The Srimad-Bhagavatam is considered the topmost book of all ancient wisdom. It is a collection of histories of the many incarnations and activities of Krishna throughout human history. It was written by the author of the Vedas, Vyasadeva, as his own commentary on Vedanta-sutra, the essence of all spiritual knowledge.
Srimad-Bhagavatam is also known as the Bhagavat Purana, one of the eighteen Puranas (ancient histories) in the Vedic tradition. Its eighteen thousand verses are presented in twelve cantos, each of which deals with a specific aspect of transcendental knowledge. The main theme running throughout the Bhagavatam is the science and practice of bhakti-yoga, devotional service to the Supreme Person.
Krishna is the Supreme Person, the Godhead. Krishna is the speaker of the Bhagavad-gita, which is recognized throughout the world as one of mankind's greatest books of wisdom. In the Gita, as it is also known, Krishna says repeatedly that He is God Himself, the source of everything. Arjuna, to whom Krishna is speaking, accepts Krishna's words as true, adding that the greatest spiritual authorities of that time also confirm that Krishna is God.
Traditions that follow in the line of these authorities have carried Krishna's teachings down to the present day.
God, A Transcendental Person
The personhood of Krishna is not an idea invented by human beings naively creating a God in their own image. Nor is personhood a limiting concept when applied to God, or the Absolute Truth. As the source of everything, Krishna naturally has His own personal identity, just as each of us does. The Vedas define God as the one supreme conscious being among all other conscious beings. He is infinite, we are finite, and He maintains us all.
Naturally, the best way to understand God is to learn from Him. In the Bhagavad-gita ("The Song of God"), Lord Krishna—a real person—tells us that He is God and reveals many things about Himself.
A Complete Conception of God
Many people have a hard time conceiving that God can be an actual person. But the Vedas tell us that God's unique personal identity is His highest aspect. Here's an analogy to show how God has three main features.
Looking at a mountain from a distance, we can make out only its size and shape. This is compared to comprehending God only as Brahman, His impersonal energy, which emanates from Him just as light shines out from its source.
As we move closer, we'll start to make out more of the mountain's characteristics—the colors of its foliage, for example. This is compared to understanding that God is within our hearts as Paramatma, or the Supersoul.
Finally, when we arrive at the mountain we can explore its soil, vegetation, animals, rivers, and so on. This is compared to understanding God the person, or Bhagavan.
Bhagavan is the source of Brahman and Paramatma and is therefore, in a sense, one with them. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan are called the three phases of the Absolute Truth.
What is God Like?
As with anyone in our experience, God is unique and complex. He's the transcendental Supreme Person, so there's infinitely more to know about Him than anyone else. The Vedas, especially Srimad-Bhagavatam, supply detailed information about Him.
Everything about God is fully transcendental, or spiritual. Because God is absolute, there is no difference between Him and His name, form, activities, qualities, and so on. Contact with any of these gives the same spiritual benefit, namely purification of our consciousness.
Transcendental Form - The Vedas tell us that spirit is composed of eternity, knowledge (or consciousness), and happiness. Both God and we souls possess spiritual forms, which are free of the limitations of material form. For example, each part of a spiritual body can perform the function of any other part.
Krishna's body never changes; He is an eternal youth.
Unlike we ordinary souls, who may possess a material body, Krishna and His body are always identical.
A Description of Krishna - The Vedas describe Krishna in this way: He is a beautiful youth with a glowing complexion the color of rain clouds. He plays a flute, attracting the hearts of all. His cheeks are brilliant, His smile enchanting. He wears a peacock feather in His curly black hair and a flower garland around His neck. His beautiful garments are the color of lightning. His toenails resemble the light of the moon.
Not only do the Vedas tell us what Krishna looks like, but pure souls have received His audience and written of their encounters. And fifty centuries ago, Krishna revealed His transcendental form to residents of India when He lived there for 120 years, sometimes showing and sometimes hiding His divinity.
Krishna is loving by nature. In our original pure state, we love Him fully. In the exchange of complete love, Krishna considers His devotees greater than Himself. In the spiritual world He always stays with His devotees, and in this world He resides in every heart as the Supersoul. He wants His children in the material world to return to Him to enjoy with Him eternally.
Krishna is completely independent, and we cannot comprehend him completely. He cannot be conquered by knowledge. But He can be conquered—and seen directly—through pure love.
God has feelings: He is satisfied when someone offers Him a nice prayer. Even though He is great, He can be moved by our love. He responds to us according to how we approach Him.
"The pure devotee is always within the core of My heart, and I am always in the heart of the pure devotee. My devotees do not know anything else but Me, and I do not know anyone else but them." —Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.4.68
Understanding that God is spiritual, people sometimes conceive of Him as having no qualities. But although Krishna has no material qualities, He is full of unlimited transcendental qualities, and those qualities attract us to Him. Thus great souls who have given up everything cannot give up attraction to Krishna, and they dedicate their lives to finding Him.
The following qualities are considered especially attractive, and Krishna possesses them in full: beauty, wealth, fame, influence, knowledge, and renunciation.
