Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy Q&A
BY: SUN STAFF
Apr 11, 2012 CANADA (SUN) Excerpt from the book 'Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy' by Sadaputa dasa (Richard L. Thompson ).
Q: The Vedic literature says the moon is higher than the sun. How can this be?
A: In Chapter 22 of the Fifth Canto, the heights of the planets above the earth are given, and it is stated that the moon is 100,000 yojanas above the rays of the sun. In this chapter, the word "above" means "above the plane of Bhu-mandala." It does not refer to distance measured radially from the surface of the earth globe. In Section 4.b we show that if the plane of Bhu-mandala corresponds to the plane of the ecliptic, then it indeed makes sense to say that the moon is higher than the sun relative to Bhu-mandala. This does not mean that the moon is farther from the earth globe than the sun.
For example, if point A is in a plane, B is 1,000 miles above the plane, and C is 2,000 miles above the plane, we cannot necessarily conclude that C is further from A than B is.
Q: In SB 8.10.38p, Shrila Prabhupada says, "The sun is supposed to be 93,000,000 miles above the surface of the earth, and from the Shrimad-Bhagavatamwe understand that the moon is 1,600,000 miles above the sun. Therefore the distance between the earth and the moon would be about 95,000,000 miles." Doesn't this plainly say that the moon is farther from the earth than the sun?
A: In the summary at the end of Chapter 23 of the Fifth Canto Shrila Prabhupada says, "The distance from the sun to the earth is 100,000 yojanas." At 8 miles per yojana, this comes to 800,000 miles. We suggest that when Shrila Prabhupada cites the modern Western earth-sun distance of 93,000,000 miles, he is simply making the point that if you put together the Bhagavatam and modern astronomy you get a contradictory picture. His conclusion is that one should simply accept the Vedic version, and he was not interested in personally delving into astronomical arguments in detail.
Q: What is your justification for going into these arguments in detail?
A: Shrila Prabhupada ordered some of his disciples to do this for the sake of preaching. In a letter to Svarupa Damodara dasa dated April 27, 1976, Shrila Prabhupada said, "Now our Ph.D.'s must collaborate and study the 5th Canto to make a model for building the Vedic Planetarium.... So now all you Ph.D.'s must carefully study the details of the 5th Canto and make a working model of the universe. If we can explain the passing seasons, eclipses, phases of the moon, passing of day and night, etc., then it will be very powerful propaganda." In this regard, he specifically mentioned Svarupa Damodara dasa, Sadaputa dasa, and Madhava dasa in a letter to Dr. Wolf-Rottkay dated October 14, 1976.
Q: If the distance from the earth to the sun is 800,000 miles, how can this be reconciled with modern astronomy?
A: This distance is relative to the plane of Bhu-mandala. The distance from the center of Jambudvipa to the orbit of the sun around Manasottara Mountain is 15,750,000 yojanas according to the dimensions given in the Fifth Canto. This distance lies in the plane of Bhu-mandala and comes to 126,000,000 miles at 8 miles per yojana and 78,750,000 miles at 5 miles per yojana. Since values for the yojana ranging from 5 to 8 miles have been used in India, this distance is compatible with the modern earth-sun distance of 93,000,000 miles.
Q: Using radar and lasers, scientists have recently obtained very accurate estimates of the earth-moon distance. This distance is about 238,000 miles. How do you reconcile this with Vedic calculations?
A: According to the Surya-siddhanta, the distance from the earth globe to the moon is about 258,000 miles (see Section 1.e). This is in reasonable agreement with the modern value.
Q: If the moon is 258,000 miles from the earth globe, then how can it be 100,000 yojanas above the sun? This seems hard to understand, even if the latter distance is relative to the plane of Bhu-mandala.
A: This question is answered in detail in Section 4.b, and the reader should specifically study Tables 8 and 9 in that section. Briefly, we propose the following: The heights of the planets from Bhu-mandala correspond to the maximum heights of the planets from the plane of the ecliptic in the visible solar system. This correspondence is approximate because the Fifth Canto gives the viewpoint of the demigods, whereas in modern astronomy and the jyotisha shastra the viewpoint is that of ordinary humans.
In summary, we propose that the Fifth Canto description of the universe is broadly compatible with what we see. The differences are due to the difference in viewpoint between human beings and demigods. Thus, from the higher-dimensional perspective of a demigod, Bhu-mandala should be directly visible, and the relative positions of Bhu-mandala, the sun, and the moon should appear as described in the Fifth Canto.
