Discussions on Puranic Cosmology
In a 40-minute conversation involving production details for a video project, Thompson explores philosophical nuances identified with Puranic cosmography. He further considers limitations identified with a “literal” interpretation colored by modern discourse, subsequently projected upon ancient discourse. Thompson raises numerous questions, such as: “How does Bhu-mandala relate to the earth of our experience,” and “Why are there different representations” offered within the Puranic tradition?
TRANSCRIPT: "Discussions on Puranic Cosmology." Alachua, FL. – 2007 / (131)
I'm going to talk about Bhu-mandala which is a feature of the cosmology of the Bhagavatam of the Vedic literature of India. Basically Bhu-mandala is a... described as a large disk about 4 billion miles in diameter. And it consists of a series of concentric islands and oceans. And the central island in Bhu-mandala is called Jambudvipa. That's about 100,000 yojanas across.
So Jambudvipa is marked by a series of mountain ranges including a Himalayan mountain range. These mountains, however, are quite a bit larger than the mountains of our experience. For example, the Himalayan Mountains are about 80,000 miles high. And that's about... their height is about 10 times the diameter of the earth, which is about 8000 miles. So there's a natural question that arises: “What is the relation between Bhu-mandala and Jambudvipa and the earth globe, this small 8000-mile diameter globe that we're sitting on?” Various ideas have been considered in relation to that.
One basic concept that people have is that the earth globe and Bhu-mandala are both physical objects in space. And if you have two physical objects in space, they must stand in relation to one another in some way. So the idea is there that Bhu-mandala is a large structure as I briefly described, and the earth globe is situated near the Southern portion of Bhu-mandala in an area called Bharata-varsa. Now the Southern part of Bhu-mandala is bordered on its Northern side by a mountain chain which is called the Himalayan Mountains – these are the 80,000 mile high mountains that I mentioned. So some people have thought: Well the earth globe must be situated above Bharata-varsa and Jambudvipa, next to these mountains which are about 10 times the earth's diameter in height. So you can imagine a very small sphere next to these gigantic mountains. So that's one idea that has been presented And of course, this does have some inherent problems. For example, if you stand and look up in the sky, let's say at night, you ought to be able to see these gigantic mountains, which after all, are 10 times as big as the earth. But we don't see that.
Just to illustrate this problem, we have here a picture. It was made by an Indian gentleman named Bhadarayana Murthy back in the late 1970’s. And in this picture you can see the earth globe standing at the peak of a mountain which is connected to Bharata-varsa or Bharata Khanda. So this illustrates the concept. In some forms of this... there are other diagrams and drawings that you will see in which the mountain support is not there. And the earth is just shown floating above the surface of Bharata-varsa.
What I'd like to do in this short talk is give an alternative understanding of the relation between the earth globe and Bhu-mandala. And to start, I want to quote from the Siddhanta-siromani. This is an astronomical sastra from India dating back to 1100 AD. So I'm going to read something that is said about Jambudvipa. So according to the Siddhanta-siromani, "Most learned scholars have stated that Jambudvipa embraces the whole Northern Hemisphere laying to the north of the South Sea. And that the other six dvipas and the seven seas are all situated in the Southern Hemisphere." So I'd like to illustrate what is being said in this text. It is interesting, by the way, that the text begins with "most learned astronomers." So the viewpoint that we're presenting here is not an insignificant one, but is one that many learned astronomers in India have accepted. So to illustrate the statement in the Siddhanta-siromani, I want to show some pictures of a globe which was commissioned by the Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur.
