Ancient India's Contribution to Cosmology
The Cosmology of the Bhagavata Purana
By: Richard L. Thompson
The inquisitive human mind naturally yearns to understand the universe and man’s place within it. Today scientists rely on powerful telescopes and sophisticated computers to formulate cosmological theories. In former times, people got their information from traditional books of wisdom. Followers of India’s ancient culture, for example, learned about the cosmos from scriptures like the Srimad-Bhagavatam, or Bhagavata Purana. But the Bhagavatam’s descriptions of the universe often baffle modern students of Vedic literature. Here Bhaktivedanta Institute scientist Dr. Richard Thompson suggests a framework for understanding the Bhagavatam’s descriptions that squares with our experience and modern discoveries.
Jambudvipa: The Srimad-Bhagavatam describes that the universe lies
within a series of spherical shells which is divided in two by an earth plane
called Bhu-mandala. A series of dvipas, or ‘islands,’ and oceans make up
Bhu-mandala. In the center of Bhu-mandala is the circular ‘island’ of Jambudvipa
(inset), whose most prominent feature is the cone-shaped Mount Meru. The main
illustration here shows a closer view of Jambudvipa and the base of Mount
The Srimad-Bhagavatam’s mode of presentation is very different from the familiar modern approach. Although the Bhagavatam’s "Earth" (disk-shaped Bhu-mandala) may look unrealistic, careful study shows that the Bhagavatam uses Bhu-mandala to represent at least four reasonable and consistent models: (1) a polar-projection map of the Earth globe, (2) a map of the solar system, (3) a topographical map of south-central Asia, and (4) a map of the celestial realm of the demigods.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu remarked, "In every verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam and in every syllable, there are various meanings." (Caitanya-caritamrita, Madhya 24.318) This appears to be true, in particular, of the cosmological section of the Bhagavatam, and it is interesting to see how we can bring out and clarify some of the meanings with reference to modern astronomy.
When one structure is used to represent
several things in a composite map, there are bound to be contradictions. But
these do not cause a problem if we understand the underlying intent. We can draw
a parallel with medieval paintings portraying several parts of a story in one
composition. For example, Masaccio’s painting "The Tribute Money" (Figure 1)
shows Saint Peter in three parts of a Biblical story. We see him taking a coin
from a fish, speaking to Jesus, and paying a tax collector. From a literal
standpoint it is contradictory to have Saint Peter doing three things at once,
yet each phase of the Biblical story makes sense in its own context.
The Bhagavatam Picture at First Glance
The Fifth Canto of the
Srimad-Bhagavatam tells of innumerable universes. Each one is contained
in a spherical shell surrounded by layers of elemental matter that mark the
boundary between mundane space and the unlimited spiritual world.
We begin by discussing the interpretation of Bhu-mandala as a planisphere, or a polar-projection map of the Earth globe. This is the first model given by the Bhagavatam. A stereographic projection is an ancient method of mapping points on the surface of a sphere to points on a plane. We can use this method to map a modern Earth globe onto a plane, and the resulting flat projection is called a planisphere (Figure 5). We can likewise view Bhu-mandala as a stereographic projection of a globe (Figure 6).
In India such globes exist. In the
example shown here (Figure 7), the land area between the equator and the
mountain arc is Bharata-varsha, corresponding to greater India. India is well
represented, but apart from a few references to neighboring places, this globe
does not give a realistic map of the Earth. Its purpose was astronomical, rather
Although the Bhagavatam doesn’t explicitly describe the Earth as a globe, it does so indirectly. For example, it points out that night prevails diametrically opposite to a point where it is day. Likewise, the sun sets at a point opposite where it rises. Therefore, the Bhagavatam does not present the naive view that the Earth is flat.
We can compare Bhu-mandala with an
astronomical instrument called an astrolabe, popular in the Middle Ages. On the
astrolabe, an off-centered circle represents the orbit of the sun—the ecliptic.
The Earth is represented in stereographic projection on a flat plate, called the
mater. The ecliptic circle and important stars are represented on another plate,
called the rete. Different planetary orbits could likewise be represented by
different plates, and these would be seen projected onto the Earth plate when
one looks down on the instrument.
Bhu-mandala as a Map of the Solar System
Here’s another way to look at Bhu-mandala
that also shows that it’s not a flat-Earth model.
One striking feature of the
Bhagavatam’s descriptions has to do with size. If we compare Bhu-mandala
with the Earth, the solar system out to Saturn, and the Milky Way galaxy,
Bhu-mandala matches the solar system closely, while radically differing in size
from Earth and the galaxy.
If we compare the rings of Bhu-mandala with the orbits of Mercury, Venus (Figure 10), Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, we find several close alignments that give weight to the hypothesis that Bhu-mandala was deliberately designed as a map of the solar system.