Being God, Krishna has innumerable qualities and seemingly contradictory qualities are resolved in Him.
Hearing of how Krishna shows these qualities can give us a sense of His greatness and of His power to attract all souls.
While Krishna's expansions and incarnations perform duties in the material and spiritual worlds, He Himself simply enjoys with His most intimate devotees in His transcendental home, known as Goloka. By His desire, His associates there don't even consider Him God. They enhance His enjoyment in five loving moods: neutrality, servitude, friendship, parental affection, and conjugal love. In other words, Krishna's life is filled with unending bliss in the company of His associates.
Krishna enjoys Himself with abandon, frolicking as a youth in expansive fields and forests with His friends and cows. He dances, He plays His flute, He relishes whatever activity strikes His fancy at the moment.
To entice souls in the material world to join Him in Goloka, Krishna comes to this world periodically, as He did 5,000 years ago, and shows His confidential, intimate loving exchanges with His ever-liberated devotees.
Krishna savors diversity from various kinds of pure, transcendental love. As we enjoy a variety of relationships in our families and society, so does Krishna, but all of His relationships are eternal, transcendental, and completely free of material contamination.
Each of Krishna's devotees interacts with Him in one of five primary relationships. In ascending order of intimacy, these five are neutrality, servitude, friendship, parental affection, and conjugal love. Each includes the primary sentiments of the ones before it, and then adds its own flavor. Pure love of God reaches its summit in romantic exchanges with Krishna.
Each devotee eternally feels one of these main moods predominantly:
- Devotees in the mood of neutrality witness and support Krishna's pastimes by their presence as plants, animals, streams, and so on, as well as normally inanimate objects like houses—all of which are fully conscious in Goloka.
- Devotees in the service mood run errands for Krishna, pack His lunch, wash His clothes, and perform other demonstrations of love for Him as the moment indicates.
- Devotees in the fraternal mood serve Krishna by being His friends. They are sometimes boastful, considering themselves equal to Krishna. In His company, they herd cows and enjoy games in the beautiful country setting.
- Devotees in the parental mood see themselves as Krishna's provider and protector. Krishna behaves with them like a dependent child. His mother cuddles Him, carefully prepares His meals, and thinks only of His protection. His father sees that He has all the comforts of a normal home.
- Devotees in the conjugal, or romantic, mood, offer service as Krishna's girlfriends, relating with Him in the intimacy of lover and beloved.
Although Krishna is invisible to us in our present state, we can perceive His presence through His energies, which are everywhere. Although innumerable, His energies fall into three primary categories.
Internal Energy - Krishna's internal energy expands as the spiritual world in all its variety, including His ever-liberated associates there. The internal energy is eternal and full of knowledge and happiness. Presently beyond our perception, the spiritual world makes up most of reality.
External Energy - Krishna's external energy consists of all that is matter: the material world, the laws of material nature, material bodies, and so on. The external energy is temporary and full of ignorance and suffering. It is inert by nature and must be moved by spirit. The material world is a tiny fraction of God's creation.
Marginal Energy - We finite spirit souls are expansions of Krishna's marginal energy. We can choose to live in the spiritual world or the material world. Or, to put it another way, we can be deluded by matter or illuminated by spirit.
Both the external energy (matter) and the marginal energy (we souls) can become fully spiritualized by contact with the internal energy through acts of devotion to Krishna (Bhakti-yoga).
God owns everything, so in a sense His home is everywhere. But He Himself resides in the spiritual world in a place known as Goloka, the highest spiritual region. Reaching Krishna there is the highest achievement of human life.
Goloka is self-illuminated, and everyone there is liberated, shining with pure love for Krishna. Because Krishna is the center of everyone's heart, there is complete unity and peace. Goloka is built of transcendental gems that yield whatever one wants. The natural surroundings are beautiful, full of diversity and opulence. In Goloka, every word is a song, every step a dance, every moment new, fresh, and exciting.
Just as we may have different names according to our various roles—Mommy, Dr. Jones, Sweetheart, Professor, Your Honor—so does God. And since God is unlimited, He has innumerable names.
The names can be generic terms, such as "God" or "the Absolute Truth."
They can be in Sanskrit, such as Govinda, Gopala, or Shyamasundara.
They can be in other languages, such as Yahweh and Allah.
The name Krishna, which means "the all-attractive One," implies that each of us has an eternal relationship with God and we are always drawn either to Him directly or to His energies.
God and His names are identical, so by speaking them we enter His purifying company. Regularly reciting, singing, or chanting His names awakens our innate love for Him and gains us release from bondage to matter.
In contemplating the above, the reader may ask, "Where are you getting this knowledge from?" Apart from Sri Krishna's own words in His Bhagavad-gita, the ancient Vedas (scriptures) of India extensively describe God in detail, His expansions, incarnations and pastimes.
