Interpretation and the Srimad Bhagavatam
Thompson addresses issues involving interpretation and ancient texts, particularly when analyzing evidence offered by the Srimad Bhagavatam that appears at odds with methodologies identified with modern science. He then explores several ways to consider these challenges by using examples from Puranic literature describing the Bhu-mandala, as well as "calculations of time from the atom." Rather than necessarily considering such descriptions as mutually exclusive to a contemporary understanding, Thompson argues that by maintaining a mature degree of flexibility while respecting the integrity of each tradition, scholars can explore these seemingly disparate perspectives in a manner that potentially fosters an enhanced picture of reality.
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TRANSCRIPT: "Interpretation and the Srimad Bhagavatam."
New Vrindavan IAAS Conference: Moundsville, W.V. - December 15, 2007 / (902)
Thank you very much. I’m going to talk about scientific interpretation of scriptures. So, to begin with, let’s consider the story of Lord Caitanya and the atmarama verse. You know, there he gave some 61 interpretations of this one verse; at the same time he was correcting interpretations of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya that he didn’t approve of. So this suggests that on the one hand the Bhagavatam has many valid natural interpretations, at the same time incorrect interpretations also. And these interpretations are based on the background of knowledge behind the texts. So turning to the subject of science, we find that the sastras contain many statements that have a scientific impact. For example, the reason we oppose the theory of evolution is that the sastra doesn’t make any statements about origins which have an impact on that period, suggesting that that period must be in need of some correction. At the same time we find that the scientists and the scholars tend to reject scientific statements in the sastras as primitive or just plain wrong. This is the general viewpoint. What I would suggest here is that there are many natural interpretations of sastras that make sense in the light of modern science, and convey different scientifically clever ideas; and these interpretations of the sastra are of interest in presenting Krsna consciousness to the academic and scientific world.
One pattern which I’ve seen empirically in looking at different examples is that these valid interpretations refer to subsets of information from the texts. In the given text, there may be two interpretations based on two different subsets of information from the texts. I’ll illustrate that with some examples as we go on. So I’m suggesting that a valid interpretation depends on reasonable meanings applied to significant subsets of the text. The first example I’m going to give is taken from the chapter on ”Calculation of Time from the Atom.” There we find that a truti is defined as the time for integration of eighteen atoms into a molecule, and a numerical value for the truti is given. There we have 8 over 13,500 seconds. This is a very interesting statement because on the one hand it anticipates the idea of using an atomic clock to measure time. The present units of time are defined by atomic phenomena and then multiplied up to the larger units that we use, such as seconds and minutes and hours and so forth. So we find the same idea is there in the Bhagavatam; this is an interesting scientific idea found in the text of the sastra. However the length of the truti is a bit too long. Basically this truti comes to 1 over 1600 roughly. So that will correspond to one thousand six hundred kilohertz. Now we all have our laptops here, most of which are working in the gigahertz range, or a billion computational cycles per second, so it doesn’t really make sense that the combining of eighteen atoms could take so long – this number 1,600th of a second. In fact I get the value for the modern truti – this rather small number 1 over 1 followed by twelve zeroes. In modern science that would be the approximate size of the truti, so what do we do about this?
It seems that on one hand the sastras have given us a very clever scientific idea, on the other hand the value of the truti is way off. I would suggest here, don’t worry about the oversized truti, give credit to the text for its interesting scientific statement about atomic clocks. And I would suggest that you’ll find some other areas where this truti comes into play. So indeed there is another area; I’ll go through this briefly. Basically in the story of the stealing of the calves and the cowherd boys by Brahma, we learn that one truti of Brahma is one earth year. The basic equation is given. Then there is another story in which King Kakudmi visits Brahmaloka and then comes back; and it is said in that story that he was in Brahmaloka for twenty seven times four million three hundred and twenty thousand trutis. Well, years, in the sense that one earth year is one truti. It would be that many trutis.
