By His Holiness Danavir Goswami

(Vaiñëava Society Vol. 7)

[The following is one chapter from the book Vedic Cosmology by His Holiness Danavir Goswami; Published by Rupanuga Vedic College]

From the historical point of view, when India was colonized by the British years ago, some Westerners, motivated by a desire to decrease the faith of the indigenous people in their own scriptures and a hope to convert them to Christianity, sought to discredit the statements of India’s scriptures. The cosmological descriptions in the Puräëas, with their oceans of milk and yogurt and mountains many miles high, appeared to be a weak point that could be used to dismantle faith in the entire worldview, and so they were ruthlessly ridiculed.

In this chapter, we shall review some of the events and the methodology used. It is interesting to observe that the means used by the British for discrediting the Puräëas (especially the Bhägavata Puräëa or Çrémad Bhägavatam) was to prepare English translations and commentaries for some of the prominent Jyoti Çästras such as Sürya-siddhänta and Siddhänta-çiromaëi. Those are the translations presented in the later chapters of this book. Here,  we shall take a look at the Jyoti çästra translators/commentators for the works included in this compilation and examine their comments. It is obvious that the translator/commentators aimed at establishing Western astronomical concepts in place of the Vedic cosmology through slanting interpretations of the Jyoti Çästras. They were so extraordinarily successful that to the present day their Western views permeate the minds of the so-called educated persons interested in and “authorities” upon Vedic cosmology. Our motive for presenting this information is not merely to cast blame, rather it is to trace the misconceptions which exist today and threaten to compromise the faith and direct understanding of the Vaiñëava community, especially within ISKCON.

For example Capt. James Herbert, Deputy Surveyor General of British India, a scientist of high repute, was appointed to the position of “royal” astronomer at the Lucknow observatory. In 1836 from there “A Brief Account of the Solar System” was published in which one finds the heliocentric theory set forth in simple terms, the planets described, the probability of extra-terrestrial life, comets, etc., all aptly couched in a biblical idiom that would have been more likely acceptable in parts of India where the rulers were Muslim nawabs. In the book’s concluding rationale for the study of astronomy we find a dominant theme in colonial discourse about science: 1) the idea that colonialism helped create the conditions for European progress in science; and 2) the idea that progress in science is itself a justification for European colonialism. Consider the following extract from “A Brief Account of the Solar System” in English; with the Translation into Hindustani; Arranged as Reading Lessons for the Use of Schools (Calcutta, 1836: Baptist Mission Press, pp. 105-108)

The Benefit of Astronomy to Man

  1. The study of astronomy enlarges the mind as much as faith in astrology enfeebles it. Astronomy leads the mind up to God and fills it with sublime conceptions of His power and wisdom. On a due acquaintance with astronomy depends the perfection of navigation, geography, chronology, commerce, …
  1. By the learned and useful calculations of astronomers, the surface of our globe has been measured with scientific accuracy. The distances of kingdoms, capes, continents, and cities have been laid down in miles and furlongs, and above all by charts and maps. The great ocean is now everywhere intersected by the lines of science and has become a well known highway for our fleets and navies.
  1. By knowledge of astronomy the mariner is enabled with his compass to guide his ship through the pathless ocean without an object to direct him except the moon and stars by night.
  1. Thus the various productions of India as cotton, indigo, sugar, silk, spices, saltpeter, ivory, precious stones, et cetera are carried to Europe.
  1. And India receives in exchange the treasures of Europe: cloth, lead, metal, telescopes, watches, mathematical instruments, and above all, the wisdom of the best books teaching science and virtue, for knowledge of which the European nations are famed.
  1. But for astronomy, the pathless ocean would be a barrier between the nations of the world, and the distant inhabitants of the earth never would have met. Duly instructed in this science, the adventurous mariner launches his ship into the deep, laden with all the commerce, varieties, luxuries, animals, and inventions of foreign lands.
  1. And boldly spreads his sails to the breeze and guided only by his compass, by the sun and the moon and stars of heaven he weathers many a mid-night storm. A solitary wanderer in the unfathomable deep until at length he reaches the far-distant port.