Bhagavatam, A Major Contribution to the Understanding of God
The Vedas deal with many subjects. They are the books of a highly developed civilization and cover all departments of knowledge. Among them, Srimad-Bhagavatam (also known as the Bhagavata Purana) deals exclusively with subjects about God. Srimad means "beautiful" or "opulent," and Bhagavatam means "related to God." Hence, Srimad-Bhagavatam can be translated as "The Beautiful Story of God."
Srimad-Bhagavatam describes God, our relationship with Him, and the process for realizing that relationship. Its 18,000 verses give detailed accounts of God's names, forms, nature, personality, devotees, activities, residences, and much more.
In one of the opening chapters, the narrator explains that the sage Vyasadeva, who wrote portions of the Vedic literature and compiled the rest, felt dissatisfied despite his accomplishments. Under the order of his guru, he then embarked on writing Srimad-Bhagavatam, considered the ripe fruit of the tree of the Vedas.
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
In recent years interest in reincarnation has grown, with new advocates, theories, and discoveries. Testimonies by persons who have returned from the verge of death after supposedly glimpsing the hereafter have intrigued modern parapsychologists, as well as researchers like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, and Raymond Moody, author of Life After Life and other bestsellers.
The original source—books on reincarnation, however, are the Sanskrit Vedic, literatures. The Srimad- Bhagavatam, for example, gives a fascinating account of the near-death experience of a man named Ajamila. Unlike modern investigations, the case of Ajamila lets us study the near-death experience not from the viewpoint of the dying person but from the viewpoint of higher beings present at the time of the soul’s passing out of the body.
Srimad-Bhagavatam relates how the messengers of Death and the messengers of Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, disagreed over where Ajamila should reincarnate in his next life. Being deathless, the atma, or self, must take birth in another body when the present body ceases to function. And that next body is determined by one’s individual karma: “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
In the case of Ajamila, the messengers of Death wanted to drag the soul to hell because of his life of sin. Although Ajamila lay in a coma, he was conscious of the messengers of Death preparing to transfer him to the lower regions. But suddenly the beautiful, effulgent messengers of, Vishnu arrived and intervened. The messengers of the Lord said the messengers of Death had misjudged the soul of Ajamila and had no right to take him.
Incensed, the messengers of Death explained why Ajamila should be taken and punished. Judging a person’s karma, they said, is a relatively simple thing. At the time of death, when a soul is ready to enter another body, the superintendent of Death arranges for a future body in accordance with the particular soul’s past sinful and pious acts. Because Ajamila had led a sinful life, he was now due to be punished.
The messengers of Death gave an analogy: As springtime in the present indicates the nature of springs in the past and future, so this present life of happiness or distress indicates one’s activities in the past, and one’s present activities are an index of one’s future incarnations. In other words, on the basis of the activities a person performs in his present life, the higher authorities determine his destiny in the next life.
Since most people incur at least some bad karma, it is the duty of the messengers of Death to transfer them to a lower position. Most people act without any understanding of the law of karma and thus commit all kinds of abominable acts for the pleasure of the present body. They do not know that their present suffering is a result of past sins, nor are they able to understand that their present sins will cause them future suffering. Acting in the darkness of ignorance, most people are unable to know their past or future lives. And even when they hear from the Vedic literature about transmigration of the soul and the law of karma, they refuse to accept that there is anything beyond this present life of sense .gratification.
Such an ignorant person was Ajamila. And because of his life of sin, the messengers of Death saw no reason why the messengers of the Lord should obstruct their work of awarding him his just karma.
The messengers of Lord Vishnu, however, asked the messengers of Death on what basis they had judged Ajamila. The messengers of Death replied that they had judged him according to the religious scriptures. They then read a long list of criminal, violent, irresponsible, irreligious, and perverted acts Ajamila had committed. At this, the messengers of Vishnu admitted that hellish punishment would ordinarily await such a sinner but in the case of Ajamila, this did not apply.
The extraordinary circumstance in Ajamila’s case was that at the last moment of his life he had called out the name of God, Narayana. Although he was not thinking of God but of his son Narayana, he had nevertheless called out, “Narayana!” This had neutralized all Ajamila’s bad karma and had saved him.
The messengers of Vishnu explained that Ajamila’s uttering the name Narayana had absolved him of all his sins—not only those of his present life but those of millions of past lives. He had chanted without offense and was therefore purified and eligible for liberation. The messengers of Vishnu explained that even if a person chants the name of God indirectly (to indicate something else), jokingly, for musical entertainment, or even neglectfully, the holy name will still free him from the reactions of all sins. No matter how sinful a person may be, the holy name of God has the power to absolve him and save him from hellish punishment.