Now we find an interesting truti mentioned in the Surya-siddhanta. It is 1 over 33,750, which is different from the Bhagavatam value. If you put these three apparently disparate elements together you get an interesting result. Basically you have to multiply this number 27 times 4,320,000 against the length of the truti and that would give you the number of seconds on Brahmaloka that the king was visiting. And it comes out to be 3,456 seconds, if you multiply that out. This is kind of interesting because, first of all, the king was there for about an hour, which makes sense in terms of the story, because it is said that he listened to a musical performance and then had a brief conversation with Lord Brahma. An hour would be 3,600 seconds; so we have this number of seconds which is very close to it. The other interesting thing is that the number 3456 looks rather ordered [laughter] – it doesn’t look like a product of chance. And I would suggest that something is going on here. Some people, we don’t know who they were, were making calculations involving units of time on Brahmaloka and this is the value that they came up with. In other words, this is a product of design, not of random chance, what to speak about Darwinian evolution. So the interesting thing to note here, by the way, is that if we do this backwards, and let’s say the king was there for an hour, how long would a truti be, we get something close to this value. And this truti is, by the way, 1/20th of the Bhagavatam truti. So it’s obviously related to the Bhagavatam truti – the ratio is 1 to 20. So it seems that we have significant use for a truti that’s about this size, about the size of the one in the Bhagavatam. So we didn’t have to despair about the truti, we find that it is connected – it’s somewhat interesting – namely with time on Brahmaloka. So let’s see, basically I’ve been through that summary.
I would now like to turn to a different example, and this is taken from the Fifth Canto of the Bhagavatam. I’m going to start with an interpretation given by one South Indian gentleman back in the 1970’s. Basically he was wondering: Well, if we’re on the earth, which is a globe, which is about eight thousand miles in diameter, and the Bhagavatam is describing these huge landmasses and gigantic mountains in Bhu-mandala, then how do we relate these two things? He had the idea that the earth was sort of mounted on a mountain, sticking up from the base of Bhu-mandala. This was his proposal. And the same idea has been resurrected recently. So the first thing I will say about this is that this is an interpretation. I would tend to think that this is perhaps not a very good interpretation, because it’s not based on solid scriptural evidence and it leads to many practical problems, such as: If you stand on something that is floating above these gigantic land masses why can’t you see them? You can say, ”Well, they are invisible.” So it becomes a problem.
I’m going to turn to another interpretation of Bhu-mandala that we know of historically, and this is given in the text called the Siddhanta-siromani written by Bhaskaracarya in about the eleventh century. So Bhaskaracarya says that most learned astronomers have stated that Jambudvipa embraces the whole Northern Hemisphere lying north of the South Sea and that the other six dvipas and the seven seas are all situated in the Southern Hemisphere. And in the [unclear] here it lists all the appropriate seas and dvipas. So he’s saying that Jambudvipa is the Northern Hemisphere of the earth. Well in fact, this idea was going around in India. Bhaskaracarya says that most learned astronomers had this viewpoint. Here we have a globe in which we see – this globe by the way, was commissioned by Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur – you see that the Northern Hemisphere basically has all the mountain ranges and so forth of Jambudvipa imprinted on it.
This area here would be Bharata-varsa, and then down in the Southern Hemisphere you can see alternating oceans and dvipas. So we have historical evidence that this interpretation really was held. Here is an enlargement showing some of the features here of Bharata-varsa, for example here’s Delhi, here’s Prayag, here’s Kashi, here’s Gaya, that’s Jagannatha and so forth. Also we have Chin and Mahachin, that’s China and greater China, and over here we have Mecca. So this is an interpretation. The interesting thing about this interpretation is that here the earth globe is Bhu-mandala. It’s not that it’s floating next to Bhu-mandala. Bhu-mandala is taken to be a globe. So one might raise some objections to this. Let’s see, okay, let me go through this one first. The first objection one might raise is: Well, if wherever the Bhagavatam describes Bhu-mandala it’s a flat plate, so how could it be a globe?