In short, science puts a benign face on colonial exploitation: in return for its raw materials, India not only gets processed goods from Europe, but also its science. Even though India loses its culture in the bargain.1

Copernican Revolution in India

Focusing on what might be called the Indian version of the Copernican revolution, let us  consider the work of a handful of Indian astronomers who participated in the transformation of cosmological knowledge. This involves some scholars active at the beginning of the 19th century, at a time when Sanskrit  came into direct contact with the growing imperial presence of the British. The aggressive writings on Hinduism by Christian missionaries and civil servants of the East India Company who were sympathetic to Christianity had been going on for centuries, but became especially prominent in the 1830s and 1840s when the paradigm shift to Western astronomy  or Copernican heliocentrism was finally affected.

Lancelot Wilkinson (who figures prominently in the Copernican revolution of India) had been appointed the British Political Agent to the court of Bhopal sometime before 1829, and continued there until his death in 1841. The Agent’s residence was located in the nearby town of Sihore, and attached to the residence was a school, which Wilkinson made into a Sanskrit school with a special emphasis on the study of the astronomical Siddhäntas. This became known as the ‘Sabha,” or intellectual circle of Lancelot Wilkinson.

Wilkinson was interested in the Siddhäntas, whose serious study, he felt, had largely vanished by the beginning of the 19th Century. In addition to studying Sanskrit and Jyoti Çästra himself, he promoted the study, edition and publication of various Indian astronomical texts. Wilkinson believed that the best way to introduce the modern Copernican system of astronomy to learned Indians, especially to the whole class of Indian astronomer/astrologers, was through the medium of Sanskrit, and in particular through the instrumentality of the Siddhäntic model of the cosmos. Wilkinson reasoned, that since the Jyoti Çästras made use of many of the necessary principles of geometry, trigonometry, and arithmetic, it would be a short step to move from the Siddhäntic to Copernican scientific models, which could be presented in a way that would not alarm the whole class of Jyotiña paëòits.

One of the most talented of Wilkinson’s sabha was a Brahmin from Ahmadnagar district, known as Bapu Deva Sastri. Wilkinson and Sastri combined to translate and comment upon the Sürya-siddhänta and Siddhänta-çiromaëi. They presented both an English version as well as  a version in Hindi since the texts so particularly fulfilled one of the ideals of the Asiatick Society, namely to revive ancient Indian learning as a vehicle for advancing European visions of scientific knowledge.

Wilkinson and Sastri endorsed the English heliocentric model as the correct one whereby the earth is a globe with the continents located where they are found by modern sailors and explorers, who are seen as the pioneers of a modern, observation-based scientific geography. In general there was a certain awe by the people of India toward the English for their observational instruments and exploratory zeal. Wilkinson’s sabha considered the Siddhäntas a basic and reliable source for arguments about such things as the reason for the days getting longer and shorter, and so on. The Puräëas are cited occasionally when they accord with the modern scientific view, but they generally come in for harsh treatment. The Puräëic geography of the earth with its seven concentric oceans and continents is explicitly rejected. 2

During that time period, an independent (rajput) princely state called Kotah (situated in today’s Rajasthan) naturally felt sensitive about its territorial integrity at a time when the British were encroaching on all sides. In 1832 when a British survey party from Delhi entered Kotah’s dominions and attempted to map the region, the Kotah râjrâna (king), Râm Singh, suspected that this was a prelude to annexation. After all, mapping (surveying the realm) was the most symbolic act of empire in the colonial era. To the râj râna it implied a claim on his territory by the British. Kotah was located not far from Jaipur, which in the 18th century had been India’s leading center for the study of astronomy. The British resident in Kotah (in effect, an ambassador), Lancelot Wilkinson was instructed by the British government in Calcutta to allay the fears of the râjrâna. This he did by invoking the authority of an ancient text of Indian astronomy (the Siddhântaçiromaëi of Bhâskara II) on the importance of knowing the exact coordinates (latitude and longitude) of the king’s residence (for astrology, this was essential). Wilkinson’s tactic worked, far better, in fact, than anticipated, because it gave to the court at Kotah and thus India, the impression that the British were far ahead of themselves in astronomy. 3

