The Cosmology of the Bhagavata Purana (Mysteries of the Sacred Universe)


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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 hard to account for them historically.

Although some of these correspondences may be products of chance. It is possible to show that some of them are statistically significant. These might be the result of conscious scientific endeavour in ancient times. Or they might be seen as intuitive harmonies between nature and the Bhagavatam depending on divine inspiration.

This study has been organized as a book and as a CD-ROM. The book and the CD contain essentially the same text, but the book is designed to be read sequentially from beginning to end, while the CD has a hierarchical structure with hypertext links and a search engine. The main body of the CD is illustrated with some 250 color pictures, 13 interactive picture sequences, and 24 animations including a video summarizing both this book and the CD.


Introduction to Bhagavata Cosmology 1
1 Introduction to Texts 7
1.1 Puranas 8
1.2 Bhagavata Purana 10
1.3 Vishnu Purana 12
1.4 Jyotisa Sastras 13
1.5 Surya Siddhanta
2 The Islands and Oceans of Bhu-mandala 19
2.1 Overview of bhu-mandala 19
2.2 The nomenclature of seven Dvipas 24
2.3 Historical Development of Bhu-mandala Features 26
2.4 The Island of Jambudvipa 32
2.4.1 Jambudvipa in the Mahabharata 37
2.5 Lords of the Directions 40
3 The solar System in Projection 47
3.1 The Flat Earth as a Planisphere 47
3.1.1 Day and night reverse at the Antipode 51
3.1.2 The Speeds of the Sun 55
3.1.3 Mapping canopus 58
3.1.4 Bhu-mandala and the Astrolabe 59
3.2 Day, night and the seasons 60
3.3 The Zodiac in India 64
3.4 The sun and the moon 67
3.4.1 Eclipses 71
3.4.2 The Lunar Orbit in Surya siddhanta 76
3.5 The Lore of constellations 76
4 The Solar system in three Dimensions 83
4.1 The Flat Earth as the Ecliptic Plane 83
4.2 Relative Motion in the Bhagavatam 88
4.3 The planetary orbits in 3-D 90
4.4 The Orbital Map 92
4.4.1 Conclusions 104
4.5 The Length of the Yojana 108
4.5.1 Measuring with Latitude 108
4.5.2 Defining the Yojana 110
4.5.3 Familiar Numbers 114
4.5.4 Wise Ancients 117
4.6 Heliocentrism in the puranas 118
4.7 The Meaning of planetary Heights 120
5 The Earth and Local Geography 123
5.1 The Himalayas and Surrounding lands 123
5.1.1 Jambudvipa in Asia 126
5.1.2 Rivers and Mountains in Bharata-varsa 128
5.2 Cross cultural themes in Cosmology 132
6 The realm of the demigods 157
6.1 Jambudvipa as the Earthly heaven 157
6.1.2 The status of Bharata Varsa 165
6.1.3 size of the Inhabitants of Jambudvipa 166
6.2 Parallel worlds and yogic Travel 171
6.3 The Vertical Dimension 175
6.3.1 Macrocosm and Microcosm 184
6.3.2 The Descent of the Ganges 186
6.4 Gods, Demos and Astronomy 189
7 The Greater Universe 193
7.1 Distance to the Stars 193
7.1.1 Distant Stars in the Mahabharata 194
7.1.2 Expanding the Brahmanda 195
7.2 The Universal Globe and beyond 197
8 Notes on time and Chronology 203
8.1 Precession and the polestar 203
8.2 Precession and the Dating of texts 206
8.2.1 Dating by the Sisumara Constellation 209
8.3 The Mysterious Epoch of 3102 B.C 212
8.3.1 Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn 213
8.3.2 Computing the Deluge 215
8.3.3 Modern calculations 215
8.3.4 High Precision Conjunctions 219
8.3.5 Alternative Explanations 221
8.4 The Yuga System 223
8.4.1 Age of the Yuga system 228
8.5 Planetary periods and the 360-day year 232
9 General Observations 237
9.1 Context sensitive Models 238
9.2 Realistic Astronomy in the Bhagavatam 239
9.3 Advanced Astronomy in Ancient times 240
9.4 The Role of Vedic Civilization 242
9.5 The Symbolism of the Cosmic Axis 243
Appendices 247
A1 The 28 Naksatras 247
A2 Vamsidhara on Priyavrata’s Chariot 250
A3 Archaic Earth Model 254
A4 Background on Modeling Solar system 256
A5 Goodness of Fit 259
A6 Criteria for Orbital Alignment 260
A7 Critical Analysis of the Orbital Study 263
A8 Ancient Metrology 267
A8.1 Tracking the Artaba and the Roman pound 269
A8.2 The Harappan Uncia 272
A8.3 Ancient Feet 276
A8.4 Metric feet 276
A8.5 Latitudes in Ancient Egypt 277
A8.6 Conclusions 280
A9 Origins of Mathematics 281
A10 Planetary Diameters in the Surya Siddhanta 285
A10.1 Angular Diameters of planets 285
A10.2 Planetary Orbits in Surya-siddhanta 288
A10.3 Diameters of the Planets 289
A10.4 Alternative Explanations 293
A10.5 Conclusion 294
A11 The Cave Heavens 295
A12 Sprit Paths in the sky 296
A12.1 The path of Light 297
A12.2 Celestial paths in many Cultures 298
A13 Arjuna and Ulupi 301
A14 Madhvacarya’s Visit to Vyasadeva 302
A15 The story of Duhkhi Krsna Dasa 303
A16 History of Precession 305
A17 Van der Waerden’s Argument 306
A18 The Yuga System in America 307
A19 On the History of Astronomy 308
A19.1 Egyptian Astronomy 309
A19.2 Babylonian Astronomy 311
A19.3 Lost Knowledge? 313
A19.4 Dark ages 314
A19.5 Parallels in India 315
Bibliography 319
List of Tables 329
Glossary 331
Index 339