Well, there’s a scholar named Randolph Kloetzli, who did a study of the cosmology of the Visnu Purana. And he went into this in great detail, and argued that the flat plate of Bhu-mandala as described in the Visnu Purana, corresponds to an astrolabe. An astrolabe is an instrument that is still being used in the time of Columbus and his famous voyages. Basically, in an astrolabe, you take the earth globe and you map it onto a flat plate. We have a picture here showing how that works. If the flat plate is like this, with the pattern of Jambudvipa on it, the mapping by what is called stereographic projection wraps that around the globe. Or if you start with a globe you can unwrap it and get your map on the plate. This is nothing too mysterious – it’s just a map projection. And today we have many different map projections for mapping the round globe onto a flat surface. So well, in an astrolabe this is in fact done. The globe is mapped on to a flat plate and the flat plate is used for computations by moving other plates with little indicators on them. So it’s a kind of a computational device. This can explain then the relationship between the earth globe and the Bhu-mandala disk.
There is another point where one might have some misgivings about this particular globe model, and this is that the globe is not geographically realistic. For example, in the Northern Hemisphere we don’t see anything like Jambudvipa – there’s North America, there’s Africa, and Europe, and so on and so forth – we don’t see any of this. It’s interesting that there is yet another interpretation of the text which is backed up by quite a large amount of information, which correlates Jambudvipa with a region of Asia. It extends from northern India up to regions of Siberia, as shown here; and there is qualitative correspondence between the different mountain ranges we find on the actual globe and the different mountain chains of Jambudvipa, which is shown in a somewhat more stylized fashion. So in the Vayu Purana and the Matsya Purana there’s a lot of information backing up this particular interpretation. So what we’re finding here are various interpretations of Bhu-mandala and Jambudvipa, which serve different purposes and are based on different sets of evidence taken from contextual tradition.
So now one point that we still haven’t addressed is that this globe that we are talking about is small in comparison to the Bhu-mandala disk as described in the Fifth Canto. The globe is about 8,000 miles across – this is based on the analysis of the Siddhanta-siromani of the Surya-siddhanta; it agrees with modern evidence of the size of the globe. But if you look at Bhu-mandala as described in the Bhagavatam, you’ll find that it’s 4 billion miles across. So that looks like quite a discrepancy. So there I want to fall back and turn to Bhu-mandala as a large disk with the dimensions as described in the Bhagavatam. Here we have an interesting picture showing that, and relating it to the orbit of the planets. This picture was made by a certain South Indian swami who lived in the nineteenth century, one Tiruvenkata Ramanuja Jiyar Swami. Basically I was travelling through South India and I met one Lakshmithathachar. He runs a Sanskrit institute in Melkote, which is a centre for Ramanuja. And when he learned of my interest in the Fifth Canto he brought this diagram. This is a small part of a much bigger diagram. The purpose of the disktop – this part – is of interest. Here we have the earth globe, which interestingly enough is being shown next to Jambudvipa. Going around the earth though in a small orbit is the moon. Actually these planets can all be identified by the different figures they have shown above. These will go up to greater heights here as you can see from the lines. Here’s the sun, here’s the axis of the sun’s chariot, here’s mount Meru in the center. This is the same sun at a different time, so we go around to the other side of the figure. Here’s the axis, here’s the wheel of the chariot. Here you have the Manasottara Mountain, which is like a circular racetrack the wheel is running on. The interesting thing in this diagram, if this is the sun – you see of course the sun is going around the earth, which is in the center – but here are Mercury and Venus, and as you can see, they’re orbiting the sun. Here they are again over here; and as for Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, they’re also orbiting the sun. They’re showing quite a bit larger orbits, and look at the little rings on Saturn you can see.
So this is the diagram the Swami came up with back in the 19th century. Immediately you could see an interesting correlation between this diagram and a diagram made by a famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe right after the 1600’s. Tycho Brahe was both the most famous naked eye astronomer we knew of, and he was the last major astronomer to accept the geocentric model of the solar system. So in his model here’s the earth, and the moon going around the earth. Here’s the sun going around the earth, and here is Venus and Mercury going around the Sun, and Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn also going around the Sun. Everything correlates with the Swami’s diagram, as you can see. So I would suggest that probably the Swami got this diagram from Tycho Brahe. After all, he lived in the nineteenth century, so it is plausible. But it is interesting to see what happens if you do what the Swami essentially did, if you take Bhu-mandala with it’s dimensions as given in the Bhagavatam and you superimpose on that the geocentric model of the solar system. Well, we can do better now than Tycho Brahe. Nowadays you can take an ephemeris program, which is quite accurate, and you can translate the position of the earth so that it remains fixed in the center, and then you’ll get the orbits of the planets. You’ll see of course that the sun is then going around the earth and the various planets are going around the sun (we’re getting the 5 minute limit here). I’m going to skip a little bit about . . . [unclear] . . .
