developed into a beautiful, highly complex system, which remained the common worldview of Europe and the Middle East up until the European Enlightenment. For example, the rings of the planets became crystalline spheres, as proposed by Aristotle, and were said to give rise to the music of the spheres. Each of the planetary gods controlled a particular aspect of human existence, and was part of a chain of divine emanations, linking the terrestrial level via the world soul back to the level of divine intellect.
So it is clear that for Plato numbers were vital, living things, an intrinsic part of the world soul. It is very likely that he got the inspiration for this from the Pythagorean school. But Plato went further than seeing mathematical harmony in the movements of the heavens, and indicated in the Timaeus that matter itself is to be regarded as made up of tiny atoms with the shapes of the five platonic solids, which are perfectly symmetrical and have equally shaped faces. Earth is made of cubes, which of course fit together very nicely like bricks and give rise to stability. Fire is made of three sided pyramids, water of the almost spherical dodecahedron with its 20 triangular faces, and so forth. Whilst this simple conception is not completely true in the physical sense, using geometrical and mathematical structures to model matter at its smallest levels is certainly one of the cornerstones of modern science. Plato was pointing in a direction that did not bear fruit for another 2000 years at least. Indeed, some molecular crystal structures are literally platonic solids. Wave formations confined in a spherical zone can exhibit their properties and the geometry of hyperdimensional platonic solids has been found useful in some aspects of quantum mechanics. There was even a 20th century physicist, Dr Robert Moon, who proposed a theory of the structure of the atomic nucleus based on the platonic solids.
Thus the four elements are nicely constructed from platonic solids and separated by God into their proper places, with fire at the top, Earth at the bottom, air and water in between. All that is missing are living creatures to populate the universe. The Demiurge does not neglect this aspect of His task. First come the gods. Some of them are set to inhabit the sun, moon and planets, others to live on the Earth in invisible bodies. The Planetary gods are direct emissaries of the World Soul, full of power and beauty, the ‘most perfect of created things’ as Plato says. It is they rather than the lower terrestrial gods who were the focus of neoplatonic theurgy. Then finally all of the living creatures, animals, plants etc. are given their appointed places. Of these the human beings, of course, require souls. Rather poignantly, the Demiurge makes the human souls from what is left over from making the World Soul. I will quote the beautiful passage in which this is set out.
So speaking he turned again to the same bowl in which he had mixed the soul of the Universe and poured into it what was left of the former ingredients, making them in much the same fashion as before, only not quite so pure. And when he had compounded the whole, he divided it up into as many souls as there are stars, and allotted each soul to a star. And mounting them on their stars, as if on chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe and told them the laws of their destiny.(10)
Hermeticism and gnosticism
By the second century CE we come to a period in the greco-roman world where mystery religions and occult philosophies abounded, especially in the cultural melting pot of Alexandria in Egypt. At the heart of this richly syncretic culture we find esoteric, mystical varieties of Platonism, fusing with many other religious traditions. The Divine Forms are no longer a useful hypothesis, but the very stuff of truth and reality. Theurgy, that is magical rituals for invoking and becoming united with the gods, has become the handmaiden of traditional philosophy in practical attempts to ascend to the realm of pure intellect.
The mystical literature from this period is fascinating and inspiring. Particularly noteworthy are the Chaldean Oracles, the Corpus Hermeticum, particularly the text known as the ‘Shepherd of Mind’, and the gnostic Christian texts, especially the Apocryphon of John. All of these texts have a wonderful mythic grandeur to them, and are full of esoteric meanings. At the heart of each of them is a vision of the platonic universe, but it is Plato refracted through abundant mythopoetic reimaginings of various kinds.
The Hermetic cosmos is essentially a colourful version of that found in the Timaeus, broadly Greco-Roman in emphasis with a spicing from traditional Egyptian mythology. For reasons of space I must regretfully leave it to one side here. By contrast the Gnostic texts also draw heavily on both Judaism and the Christian tradition. However, even at this early stage other Christians felt that the Gnostics were highly unorthodox in their interpretations of both the Old Testament and the Christian gospels. It is not surprising that within a couple of centuries all of their texts had been declared heretical, and the various Gnostic movements suppressed in Europe. Nevertheless in the related form of Manichaeism it spread throughout Asia and only finally died out in China in the 17th century (11). A Gnostic religious outlook also arose in the form of Catharism in mediaeval Europe, only to be ruthlessly suppressed by the Catholic church. The basic dualistic worldview of two primal gods, one good, one running an evil system that entraps us – which goes back to Zoroastrianism – though never underpinning a widely influential world religion, has proved to be surprisingly durable. It appears to be on the increase in our confused modern world.
