“Layers of the Universe” (SB 3.26.52)
Uniformitarianism, a fundamental principle of modern science, assumes that the laws of physics can be uniformly applied throughout time and space. In this presentation, Thompson discusses textual evidence offered from within the Vedic tradition to consider a more elaborate structural model of the cosmos. Thompson inquires, in his critique of uniformitarianism, “Are paleontologists and astronomers justified in applying laboratory results to events remote in either time or space?”
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 3, Chapter 26, Text 52. “Layers of Universe.” Alachua – September 4, 1996 / (038)
This universal egg, or the universe in the shape of an egg, is called the manifestation of material energy. Its layers of water, air, fire, sky, ego and mahat-tattva increase in thickness one after another. Each layer is ten times bigger than the previous one, and the final outside layer is covered by pradhāna. Within this egg is the universal form of Lord Hari, of whose body the fourteen planetary systems are parts.
Purport by Śrīla Prabhupāda:
This universe, or the universal sky which we can visualize with its innumerable planets, is shaped just like an egg. As an egg is covered by a shell, the universe is also covered by various layers. The first layer is water, the next is fire, then air, then sky, and the ultimate holding crust is pradhāna. Within this egglike universe is the universal form of the Lord as the virāṭ-puruṣa. All the different planetary situations are parts of His body. This is already explained in the beginning of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Second Canto. The planetary systems are considered to form different bodily parts of that universal form of the Lord. Persons who cannot directly engage in the worship of the transcendental form of the Lord are advised to think of and worship this universal form. The lowest planetary system, Pātāla, is considered to be the sole of the Supreme Lord, and the earth is considered to be the belly of the Lord. Brahmaloka, or the highest planetary system, where Brahmā lives, is considered to be the head of the Lord.
This virāṭ-puruṣa is considered an incarnation of the Lord. The original form of the Lord is Kṛṣṇa, as confirmed in Brahma-saṁhitā: ādi-puruṣa. The virāṭ-puruṣa is also puruṣa, but He is not ādi-puruṣa. The ādi-puruṣa is Kṛṣṇa: īśvaraḥ paramaḥ kṛṣṇaḥ sac-cid-ānanda-vigrahaḥ/ anādir ādir govindaḥ. In Bhagavad-gītā Kṛṣṇa is also accepted as the ādi-puruṣa, the original. Kṛṣṇa says, “No one is greater than Me.” There are innumerable expansions of the Lord, and all of them are puruṣas, or enjoyers, but neither the virāṭ-puruṣa nor the puruṣa-avatāras – Kāraṇodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu and Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu – nor any of the many other expansions, is the original. In each universe there are Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, the virāṭ-puruṣa and Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu. The active manifestation of the virāṭ-puruṣa is described here. Persons who are in the lower grade of understanding regarding the Supreme Personality of Godhead may think of the universal form of the Lord, for that is advised in the Bhāgavatam.
The dimensions of the universe are estimated here. The outer covering is made of layers of water, air, fire, sky, ego and mahat-tattva, and each layer is ten times greater than the one previous. The space within the hollow of the universe cannot be measured by any human scientist or anyone else, and beyond the hollow there are seven coverings, each one ten times greater than the one preceding it. The layer of water is ten times greater than the diameter of the universe, and the layer of fire is ten times greater than that of water. Similarly, the layer of air is ten times greater than that of fire. These dimensions are all inconceivable to the tiny brain of a human being.
There are innumerable universes besides this one, and some of them are many, many times greater. It is considered, in fact, that this universe is the smallest; therefore the predominating superintendent, or Brahmā, has only four heads for management. In other universes, which are far greater than this one, Brahmā has more heads. In the Caitanya-caritāmṛta it is stated that all these Brahmās were called one day by Lord Kṛṣṇa on the inquiry of the small Brahmā, who, after seeing all the larger Brahmās, was thunderstruck. That is the inconceivable potency of the Lord. No one can measure the length and breadth of God by speculation or by false identification with God. These attempts are symptoms of lunacy.
So this is a description of the expansion of the material universe. This verse describes two features of the universe. There's the inside region in which there are fourteen planetary systems, and these are said to constitute the universal form of the Lord, and they're compared with a universal body. Beyond the fourteen planetary systems, there are the coverings of the universe, and this verse describes these coverings. Basically the coverings of the universe represent different manifestations of the material elements. And so, the coverings of the universe are related to the description of the material elements in the Sāṅkhya philosophy. So, in this verse curiously enough it is said that the coverings of the universe begin with water. At least that's indicated by one statement here in the verse: toyādibhiḥ, by water and so on.