Virodha—Contradiction

Using a “divide and conquer” policy, Wilkinson et al attempted to show a contradiction (virodha in Sanskrit) between the Puräëas and the more recent Siddhäntas or Jyoti Çästras. The Gauòéya Vaiñëavas in modern times headed by Çréla Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvaté Öhäkura, accept both the Puräëas and the Jyoti Çästras.

A manvantara is the period controlled by one Manu. The reign of fourteen Manus equals the length of one day (twelve hours) in the life of Brahmä, and the night of Brahmä is of the same duration. These calculations are given in the authentic astronomy book known as the Sürya-siddhänta. A Bengali translation of this book was compiled by the great professor of astronomy and mathematics Bimal Prasäd Datta, later known as Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvaté Gosvämé, who was our merciful spiritual master. He was honored with the title Siddhänta Sarasvaté for translating the Sürya-siddhänta, and the title Gosvämé Mahäräja was added when he accepted sannyäsa, the renounced order of life.(Caitanya-caritämåta: Ädi 3.9 Purport)

The Gauòéya Vaiñëava school accept all Vedic wisdom yet categorize it within two educational systems:

Çréla Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvaté Öhäkura gives the following commentary on the words bhägavata vicära. As confirmed in the Muëòaka Upaniñad (1.1.4–5), there are two kinds of educational systems:

dve vidye veditavya iti, ha sma yad brahma-vido vadanti—parä caiväparä ca. taträparä åg-vedo yajur-vedaù säma-vedo ’tharva-vedaù çikñä kalpo vyäkaraëaà niruktaà chando jyotiñam iti. atha parä yayä tad akñaram adhigamyate.

“There are two kinds of educational systems. One deals with transcendental knowledge [parä vidyä] and the other with material knowledge [aparä vidyä]. All the Vedas—the Åg Veda, Yajur Veda, Säma Veda and Atharva Veda, along with their corollaries, known as çikñä, kalpa, vyäkaraëa, nirukta, chanda and jyotiña—belong to the inferior system of material knowledge [aparä vidyä]. By parä vidyä one can understand the akñara—Brahman or the Absolute Truth.” As far as the Vedic literature is concerned, the Vedänta-sütra is accepted as the parä vidyä. Çrémad-Bhägavatam is an explanation of that parä vidyä.(Caitanya-caritämåta; Madhya 19.17 Purport)

The Jyotisa çästras fall into the category of aparä vidyä or material knowledge whereas the Bhägavata Puräëa explains parä vidyä, or transcendental knowledge. The two systems are generally compatible, however if there should appear to be a virodha or contradiction between them, then the Çrémad Bhägavatam must be considered the most authoritative judgment. This is confirmed by Çréla Jiva Goswämé in his Sandarbhas as well as by numerous other Vaiñëava äcäryas.

dharmaù projjhita-kaitavo ’tra paramo nirmatsaräëäà satäà
vedyaà västavam atra vastu çivadaà täpa-trayonmülanam
çrémad-bhägavate mahä-muni-kåte kià vä parair éçvaraù
sadyo hådy avarudhyate ’tra kåtibhiù çuçrüñubhis tat-kñaëät

Completely rejecting all religious activities which are materially motivated, this Bhägavata Puräëa propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart. The highest truth is reality distinguished from illusion for the welfare of all. Such truth uproots the threefold miseries. This beautiful Bhägavatam, compiled by the great sage Vyäsadeva [in his maturity], is sufficient in itself for God realization. What is the need of any other scripture? As soon as one attentively and submissively hears the message of Bhägavatam, by this culture of knowledge the Supreme Lord is established within his heart. (Çrémad Bhägavatam 1.1.2)

