Order and chaos in ancient Indian thought

Ancient Vedic conceptions of order and disorder echo though Indo-European religions and have clear implications on the structure of society.

The god Varuna on his vehicle a Makara (crocodile-like sea monster). Varuna plays a crucial role in establishing order in the universe through the separation of the heavens and the earth, and the earth and the sea. Credit: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.
The god Varuna on his vehicle a Makara (crocodile-like sea monster). Varuna plays a crucial role in establishing order in the universe through the separation of the heavens and the earth, and the earth and the sea. Credit: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘Religion : in the past, the present day and the future- Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2014′ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.

In his recent book, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars, Bruce Lincoln mentions a dispute from his college days between the historians of religion, Mircea Eliade and Jonathan Z Smith, over which came first: order, or disorder. ‘He forced me to acknowledge’, Lincoln reports Smith saying agitatedly, ‘that disorder can only exist in contrast to a prior order. I don’t know if that’s just a sly debater’s point, but I have to take it seriously. So I’m prepared to concede that order came first, but only by one half-second!‘ Lincoln doesn’t expatiate further as to why Smith made the concession he did. What is the precise dialectic between order and disorder Smith had in mind here, one wonders, and what did he mean by ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ and why should pristine order (whatever this may mean) have such a pathetically brief existence in his reckoning? Was Smith’s concession merely a rhetorical nod to Eliade? Further questions crowd the mind, but Lincoln concludes his anecdote as follows:

I am inclined to think that both Eliade and Smith got things wrong, as becomes clear from the mythic narratives we have considered. Thus, all three cosmogonic accounts (those of HesiodSnorri [from the Old Norse] and the Pahlavi texts) begin by positing a primordial situation that includes […] a vague, murky, unformed, decidedly insubstantial entity, rich in potential and neutral, even benign, in its disposition. This image represents neither ‘order’, ‘disorder, nor anything of the sort […] Rather, it is simply the ‘chaotic’, that is, the nebulous Etwas that mediates Non-being and Being as the precondition of all subsequent creation. The situation is pre-cosmic and thus, a fortiori, pre-moral and pre-political.

As Lincoln implies, he didn’t take ancient Indian views into consideration in his analysis. I doubt if any historian of religion would disagree with my claim that these views are of much import and interest for a fuller understanding of antique speculation about the origins of order and disorder in the world. In this short essay, we can do no more than make a start in considering these views, with Lincoln’s concluding statement functioning as background for dialogue.

As is well known, the first civilisation proper on record in the sub-continent is the Indus or ‘Harappan‘ civilisation, which is reckoned to have matured at about 2300 BC. From the archaeological data available, there can be no doubt that this was a vast and impressive civilisation. Nevertheless, in spite of many attempts to make sense of its script, it is generally agreed by linguists that, to date, this script remains undeciphered. Thus, there is not much we can say about our topic from this point of view.

Gradually, this civilisation suffered decline and, in ways that remain historically hazy, phased into a strand of Indo-European lore known as Vedic culture, which came to the fore in the northwest of the sub-continental landmass, spreading east and southwards, from about the beginning of the second millennium before the Common Era. Here we are more fortunate, for we are privy to a rich and cumulative verbal record of the religious thought and ritual of the purveyors of this culture.

The earliest segment of this record, produced in an ancient form of Sanskrit, was called the Veda, a term meaning ‘knowledge’; the knowledge, that is, that enabled those who were deemed eligible to achieve righteous or dharmic living in this world and happiness in the next. The production of this body of canonical material is itself a clear intimation of the pressing need for order experienced by the Vedic peoples, or at least by their leaders, in so far as it was deemed necessary by them to provide an authoritative conceptual framework for shaping the world in which they lived. This could only be done on the basis of some kind of shared experience, individually and collectively, in terms of existing spatial and temporal co-ordinates. This is why ancient scriptures, or their equivalents, are culture-specific, notwithstanding various human commonalities that they might exhibit, such as the predilection for a priesthood, for the male individual in society, for a social hierarchy of some kind, for the acknowledgement of a transcendent reality and of an after-life. And in every case of which I am aware, these canonical repositories for the acquisition of existential meaning and purpose have been religious rather than otherwise. My point is that it had to be so. Let me explain briefly as to why. The mark of the religious in this context is the crucial presence of mythic narrative and personalities, as well as of linguistic trope (metaphor, analogy and so on). This is inevitable when people, not only ancient but also modern, wonder about the conundrums of the origins of such phenomena as the world, humankind, society, the tribe and so on. For riddles of this kind are not susceptible to single answers or linear thinking and it is only myth coupled with linguistic trope that is capable of providing the nexus of possibilities, the conceptual and emotional pliability, that enable us to explore a range of options for adopting modes of viable behaviour in the face of overwhelming mystery. Myth, by nature, encourages variations on a theme; it is inherently explorative of its sustaining motifs. The idea of an Ur-myth that is determinative of conceptual content is a contradiction in terms; and the use of trope enhances and endorses this primal function of myth.