So in other places in the Bhāgavatam, it's described that the coverings begin with earth, so there's some ambiguity there. In any case, the basic principle is that as you go out from the universe, going outwards, the successive coverings are of successively more subtle elements. It is described that the elements begin with Kṛṣṇa’s material energy, which is called pradhāna. From pradhāna, a transformation takes place and mahat-tattva is produced. For mahat-tattva, by a further transformation, there's the production of false ego, which is actually a kind of substance. The false ego is named false ego or ahaṅkāra because it puts the living entity into the illusion of being the material body. But from this false ego, there are further transformations; in particular the element of ether, or space, is generated from the ahaṅkāra element. From ether, there's a further transformation and air is developed. From that you have fire and from that you have water and then finally earth. So going outwards the elements constituting the shells of the universe, are these elements in reverse, namely earth, water, fire, air, ether and then false ego and mahat-tattva. In some places... so that makes seven coverings. In some places it is described that there are eight, and pradhāna is indicated as an eighth covering. In the Br̥had-Bhāgavatāmr̥ta that is stated. But here it's also said the final outside layer is pradhāna; or else you could say that all of the layers are enveloped by pradhāna.
So this would seem to indicate that when mahat-tattva is produced, it is produced in the form of small globules. It is described that there are... of course this description of the coverings applies to one universe; and it is described that there are many universes, each of which has similar coverings. And these are said to be, well, clustered together like bubbles of foam in ocean water. So there's the expanse of the Causal Ocean; and within this causal ocean, there are innumerable universes emanating from the pores in the body of Mahā-Viṣṇu. And these are compared to little bubbles of foam. So that is the basic description. There is an interesting statement that Śrīla Prabhupāda makes in one purport, which I thought I would read, concerning the development of the elements. Yeah, this was stated by Śrīdhara Swami. Śrīla Śrīdhara Swami confirms that a part of the material nature, after being initiated by the Lord, is known as the mahat-tattva. A fractional portion of the mahat-tattva is called false ego. A portion of the ego is the vibration of sound and a portion of sound is atmospheric air. A portion of the airy atmosphere is turned into forms and the forms constitute the power of electricity or heat. Heat produces the smell, or the aroma of earth, and the gross earth is produced by such aroma.
All these combined together constitute the cosmic phenomenon and so forth. Then he says the extent of the cosmic phenomenon is calculated to be diametrically 4 billion miles, then the covering that the universe begins and so forth. The interesting thing about this description is that instead of saying that the successive layers of elements are in the form of concentric shells, you have successive spheres of elements. And this makes sense if you consider that each successive element which is developed is a transformation of the preceding one, and it is therefore included within the category of the preceding element. So, what you have is a... for example, shell of ether and within ether a small part of that, namely a tenth part, is converted into air and there's also still ether there of course; and within that shell or spherical region of air, then a tenth part is converted into forms corresponding to the fire element; and within a tenth part of that you have water; and within a tenth part of that you have earth. So it's as though you had a process of successive condensation of one element from the other. And this condensation occurs always within a tenth part of the larger region of the preceding element.
An interesting statement made in this description is that, he says, “A portion of the airy atmosphere is turned into forms and the forms constitute the power of electricity or heat.” So Śrīla Prabhupāda associates electricity with the fire element, which in the Sāṅkhya philosophy is connected with form. And it's interesting that in modern science, you have electricity and light being linked together as one basic kind of thing, namely, electromagnetism. So, the sort of meeting point between modern scientific ideas in this description would be in this element of fire or radiation, which is also involved with electricity. It's also interesting that as far as modern science is concerned, form ultimately is based on the atom, since atoms combine to form molecules and molecules form larger structures. And the atom is basically an electromagnetic object according to modern science. It's basically electricity flowing around the nucleus and that creates a definite form. So this is a meeting point between science and the Vedic description.
