Life, death, creation, destruction, days, months, years, inhaling, exhaling, etc are all parts of a cycle; we end something only to make a new beginning
In his monumental work The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade notes, “Since (a) religious man cannot live except in an atmosphere impregnated with the sacred,” he always tries to construct and consecrate his own sacred space wherever he moves or lives and he does this by “reproducing the work of the gods”, i.e. recreating the primordial creation.
This is especially true for Hindus since, for them, “all life is sacred”, in the words of Swamini Pramananda of Poorna Vidya. A few years ago, the revered swamini had recounted to a receptive audience in a village in Kerala how, for a practising Hindu, the distinction between sacred and secular simply does not exist.
This does not mean that Hindus do not recognise the difference between pursuits of transactional (vyavaharika) nature and those of spiritual (adhyatmika) and transcendental (paramartika) nature. While the former is clearly recognised as leading merely to preyasa (material pleasures), the latter alone is understood as leading to sreyasa (permanent happiness). However, owing to the Hindu understanding of ishavasyamidamsarvam — that divinity pervades everything here (in the universe) — we, Hindus, ceaselessly attempt to realise this divinity in all our endeavours, in the most mundane of our activities, so that we can continuously and uninterruptedly live in satya (absolute reality) even while living in mithya (temporary unreality of the world).
It is this intense hankering to remain close to satya and to eventually merge with it that Hindus create and recreate srishti that beginning, when Brahman (God or satya) alone was, from whom the entire manifestation of the cosmos was set into motion and into whom the entire cosmos will eventually return — as noted by Taittiriya Upanishad. There can be no better example of this than the Vedic yajna.
Writing about the Vedic ritual for taking possession of a territory mentioned in the Shatapatha Brahmana, wherein the possession of the land attains legitimacy only “through the erection of a fire altar consecrated to Agni”, Eliade notes that “the erection of an altar to Agni is nothing but the reproduction — on the microcosmic scale — of the Creation. The water in which the clay is mixed is assimilated into the primordial water; the clay that forms the base of the altar symbolises the earth; the lateral walls represent the atmosphere, and so on. And the building of the altar is accompanied by songs that proclaim which cosmic region has just been created.” Thus, in the said yajna, there is not just an imitation of the cosmic srishti, but there is, in fact, a recreation of the cosmogony.
This re-enacting of srishti and laya, the eternal cosmic cycles of creation and dissolution, is not limited to just the performance of the yajna. It is reflected even in the structure where the yajna is conducted. Called yajna-shala, the structure is temporary, built afresh at the commencement of a new yajna and then dismantled after the completion of the ritual.
Another example is the nrityagrihas or theatre halls well documented in Indian literary tradition. In a recent workshop on Natyashastra, Bharat Gupt noted how, unlike the Greek theatres, whose remains can be found even today, there are no archaeological remains of the Indian theatre halls. He said that the reason for this was that much like yajnashalas, the theatre halls were also temporary structures, which were dismantled at the end of the play.
Yet another example is the Hindu wedding. Apart from the rituals, which are of course central to the Hindu marriage, the most important infrastructure, which has both mundane and spiritual relevance is the mandap or mantapa in which the entire marriage is carried out. Though a large number of marriages today, especially in southern India, is carried out in a marriage hall, a mantapa is still constructed at the very beginning of the marriage ceremony and it is dismantled at the very last. Thus, we can see the recreation of the cosmic acts of srishti and laya in what can be considered the most mundane activities like the theatre hall or a social marriage, thereby sacralising all these activities.
Even our texts are not without such sacralisation. Take the Mahabharata, for example. Vishwa Adluri, who has done many years of research on the itihasa, note that the very narrative of the Mahabharata is cyclical and it “mirrors the cyclic conception of eonic time”. He adds that “the Mahābhārata is always ending and always beginning” and the epic is self-conscious about its “imitation of the structure of cyclical time”. The same can be observed about Manu Smriti as well. The text on dharma locates the discussion on the varnashrama dharma inside the cycle of srishti and laya and, thus, begins its teachings from an account of the cosmic srishti. Thus, anybody who reads these texts, they enter these texts as a witness to the continuous cycle of textual creation and destruction.
By celebrating the Hindu New Year, a new beginning is made every year, thereby entering a new cycle of srishti. This is akin to the yogic understanding of breathing as an imitation of the cosmic cycle, with inhaling denoting the birth and exhaling the death, are other examples of this recreation of “Creation”. Since, for a Hindu, every breath denotes entering a new srishti, the revered swamini said, “All life is sacred for a Hindu”.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane
Adluri, Vishwa. Frame Narratives and Forked Beginnings: Or, How to Read the Ādiparvan