“Vedic Cosmography” (SB 4.17.21)
Thompson engages in a lengthy discussion of the concept of the cosmic earth-disc found within the literary tradition of a variety of time-honored cultures and known within the Puranic tradition as Bhu-mandala. He proposes several explanations for these seemingly archaic descriptions, while advising against “flat earth” interpretations that tend to undermine the complexity latent to ancient philosophical accounts.
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 4, Chapter 17, Text 21. “Vedic Cosmograph.” Alachua - 2000 / (029)
The cow-shaped earth continued: My dear King, I am just like a strong boat, and all the paraphernalia of the world is standing upon me. If you break me to pieces, how can you protect yourself and your subjects from drowning?
Purport by Śrīla Prabhupāda:
Beneath the entire planetary system is the garbha water. Lord Viṣṇu lies on this garbha water, and from His abdomen a lotus stem grows, and all the planets within the universe are floating in the air, being supported by this lotus stem. If a planet is destroyed, it must fall into the water of garbha. The earth therefore warned King Pṛthu that he could gain nothing by destroying her. Indeed, how would he protect himself and his citizens from drowning in the garbha water? In other words, outer space may be compared to an ocean of air, and each and every planet is floating on it just as a boat or island floats on the ocean. Sometimes planets are called dvīpa, or islands, and sometimes they are called boats. Thus the cosmic manifestation is partially explained in this reference by the cow-shaped earth.
So we have another cosmological verse. The earth is speaking to King Pṛthu, who is threatening to destroy her and... So in the purport, Śrīla Prabhupāda refers to the garbha water. So in this verse, water is referred to – ambhasi: in the water – and Śrīla Prabhupāda refers to that as the water or the Garbhodaka Ocean. So the cosmology of the universe is described in the 5th Canto. Basically the geometry of the situation is like this: If you imagine a sphere four billion miles in diameter, that's quite a large sphere from the perspective of life here on the earth. To get an idea of how big that is, it's about the diameter of the orbit of Uranus. If you know the planets, you have Jupiter and Saturn and then Uranus. So the diameter of the orbit of Uranus is about four billion miles – it's a bit less actually. But it's close to that.
So imagine a sphere four billion miles in diameter and outside of that sphere you have elemental coverings – seven of them. Within the sphere there are two divisions. Cutting across the sphere; you could say across the equator if you imagine the equator of the sphere, there is a disk, a flat plate. And that is also four billion miles in diameter so it touches the sphere around the edges. And that disk is called Bhū-maṇḍala. Bhū-maṇḍala means the circle of the earth basically. Maṇḍala is a circle or a circular figure and bhū refers to the earth. So you have the earth being described as a disk four billion miles in diameter. Now in the center of this disk, which is also within this... at the center point of the sphere, there is Jambūdvīpa. Jambūdvīpa is described as a... also a disk. But that one is 800,000 miles in diameter. So now that's quite small compared to four billion. 800,000 miles in diameter – that's about the size of the sun, if you want to make a comparison to the modern figures.
So in the center of this Jambūdvīpa there is Mount Meru. Surrounding Jambūdvīpa there is an ocean, which is the salt water ocean, and that is like a ring surrounding Jambūdvīpa. And that has a width of 800,000 miles also. And then surrounding that there's a dvīpa. It's called Plakṣadvīpa, and that's a ring also that surrounds the salt water ocean. And that ring is... well, twice as thick. So that would be... well 1,600,000 yojanas in width. And then surrounding that, there's another ocean. I forget which one. It's probably the sugarcane juice. There are oceans of different substances. So you’ve got salt water to begin with – at least that's familiar to us. And then there's sugarcane juice. There's an ocean of liquor. I don't know what happens to the denizens there. There's an ocean of ghee, an ocean of milk, ocean of fresh water, and so on. Yogurt! Did I leave out yogurt?
So actually there was a British sort of big-wig in India in the time of the British Raj in India who totally dismissed all Sanskrit literature on the basis of these oceans. He said, “Well, in the Sanskrit literature we have geography with oceans of treacle” – he used the term treacle. I guess that refers to yogurt – “and oceans of liquor, and so how can we give any credence to this whole thing. This is ridiculous.” So he therefore said that Sanskrit education should not be supported and only English should be taught in the schools. So this was actually a pivotal point in the... in the history of the colonial period in India.