This globe shows the earth. Jambudvipa is situated in the Northern Hemisphere on this globe. If you look at any map of Jambudvipa in the plane, you'll see that Jambudvipa is roughly circular. In the center of Jambudvipa there's an inverted cone called Mount Meru. There are six horizontal mountain chains basically going from West to East: three groups in the Southern half of Jambudvipa and three groups in the Northern half. And they're two mountain chains which connect the two groups together. So these are... these mountain chains are straight if you look at a map of Jambudvipa in the plane. However, when you fold this plane, planar diagram, around the Northern Hemisphere of a globe, you find that the mountain chains bend so they're all semi-circular at this point. But you can see that the basic map of Jambudvipa is located in the Northern Hemisphere of this globe. And that is what we found stated in the Siddhanta-siromani. Now this is true in detail. For example, the names of the different mountain chains are actually available. For example we have a mountain chain here called the Himalayan Mountains. And we have, beyond that, the mountain chain which is called Hemakuta, beyond that, the mountain chain called Nisadha. So basically all of the different mountain chains of Bhu-mandala or, I should say, of Jambudvipa, are present.
As you can see in this shot of the globe, we're looking at the region of Jambudvipa called Bharata-varsa. And you can see here that there are many names that are familiar from India. For example, here's Delhi, here's Agra, over here is Prayag and Kasi, over here we find Jaganath. So this whole region here is Bharata-varsa or India. And you can see if you go in the Eastern direction, we have regions on the other side of this Himalayan mountain chain called Chin and Maha Chin which would be China. And then if we go in the Western direction and cross over the Himalayan mountain chain, we have Sinturistan and finally Makkah which is actually Mecca. So this is the earth represented as Jambudvipa with the specific geography of Jambudvipa in which the earth is divided into mountains and intervening valleys called varsas.
Now if you go below the equator – the equator is running across the center here – if you go below the equator, you see we have the Lavana Samudra, which is the ocean of salt. And then we have Plaksadvipa, which is the first ring-shaped island of Bhu-mandala. Then we come to the Iksu Samudra, the ocean of sugar cane juice which is there in Bhu-mandala. Next we come to Salmalidvipa which is another of the dvipas of Bhu-mandala, and so forth.
So basically all of the features of Bhu-mandala are represented on this globe. The features of Jambudvipa are shown in the Northern Hemisphere. And the seven oceans and remaining six dvipas are shown in the Southern Hemisphere. So the natural conclusion then is that this earth globe is not conceived as a physical object separate from Bhu-mandala, which must be floating somewhere in relation to Bhu-mandala in space. Rather, this earth globe is Bhu-mandala. In other words, we're not dealing with two different objects. The earth globe is Bhu-mandala. Or to be more precise, the earth globe is an interpretation of Bhu-mandala. So that leaves us with two interpretations of one text. In the one interpretation we have the earth globe with the different markings of Bhu-mandala, and that therefore is Bhu-mandala. And in the other interpretation we have a large disk with the different rings laid out in the disk representing the oceans and islands. And in that representation, Jambudvipa is flat and shaped like a disk. So basically we have here two interpretations of the same thing – both of them are equally Bhu-mandala. And it's not that they're separate physical objects. So that is the basic point that we wanted to make concerning the relation between the earth globe and Bhu-mandala.
And there are many additional points that also can be made. For example, you can still raise the question that: Alright, if we have these two different interpretations, and the earth globe interpretation is said to have been accepted by most learned astronomers, according to the Siddhanta-siromani, then what about the other interpretation in which you just directly accept the various distances of the mountains, and the diameters of the rings and so forth in Bhu-mandala conceived of as a plane? So it turns out, there are some interesting conclusions that can be drawn in this regard although I don't have time here to go into great detail. But there is a... there's an ancient or Medieval navigational device called an astrolabe. And you may have heard of the astrolabe when reading about Columbus sailing across the ocean to America. So the astrolabe, basically, can tell you the location of any star or the sun or the moon relative to the earth at any given time. This is useful for navigation. But the way it works is, instead of trying to do this on the surface of an actual globe, the globe is transformed in to a flat plane by a mathematical operation called stereographic projection. And so the flat plane represents the earth. What we see here in the Bhagavatam we have the earth represented as a globe, marked with different features that are familiar to us, and marked with a series of mountain ranges which aren't so familiar. But at least some of them are familiar. For example, you have the Himalayan Mountains. So we have this globe, and we also have the plane of Bhu-mandala. And they stand in relation to one another in the same way that the disk of an astrolabe stands in relation to a spherical model of the earth. Basically, one is a stereographic projection of the other.
