“Polestar” (SB 4.12.25)
Thompson compares the concept of the polestar, identified as Dhruva-loka in this verse, to cosmological constructs accepted within contemporary Western astronomy. He then examines various reports that suggest the experience of certain paranormal phenomena that can blur distinctions between past, present and future. Thompsons proposes that additional research could offer intellectual bridges between ostensibly incompatible worldviews.
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 4, Chapter 12, Text 12. “Polestar.” Alachua - 2000 / (027)
To achieve Viṣṇuloka is very difficult, but by your austerity you have conquered. Even the great ṛṣis and demigods cannot achieve this position. Simply to see the supreme abode [the Viṣṇu planet], the sun and moon and all the other planets, stars, lunar mansions and solar systems are circumambulating it. Now please come; you are welcome to go there.
Purport by Śrīla Prabhupāda:
Even in this material world the so-called scientists, philosophers and mental speculators strive to merge into the spiritual sky, but they can never go there. But a devotee, by executing devotional service, not only realizes what the spiritual world actually is, but factually goes there to live an eternal life of bliss and knowledge. The Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement is so potent that by adopting these principles of life and developing love of God one can very easily go back home, back to Godhead. Here the practical example is the case of Dhruva Mahārāja. While the scientist and philosopher go to the moon but are disappointed in their attempts to stay there and live, the devotee makes an easy journey to other planets and ultimately goes back to Godhead. Devotees have no interest in seeing other planets, but while going back to Godhead they see all of them as passing phases, just as one who is going to a distant place passes through many small stations.
Surely, I was asked to speak about an astronomical verse. The reference here, of course, is to Dhruvaloka. This is described here as Viṣṇuloka, a Viṣṇu planet, the planet of Lord Viṣṇu or Vaikuṇṭha planet. The rotation of the sky around one point is used here to refer to the situation of Lord Viṣṇu as the Supreme Being. So the verse describes that the various planets are circumambulating the Polestar, which is referred to here as a Viṣṇupada, Viṣṇu-padaṁ, the supreme abode of Lord Viṣṇu. I would note by the way, that where it says graha here we have the nine planets and in parentheses, it lists Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Actually, nava-graha is the standard term referring to nine planets, but those are actually the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Rahu, and Ketu. That's the actual reference since the earth is not regarded as a planet separately and Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are not mentioned in the Sanskrit literature. So, it's a different list of nine.
So these planets are understood to be circumambulating around the Polestar and in fact, that is something you can see at night. I believe not too long ago, I discussed the same topic. But in any case, if you look to the north early in the morning at about an angle of 30° up from the horizontal, you'll see a star which is, in modern terms, called Polaris – and that is the Polestar. And if you spend some time at night watching, you'll see that all of the stars, planets and so forth are rotating around that as a pivot point. So that is being referred to here. In the Fifth Canto, it is explained in particular that just as oxen rotating around a central pole for threshing grain, never deviate in radius from that central point, but they're always circumambulating it, so likewise, all the different stars and planets and so forth are circumambulating the planet of Lord Viṣṇu, thus demonstrating the supreme position of Lord Viṣṇu. So that is what is being referred to here.
Of course, in modern scientific terms, this particular example may be disappointing to many people because they will understand the rotation of all the stars and planets around the Polestar as being due to the rotation of the earth on its axis. So if you have the perspective that the entire universe is rotating around one axis then, of course, that's very impressive because it's the entire universe. But, if you're thinking that, well, the apparent rotation of these stars and planets around one axis is simply due to the rotation of the earth around its axis, then that's not so impressive because the earth is a very small and insignificant speck in the vastness of the universe. And furthermore, one could argue that the particular direction of its spin axis is not such an important thing.
So I mention this because that would certainly be the perspective of people who are following modern scientific thinking, which would cover quite a few people. So, what then can we say about this? Actually, from the scientific perspective and, of course, Prabhupāda himself has said this, the earth is just an insignificant speck, just like a little point of dust in the vast expanse of the universe. And if in its spin it happens to be spinning along a certain axis, pointing to a particular star, well, what does that signify? It's just a little speck that happens to be spinning and there are many other little spinning specks also, which may be pointing in a variety of different directions. So this is how one could debunk the example you might say, but, we have to be careful in how we understand these things.