Knowledge-systems that militate against this approach and seek or demand the resolution of closure, such as those of most modern, experiment-based scientific disciplines, certainly have their place for attending to the palpable needs of everyday living, but are naturally opposed to the knowledge-system that myth represents. A mature civilisation needs both kinds of discourse for that cognitive interplay that, on the one hand, keeps alive a sense of continuous wonder against a horizon of infinite possibility (the mark of the religious spirit) and, on the other, the drive that seeks to resolve some of these possibilities by bringing them down to earth and converting them into ‘scientific progress‘. The sense of order, of intelligibility, that prevails in those repositories of meaning we call ‘scripture’ or ‘revelation’ is significantly different from the sense of order that governs empirical science; it affirms an order of multiple possibilities, rather than an order that narrows these down in an attempt to arrive at a single, albeit unitary, solution; it is an order that affirms a range of perspectives rather than an order that fosters narrow specialisation.

So it is with the body of hymns comprising the earliest literary genre of one strand of the Veda called the Rig Veda (abbr. RV). There are over a thousand of these Sanskrit hymns, ranging from a stanza in length to several dozen stanzas. The hymns invoke over three dozen mostly male, but also some female, ‘gods‘ and ‘goddesses’ (‘luminous ones’: devas and devis), either separately or in groups, of two deities or more, describing in the process their personae and mythic exploits, their relationships and occasional rivalries, mostly with supplication in mind for human welfare amid the vagaries of life, as also for protection against hostile forces, both trans-human and human. Most of these deities embody or preside over natural, moral and spiritual powers; as such, they lend structural order to the universe over three intersecting domains: the heavenly, the earthly (together with the intermediate regions) and the underworld.

It is not to our point to expatiate further on these various deities. Let us focus rather on several emergent concepts pertaining to the occurrence of order in this section of the RV, bearing in mind that while the Rig Vedic hymns do not make up a body of seamless semantic content, they do constitute a single, coherent universe of discourse. In this context, we can make the following distinction: while ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ are to be regarded as correlative, if contrary, concepts, ‘chaos’ is to be understood as a logically prior notion, pointing to a certain state that obtains before a more definite form of order and/or disorder can come into being. We can now turn our attention to an important background hymn for the topic we are considering, the so-called Hymn of Creation (or Nasadiya Sukta, RV 10.129) which apostrophises a One that existed from illo tempore, or ‘at the beginning’. The hymn comprises seven verses, and a translation is not easy to make, but here is a partial rendering that gives a flavour of the sense of the hymn:

(1.) There was neither non-being nor being then. The firmament did not exist, nor the space beyond. What lay hidden? Where? Under whose protection? Did the waters exist, impenetrable, profound?
(2.) There was no death then, nor immortality, no trace of night or day.
That One breathed without breath on its own; other than it, there was nothing whatever.
(3.) Darkness existed in the beginning, hidden by darkness. [...] Whatever existed was covered by nothingness.
That One arose, perforce, through heat.
(4.) In the beginning, desire enveloped that. That which first existed was the seed of mind. Sages, seeking within their hearts with insight, discovered being’s bridge in non-being.
(6.) Who really knows? Who will here declare
whence this creation came about, whence it was born? Only after Its emission did the gods arise.
So who knows whence it arose?
(7.) Who knows whence this creation arose? Whether It established it, or whether It did not.
He who is its witness in the highest heaven,
He alone knows, or perhaps even He does not know.