Now there's a scholar named Randolph Kloetzli who went in to great detail in a study of the cosmology of the Visnu Purana which is very similar to the cosmology of the Bhagavatam. And he argues in great detail that Bhu-mandala corresponds to an astrolabe model. So according to this understanding then, the only thing we have here that is physical is the earth itself which is a globe and which can be represented using stereographic projection. That is a flat disk.
So briefly, in summary: If you look at the globe... This particular example of a globe from India was commissioned by Maharaja Jai Singh. There are other similar globes including, for example, one that was made of brass and doubled as a container for small objects. So we see the... that the earth globe basically is Bhu-mandala. Or you could say, the understanding of the earth corresponds to an interpretation of Bhu-mandala in the cosmology of the Bhagavatam.
Yeah, well what I did, just to recap what I presented: First I introduced Bh-umandala and Jambudvipa. And then I brought up the question of the earth globe. If Bhu-mandala is a physical object, and the earth globe is a physical object in space, then how do they stand in relation to each other? They have to have some relationship. And so one possibility is that the earth globe is placed over Bharata-varsa in Jambudvipa. And then we talk about this picture which illustrates one way of doing that in which the earth is mounted on a mountain extending out of Bharata-varsa. Or you could do it without the mountain and just have it floating there.
But in either case you have a problem. Because obviously, you go out at night and look up in the sky you don't see these Himalayan mountains that are much, much bigger than the earth. So I then propose that there's a solution to this problem. And to introduce the solution I quoted that text from the Siddhanta-siromani which basically says that according to most learned astronomers, Jambudvipa is in the Northern Hemisphere of the earth globe. And the remaining dvipas and oceans of Bhu-mandala are in the Southern Hemisphere. And then the basic point is that the earth globe is Bhu-mandala. Or Bhu-mandala is the earth globe. It's not that it's a separate thing. So in fact, according to the Siddhanta-siromani, most learned astronomers accept this viewpoint. In fact, just to make an additional point: If you look in the beginning of the Siddhanta-siromani, you'll find that the author, Bhaskaracharya, is criticizing the idea of Bhu-mandala as a plane. Yes, they take it that Bhu-mandala as a flat disk is a faulty understanding, and that Bhu-mandala really is the earth globe.
Now I don't think that's quite correct. There's a valid meaning to Bhu-mandala as a disk. And in fact, there's several valid meanings. But one of them is that, basically, Bhu-mandala is the plane of an astrolabe model, and that's discussed in great detail by this scholar named Kloetzli. So basically then, the conclusion is that Bhu-mandala and the earth globe are not two separate things. They're one and the same thing. And so there's no question of one floating in space next to the other.
Yes. Well here we have a picture of Jambudvipa in Bhu-mandala. You can see this is Jambudvipa. And here we have the alternating oceans and islands and Bhu-mandala extending out to the horizon. And in the center here we have Mount Meru or Sumeru which is shaped like an inverted cone. Over here we have a map of Jambudvipa seen as a circular island in Bhu-mandala. So this is the circle of Jambudvipa, and we have these various mountain ranges which here are shown as straight lines. Down at the lower part here we have Bharata-varsa, and this mountain chain just to the north of Bharata-varsa is the Himalayas of Jambudvipa. Here's another good picture of Jambudvipa also. So here we have one representation that tries to show how a physical earth could be situated relative to a physical Bhu-mandala and Jambudvipa. So here we have the earth globe mounted on a mountain which is extending up from Bharata Khanda or Bharata-varsa. So this is one idea.