Q: How are we to make sense of the enormous mountains described in the Fifth Canto? Some of them, including the Himalayas, are said to be 80,000 miles high.
A: One might well doubt that even a scientifically uneducated person in ancient India would have thought that the Himalaya Mountains of our ordinary experience are 80,000 miles high. After all, such persons traditionally made pilgrimages to Badarikashrama on foot. We suggest that the cosmic mountains of the Fifth Canto are higher-dimensional; they are real, but to see them it is necessary to develop the sensory powers of the demigods and great yogis. This is the traditional understanding, although words such as "higher-dimensional" are not used, and descriptions are made in a matter-of-fact way from the viewpoint of demigods and other great personalities (such as the Pandavas).
Shrila Prabhupada has said that modern scientists are "hardly conversant with the planet on which we are now living" (SB 5.20.37p). If our ordinary three-dimensional continuum is the total reality, then this statement would seem to be wrong. In Section 3.b.4, however, we give Vedic evidence showing that this three-dimensional world links up with higher-dimensional realms.
Q: If the Garbhodaka Ocean fills half the universe, where is it, and why don't we see it?
A: The Garbhodaka Ocean is beneath Bhu-mandala. Thus its location corresponds to the region of the celestial sphere south of the great circle marked by Bhu-mandala. We have argued that this should be either the southern celestial hemisphere or the region to the south of the ecliptic (see Section 3.d). The Garbhodaka Ocean is also higher-dimensional.
Q: Isn't it true that there are fewer stars in the southern celestial hemisphere than in the northern celestial hemisphere? Isn't this because we are looking down on Bhu-mandala from the earth?
A: A study of standard star charts shows that the number of stars visible in the southern celestial hemisphere is essentially the same as the number visible in the northern celestial hemisphere. (See Figures 11 and 12.)
Q: What was Shrila Prabhupada's position on the moon flight? There seems to be some ambiguity in his statements about this topic.
A: Shrila Prabhupada offered a number of tentative explanations as to what might have actually transpired on the moon flight, but his main point was that the astronauts could not have visited Candraloka, since they did not reach the civilization of the demigods that exists there. To put the matter in another way, if the moon is really nothing more than a lifeless desert, as scientists maintain, then the Vedic literatures describing Candraloka must be wrong. This topic is discussed in Section 6.c.1.
Q: What about the argument that the moon flights were faked by the U.S. government? A case for this is made in the book, We Never Went to the Moon, by Bill Kaysing.
A: Although this book makes some interesting points, its arguments are basically speculative and circumstantial. One of Kaysing's main arguments is that Thomas Baron, a North American Aviation employee who wrote a report critical of the Apollo program, was murdered by government agents. Kaysing maintains that this was done as part of a government cover-up of the moon hoax. Unfortunately, if this is true, then it would be very dangerous to possess solid evidence proving such a cover-up. Another point made by Kaysing is that according to official reports, six Apollo flights to the moon were nearly flawless in execution. In contrast, the history of space flight before and after the Apollo program is filled with stories of failures and mechanical breakdowns. Kaysing argues that this is statistically unlikely, and cites this as evidence that the Apollo flights were faked. This argument is interesting, but certainly not conclusive.
Q: What is the justification for bringing in works of Indian mathematical astronomy, such as the Surya-siddhanta and Siddhanta-shiromani?
A: Shrila Prabhupada follows Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati by citing these works, which are called jyotisha shastra. He does so because Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati cited these works in his writings. Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta gives direct quotations and says nothing indicating that the works are wrong in any way. Also, the jyotisha shastras are cited by other Vaishnava commentators on the Bhagavatam. See Chapter 1.
Q: Shrila Prabhupada refers to the earth as a globe, and Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura made references to Surya-siddhanta and other jyotisha shastras that describe the earth as a globe. But wasn't this an innovation introduced by Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta in response to modern astronomy?
A: This is not an innovation introduced by Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta. Earlier commentators on the Shrimad-Bhagavatammake reference to the jyotisha shastras, including the Surya-siddhanta. One example is Vamshidhara, who was living in A.D. 1642, before the time that Western science made a large impact on India (see Appendix 1).
Q: Does this mean that we have to accept the jyotisha shastras as absolute truth on the level of the Shrimad-Bhagavatam?
A: No. The Shrimad-Bhagavatamis the spotless Purana, containing pure knowledge of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The jyotisha shastras are handbooks for the execution of astronomical calculations. The Bhagavatam presents the world from a transcendental perspective, or at least gives the perspective of great personalities involved in Krishna's pastimes. The jyotisha shastras deal with the motions of planets as seen by ordinary human beings. However, the jyotisha shastras do form a valid part of Vedic tradition, and their calculations are mentioned by Shrila Prabhupada in various places.