For the Gnostics then, the god of the Old Testament is not the supreme deity. Instead he is seen as a dangerous megalomaniac who creates the universe out of his own delusion. Plato’s Demiurge is clearly part of the background to this figure, but unlike Plato’s divine craftsman, this figure does not make the best possible universe, rather he spawns a disastrous abomination. According to Gnostic texts the only thing good about the material universe is that by some miracle sparks of light from the highest heaven, the Pleroma or fullness, where the true God lives, have become trapped within it. These sparks are found hidden in the souls of those fortunate human beings who have the potential for gnosis, or true knowledge, of the prison of materiality and how to escape it.
Probably the most complete version of the Gnostic myth is found in a text called the Apocryphon of John from the famous Nag Hammadi library, which was discovered buried in the deserts of Upper Egypt in 1945. This peculiar text is basically a rewriting of the Book of Genesis. In addition to God the Father and Adam and Eve we now find a whole host of strangely named mythological characters, who inhabit the Pleroma. The lowest of these heavenly beings is a goddess or angel called Sophia, who represents philosophical knowledge. Unfortunately philosophy makes a big mistake. She becomes envious of the highest God, here called the ‘Immortal Spirit’, who has given birth to a whole divine pantheon of angelic figures, and wishes to conceive and give birth to her own child without the assistance of God. The result is a misshapen creature with a dragon’s body and a lion’s head, whose eyes flash fearsome thunderbolts. This demonic figure is called Yaldabaoth. Horrified at what she has done Sophia casts the demon away from her into outer darkness. Here he acts like a misshapen, demented version of Plato’s Demiurge, proclaims that he is the sole, omnipotent God, and begins to create a universe for himself to live in. Later on the first human being Adamos is trapped in this frightful realm, and goes to live in the Garden of Eden. Just as in the Book of Genesis in the Garden are found the Tree of Life and the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is what the text says about them:
The rulers took the man and put him into paradise. They told him to eat freely. They placed the Tree of Their Life into the middle of paradise. Its root is bitter. Its branches are dead. Its shadow is hatred. Its leaves are deception. The nectar of wickedness is in its blossoms. Its fruit is death. Its seed is desire. It flowers in the darkness. Those who eat from it are denizens of Hades. Darkness is their resting place. As for the tree called “The Knowledge Of Good And Evil”. It is the Epinoia of the light. They commanded him not to eat from it, standing in front to conceal it, for fear that he might look upwards to the fullness and know the nakedness of his indecency.(12)
The rulers mentioned at the beginning of this passage are the archons. Essentially they are sub demons who rule under Yaldabaoth, and are identified with the seven planetary bodies. They are here seen as completely evil gods who wish to trap human beings within the limitations of organic life on the earth, represented by the Tree of Life, and make them forget their spiritual destiny in the Pleroma. The fruit from the tree of knowledge, in an exact inversion of Genesis, is that which will free human beings if only they dare to eat it.
The text continues with the story of how Yaldabaoth now creates Eve by reaching into Adam’s side just as in the Book of Genesis. He is hoping to fetter Adam in the snares of sexual desire. However in this reading his plan backfires. The immortal spirit manages to breathe some of his spiritual essence into Eve, and instead of further entrapping Adam she begins to wake him up to his true destiny. She is in fact ‘light filled knowledge’. As he gazes upon her lovely form Adam begins to feel the veils of ignorance in his mind lifting.
The Gnostics then were rebellious, world renouncing outsiders who saw the other traditions of their time as being sinister systems of entrapment. The solution they offered was to turn those systems on their head. For example the Gnostic Christ was not human at all but a completely divine figure who came as a teacher of Gnosis. His apparent manner of death, far from being an atoning sacrifice, was a purely material event that had no significance. Even Plato, as we have seen, does not escape this treatment. Philosophy herself makes the mistake that leads to the material universe. It is as if merely to think about the structure of the physical universe is to get trapped within it! Plato would have been horrified at this demeaning of the value of intellectual enquiry, and of the status of the Demiurge.
