The Universe in a Lotus Stem
One of the most enduring images in the Vedic scriptures is that of Lord Brahma sitting on a lotus the stem of which goes down to the navel of Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, who is also praised as Hiranyagarbha. The fourteen planetary systems in Vedic cosmology are described to reside inside the “stem” of this lotus, which is kind of perplexing because the universe is three dimensional—and described as a sphere—but the lotus stem is one dimensional. How can we squeeze three dimensions into one dimension? This post discusses this question, and shows how the three dimensions are reduced to one dimension by “twisting” the single dimension using a process like the “curved” flow of kundalini. The post discusses parallels between the body and the universe, the process of primary and secondary creations, and how these are connected to Sāńkhya as well as the forms of Lord Viṣṇu who are “controllers” in the material universe.
Table of Contents
Hierarchical Space is Curled
The material universe in Vedic philosophy is comprised of ideas; the table you touch, the food you eat, the flowers you smell, and the house you live in, are all ideas. All these ideas exist eternally in the universe as possibilities but sometimes they are converted into actualities. The conversion of the possibility into actuality involves adding some energy to the idea, in order to create a sound vibration or word. Accordingly, the idea is called manas, the energy is called prāna, and the word is called vāk.
These three ingredients are also classified according to the three modes of nature—sattva, rajas, and tamas—which respectively denote an idea, an activity, and an object. When we use this description to conceive of a semantic space, the space requires three dimensions, in which the vertical dimension represents ideas while the two horizontal dimensions represent objects and activities. But there are some peculiarities of this space due to which this three dimensional space is not three dimensional; it can rather be reduced to a single dimension.
The main reason is that what we consider the “horizontal plane” is actually not horizontal. Rather, the plane is twisted along both East-West and North-South directions as shown above. The result of this twisting is that North is higher than South, and East is Higher than West. When we combine these two twists, we find that the four cardinal directions are not at the same level. Rather, North is the highest and South is the lowest; between North and South, are East and West, East being higher than West.
This fact can be seen in the above figure where the circle has been twisted in a way as to lift the North above South, and East above West. In the above figure, the blue color denotes the “horizontal plane” while the green color denotes how we see this “horizontal plane” from an actually horizontal perspective. When we project the four directions into the center, we can see how the four cardinal directions are actually hierarchically positioned along a central line with North at the top, followed by East, followed by West, and finally followed by South. The result of tilting the planar surface of four cardinal directions is that the four directions are not at the same level.
We can further understand the tilted structure, by removing the circular plane, and drawing the cardinal directions as arrows jutting out of the center. The figure below illustrates the directions without a plane. With this picture we can see that the four directions are not in a plane, but arranged hierarchically, such that we can draw an “S” shaped curled path through them.
Conversely, if we exchanged the positions of East with West, and the position of North with South in the above picture, we can obtain a hierarchy in which South is highest, followed by West, East, and North. The figure below illustrates this.
The interesting feature of this hierarchy is that it is exactly inverted to the first hierarchy. Therefore, if we drew a top-down path as North-East-West-South, then we can again draw a bottom-up path as North-East-West-South. This inverted bottom-up path is the mirror image of “S”.
We can think of the two as paths that go from top to bottom, and from bottom to top. If we combine such paths over multiple levels, we will construct a top-down and bottom-up entwined path. There are many ways in which to think of such entwined paths, but the simplest way of thinking of them is as two opposite waves that can be combined to create a Stationary Wave. The entire vertical dimension can now be thought of as a vibrating string in which there are two waves: one that moves top-down, and the other that moves bottom-up.
Ironically, both waves (top-down and bottom-up) are moving in the same order (North-East-West-South) but once they reach the end, the hierarchy is inverted and the path again moves in the same order (although in the opposite direction). This is an example of a Mobius Strip in which the path moves in a loop but at the end of each loop the directions are inverted.