Q: Scholars say the calculations given in the jyotisha shastras were borrowed from the Greeks in the early centuries of the Christian era. How do we deal with this?
A: Western scholars maintain that all the Vedic literature is relatively recent. However, their methods are speculative, and they are not free of ethnic and religious bias. In Appendix 2, we show the baseless nature of some of their arguments.
Q: Some have said that the description of the universe in the Fifth Canto is allegorical and that Bhagavatam commentators have declared this. For example, Bhaktivinoda Thakura has said that the descriptions of hell are allegorical. Why don't you just accept the Fifth Canto as an allegory and leave it at that?
A: It would indeed make things easier if we could simply accept the description of the universe in the Fifth Canto as an allegory. But in good conscience we cannot do so. Let us carefully consider the reasons for this.
First of all, consider the statements of Bhaktivinoda Thakura about descriptions of hell in the Bhagavatam. In The Bhagavatahe writes, "In some of the chapters we meet with descriptions of these hells and heavens, and accounts of curious tales, but we have been warned somewhere in the book not to accept them as real facts, but as inventions to overawe the wicked and improve the simple and ignorant. The Bhagavata certainly tells us of a state of reward and punishment in the future according to deeds in our present situation. All poetic inventions besides this spiritual fact have been described as statements borrowed from other works."
According to this passage, not only the hells but also the material heavens are dismissed as poetic inventions. But if the heavens are inventions, what can one say about their inhabitants, such as Indra? If Indra is also imaginary, then how are we to understand the story of the lifting of Govardhana Hill? This must also be imaginary, and we are led to an allegorical interpretation of Krishna's pastimes.
In The Bhagavata Bhaktivinoda Thakura is indeed introducing the Bhagavatam in this way. We would suggest that he is doing this in accordance with time and circumstances. He describes his readers in the following words: "When we were in college, reading the philosophical works of the West,... we had a real hatred towards the Bhagavata. That great work looked like a repository of wicked and stupid ideas scarcely adapted to the nineteenth century, and we hated to hear any arguments in its favor." In order to sidestep the strong prejudices of readers trained by the British in Western thinking, Bhaktivinoda Thakura is presenting the Bhagavatam as allegorical, but we would suggest that this is not his final conclusion.
Shrila Prabhupada has explained that the Vedic literatures should be understood in terms of mukhya-vritti, or direct meaning, rather than gauna-vritti, or indirect meaning. He has also said, "Sometimes, however, as a matter of necessity, Vedic literature is described in terms of the lakshana-vritti or gauna-vritti, but one should not accept such explanations as permanent truths" (CC AL 7.110p). Bhaktivinoda Thakura was reviving Vaishnavism at a time when it had almost completely disappeared because of internal deviations and Western propaganda, and he may have concluded that an allegorical presentation was necessary under those circumstances.
In establishing the foundations of Vaishnavism in the West, Shrila Prabhupada stressed the importance of the direct interpretation of shastra. He writes, "Considering the different situation of different planets and also time and circumstances, there is nothing wonderful in the stories of the Puranas, nor are they imaginary.... We should not, therefore, reject the stories and histories of the Puranas as imaginary. The great rishis like Vyasa had no business putting some imaginary stories in their literatures" (SB 1.3.41p).
But could the description of the universe in the Fifth Canto be an allegory like the story of King Puranjana? Shrila Prabhupada makes many statements indicating that this not so. For example, he says that "we can understand that the sky and its various planets were studied long, long before Shrimad-Bhagavatamwas compiled.... The location of the various planetary systems was not unknown to the sages who flourished in the Vedic age" (SB 5.16.1p). He also says, "The measurements given herein, such as 10,000 yojanas or 100,000 yojanas, should be considered correct because they have been given by Shukadeva Gosvami" (SB 5.16.10p).
In this book we have therefore tried to show that the Fifth Canto is giving a reasonable picture of the universe consistent with (1) transcendental Vedic philosophy, (2) the tradition of Vedic mathematical astronomy, and (3) our imperfect sense data.
Q: To my knowledge, Shrila Prabhupada never hinted at explanations of other dimensions; he always seemed to emphasize accepting it as it is written. If these ideas are right, why didn't Shrila Prabhupada save us a lot of trouble by bringing them out years ago?