We recognise here an attempt to speak of what might have prevailed – a One perhaps – before being-with-form (‘creation’, the ‘gods’) arose from a pre-existing, nebulous state (‘darkness…hidden by darkness’). The speculation about a state of affairs fraught with simple possibility is extremely tentative. Nevertheless, Lincoln seems to be right; we can detect the presence here of a ‘nebulous Etwas‘, ‘vague, murky, unformed’, ‘insubstantial’, ‘that mediates Non-being and Being as the precondition of all subsequent creation’, in short, ‘chaos’ as the fertile precondition of formed being or ‘creation’, seemingly presided over by a pre-existing One, itself a concept presaging order. There is in this One-chaos combination a semblance of originative order that came first; before this, there could have been literally nothing – not even ‘disorder’. It is hard to believe that such a conception is not a universal human one, irrespective of its cultural depiction. The human mind seems to be predisposed to posit the pre-existence of what we might call a potentia for order that resolves into a synthetic dialectic between a forming order and an antithetical disorder that, by its resistant qualities, provokes its correlate continuously to reinvent itself, often in newly emergent ways. Disorder at this stage is a catalyst for (re-)emergent order, a state of resistance, often bordering on decline, that forces order to seek new and stable ways of being. It is in this sense that we can say that, as the correlate of order, disorder does indeed exist only ‘one half-second’ after order, as J.Z. Smith insisted. But in this sense, too, disorder is not necessarily a negative adversary of order: quite the contrary.

What is given in this hymn to a presiding One is a sense of a wide range of possibilities available for crystallisation, before some of these possibilities can, or do, take shape to bring about the particular cosmos with which the hymnodists are concerned. In other words, the first phase of our concept of mythic order, mentioned earlier, is at work here, viz. the phase that betokens the availability of indefinite possibilities for realising a cosmic structure before the process of articulating this structure, with all its cultural conditioning, can begin.

In the developing antique Indian tradition, the words used to capture more definite expressions of law, order and disorder on both a personal and impersonal level are in the main rta and dharma on the one hand and adharma (with some associated terms such as agas, enas) on the other. Here are a few examples of how the Vedic sages sought to implement the broad range of concepts indicated here.

The first is taken from a hymn to Varuna (RV 7.86), a prominent deity especially associated with law and transgression in personal life. In the somewhat lengthy passage that follows, a well-regarded early scholar of the Veda, A.A. Macdonell, describes Varuna thus:

Varuna is mainly lauded as upholder of physical and moral order. He is a great lord of the laws of nature. He established heaven and earth and, by his law, heaven and earth are held apart […] Varuna is lord of light both by day and by night. He is also a regulator of the waters. He caused the rivers to flow […] It is, however, with the aerial waters that he is usually connected. Thus he makes the inverted cask (the cloud) to pour its waters on heaven, earth and air and to moisten the ground. Varuna’s ordinances being constantly said to be fixed, he is pre-eminently called [one] whose laws are established. The gods themselves follow his ordinances […] He embraces the universe and the abodes of all beings. He is all-knowing […] [B]eholding all the secret things that have been or shall be done, he witnesses men’s truth and falsehood […] As moral governor, Varuna stands far above any other deity. His wrath is aroused by sin, the infringement of his ordinances, which he severely punishes […] On the other hand, Varuna is gracious to the penitent […] He spares him who daily transgresses his laws when a suppliant and is gracious to those who have broken his laws by thoughtlessness […] [T]he word [varuna] appears to be derived from the root vr, cover or encompass.

Many of Varuna’s attributes described here can be discerned from the hymn to which reference was made above:

(1.) The peoples are wise through the greatness of him who has fixed in their stations the heaven and the earth, who has thrust up on high the vast dome of the sky
and the stars, and has spread out the earth down below
(3.) I question myself on my sin [enah. ], O Varuna, desirous to know it. I seek out the wise
to ask them; the sages all give me this answer: 'The God, great Varuna, is angry with you'.
(4.) What, then, O God, is my greatest transgression [agah.]
for which you would ruin your singer, your friend?
Tell me, O God, who knows all and lacks nothing,
So that quickly prostrating, I may sinless [anenah. ]crave pardon.
(5.) Loose us from the yoke of the sins of our Fathers, also of those we ourselves have committed.
Release your servant, as a thief is set free
from his crime, or as a calf is loosed from its cord ...
(8.) O [Varuna], whose power is self-subsisting,
may these praises now reach you and lodge in your heart! Well may it go with us in peace and in warfare!
Ever protect us, O Gods, with your blessings!