But of course there are problems with this. And even if you had it floating in space, and you don't have this mountain to support it, you still have the problem of: Well, what happens when you look out and all these gigantic mountains are right next to the earth? You should be able to see them, but obviously we don't. In fact, I just have to point out this part of the caption of the picture "Why do we not see the lands? It is not the Lord's will. An attempt may be made. Beyond this Bharata Khanda we may see or may not see, with others as a witness."
So now we go to Jai Singh. So these are two views of Jai Singh's globe. In one view you can see the mountains of Jambudvipa accept now they're curved because they're being wrapped around a sphere. And this area at the bottom right here is Bharata-varsa. And here we're seeing the Southern Hemisphere and the successive rings are the dvipas and oceans of Bhu-mandala. So basically this globe represents Bhu-mandala. This shows a little more in detail. Oh. I didn't mention this one but it's kind of interesting. Here we have Bhu-mandala and Jambudvipa represented as a lotus flower. It's often referred to as a lotus. And then again down below the Southern... in the Southern Hemisphere we have the alternating dvipas and oceans that are Bhumandala. So there's several globes like this in India.
Let me see now. I was looking for place names. So here we have a close up view of Jai Singh's globe. This arc shaped mountain here, namely this one. This is the Himalayan mountain range. Then beyond that there's the Hemakuta Mountain, the Nisadha Mountains. This is all precisely Jambudvipa. Here there's Kashmir. There's Delhi, Agra, Prayag, Kasi. There's Jaganath. These are all very familiar names from India. Then when you go over the Himalayan mountain range, going on the Eastern side, here's Chin and Mahachin which would correspond to China. And going on the Western side here is Turkhan, Kurijan, and Makkah which is actually Mecca. So that's how the earth is being represented as Bhu-mandala. If you go south of the equator, you come here to the Lavana Samudra, the ocean of salt. And then Plaksadvipa, Ikshu Samudra, the ocean of sugar cane juice, Salmalidvipa. These are all features of Bhu-mandala. So maybe this is Bhu-mandala.
And the only other thing I mentioned was the astrolabe. Let's see. Where did I have the astrolabe? Okay. And here we have a picture of an astrolabe. So this flat plate is a stereographic projection of the earth globe. And that makes it a convenient device for doing calculations. It's sort of a laptop of its time in [unclear] history. Woops. I'll move this out of the way. Basically the astrolabe shows that there's meaning to representing an earth globe as a flat disk, in this case as a computational device. Actually it's kind of interesting. This circle right here, the off-centered circle, is the orbit of the Sun. So basically this tells where the Sun will be directly overhead anywhere or at anytime in the course of its motion, which is useful for navigation.
Yamaraja: Just asking, for a big ton of questions you know which is... I mean, in one sense it's good, but it's also, like, a little unfulfilling for people who want a lot of dope right away on this subject.
Tamraparni: One more 'Mysteries of the Sacred Universe'. Buy the CD.
[unclear – cross-talking]
Yamaraja: What in the world is the purpose of having these two different representations? Why do these... why do these two representations exist? Why does it make things more complicated for everybody who's trying to understand the structure of the cosmos and the purpose behind it? It's like you just open another Pandora's Box of possibilities in there.
RLT: Well there are a lot of questions. But if we just limit ourselves to what is presented here.
RLT: Without a doubt, that globe is Bhu-mandala.
RLT: Because it's got all the features of Bhu-mandala.
Yamaraja: Okay, so why is... Why is this situation [unclear]? What is more important? What is more important to focus on? The globe as we know it and as the scientists see it? Or the representation of Bhu-mandala as a plane that we find in the Vedic description?
RLT: Well, we find it described as a plane. But we find, for example, in the Siddhanta-siromani that it's a globe.
RLT: And what could possibly be the relation between a plane and a globe?
RLT: See, it's the same. My point here which I think... you can say, even if you can't answer these other questions and you simply remain bewildered as to why they would do it, still they plainly did it. They represented Bhu-mandala, first of all, as a plane in the text of the Bhagavatam. And Bhu-mandala is also represented as a globe as shown by this globe by... commissioned by Jai Singh.