Unable to oppose the higher authority, the messengers of Death released Ajamila. The supernatural beings vanished, Ajamila awakened from his coma, and by the grace of the Lord he was able to spend his remaining days in devotional meditation on the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
This account from Srimad-Bhagavatam gives us valuable information about the soul, the next life, the laws of karma, and the potency of the holy name of the Lord. For those interested in reincarnation, the Vedic literatures are worth investigating. Rather than limit oneself to empirical data from modern researchers, one should consult Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita for a clear understanding of reincarnation and the specific importance and responsibility of the human form of life. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And an essential part of one’s life to examine is one’s death. What happens at this critical time? Is there a next life? If so, how can we assure the best next life for ourselves? Certainly any introspective, openminded investigation into the subject of reincarnation would be incomplete without careful study of Vedic writings like Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad- gita.
by Ravindra-svarupa Dasa
By the time I encountered the Krishna consciousness movement. I was so eager to transcend material existence that I was willing to renounce practically everything for the sake of liberation. So convinced was I that pain and suffering were of the essence of this life that I did not desire to reserve any attachment, even to the highest and best part of it.
And to me, that highest and best was exemplified in art and literature—in those timeless artifacts, those “monuments,” as the poet Yeats beautifully called them, “of unaging intellect.” And I myself had since adolescence sought transcendence in the role of the artist. I had become captivated by a certain image of the artist, an image presented with consummate lyricism by James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: a “fabulous artificer … forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being.”
A magus turning matter into spirit, the artist transmutes the tacky, mortal stuff of this life into a new “unaging,” “imperishable” creation; in so doing, he redeems his existence from time and change. Certainly this redemptive drive toward the eternal and immutable is the deepest motive of art. As such, the artistic impulse is religious. The problem is that it fails. It is bad religion.
Consider this typical example of the “eternizing theme” from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade
When in eternal lines to Time thou growest.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The poet refers to his verse as eternal—as eternal as Time itself—yet in the final couplet a more deflated view prevails: the verse can at best last no longer than mankind. And while the poet boldly asserts that his verse rescues his subject from time and death, preserving him in eternal youth, we recognize a rhetorical fiction, a hyperbole. Centuries ago that fair youth moldered in his grave and is now at most a sparse handful of dust. Nothing has really been saved from time and death: not the poet, not his subject, not his art.
The promise of art is illusory. Art cannot save us, no matter how beautiful and well wrought its objects may be. They are, essentially, fictions. At best, art may palliate the pains of life, but even in this it dangerously misleads. They say that during the Holocaust, Jews were marched toward gas chambers while an orchestra beguiled them with Mozart and Brahms. Aesthetic enjoyment is like an anodyne that relieves the symptoms of a disease. Given the illusion of health, we can ignore our sickness, and eventually it destroys us.
The spell of art is hard to break once you have fallen under it, but I became at last disenchanted. Although I was still deeply attracted by great art and literature and still strongly felt the allure of the artisticvocation, I knew neither the enjoyment nor the creation of art could save me from death, I began to study spiritual writings, and eventually I became sure of at least this much: that material life is essentially suffering, that suffering is caused by our desires, and that the cure for suffering lies in the uprooting of our desires. I was willing, therefore, to give up everything, from the gross satisfaction of animal appetites to the refined pleasures of art and its creation. I set out on my own to eradicate my desires. I failed utterly.
I failed because my idea of renunciation was rudimentary, incomplete. I did not actually understand renunciation, in principle or in practice. Finally, however, I was enlightened in this matter by the devotees of Krishna. As they explained it, the Krishna conscious method of renunciation was both sensible and practical. And, as I soon discovered, it was remarkably efficacious. Moreover—and this astonished me completely—it was joyful through and through. It was not negation but fulfillment. And whatever I gave up on the material platform, I got back a thousandfold on the spiritual. In my case, this was most immediately evident with reference to literary art.
I had gleaned my previous ideas of renunciation from the teachings of various impersonalists, those mystics who think that ultimate truth is wholly devoid of names, forms, attributes, activities, and relations and that to characterize it properly we must resort to silence and negation. They hold that in the liberated state the knower, the known, and the act of knowing coalesce to absolute unity and that to enter that state we must denude ourselves of all personality and individuality and turn away from all sensory and intellectual experience. This bleak and daunting prospect can appeal only to the most burned-out victims of time, and it has sent many seekers back to material life in frustration.
But Rupa Gosvami, a great authority on devotional service, calls this impersonal sort of renunciation phalgu- vairagya, “incomplete renunciation.” It is incomplete because the realization of the supreme on which it is based is incomplete. By rejecting material qualities, names, forms, activities, and relations, the impersonalists have reached but the outer precincts of divinity, which they report to be an endless, undifferentiated spiritual effulgence. But they do not know that this effulgence conceals a still higher region of transcendence, where the Supreme Personality of Godhead Krishna resides. In this topmost abode, hidden in the heart of the infinite ocean of light, Krishna exhibits His most beautiful transcendental form and His unsurpassable personal qualities as He plays out endless exchanges of love with His pure devotees. Because the impersonalists have unfortunately not yet realized these variegated positive features of transcendence, they must be content with mere negation of the material.
When there is complete realization of the supreme, however, one enters the luminous realm of devotional service. Here, the senses and mind of the devotee become decontaminated from all material taint by complete absorption in the active service of their transcendental object, Krishna. In this way there is the awakening of full spiritual existence, and material existence automatically ceases. Accordingly, the devotee does not reject mind and senses, desire and activities, but he restores them to their original purity through the devotional activities of Krishna consciousness. Because the devotee focuses his full attention on the supremely attractive forms and pastimes of Krishna, he quite naturally loses his interest in all the attractions of this world. In comparison with Krishna and His society, those attractions undergo fatal devaluation.
