From the Jacket
From the flat earth to the sun’s chariot’s…. traditional spiritual texts seem wedded to outmoded cosmologies that show, at best the scientific limitations of their authors. The Bhagavata Purana, one of the classical scriptures of Hinduism, seems, at fist glace to be no exception. However a closer examination of this text revels unexpected depths of knowledge in ancient cosmology. This shows that the cosmology of the Bhagavata Purana is a sophisticated system, with multiple levels of meaning that encode at least four different astronomical, geographical, and spiritual world models. BY viewing the text in the light of modern astronomy, Richard Thomson shows how ancient scientists expressed exact knowledge in apparently mythological terms. Comparison with ancient tradition of Egypt and the Near East shows early cultural connection between India and these regions-including a surprisingly advanced science. However, quantitative science is only part of the picture. This work also offers a clear understanding of how the spiritual dimension was integrated into ancient Indian cosmology.
The Cover: A scale model of the earth continent of Jambudvipa showing the cosmic axis, Mount Meru.
About the Author
Richard L. Thompson was born in Binghamton, New York, in 1947. In 1974 he receive his Ph.D. in mathematics from Cornell University, where he specialized in probability theory and statistical mechanics. He has done scientific research in quantum physics mathematical biology, and remote sensing. He was extensively investigated ancient Indian astronomy, cosmology and spirituality, and has developed multimedia expositions on these topics. He is the author of six books on subjects ranging from consciousness to archeology and ancient astronomy.
Introduction to Bhagavata Cosmology
The way people view the universe has a profound impact on their understanding themselves. Today we see the earth as a small, fragile globe, orbiting at just the right distance from the sun for life to flourish. It appears to be the only planet with life in the solar system, and the planets themselves are mere specks in the vacuum of space. Human life seems reduced to insignificance when set against the vast nearly empty spaces of modern astronomy.
But before the modern era, the universe often appeared much more comfortable and accommodating. Thus medieval European cosmology placd the earth in the center of a small, spherical universe surrounded by the “coelum empireum,” the abode of God and the Elect. Within the sphere, the sun, the moon, and the planets out to Saturn followed regulated orbits against the backdrop of the Zodiacal constellations. The earth in the center was at one end of a hierarchy of being, connecting human beings with the heavenly realm.
In this study we will explore a similar earth-centered conception of the cosmos from India. This cosmological system is presented in the Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad Bhagavatam, one of India’s important religious scriptures. For centuries it has provided a meaningful framework connecting the world of observable phenomena with the transcendental world of ultimate reality.
The Bhagavatam describes innumerable universe. Each one is contained in a spherical shell surrounded by layers of elemental mater that mark the boundary between the transcendental and mundane realms. The shell contains an earth disk-called Bhu-mandala or “earth mandala”-that divides it into an upper, hervenly region and a subterranean domain filled with amniotic waters. The shell and its contents are characterized as the Brahmanda or Brahma egg”.
Although the “earth” is here conceived of as a disk, it has little in common with the familiar earth of day-to-day experience. The diameter of Bhu-mandala is given in the Bhagavatam and it is about the size of the orbit of Uranus. Bhu-mandala is divided into a series of geographic features called oceans and island (dvipas in Sanskrit). But these are geometrically perfect rings of cosmic size, with no resemblance to irregular earthly continents.
In the center Bhu-mandala is the circular “Island” of Jmubudvipa with nine subdivisions called varsas. These include Bharata –varsa, which can be understood in one sense as India and in another as the region inhabited by ordinary human beings. Jambudvipa is centered on the geometrically shaped mount Sumeru, which represents the world axis and is surmounted by the city of Brahma, the universal creator.
At first glance the cosmology of the Bhagavatam looks like an imaginative production that has little in common with reality. However a deeper study shows a remarkable harmony between modern astronomical finding Bhagavata cosmology. To understand this, it is necessary to realize that Bhagavatam describes reality using its own, uniquely premodern paradigm.
The Bhagavatam presents astronomy in geographical and mythological language, and the mode of presentation is different from the familiar modern approach. Modern cosmology aims to construct an abstract model with a one-to-one correspondence between elements of the model and elements of the universe. In contrast, the Bhagavatam uses concrete themes and images in multiple ways to represent different aspects of the universe. From the standpoint of the Bhagavatam the universe is a multidimensional system including transcendental elements. Since the universe therefore cannot be encompassed by a single mental model, the Bhagavatam freely used model elements in different convenient ways to represent different aspects of the universe.
Although it may look like a naïve flat-earth model, careful study shows that Bhagavatam uses the earth disk of Bhu-mandala to represent at least four different things. These are:
1. The earth globe, mapped onto a plane by stereographic projection
2. A map of the geocentric orbits of the planets.
3. A local map of India, the Himalayan region and nearby territories I south-central Asia.
4. A map of the celestial regions inhabited by demigods.
The great Bengali saint Caitanya Mahaprabhu remarked that “in each and every verse of Srimad Bhagavatam and in each and every syllable, there ar various meanings” (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhyalila 24.318). This appears to be true in particular of the cosmological section of the Bhagavatamand ot interesting to see how some of these meanings can be brought out and clarified with reference to modern astronomy.
There are bound to be contradiction when one structure is used to represent several different things in a composite map. But these do not cause a problem if we understand the underling intent. We can drew a parallel with medieval paintings portraying several different parts of a story in one composition. These also contain contradictions (such as several instances of on character on a single painting), but a person who understands the story line will not be disturbed by them.
The Bhagavatam does not describe the universe of galaxies and quasars, but it does contain a solid core of material that aggress remarkably well with the modern understanding of the earth globe and the solar system. In the work we shall use modern astronomy as a reference frame to elucidate Bhagavatam cosmology as points stand out sharply in proper perspective when viewed in the light of modern astronomical knowledge. This enables us to shed new light on many topics in the Bhagavatam which have long been poorly understand.
The question naturally arises as to whether modern astronomical themes seen in an old text are really there, or are simply being read into the text by hindsight. Where such themes intended by the original authors, or is their apparent presence in the text due to coincidence or loose interpretation? It is
difficult to clearly answer this question in all cases. Some of the correspondences with modern astronomy are consistent with ancient Greek astronomy and they could have been intentionally built into a medieval Sanskrit work. Others go beyond Greek astronomy, and it is h