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Vedic civilization

Swastikas

Question: 
What does the swastika mean?


Our Answer:

Bhagavad-gita courseImagine a new family is moving in next door to you, and as a friendly gesture you put a poster on their door with the word “Welcome” and a drawing of a smiley face. When the neighbors arrive and see your sign, however, the woman faints, the man looks around suspiciously and the son stomps around, shouting curses into the air.

You quickly run outside to see what is the matter. The family’s young but sensible-looking daughter then explains that in their home country, a picture of a disembodied head with a smile means “May you soon rest peacefully in your grave!” and is a universally hated symbol, reserved for only the most detested of enemies.

How might you feel? Disturbed? Angry? Embarrassed? Whatever your reaction, it is no doubt similar to what someone from pre-World War II India would feel upon seeing most modern people’s reactions to another symbol: the infamous swastika.

Bhagavad-gita courseThe Sanskrit word svasti means “blessings” or “fortune” or “auspiciousness.” It represents the utmost in good wishes upon another. The svastika is a sacred diagram that is supposed to embody and attract this positive energy. One of the 108 symbols associated with Lord Visnu, it is a depiction of the sun and its life-giving rays. Modern Hindus put svastika s everywhere -- on buildings, gifts, vehicles, stationery -- but versions are also found among other cultures, including the ancient Celts, the Navajos and Hopis of Native America, modern Mongolians, and even the ancient Jews!

The svastika’s innocent reputation began to be tarnished at the turn of the last century when German elitists co-opted it as a sort of family heraldry symbol for the Aryan super-race, and when Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich adopted it as the Nazi party emblem, the process was complete: the benign svastika of good fortune had become the nefarious swastika of racial atrocity.

If not for this brief historical blip, however, it would have remained the Vedic equivalent of a smiley face. That’s why the Chief Rabbinate of Israel issued a declaration in 2008 affirming the sacred nature of the svastika , despite its uses in World War II Germany. After all, it’s not the svastika’s fault if it was kidnapped, is it?

—Navina-Shyama Dasa (Navin Jani) grew up going to ISKCON temples, first in Cleveland, Ohio and later in Laguna Beach, California. He is an honors graduate of Stanford University who went on to earn a Master's Degree in Urban Planning from the University of Florida and a Bhakti Shastri Degree from the Mayapur Institute of Higher Education. He has a degree in Law from Temple University. He has a passion for the Vedic arts and sciences, particularly Vastu Veda, for which he offers consulting services through his website VastuShyam.Com.

(pictured is a Buddhist swastika in a bronze piece at the Sensō-ji in Asakusa, Tōkyō, Japan)

Astronomy and the Antiquity of Vedic Civilization

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Traditional Chinese stories tell of a monkey named Sun who goes through remarkable adventures. In one story, two “harpooners of death” capture him, claiming he has reached the limit of his destiny on earth and is due to be taken to the underworld. The story’s translator tells us that according to the Chinese the constellation Nan Teou, the Southern Dipper, decides everyone’s death, and the harpooners of death carry out the decision.

In my last column I compared Vedic ideas about time with similar ideas found in cultures around the world. We saw that many cultures share highly specific Vedic thoughts about how long ancient people lived and what happened in ancient human societies. This suggests that an ancient cultural tradition existed worldwide, hinted at today in many cultures through fragmentary and poorly understood memories but spoken of in detail in the Vedic writings.

In this column we turn from time to space. And we find that ancient traditions about the layout of the universe bear similar traces of a common cultural background.

Vedic literature divides the visible heavens into regions, which transmigrating souls are said to reach according to their karma. We can think of the constellations of stars as a road map for the soul’s travel after death. First I shall describe this map. Then I shall give some evidence that people in old cultures all over the world had a similar cosmic map, often agreeing with the Vedic map in many minute details.

To describe this map I need to introduce some basic ideas from astronomy. In both Indian and Western astronomy, the lines of latitude and longitude on the earth are projected onto the sky and set into a daily spin about the polar axis, so that to an observer on earth they seem to rotate once a day with the stars. This gives us a celestial coordinate system in which each star has a latitude, called its declination, and a longitude, called its right ascension.