Relation to the Yoga System
The bottom-up and top-down paths construct—at the level of the universe–what is called the kundalini in the body. The stem of the lotus is like the Meru Danda or the spinal cord which is one dimensional, but from it a three dimensional world is manifest because this single dimension is actually “coiled” or “curled”. We can call this single dimension a “curled dimension”.
The central column helps us compare the universe to a living body and grasp the meaning of “universe in a lotus stem”. In the below figure of the seven chakra in the body, the central column and the crown at the top of the head construct a lotus like form. The lotus and the stem in the body are like the lotus and the stem in the universe. The lotus represents mahattattva and the body of Lord Brahma is constituted of mahattattva or moral principles—also called dharma. This dharma has four directions—East, West, North, and South—and the four Vedas (Rig-Veda, Sāma-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda) are uttered by the four “mouths” of Lord Brahma facing the four sides.
If we exclude the lotus from this stem and the lotus form, we are left with the six chakra as shown in the figure above. Through these chakra the energy alternates from one side to another. This alternating energy has two parts: (1) a right-handed part which moves anticlockwise and upwards, and (2) a left-handed part which moves clockwise and downward. The right handed path is like unscrewing a screw and is called pingalā in the human body. The left-handed path is like screwing the screw and is called idā in the human body. We have previously discussed how the downward path is creativity when ideas are converted into details, while the upward path is analysis where details are merged into idea. Thus, when the universe is created, it is top-down. When the universe is annihilated it is bottom-up.
Generally, the idā and pingalā are alternating energies, which means that creation and destruction are also alternating movements. The process of yoga is to make the energy flow in both idā and pingalā simultaneously which causes the sushumnā to be awakened, and this is called the awakening of the kundalini in the Aśtanga-Yoga system. The key point is that a person who has transcended the creation and annihilation movements is not part of the material universe’s cyclic transformations.
The Creation and Destruction of the Universe
We have discussed above that matter exists in an unmanifest form called manas. When energy is added to it, a vibrating sound is produced. This vibrating sound is generally studied as a Standing Wave, which comprises two opposite waves. We have discussed at length the nature of these opposite waves and their significance to atomic theory in the previous post.
In the same way, the entire universe can be understood as existing in an unmanifest form inside the stem of the lotus; in this state, the universe can be called manas. When energy flows inside this stem top-down, the universe is created through a creative process called idā. When energy flows inside this stem bottom-up, the universe is destroyed through a destructive process called pingalā. In Vedic cosmology, this top-down flow of energy is described as the flow of “water” from the top of the universe, which trickles down to the bottom in the Garbhodaka Ocean; the water is said to originate from outside the universe in the Karana Ocean. Similarly, the Vedic texts describe that at the time of destruction, a massive “fire” arises from the bottom of the universe which destroys the universe and the lower planets merge into the higher planets, everything finally merges into the body of Lord Brahma, who then along with mahattattva merges into the body of Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu.
The idā is compared to the moon or water, while the pingalā is compared to the sun or fire. Thus the top-down flow of water is the creative process, and the fire from the bottom to the top is the destructive process. In this way, the alternating flow of water and fire represents alternating creation and destruction. The process is just as idā and pingalā alternate in the body.
Primary and Secondary Creations
Vedic texts describe that the universe is created in two parts—primary and secondary. The primary creation comprises of the creation of all material elements—i.e. sense objects, sensations, senses, mind, intellect, ego, and morality. The secondary creation is that of different planets, species, living beings, etc. The primary creation is performed by Lord Viṣṇu, while the secondary creation so done by Lord Brahma. These two types of creation can now be better exemplified through the above understanding.
The primary creation is the creation of the perfect sense objects, sensations, senses, mind, intellect, ego, and morality, and can be said to constitute the sushumnā which flows at the center and independent of the idā and pingalā from bottom to top. The rising energy constitutes the “ascending process” of development in which nature is created from visceral to abstract, by adding higher and higher levels or organization. In other words, first there is a form which would appear as a self-sufficient independent object. The universe cannot be created from such independent objects, so the first organizing principle is created which can organize these independent objects. This principle is also atomic and appears as an independent object. However, since the principle is inadequate, the second organizing principle is created to organize the first organizing principle. This is a bottom-up creation, and is carried out by Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu which is why the lotus grows from His “navel” upward. In this creation, many kinds of independent objects are created which are useful to organize at higher levels.