Another point concerning the scientific picture is that the spin axis of the earth is precessing like a top. If you set a top to spinning on a table or something like that, the axis of spin will revolve around like this. Likewise, the axis of spin of the earth is revolving slowly in a big circle. It is said that this takes about 26,000 years to complete the circle, and this is called the precession. The shifting of the equinoxes relative to the stars in the zodiac is also due to this precession of the spin axis of the earth. So, what that means is that the Polestar is not always the same; and of course all the astrologers, astrological fans, will be well acquainted with this.
So right now, curiously enough, there is a Polestar. That is, there's a star very close to the axis of rotation, which is called Polaris. It's getting closer according to modern astronomy and some time, I believe in the next century, it reaches its closest point to the pole. If you go back a thousand years, there was no star close to the polar axis. And if you want to go to the point when there was previously a star very close to the polar axis actually, it takes you back to around 5000 years ago, which is interesting in terms of dates because at that time a different star, which is called Thuban or Alpha Draconis, was at the polar axis. So, that is the astronomical picture.
So what does this all mean in terms of the text of the Bhāgavatam and its reference to the polestar as Viṣṇuloka? Well, the first point to consider is that we, of course, have experience directly through our senses of the gross physical world and of course the gross physical world is laid out in three dimensions: x, y, and z, you could say. There is time within the gross physical world that proceeds from past to present to future in a more or less linear fashion. So we're accustomed to that way of seeing things, but the gross physical world is not by any means the sum total of what exists. In addition to that, first of all, there are subtle levels of material existence, and beyond that there's the spiritual realm of existence. So from the standpoint of the total system of reality, the physical world that we know is actually quite insignificant. It's only a very tiny part of the totality.
Now, we are connected to this physical world through consciousness because we don't actually belong to this world – we're spirit souls. So, if we are spirit souls, then why is it that we're seeing everything through the senses of this body, so that now I have to put glasses on in order to read this book? So, what is going on? Why is the spirit soul limited in this way? Well, basically the consciousness of the spirit soul for various reasons, which one may discuss, is directed through the physical sense organs of the body. And thus what you see and what you perceive is conditioned by the physical senses and by the basic layout of the gross physical world. So we tend to think of everything in terms of the gross physical world. We're limited in that way.
Now, if you could detach your senses from the gross physical world and come, say, to the subtle platform of existence, you would see things quite differently. And in fact, that happens fairly easily. It's known as death, basically. It's very easy for this to happen, not at all difficult. So if you die, then your soul, you are the soul, of course, becomes disconnected from the gross physical senses and you begin to see on the subtle material platform. Only if the soul is liberated can you see on the spiritual platform.
Now, it is also possible to do this in a temporary fashion. There are out-of-body experiences and trance states of various kinds and so forth in which people are able to directly experience the subtle platform of existence. One thing that is immediately observed on that level is that time and space are different from what they are in gross three-dimensional experience. Somehow, for example, time seems to function differently on the subtle platform. One can see the past, present, and future. We read about sages that are tri-kāla-jñā, they can see past, present, and future. Well, in fact, it is observed that as soon as one begins to perceive on the subtle platform the distinction between past, present and future becomes blurred.
For example, experiments by parapsychologists in remote viewing indicate this. Remote viewing, briefly, is the effort to see something without using the ordinary senses. For example, I might try to see what someone in New York City is doing right now. Now, oddly enough, people are able to do this. Some people are more capable of it than others and apparently, the ability to do this can be enhanced by training, but it is possible to see what is going on at a distant place through the subtle senses as opposed to the gross physical senses. And one thing that is observed is that what one sees at a distant place may belong to the past, the present, or the future. One isn't limited to this particular moment of the present as we are with the gross physical senses.
Also, people in the out-of-body state experience that travel from one point to another is different from what we normally experience. Furthermore, even seeing is different; after all, when we see we are using these eyeballs, which are little balls of jelly with a lens arrangement, sort of like a camera – that's the comparison that's always made. So we can only see by picking up light that happens to come into the orifice of the eye at a certain angle and is then focused on the retina and so on. But if you're out of the body, what are you seeing with? Certainly not the same eyeballs.