Vaiñëavas do not see any actual contradiction between the Jyotisa çästras and the Bhägavata Puräëa since the Jyotisa çästras are subordinate by nature. Yet the sabha of Wilkinson and Sastri put forward the view that Jyotisa çästras outweigh the Bhägavata Puräëa. Moreover, scholars of this type tended to place high valuation upon reasoning from direct observation, especially as aided by technologically advanced instruments, and the corresponding devaluation, within the sphere of what is observable, of scriptural Vedic authority. Due to putting implicit faith in scientific discovery based on telescopes and his own interpretations, Wilkinson severely critiqued the Jyotisa çästras as well as the Puräëas.

It is understood from the statement of Mahäbhärata that there are many munis, or speculators:

tarko ’pratiñöhaù çrutayo vibhinnä
näsäv åñir yasya mataà na bhinnam

All speculators must disagree with other speculators; otherwise, why should there be so many opposing parties concerned with ascertaining the supreme cause?(Çrémad Bhägavatam 6.4.31 Purport)

On the other hand,  pure devotees in the line of Çré Caitanya Mahäprabhu, place full unreserved faith in the Bhägavata Puräëa knowing that any apparent discrepancies are there resolved.

Çrémad-Bhägavatam is Lord Çré Kåñëa Himself in the form of recorded knowledge. Therefore, it is the cream of all the Vedas, and it contains all historical facts of all times in relation with Çré Kåñëa. It is factually the essence of all histories. (Çrémad Bhägavatam 1.3.42 Purport)

It is important to note that Sawai Jaisingh, the celebrated astronomer-king, in the 1720’s commissioned Kevalarama, the Jyotiñaraya in the court of Amber, to write an independent work on the subject of the noncontradiction between the Puräëic and Siddhäntic (Jyotisa) models. This work known as the Bhägavatajyotiñayor Bhügolavirodhaparihära was expanded by Nandaräma Miëra in the 1780’s in Kåmakavana in southern Räjputana.4 Some modern interpreters characterize Jaisingh as supporting a planisphere theory of the Bhägavatam wherein Jambudvépa occupies the northern hemisphere of this earth globe and the other six dvépas as mentioned in the Çrémad Bhägavatam occupy the southern hemisphere, yet if that were factual how could he oppose the so-called theory of contradiction between Puräëic and Siddhäntic (Jyotisa) models. The proposition of contradiction is difficult to accept by Vaiñëavas due to its non-literal interpretation of the Bhägavatam texts.

In 1836-37 the learned Yajïeçvara wrote Avirodhaprakäça wherein he showed that there is no contradiction between the Siddhäntic and Puräëic models. He explained that the two models have different purposes and scopes of application. For instance, the small earth of 5000 yojanas in circumference assumed by the Siddhäntakäras is explained as being only a subsection of the Puräëic bhümaëòala; in fact it is a subportion of Bhäratakhaëòa which measures about 2000 yojanas on its longest side and 5000 yojanas in circumference. For Wilkinson, Sastri and Subbäjé (another of Wilkinson’s protégés ) talk of virodha and avirodha activated doubts of the Brahminical cosmology, which they hoped to fragment and reassemble.

Regarding the supposed inconsistency between Puräëic and Siddhäntic cosmologies and astronomical models, Yajïeçvara proposes that what appears to be the moon at the time of a solar eclipse is in fact the head of Rähu, which has the same size as the moon. Rähu is suspended from the wheel of the nakñatras in such a way that his head hangs down to the level of the sun and blocks the sun’s light from time to time, hence, the Siddhäntas predictions of eclipses can be used without rejecting the Puräëic order of the planets.5

Wilkinson and Sastri

 Wilkinson’s chief protégé, Bäpu Deva Çästré, went on to teach both Indian and European astronomy at the Benares Sanskrit College beginning in 1841. Bäpu Deva published voluminously in Sanskrit and English, promoted a modernization of Indian astronomy and the knowledge of European astronomy in India. It was his pupils and intellectual descendants, including Sudhäkara Dvivedi, who dominated the intellectual scene in Benares for at least the rest of the century.6