We can think of the stars as points on a huge imaginary sphere, called the celestial sphere, surrounding the earth. Just as the earth has a northern and southern hemisphere separated by the equator, so does the celestial sphere.

Each year, against the background of stars, the sun completes a circuit called the ecliptic, a great circle tilted 23 degrees from the celestial equator. Around the ecliptic in a broad band stretch the twelve constellations of the zodiac and twenty-eight constellations called nakshatras, or lunar mansions.

Books of Vedic astronomy list the nakshatras and important stars. And more recent astronomers have identified the modern names of the constellations and stars to which these Vedic luminaries are thought to correspond. (The map above marks these correspondences, giving the ancient Sanskrit names and the modern locations.)

According to the Vishnu Purana, north of the star Agastya and south of the three nakshatras Mula, Purvashadha, and Uttarashadha lies the road to the region of the Pitris, Pitriloka. This is said in Vedic literature to be the headquarters of Yamaraja, the demigod who punishes sinful human beings. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.26.5) says that this region, along with the hellish planets, lies in the south of the universe, beneath Bhumandala, the earthly planetary system.

The nakshatra mentioned here match parts of the southern constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, and Agastya is thought to be the star Canopus, which lies in the southern hemisphere. From the description in the Vishnu Purana, therefore, we can locate Pitriloka in terms of familiar celestial landmarks.

The Milky Way is seen in the sky as a great band of light, densely packed with stars, running roughly north and south, cutting the celestial equator at an angle of about 62 degrees. A very bright region of the Milky Way intersects the ecliptic in the constellation Sagittarius. This is close to the nakshatra Mula and Purvashadha, which form the beginning of the path of the Pitris.

Just as Pitriloka is south of the ecliptic, the higher planets are to its north. So the mystics who follow the path to these planets, the path of the demigods, also begin at Mula and Purvashadha, but they travel northward. Their journey is described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.2.24-25) and in the Vishnu Purana.

Moving along the ecliptic, the mystics travel up to Revati. (This leg of their journey is called Vaishvanara.) From Revati they move through the nakshatras Ashvini, Bharani, and Krittika and travel on to the planet of the fire-god, Agni. There they are purified of all contaminations.

From Agni the mystics keep going north, through Brahmahridaya and Prajapati, following the Milky Way, and as they reach the latitudes of the seven rishis they enter Vishnupada, the path of Vishnu. This is the path they follow until they at last reach the polestar, Dhruvaloka, a spiritual planet within the material universe.

In more familiar terms, Ashvini, Bharani, and Krittika match parts of the constellations Aries and Taurus. The seven rishis (saptarshi) correspond to the constellation Ursa Major, commonly known as the Big Dipper.

Opposite the point where the Milky Way meets the ecliptic in the southern hemisphere, it intersects the ecliptic in the north, at the boundary of Taurus and Gemini. It is here that we find the star Agni.

Once we locate the paths of the Pitris and the demigods on the celestial sphere, we can ask whether other cultural traditions offer similar accounts of the soul’s celestial travels. It turns out that many do. Here are some examples:

  1. We return to the story of the Chinese monkey, Sun, mentioned in the beginning of this column. The Chinese Southern Dipper consists of six stars in Sagittarius. It is interesting to note that this constellation shares stars with two of the nakshatras marking the beginning of the path of the Pitris.
    So the start of the route to Yamaraja corresponds in this Chinese tradition to the place in the heavens where the fate of the dead is decided. The Chinese tradition also has messengers of death similar to the Vedic Yamadutas.

