Evolution in the Vishnu Purana

Rudi Jansma

In H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine we find over 100 direct references to the Vishnu Purana, largely in her discussions of cosmic and human evolution. Purana means "old," hence a legend or tale of ancient times. Traditionally, a Purana covers five distinct topics: 1) the creation of the universe; 2) its destruction and renovation; 3) the genealogy of gods and patriarchs; 4) the reigns of the manus, forming the periods called manvantaras; and 5) the history of the solar and lunar races of kings. All eighteen Puranas are written in verse, in the form of a dialogue between teacher and pupil. The Vishnu Purana, an extraordinarily difficult book, was first published in the West in the unsurpassed five-volume translation of H. H. Wilson, annotated by FitzEdward Hall, from which all quotes here are taken.

In this Purana, Vishnu is the pervader, present in everything, cause of everything, from which all comes and to which all returns. He is not just the preserver in the Hindu Trimurti: the creator Brahma is a form Vishnu takes to bring about creation, and Vishnu can also take on the function of destroyer. He is the eternal principle in which the non-eternal cycles of manifestation or evolution exist. In describing and studying evolution, we should always keep this eternal principle in the back of our minds, pervading every idea on which we focus.


Hindu Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, Siva)

The Vishnu Purana describes the unfolding of the cosmos, the coming into existence of the elements and all that they compose — the universe, the earth, and its living beings — and the evolution and guidance of humanity. It tells us that the chief principle is pradhana: undifferentiated substance, primeval matter, the shadowy substance or "veil" placed before or surrounding Brahman, the universal self. Pradhana is mentioned as the indiscrete or undifferentiated cause: "By that principle all things were invested in the period subsequent to the last dissolution of the universe, and prior to creation." It is devoid of sound, touch, and other aspects which manifest later. Originally "there was neither day nor night, nor sky nor earth, nor darkness nor light, nor any other things, save only One, unapprehensible by intellect, or That which is Brahma and Pums (spirit) and Pradhana (matter)" (1:21-4). Then the supreme soul

of his own will having entered into matter and spirit, agitated the mutable and immutable principles, the season of creation being arrived. In the same manner as fragrance affects the mind from its proximity merely, and not from any intermediate operation upon the mind itself, so the Supreme influenced the elements of creation. — 1:27

This is a beautiful way of describing how that which is beyond the duality of spirit and matter entered and affected the primordial principles. Here we see the first impulse of divine will from the heart of being. With this impulse evolution starts.

The Vishnu Purana then describes the seven or nine "creations" or periods of evolution. Originally the three gunas or qualities — sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (quiescence) — were in equilibrium in pradhana. The "unequal development" or manifestation of these qualities constitutes mahat or cosmic intellect, which becomes threefold, as affected by the qualities (1:33-5). Mahat produces manas (the thinking principle) and ahamkara (egoism, personality, or the feeling of "I am I"). According to theosophy, mahat is actually the aggregate of the divine and spiritual intelligences of our cosmos, the host of dhyani-chohans. Thus the first creation is the creation of mahat or the host of cosmic intelligences.

The next two creations concern the origin of the elements and the organs of sense from egotism affected by the three qualities. Here we see the process of differentiation through illusion. Buddhi (spiritual soul) as a principle is indiscrete in its higher sense: there is no separation of things whatsoever. Cosmic mind separates into units which are distinctive. In the universal being, egoism is the beginning of self-awareness of the distinctive units as being separate. In other words, from cosmic mind issues forth the first shadowy outline of selfhood. Pure (sattva) egoism becomes passionate (rajas) and finally rudimental or initial (tamas); it is the origin of all conscious, as well as of all miscalled unconscious, being.

The second or "elemental" creation is the first differentiation of universal undifferentiated substance. It brings forth the five tanmatras, "rudimentary elements" from which the "gross elements" (mahabhutas) of earth, water, air, fire, and aether arise. These tanmatras are sound, touch, form or sight, taste, and smell. Sound gives birth to aether, touch to fire, form or sight to air, taste to water, and smell to earth. This is the second or elemental creation, proceeding from the principle of egoism affected by the property of tamas (inertia, darkness).

