“Layout of the Universe” (SB 3.29.42)
Thompson presents an overview of the cosmic models described in Puranic accounts. He follows this with several intriguing interpretations, concluding that the organic approach of traditional Eastern culture appears to be in sharp contrast with the reductionism and determinism presently influential in Western thought. To help illustrate the complexity of these apparently conflicting perspectives, Thompson challenges his audience to reconcile the idiosyncrasies intrinsic to an individual, with the regularity of natural law.
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 3, Chapter 29, Text 42. “Layout of the Universe.” Alachua – January 28, 1998 / (040)
Out of fear of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the rivers flow, and the ocean never overflows. Out of fear of Him only does the fire burn and does the earth, with its mountains, not sink in the water of the universe.
Purport by Śrīla Prabhupāda:
We can understand from the Vedic literature that this universe is half filled with water, on which Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is lying. From His abdomen a lotus flower has grown, and within the stem of that lotus flower all the different planets exist. The material scientist explains that all these different planets are floating because of the law of gravity or some other law; but the actual lawmaker is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. When we speak of law, we must understand that there must be a lawmaker. The material scientists can discover laws of nature, but they are unable to recognize the lawmaker. From Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and Bhagavad-gītā we can know who the lawmaker is: the lawmaker is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
It is said here that the planets do not sink. Since they are floating under the order or energy of the Supreme Godhead, they do not fall down into the water which covers half the universe. All the planets are heavy, with their various mountains, seas, oceans, cities, palaces and buildings, and yet they are floating. It is understood from this passage that all the other planets that are floating in the air have oceans and mountains similar to those on this planet.
So we have a verse that deals with two basic topics which Śrīla Prabhupāda addresses in the purport. The first, of course, has to do with the basic cause underlying different material phenomena. So the verse is saying that these phenomena are taking place out of fear of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. So Śrīla Prabhupāda, in the purport, points out that one has to postulate some lawmaker to explain the laws governing material nature. So the scientific conception of the universe holds that there are different laws of nature, and phenomena are unfolding in accordance with these laws. So in its extreme form, this gives rise to a concept of material reductionism, according to which everything that happens is determined by the laws of nature. Or more specifically, in the way it's usually been explained, if you know the state of affairs in the material world at a given moment in time, then the laws of nature completely determine what is going to happen next, and then that gives you a new state of affairs. So the laws then determine what will happen after that and so on. So the result is everything is rigidly governed by a set of laws of nature. This is the concept that you find in physics. So the problem with this conception, of course, is that it eliminates God as the direct controller and supervisor of the material manifestation; because if everything is exactly happening according to laws, that means there's no question of conscious choice in determining what happens. It's all just going step-by-step according to the laws, even if the laws originally were created by this Supreme Law Maker.
So this gives you the philosophy which is known as Deism, historically. This philosophy became quite popular after the time of Isaac Newton. And in fact the founding fathers of the United States were very proud to be Deists – people like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and so forth. So that idea acknowledges that the laws of nature are produced by a lawmaker, but it makes the laws absolute. So once the lawmaker has created the material universe, in effect it's like a clock that he built, wound up, and set into motion, and then didn't deal with from then on. And the clock just continued ticking according to the laws built into its structure.
So in more recent developments within science there's been a tendency to drop this conception. Interestingly enough, the idea that the laws of nature are deterministic has also been dropped by modern day physicists. They now introduce an element of pure chance into the laws of nature, so that they say that some events occur purely by chance. Some people have taken this as a loophole through which you can introduce some kind of divine control. However, control by a conscious being and events happening by chance are two radically different concepts; and the ironic thing here is that it turns out that there are laws of chance. This, of course, is something well known to insurance companies and gambling casinos. In fact, gambling casinos make their profits based on the laws of chance. They arrange various gambling games so that they have a statistical edge and you can calculate, by the laws of chance, that they're sure to make a profit. Of course, if by a chance fluctuation they don't make a profit on a given occasion, they can always resort to more draconian measures and give somebody ‘concrete overshoes,’ as they say. So this is chance enforced by determinism.