But anyway, so there are these successive rings and there are seven of them counting Jambūdvīpa as the first. It's actually a disk, not a ring. Jambūdvīpa and six rings which are called dvīpas. And they are surrounded in turn by seven oceans. So... and as you go out from dvīpa to dvīpa, the width doubles each time, so they become quite large. And then beyond that there are some additional rings going out to the boundary of the Jambūdvīpa [should be Bhū-maṇḍala]. So this is the description. The set of seven oceans and dvīpas, that's called Sapta-dvīpa, meaning seven dvīpas. This term dvīpa is generally translated as island. Specifically it would mean an island with two sides because dvī is two and āpa is water. So it's got water on two sides; and you can see if you have a ring and there's an ocean on the inside and an ocean on the outside, then it has water on two sides. So that's this term dvīpa.
So the earth is this whole thing. That's how the earth is described. And significantly, the earth here is, you could say, about the size of the solar system. If you look at modern astronomy and you say, “Well, what does this compare with?” It's about the same size as the solar system. Now the question now is, “Where is this earth?” It’s four billion miles in diameter – it's pretty big. So where is it? Well, we're presumably standing on part of it. But if you consider that wherever we're standing... let's say we're standing in the center – then going out to the edge would be two billion miles, which is quite a distance. Now keep in mind that the earth we know is a globe; and if you go around the equator of the globe, it's about 25,000 miles. So compare that with going out to the edge and traveling two billion miles. So we're talking about something a bit different from the globe of the earth as we know it.
So the key to understanding where this is, actually, is based on the orbit of the sun. I've talked about that before. I won't go into... in detail now, but basically this disk is on a tilt like this. It extends overhead and also beneath our feet in a great circle surrounding where we are. Basically it corresponds to where the sun goes. So if you consider the path followed by the sun, that's where this Bhū-maṇḍala is, in space.
Now everything to the north of that is outer space and higher planetary systems going up to the polestar which would be about in that direction – at about a 30° angle up from the horizon. And early in the morning you can see the polestar. It's always in the same direction and that's the direction of Dhruvaloka. So on the opposite side of this Bhū-maṇḍala disk, everything to the south of that, which would... In this case north means to the polestar so south means the opposite way. So south would be that direction. So everything to the south is the Garbhodaka Ocean. So this whole introduction was to indicate where the Garbhodaka Ocean is.
Basically if you take this sphere of the Brahmāṇḍa, half of that is the Garbhodaka Ocean and the other half would be outer space. Now of course, whatever direction we look in, we see stars and planets and so forth. That is, we are looking into outer space in all directions. We don't see an ocean. If half of outer space was filled with an ocean, obviously you wouldn't see stars in half of the directions in which you could look. Presumably you'd have to see water. So this ocean is not visible to us. But this is where it is located.
So the... in the Bhāgavatam there's some information indicating how this ocean is related to the lifting of the earth. Śrīla Prabhupāda quoted a section of Sanskrit text which he didn't translate, which you'll find in the 5th Canto. But if you look into the... into what that says, it's a text by Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura. It describes the dimensions of these various rings that I was speaking of and it makes an interesting modification of the calculations given in the text of the 5th Canto. It makes Bhū-maṇḍala slightly less than four billion miles in diameter. Actually it subtracts a distance of 17,000 yojanas all the way around so that there's a slight gap between Bhū-maṇḍala and the sphere of the Brahmāṇḍa going all the way around. And Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura says that this makes it possible for Bhū-maṇḍala to move up and down. Because if it had the same diameter as the sphere then it couldn't move up and down. It would be stuck. By making it a little bit smaller, now it can move up and down. And he says there that this allows Lord Varāha to lift the earth out of the Garbhodaka Ocean.
