Hinduism maintains that the universe is beginning less and endless. It subscribes to the theory of manifestation and non-manifestation of the universe, of evolution of cosmic energy into names and forms and its involution. The Vedas describe this process as the out-breathing and in-breathing of Brahman. The Upanishads say that just as the hair and nails grow on a living person, as the threads come out of a spider, as sparks fly from a blazing fire, as melodies issue from a flute, or as waves rise on the ocean, so also does the universe come forth from Brahman. Brahman is both the material and the efficient cause of the universe.
This manifestation of Brahman as the manifold universe is not real but apparent. Through its inscrutable power of maya, Brahman appears as the world of matter and souls, and as endowed with the activities of creation, preservation, and dissolution. Maya veils the ultimate reality and in its place projects various appearances. Maya is change and relativity. It is neither real nor unreal nor both. If the world of maya were real, then it could never be changed. On the other hand, it cannot be unreal because the sufferings of life are felt tangibly. As long as it is not known, maya is delusive; but when known, maya is nothing but Brahman. Maya is comprised of the three gunas, or qualities: sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva is balance or equilibrium; rajas is restlessness or imbalance; tamas is inertia or darkness. The three gunas are present in varying degrees in all objects, gross or subtle, including the body-mind complex of an individual. For example, when sattva prevails in an individual, the light of knowledge begins to shine through his body and mind. When rajas prevails, he is stirred by unrest. And when tamas prevails, he is taken over by inertia. When the universe is in a period of non-manifestation, the three gunas remain in a state of non-differentiation, or equilibrium. Manifestation begins when the equilibrium of the gunas is disturbed.
According to Hinduism, the process of manifestation and non-manifestation of the universe follows a cyclical pattern. In each cycle there is a recurrence of the same material phenomena, and the same recurrences continue throughout eternity. No energy can be annihilated; it goes on changing until it returns to the source. Nature presents both movements-from the subtle to the gross and back from gross to subtle. Evolution presupposes involution. Only that which was involved before can be evolved afterwards. Evolution of the physical universe follows a graduated process. The first element to evolve at the beginning of a cycle is akasa, or the ether, in its subtle form. Then gradually evolve four other elements: air, fire, water, and earth. In the beginning, the five elements remain unmixed. Then, through their various combinations, the elements take their gross forms. From out of the basic gross and subtle elements are produced all objects, gross and subtle, including the body-mind complex of all living creatures.
According to the Puranas, each world period is divided into four ages, or yugas: Satya, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali. The Satya yuga abounds in virtue, with vice being practically non-existent. But with each succeeding age, virtue gradually diminishes and vice increases, making the age of Kali the reverse of Satya. The approximate duration of each yuga has been described as: Satya yoga, 1,728,000 years; Treta, 1,296,000 years; Dwapara, 864,000 years; and Kali, 432,000 years. These four yugas, rotating a thousand times, make one day of Brahma, the creator, and an equal number of years, one night. Thirty such days and nights make one month of Brahma, and twelve months make one year. After living for a hundred such years, Brahma dies. Brahma, too, like all other entities of the phenomenal universe, has a limited life span, although this life span seems nearly endless from the viewpoint of human calculations.
According to Hinduism, man is essentially a soul that uses its body and mind as instruments to gain experience. What is the nature of the soul? Hinduism maintains that the macrocosm and the microcosm are built on the same plan, and that Brahman is the soul of both. As the soul of man, Brahman is known as Paramatman. The Upanishads speak of the two souls of man dwelling, as it were, side by side, within him: the real soul (Paramatman) and the apparent soul (jivatman). The real soul is the witness consciousness, serene and detached. The apparent soul is the embodied soul, the experiencer of birth and death, and is ever in quest of freedom and eternal life. The apparent soul is the ego self--the reflection of the real soul. The real soul has been described as Self and the apparent soul as non-Self. Hinduism analyzes man in terms of three bodies, five sheaths, and three states. It says that a human individual has three bodies: physical body, subtle body, and causal body. The physical body is produced out of the gross forms of the five basic elements (ether, air, water, fire, and earth), and is subject to a sixfold change: birth, subsistence, growth, maturity, decay, and death. At death the physical body perishes and its five constituent elements are dissolved. The subtle body is made of the subtle forms of the five basic elements that produced the physical body. It is the receptacle of thoughts and memories and continues to exist after death, serving as the vehicle of transmigration. A human individual enters this world with a bundle of thoughts in the form of his mind, and he also exits with a bundle of thoughts, some old and some new. The causal body, characterized by ego sense only, is finer than the subtle body. All three bodies are for the fulfillment of desires, gross and subtle. The soul is different from these three bodies.
Hindu scriptures further describe the body-mind complex of man as consisting of five sheaths, or layers: the physical sheath, the sheath of prana (the vital air), the sheath of mind, the sheath of intellect, and the sheath of bliss. These sheaths are located one inside the other like the segments of a collapsible telescope, with the sheath of the physical body being the outermost and the sheath of bliss being the innermost. The sheath of the physical body is dependent on food for its sustenance and lasts as long as it can absorb nourishment. The sheath of the vital air is the manifestation of the universal vital energy. It animates the gross body, making it inhale and exhale, move about, take in nourishment, excrete, and reproduce. The sheath of the mind is the seedbed of all desires. It is changeful, characterized by pain and pleasure, and has a beginning and an end. The sheath of the intellect is the seat of I-consciousness. Though material and insentient by nature, it appears intelligent because it reflects the light of the Self. It is the cause of embodiment. Finer than the sheath of the intellect is the sheath of bliss, the main features of which are pleasure and rest. It, too, is material and subject to change. The five sheaths are the five layers of embodiment and they veil the light of the Self.
The Upanishads mention that man experiences three states of existence-waking, dream, and deep sleep-and his Self within, the experiencer of the three states, is different from them. Analysis of all three states reveals the true nature of the Self. In the waking state man remains identified with his physical body, in the dream state with his subtle body, and in deep sleep with his causal body. The Atman, or Self, is the monitoring consciousness of all three states and is the basis of their unity. Hinduism contends that conclusions based only on an analysis of the waking state are incomplete and cannot reveal the real nature of man. In this sense, Hinduism considers the conclusions of physical science as inadequate although not incorrect.