This is part of a post that I have been asked to write for the homophilosophicus blog. I have decided that rather than write the whole article at once and post it on both blogs, I will write it in stages here. One reason for this is that I find it easier to write smaller direct posts, and I imagine that many readers will also find this easier to read. The second reason is that I can add details here that would probably be too much for a general audience. Thirdly, I can get feedback as I write. This topic fell naturally into different sections, giving me the idea. The sections in this coloured text are extras for this blog only!
Hinduism teaches that the past is infinite, as is the future. Though there was a creation of the universe and there will be an ultimate destruction, these mark one of many cycles. Many Hindus also believe that there are other parallel physical universes, though Hindu texts are largely agnostic on this. The duration of each cycle is measured in billions of years. The late Carl Sagan, an agnostic astronomer and astrophysicist commented:
But the main reason that we oriented this episode of COSMOS towards India is because of that wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology which first of all gives a time-scale for the Earth and the universe — a time-scale which is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years.
As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale. We want to get across the concept of the right time-scale, and to show that it is not unnatural. In the West, people have the sense that what is natural is for the universe to be a few thousand years old, and that billions is indwelling, and no one can understand it. The Hindu concept is very clear. Here is a great world culture which has always talked about billions of years.
This cycle of the physical universe itself repeats as part of a larger cycle, which in turn is in a further cycle. Different lineages may differ in the details of these cycles, but the gist is the same. Every 994 cycles of the universe a greater distruction occurs where the subtle plane (also known as the astral plane) is also destroyed, and after 36,000 of these cycles all three worlds (physical, astral, and causal plane or God’s abode) and all of space, and time are withdrawn into Shiva.
The above description is the beliefs of the Saiva Siddhanta church, which is classed as Advaita Ishvaravada. This contrasts with the beliefs of dualistic saiva sects and most vishnavas, who believe that the souls and God are eternally separate. During mahapralaya (the greatest destruction) souls continue to exist separate from God in a potential form. It is also different from the beliefs of the followers of Advaita Vedanta, who say that only the formless, impersonal Brahman exist after mahapralaya.
How does a human life fit in to this? At first thought it might seem that on this scale the soul of an individual is insignificant. This is not the case, however, as h the Mundaka Upanishad reveals the significance of the soul:
This is the truth:
as from a blazing fire
thousands of flaming sparks come forth,
so from the imperishable, my friend,
various beings come forth and return there also.
The atman is a divine spark of God. As Yogaswami of Jafna said “The one act God cannot do is to separate Himself from us even for a moment”. I believe that followers of Kabbalistic Judaism have a similar view of God. God by his very nature must be intimately concerned with us.
In the next section, “Kripa, divine mercy, and why forgiveness is not divine” I discuss how God helps us on our spiritual journey