Then follows the third or indriya creation of the organs of sense. The ten organs of sense (ear, skin, eye, tongue, nose, speech, hands, feet, and excretory and generative organs) are said to be the products of egoism affected by rajas (passion, foulness); and the ten divinities ruling them proceed from egoism affected by sattva (goodness), as does mind, which is the eleventh.

These three creations, together called the primary creation, are preceded by or originate from buddhi. This, Blavatsky explains, is because buddhi is neither a discrete nor an indiscrete quantity, but partakes of the nature of both. On the plane of illusion it is a human monad, but once freed from the illusion of the three forms of egoism and from terrestrial mind, buddhi becomes truly continuous, both in duration and extension, because eternal and immortal. Blavatsky mentions three creations originating in buddhi which are only hinted at in the Puranas. As the Vayu Purana says: "the six creations which proceed from the series of which mahat is the first are the work of Brahma. The three creations beginning with buddhi are elemental" (1:77n, Wilson translation).

Let us now see how the mundane egg comes into being. The Vishnu Purana explains that, when ether, air, light, water, and earth combined with one another,

they assumed, through their mutual association, the character of one mass of entire unity; and, from the direction of spirit, with the acquiescence of the indiscrete Principle, Intellect and the rest, to the gross elements inclusive, formed an egg, which gradually expanded like a bubble of water. This vast egg, O sage, compounded of the elements, and resting on the waters, was the excellent natural abode of Vishnu in the form of Brahma; . . . In that egg, O Brahman, were the continents and seas and mountains, the planets and divisions of the universe, the gods, the demons, and mankind. And this egg was externally invested by seven natural envelopes; or by water, air, fire, ether, and Ahamkara, the origin of the elements, each tenfold the extent of that which it invested; next came the principle of Intelligence; and, finally, the whole was surrounded by the indiscrete Principle: resembling, thus, the cocoa-nut, filled interiorly with pulp, and exteriorly covered by husk and rind. — 1:38-40

The primary creation with its three stages is followed by the secondary creation, which includes the fourth and further evolutionary periods. The Vishnu Purana describes the fourth or mukhya creation as "beginning with ignorance, and consisting of darkness" (1:69). Brahma, plunged in abstraction, created "the fivefold (immovable) world, without intellect or reflection, void of perception or sensation, incapable of feeling, and destitute of motion." This creation comprises the fixed beings: the mineral kingdom and the five classes of plants.

The fourth creation in this world actually starts with the evolution of three elemental or rudimentary kingdoms. According to Blavatsky, this happened in inverse order from that of the primary period, where the order was cosmic mind, the rudimentary elements, and the senses. In the secondary creation,

the order of Elemental Forces stands thus: (1) The nascent centres of Force (intellectual and physical); (2) the rudimental principles — nerve force, so to say; and (3) nascent apperception, which is the Mahat of the lower kingdoms, especially developed in the third order of Elementals; these are succeeded by the objective kingdom of minerals, in which latter that apperception is entirely latent, to re-develop only in the plants. The mukhya "Creation," then, is the middle point between the three lower and the three higher kingdoms, which represent the seven esoteric kingdoms of Kosmos, as of Earth. — The Secret Doctrine 1:454-5

Then follows the fifth creation: Brahma, beholding that the fourth was defective, designed the animal creation. Their characteristic was darkness or ignorance, "they being destitute of knowledge, uncontrolled in their conduct, and mistaking error for wisdom; being formed of egotism and self-esteem, labouring under the twenty-eight kinds of imperfection [such as blindness, deafness, defects of intellect, etc.], manifesting inward sensations, and associating with each other (according to their kinds)" (Vishnu Purana 1:71-2).

Brahma beheld that this creation was also imperfect and went on to the sixth creation, which abounded with the quality of goodness. The beings produced in this creation were endowed with pleasure and enjoyment, unencumbered internally or externally, and luminous within and without. This creation is sometimes regarded as the sixth, sometimes as the third, and sometimes left out in the sequence of creations of the secondary period because it actually belongs to the primary period, in which the creation of the divinities was the third creation. These divinities are, according to Blavatsky, "simply the prototypes of the First Race, the fathers of their 'mind-born' progeny with the soft bones. It is these who became the Evolvers of the 'Sweat-born' . . ." (Secret Doctrine 1:456).