But in any case, the physicists now are saying that events of pure chance are occurring. So if you have, let's say, a piece of radioactive substance and you put a Geiger counter next to it and you hear random clicks, these occur entirely by chance according to the quantum theory, as it's known. But this is actually incompatible with the idea that the clicks are expressing some... the intention of some higher controller. For example, suppose the clicks spell out a message in some code and you receive the message. Well if that happened, you certainly wouldn't say that the clicks were happening by chance. You would conclude that somebody must be sending you a message and that it's not by chance. So that is the situation today.
So in the field of physical science, even though determinism has been eliminated, even the idea that there's an original lawmaker has been eliminated, although some scientists have continued to wonder about this topic. For example, this famous physicist Stephen Hawking, who has Lou Gehrig's disease, is continually thinking about the question of God. Basically, God for him represents a problem. And his idea is that if he can formulate the laws of nature and a completely self-contained way then he can eliminate God from the picture and say that there's nothing there but the laws of nature. But even he raised the question that: all right, if you have these laws which you might express in terms of equations, what, as he puts it, breathes fire into the equations and gives you an actual universe for them to describe? Because you can talk about some set of laws, but how do you bring about a real world in which those laws are being followed? And he admitted he had no explanation for that. So that's a summary of the present state of affairs.
Of course, if you look at material nature you can argue that there is evidence not only that there's a lawmaker, but that lawmaker is continuously intervening in the material phenomena. Basically, this is what is called the argument from design. If you look at matter as it is constituted in accordance with the laws of physics, what you see is that material order and structure tend to break down. This is called the second law of thermodynamics by the physicists. But basically if there is order and organization, in due course of time that tends to disintegrate. So if that's the basic tendency of matter, then first of all, where did all the order that we see come from in the first place? Why would matter, which tends to break down order, have produced order? And given that that order was there, then it should be steadily decreasing. You should have less and less of it. The material world should become more and more chaotic, but we don't see that either. So the inference is that there must be some ongoing source of order. There must be some power that is continuing to organize the material energy – so that would be God ultimately. So those are a few observations on the first part of the purport.
Śrīla Prabhupāda goes on to address the point here that was made about the planets sinking. I suspect that's why I was asked to talk about this verse. So “Out of fear of Him only does... the earth, with its mountains, not sink in the water of the universe.” So there's a lot that can be said about the basic system of Vedic cosmology. I'll just briefly make a few observations. The basic geometric structure of the universe as described in the Bhāgavatam is that you have a sphere, called the Brahmāṇḍa, and that sphere is cut in half by a plane. Now this plane is called the earth, or bhū – Bhūloka. And the plane, actually it's not exactly a plane, it's a sheet with a certain degree of thickness – quite thin, though, relative to the diameter of the sphere – and it's divided into eight different levels. Those would be seven lower planetary systems, and then the eighth topmost level would be Bhū-maṇḍala, or the middle planetary system. So basically that is a very thin plate or disc. Beneath that, you have water, that's the water that's referred to here, is called the Garbhodaka Ocean. And then above that you have a region of space called antarikṣa. Curiously, this word antarikṣa means inner space. We tend to speak of outer space but antara means inside. So you have the inner space and then above that you have a series of higher planets: Svargaloka, Maharloka, and so on up to Satyaloka, within the universe. So that is the basic description.
Also, this whole system is compared to an embryo. The word brahmāṇḍa means Brahmā egg because anda is egg, and Garbhodaka – where garba is embryo. So the Garbhodaka Ocean is the embryonic ocean. In fact, you can see that the universe in that sense is structured like an egg because the Garbhodaka Ocean would be like the amniotic fluid in the egg. And sure enough, you have what looks like an umbilical cord inside this egg because Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu produces the lotus which is coming out of His navel. The lotus unfolds and Brahmā takes birth from the lotus. And Śrīla Prabhupāda pointed out that, as he said here... did he say it here? or not in this particular purport... but the planets are within the stem of this lotus. So this aspect of the universe is there.
The Bhāgavatam gives quite a few details about this basic structure. And from that you can see that the disc of Bhū-maṇḍala basically plays a number of different roles. One of those I described recently in a BTG article. Bhū-maṇḍala turns out to be a map of the solar system and this is a quite remarkable thing as it turns out. The surface of Bhū-maṇḍala is inscribed with a series of ring-shaped features which are called oceans and dvīpas. Dvīpa is usually translated as ‘island,' and literally, dvīpa means water on two sides. Each of these ring-shaped subdivisions has an ocean on the inside and an ocean on the outside, so in effect it has water on two sides of the ring. So the radii of these dvīpas are given in the Bhāgavatam and it turns out that they correlate very nicely with the geocentric orbits of the planets, so that in effect Bhū-maṇḍala is a map of the solar system – and this is factual.
