The cosmic conceptualization of the universe by ancient Indian rishis stands true to this day.
Aim for the stars!
They say that one should always aim for the stars, if you fail, you’ll land on the moon.. Or at least you will get some stardust in your eyes!
Considering that our ancestors probably never left the confines of the Earth, why did they decide to take a long shot at the subject so out of bound as Cosmology? What is cosmology?
Wikipedia defines it as:
“Physical cosmology is the scientific study of the universe’s origin, its large-scale structures and dynamics, and its ultimate fate. Religious cosmology is based on mythological, religious literature etc. and theories in cosmology may include both scientific and non-scientific propositions, that cannot be tested.”
But the ancient Indians not only studied astronomy, but also provided theories on the universe’s birth, it’s age and whether it will die eventually or keep going on and on. And ancient Indian civilization was really the ONLY culture that came up with a pretty close description of the known universe that matches the observations and theories of modern science.
Knowledge of astronomy was a mundane part of our religious texts
One example that strikes us is the Hanuman Chalisa written by Sant Tulsidas in as recent as the 16th century. The verse 18 says:
जुग सहस्त्र जोजन पर भानु ,
लील्यो ताहि मधुर फल जानू||18||
Juga sahastra jojan par bhaanu |
Leelyo taahi madhur phal jaanu ||18||
Literal meaning: Hanuman thought the sun (bhaanu) to be a sweet fruit (madhur phal) which is at a distance of ‘juga sahastra jojan‘.
Now, a juga or yuga is (Sata 4,800 + Treta 3,600 + Dwapar 2,400 + Kali1,200 = 12,000).
sahastra is 1,000 and jojan or yojan is 8 miles in ancient Indian measurements.
So we get 12,000 x 1,000 x 8 = 96,000,000 = 96 million miles which is pretty close to the average distance between earth and sun – approx. 93 million miles !
So, if Tulsidas can so non-chalantly quote an astronomical fact in his devotional text, what else can be embedded deep within our ancient texts that are actually devoted to the subject of this vast universe?
Diameter of sun / diameter of earth = 864,337.3 miles / 7,917.5 miles = 108
Average distance from sun to earth / diameter of sun = 93,000,000 miles / 864,337.3 miles = 108
Average distance from earth to moon / diameter of moon = 238,000 miles / 2,159 miles = close to 108
No wonder the number 108 is so sacred in ancient Indian culture. With so much mathematics built into the structure of our solar system which was recognized by our forefathers and made a part of our religious system, it will only be appropriate if we look into our own ancient literature to understand some of the areas that present-day science is attempting to uncover!
How big is the Universe?
Before we delve deeper into this subject, let’s look at what is the current understanding of the cosmos. Consider that there are 2 trillion galaxies in the universe with each galaxy consisting of 100 million stars on average and our observable universe is 13.77 billion years old now.
The current scientific understanding is that the universe was born with unimaginably enormous density and temperature possibly from a single point. This immense primordial energy was the cauldron that pervaded the universe initially, which was presided over by a unified force field (Electro-magnetic, Gravitational and Nuclear forces) and in which the elementary particles were created, which gave birth to stars, galaxy clusters and finally giving way to the rise of life itself.
At these enormous scales, due to the lack of accurate scientific data, science starts becoming a little fanciful and religion appears to be showing the way. As such, it is only natural that any beliefs about the cosmos will be part of the religious texts from the past.
How do all the other civilizations describe the origin of the universe?
- Babylonian (3,000 BCE) – Flat earth floating in infinite “waters of chaos”
- Biblical – Flat earth with the Genesis creation narrative (the world created in six days)
- Pythagoras (390 BCE) – “Central Fire” at the center of the Universe around which the Earth, Sun, Moon and planets revolve
- Aristotle (384 BCE) – Earth at the center of the universe surrounded by concentric celestial spheres.
- Ptolemy (2nd century CE) – Universe orbits around a stationary Earth.
- Medieval philosophers (500–1200 CE) – A finite universe supported by the early Muslim philosopher Alkindus, the Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon, and the Muslim theologian Algazel.
- Copernicus to Kepler (15th/ 16th century) – Sun at the center of the universe with circular planetary orbits
This basically summarizes the imaginative reach of the rest of the world before the advent of modern science enabled scientists to actually peep into the vast expanses of the universe.
So what did the Indians come up with?
Rgveda (dated as written in 1700 BCE but probably much more ancient due to the traditions of Smriti/ Shruti) had already conceptualized the universe as “cyclical and oscillating with infinite time”. The Universal cycle is preceded by an infinite number of universes and to be followed by another infinite number of universes.