There are concepts in effect here of a disposer of natural and moral law, of personal transgression or ‘sin’ against a heavenly law-giver, who oversees all and who has power to punish, of penitence and of mercy and forgiveness on the part of the law-giver, and of a potentially friendly relationship arising between this law-giver and his subjects – the framework, in fact, for quite a developed concept of .rta, or moral and sacred order. Such concepts, whatever may be said about their applicability in modern times, have generally underpinned the making and running of stable societies in ancient cultures. And as mentioned above, they are an earthly, culture-specific precipitate of that nexus of possibilities that characterises the notion of mythic order.

Our second example is taken from a hymn to the ‘goddess’ Ushas or ‘Dawn’ (RV 7.77), who brings the first light to dispel the obscuring darkness of night and so gives definition to the hitherto amorphous landscape. As such, Ushas is the harbinger of a meaningful order to the world of righteous living, in which the fire of the sacred ritual is kindled day after day. Again and again, she gives birth to nature’s form from its womb of enshrouding darkness:

(1.) Dawn comes shining like a Lady of Light, stirring to life all creatures. Now it is time
to kindle the Fire.
The light of Dawn scatters the shadows.
(2.) Her face turned toward
this far-flung world,
she rises, enwrapped in bright garments. Shining with gold,
with rays of light bedecked,
She sends forth the world on its course ...
(5.) Beam forth your light
to guide and sustain us, prolonging, O Goddess, our days. Give to us food,
grant to us joy,
chariots and cattle and horses.
(6.) Lady nobly born,
Daughter of Heaven, worshipped by all the illustrious, grant us your blessings,
riches and wealth.
Now and forever protect us! (Panikkar 1977:169–70)

But what was the instrument in the antique Indian mind – and not only the Indian mind, but in the Indo-European narrative as a whole – whereby the world is given a shape, a structure, that must be received with reverence and re-disposed or transformed, if at all, with due care and consideration? The answer is sacrifice, the ‘making sacred’ (sacrum facere) of that which is received as form within the constraints of space and time. This is another way of adverting to the need for a ritualised endorsement of order, whether this be an order that is received or bestowed. Sacrifice endorses, preserves, legitimates. Such ritualised affirmation of the sacrosanct, the underlying raison d’être of sacrifice, is not only an ancient practice, it remains a vital part of contemporary, so-called secular existence, finding application in the way we ceremonially bury or commemorate our war-dead, enshrine constitutions of state, or of other bodies, bills of rights, various legislative prescriptions and so on. The arm of ancient religious practice has a long, if not always discernible, contemporary reach.

In the Veda, perhaps the locus classicus for depicting the sacrificial act that produced the world is the Purusha Sukta, or Hymn of the Cosmic Person (RV 10.90). In its 16 stanzas, this cosmogonic hymn describes essentials of original cosmic order as perceived by the Vedic seer. The hymn envisages a version of the anthropomorph – the human figure (with its culturally male bias) – as the ideal (and not only a convenient) norm for earthly design and development, for it is in terms of the anthropomorph that all of earthly creation took place. Rather than paring down this fairly lengthy hymn through a partial rendering in the limited space available, we shall summarise its chief content.

In the beginning existed the ‘thousand-headed, thousand-eyed, thousand-footed’ Cosmic Person or Purusha, which encompassed and then expanded beyond the earth (vr.1); from this primordial, mysterious being was born another Great Purusha, who also enveloped the earth and then extended beyond it (vr.5). This was the Purusha which the gods sacrificially dismembered, using natural elements (‘the spring was [the oblation’s] melted butter, the summer its fuel’, vr.6) as part of the ritual to produce ‘the beasts of the air, of the forest, and those of the village'(vr.8), the sacred hymns, metres and chants (vr.9), celestial bodies and personae (vr.13), facets of the universe (air, sky, the earth, the quarters, vr.14) – and the social order (vrs.11–12). The hymn concludes as follows: ‘Through sacrifice did the gods perform sacrifice. These were the first precepts of order …’ (vr.16).