Someone might want to argue that it must be coincidental because surely the person who wrote the Bhāgavatam couldn't have known about something like that. But whatever you might want to say there, the fact is that the Bhū-maṇḍala is a map of the solar system, and it's quite accurate. My own inclination would be to think that the author of the Bhāgavatam did understand what he was doing and this is quite deliberate. This implies that in ancient times when the Bhāgavatam was written, there was advanced knowledge of astronomy in the modern sense – that is, people knew how far away the planets were, how they moved in their orbits, and so forth. And they knew this with considerable precision. So that's one aspect of Bhū-maṇḍala, but that's not the entire story.
Bhū-maṇḍala also corresponds to a map of the earth globe. And this is another whole story that one would have to go into, and I won't spend too much time on it. But of course, we have experience that the earth is a globe and some of us have flown all the way around it in jet planes; that's customary for devotees to do. If you go to India by the Pacific route and the European route, and the result is you've actually gone all the way around the world at least once. So in the Bhāgavatam, the earth or Jambūdvīpa, which is part of Bhū-maṇḍala, is described as a flat disc. So there's an explanation here which has actually been discussed at some length in a number of different published papers on the subject, namely that Jambūdvīpa as a flat disc is a polar projection map of the earth. And one can go into considerable detail showing how Jambūdvīpa correlates with the earth.
Furthermore, the motion of the sun and the moon and so forth relative to Jambūdvīpa can be understood in terms of this idea of the polar projection. For example, in some of the Purāṇas it is described that in the course of the year the sun crosses over the different dvīpas coming in and then out. And it moves faster when it's in the southern part of its orbit, slower when it's in the northern part, and so forth. To explain this in more detail, I'd need to show some diagrams. But basically this exactly corresponds to the pattern of motion that the sun would have given that you have a polar projection. And the ecliptic is mapped onto the earth between the two circles: the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. So there's a lot of detail behind this also. But this is another aspect of Bhū-maṇḍala.
So a third aspect of Bhū-maṇḍala is that it's a description of the realm of the demigods. So actually the major part of the description in the Bhāgavatam is dedicated to this aspect. So what this is basically saying is that coextensive with this physical structure of the Brahmāṇḍa, which corresponds to the earth and the solar system and so forth, there is a world of beings that we don't directly see but which has structure within space and this is the realm of the demigods. It's described in the Bhāgavatam that there are three categories of heaven. It's interesting, we speak of the three worlds – that's a common phrase which is used – they're all called svarga, interestingly enough. So there's the higher planets including specifically Svargaloka and this is referred to as Divya-svarga or svarga of the demigods. Then all of Bhū-maṇḍala and Jambūdvīpa except for Bhārata-varṣa is referred to as Bhauma-svarga. And beneath Bhū-maṇḍala you have the lower planetary systems and that's referred to as Bila-svarga, which is a rather curious phrase because bila literally... well it's translated as ‘subterranean 'in the Bhāgavatam and literally it means ‘in a hole.’ So you have a subterranean heaven, which sounds like a contradiction in terms. But actually what it refers to is that Bhauma-svarga corresponds to the plane of the solar system, Divya svarga corresponds to what is to the north of that in the celestial sense, and Bila-svarga is to the south of that in the celestial sense.
So you divide up the space within that sphere into three parts: to the north, in the middle, and to the south, and that corresponds to these three heavens. And actually, they are heavens because they're all out there in space. Bhārata-varṣa, however, is defined as an exception in the Bhāgavatam. And that is the only part of the entire universe in which it is said that ordinary human beings are to be found, because in the Bhāgavatam it says the Bhārata-varṣa is the place of karma, and it is the place where you find people with mixed karma: some of them are highly elevated, some of them are just ordinary people, others are extremely abominable in their character. So at the same time, Bhārata-varṣa is described as a place where there's great opportunity for spiritual advancement and the demigods pray that they could take birth there, even though they're living in the heavenly regions. Now this Bhārata-varṣa, in that sense, corresponds to the entire earth that we experience. If you look at the remainder of Jambūdvīpa, and Bhārata-varṣa is just part of Jambūdvīpa, there are nine varṣas, or subdivisions, of which Bhārata-varṣa is the southernmost.