Jain Agama traditions (500 BCE) also follow the same thought with cyclical universe and were most probably continued from the earlier Hindu texts.
According to Carl Sagan:
“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long, longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang.”
Origin of the universe
Consider this – if the universe (meaning “space” itself) originated about 14 billion years back:
– what existed before even “space” itself existed?
– also, if the space is expanding, what is it expanding into?
With modern science coming short of explaining these mind boggling questions, it must have taken a great level of understanding for ancient Indians to come up with something like the famous “नासदीय सूक्त” (Nasadiya Sukta – the 129th hymn of the 10th Mandala of the Rgveda (10:129), when it states:
नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत् | (nāsa̍dāsī̱nno sadā̍sītta̱dānī̱m nāsī̱drajo̱ no vyo̍mā pa̱ro yat)
तम आसीत्तमसा गूहळमग्रे प्रकेतं सलिलं सर्वाऽइदम् ॥ (tama̍ āasī̱ttama̍sā gū̱ḻhamagre̍’prake̱taṁ sa̍li̱laṁ sarva̍mā i̱daṁ)
इयं विसृष्टिर्यत आबभूव यदि वा दधे यदि वा न | (i̱yaṁ visṛ̍ṣṭi̱ryata̍ āaba̱bhūva̱ yadi̍ vā da̱dhe yadi̍ vā̱ na)
यो अस्याध्यक्षः परमे व्योमन्त्सो अङ्ग वेद यदि वा न वेद ॥ (yo a̱syādhya̍kṣaḥ para̱me vyo̍ma̱ntso a̱ṅga ve̍da̱ yadi̍ vā̱ na veda̍)
“Then even nothingness did not exist, nor existence, There was no matter then, nor the space beyond.
At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness with a sea of cosmic matter.
That one, out of which the creation came, may hold the reins or not,
Perceiving all from beyond, That one alone knows the beginning or may not know too”
Even the writers of the 18 Puranas had to fulfill five conditions before the text could be considered as a Maha Purana.
The five characteristics (laksanas) of a Purāna are :
(1) Sarga (creation of the Universe),
(2) Pratisarga (Dissolution and re-creation of the world),
(3) Manvantaras (Periods of Time presided over by Manus),
(4) Vamśa (Genealogies of gods and the Patriarchs)
(5) Vamśānucarita (accounts of dynasties of different ruling families)
If other religions have one guiding book that attempts to provide some explanation of the way the universe works and man’s place in it, then ancient India produced eighteen such books!
The Brahmanda Puran for example, too has a specific section that attempts to provide an understanding of this subject.
At the beginning, there was one vast ocean Mahārnava or Stabdha-Salila (Placid Fluidity – my translation). It was incomprehensible and beyond Sat and Asat (beyond existence and non-existence – my translation).
At the time of creation, Ksetrajña (the eternal Consciousness – my translation) presided over Pradhāna (creative principle) and Purusha (primeval matter) and agitated the gunas (the three forces nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational space-time – my translation) and the great principle Mahat (the Grand Principle, the single unifying force field as mentioned above) was evolved. The Sattva Guna came into being first and, Sañkalpa (Intention) and Adhyavasāya (reason for intention – my translation) became the tools of the Ksetrajña.
With this desire to create, Brahma, the first creator of Bhūtas(primary elements) who existed first in the Hiranyagarbha (the Golden Womb – the point of the origin of the universe), gave birth to the Brahmanda (the Cosmic Egg or the first appearance of primeval elements – my translation).
All the concepts mentioned above – the concept of space itself, a unifying grand principle, the primeval matter, the conditions that may have existed at the time of the birth of the universe and the conditions even before that moment, the possible cause for this whole cycle to begin in the first place – everything envisioned by our ancestors matches smoothly with what science hypothesizes in modern times.
It should be noted that the conceptual equivalence of these ancient Indian and current scientific concepts is propounded first time in this article:
Mahat – The Unified Force Field that includes nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational space-time fields
Sattva – The most subtle force equivalent to the nuclear force field (strong and weak) that came into being before electromagnetic and gravitational
Rajas – The electromagnetic field that includes visible light
Tamas – The most gross force equivalent to the gravitational space-time field that exists in darkness (absence of electromagnetic field)
Finally, it takes a lot of courage to envision a creator who is not only beyond any petty religious or human bindings, allowing the creator to be beyond all concepts created by humanity – not man, not woman, not bound to any book, not merciful or vengeful, but beyond any concept ever imagined by humankind. It takes a really mature civilization to ever accept that there may or may not be any creator or God, and the universe may have come about on its own! What’s more rational, if not this grasp of the reality? And where will you find this enormous reach of imagination if not in the land of India?
References / Footnotes