In fact, seeing on the subtle platform is a completely different kind of experience. One can see all sides of an object, for example, this kind of thing is reported. So, this is the subtle platform. Beyond that, there's the spiritual platform of existence. Now that is even more different from our gross physical level of experience. So the Vaikuṇṭhaloka, Vaikuṇṭha planet, this is not actually a planet in the sense that we think of planets. We tend to think of a planet as a ball of rock or of gas as in the case of Jupiter and Saturn. It is a three-dimensional object with a surface on which entities might be living, but the Vaikuṇṭha planets are completely different. They're within the spiritual domain of existence, which is difficult for us to understand given our three-dimensional way of thinking. So the Bhāgavatam is referring here to Viṣṇuloka and it is saying that, well, Viṣṇuloka corresponds to the polar axis around which everything is rotating and this concept of everything rotating around one axis illustrates the supreme character of Viṣṇuloka. But it doesn't necessarily follow that this has to be taken in a strictly literal sense since Viṣṇuloka itself certainly is not a three-dimensional object within the gross physical world. So that is a point that can be considered.
In any case, the concept of the kāla-cakra, or the rotation of the stars and planets around Viṣṇuloka, is also connected with a constellation called Śiśumāra. That is going to be mentioned, I think, in a couple of verses from here in the next... let me see... here it is:
According to astronomical calculation, along with the Polestar, there is another star which is called Śiśumāra where Lord Viṣṇu, who is in charge of the maintenance of this material world, resides. Śiśumāra or Dhruvaloka can never be reached by anyone but the Vaiṣṇavas as will be described in the following ślokas.
Actually here, it's interesting that Śiśumāra is referred to as a star. In the Fifth Canto, the 23rd chapter, the Śiśumāra constellation is described. It's actually a constellation of stars. This Śiśumāra is referred to as a dolphin, interestingly enough. Apparently, Śiśumāra literally means child killer. I suppose dolphins can be a problem if you get into the water with them. But anyway, this constellation is in the form of a long sinuously curving animal, and the tail of the constellation is Dhruvaloka. And the tail, Dhruvaloka, is of course to the north.
Now, there's a series of constellations called the nakṣatras, which go around the band of the zodiac. That's the area in which the planets rotate in their orbits. So everyone is familiar with the constellations of the zodiac. Well, there are 12 constellations of the zodiac, but these are subdivided into 27 or 28 nakṣatra constellations, which follow the same path. So the Śiśumāra, they say the tail is Dhruvaloka and the body comes down to the level of the nakṣatras and curves around the nakṣatras so that one group of nakṣatras corresponding to the descending path of the sun represents one half of the body of this curved creature. And the remaining nakṣatras, which correspond to the ascending path of the sun, are the other half of its body. So, the body sort of comes down and curves around like that. So that is the Śiśumāra constellation. So that, of course, also, is rotating continuously around the Polestar as a pivot.
So, Śrīla Prabhupāda mentions in the Fifth Canto that this Śiśumāra constellation is meditated upon yogis as a representation of Viṣṇu, but he points out there that this is imaginary. But, it is an object of meditation since it represents the entire universe rotating around the feet of Lord Viṣṇu, Viṣṇu-padaṁ. So that is mentioned there in connection with this Śiśumāra constellation. So...
Answer: Yes, there was... Badanarayana Murthy was a South Indian man who was part of the Bhaktivedanta Institute for a period of time back in the 1970s and he said that it meant scorpion. In fact, he even had a drawing showing a scorpion dangling down. I guess a scorpion could kill children also, more easily than a dolphin generally speaking. So yeah, that's been, that's been stated. And I suppose it's shaped more like a scorpion also if you imagine a tail and then the thing swerves around in a big circle. But anyway, are there any questions? Yeah?
A: Well, the point that I'm making is that the way things are described here directly, the Polestar would be Druvaloka and so if what you see as the Polestar then that must be Druvaloka. But the point I'm making, two points. One is if you look at this from the scientific point of view, which many people will, then it must be considered that the particular star that we now call the Polestar has been so only for the last few hundred years. And within a few hundred years it will cease to be the Polestar because gradually, it will shift away from the polar axis. So in that sense, that particular star could not be identified as the Viṣṇu planet that it's being referred to. So that was the first point that I was making.
Secondly, also from the scientific point of view, the spin axis of the earth is not a highly significant factor, the earth being very insignificant. You see, if you're thinking of the entire universe revolving… that, of course, is a very impressive and important thing. So, the concept of a person standing on earth who sees the entire universe is revolving around one point is used here to refer to the supreme status of Viṣṇu. Now, I went on to point out that Viṣṇuloka, being a spiritual planet, is not subject to the limitations of three-dimensional space and time. So, it is not a little ball sitting somewhere in three-dimensional space. It is completely transcendental to three-dimensional space and time.