“As the point where the equator cuts the horizon is the east, the sun therefore rises due east at, time of the equinoxes but on this ground, we cannot determine the direction at Meru (the north pole) because there the equator coincides with the horizon und consequently the sun moves at Meru under the horizon the whole day of the equinox.” (—Bäpu Deva Çästré commenting on Siddhänta-çiromaëi chapter 3.36)

Throughout their translation of the Sanskrit text Siddhänta-çiromaëi, Wilkinson and Sastri offer opinions such as the one above. This interpretation depicts Mount Meru to be in actuality the North Pole on this earth planet although no such mention is described in the Çrémad Bhägavatam and other Vedic literatures. Such an interpretation brings up questions since Mount Meru (also known as Sumeru) is (according to Çrémad Bhägavatam) situated in the center Ilävåta varsa which lies in the center of Jambüdvépa comprising a lateral distance from the Bhärata-varña and its Himalaya Mountain range of approximately 31,000 yojanas (248,000 miles).

Commenting on Siddhänta-çiromaëi verses 3. 21-43: Lancelot Wilkinson writes:

Bhaskaracarya has exercised his ingenuity in giving a locality on the earth to the poetical imaginations of Vyasa, at the same time that he has preserved his own principles in regard to the form and dimensions of the Earth. But he himself attached no credit to what he has discribed in these verses for he concludes his recital in his commentary with the words,

yadida muktaà tat sava puräëäçritam

“What is stated here rests all on the authority of the Puranas.”

As much as to say “credat Judaeus.”

The Sanskrit verse quoted here is the only one from the entire book Siddhänta-çiromaëi to be quoted in Devanägaré or English diacritics. 

The Latin comment Wilkinson makes “credat Judaeus,” is a  phrase coming from a work by Horace which was Credat Iudaeus Apella, non ego (“Iudaeus” is sometimes spelled “Judaeus”); literally, “Let the Jew Apella believe it; I will not.” Or according to Roget’s Thesaurus entry #485: the phrase suggests “Let those believe who may.” In other words, Mr. Wilkinson does not believe that the author of Siddhänta-çiromaëi is consistent with the Puräëas even though Bhaskaracarya testifies to his fidelity to the Puräëas.

Throughout their commentary, Wilkinson and Sastri take the liberty to discredit all Vaiñëava parties related to the text namely the Siddhänta-çiromaëi’s author Bhaskaracarya; Siddhänta-çiromaëi’s speaker and Çréla Vyäsadeva, the author of the Puräëas and in particular the Bhägavata Puräëa.

Burgess

In chapter 12 of this book we present an English translation for Sürya-siddhänta done in 1860  A.D. by Reverend Ebeneezer Burgess, an American Christian missionary to India and published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society. Ebenezer Burgess was born at Grafton, Vermont, U.S.A., on June 25, in the year 1805. He graduated from Amherst College in 1831 and was a Tutor in the same College from 1833 to 1835. He then entered Andover Theological Seminary from which he graduated in 1837. After another year spent in advanced study at Andover, and after teaching Hebrew and Greek for sometime at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, he was ordained to the ministry.

In the year 1839 Burgess came to India as a Missionary to the Marathas. He lived in Bombay Presidency for fifteen years; first at Ahmednagar until 1851, and then at Satara. He returned to the United States in 1854. From 1857 to 1859 he acted as Pastor at Centreville, Mass., from 1861 to 1863 at Lanesville and from 1864 to 1867 at South Franklin. He was engaged in lecturing and literary work until his death. He died in Newton Centre, Mass., on January 1, 1870. He had written an elaborate essay on the history of astronomy among the Hindus and had nearly completed a treatise on the antiquity of man, but it remained unpublished.