Until recent times, astronomers generally underestimated the distance from the earth to the sun. In particular, Claudius Ptolemy, the greatest astronomer of classical antiquity, seriously underestimated the Earth-sun distance and the size of the solar system. It is remarkable, therefore, that the dimensions of Bhu-mandala in the Bhagavatam are consistent with modern data on the size of the sun’s orbit and the solar system as a whole.
[See BTG, Nov./Dec. 1997.]
Jambudvipa, the central hub of
Bhu-mandala, can be understood as a local topographical map of part of
south-central Asia. This is the third of the four interpretations of
Bhu-mandala. In the planisphere interpretation, Jambudvipa represents the
northern hemisphere of the Earth globe. But the detailed geographic features of
Jambudvipa do not match the geography of the northern hemisphere. They do,
however, match part of the Earth.
Six horizontal and two vertical mountain chains divide Jambudvipa into nine regions, or varshas (Figure 11). The southernmost region is called Bharata-varsha. Careful study shows that this map corresponds to India plus adjoining areas of south-central Asia. The first step in making this identification is to observe that the Bhagavatam assigns many rivers in India to Bharata-varsha. Thus Bharata-varsha represents India. The same can be said of many mountains in Bharata-varsha. In particular, the Bhagavatam places the Himalayas to the north of Bharata-varsha in Jambudvipa (Figure 11).
A detailed study of Puranic accounts allows the other mountain ranges of Jambudvipa to be identified with mountain ranges in the region north of India. Although this region includes some of the most desolate and mountainous country in the world, it was nonetheless important in ancient times. For example, the famous Silk Road passes through this region. The Pamir mountains can be identified with Mount Meru and Ilavrita-varsha, the square region in the center of Jambudvipa. (Note that Mount Meru does not represent the polar axis in this interpretation.)
Other Puranas give more geographical details that support this interpretation.
We can also understand Bhu-mandala as a
map of the celestial realm of the demigods, or devas. One curious feature
of Jambudvipa is that the Bhagavatam describes all of the varshas
other than Bharata-varsha as heavenly realms, where the inhabitants live for
ten thousand years without suffering. This has led some scholars to suppose that
Indians used to imagine foreign lands as celestial paradises. But the
Bhagavatam does refer to barbaric peoples outside India, such as Huns,
Greeks, Turks, and Mongolians, who were hardly thought to live in paradise. One
way around this is to suppose that Bharata-varsha includes the entire Earth
globe, while the other eight varshas refer to celestial realms outside
the Earth. This is a common understanding in
People in India in ancient times used to
go in pilgrimage on foot from one end of India to the other, so they knew how
large India is. Why does the Bhagavatam give such unrealistic distances?
The answer is that Jambudvipa doubles as a model of the heavenly realm, in which
everything is on a superhuman scale. The Bhagavatam portrays the demigods
and other divine beings that inhabit this realm to be correspondingly large.
Figure 12 shows Lord Siva in comparison with Europe, according to one text of
Why would the Bhagavatam describe Jambudvipa as both part of the earth and part of the celestial realm? Because there’s a connection between the two. To understand, let’s consider the idea of parallel worlds. By siddhis, or mystic perfections, one can take shortcuts across space. This is illustrated by a story from the Bhagavatam in which the mystic yogini Citralekha abducts Aniruddha from his bed in Dvaraka and transports him mystically to a distant city (Figure 13).
Besides moving from one place to another in ordinary space, the mystic siddhis enable one to travel in the all-pervading ether or to enter another continuum. The classical example of a parallel continuum is Krishna’s transcendental realm of Vrindavana, said to be unlimitedly expansive and to exist in parallel to the finite, earthly Vrindavana in India.
The Sanskrit literature
abounds with stories of parallel worlds. For example, the Mahabharata
tells the story of how the Naga princess Ulupi abducted Arjuna while he was
bathing in the Ganges River (Figure 14). Ulupi pulled Arjuna down not to the
riverbed, as we would expect, but into the kingdom of the Nagas (celestial
snakelike beings), which exists in another
For centuries the cosmology of the
Bhagavatam has seemed incomprehensible to most observers, encouraging
many people either to summarily reject it or to accept it literally with
unquestioning faith. If we take it literally, the cosmology of the
Bhagavatam not only differs from modern astronomy, but, more important,
it also suffers from internal contradictions and violations of common sense.
These very contradictions, however, point the way to a different understanding
of Bhagavata cosmology in which it emerges as a deep and scientifically
sophisticated system of thought. The contradictions show that they are caused by
overlapping self-consistent interpretations that use the same textual elements
to expound different ideas.