Okay, this is an illustration of what I just described using Mercury as an example – the blue spiral graph-like line is the geocentric orbit of Mercury. Basically, you have the sun going round the earth and Mercury going round the sun, so naturally you‘re going to get a spiral pattern like this, and that’s what we see in blue here. The interesting thing that you note with this pattern– and I guess I’ll pause here and give a little bit of the history behind this, because I found the Swami’s diagram later. But the way this thing originally came up was that Harikesh wanted an arrangement showing the planets above Bhu-mandala for the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, and he said “Well, so show the planets over Bhu-mandala.” And I said, “Well I don’t think that’s going to work.” But he kept repeating it on various occasions. So finally one day I thought, “Okay I’ll do it and see what happens.” I didn’t expect to get any results. What I found when I did it was that, as we can see here in the case of Mercury, this annular curve of the spiral geocentric orbit is tangent to one of the ring structures of Bhu-mandala, and the inner boundary curve is also a tangent to one of the ring structures of Bhu-mandala. Now the same is true of the other planets, and there are quite a number of other details which all fit together to indicate that Bhu-mandala is acting in effect as a map of the geocentric orbits of the planets. By the way, if you run your computer long enough, the spirograph will fill in to give a solid doughnut shape, which is tangent to the outer curve at one point and to the inner curve at the other point. So this is an interpretation that emerges with regard to the size of the features of Bhu-mandala. So we go from the small earth globe now, to the full-sized Bhu-mandala, and we find that those magnitudes do have a value, even though one has to leave them aside when it’s just the small earth globe.
Another interesting correlation emerged from this: a scientific study of the yojana, showed that – well, a historical study based on Megasthenes, the Seleucid Greek astronomer, ambassador to India and some of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims – they indicate that there are basically two yojanas, one of which is about half the size of the other. It actually comes out to 16/30th’s of the other yojana. Well, if you go back to the orbit diagram, you’ll see that depending on how big a yojana is, this orbit, or equivalently the Bhu-mandala map, will shrink or expand. And so the question is: What is the best value for the yojana? Using a root mean square test here, I found that the best value for the yojana comes to 8.5 miles; and it is interesting, further historical study revealed the information indicating that the ancient Egyptians had a value for their units, which we can then relate to the yojana. Basically they were basing units on divisions of the degree of latitude. It turns out that the 8.5-mile yojana corresponds to 7.5 minutes of latitude as measured at the equator; the other shorter yojana corresponds to exactly four minutes latitude. One quarter of that is a unit called krosa, which is one unit of latitude, and that is the same as the nautical mile, which is being used to this very day. So the whole point is that by taking a certain degree of flexibility in looking at different interpretations and basing these interpretations on good evidence we can find a lot of interesting things in the sastra, and I think this may be of interest also to people in the academic world. Of course it’s going to take a lot of introduction in order to do this. I’ve had a somewhat spotty publication experience in the academic world, but I did see some interesting conniption fits [laughter] as I presented some of these ideas [laughter].
But okay, we’re at zero, and I had to drop about three slides.
Moderator [Dr. Jonathan Edelmann (Janaki-rama)]: Thank you very much Sadaputa Prabhu. [applause] We can open it up for questions. Any questions or comments?
Question [Michael Cremo (Drutakarma)]: Can you share what the nature of these conniption fits were? [laughter]
Answer: Well sure, sort of live in action.