So if you look at the picture that you have, that means this entire four billion, or a little bit less than four billion, mile disk, if it moves down, actually it's like this. If it moves down it moves slightly this way, and that means it's under the water. And if you move slightly this way, then you're pushing it above the water. And that's what was done by Varāha. So that's stated by Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura. So that shows the relationship between this disk and the ocean. So if you look in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, you'll find a more detailed description of this, and in fact, it is stated that after lifting this disk above the Garbhodaka Ocean, Lord Varāha restores the seven islands and... the seven and oceans, as they were before. So it's a process of restoring these things after the annihilation caused by the flooding of the earth. So that's the basic description, taken literally.
So in this purport, Śrīla Prabhupāda is not taking this literally. That's interesting to see that he does that. If you look at different places in the Bhāgavatam, you'll find that Śrīla Prabhupāda very often gives us a different way of looking at the earth. So I'll just cite a few examples here. For example, there's the story of Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa going out to see Mahā-Viṣṇu. So…
Seated on His chariot with Arjuna, Kṛṣṇa began to proceed north, crossing over many planetary systems. These are described in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam as Sapta-dvīpa. Dvīpa means island. These planets are sometimes described in the vedic literature as dvīpas. The planet on which we are living is called Jambūdvīpa. Outer space is taken as a great ocean of air and within that great ocean of air, there are many islands which are the different planets. In each and every planet there are oceans also. In some of the planets, the oceans are of salt water. In some of them there are oceans of milk. In others there are oceans of liquor and in others there are oceans of ghee or oil.
So that is an example. So what Śrīla Prabhupāda is saying there: instead of looking at this Bhū-maṇḍala as a disk, he is looking at it as a system of planets which are floating in space and he's putting the isla... the oceans on the planets. He doesn't say here how many planets there are. Of course Sapta-dvīpa means seven planets but actually he will indicate various numbers of planets. For example "According to vedic understanding, the entire universe is regarded as an ocean of space. In that ocean there are innumerable planets and each planet is called a dvīpa or island." So instead of taking Bhū-maṇḍala as a disk, he is taking it as a series of dvīpas.
Now there's a interpretation in which Bhū-maṇḍala as a whole can be understood as a... as a globe. I discussed this in the book that I've just produced on this subject. But basically Bhū-maṇḍala is regarded as a polar projection map. Just like if you look at the map there, that map is flat but it represents a globe. And if you take the curved surface of a globe and you flatten it out onto a flat map, you're bound to get some kind of distortion, somewhere.
So the map right there is what's called a Mercator projection, and you'll see that the areas to the very far north are greatly distorted. For example, Greenland is gigantic on that map, whereas actually it's not that big. And this is due to the distortion of taking the curved surface of the earth and flattening it to make a map. Well another way of... this is more accurate along the equator, this particular map. Well another way of doing it is to make the plane of your map tangent to the north pole. Then the map is going to be accurate in the very far northern regions but as you go way to the south, everything becomes distorted.
So Bhū-maṇḍala can be looked at as a planar projection map of the earth. Now if you look at it that way, the six dvīpas outside of Jambūdvīpa become rings of equal latitude in the southern hemisphere. That is you have a series of rings in the southern hemisphere corresponding to those dvīpas. That description is given, for example, in a text called the Siddhānta-śiromaṇi. So that's one way in which people have looked at the Bhū-maṇḍala description, but that describes Bhū-maṇḍala as one planet with a series of oceans and islands or... the rings called oceans and islands in the southern hemisphere. The lands in the northern hemisphere then would correspond to Jambūdvīpa.
But Śrīla Prabhupāda here is giving an interpretation in which you have many planets and you have these different oceans of ghee and liquor and so forth on different planets. So now then the question is, how does this relate to the Garbhodaka Ocean? Well, if you take the plane of Bhū-maṇḍala and you make that in to a series of planets, you could just take the Garbhodaka Ocean and leave that as it is, in which case the planets are going to be orbiting near the Garbhodaka Ocean. And conceivably they could enter into it. So that's basically the picture that Prabhupāda is giving. He mentions here in another place,
Only under certain conditions do the planets float as weightless balls in the air and as soon as these conditions are disturbed, the planets may fall down into the Garbhodaka Ocean which covers half the universe. The other half is the spherical dome in which the innumerable planetary systems exist. The floating of the planets in the weightless air is due to the inner constitution of the globes.