Now concerning the size of the universe, one problem that comes up occasionally is that the... it is said in the Bhāgavatam that the universe is basically four billion miles in diameter. This is using eight miles per yojana. The actual description in the Bhāgavatam being that the diameter of the universe is 50 koṭi yojanas, where koṭi is 10 million. So, that would be five hundred million yojanas, which multiplied by eight gives you four billion miles. And then the coverings of the universe begin after that. Now this four billion miles is rather small for the total size of the universe. It's interesting that within that extent of four billion miles, everything lines up very nicely with the planetary systems, which is something that I described previously. The different orbits of the planets line up very nicely with the dimensions of the different dvīpas and so forth, in Jambūdvīpa. But then the description cuts off at a radius of two billion miles.
But there are further indications that the size of the universe could be quite a bit larger. In the Caitanya-caritāmṛta there's an interesting purport; there's a verse which says, “Kṛṣṇa said, ‘Your particular universe extends four billion miles; therefore it is the smallest of all the universes. Consequently, you have only four heads’.” This is what Śrīla Prabhupāda was referring to in the purport when he mentioned that the Brahma in this universe has only four heads. So, in the purport, Śrīla Prabhupāda says, “Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura, one of the greatest astrologers of his time, gives information from the Siddhānta-śiromaṇi that this universe measures…” a certain number of miles. This number has, let's see, yeah, it has 17 digits. So, I won't even try to read this number. Actually, it's easiest to read it using the scientific method. It’s about 1.87 times 1017. So, a billion is 109, and that means a billion billion would be 10 to the 9 plus 9, which would be 1018. So, this is just... now this is multiplied by 8 to give you miles. So this means you're getting that... these... universe measures about a billion billion miles, which is a little bit bigger than 4 billion. And I always thought it was interesting that the purport of 4 billion is a billion billion. So, pardon me?
What I said is, it always struck me as interesting that the purport of 4 billion, because you see the verse here says the universe extends 4 billion miles. And the purport says, well it gives a figure of a billion billion miles roughly speaking. So, in any case, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī indicated that the universe could be quite a bit larger based on the Siddhānta-śiromaṇi. He goes on to say this is the circumference of this universe; according to some this is only half the circumference. Now, if you look up these statements in the Siddhānta-śiromaṇi in fact you will find that the reason that one half comes up, is that this circumference is given as the circumference of the Lokāloka Mountain, which is halfway to the shell of the universe. So, that's why the statement is said that this is only half of the circumference. So basically what is being done there is that the Bhū-maṇḍala structure is being greatly enlarged according to this particular description. So there is room in the Vedic literature for describing the universe as being very large.
In modern science, distances in the universe are given in terms of light years, where a light year is the distance that a beam of light would travel in one year at a speed of 186,000 miles in a second. So if you want to find out how large that is, you can multiply it out. Multiply 186,000 times the number of seconds in a year. So using that figure, the radius of the universe comes out to about 5077 light years – according to this statement in the Caitanya-caritāmṛta – which is respectably large even in modern scientific terms. Now if you then go on to the coverings of the universe, each one is ten times as the size of the preceding one, and if there are seven coverings that gives you basically 107, as you multiply by 10 seven times going out. And so then if the circumference is about 1018 you get the radius. Of course you divide by 2π, which is about 6. So let's see: 10 to the... call that 1017 plus another 107, gives you about 1024, miles going out. And that's quite large even in modern astronomy actually. So, the idea of the universe being big is also there in the Vedic literature. So, those are a few observations. Guess I’ll stop there. Are there any questions or comments? Yeah?
Answer: Well, let's describe... he was able to go there and speak to Lord Viṣṇu. So how could he do that if he still lost his temper just because Mahārāja Ambarisa drank water before feeding him. So that's an interesting question. Of course, Durvāsā Muni is a pretty unique personality also. He's a sort of plenary expansion – well, avatar of Lord Śiva as I understand. So he exhibits Lord Śiva's characteristics to some extent. But of course the the four Kumarās also were able to go to Vaikuṇṭha and they weren't liberated yet. Then again they weren't allowed to pass through the gateways to Vaikuṇṭha, thus resulting in the famous incident of Jaya and Vijaya. So, it appears that great yogis are able to actually travel to Vaikuṇṭha. So... that seems to be the information we have. Yeah?