  2. The German scholar Franz Boll has analyzed ancient Greek traditions regarding Hades, the River Styx, and the ferryman of the underworld. We tend to think of Hades as lying beneath our feet, within the earth. Boll, however, cites texts placing this region in the heavens around the southern crossroads of the Milky Way and the ecliptic.
  3. Boll points out a close relationship between Greek and Babylonian traditions. According to his analysis, the Babylonian god Dikud, the judge of Hades, may correspond to the star Theta Ophiuchi. This star lies close to the location mentioned in the Vedic writings as the beginning of the path of the Pitris. Boll cites a text referring to this star as “the beginning of the road of the lower heavenly vault.”
  4. In North America the Pawnee and Cherokee say that the souls of the dead are received by a star at the northern end of the Milky Way. There the path divides. “He [God] directs the warriors on the dim and difficult path, and women and those who die of old age upon the brighter and easier path. The souls journey southwards; at the end of the celestial path they are received by the Spirit Star.” The anthropologist S. Hagar thinks the Spirit Star is Antares. Antares (Jyeshtha) lies, again, near the beginning of the path of the Pitris.
  5. The Roman writer Macrobius, in his Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, says that souls of the dead ascend by way of Capricorn and, to be reborn, descend again through the gate of Cancer. Here Macrobius appears to have shifted everything by one sign of the zodiac; Capricorn is next to Sagittarius, and Cancer is next to Gemini. In fact, Macrobius says in his Commentary that Capricorn and Cancer lie where the zodiac crosses the Milky Way.
  6. In Honduras and Nicaragua the Sumo say that their “Mother Scorpion,” who receives the souls of the dead, dwells at the end of the Milky Way. “And from her, represented as a mother with many breasts, at which children take suck, come the souls of the newborn.”
    Here the “Mother Scorpion” is reminiscent of the constellation Scorpius. We note that the tail of the constellation Scorpius corresponds to the nakshatra Mula.

  7. In general, Polynesians have traditionally believed in reincarnation and have held that the Milky Way is the pathway of transmigrating souls. The Mangaians of the Austral Islands in Polynesia believe that souls can enter heaven only on evenings of solstices (north islanders at one solstice and south islanders at the other).
    The important point here is that the solstices occur when the sun is near the intersection of the Milky Way and the ecliptic.

These astronomical examples, and our earlier examples about time, indicate that old cultures around the world shared a view of the cosmos similar in many ways to the Vedic one.

The details that appear again and again in these stories suggest the existence of a common cultural tradition. Yet the stories differ, and we have no clear historical records of their origin. This suggests that their common cultural source dates from the remote past. So the existence of these stories is consistent with the Vedic accounts of an ancient world civilization with a spiritual view of the origin and purpose of the universe.

(Image of The Monkey King Sun Wukong courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

Cross-Cultural Traces of Vedic Civilization

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The ancient Greek writer Aratos tells the following story about the constellation Virgo, or the virgin. Virgo, he says, may have belonged to the star race, the forefathers of the ancient stars. In primeval times, in the golden age, she lived among mankind as Justice personified and would exhort people to adhere to the truth. At this time people lived peacefully, without hypocrisy or quarrel. Later, in the age of silver, she hid herself in the mountains, but occasionally she came down to berate people for their evil ways. Finally the age of bronze came. People invented the sword, and “they tasted the meat of cows, the first who did it.” At this point Virgo “flew away to the sphere”; that is, she departed for the celestial realm.

The Vedic literature of India gives an elaborate description of the universe as a cosmos—a harmonious, ordered system created according to an intelligent plan as a habitation for living beings. The modern view of the universe is so different from the Vedic view that the latter is presently difficult to comprehend. In ancient times, however, cosmologies similar to the Vedic system were widespread among people all over the world. Educated people of today tend to immediately dismiss these systems of thought as mythology, pointing to their diversity and their strange ideas as proof that they are all simply products of the imagination.

If we do this, however, we may be overlooking important information that could shed light on the vast forgotten period that precedes the brief span of recorded human history. There is certainly much evidence of independent storytelling in the traditions of various cultures, but there are also many common themes. Some of these themes are found in highly developed form in the Vedic literature. Their presence in cultures throughout the world is consistent with the idea that in the distant past, Vedic culture exerted worldwide influence.

In this article we will give some examples of Vedic ideas concerning time and human longevity that appear repeatedly in different traditions. First we will examine some of these ideas, and then we will discuss some questions about what they imply and how they should be interpreted.