Of course, it is possible that Viṣṇuloka could be associated with the ball and space in the same sense for example, that Goloka Vṛindāvana is associated with the tract of land in India; one can consider that point also. But, evidently the tract of land in India is not literally the Goloka Vṛindāvana, but somehow, it's connected with it. There's a trans-dimensional connection there, but Goloka Vṛindāvana and the tract of land in India are not literally the same thing. Rather, what one sees in India is a covering over Goloka, the covering of māyā which prevents you from seeing the real thing. So in any case, Vaikuṇṭhaloka is transcendental and beyond the three-dimensions of this world. Yeah?
A: Well, that is referred to as Viṣṇu-padaṁ, and that is called Dhruvaloka. So, that's the reference that you have in the Bhāgavatam. So, I'm making just two points. They only go as far as they go. Beyond that, I don't know. But the two points were number one, Viṣṇuloka is not a three-dimensional entity; and number two, the Polestar is only a temporary object. In other words, Polaris will not be the Polestar forever and if you went back 5,000 years ago, according to the concept of the precession of the polar axis, then Polaris, that particular star, which is in Ursa Minor, would not have been on the pole but another star would have been. And that one is called Alpha Draconis. It's in the constellation Draco, which you can also see in the sky at night, but now, that one is not on the pole.
A: I don't know. We only know what we can see. So that's the discussion, Dhruvaloka. Yes?
A: Well, we know the phrase tri-kāla-jñā which refers to a sage, ṛṣi, seeing past, present, and future. So, we know that is possible from the Vedic literature. Now, people actually experienced this when they are able to perceive on a subtle platform, for whatever reason. This can occur for various reasons and it's something that can be deliberately cultivated. Different people have different degrees of talent in this regard, as is true of many, many other things. So, I was referring in particular to remote viewing or the effort of seeing something in a distant place using the subtle senses, not just the gross sense, and people who have done that have experienced that they can see what is in the past or what is in the future. It doesn't seem to matter; so if what people see as far as they can tell, they don't really know whether it's in the future or in the past – they're just seeing it.
Experiments have been performed in which let's say, you have two people, the viewer who sits back in a particular room and then a target person who goes to a particular site to see something. And the viewer is supposed to say what the target person is seeing; and people can do this to a certain extent. A viewer may give an accurate description of what the target person is seeing at the site, but this may happen before the target person went there. They try to arrange these things so that people can't cheat by having, let's say, a third person know what the target site is. The viewer doesn't know, and the target person doesn't know until they are handed an envelope, which they open up, which tells them where to go. So it may be that the person doing the viewing is doing this before the target person even received the envelope. So, he didn't even know where he was going to go at that point, but the viewer can see what the person is seeing at the site, but the person hasn't gone there yet. So it would seem that the viewer is seeing the future; likewise, one can also see the past. So this seems to be the way things work on a subtle platform. Yeah?
Q: Perhaps relevant to the fact that the Bhāgavatam can sometimes be non-chronological... who are writing Bhāgavatam... and then everything becomes a little blurred. Most of it the... is, of course, the subject matter of the Bhāgavatam in glorification of the Lord. Think you could give a little slant on that, that they actually see in this kind of consciousness which you're describing.
A: Well, possibly so. Śrīla Prabhupāda has said that the Bhāgavatam is not chronological history, that is a fact. Yes?
Q: What Sanjaya sees in Bhagavad-gītā, could you put that into that context?
A: Well, that would be an example of remote viewing for sure. He saw what was going on, on the battlefield. In that case, it seems to be assisted remote viewing because apparently, Vyasadeva was seeing what was going on, on the battlefield and somehow transmitting this to Sanjaya, as I understand. So you have assisted remote viewing. Yes?
Q: So, you mentioned the sun as a planet, but I don't recall; and of the Bhāgavatam showing a sun-god with the chariot and horses and they're kind of pulling, you know, giving the sun the chariot. So, what is the sun actually?
A: Well, what is the sun, actually? Well, concerning the chariot, you may know that all of the grahas are likewise assigned chariots, including the moon and Mercury and so forth, Saturn, etc. So, the sun is not distinguished from the others by having a chariot, they're all assigned to chariots with different numbers of horses, different colors, different numbers of wheels on the chariot and so on and so forth.
