Origins of the universe

What accounts of the origins of the universe are given by science?

The big bang theory of the origin of the universeA timeline from the Big Bang to Earth's first oceans

In the distant past most people accepted their religion's explanation of how the universe began. As the world became more interested in science in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, religion alone couldn't always explain the new discoveries being made. In the 1920s the Big Bang theory was proposed as a possible scientific explanation for the creation of the universe.

It was first proposed by Alexander Friedman, a Russian mathematician in 1922 and expanded upon in 1927 by Georges-Henri Lemaitre. He was a Belgian physicist, who was also a Roman Catholic priest. Scientists such as Edwin Hubble have made detailed observations and measurements that support and develop this theory.

Put simply, around 14 billion years ago, all matter and energy in the universe was at a point of infinite density and temperature. It then expanded rapidly, and eventually stars, galaxies and planets formed. This expansion was the beginning of time and continues to this day. The Big Bang theory is supported by evidence that space is expanding, including the redshift of light from distant galaxies and the existence of cosmic background radiation in all directions.

It is thought the Earth was formed around 4.6 billion years ago from dust and gas left after the Sun formed.

As the Earth gradually cooled, creating conditions in which life was possible, living things appeared on the new planet Earth.

Not all scientists agree with the Big Bang theory, but many of their objections are to do with the details within the process, not the underlying principle that it happened. Similarly, there are different hypotheses about how life began on Earth. These can be tested, but scientists cannot be sure which are correct because it happened long ago.

What accounts of the origins of the universe are found in Hinduism?

Examples of how the origins of the universe are explained in Hinduism include:

  • A lotus flower grew from Lord Vishnu's navel with Brahma sitting on it. Brahma separated the flower into three parts: the Heavens, the Earth and the Sky.
  • Out of loneliness, Brahma split himself into two to create a male and a female and from this all beings were created.
  • Another story makes reference to life coming from the cracking of an enormous egg, which is the life from which the universe is born.
  • The 'hymn of creation' from the Rig Veda concludes that nobody knows how the universe came into being and even questions whether Brahman knows.
  • Some Hindu texts offer a more 'scientific' explanation based on the evolution of primary elements from a single source.

These accounts, and others, were written many centuries ago in or around what we now know as India. They were not necessarily intended to be taken as literal scientific truth, but are indicators of the complexity and infinite nature of the universe.

Many Hindus understand religious teachings about the universe in the following ways:

  • Brahma is the creator god who works with Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva to maintain an unending cycle of universes. All three are aspects of Brahman.
  • Time is not a straight line but eternal cycles, universes being created, existing and 'dying', followed by recreation, existence and death, with no beginning and no end. This is mirrored in the belief in reincarnation.

Is the Big Bang theory compatible with Hinduism?

Many Hindus believe that the Big Bang theory offers no challenge to their belief in creation. It is a scientific theory that sits alongside their religious beliefs. It does not deny the position of Brahman nor the belief in the continual cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. Nowhere in the Big Bang theory is there discussion of the atman or any attempt to diminish its eternal nature.