Comment [Howard Resnick (Hridayananda)]: Do you have a slide of one of those fits? [laughter]
A: I’ll briefly describe that story. There was another one of these interesting correlations which involved a verse in the Surya-siddhanta, which lists the diameters of the planets projected to the orbit of the moon. So I looked at that verse and thought: Well, if these are the diameters of the planets projected to the orbit of the moon, what if I project backwards to the real distances of the planets, then I should find their actual diameters, another one of these [laughter] lost hope-type calculations. Well I did that, and I found an interesting result: For three of the planets I got the actual diameter of the planet, within 10%; and I couldn’t expect better than 10% with the number of adjustment places given in the verse, which wasn’t very much. And for two planets I got the radius, that’s half the diameter, within the10% accuracy. So I asked myself: Well okay, how likely is it that doing a calculation like this based on ancient data that I should get a mixture of diameters and radii. So I went back to the actual method that they used to use to measure the diameters of the planets with the naked eye, looking through pinholes and so forth, and I found it’s exceedingly improbable that you’d fit the correct diameters or radii using naked eye astronomy. So I wrote this up in a paper and presented it to one person at Harvard, whose name I’d better not drop . . . [laughter] . . . just to be politically correct. So this person had a true conniption fit – she became utterly hysterical.
Q [HR]: What department was she in?
A: Well, she’s a student of David Pingree. He’s a very respected academician.
Q [JE]: He passed away?
A: Probably so, he was very, very elderly when I met him.
Q [JE]: A few months ago?
A: Yeah, I met him. I met his dogs also. [laughter]
Comment [HR]: That’s what we knew you were up to. [laughter]
A: So I decided that I’ll go to more favorable people. So I went to the Society for Scientific Exploration. These are the people that support and publish Ian Stevenson’s works, and the work of the Princeton parapsychologists and so forth. So I actually got the planetary diameter paper published in their journal. I thought: Well I’m doing pretty well. So I wrote up this orbit correlation study and sent that in to these people, and it was rejected out of hand. And the reason given was that the Bhagavatam is a religious scripture. And that was sufficient. I mean, you just don’t find science in religious scripture – it’s not done. So there’s a certain amount of inertia and prejudice to be met with, but gradually it could be overcome.
Q [MC]: Going back to the truti measurements . . .
Q [MC]: . . . is it possible that the difference could be explained by measuring instruments that were coarser?
A: Well, the statement’s a theoretical statement.
Comment [MC]: Okay
A: And the statement is that eighteen atoms . . . Well, first you form hex atoms, groups of six, and then you combine three of those to get an 18-atom unit. But that takes that amount of time; so that’s a theoretical statement.
Q [DK]: Not based on measurements . . . [unclear]?
A: You can postulate that it’s based on measurements; if so, their atomic physics was a bit different from ours. You see, if you go down that line you wind up with a rather difficult position to defend. You can say, ”Well, maybe in those days, atoms combined more slowly.” [laughter]
Q [MC]: What if they had a measuring instrument that, you know, was capable of measuring certain fractions of seconds but not extremely small fractions.
A: Yeah, could be, I mean that’s a possibility. Yeah?
Q [Robert Cohen (Brahmatirtha]: A few things. First, you helped me a lot here, but one thing is, my wife always says I’m late, and I’m going to claim different trutis now [laughter]. That’ll give me some justification . . .
Q [RB]: . . . so I have a sastric basis. The question is: There’s incredible information coming out from texts that is obviously old, then – what age will you give the Bhagavatam, any age you want to give it, the youngest age you want to give it – we’re dealing with information that was clearly not available in the scientific world until well after it was written. So then the question is how did the folks know? Well, they knew it by revelation . . . [unclear], they didn’t get it exactly right . . . [unclear].
A: Well there are those two basic possibilities: either you have to postulate an ancient civilization older than the civilizations we know in which people have this kind of scientific knowledge, and then somehow in a sort of imperfect way pieces of it came down to our own time; and then the other alternative is that some sage or yogi with connection with higher beings, acquired the knowledge. That would be an idea that you’d find in India itself, because for example in the Surya-siddhanta it is said the text was communicated to Mayasura, by an emissary of the Sun-god. So the idea of getting it from higher sources is there in Indian tradition. I tend to prefer actually the idea of the ancient civilization because of all these correlations with ancient metrology in Egypt, and also correlations – well if you look into it, they go all over the world. And this would seem to suggest that the people of the ancient past had a more advanced science, and that there was a period of darkness and dark ages, and then people recovered from that to some extent in classical antiquity, and then went into other dark ages, and then began to recover in the Renaissance, and that brings us to the present day. Yeah?