Now, as far as the sun is concerned, as described in the Bhāgavatam, that chariot is definitely metaphorical because it is made of the parts of the year. In other words, if you read that description of that chariot, you'll see that it is made up of days, months, seasons, the two ayanas and so on and so forth.
Q: What about the 60,000 Vālikhilyas or whoever they are?
A: Well, the thumb-sized Vālikhilyas who must be awfully small compared to the sun considering they're the size of the thumb.
Q: I guess they can just fit right in this strip of the temple room.
A: They can very easily fit, wherever their position may be. What to speak of all the other beings that are said to accompany the sun. There's a whole description... in a 12 month period, different cohorts of beings take turns following the sun in its path, I guess on a monthly basis, that's also described in the Bhāgavatam. But the chariot as described is certainly made up of days, months, and so forth. And the wheel of the sun's chariot, in particular, is a metaphor for the year. For example, it has 360 spokes.
Interestingly enough, this description is also given in the Ṛg Veda. It's curious that some scholars say, well, the Bhāgavatam was written deliberately in Archaic Sanskrit so as to make it look old. This is a thing that some scholars say. Then other scholars point out that many of the archaic features of the Bhāgavatam cannot be traced. No one can figure out where they came from. But, one archaic feature that I noticed was that the description of the sun's chariot is the same as what you find in the Ṛg Veda, as it so happens, in particular the 360 spokes. By the way, in the CD that we made, just for the fun of it, we created a wheel with 360 spokes just to see what it would look like. It's larger than the number of spokes in a typical wheel. In fact, they're so close together it looks just like a shiny continuum of spokes. So any other questions or comments?
Q: Well, are there like chariots that are pulling a planet? The way I understand it, all the planets are like heavenly planets... [unclear]
A: The planets are described in the Purāṇas generally speaking, as being drawn by chariots. I was pointing out that the chariot in the case of the sun in the Bhāgavatam is a metaphorical chariot. Now, whether this is true for the chariots of the other planets, one can consider it. But in any case, the planets are described as being pulled by chariots, which have different characteristics relating to the characteristics of the given planet. So, that's the way things are described. However, certainly, the planet is also a sphere.
Interestingly enough, I have not found anywhere in the Puranic literature very much detailed description of the inhabitants of the grahas, the nine planets. Evidently, they do have inhabitants, but we don't find anywhere a description of, well, here's what day-to-day life is like on Mercury or Jupiter and so forth. If anyone ever does run across such a description, I'd be interested in seeing it, but I haven't encountered it thus far. Yeah?
Q: Another thing that's going to come up in the next series is also space travel and travel to the moon and traveling to the other planets. I know you wrote a whole book on vimanas and stuff like that. Is there anything you can say about traveling to the moon and other planets?
A: It'll have to be pretty brief considering that I'm approaching the deadline that is mentioned here.
Q: Yeah, people can go a little bit over...
A: Yeah. Well, it was curious, interestingly enough. Of course, here Prabhupāda said in the purport to this verse, “while the scientist and philosopher go to the moon, but are disappointed in their attempts to stay there and live.” So, that sentence would indicate that they went to the moon.
Of course, in other places Śrīla Prabhupāda has said that he didn't think that they went to the moon. But of course, his main point has always been that there's no point in going to the moon and if you went there in this body, you couldn't live there anyway because your body is not adapted to the conditions on the moon or the atmosphere that prevails there.
And of course, here he says that devotees have no interest in seeing other planets, but one goes past them on the way back to Godhead, just like a train going past many small stations. So the main point is that there's no real interest in going to the other planets whether they did in fact succeed in going in a rocket or not to the moon.
Śrīla Prabhupāda mentioned another interesting thing in the purport to text 26; he's referring to Brahmaloka: “By material calculation traveling at the speed of light, it would take 40,000 light-years to reach the topmost planet, which is Brahmaloka.” I always thought that was kind of interesting because of course, 40,000 light-years is quite a long distance. You can calculate how long that is if you like. Take 40,000 years, multiplied by 365 days in a year, times 24 hours in a day, times 60 minutes in an hour, times 60 seconds in a minute, times 186,000 miles per second, and that would give you the number of miles in 40,000 light-years. It's quite a long distance if you want to multiply it all out. So he is saying that here. So evidently, Śrīla Prabhupāda considered that this universe as described in the Bhāgavatam is more extensive than just the 4 billion mile diameter shell, which is described in the Fifth Canto. At least, that's what he seems to be saying in this particular purport.