In the Vedic literature time is regarded as a manifestation of Krishna, the Supreme Being. As such, time is a controlling force that regulates the lives of living beings in accordance with a cosmic plan. This plan involves repeating cycles of creation and destruction of varying durations. The smallest and most important of these repeating cycles consists of four yugas, or ages, called Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali. In these successive ages mankind gradually descends from a high spiritual platform to a degraded state. Then, with the beginning of a new Satya-yuga, the original state of purity is restored, and the cycle begins again.

The story of Virgo illustrates that in the ancient Mediterranean world there was widespread belief in a similar succession of four ages, known there as the ages of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. In this system humanity also starts out in the first age in an advanced state of consciousness and gradually becomes degraded. Here also, the progressive developments in human society are not simply evolving by physical processes, but are superintended by a higher controlling intelligence.

It is noteworthy that Aratos’ story specifies the eating of cows as a sinful act that cut mankind off from direct contact with celestial beings. This detail fits in nicely with the ancient Indian traditions of cow protection, but it is unexpected in the context of Greek or European culture.

One explanation for similarities between ideas found in different cultures is that people everywhere have essentially the same psychological makeup, and so they tend to come up independently with similar notions. However, details such as the point about cow-killing suggest that we are dealing here with common traditions rather than independent inventions.

Another example of similarities between cultures can be found among the natives of North America. The Sioux Indians say that their ancestors were visited by a celestial woman who gave them their system of religion. She pointed out to them that there are four ages, and that there is a sacred buffalo that loses one leg during each age. At present we are in the last age, an age of degradation, and the buffalo has one leg.

This story is a close parallel to the account in the Srimad-Bhagavatam of the encounter between Maharaja Parikshit and the bull of Dharma. There, Dharma is said to lose one leg with each successive yuga, leaving it with one leg in the present Age of Kali.

According to the Vedic system, the lengths of the Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali yugas are 4, 3, 2, and 1 times an interval of 432,000 years. Within these immense periods of time the human life span decreases from 100,000 years in the Satya-yuga to 10,000 years in the Treta-yuga, 1,000 years in the Dvapara-yuga, and finally 100 years in the Kali-yuga.

Of course, this idea is strongly at odds with the modern evolutionary view of the past. In the ancient Mediterranean world, however, it was widely believed that human history had extended over extremely long periods of time. For example, according to old historical records, Porphyry (c. 300 A.D.) said that Callisthenes, a companion of Alexander in the Persian war, dispatched to Aristotle Babylonian records of eclipses and that these records covered 31,000 years. Likewise, Iamblicus (fourth century) said on the authority of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus that the Assyrians had made observations for 270,000 years and had kept records of the return of all seven planets to the same position. Finally, the Babylonian historian Berosus assigned 432,000 years to the total span of the reigns of the Babylonian kings before the Flood.

We do not wish to suggest that these statements are true (or false). The point here is that people in the old Mediterranean civilization evidently had a much different view of the past than the dominant view today. And this view was broadly consistent with Vedic chronology.

Although the Bible is well known for advocating a very short time-span for human history, it is interesting to note that it contains information indicating that people at one time lived for about 1,000 years. In the Old Testament the following ages are listed for people living before the Biblical Flood: Adam, 930; Seth, 912; Enos, 905; Kenan, 910; Mahaleel, 895; Jared, 962; Enoch, 365; Methuselah, 969; Lamech, 777; and Noah, 950. If we exclude Enoch (who was said to have been taken up to heaven in his own body), these persons lived an average of 912 years.

After the Flood, however, the following ages were recorded: Shem, 600; Arphachshad, 438; Salah, 433; Eber, 464; Plelg, 239; Reu, 239; Serug, 230; Nahor, 148; Terah, 205; Abraham, 175; Isaac, 180; Job, 210; Jacob, 147; Levi, 137; Kohath, 133; Amaram, 137; Moses, 120; and Joshua, 110. These ages show a gradual decline to about 100 years, similar to what must have happened after the beginning of Kali-yuga, according to the Vedic system.