Q [David Buchta (Dvija-mani)]: Regarding the trutis, this correspondence that we make between the Surya-siddhanta version of the truti, and the story of King Kakudmi and the difference in time between our time and Brahma’s time. What we get from that, it seems to me, is we get a coherence between the Surya-siddhanta version of the truti and the Bhagavata. What I’m not clear about is, did Prabhupada figure out some way of understanding some correspondence between either the Surya-siddhanta or the Bhagavata’s definition of the truti and the modern calculation as to how long that would take? And also you made this point about this even ratio of 1 to 20, right, between the Surya-siddhanta and the Bhagavatam. I wonder what you make of that ratio?
A: Well, the basic way that I look at it is as follows: First of all, as you said, we’re seeing a coherence between the cowherd boys’ story, King Kakudmi’s story, and the truti in the Surya-siddhanta – they all mesh together. And the fact that the number is 3456 suggests that this was done deliberately by somebody. So what does that have to do with the modern truti, 1 over 12 to the 10th power? And I would suggest that just as in the astronomical examples we saw first, we had a Bhu-mandala model which ignored the very large distances in Bhu-mandala, and then later we came to an interpretation which took into account these large distances, what I’m saying is a similar thing in the case of the truti. That in the case of the Bhagavatam, that’s when we’ll be ignoring the large truti that they are using. But that large truti comes into play in connection with the Surya-siddhanta and the two stories. Now there’s one further point there, namely the ratio of 1 to 20. Because the truti in the Bhagavatam is not exactly the same as the truti in the Surya-siddhanta.
A: It’s off by a measure of a 20. Yes, if you directly use the Bhagavatam truti in the King Kakudmi calculation, then you’d find that the king was there for about twenty hours, which wouldn’t be so good from the point of view of the story and also that would obscure the 3456 number, so the whole thing would become much weaker.
So, I’ve gotten a zero time now . . .
Moderator [JE]: Thank you very much to Sadaputa Prabhu.
[The following exchange took place during the discussion period at the end of the session that followed the completion of all three presentations.]
Q [JE]: Can I ask a question of Sadaputa? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself now, [will] talk about it in my talk, but I just wanted your feedback on it. You’ve spent a lot of time trying to look at the Bhagavatam in a scientific way and to show how it has scientific relevance, but what’s the point of doing that, why bother doing that? Why do you do that?
A: Why do I do that?
Q [JE]: Yeah, that’s my question.
A: Ultimately it has to do with facilitating people’s faith, because for some reason the Bhagavatam was written with reference to things that impinge on science. This was on that one slide that I had there – scientific statements that would have an impact upon a scientific view of the world. So because those statements are there, you have to deal with them. For example, I mentioned the point that the Vedic literature tends to go against the theory of evolution, as it’s generally understood by scientists. So okay, here you are, you’re trained up believing in evolution from an early age; I mean for me it started with the world we live in, with the pictures of the dinosaurs and so forth. I think I first got that when I was about seven.
Comment: Oh dear [laughter] . . . [unclear]
A: So it’s an early indoctrination, [laughter] . . . but anyway, just to continue on this example, you come into contact with Krsna consciousness with a thoroughgoing belief in evolution. I remember being in harinam parties in Manhattan, we were there with mridangas and everything, and I was thinking, “What about the dinosaurs?” [laughter]
A: So ultimately there needs to be an answer to these questions that satisfies people. And there’s the basic consideration that if the text is saying things that are wacko as far as science is concerned, then how can you put faith in the transcendental statements, which are beyond your present levels of realization? Because many of us do not have any direct realization of these higher levels of bhakti. If we did, we could probably say, you know, to heck with science and all those different issues, simply sit under a tree like the Goswamis, and drink the nectar of Krsna consciousness, and influence people through our purity and effulgence and so forth. But, there are problems with faith. I remember when the Fifth Canto first came out – I was in Atlanta at the time – and I was taking a walk through the nearby golf course, it’s up over the hill there . . .
A: . . . and looking at the trees. I knew from the Fifth Canto, there’s a description of trees that are as large as the diameter of the earth. And I was looking at the trees there on the golf course, thinking, “Well, these trees aren’t that big, there’s nothing I can do to force that. So how am I going to understand this?” So ultimately you need to have some understanding, so I think that would be the basic motivation, why science is important.