Indian scriptures talk of balancing chaos and order, while Western mythologies depict the two locked in a zero-sum battle in which order must triumph, writes Rajiv Malhotra.
In the Vedas and Upanishads, and in the vast canon of classical writings in Sanskrit, the search is always for balance and equilibrium with the rights of chaos acknowledged. In the creation stories in Genesis and in the Greek classics, there is a constant zero-sum battle between the two poles in which order must triumph…. This structure underlies much of Western culture and psychology….
Prajapati begets a universe
In Vedic literature, numerous stories recount the creator Prajapati’s efforts to beget a universe that would hold the two forces of order and chaos in equilibrium. His first attempt results in a creation which is insufficiently differentiated (jami), as it possesses too much order. This precludes integral unity because there are no sufficiently distinct components to cohere in the first place. They are undifferentiated and simply merge into each other, a state the Pancavimsa Brahmna refers to as a ‘nightmare’.
The second attempt at creation yields a universe which is too fragmented or chaotic (prthak, nanatva). When entities in the universe are too individualist, scattered, separated or different from each other — prthak, they cannot connect. What is desired is a creation which possesses a measure of distinction and individuality but avoids the quality of jami — i.e., it would be interconnected yet circumventing the equally undesirable state of prthak.
Prajapati recognises that all life should be situated between these opposing excesses of too much identity differences and too much homogeneity. Ultimately, he succeeds in producing just such a universe. He does so through the power of resemblance, known as ‘bandhuta’ or bandhu…. The Vedas abound in attempts at finding connections among the numerous planes of reality. This serves as a cardinal principle of all Vedic thought and moral discourse.
Hinduism weaves multiple narratives around the central motif of cooperative rivalry between order (personified as devas) and chaos (personified as asuras). A key narrative shared by all the dharma traditions — the ‘churning of the milky ocean,’ or ‘samudra-manthan’ — shows the eternal struggle between two poles. The milky ocean is the ocean of consciousness and creativity, which is to be churned in order to obtain amrita, or the nectar of eternal life.
Two opposing sides are needed for churning. Curiously, both sides have a common father: Kashyapa (literally ‘vision’). The asuras’ mother is Diti (divided, limited), and so the asuras are the offspring of limited vision. The devas spring from Aditi (limitless), and they thus embody higher vision. The asuras usually have more brute strength, but both the power and strength of the asuras as well as the higher vision of the devas are needed for the churning. The to-ing and fro-ing between these archetypes is never-ending and also symbolises the spiritual struggles within the individual.
The devas grab the tail, the asuras, the head, of the cosmic serpent, using it as a rope which they wind around a mountain that serves a churning stick. They engage in a tug of war, pulling back and forth to churn the primordial ocean. The dualism is between knowledge and ignorance, though the latter should not be mistaken for sin or damnation. Asuric tendencies are not considered permanent essences but inner qualities that emerge at a given point in time. Their mutual tension does not get resolved with one side defeating the other, and their stalemate produces all sorts of wondrous and beneficial objects before open conflict breaks out over questions of priority in partaking of the nectar of immortality.
Significantly, nectar is produced only after a pot of poison emerges from the ocean — demonstrating yet again the interdependence between good and bad. The story points the way to the transcendence of both order and chaos, which are brought into delicate equilibrium and ultimately subordinated to spiritual realisation….
Crossovers and collusions
Some of the principal Vedic divinities, especially Agni, Soma and Varuna, are asuras who have crossed over to the side of the devas at the behest of Indra but who still retain their ambivalence and sinister aspects. At the end of the annual cycle — around the time of the new year festivals — the asuras are believed to return temporarily to their demonic status. Society, at the time, dissolves into chaos (as depicted playfully during the festival of Holi) before the ordered cosmos is renewed again.
In the co-operative rivalry between devas and asuras, the asuras often seem to be winning; there are frequent indications that the deepest knowledge and most exceptional powers are safeguarded by extremely ambivalent figures belonging to the camp of the asuras.
Such recurrent crossovers, collusions, and reversals serve to overturn and undermine the Western attitude towards chaos, which is dualistic and exclusivist: order versus chaos, insider or outsider, and so on.
Published: February 29, 2012