So it is a plane and it is a globe. And those are two different interpretations of the same textual material. Now what possible reason could they have for doing something like that?
RLT: And Kloetzli argues that, in fact, the plane is an astrolabe model. So he's saying they start out with the globe, and from the globe they come to the plane. But of course, that still doesn't explain a number of different curious points. For example, why make the mountains so big in the plane representation? They wouldn't have to be. You could make them any size you wanted as far as the representation is concerned. So basically what I suggested in my book, and this requires a lot more detailed discussion... But basically I proposed that the huge mountain ranges and other features such as the gigantic trees and so on that you find in Jambudvipa according to the 5th Canto: These refer to a heavenly realm. Now you know if you go into the Himalayan mountains, you can find a gateway into other dimensions. You can go into the realm of the demigods. There's so many stories like that.
RLT: For example, even the story I got from that Prem Yogi in India years ago about... What is it called? Kalapagram. Kalapagram. It's the place where the kings wait out the Kali-yuga so that they can take up their kingship again in the beginning of the next Satya-yuga. And so that Prem Yogi said that he had a friend who tried to go visit Kalapagram. Apparently yogis used to do that kind of thing. Or probably they still do. And this yogi tried very hard to get in to Kalapagram. He engaged in severe austerities, sitting in the snow of the Himalayas, and bathing up to his neck in freezing, ice cold lakes, doing tapa, and so on. So he was doing all this. And finally he was able to enter in to Kalapagram which was a beautiful paradise of flowers, the walkways were made of some kind of translucent, very beautiful jewel-like stone. There were all kinds of flowers and so forth, beautiful climate. And these gigantic figures were sitting there in a yoga posture. And they said to him: “Because you wanted to come here so badly, we've let you have a glimpse of this place, but you're so contaminated that you could not possibly stay here. So you must go.”
Tamraparni: Oh so you're the source of that story. I was just telling that story to somebody not long ago.
RLT: Yeah. I got it from Prem Yogi. But that illustrates the idea. First of all, these figures of the yogis who were sitting there were very large.
Yamaraja: Yeah right.
RLT: Much bigger than ordinary people. So you have the idea that if you go in to the Himalayas or probably up into Tibet and those different mountain ranges, you can enter through a gateway into another dimension. For example, Shambhala is supposed to be there. Shambhala, interestingly enough, is the place where Kalki is going to be born...
RLT: ... according to the Bhagavatam.
Yamaraja: Is that...
Tamraparni: But it's also Buddhist. It's also Buddhist.
RLT: Well the Buddhists believe in Shambhala.
Yamaraja: Now you're talking about Hilton's Shangri-La? Is that...? Isn't that the same?
RLT: Well Shangri-La is another one of these similar realms.
RLT: But as far as ones mentioned by the Bhagavatam is concerned, there is Kalapagram and there is Shambhala. But of course, there's a huge cult following around Shambhala. And what was his name, that Redfield guy who wrote the Celestine Prophecy? Yeah, he also wrote a book about finding your way in to Shambhala. He had some... in his books, he always has the bad guys and the good guys. So the bad guys were these Communist Chinese military types, sort of a CIA-type operatives. And they were always trying to wreak havoc and destroy all knowledge of the spiritual reality. But, somewhere in Tibet. I don't know if it's in the Himalayas or... I don't know exactly where it is – but the same idea is there. You enter in to this beautiful, transcendental place by entering in to some sort of gateway up in that region of the world. Right, there could be other gateways, but certainly... So that's one idea of what the very large mountains and so forth in Jambudvipa represent.
Yamaraja: And Sumeru?
RLT: Sumeru? Well Sumeru's part of it. You see, Sumeru serves different functions in different interpretations. For example, in the Bhagavatam description, Sumeru is 84,000 yojanas tall. So it sticks up out of Jambudvipa about this far up. If this circle represents Jambudvipa, Sumeru's like this. So it's really gigantic. And it's an inverted cone. Different Puranas give different descriptions though. In some of them it's a polygon with different numbers of sides. In some of them it's square.