The other eight subdivisions are characterized as places where beings are living who have come down from the heavenly planets but they still have, basically you might say, demigod karma which they're living out. And so they live for about 10,000 years. They don't experience any degeneration of the body; they don't grow old; their bodies don't smell or get gray hair or wrinkles or anything like that. They're as strong as 10,000 elephants and all this sort of thing. Of course, I wonder, I think the elephants there are probably also stronger, so maybe they’re as strong as 10,000 of our elephants. So in any case that is the description. So these are heavenly regions and of course we don't see anything like that here on the earth. So this is also an aspect of the description in the Fifth Canto.
Now you can say that there is a horizontal direction within the universe and a vertical direction. Horizontal would be in the plane of Bhū-maṇḍala and vertical would be perpendicular to that. Vertical means in the direction of North and the opposite of that, down, would be towards the south. Interestingly enough at either end of the vertical axis you have Lord Viṣṇu stationed. Going in the upward direction, you come to Dhruvaloka, which is described as the planet of Lord Viṣṇu and the entire section of the sky from the Big Dipper to the north. If you go out at night you can see this. If you look there you'll see the Big Dipper. So take... find the pole star. So if you take the pole star, go to the Big Dipper, and draw a circle of that radius, all of the stars contained in that circle correspond to what is called Viṣṇupāda, which is the path of Lord Viṣṇu, the center of that being the pole star or Dhruvaloka.
And then basically the planets, which you can also see at night, go through what is called the ecliptic area of the sky where the constellations of the zodiac are found. And everything from that north up to the Big Dipper, moving in celestial North, would be called the deva-yāna, which is the path of the gods, the demigods. And going in the other direction south from the area in which the planets are rotating, going down as far south as Agastya which is the star Canopus, which is at about 60° south actually, and that's called the pitṛ-yāna path, the path of the pitṛls. And there's the description in the Bhagavad-gītā that, depending on when you die, you may take the deva-yāna path or the pitṛ-yāna path. So the deva-yāna path goes in the direction of Viṣṇuloka, and the pitṛ-yāna path goes in the direction of the Pitṛloka. But this is all out in the sky, interestingly enough. And that makes sense because Bhū-maṇḍala extends through the sky and everything to the north of that would be in the demigod direction, and to the south of that, underneath Bhū-maṇḍala, you have Pitṛloka. But going a bit further to the south you have the Garbhodaka Ocean. And then you have... there you have Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu and Ananta Śeṣa.
So between... you could say basically there are two poles, both of which are Viṣṇu, between which all the planetary systems are distributed. So that's the system. But since that is the case, this is all in a higher dimension. In other words, Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu is on the Garbhodaka Ocean, but not as a physical body that we could see if we had a sufficiently powerful telescope or anything like that. In fact, it's described that Brahmā himself could not see Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu when he first awoke to consciousness and tried to trace out his origin. It’s described that he was able to understand that the lotus had some source and he followed the stem down towards the water, but he couldn't see what was down there. It was impossible for him. So we, of course, have these paintings where you see Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, and the lotus, and Lord Brahmā, and we see all those things. But Lord Brahmā himself couldn't see all that, until later on, by the grace of Lord Viṣṇu, he was given that vision. So this vertical axis of the universe has its higher dimensional aspect. So I think I'll stop there. Those are a few observations on the universe. Any questions, comments? Murli?
Answer: Well, you can argue if you like that God does not become subject to the laws since he's completely transcendental, but everything material is subject to those laws. So the analogy is like somebody building a clock, setting it in motion, and walking away. He doesn't come back to the clock, it just moves deterministically according to its mechanism.
A: Well, there was a famous argument between Newton and Leibniz. Newton said that the clock maker could come back and readjust the clock. In fact, he said that that happens. And Leibnitz said that this is actually sacrilege because you're saying that God is such an imperfect craftsman that he makes a clock that he has to come back and adjust, just like an ordinary clock where you have to reset the time periodically. So Leibniz rejected that. But in principle God could come back and reset the clock. Yeah?
