Cosmology refers to a tradition’s beliefs concerning the origins of the universe. Cosmologies are often religious, but they don’t have to be: for instance, the accepted cosmology of modern science begins with the Big Bang. Science asides, most religions have their own distinct origin accounts; narratives that explain how everything came into being, and as often as not, why everything came into being.
It is usually accepted that there are five major philosophical systems within Hinduism, and guess what? They each provide their own, competing cosmologies.
So what actually unites these five schools under the umbrella term Hinduism? The simplest answer is that they all make appeals to the authority of a group of ancient texts collectively known as the Vedas. While there are many other texts that are venerated in Hinduism, in the end, the Vedas form the spiritual backbone of the Hindu tradition.
Not necessarily if you’re a Tantric. More on that in a bit.
Now, within the Vedas are a separate cluster of texts, called the Upanishads. It’s really here that the spiritual heart of Hinduism lies, and it is in these texts that the five philosophical schools each grounded their arguments. Of the five, I will consider two:
Advaita, also known as Advaita Vedanta, is one of the more well known schools, in part due to the works of a philosopher/theologian known as Adi Shankara. Writing in the early 8th century CE, he espoused a philosophy of Non-Dualism, wherein the souls of every sentient being (their Atman) are absolutely identical with the soul of the universe (Brahman, not to be confused with Brahma, the Vedic creator god). Thus, there are no-two (which is literally what A-dvaita means). The appearance of duality is Maya, or illusion.
Notice how Advaita sweeps the Problem of Evil under the rug: if everything is one, there can be no evil (or good for that matter); good and evil are just the veils of Maya.
However, Shankara was shrewd enough to realize that people are often comforted by having a relationship with a personal deity, especially when the veil of Maya is unkind. He didn’t deride this humanizing of the transcendent, even though he made it clear that he knew better. Called an Ishta Devata, it is an image of a divinity that resonates with the practitioner, and Shankara called on his followers to develop personal relationships with their chosen god form(s).
In other words, Adi Shankara had his metaphysical cake and ate it, too.
This is a system without a plan for salvation, since there is nothing but not-two-ness. An Advaitist can’t even talk in terms of being and non-being, since that implies a duality. It’s in this context that the Sanskrit expression “neti neti” can be understood – it translates to “not this, not this”, which makes perfect Advaitic sense: the minute you have a this, you have a that; where there is an object, you will find a subject; the idea of an inside necessitates the idea of an outside, and so on, until you’ve created an entire universe of dualities, all of which Vedanta refutes as illusion.
So that’s one way of looking at the cosmos, and it has it roots in the Upanishads. Score one point (actually, not-two points) for Advaita.
But there are several Upanishads, (actually numbered in the hundreds), and so there are other places to look for the origin of reality. The Samkhya philosophers, who would go on to have a major influence on Tantric cosmology, weren’t looking in the same places as Adi Shankara.
Adi Shankara was not amused, and wrote as much. He considered them un-Vedic. So what did they believe?
First, they were dismissive of any god outside of phenomenal existence. No Brahman; no not-twoness; in face, quite the opposite.
They maintained that the universe consists of two forces: consciousness, which is inert without space-time-matter-energy to bring it to life, and space-time-matter-energy, which is mindless without consciousness.
The first they called Purusa; the latter, Prkriti. They posited that from the interplay of these two primal energies (which they neither personified nor deified), all of creation evolved.
Evolved? Yes, evolved. It’s a big theme in Samkhya; it’s why they reject an unchanging, perfected deity; how could an unchanging creator bring forth an ever growing, very imperfect, always changing universe?
Nope. No god or gods. Just consciousness and matter, Purusa and Prkriti, dancing endlessly with each other, producing space and time, stars and planets, life and death.
Once again, Adi Shankara was not amused.
But there was one growing sect that was amused. Early Tantrics were quick to incorporate the concept of Purusa and Prkriti, only unlike the Samkhya, they were more than happy to personify and deify both of them. So Purusa became Siva, and Prkriti became Shakti/Kali.
Why does Kali trample Siva?
Because without the wild energy of physical matter, consciousness is dead.
Siva the god becomes Shava the corpse. This is why in yoga, the last pose is Shivasana, the position (asana) of Shiva, also called corpse pose.
But the relationship is symbiotic, because without consciousness, what’s the point of having a universe?
The universe demands life to appreciate Her own beauty; we are the mirror by which She witnesses Her own glory.
Two forces, dancing out the rhythm of creation; forging an ever evolving multiverse.
Why? Because they’re playful. Not just any play; it’s love play This very sexual metaphor for Life, the Universe and Everything has a name:
She is called Lila. Not Maya, something to disparaged, something to be escaped. No, quite the opposite.
For a Tantric who understands Lila, life is always a gift, never a curse. The real purpose of Tantric practices are to reengage with the primal bliss that informs our mortal coils.
And if sex is good enough for the gods to forge all of creation, it’s probably good enough for us to forge our own re-creation (as recreational as that might be).
It’s one of the most life affirming cosmologies I have encountered. If it speaks to you as well, you might find yourself walking down a Tantric path. If Tantra is too gaudy for your sensibilities, pick up the Tao Teh Ching: it has all the beauty of Lila/Tantra, but with a little less sex and violence.