Yamaraja: Why are these different descriptions there?
RLT: Well people...
Yamaraja: I mean, are they seeing this in some kind of mystical fashion? Everybody has a different take on it?
RLT: It's hard to say. Because, you know... and to what extent do people just change ideas at whimsy?
Yamaraja: Right. It would appear that we have absolutely no access to really nailing down how all this works. At least in this...
RLT: Well you can try and find Prem Yogi and talk to Prem Swami. He was quite a character – I think Prabhupada gave him 1st, 2nd initiation and sannyasa in one ceremony. He was an interesting character. But in any case... so that's one idea of what the huge dimensions of Jambudvipa could represent. I did a calculation there. There was one description of Lord Siva sitting under a tree and the size of the tree was given. And assuming that Lord Siva was to the tree as an ordinary person is to an ordinary tree, in a rough approximation, I came to the conclusion that if Lord Siva was standing so that his feet... or was laying on the Earth with his feet in Southern France, his head would be up in Scotland. In other words, he'd be a bit big. But that relates to the idea we always present of saying that we are to the demigods as some ants at our feet are to us. So that's one possibility concerning, for example, in out-of-body experiences, where do people go? If they go down some tunnel into some world of light, and they meet beings there. So where is that?
RLT: So there are all kinds of possibilities. So you see, that's another meaning for... that is a meaning for Jambudvipa. See, another meaning for Jambudvipa is it's the Northern Hemisphere of the earth. And you'd have to say, looking at the way the mountains are laid out, the only part there that is really realistic is the part around India. Because if you follow the mountain ranges around, you don't find anything like North America or Siberia or anything like that. So... but still, what's being represented there is the geography of the Northern Hemisphere. Mount Meru then is the North Pole. So according to that, there is a literal North Pole. But it's not 84,000 yojanas high because the whole earth is just 8000 miles across. The Hemisphere... The Northern Hemisphere of the earth is another meaning of Jambudvipa.
Now a third meaning Jambudvipa is: If you take a region of Asia, and there's a map on the CD somewhere but I'll just describe it. Basically it's oval in shape. It goes from Northern India up through Tibet and so on in to Siberia on a north-south axis. And it goes from the Caspian Sea region across to China on an east-west axis. So that region is Jambudvipa. And the reason for saying so is that studies have been made of the Puranas in which, for example, the Vayu Purana and Matsya Purana have a lot more geographical details than the Bhagavatam does. And scholars have studied this and shown that there's a pretty good correlation between the descriptions in these Puranas of the geography of that region of the earth and the actual geography. But in that case you could say: “Well, what is Mount Meru?” Well Mount Meru lies roughly in the Pamir mountain region which is in the very northern tip of Pakistan. So that would be the Mount Meru in that picture. So that's another meaning of Jambudvipa. And if you try and say that those are referring to exactly the same thing, then you'd wind up putting the North Pole in Pakistan which wouldn't work very well. Actually those are two different interpretations. And of course there's the whole orbit interpretation of Bhu-mandala as a disk, which is another subject in it's own right. So it would appear that whoever wrote the 5th Canto introduced all kinds of different ideas that are sort of juxtaposed in the text leaving it open to a wide variety of interpretations.
Tamraparni: Do you have a theory as to why they would present information that way?
RLT: Well it's curious. I don't really know why they would do it. I do know that people used to do that. And there's precedent for looking at the Bhagavatam in that way, for example, the atmarama verse. Lord Chaitanya generated systematically a whole series of interpretations of the atmarama verse for Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya. Because Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya himself was trying to give different interpretations of the verse. But his interpretations were rather awkward. They didn't really fit very well. So Lord Chaitanya said: “Okay, I'll show you how you can really do it.” And He rattled off a whole series of very beautiful interpretations. There's precedent for that in the Vedic literature.