A: The Vedic literature does not explicitly refer to the concept of higher-dimensional space, as far as I am aware. This idea is borrowed from modern mathematics. However, the Vedic literature does refer implicitly to higher-dimensional space, and therefore it is justifiable to use this idea to clarify the Vedic description of the universe.
For example, in the description of Lord Brahma's visit to Krishna in Dvaraka, it is stated that millions of Brahmas from other universes came to visit Krishna. However, each Brahma remained within his own jurisdiction, and apart from our Brahma, each thought he was alone with Krishna. Thus Krishna was in many universes at once, and our Brahma could also simultaneously see different Brahmas visiting Krishna in all of these universes. This is impossible in three dimensions; it illustrates the implicit higher-dimensional nature of the Vedic conception of space (see Chapter 2).
Q: If we could visit the moon, would the inhabitants be visible to us or invisible?
A: Shrila Prabhupada has said "almost invisible" (see Section 6.c.1).
Q: Couldn't it be that denizens of higher planets are invisible to us simply because they have subtle bodies? Why bring in the idea of higher-dimensional worlds?
A: The clothes, food, dwellings, airplanes, and other paraphernalia of the demigods must be just as invisible to us as the demigods themselves. (Imagine what it would be like to see a suit of clothes being worn by an invisible demigod!) In other words, the demigods live in a complete world that is invisible to us but perfectly visible to them. They can travel to our world since they are endowed with suitable mystic powers, and advanced yogis can travel to their world. However, humans with ordinary senses cannot perceive the demigods or their gardens and cities. This sums up what we mean by a higher-dimensional world.
If we use the word "subtle," we should realize that we are speaking of a complete subtle world that looks perfectly substantial to the persons living in it, just as our world looks substantial to us. The worlds of the demigods should be contrasted with the situation of a ghost, who is stranded in our own continuum in a subtle form, but is unable to enjoy it.
Q: These higher-dimensional worlds may be normally inaccesible to us, but if they are actually real, shouldn't there be some empirical evidence of them? Do we just have to accept this whole incredible story on blind faith?
A: There is abundant empirical evidence of higher-dimensional worlds, and such evidence has been well known in practically all human cultures since time immemorial. Our modern scientific culture is an exception in this regard.
In Chapter 5 we briefly discuss some empirical evidence taken from non-Vedic sources.
Q: But isn't this empirical evidence imperfect?
A: Empirical evidence is always imperfect. One may accept the version of shastra according to the descending process, or one can turn to the empirical process with all its imperfections. Of course, Shrila Prabhupada advocated the descending process.
Q: There are places in the Shrimad-Bhagavatamwhere it is said that the coverings of the universe begin with water. Since this is clear water, and the farther coverings are transparent, it should be possible for us to see the suns of other universes. Couldn't these be the stars we see in the sky at night?
A: In SB 5.21.11p, Shrila Prabhupada says, "The Western theory that all luminaries in the sky are different suns is not confirmed in the Vedic literature. Nor can we assume that these luminaries are the suns of other universes, for each universe is covered by various layers of material elements, and therefore although the universes are clustered together, we cannot see from one universe to another. In other words, whatever we see is within this one universe."
In Section 6.d it is shown that the coverings of the universe are listed four times in the Bhagavatam as beginning with earth. We suggest that when Shrila Prabhupada mentions water or fire first, he is giving a partial list of the coverings.
Q: In SB 5.16.5, Jambudvipa is described as having a length and breadth of one million yojanas, yet in SB 5.16.7, it is described as having a width that is the same as Sumeru's height, namely 100,000 yojanas. This seems contradictory. In SB 5.16.7, Sumeru's width is stated to be 32,000 yojanas at its summit, and in SB 5.16.28, the township of Brahma has sides that extend for ten million yojanas. Does Brahmapuri hang way out over the edge of Sumeru?
A: The correct diameter of Jambudvipa is 100,000 yojanas, since this figure agrees with all the other dimensions mentioned in the Fifth Canto. Likewise, the width of Sumeru at its summit is 32,000 yojanas. We do not know the explanation for the other figures.
Q: What can be said in general about such apparent contradictions in the Bhagavatam? Does it mean that we should not have faith in it as a source of absolute truth?
A: Certainly it would not be justifiable to draw such conclusions from minor discrepancies. In many cases the discrepancy may have an explanation that we cannot guess because we have too little information. For example, in the Third Canto, two boar incarnations of Lord Vishnu are mentioned. In certain verses there appears to be some ambiguity in the description of these incarnations, and Shrila Prabhupada cites Shrila Vishvanatha Cakravarti as saying that "the sage Maitreya amalgamated both the boar incarnations in different devastations and summarized them in his description to Vidura" (SB 3.13.31p). Without this information from Shrila Vishvanatha Cakravarti, we might find it difficult to resolve the apparent contradictions in the story of Lord Varaha.