Here we should mention in passing that the Biblical Flood is traditionally said to have taken place in the second or third millennium B.C., and the traditional date in India for the beginning of Kali-yuga is February 18, 3102 B.C. This very date is cited as the time of the Flood in various Persian, Islamic, and European writings from the sixth to the fourteenth centuries A.D. How did the middle-eastern Flood come to be associated with the start of Kali-yuga? The only comment we can make is that this story shows how little we really know about the past.

In support of the Biblical story of very long human life- spans in ancient times, the Roman historian Flavius Josephus cited many historical works that were available in his time:

"Now when Noah had lived 350 years after the Flood, and all that time happily, he died, having the number of 950 years, but let no one, upon comparing the lives of the ancients with our lives … make the shortness of our lives at present an argument that neither did they attain so long a duration of life. …
Now I have for witnesses to what I have said all those that have written Antiquities, both among the Greeks and barbarians, for even Manetho, who wrote the Egyptian history, and Berosus, who collected the Chaldean monuments, and Mochus, and Hestiaeus, and beside these, Hiernonymus the Egyptian, and those who composed the Phoenician history, agree with what I here say: Hesiod also, and Hecataeus, Hellanicaus, and Acuzilaus, and besides Ephorus and Nicolaus relate that the ancients lived a thousand years: but as to these matters, let everyone look upon them as he sees fit."

Unfortunately, practically none of the works referred to by Josephus are still existing, and this again shows how little we know of the past. But in existing Norse sagas it is said that people in ancient times lived for many centuries. In addition, the Norse sagas describe a progression of ages, including an age of peace, an age when different social orders were introduced, an age of increasing violence, and a degraded “knife-age and axe-age with cloven shields.” The latter is followed by a period of annihilation, called Ragnarok, after which the world is restored to goodness.

The Norse Ragnarok involves the destruction of the earth and the abodes of the Norse demigods (called Asgard), and thus it corresponds in Vedic chronology to the annihilation of the three worlds that follows 1,000 yuga cycles, or one day of Brahma. It is said that during Ragnarok the world is destroyed with flames by a being named Surt, who lives beneath the lower world (appropriately called Hel) and was involved in the world’s creation. By comparison, the Srimad- Bhagavatam ( 3.11.30) states that at the end of Brahma’s day, “the devastation takes place due to the fire emanating from the mouth of Sankarshana.” Sankarshana is a plenary expansion of Krishna who is “seated at the bottom of the universe” ( Srimad- Bhagavatam 3.8.3), beneath the lower planetary systems.

There are many similarities between the Norse and Vedic cosmologies, but there are also great differences. One key difference is that in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, all beings and phenomena within the universe are clearly understood as part of the divine plan of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In contrast, in the Norse mythology God is conspicuously absent, and the origin and purpose of the major players in the cosmic drama are very obscure. Surt, in particular, is a “fire giant” whose origins and motives are unclear even to experts in the Norse literature.

One might ask, If Vedic themes appear in different societies, how can one conclude that they derive from an ancient Vedic civilization? Perhaps they were created in many places independently, or perhaps they descend from an unknown culture that is also ancestral to what we call Vedic culture. Thus parallels between the accounts of Surt and Sankarshana may be coincidental, or perhaps the Vedic account derives from a story similar to that of Surt.

Our answer to this question is that available empirical evidence will not be sufficient to prove the hypothesis of descent from an ancient Vedic culture, for all empirical evidence is imperfect and subject to various interpretations. But we can decide whether or not the evidence is consistent with this hypothesis.

If there was an ancient Vedic world civilization, we would expect to find traces of it in many cultures around the world. We do seem to find such traces, and many agree with Vedic accounts in specific details (such as the location of Surt’s abode or the sacred buffalo’s loss of one leg per world age). Since this civilization began to lose its influence thousands of years ago, at the beginning of Kali-yuga, we would expect many of these traces to be fragmentary and overlain by many later additions, and this we also see. Thus the available evidence seems to be consistent with the hypothesis of a Vedic origin.