Brahma, although pleased, still found his creation incomplete, and so continued with the seventh, eighth, and ninth creations:

Continuing, therefore, his meditations, there sprang, in consequence of his infallible purpose, the creation termed Arvaksrotas, . . . They abound with the light of knowledge [sattva]; but the qualities of darkness [tamas] and of foulness [rajas] predominate. Hence they are afflicted by evil, and are repeatedly impelled to action. They have knowledge both externally and internally, and are the instruments (of accomplishing the object of creation, the liberation of soul). These creatures were mankind.
. . .
There is an eighth creation, termed Anugraha, which possesses both the qualities of goodness and darkness. . . . But there is a ninth, the Kaumara creation, which is both primary and secondary. These are the nine creations of the great progenitor of all, and, both as primary and secondary, are the radical causes of the world, proceeding from the sovereign creator. — Vishnu Purana 1:73, 75-8

The Secret Doctrine says that the eighth creation mentioned here is no creation at all; it is a blind, for it refers to a purely mental process: the cognition of the ninth creation which, in its turn, is an effect, manifesting in the secondary that which was a creation in the primary creation. The eighth creation, according to Blavatsky, "is 'that creation of which we have a perception' — in its esoteric aspect — and 'to which we give intellectual assent (Anugraha) in contradistinction to organic creation.' It is the correct perception of our relations to the whole range of 'gods' and especially of those we bear to the Kumaras — the so-called 'Ninth Creation' — which is in reality an aspect of or reflection of the sixth in our manvantara . . ." (SD 1:456).

The ninth or kaumara creation is both primary and secondary, says the Vishnu Purana. The kumaras (literally, those who are eternally youthful) " 'are the Dhyanis, derived immediately from the supreme Principle, who reappear in the Vaivasvata Manu period [our present manvantara], for the progress of mankind' " (SD 1:457). They may indeed mark a "special" or extra creation, says Blavatsky, since "it is they who, by incarnating themselves within the senseless human shells of the two first Root-races, and a great portion of the Third Root-race — create, so to speak, a new race: that of thinking, self-conscious and divine men" (SD 1:457n). The Vishnu Purana adds that these sages live as long as Brahma and that they are only created by him in the first kalpa. Esoterically, they are the progenitors of the true spiritual self in physical man, not the progenitors of the model or type of the physical form. Thus, the so-called ninth creation of the kumaras is no real creation, but the incarnation of the already existent highest principle in the first three root-races. The kumaras make their appearance several times: as the sixth creation (which is actually the third), they are the prototypes of the first race of divine men (not of the lower or lunar ancestors of men).

Let us summarize the whole picture of evolution given in the Vishnu Purana. First there was the veil of Brahman — pradhana, the indiscrete principle — in which the three qualities of tamas, rajas, and sattva were in equilibrium. Then that creation is activated by Brahman through Vishnu entering into primordial matter and spirit. Scarcely mentioned is buddhi or cosmic intelligence, from which originated three rudimentary creations. Then comes what the Puranas call the first creation, that of mahat, cosmic mind or intellect, due to the unequal development of the three qualities. As a result of mahat, the sense of egoism manifests. In combination with the three qualities which are no longer in equilibrium, the threefold primary creation of Brahma takes place. The second creation is that of the rudimental elements, from which proceed the gross elements; the third creation is that of the senses and the divinities presiding over them.

Then follows the secondary creation, where originate the fixed and the locomotive beings — from minerals and plants, via animals and the prototypes of the first root-race men, to men — which includes the fourth through seventh creations. The fourth creation itself begins with a threefold process to form the three degrees of elemental kingdoms, evolved in opposite order to those in the primary period. These three creations plus the fourth through seventh actually make seven creations in the secondary creation. The so-called eighth and ninth creations are no real creations, but refer rather to the incarnation of divine beings in the early root-races of humanity.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Theosophical University Press)

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