We suggest that some of the apparent contradictions discussed in Section 3.d may have a similar explanation.
Q: SB 5.17.6 places Bhadrashva-varsha west of Mount Meru, and SB 5.17.7 says the same thing about Ketumala-varsha. How do you resolve this contradiction?
A: If we look at the Sanskrit texts of these verses, we find that Bhadrashva and Ketumala varshas are on opposite sides of Mount Meru. Careful inspection of SB 5.16.10 shows that Bhadrashva-varsha is to the east of Mount Meru, since its boundary mountain is Mount Gandhamadana.
Q: SB 5.24.2 says that the moon is twice as big as the sun, and Rahu is three times as big. The purport says that Rahu is four times as big as the sun. How do you explain this?
A: This is another case of an apparent contradiction. Since we have practically no information, we cannot make a definite statement. But it is possible that the large sizes of the moon and Rahu may have to do with the higher-dimensional aspects of these planets.
The Surya-siddhanta gives a diameter of 2,400 miles for the moon. This is close to the modern figure (see Section 1.e).
Q: I have heard that all of the planets are in the stem of the lotus from which Brahma took birth. How can that be?
A: This is stated in SB 1.3.2p. Since the planetary systems are distributed throughout the universal globe, it must be that the stem encompasses everything within this globe. We should note that the standard pictures we see of Brahma sitting on the lotus flower are three-dimensional representations of a scene that cannot be seen using our ordinary senses. Although the pictures show the lotus stem emerging from the navel of Garbhodakashayi Vishnu, Brahma himself was unable to locate the origin of the stem. Thus, part of the scene was beyond the senses of Brahma, and so it is certainly beyond the reach of our senses. We also note that the planetary systems were created by Brahma from the lotus (SB 3.10.7-8). This suggests that these systems were produced by transforming the substance of the lotus.
Q: The Bhagavatam says that Rahu causes the eclipses of the sun and moon. How can this be reconciled with modern science?
A: The jyotisha shastras, such as Surya-siddhanta, give the same explanation of solar and lunar eclipses as modern science. These shastras also describe the orbit of Rahu (and Ketu) and point out that eclipses occur only when one of these two planets is aligned with either the sun and the moon or the earth's shadow and the moon (see Section 4.e). Some will maintain that this account was devised centuries ago to reconcile Vedic shastras with Greek astronomy. But this is sheer speculation.
Q: What can be said about the precession of the equinoxes and the consequent displacement of the polestar?
A: The phenomenon of precession is described in the jyotisha shastras. We discuss this topic in Section 4.f.
Q: The Bhagavatam says that the diameter of the universe is 4 billion miles. This is much too small to accommodate even the solar system, what to speak of the stars and galaxies. How can the Bhagavatam be correct?
A: Shrila Prabhupada, citing Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, also gives a figure of 18,712,069,200,000,000 yojanas for the circumference of the universe (or half the circumference) (CC ML 21.84p). He also says that "scientists calculate that if one could travel at the speed of light, it would take forty thousand years to reach the highest planet of this material world" (SB 3.15.26p).
We suggest that cosmic distances may appear different to observers endowed with different levels of consciousness. We also suggest that the laws governing distance and time may not be the same in outer regions of the universe as they are here on the earth (see Sections 1.f and 4.c).
Q: Scientists in the twentieth century have amassed a huge amount of information about distant stars and galaxies. How can you lightly suggest that it may be seriously wrong?
A: In Chapter 7 we discuss some of the latest findings of modern cosmology. There is abundant evidence in standard scientific journals to show that modern cosmological theories have serious defects.
Q: The scientists say that spectroscopic studies show that the stars are incandescent bodies and not mere reflectors of light. They also say that the stars are typically as powerful or more powerful than the sun, and they have worked out in detail the thermonuclear reactions that sustain stellar radiation. How can this be reconciled with the Vedic version?
A: This is discussed in Section 6.e. Briefly, we suggest that stars may well give off their own light. However, the Vedic literature indicates that they cannot be independent suns. The highly detailed scientific theories about stars may well be wrong in many respects. After all, these theories are based entirely on the interpretation of starlight. Their underlying logic is: This model seems to fit the data, and therefore it should be accepted and taught to students. Chapter 7 shows some of the pitfalls of this approach.
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