The social and personal consequences of cosmology
Before branching out into some cultural conclusions I would like to offer this observation to students of traditional cosmology: while many of us will not want to take any of these myths literally, it is worth taking creation myths seriously. Clearly they enrich the imagination, and if nothing else they provide a marvelous window onto how our ancestors looked at the world. Each of the three cosmogenic systems I have described here offer a fascinating contrast or counterpoint to the modern scientific view of the Universe. It is worth asking then how these myths, believed and contemplated over the centuries, may have affected the societies which upheld them.
As I have indicated, the platonic system held sway for the best part of two millennia over a large area of western Eurasia. One assumes that it must have brought inspiration, delight and comfort to many, many souls who studied it. In the Timaeus one discovers that this world of the senses is a creation of harmony, beauty and deep meaning. A transcendent, divine truth lies behind it, and continually sustains it. For Platonists, of course, picturing the gods in sensuous terms is a useful first rung on a divine ladder. The true immortal gods are far beyond our comprehension, and the way to know them is to become ourselves God like.
If we consider the centuries after Plotinus – the apex of post-Platonic philosophising – when much of the world east of Indus had moved from polytheism to monotheism, perhaps the divine sometimes seemed removed from a darker, sin bound world. The power of the devil seemed very great, and the clergy, or the Imams, far from pure. But there was still this grand image, in the background, to remind one that what had been marred by man’s error and Satan’s malevolence was originally harmonious, pure and fully rational. The full recovery of Plato’s writings in the wake of the fall of Byzantium in the fifteenth century, made this all the more vivid and actual in the minds of educated people. But, as with any system, there are inherent tensions here. Plato’s view of the universe is essentially very optimistic. As the material world is emmanted by and woven through with divine Soul, it is, in a more truly philosophical sense than Voltaire meant, the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Furthermore it does not admit easily of change and evolution. There is only one world system, this one, and all above the moon is fixed for eternity. Unless and until, as in the Christian and Islamic views, a personal, volitional deity should intervene to destroy all and make anew. So perhaps this sense of stasis, in which evil has no proper place, or is tolerated by a personal deity for his own inscrutable purposes, was part of the complex array of forces and factors that brought about what we euphemistically call ‘the modern world’, with its revolutions, and its constantly shifting political allegiances and constantly developing, for ever provisional, materially based philosophies.
However, with the advent of postmodernism, in which all value systems are challenged and interrogated for their hidden agendas of power, it is natural that some thoughtful men and women are turning once more to the ancient views of Plato and his successors. They are discovering a world view that offers a universe inwoven with the divine, yet without the controlling authority of a personal creator that so many, in Europe at least, have rejected. I believe that the serious study of Platonic philosophy is that natural complement to the study and worship of the deities of the classical world, which many so-called ‘neo-pagans’ have turned to. Here they will find a profound ethics and a sublime theogony, to provide the backdrop to their magical rituals. It is my sense that study of Platonism in this manner, hitherto confined to a few esoteric orders and occult societies, will be an increasingly significant aspect of religious developments as this century unfolds.
The gnostic cosmology, by contrast, is highly pessimistic. Could the world really have been created by an insane megalomaniac deity? And if it was then what, really, is the point of carrying on living? If you are capable of a highly ascetic lifestyle, one might find comfort and support here, but otherwise what is left except to honour the full time renunciates? Such questions must have troubled even the most devoted followers of Gnoistic sects and contributed to their eventual demise. There is also here, I would suggest, an unnecessarily extreme provocation to conventional authority. The Buddha, as we have seen, gently challenged Brahminical authority, by undercutting their myths about themselves and their divine origins. He did not proclaim that the society of his day was utterly corrupt, and that the gods were in fact evil demons. Gnostic myths invert sacred scriptures in a highly provocative manner. They seem to emanate from groups of people who identified as outsiders, in rebellion from conventional authority. In a certain sense they were asking for trouble, which duly arrived, and continued to do so down the centuries, including, later in the middle ages, the widespread persecution of the followers of Mani. In this age of ours the outsider myth is very much alive and well, and supercharged with the aid of technology. It is not at all surprising that Gnosticism and gnostic type modern myths (scientology for example) are on the increase. One fears for the persecutions that might ensue should the basic assumptions of secular liberal society collapse.