A: I don't know if that particular event involving the model of the universe ever really took place, but it is a fact that Newton defended the position that the universe was created by God. Newton was quite a curious character. It turns out he wrote one book on physics which is very famous: the Principia Mathematica and so on. He wrote dozens of books on theology. But curiously enough, nobody ever wanted to publish them. And his books on theology are still in his own handwriting in some museum somewhere, but nobody published them. Another funny thing about Newton is that he spent 30 years of his life studying alchemy, which is very embarrassing to scientists, as their hero spent 30 years on alchemy. So anyway, yeah?
A: Polar projection: if you look in an atlas, all the maps are flat, but the earth is a globe. Now the curved surface of the earth, if you flatten that out to create a flat map you have to do what is called “make a projection” of some kind and that inevitably distorts the shape of the different continents. And there are many different ways to do it. What we usually see with a map is a Mercator projection in which the equator is a horizontal line going down the center. If you look you'll see Greenland is very stretched out at the top and Antarctica is stretched along the bottom and so forth. Now if you make the North Pole the centre and you basically take the earth and flatten it up around the North Pole that gives you a polar projection and you'll find those kinds of maps in atlases also. So basically Jambūdvīpa corresponds to a polar projection of the earth. So that's another aspect of Jambūdvīpa. Yeah?
A: Well, you could say that I'm taking a radical approach. You see, the scientists introduced the theory of evolution to reconcile the second law of thermodynamics with the fact that we do seem to see more order than supposedly was there, say, 100 million years ago or whatever time you might like. And this leads to a bit of a problem: how more and more order can come about even though matter tends to become disordered. So they have their theory with chance and natural selection, survival of the fittest and so on. And I won't go into it but I would argue extensively that the theory doesn't work. So they're stuck with the fact that things should get more disordered, I would propose. But if we look at the world we see a great deal of order there. So how's that coming about? That is the basic question.
A: There's more order than they postulate for the past. Consider the primordial earth, the way they would talk about it. Well, you've got oceans and the atmosphere and volcanoes erupting, and you have different chemicals floating in the water and that's it – no life. And they will say: well, the molecules collide with one another and they happen to form different configurations, which lead to further configurations, and somehow a living cell is formed, which reproduces itself; and then the cells that function better reproduce more efficiently. So there are more of them around and so on and so forth, and you wind up with us finally talking about. So it's actually a difficult theory to defend. So anything else? Yeah?
A: Brahmaloka is Satyaloka. At least according to one meaning of the word it's the same thing. Another meaning of Brahmaloka is the brahmajyoti. Sometimes the word is used in that sense. But I was using it to refer to the place where Brahmā lives, which would be the same as Satyaloka, which by the way is described in the Bhāgavatam as avac manasa, which means ‘beyond words and the mind.’ This is a Satyaloka. So try and make a model of it. So one more.
A: The Vedic concept of gravity: well, all the Vedic scientific... astronomical texts say that the planets are moved by an arrangement of air. So some arrangement involving air would be the Vedic equivalent of gravity in that sense. There are different types of wind which are described. The pravāha wind for example. The Sūrya-siddhānta describes the planets moving according to ropes of air. So that's basically where you'd have to look to understand the Vedic idea of gravity. Yeah?
A: Is that really going on? Well, this... unfortunately it's a little bit late to get into the whole subject of the relation between personalities which seem to be sort of, well idiosyncratic is the word that comes to mind. They act according to their desire, which is based on all kinds of complicated situations, and so it's really hard to anticipate what a person is going to do. Now you can contrast that with regular behavior of matter in nature, for example, the tides of the ocean. The tide comes in to a certain point and it goes out and so on, which is explained in terms of the gravitational pull of the moon in modern science. And by the way, in the Purāṇas there are quite a few different statements which say that the tides are caused by the moon. So that's recognized in Vedic literature also. So what do those regular phenomena have to do with personalities? It would seem that personality would get bored if all he had to do was just sort of move the tides in and out forever. Or consider the idea of the sun-god going around in his orbit. I mean, such a highly intelligent qualified being and all he's doing is going in circles day after day. You'd think that would become a bit tedious after a while. So what is the relationship? So I'll leave that as a homework problem. So anyway, there’s a lot that could be said about that. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.