Religious views on the origin and course of the universe. Many religions tell about the origins of the world, but not all do. For example, the BUDDHA refused to talk about the origin of the universe. Buddhists therefore usually envision the universe as a series of cycles, stretching inﬁ nitely into the past and the future. Other religions have cyclical views of the universe, too.
Religions explain the origin of the universe in different ways. One familiar way is creation by a GOD. This may be creation from nothing, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims usually think today, or it may also involve creation by a god who works on preexisting matter, which is one way to read the ﬁ rst verse of GENESIS. Other stories may not tell of creation in a strict sense, but they do tell about the origin of things.
One common story attributes the world to the sexual activity of two divine beings. For example, a Babylonian poem, the “Enuma Elish,” attributes the world to the union of Apsu and Tiamat, sweet waters and salt waters. Navajo tradition tells what is sometimes called an “emergence myth.” Originally, the ancestors lived in the center of the earth, but through a variety of means they arrived on the earth’s surface and organized the world that is known today. Another type of Native American myth attributes the creation of the earth to an “earth-diver.” For example, the Yokuts Indians of California believed that a duck dove down deep below the surface of the waters and brought up dirt, from which dry land was made.
Somewhat similarly, ancient Japanese stories identiﬁ ed the islands of Japan with dirt that divine beings brought up from the bottom of the sea. A passage in the UPANISHADS, a sacred text in HINDUISM, envisions the origin of the universe as the splitting of a primal egg. Different parts of the egg became parts of the world; for example, the shells became the sky and the earth. Another Hindu text, a hymn in the Rig VEDA, attributes the origin of the world to the sacriﬁ ce of a primal person. A similar motif appears in NORDIC RELIGION and some stories from Oceania.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims generally think of time as beginning at creation and extending to the Day of Judgment, but other religions think in terms of world cycles. That is, they think that worlds come into and go out of existence repeatedly.
Human beings often measure time by referring to cycles such as months. Some people have used more than one cycle to keep track of time. For example, the Maya calendar used two cycles, one 260 days long (20 “months” of 13 days each), the other 365 days long (18 “months” of 20 days each). Every 18,980 days or 52 years, the ﬁ rst day of the 260-day cycle coincided with the ﬁ rst day of the 365-day cycle. When that happened, the Maya thought that a new world had begun.
Fifty-two years is a relatively short world cycle. The Maya knew another world cycle, too, one that they calculated using a calendar known as the Long Count. This cycle began in the year 3114 B.C.E. It will end on December 23, 2012. Some Buddhists thought of a world cycle that was roughly the same length, 5000 years. After that many years, they suggested, the Buddha’s teachings will disappear, and another Buddha will arrive.
Hinduism has some of the longest world cycles. The basic unit is the yuga or age. There are four yugas: the Satya (or Krita) yuga (1,728,000 years), the Dvapara yuga (1,296,000 years), the Treta yuga (864,000 years), and the Kali yuga (432,000 years, not to be confused with the goddess K ALI.) We are now about 5,000 years into the Kali yuga.
But for Hindu ideas of world cycles, that is only the beginning. According to one version, the four yugas make up an age of MANU. Fourteen ages of Manu make up a unit known as a kalpa, which is a day in the life of the god BRAHMA. When the day is over, the universe goes out of existence for the same amount of time (that is, 60,480,000 years). Then it returns for the next day in Brahma’s life. This happens for a full life of 100 Brahma-years. At that point one needs to talk about another, even larger cycle.
Existence and its meaning are one of the most important issues with which religions deal. The length of the Hindu cycles (deliberately) boggles the mind. Nevertheless, many scholars believe that by talking about creation and world cycles religions make the world meaningful and intelligible.