Somewhat like the modern view the Buddhist cosmogeny suggests that impersonal natural laws are responsible for the arising of each new universe. However, these natural laws are also spiritual laws. Very powerful non physical spiritual beings, gods or devas, are an intrinsic part of how it works. Without conscious intention their fall from heaven catalyzes the arising of a new material universe. However there is a great lack of detail here which was never filled in by the tradition. There is, to be sure, plenty of detail about the thirty six different devalokas or god realms, which are stacked up above the Cosmic mount Meru, but very little about the physical world below them. How exactly does this cosmic fall produce stars, planets, earth, water, air and living creatures? The primordial matter, which is very like that found in Plato, seems to respond to the influence of the fallen gods, but how exactly does this work? The Buddhist tradition has simply lacked interest in the material world for its own sake. As in gnosticism the cosmos arises essentially because of a mistake in the divine realm. Although in Buddhism certainly this is a Felix Culpa, a beneficial error, because the human realm that results is said to be the best of all possible situations for gaining Enlightenment.
Like the Gnostics followers of the Buddha wish to escape from the entire phenomenal universe, which in Buddhism is called samsara, the endless round of birth and death and rebirth. As in gnosticism the notion of a benign creator god is considered ridiculous. However, I feel it is fair to say that they are more subtle in their world rejection. According to Buddhism the problem really is not the physical world as such, but our attachment to the senses. What is really an ungraspable flow of sense impressions we continually try to solidify and grasp at. If we stop doing that the senses are no longer a problem. Learning this lesson is, in fact, the true point of the practice of mindfulness – although these days it is often put forward as a therapeutic method of ‘living in the moment’.
In trying to get some sort of meaningful overview of two and half millennia of Buddhist history, I would put forward the idea that the Buddhist world view contributed to a lack of tension in its followers. Buddhist cosmogony contributed a vast, mind expanding cosmic backdrop, with the nature of an endless repetition, on a timescale of billions years. Such a view does not set up troubling tensions between divine purpose and evil appearance, nor between material necessities, versus doctrinal world rejection, or promised, but ever delayed apocalypse. There is a certain historical teleology here, in that one may look forward to the arising of the next Buddha in this world system. But Maitreya simply brings about a new cycle of teaching – he is not a messiah who ushers in an ‘end times, or ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. There is no urgency of historicalnarrative here, although it should be added that, in the convulsions which China experienced last century, the Maitreya myth was sometimes pushed in this direction by millennial sects. These, however, are the exception that proves the rule, and look rather like a case of the East catching a Western disease. After all Samsara, is in the final analysis our own creation; ‘escape’ is necessary, but the means is essentially a renovation of perception, and an abandoning of self-bound craving, not a fleeing from something intrinsically evil. As such one wonders how this kind of cosmogony will fare, in the long term, in this tension filled, conflicted world, obsessed with various kinds of historicised political narrative as it is. Will the Buddhist cosmos offer serene hope or come to seem bland and illusory? Might it even produce the kind of nihilistic resignation foretold by Nietzsche for the adoption by Europeans of the Buddhist worldview? (Admittedly on the evidence of a highly incomplete picture of Buddhist doctrine and method.)
Be that as it may, each of these three views offers something profound that is not to be found in the purely material views of modern cosmology. This is, of course, a sense of non material causation, and therefore of purpose. It is certainly true that the cosmos revealed by science offers mind expanding material vistas, extents of space and time completely unimaginable to an earth bound perspective. It is also highly dynamic, and in this sense at least, profoundly in tune with the Buddhist world view. Nothing is static in our universe, stars explode, black holes may swallow entire star systems, swirling clouds of nebulaic gas are slowly condensing into new stars. And the billions upon billions of stars are finely structured into spiral arms, galaxies, galaxy clusters and so forth. It is only in India that traditional cosmologies attained anything approaching such vertiginous vastness, and they were far less dynamic, far less detailed in presentation. But in the modern case the human significance of the cosmos is confined to perhaps half a million years, in the history of one small planet among uncountable billions of such. The rest, apart from speculations that one in a million or so planets might be a bit like ours, is wasteland so far as human life is concerned. It is simply lifeless matter, endlessly extended in space and time, going about its business according to immutable physical laws. Now wonder that so many sensitive, imaginative people are drawn to the three pictures I have explored, and to others like them. No wonder that so many millions in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, maintain a completely literal view of creation ex-nihilo, eight thousand years ago, by a beneficent deity.