We have a pattern here, in terms both of what exists and what should be done, from the Vedic point of view, for righteous living, a pattern essentially suitable for human beings in so far as it issues from an image of the anthropomorph. This is why this cosmogonic hymn, speaking of the origin of cosmic order, is also sociogonic, that is, prescriptive of how the ideal society came about (again from the specific Vedic point of view).6 So in verses 11 and 12 we have:

(11.) When they dismembered the Purusha,
into how many parts did they apportion him? What did his mouth become? What are his arms, his thighs, his feet called?
(12.) His mouth became the Brahmin;
both arms were made the one who protects and rules (rajanya); his thighs became the trader (vaisya),
from his feet the servant (sudra) arose.

The primacy of the anthropomorph is now complete, for in so far as the human body is organically disposed in a certain way, so too does the ideal human society reflect the organic shape of this body. Further, the hierarchical structure of this society reflects the top-down structure of the anthropomorph, reaffirmed in terms of a gradation of ritual purity with the mouth (and its counterpart, the ritually pure Brahmin) at the top and the feet (with their ritually impure homologue, the Sudra) at the bottom. So far as the Vedic seer was concerned, the structure of the world was now virtually complete, with the brooding cloud of pre-cosmic chaos, replete with its endless supply of existential possibilities, finally yielding the precipitate of an ideal cosmic order. On this platform a righteous or dharmic life, both individually and collectively, could now be built. Almost every civilisation has had its own conception of a sacred primal mythic order which ramified with the passage of time through a dynamic interplay between the concepts of chaos, order and countervailing disorder into a variety of historical actualities, right up to the present day.

I should like to consider one final lesson that we can derive from our topic. It is a lesson with political overtones and Lincoln adverts to it in one of his essays:

When newly emergent regimes of power develop the habit of describing their predecessors and adversaries […] as manifestations of ‘chaos’, by which they now mean ‘disorder’ […] what they have done is to capture an older discourse of primordial potentiality and absolute freedom (‘the chaotic’), which they tendentiously remodel for use as a weapon with which to stigmatise opponents and foreclose all unwanted possibilities: above all, any challenges to their power’.

What needs to be clarified in relation to these pre-emptive, political critiques of past ‘chaos’ (or ‘disorder’) is their tendency to depart from the antique notions of ‘chaos’ we have been referring to, which in fact betoken the arising of a pristine (and desirable) crystallisation of order from a pre-existent state of fertile possibility. The subsequent political subversion of this positive notion trades on – or perhaps was productive of – a meaning of ‘chaos’ that is familiar today, viz. a state of ‘disorder’ that must be remedied at all costs. In any case, this is a gambit often resorted to for their own ends by proponents of all kinds of political and other power-play.

It has been my intention to contend in this essay that, if the antique Vedic tradition can function as a representative example, then at least in the Indo-European family of traditions generally, when ancient sages sought to explain the arising of order and disorder in the world, they tended to posit a positive, pre-cosmic, brooding state of chaos of some kind, pregnant with existential possibilities, which then crystallised (often through some anthropomorphic model) into the actuality of a specific but still ideal cosmic order. This ideal could then be ‘applied’ to existing conditions. The ideal cosmic order that emerged was conceived of as doing so on some levels and/or in some circumstances through grand, personalised forces (i.e. ‘gods’, superheroes) that could interact with personal or impersonal representatives of disorder (i.e. negative forces, demons, super-villains) to produce stable or changeable historical realities in accordance with developing perceptions of the lived environment. Thus rules and regulations for maintaining order and warding off disorder in every department of life, in terms of the overall Vedic vision, proliferated. These instructions were recorded in what came to be known as the dharma texts (the Dharma SutrasDharma Sastras, Srauta Sutras and so on) of various schools of practice. The concept of a primordial chaos developed too with the passage of time, through the concept of pralaya, in which the notions of cyclical ages of time, and karma and rebirth, played an important part.

The antique conception described above, which is essentially religious, represents a mythos or a mythic way of thinking that is basically different from the (modern) scientific approach. Whereas the former affirms an open spectrum of explorative possibilities, the latter seeks closure by seeking to narrow these down through disciplines of experimental specialisation. Both modes of thinking are needed interactively in a civilised society; these antique conceptions of chaos, order and disorder still have social, religious and political repercussions and continue to act implicitly as a cognitive catalyst for scientific progress and discovery. Thus, at least an underlying or implied religious sensibility remains crucial for a mature modus operandi in our situational environments, in so far as it is key to understanding how we have shaped and continue to shape the diverse worlds in which we live.


Julius J. Lipner