So the conception here then is you have the planets orbiting and if you shift their orbits toward this southern direction – this way – then they could enter into this Garbhodaka Ocean. So that would be something that the... modern astronomy, of course, doesn't recognize. That is, we don't see any ocean in that direction. But according to that concept, you would enter the ocean moving in that direction.
There is another way to look at it, and that is, that if you make the disk of Bhū-maṇḍala into a series of planets, then likewise the ocean should be within each of the planets. Because you've curved the surface into a sphere so what is on one side of the sphere should go inside and what is on the other side of the sphere should go outside. So according to that conception then, the ocean would be within the earth. This actually is pretty much the traditional Christian interpretation of the flood story in the Bible. There's an interesting connection here because if you look at the original cosmology in the Bible, it's the same as what you have in the Bhāgavatam. Namely you have a flat plate. The earth is on top of that... the mountains and so forth. Underneath you have what they call Tehom, which means 'the deep.' And this means, beneath the plate there is an ocean. That would correspond to Bhū-maṇḍala and beneath Bhū-maṇḍala is the Garbhodaka Ocean. So instead of a plate, you make it a sphere and you catch the ocean within the sphere.
In some Sanskrit texts this is explicitly done. If you look at the plate of Bhū-maṇḍala, beneath that there are seven lower planetary systems and if you curve that plate into a sphere, the seven lower planetary systems should be within the earth. So for example, in the Sūrya-siddhānta, it describes the seven lower planetary systems as being within the concave strata of the earth. So according to this conception then, there would be water within the earth and if the water is released, the entire earth becomes flooded. So that's pretty much the way the biblical flood has been typically interpreted. So that would also correspond then to inundating the earth. Of course, if you look at it from the direct perspective of Bhū-maṇḍala as a disk and the Garbhodaka Ocean as filling half the universe then this entire four billion mile disk would become inundated if it enters into the Garbhodaka Ocean. That would mean not just the earth, but all the planetary systems would become inundated. So according to that understanding then, the flood would not refer simply to the earth alone but to all of the planets simultaneously. So in any case, those are a few observations on this subject. I'll stop there. Are there any questions or comments? Yeah?
Answer: Right, well... you see the modern view of the solar system is that the sun is stationary in the center and the planets are orbiting around that, basically in one plane – pretty close to one plane. There are slight differences. The Bhagavatam refers to the sun as moving, so that's immediately a problem that people have. What I was discussing here was an even greater problem, namely the earth being flat. But, leaving that aside, let's look at the question of the sun, whether the sun is moving or stationary. You can look at the sun as moving from a relative point of view. In fact we see that happening. After all, the sun rose not too long ago and you'll see it arcing up overhead and setting. So it's a question of relative motion. And the... from a practical point of view, one can see the sun as moving.
Astronomers, including even modern astronomers, also take this point of view whenever they want to point their telescopes. Because, in order to know where to point your telescope, you have to consider that the telescope is on the earth. So you have to consider how things are moving relative to the earth. So astronomers always convert everything into what they call geocentric coordinates before actually looking in any given direction. Geocentric coordinates: geocentric means earth centered. So they relate everything to the earth. So that means then the sun is also moving relative to the earth.
So this is also used in navigation. For example, when the positions of the sun or the moon or different stars are used to tell a... where a ship is located on the ocean, this is all done using geocentric coordinates. So everything is looked at from the point of view of things moving relative to the earth. So in practical terms, the geocentric approach is still used. However, astronomers understand that in terms of the physical dynamics of the motion of the planets, the planets are moving around the sun because they are very small and lightweight compared to the sun which is very large and massive. So according to the physics of it, the planets orbit the sun. Yeah?
Q: I have a question... How do material scientists react when you give them this information?
A: It depends on how it is presented. You see the... in the way that I just presented it, there is no contradiction between what the scientists are saying and what the Bhāgavatam is saying. Now if I were to say: "Well the scientists are all wrong. The sun is moving and the earth is stationary," then of course they would dismiss that out of hand immediately as being ridiculous religious fanaticism. “How can this be happening in the twentieth century?” That's the response that you would get. Not only scientists but most people would respond in that way. But there's no need there for this to happen because, in fact, it's a question of relative motion and there's no actual contradiction there.