The foremost book dedicated wholly to Krishna is the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Srimad-Bhagavatam is filled with accounts of the marvelous activities the Lord performs during His various descents into this world. It narrates His eternal, joyful pastimes in His supreme abode, and it describes in detail how he dwells as Supersoul within our hearts. With scientific precision, Srimad-Bhagavatam tells how Krishna again and again brings forth and maintains and winds up the creation. It tells of the great adventures of His devotees throughout the universe. And it instructs us in the potent practices of bhakti-yoga, by which we can regain our transcendental organs of perception and once again see Krishna always, within everything and beyond everything. The works comprising India’s vast spiritual literature are called the Vedic literature, and the Srimad-Bhagavatam is “the ripened fruit of the Vedic tree of knowledge.” Yet this work was hardly known outside of India until His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, my spiritual master, began his hugely successful project of translating it and distributing it all over the world.
The first time I read Srimad-Bhagavatam was one of the high points of my life. In those days, we had only the three russet volumes Srila Prabhupada had written and published in India and brought with him to America. But these books—crudely printed, badly bound, riddled with typos—were the greatest literature I had ever encountered. I, who had worshiped so long at the shrine of the Bard, now astounded myself by thinking, “This is greater than Shakespeare!” I read with full appreciation that one of Krishna’s names is Uttamashloka, or “He who is praised by immortal verse.” I delved deeper and deeper into the Bhagavatam, endlessly fascinated, and discovered one day that I had in the process renounced the literature of this world.
Srimad-Bhagavatam is in a class all its own, and once you have acquired a taste for it, all mundane literature seems stale and flat. Nor do you tire of the Srimad- Bhagavatam. As a rule, the higher the quality of a literary work, the more it bears rereading. A paperback thriller is notably unthrilling on second reading;
Hamlet or King Lear remain satisfying after many revisits. Still, there are limits, and even the most ardent Shakespearean requires periodic relief. But you can pick up Bhagavatam every day and find it inexhaustible; with each rereading it increases in interest. Because Bhagavatam is simply not a product of this world, it has the ever-fresh quality that is the hallmark of spirit.
All along I had really wanted Srimad-Bhagavatam. It seemed to me that all literary yearnings for the eternal unconsciously seek that crest-jewel of books. And now I had found it. So I did not, after all, have to give up my attraction to literature; I had only to purify it. Once purified, my desire was satisfied beyond my greatest expectation.
At first glance, the cosmology of the Srimad-Bhagavatam might seem like a wild fantasy. Here are four ways to make sense of it all.
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 the Vedic 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 Sadaputa Dasa (Dr. Richard Thompson) suggests a framework for understanding the Bhagavatam’s descriptions that squares with our experience and modern discoveries.
This article was adapted from Mysteries of the Sacred Universe:
The Srimad-Bhagavatam presents an earth-centered conception of the cosmos. At first glance the cosmology seems foreign, but a closer look reveals that not only does the cosmology of the Bhagavatam describe the world of our experience, but it also presents a much larger and more complete cosmological picture. I’ll explain.
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.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu remarked, “In every verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam and in every syllable, there are various meanings.”(Chaitanya-charitamrita, 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.
A similar painting from India (Figure 2) shows three parts of a story about Krishna. Such paintings contain apparent contradictions, such as images of one character in different places, but a person who understands the story line will not be disturbed by this. The same is true of the Bhagavatam, which uses one model to represent different features of the cosmos.
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.
The region within the shell (Figure 3) is called the Brahmanda, or “Brahma egg.” It contains an earth disk or plane—called Bhu-mandala—that divides it into an upper, heavenly half and a subterranean half, filled with water. Bhu-mandala is divided into a series of geographic features, traditionally called dvipas, or “islands,” varshas, or “regions,” and oceans.
In the center of Bhu-mandala (Figure 4) is the circular “island” of Jambudvipa, with nine varsha subdivisions. These include Bharata-varsha, which can be understood in one sense as India and in another as the total area inhabited by human beings. In the center of Jambudvipa stands the cone-shaped Sumeru Mountain, which represents the world axis and is surmounted by the city of Brahma, the universal creator.
To any modern, educated person, this sounds like science fiction. But is it? Let’s consider the four ways of seeing the Bhagavatam’s descriptions of the Bhu- mandala.
Bhu-mandala as a Polar Projection of the Earth Globe
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, next page), 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 than geographical.
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.
The Bhagavatam similarly presents the orbits of the sun, the moon, planets, and important stars on a series of planes parallel to Bhu-mandala.
Seeing Bhu-mandala as a polar projection is one example of how it doesn’t represent a flat Earth.
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.
