Myths of creation

As part of the universal human search for the truth of existence, one is often struck by the similarities between some myths in various religions and cultures, writes B. N. Goswamy

To me are known beginnings and ends.
Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), Russian poet

Folio from an illustrated manuscript of the Nath Charit
Aspects of the Absolute: Folio from an illustrated manuscript of the Nath Charit. Jodhpur; attributed to the painter, Bulaki; 1823. The Jodhpur Royal Collection

I recall having heard, a long time back, a recording of the French composer, Darius Milhaud’s great piece, La Creation du Monde — the ‘Creation of the World’, in other words — sitting with a friend at Kiel in northern Germany. I knew next to nothing then about Milhaud, and naturally nothing about this piece, which was written in 1923. But I was riveted by the music.

Nobody had to explain it to me; no words were necessary. There it was: a keen mind’s leap into the unknown, imagining in the language of music how it might have begun. It opened with an overture with piano, violins and cello, establishing a soft yet dark atmosphere. Echoing themes for trumpet and clarinet then joined in, and then other wind instruments, the tempo rising and sounds arguing with each other.

It was as if the gods of creation were gathering to make something out of chaos. There were stops and then again gentle beginnings. On and on it went — six long sections — themes unfolding, the sense of wonder rising. But about the whole piece the air was not that of a violent cataclysm that western cultures often visualise but a confident and rhythmic growth. There was primitivism in the piece, but it was simple, not barbaric. I remember vividly the impact it made upon me.

It came back to me as I was going through a catalogue of the splendid show on Jodhpur paintings that opened at Washington last year: Garden and Cosmos. Jodhpur — the whole of Marwar, in fact — has always been a part of one’s awareness of Rajasthani painting, but never occupied the front row, so to speak. And yet there have obviously been sitting in the royal collection of that great state, rare treasures. Fortunately, this book allows us tantalising glimpses of these.

To take the works that were made for Maharaja Man Singh (1803-1843), a devotee of his Nath gurus, alone: there are things in it — illustrated manuscripts and isolated paintings — that take one’s breath away by their sheer boldness. In the context of the myths of creation, with which I began this piece, there are those stunning opening folios of a text called the Nath Charit among which is what can be called a triptych of sorts: three equal squares in which, according to the catalogue, "Aspects of the Absolute" are explored. The first square, at extreme left, is blank: simply an area of shimmering metallic golden colour, evoking as it were ‘the formless and eternal essence of the universe’, according to Nath belief.

In the central square — or panel — of the painting a Nath siddha — youthful, simply dressed, with a luminous nimbus surrounding the head — is seen seated against the same golden expanse, having manifested himself: symbolising evidently the emergence of form.

In the panel at right, the same siddha now is seen seated on a silvery patch of light that has substance and weight, as if cosmic matter had begun to take shape. And so on it apparently proceeds, this extraordinary illustrated manuscript, tracing — and departing in many ways from classical Hindu and Jain myths of creation that one knows well — the evolution of spirit and matter. It is as if one were being invited to witness the great drama of a world that was once ‘immeasurable, prop-less, unchanging, without attributes’ turning slowly into the tangible world that we know and are parts of. There are creative leaps here, in this and other illustrated texts such as the Shiva Purana, that feature in the catalogue. One is riveted.

Clearly all this is a part of a universal human search, and speculation. For have we not all — all cultures, all people — always wondered about where it all came from: how did it all begin? Do we not all have our ‘sacred narratives’ that, for a great many people, are real: not, as someone said, "in a linear, literal, or scientific sense", but nevertheless real?

Speaking of this, one is easily led to speculations and meditations that are part of each religion and culture: from Hindu and Jain and Buddhist to Sumerian and Judaic and Christian and Islamic, apart from countless others. And one is even sometimes struck by the broad similarities between some myths. As I was reading about the subject, I found a myth current among the North American Indian tribe of the Apaches curiously reminiscent of what the Jodhpur painter — Bulaki, incidentally, is the painter to whom the work I have written about is attributed — has rendered.

"In the beginning", that myth begins, "nothing existed, only darkness was everywhere. Suddenly from the darkness emerged a thin disc, one side yellow and the other side white, appearing suspended in mid-air. Within the disc sat a small bearded man, Creator, the One Who Lives Above. When he looked into the endless darkness, light appeared above. He looked down and it became a sea of light."

Some creation myths are complex, others relatively simple. What I found myself fascinated by, however, was the wonderful directness, and sense of wonder, embedded in the myth that Tahitians, in the southern part of the Pacific, have lived with for countless generations. This is how it runs:

He was. Taaroa was his name. He stood in the void: no earth, no sky, no men. Taaroa called the four corners of the universe: nothing replied. Alone existing, he changed himself into the universe. Taaroa is the light, he is the seed, he is the base, he is the incorruptible. The universe is only the shell of Taaroa. It is he who puts it into motion and brings forth its harmony.

Or, it could get even simpler. A contemporary poet, Mathias Svalina, thought of it like this: "In the beginning, there was a pen that drew itself into existence."