Now I've been talking... let's go back to the flat earth. How will scientists relate to that? If you take the description of Bhū-maṇḍala literally, let's say... literally you say: well there's this disk four billion miles in diameter. It has the oceans of ghee and liquor and yogurt and so forth on it, and these are the following dimensions and so on, then most people find it very hard to relate to that. And certainly scientists would not give it any credence. If you look at scholars in universities who study old mythology – if you look at the Indologists for example who study Sanskrit texts – they will say that in the early days in India, people had a very colorful and poetic but completely unscientific picture of the universe and that is what you find in the Bhāgavatam. However that... and that's what you get if you take the thing in a purely literal sense.
But of course one point that I was making here is that Prabhupāda himself would not take this in a purely literal sense and in fact it has several different levels of meaning. Now one observation that I made was that if you look at these ring-shaped dvīpas that Bhū-maṇḍala is divided into, you will find that they correspond in size to the dimensions of the geocentric orbits of the planets. Just as the motion of the sun can be seen relative to the earth, the same is true of the motion of each of the planets. Each planet has a geocentric orbit and that geocentric orbit is perfectly scientific, it's just a matter of relative motion. And just to repeat again, if an astronomer points his telescope at Mars, he uses the geocentric orbit of mars to tell where to point his telescope. He has to do that because otherwise, he'll... he won't point it in the right direction. So the orbits of the planets exactly fit the rings of Bhū-maṇḍala. This is what you find. So there is a very close correspondence between the modern astronomical understanding of the orbits of the planets and the account of Bhū-maṇḍala given in the Bhāgavatam. Now this will tend to seem extraordinary to scientists and scholars not because it contradicts science, but because it agrees with science.
See the problem is, it's one thing if you contradict science. You say, "The scientists are all wrong" and they'll of course say, "No we're not, we're right!" But if you say, “Well, the Bhāgavatam agrees with science,” that's actually a greater threat. It's a greater threat because you're saying, “Well the Bhāgavatam had it first, before you did!” That's a real threat, because they want to think that everyone who came before us was primitive and very backward. But we have made the great advancement in knowledge. This is a bit mysterious by the way, if you think about it because the scientists themselves will say that “Genetically, we're the same as people were a thousand years ago, or two thousand or three thousand. In a few thousand years our genes haven't changed because evolution is a very slow process after all.” So, if that's true, then our minds should be pretty much the same in terms of capacity and ability and so forth as the minds of people, let's say, who lived five thousand years ago. Why should there be any difference? So if we can do all these scientific things today, why couldn't people do it back then? So it's a bit mysterious when they say, “Well people back then were extremely crude and naive. They were very childlike in their understanding, whereas today we're extremely scientific with advanced knowledge.”
So anyway, the indication is that people were scientific back then also, and that's the real threat to modern science. Yeah?
Q: So there are many universes?
A: Well the... I've been talking about what is called the Brahmāṇḍa. The sphere is called the Brahmāṇḍa with Bhū-maṇḍala cutting across it. And I mentioned that that is said to be covered by elemental coverings. And beyond the elemental coverings, you come to the Causal Ocean and beyond that, there are many other brahmāṇḍas. That's the way it's described. And these are described as being like bubbles of foam in the ocean. So you can imagine an ocean with millions and billions of bubbles of foam. Each one of those would correspond to a universe. That's the conception that is given. Yeah?
Q: I still need clarification... the scientists say that people were not scientific five thousand years ago.
Q: Can you clarify how there were scientists or how...?
A: Oh, well I was saying, in the Bhāgavatam the orbits of the planets correspond to the dimensions of the dvīpas quite accurately. So this is for all of the planets. So if this was there by deliberate understanding, that means people had to know the orbits of the planets accurately at the time when the Bhāgavatam was written. So let's consider that as a possibility. If they knew that, then they must have had the same level of scientific advancement at least that people recently attained in the 19th century. Because if you go back to the beginning of the 19th century, you'll find that they had a somewhat inaccurate picture of how far away the sun is. And the distance to the sun is used for determining the distances to all the other planets. At the beginning of the 19th century, their figure for the distance to the sun was about 87 million miles. It's actually more like 93 million miles. So 87 is... it's in the right ballpark but it's not very close to 93.
