Involution and evolution
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: November 2020

An ancient story as told in in the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad

One can find passages asserting the idea of involution and evolution in some of the oldest Indian scriptures. The most quoted text about the involution is probably the "Hymn of Creation" in the Ṛg Veda (X.129), but there is another one which includes both the involution and the evolution in a hyper compact and rather charming manner. It occurs in several Upaniṣads and became famous for its unusual image of a spider as analogue for the Divine. Here is the way it is presented in the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (1.7-9):

“As the spider puts [his web] out and gathers [it] in, as herbs spring up upon the earth, as hair of head and body grow from a living man, so here all is born from the Immutable.”

In the next śloka, the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad describes in more abstract terms the whole process of evolution, right from inanimate matter to the highest spiritual realisation:

“Brahman grows by his energy at work, and then from Him is Matter born, and out of Matter life, and mind, and truth, and the [inner] worlds, and in works immortality.”

Finally, in the last line of this section it confirms once more that all that exists is made out of the (self‑)knowledge of the Divine:

“He who is the Omniscient, the all-wise, He whose energy is all made of knowledge, from Him is born this that is Brahman here, this Name and Form and Matter.”
(translation by Sri Aurobindo, 2001, p. 132)

It is worth to look at these ślokas, and especially at the second one, in detail, as they are extremely succinct and precise. If we read them in a hurry, we may easily miss how much meaning has been packed inside its super-terse phrases. The first śloka offers a few homely metaphors which seem to suggest that even though we may see all things and even ourselves as separate entities, every single thing in existence is still an inalienable part, an expression and a direct manifestation of the consciousness that manifests the world out of itself, Brahman.

In the second śloka, the Divine is said to "grow" when he manifests the world, and given how often growth is mentioned as an object of prayer, this can be taken as a reminder that his act of creation should be considered a good and desirable thing. Then it is said that four things spring forth: matter, life, mind, and truth. Could these be the three ordinary planes of consciousness that are already manifest — matter, life and mind — plus one that is still to come, the supramental maharloka which is defined as a plane of truth? And then also "the worlds" which may have been added to explain that the previous four outer worlds are all built on top of the complex, occult reality of the typal inner worlds that have been described by mystics in all major civilizations.

And finally it says: "in works immortality". The two words in this short phrase play important roles throughout Indian thought. If we spell out their central meaning as well as some of their connotations, the phrase could be interpreted as "whatever you do — especially if it is done as an offering, and in a spirit of aspiration and surrender to the highest you know — will ultimately lead to liberation, or, to be more precise, to knowledge of the soul, which, since the soul is immortal, will make you realise your immortality." This may seem like a lot of speculation, but it renders the meaning and most common connotations of the two words, "works" and "immortality".1

The last of the three slokas then asserts once more that really everything in this world is a manifestation of the absolute power and wisdom of the Divine. One could read in it a supplement to Einstein's famous equation of mass and energy: stuff here consists not only of mass and energy, but it has name and form: there is an implicit order to it, it follows laws, and there is an infinite wisdom hidden within.


1.    Works is here the translation of karma. We will come back to the complex meanings and connotations of this concept in the chapters on the determinants of our character and in those on fate and free will. To the meaning of immortality we'll come back in the chapters on self-development.