Descriptions of Bhu-mandala have features that identify it as a model of the solar system. In the previous section I interpreted Bhu-mandala as a planisphere map. But now, we’ll take it as a literal plane. When we do this, it looks at first like we’re back to the naive flat Earth, with the bowl of the sky above and the underworld below.
The scholars Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend carried out an intensive study of myths and traditions and concluded that the so-called flat Earth of ancient times originally represented the plane of the ecliptic (the orbit of the sun) and not the Earth on which we stand. Later on, according to de Santillana and von Dechend, the original cosmic understanding of the earth was apparently lost, and the Earth beneath our feet was taken literally as a flat plate. In India, the earth of the Puranas has often been taken as literally flat. But the details given in the Bhagavatam show that its cosmology is much more sophisticated.
Not only does the Bhagavatam use the ecliptic model, but it turns out that the disk of Bhu-mandala corresponds in some detail to the solar system (Figure 8). The solar system is nearly flat. The sun, the moon, and the five traditionally known planets—Mercury through Saturn—all orbit nearly in the ecliptic plane. Thus Bhu- mandala does refer to something flat, but it’s not the Earth.
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.
Furthermore, the structures of Bhu-mandala correspond with the planetary orbits of the solar system (Figure 9). 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.
Jambudvipa as a Topographical Map of South-Central Asia
Jambudvipa, the central hub of Bhumandala, 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,top left). 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.
Bhu-mandala as a Map of the Celestial Realm of the Devas
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 India.
But the simplest explanation for the heavenly features of Jambudvipa is that Bhu-mandala was also intended to represent the realm of the devas. Like the other interpretations we have considered, this one is based on a group of mutually consistent points in the cosmology of the Bhagavatam.
First of all, consider the very large sizes of mountains and land areas in Jambudvipa. For example, India is said to be 72,000 miles (9,000 yojanas) from north to south, or nearly three times the circumference of the Earth. Likewise, the Himalayas are said to be 80,000 miles high.
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 the Bhagavatam.
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 Vrindavan, said to be unlimitedly expansive and to exist in parallel to the finite, earthly Vrindavan 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 dimension.
Mystical travel explains how the worlds of the devas are connected with our world. In particular, it explains how Jambudvipa, as a celestial realm of devas, is connected with Jambudvipa as the Earth or part of the Earth. Thus the double model of Jambudvipa makes sense in terms of the Puranic understanding of the siddhis.
The Vertical Dimension in Bhagavata Cosmology
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.
Each of the four interpretations I’ve presented deserves to be taken seriously because each is supported by many points in the text that are consistent with one another while agreeing with modern astronomy. I’ve applied the context-sensitive or multiple aspect approach, in which the same subject has different meanings in different contexts. This approach allows for the greatest amount of information to be stored in a picture or text, reducing the work required by the artist or writer. At the same time, it means that the work cannot be taken literally as a one-to-one model of reality, and it requires the viewer or reader to understand the different relevant contexts. This can be difficult when knowledge of context is lost over long periods of time.
In the Bhagavatam, the context-sensitive approach was rendered particularly appropriate by the conviction that reality, in the ultimate issue, is avak-manasam, or beyond the reach of the mundane mind or words. This implies that a literal, one-to-one model of reality is unattainable, and so one may as well pack as much meaning as possible into a necessarily incomplete description of the universe. The cosmology of the Bhagavata Purana is a sophisticated system of thought, with multiple layers of meaning, both physical and metaphysical. It combines practical understanding of astronomy with spiritual conceptions to produce a meaningful picture of the universe and reality.
by Sadaputa Dasa
A unit of measure known as the yojana hints at advanced astronomical knowledge in the ancient Vedic civilization.
An encyclopedia article states that in early times length was defined by the breadth of the palm or hand, and the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger (the cubit). The article goes on to say, "Such standards were both changeable and perishable, and only within modern times have definite unchanging standards of measurement been adopted." (Microsoft Encarta)
The Middle Ages certainly saw many conflicting and poorly defined standards of weights and measures. But exact standards of measurement are not solely a modern invention.
Consider this example. In tenth-century England, King Athelstan decreed that the king's girth, in which the king's peace is in force, should extend from the royal residence for a distance of 3 miles, 3 furlongs, 9 acres, 9 feet, 9 palms, and 9 barleycorns. This sounds quaint. But it defines a circle with a diameter of 36,500 feet - almost exactly 1/10 of a degree of latitude in southern England.
Measuring with Latitude
To define a unit of length exactly, it is natural to use latitude as a standard, because latitude derives from the size of the earth, a constant that can be measured astronomically. So if a fire or invasion destroys the standard measuring rod stored in some government building, astronomical readings can be used to restore the lost standard. Of course, it seems unlikely that accurate astronomical measurements were being made in England in the days of King Athelstan. But if we look into the history of weights and measures, we find that distances were gauged in terms of latitude in ancient times, and medieval societies inherited many exact standards of measurement. These included volumes defined as length cubed and weights defined by filling such a volume with water.