But one doesn’t have to take any of these worldviews literally of course. They can enhance one’s life in many other ways. One can contemplate them, appreciate them, consider that hidden truths lie behind them, use them to expand and shape one’s sensibility, while not regarding them as the final word on physical fact. The Buddhist view, as I have suggested, can be fairly easily adapted to fit in with the vistas of modern cosmology, one only needs to assume that there are hidden dimensions of long living gods and spirits, that science is not aware of, and that these affect the evolution of the material universe in some mysterious way, to be perceived directly only by the wise. However, personally I feel that in some ways the worldview of Plato represents a happy medium between the highly ascetic mythology of gnosticism and the highly ascetic psychology of Buddhism, on the one hand, and the purely material universe of modern science on the other. In Plato we discover that this world of the senses is a thing of harmony, beauty and deep meaning. A transcendent, divine truth lies behind it, and continually sustains it. As the great neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus is supposed to have said on his deathbed, the task of life is to strive to bring the god within us back to the divine in the universe.
1. The influence of Buddhism on Persian civilisation prior to the arrival of Islam is relevant here although it was certainly never a dominant one. Zoroastrianism was the state religion from the Sassanid period onwards, until the coming of the caliphate, but before the Islamic period there was much cross cultural exchange between Iran and the Buddhist kingdoms of what is now Afghanistan. There is also archaeological evidence of Buddhist monasteries in the Iranian homeland lasting even into the early Islamic period. See: Mostafa Vaziri (2012). Buddhism in Iran: An Anthropological Approach to Traces and Influences. Palgrave Macmillan.
2. Joseph Campbell (Occidental Mythology, The Masks of God, vol. II,
3. It is worth noting that there was some cross-fertilization between India and the Islamic middle east. In particular the Arabic astronomer Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, 1149 – 1209, having imbibed certain aspects of Indian cosmology, went so far as to propose that the Earth was not the centre of the universe and that Allah had created myriads of world systems. However, while he could quote a single verse from the Quran which appeared to back up his theory ( ‘All praise belongs to God, lord of the worlds.’) Al-Razi’s ideas never became mainstream in the Islamic world. Also, a broader ‘mystical’ Buddhist influence diffusing from Bactria or even India, and especially finding fertile ground in medieval Sufism, is sometimes put forward, but conclusive evidence is lacking for this intriguing hypothesis.
4. Dhammapada, section 1 – The Pairs vs. 1. A Dhammapada for Contemplation, version by Ajahn Munindo, Aruna Publications, 2006.
5. Samyutta Nikaya section of Pali Canon, SN 15:5.
6. Agganna Sutta – Digha Nikaya section of Pali Canon, DN 27.
7. The Abhidharma Pitaka of the Pali and other early canons contain the details of this cosmological system which were then further expanded in the commentarial traditions of all the major schools.
For Tibetan variants a useful web resource is found at:
For general Buddhist cosmology Wikipedia contains a useful summary under ‘Buddhist Cosmology’ and a good source for further details of Theravada versions is: Buddhist Cosmology: The Study of a Burmese Manuscript, Bogle, James E. Silkworm Books, 2016.
The basic notion of there being innumerable world systems in the universe is referred to throughout the Pali Canon, for example in the Anguttara Nikaya section, AN 10:29: “As far as the sun & moon revolve, illumining the directions with their light, there extends the thousand-fold cosmos. In that thousand-fold cosmos there are a thousand moons, a thousand suns, a thousand Sumerus — kings of mountains; a thousand Rose-apple continents.”
8. See for example: Nature and Divinity in Plato’s Timaeus, S. Broadie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
9. Timaeus and Critias, Plato, trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin Books, 1977).
10. Ibid p. 58.
11. The prophet Mani (216-274 AD) devised a system of spiritual philosophy which contained elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. So far as its cosmogenic myths go, they are strongly reminiscent of Gnostic Christianity. There is a World of Light, ruled by the Father of Greatness together with his five Shekhinas (divine attributes of light), and a World of Darkness, ruled by a figure very like Satan. Various battles ensue and sparks from the World of Light are trapped in the darkness of matter. In the first half of the first millennium CE the religion of Mani spread all over Asia and Europe but was later ruthlessly suppressed by Chinese, Middle Eastern and Roman authorities alike. An underground influence in the form of various Christian heresies continued well into the middle ages.
12. Online text from Gnostic Society Library: http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl_sbj.htm