The agreement between the orbits of the planets and the dvīpas in the Bhāgavatam is much more accurate than that. So when did they get up to about 93 million miles? Well, around the later part of the 19th century when they managed to make better telescopes and perform more accurate measurements. So around the later part of the 19th century they had what the Bhāgavatam is indicating. So how did that get into the Bhāgavatam?
Well if you go back in time... Scholars today will say that the Bhāgavatam was written about a thousand years ago. They make everything very recent. Well a thousand years ago you're in the middle of the Middle Ages and science was not very well developed according to anyone's account. It was very crude and they couldn't have made measurements like that. Well, we say the Bhāgavatam was written 5000 years ago. Well, according to the normal scholarly and scientific way of looking at human history, 5000 years ago they were even more primitive than they were 1000 years ago. Of course that's a whole subject to get into because it would be claimed that 5000 years ago there was no civilization in India anyway. But that's a whole subject. But basically that's the viewpoint, that people were not scientific back in those days so they couldn't have known those distances to the planets. But the indications are that somebody knew the distances to the planets.
Now we don't know the details. It may be that people knew those things because higher beings came down and informed them. Because we know from the Vedic literature that there was communication with beings on higher planets and so forth. So it may be that that's how they knew. They may not have had to use telescopes and so forth in order to figure it out. But the indication is that people did know these kinds of things thousands of years ago.
Q: But are they saying actually that those... that those planets are the same as dvīpas? Someone may say, well it's just a wild fluke that they had this.....
A: Yeah it's a pretty wild fluke. You can... you can argue like that, that it's just coincidence, but you have a whole series of coincidences. See that's the thing. One agreement – two things agree – well you say that's coincidence. Then two more things, well then that's two coincidences. Then you get to three... you get up to about seven or eight coincidences... The thing that really amused me about this... You see you have to adjust the length of the yojana a little bit to make everything fit. It comes to 8.5 miles to the yojana instead of 8 as it turns out. Well I did that calculation. Then later I found historical data which confirmed that. It is 8.5, not 8 but 8.5, and the thing that... Well the most recent example of a historical confirmation is from Cambodia, interestingly enough. In Cambodia, in the jungles, there is a big complex of Hindu temples called Angkor Wat. These were originally Viṣṇu temples, then they got converted over to Buddhism when one of the kings became a Buddhist. Then the whole country became Buddhist. But it's a vast complex of buildings and it's built using a certain unit.
See the yojana is subdivided into so and so many hastas. A hasta is one cubit... like basically from your elbow to the end of your fingers, roughly. But it has an exact length which would be one 32,000th of the length of the yojana. So the yojana's 8.5 miles. Take a 32,000th of that and that tells you how long the hasta is. It's about 18 inches, but it's precisely a certain value. That's what they were using in Angkor Wat... that length.
Q: 32,000th is in hasta?
A: Yeah, yeah, 32,000th of a hasta... well, there are subdivisions into different parts. There's the krosa – four krosas in a yojana and so forth. So 32,000th of the 8.5-mile yojana is the unit used to measure all the buildings in Angkor Wat. So it shows that unit was used. And of course these are Hindu temples. Interestingly enough they call the it hat and I was told that hat in Hindi corresponds to hasta in Sanskrit, which is interesting.
Q: No, hat means hand and we know it, and this is a hand.
A: Right, it is... hasta means 'hand' also. Just like an elephant is the creature that has a hand – hasta. Hastinapura is the city of the elephants. It means 'hand' but in terms of a unit it actually means from here to here. And that's the unit that in English is often called the cubit. And by the way, you can trace that to Egypt and there's a connection with the cubit used in Egypt also. And in fact, if you look at the great pyramid, the length of the side of the great pyramid is almost exactly 500 of these hastas, the same unit used in Cambodia. But it's very exactly 500... I mean it's 500.00 something. So the same unit evidently was being used in Egypt, or else it's just a coincidence that it fits exactly 500 times. And then I can give you a whole list of coincidences. You get more and more coincidences, assuming of course that everyone really was primitive and they didn't know any of these things. So if things line up it's just by chance that they happen to line up that way.