The Greek astronomer Eratosthenes is usually credited with being the first to measure the size of the earth by observing latitudes (see Figure 1). He is said to have noted that the sun, when directly overhead at Syene at the Tropic of Cancer, casts a shadow of 7.2 degrees at Alexandria. Knowing the distance between Syene and Alexandria, he could compute the length of a degree of latitude and estimate the circumference of the earth.
But there is reason to believe that the size of the earth was known long before Eratosthenes. The Italian scholar Livio Stecchini has given extensive evidence that the ancient Egyptians laid out their country using latitude and longitude. He argues that they had accurate knowledge of the dimensions of the earth and that such knowledge was inherent in the design of the great pyramid at Giza. Since the great pyramid dates to about 2500 B.C., this implies that the earth was measured scientifically at least that long ago.
Defining the Yojana
Turning to India, we find a unit of distance, called the yojana, that at first glance seems as ill defined as the medieval English furlong or foot. The yojana is defined to be either 16,000 or 32,000 hastas, where a hasta, or cubit, is 24 angulas, or fingers. That there were at least two sizes for the yojana is upheld by the writings of classical Indian astronomers. The fifth-century astronomer Aryabhata used a yojana of about 8 miles, and the astronomy text Surya-siddhanta a yojana of roughly 5 miles.
The first hint of the ancient history of the yojana comes from Strabo, who describes the experiences of Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador to India in the period following Alexander the Great. Strabo cites Megasthenes as saying that along the royal road to the Indian capital of Palibothra (thought to be modern Patna), pillars were set up every 10 stadia (see Figure 2). The British scholar Alexander Cunningham argues that the pillars marked an interval of one krosa. Since there are traditionally 4 krosas per yojana, this implies 40 stadia per yojana.Stecchini gives 400 cubits per stadium, and this implies 16,000 cubits per yojana.
Since the smaller of the two definitions for the yojana assigns it 16,000 hastas, we can tentatively identify the hasta, or Indian cubit, with the Greek cubit. This unit is well known, and it enables us to compute the length of the yojana. The Greek cubit is 462.42 millimeters. This gives us a small yojana of about 4.6 miles, in rough agreement with texts such as the Surya-siddhanta.
Stecchini points out that the stadium was defined as 1/600 of a degree of latitude. This would mean that there are 15 small yojanas per degree. Likewise, there are 60 krosas per degree, or 1 krosa per minute.
Here we must make a technical observation about latitudes. Consider the earth to be a sphere, rotating on a line through the north and south poles called the polar axis. The latitude of a person facing north at some point in the northern hemisphere is the angle from his horizon up to the polar axis (see Figure 3). That angle is 0 degrees at the equator and grows to 90 degrees at the North Pole. The length of a degree of latitude is the distance a person would have to travel north for his latitude to increase by 1 degree. On a perfect sphere, this distance would be the same at all latitudes. But the earth is slightly flat at the poles and bulges at the equator. This makes for a degree of latitude slightly smaller at the equator than further north (see Figure 4).
Stecchini noted that the Greek stadium is 1/600 of a degree of latitude at Mycenae in Greece, and he argued that it was deliberately defined this way in ancient times. I propose that to define the yojana in India the degree of latitude at the equator was used. This means that the hasta should be 460.7 millimeters instead of 462.4 millimeters (and the yojana would still be about 4.6 miles). I shall point out below why this fine distinction is important.
At first glance, the yojana of 32,000 hastas should be twice as long as this, or about 9.2 miles. But there is reason to think that these two yojanas use different standards for the hasta (see Figures 5 and 6).
Hiuen Thsang, a Buddhist pilgrim who visited India in the seventh century, wrote of yojanas in terms of a Chinese unit of measure called the li. He reported that a yojana consisted of 40 li according to Indian tradition but the measure in customary use equaled 30 li and the measure given in sacred texts was only 16. The li has taken on many values during China's history. But using values for the Thang dynasty, when Hiuen Thsang lived, we can compute that the yojana of 16 li matches the small yojana of 4.6 miles.
Could the yojana of 30 li match the larger yojana of 32,000 hastas? If it does, then the larger yojana has to use a slightly smaller hasta, 30/32 as long as the hasta in the shorter yojana. Multiplying our hasta of 460.7 millimeters by 30/32, we get a smaller hasta of 431.9 millimeters. The larger yojana of 32,000 hastas then comes to 8.59 miles. At the equator, that is 1/8 of a degree of latitude.
In an investigation to be reported in a later article, I found that the geocentric orbits of the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn align closely with the dimensions of dvipas in Bhumandala. Bhumandala and dvipas are features of cosmic geography defined in the Fifth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. To align planetary orbits with dvipas we need to be able to convert the yojanas used in the Bhagavatam into the miles or kilometers of modern astronomy. I found that the alignment of orbits and dvipas works well if we assume about 8-1/8 miles per yojana.