Answer: Well, there is something. What... I guess I should mention for the kitchen. Murlivadaka wants to know if there's any scientific evidence for a shell surrounding the universe – something like a brick wall that you would run into? I haven't heard that any of the space probes ran into one. But in any case, an interesting point was made there concerning the laws of nature. A fundamental assumption of modern astronomy is that the laws of physics that are observed in the laboratory are the same throughout the universe. Now that's an assumption, because no one has gone out there to check. And it's a very important assumption because, basically what astronomers are working with is radiation coming down from the sky. You look at the radiation coming down from the sky and then you ask yourself, “Well, what could have made that radiation?” And to do that, you have to know what laws govern the radiation when it's out there in space. So that means you have to assume that the laws you know apply everywhere in space. So, that assumption is made. Now, no one has proven that, because that's an assumption you have to make before you can even start, as far as astronomy is concerned. So, that shows the limitation of the scientific method.
By the way, this is the basic principle of uniformitarianism... to use another name for it. That's the name applied in geology, where you assume that all the features in the earth can be explained on the basis of processes of geology that we see today, such as erosion by water and so forth. So in any case, the possibility is still there that the laws may change as you go out, in which case that means that once you enter a region in which the laws are somewhat different from what they are here, you have no way of knowing from the earth what you're really dealing with. You don't really know how things work, beyond the point where the laws we know have jurisdiction. So, that's one point.
Now, concerning Murlivadaka’s original question, namely is there any evidence that could be interpreted as indication of a shell? Well, there's the famous cosmic blackbody radiation. Now according to the scientific picture, that is radiation left over from the primordial Big Bang. But one could experiment with another interpretation. Now, that radiation corresponds to a temperature of about four degrees Kelvin. Kelvin scale is measured from absolute zero. So, that means it's about the temperature of liquid helium or something like that – extremely cold. So, you can consider: well, what if the universe is surrounded by an enormous shell, which is extremely cold and is giving off radiation as a blackbody at that temperature? Then you would have the famous cosmic blackbody radiation coming from the shell of the universe.
Now, that's one speculation that I have never heard any scientist make. But actually, what is the source of the famous cosmic blackbody radiation? We don't really know. All we know is that if you aim a very sensitive radio receiver at the sky in various directions, you pick up this radiation. So, it's coming in from all directions. And actually, nobody knows where it comes from. So, that's... and of course even if there is evidence for a shell, the evidence has to be interpreted, because evidence by itself actually doesn't say anything, unless you apply an interpretation the evidence is moot you might say. So, yeah?
A: Oh, you mean those two figures that I was talking about? Well, in one sense the figures seem to indicate a contradiction, you might say. But I would interpret it to mean that the universe is described... that different descriptions are found in the Vedic literature, which have different domains of applicability. So the description of the structure of Bhū-maṇḍala out to the shells of the universe, covering four billion miles, applies very well to the solar system. Everything fits there very nicely in terms of the sizes of the orbits and the dvīpas and so forth. However, there are indications that the stars and galaxies and so on are much further away. Now, Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī then states that there's this much bigger figure for the size of the universe. And if you look in the Jyotiṣa Śāstras such as Siddhānta-śiromaṇi, in fact you'll find that that bigger figure is there. So, I would take that as indicating that there are different descriptions that apply to different scales, within the universe. There's some further points I could also make about that within the context of the description of Bhū-maṇḍala itself. It can be argued that Bhū-maṇḍala is used to describe at least two or three different aspects of the solar system and the earth. So as far as I can see, the easiest way to reconcile these descriptions is that Bhū-maṇḍala and the shells of the universe and so on are being used in different ways to describe different aspects of the universe. In any case, the two different dimensions are given, in this case in the Caitanya-caritāmṛta commentary by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. So, yeah?
A: Oh! The question is: is ether something or is it nothing? Well, it's something. Basically, space is also something – nothing wouldn't even have dimension. After all, we speak of space as 3-dimensional. Well, unless it's something, how can it be 3-dimensional? After all, it could possibly be 2-dimensional or let's say 6-dimension, but we experience it as 3-dimension. So, it's an actual entity with definite characteristics. So, space is actually something.
A: Ahaṅkāra is more subtle. So that's a more subtle something. So actually in one sense, space is more substantial than solid matter like this microphone stand. That's especially true if you consider the meaning of the word ‘substantial’, because sub stand means to stand underneath or to be the support of; and actually ether is the basis of the other elements including earth. So, it stands beneath them. Of course, substantial or substance, means something that supports something else. So, in that case, since false ego is the source of ether, then false ego is even more substantial than ether. So the ultimate substance would then be pure spirit then. Okay. All glories to Śrīla Prabhupāda!