It is well known that the idea of Shunya as zero in the number system originated in India. This development of the decimal place system containing zero was of fundamental importance in the advancement of science in the western world. These ideas had obviously some connotation with the philosophical ideas of Shunya and Shunyata.
Next, we discuss the concept of Shunya and Shunyata in detail. Initially we will take the literal meaning as zero, emptiness, void, or vacuum, although philosophers have attached deeper meanings to these such as the totality of reality. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna had deeply contemplated on the meaning of Shunyata or emptiness. In his opinion everything in the universe is empty in the ultimate analysis. To Nagarjuna the entire universe came up from Shunyata!
We will see that this meaning finds parallels in modern physics. Modern cosmologists believe that our known universe started as an extremely small patch of vacuum some 13.8 Billion years back. It did not have any material particles in it. We can call it Shunyata. But it is not right to say that it means that something came up from nothing! The quantum vacuum is not a true emptiness or nothingness or absence of everything! It has a very complex structure involving fluctuating quantum fields in it. The present material world had origin in quantum fluctuations of this vacuum. There were no particles initially and because of absence of light it must have been dark.
Now let us compare this modern cosmology picture with the astonishing description of origin of universe from Vayupuran, a Hindu scripture:
“In the beginning, there was nothing in the universe. The Brahman (the divine essence) alone was everywhere. The Brahman had neither color nor scent; it could not be felt or touched. It had no origin, no beginning or no end. The Brahman was constant and it was the origin of everything that was destined to be in the universe and the universe was shrouded in darkness.”
This is very impressive! They realized that it must have been dark because visible light was not created yet! Nasadiya Sukta, another Hindu cosmological verse also says that it was dark before the universe was created!
“The universe is brought about by the collapse of fullness in the transcendental field in which reside all the laws of nature responsible for the creation of the entire manifest universe. How is the transcendental level functioning? It is functioning from its unbounded nature to point to itself. He who does not know that initial pure consciousness state, ultimate reality, what can the laws of nature accomplish for him? He who knows it, remains established in evenness, unity, wholeness of life”.
Since Brahman was by itself, it is clear that it interacted with itself i.e. self- referral and eventually manifested in every particle of the universe. In an interesting parallel, according to modern cosmology, a particle or quantum field called inflaton may be the origin of everything in the universe. Strictly speaking the word “manifestation” rather than “creation” is used in Vedic cosmology with a subtle meaning. They allude that Brahman did not create the world but it manifested itself in a world that was somehow implied in Brahman.
It should be emphasized that physicists built up the model for universe arising from quantum vacuum after centuries of wrong concepts and models. It is an astonishing testimony to the ancient Rishis that the scriptures had this idea without having recourse to the experimental or mathematical methods used in modern times!
It is now clear that the material world we see around is not really made out of rigid, solid brick like substance if you go to the sub microscopic scale. Physicists found that as you go deeper and deeper, there is vacuum and vacuum all the way down. Materials are made out of atoms which are in turn made out of nuclei and electrons with lot of empty space in between. As an analogy, if atom is of the size of a football stadium, the nucleus would be a football at the center, and most of the electrons will be spectators in the stadium with empty space in between. This emptiness continues as we go deeper and deeper until we get to the fundamental particles with whimsical names like quarks and gluons etc. According to quantum physics none of these has rigid, solid structure.