To compare orbits with the structure of Bhumandala, I used modern ephemeris programs for orbital calculations. I was most interested in the epoch of about 3000 B.C., the traditional time of Krishna's manifest pastimes on earth, as described in the Bhagavatam. It turns out that at this epoch the planetary orbits align closely with dvipas in Bhumandala at a sharply defined value of 8.575 miles per yojana. This is very close to the figure of 8.59 miles based on the hasta of 432 millimeters. So the value of the yojana we get by historical research is confirmed by completely independent calculations having to do with planetary orbits and the astronomy of the Bhagavatam.
As explained above, we get the larger yojana of 32,000 hastas (and 1/8 of a degree of latitude) by using a hasta of 431.9 millimeters. This can be rounded off to 432, a familiar number in Vedic literature. (For example, 432,000 is the number of years in Kali-yuga, the current age.) It turns out that this familiar number may not be simply coincidental.
First of all, the meter itself derives from a measurement of latitude. The meter (one thousand millimeters) was originally defined in 1791 as 1 ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole through the meridian of Paris. That distance has been remeasured since then, but the change amounts to a tiny fraction of a percent.
So accepting for the larger yojana a hasta of 432 millimeters, we find that this hasta comes very close to 108 ten-billionths of the circumference of the earth through the poles (see Figure 7). (This is because 432 = 4 x 108 and there are 4 quadrants from equator to pole in the circumference.)
Another 108 comes up if we consider the mean diameter of the earth, 7917.5 miles, or 1,728.5 “small yojanas.” This is close to 1728, or 16 x 108. (Recall the 1,728,000 years of Satya-yuga, the first in the cycle of the four ages.)
These observations suggest a simple experiment. Try setting the mean diameter of the earth to exactly 1,728 small yojanas of 16,000 hastas. Suppose that 30/32 of a hasta gives a smaller hasta exactly 108 ten-billionths of the circumference of the earth through the poles. If we multiply it all out, we find that the ratio between circumference and mean diameter comes to 3.13967.
This ratio expresses the degree of polar flattening of the earth (see Figure 8). (If the earth were a perfect sphere, the number would be pi—the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.) As it turns out, 3.13967 is within 0.006% of the actual ratio, as calculated using modern data. That this calculation works out so well indicates strongly that we are dealing with design rather than coincidence.
In summary, simple arguments from the testimony of Megasthenes and Hiuen Thsang enable us to reconstruct two closely related yojana values. Both are precisely defined as fractions of a degree of latitude at the equator. Both relate to the earth by multiples of 108 (namely 432 and 1728), and this relationship gives us a very accurate estimate of the polar flattening of the earth. Also, the length of the larger yojana is confirmed independently by an investigation comparing modern astronomy with the cosmology of the Bhagavatam.
The Great Pyramid
Let us return briefly to our replacement of the Greek cubit with a slightly smaller unit linked to a degree of latitude at the equator. All the calculations above would go through if we used the Greek cubit directly and did not make this substitution. But the errors would be larger. So I prefer to match the two yojana lengths to the equator rather than to Greece.
Curiously, we can find support for this in the design of the great pyramid of Egypt (see Figure 9). In 1925 an engineer named J. H. Cole made an accurate survey of the great pyramid using up-to-date instruments. He found that twice the perimeter is 1,842.91 meters. For comparison, a minute of latitude at the equator—or 1 krosa of the small yojana—is 1,842.93 meters. In other words, the perimeter of the great pyramid is almost exactly 1 krosa. Likewise, we find that the hasta of the small yojana goes almost exactly 500 times into each of the sides of the pyramid.
The Greek cubit and stadium, however, fit the pyramid less closely. (There is a 0.4% error.) So it would seem that the great pyramid was designed using units linked to the degree of latitude at the equator.
There is a further astronomical support for the length of the larger yojana. If we divide an up-to-date value for the distance from the earth to the sun by this length, the result is 10,821.6 thousand yojanas. This figure is close to 10,800, another multiple of the familiar 108. In a later article, I will show that this distance also fits naturally into the system of dvipas in Bhumandala, and I will also give many examples of 108 in astronomy.
If the yojana was exactly defined as a fraction of the equatorial degree of latitude, then the people who defined it must have known that the earth is a globe. Indeed, they appear to have understood the dimensions of the earth’s equatorial bulge.
Who were these people, and when did they live? The evidence considered here puts them at least as far back as the time of the great pyramid—a time when people supposedly believed that the earth is flat. Yet the correlation between planetary orbits and features of Bhumandala shows that the “earth mandala” of the Bhagavatam was far from being a naive flat earth. Its connection with planetary orbits shows that Bhumandala represents the plane of the solar system, which (if we discount the slight inclinations of the planetary orbits) is actually flat.
The Bhagavatam speaks of an ancient Vedic world civilization. Although the evidence we have looked at here does not prove that such a civilization existed, it does show that some people in the distant past attained an unexpectedly high level of scientific knowledge. Whether they lived in the East, the West, or both is hard to say. We do know that some evidence for this civilization is preserved in texts from India such as the Srimad-Bhagavatam, and other evidence may be found in ancient ruins of the West. Perhaps there was an advanced civilization that was worldwide in its influence. It is worth our while to be on the alert for other evidence that may shed light on this hidden chapter in human history.