The bottom-up creative model is similar to the present scientific conception of creation. For example, modern science thinks that after the Big Bang, there was a soup of atomic particles which then randomly aggregated into complex atoms, which then formed molecules, which then became unicellular living beings, then onto multicellular beings, which then acquired brain, thinking ability, and ultimately moral principles and religiosity. The process of Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu creating the stem is not different except that the stages in this creation are not random. The creation is indeed bottoms up, but each stage in this creation involves the production of a new kind of organizing principle.
All these organizing principles exist originally as a form of Lord Viṣṇu. When a yogi is enlightened, and energy flows through the sushumnā, he can see the original process of creation in elemental form, or how Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu had created the universe—i.e. the organizing principles. All these organizing principles appear as different “controllers” in the universe. Their “control” is not like our control because they are the principle of a specific kind of control, while we are instances of principle. In that sense, all these other controllers are manifest from the original principle, and therefore the original principle is called the Supreme Controller or Īśvara. An enlightened yogi sees the principles of control, thereby understanding the science of how nature is controlled—i.e. organized into a systematic structure.
The creation of all these principles—along the central sushumnā—constitutes the primary creation. It flows from bottom to top, manifesting higher and higher organizing principles, until the highest organizing principle of morality or dharma is manifest. The first instance of this principle is Lord Brahma, and when Lord Brahma has been created, the primary creation has now come to an end. Hereafter, the secondary creation begins which involves Lord Brahma creating the individual living entities, planetary systems, social models, and various other things top-down—employing the previously created principles. In other words, the primary creation is that of principles or organization, while the secondary creation is the application of these principles to produce various kinds of organization.
Unlike the bottom-up process carried out by Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu which constitutes the sushumnā, the top-down process by Lord Brahma constitutes the idā. Finally, when there is time to destroy the universe, Saṅkarṣaṇa emits a fire which rises bottom-up and engulfs all secondary creations. The primary creations still remain intact, which means the organizing principle are still present as “ideas” but they are not being applied to create organized systems. In the Vedic texts, Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is called the “maintainer” because He produces the principles or the science of how to organize. He is therefore the reason why the universe appears to be organized. Lord Brahma is the “creator” because he applies these principles to create organization. Finally, Lord Saṅkarṣaṇa—also sometimes called Lord Shiva—becomes the destroyer. The maintainer and the destroyer are acting bottom-up while the creator acts top-down.
Mythical or Mystical?
Vedic texts appear mythical at first glance. But they are actually comprised of a model of organization, a science of the principles of organization, and a philosophy of nature, consciousness, and God. At the simplest level, we can try to comprehend the model—e.g. that the entire universe exists inside the stem of a lotus like structure. Then we can understand how the three dimensions can be reduced to a single twisted dimension. That twisted dimension helps us see the similarity to the yogic model of the body, which opens the door to a synergistic understanding of the universe as a body and the body as a universe. So far, we are in the domain of models—the body and the universe.
Beyond this, lies the science of the organizing principles of nature—which are amply described in Sāńkhya as constituting different levels of hierarchical organization. All these principles can be applied repeatedly which means they exist in atomic form, and their repeated application implies the combination of atoms. The combination is created by the next higher principle so at each level of organization, new order is created. All this process of organizing—and the organizing principles or forms of Lord Viṣṇu—constitutes science. Beyond this science is the philosophy of consciousness, how it has a meaning and pleasure seeking ability, although that ability is covered by illusion due to which the universe is created as truths and illusions, pleasures and pains. This constitutes the philosophy of life.
If one is patient, it is possible to gradually proceed through models, science, and philosophy in order to understand the profound knowledge found in Vedic texts.