Rev. Burgess was disturbed that a previous Western translator Mr. Bailly, had given too much value to the literal statements of Sürya-siddhänta. He expresses his impetus for translating Sürya-siddhänta in his Introductory Note:

Soon after my entrance upon the Missionary field, in the Maratha country of western India, in the year 1839, my attention was directed to the preparation, in the Marathi language, of an astronomical text-book for schools. I was thus led to a study of the Hindu science of astronomy, as exhibited in the native text-books, and to an examination of what had been written respecting it by European scholars.

The Astronomie Indienne of Bailly, the first extended work upon its subject, had long been acknowledged to be founded upon insufficient data, to contain a greatly exaggerated estimate of the antiquity and value of the Hindu astronomy, and to have been written for the purpose of supporting an untenable theory.

In his work of translation of Sürya-siddhänta, no Devanägaré is given nor are there any Sanskrit verses transcribed into English using diacritics, although key Sanskrit words are often supplied.  Rev. Burgess held views adversarial toward Vedic texts as expressed in his Introductory Note:

“In short, there was nothing in existence which showed the world how much and how little the Hindus know of astronomy [as Sürya-siddhänta], as also their mode of presenting the subject in its totality, the intermixture in  their science of old ideas with new, of astronomy with astrology, of observation and mathematical deduction with arbitrary theory, mythology, cosmogony, and pure imagination. It seemed to me that nothing would so well supply the deficiency as the translation and detailed explication of a complete treatise of Hindu astronomy: and this work I accordingly undertook to execute.”

The translator’s strong bias against accepting the text he was translating at face value is nicely expressed in the following:

“According to this [the actual text], the Sürya-Siddhänta was revealed more than 2, 164,960 years ago, that amount of time having elapsed, according to Hindu reckoning, since the end of the Golden Age; see below, under verse 48, for the computation of the period. As regards the actual date of the treatise, it is, like all dates in Hindu history and history of Hindu literature, exceedingly difficult to ascertain. Bentley has endeavoured to show by internal evidence that the Sürya-Siddhänta belongs to the end of the eleventh century; see below, under verse 29-34, where his method and results are explained, and their value estimated.” (Sürya-siddhänta: 1.2-3 Comment by Rev. Burgess)

In other words Reverend Burgess rejected the date given in the text and preferred the date assigned to the text given by a fellow scholar, Mr. Bentley at 1,000 A.D. The primary conjecture of the Western scholars was and is that Jyoti Çästras such as Sürya-siddhänta, Siddhänta-çiromaëi, etc. were derived from Greek astronomy. Rev. Burgess for example thought the city Romaka as used in Jyoti çästras must have been referring to the city of Rome.

“Go therefore to Romaka-city, thine own residence; there, undergoing incarnation as a barbarian, owning to a curse of Brahma, I will impart to thee this science.” (Sürya-siddhänta: Chapter 1: verse deleted)

If this verse really formed a part of the text, it would be as clear an acknowledgement as the author could well convey indirectly, that the science displayed in his treatise was derived from the Greeks. Romaka-city is Rome, the great metropolis of the West.

He then took the conjecture of Mr. Weber who thought that the Asura Maya as presented in the Sürya-siddhänta as the student of Sürya the sungod must be a Greek. Contrary to Mr. Weber’s postulation, we find in the Mahäbhärata (below) Asura Maya, also known as Maya Danava is described as a resident of Mainaka Mountain one of the prominent mountains in Bhärata-varña. Mainaka Mountain is not in Greece.

Maya explained that he had formerly been engaged by Vrishaparva, king of the Danavas, to construct sacrificial altars for the Asuras. He had gathered all kinds of celestial materials which he had stored at Vrishaparva’s house high up on the Mainaka mountain. There was also a great club with which Vrishaparva had once withstood the gods in battle. Maya would bring that club, equal to one hundred thousand ordinary clubs, and give it to Bhima. He would also fetch from the depths of a lake on Mainaka the large celestial conch shell known as Devadatta for Arjuna. If Arjuna blew that conch on the battlefield, it would shatter his opponents’ hearts.

Having gained Yudhisthira’s permission, the Asura left quickly for the north. He found all his wealth guarded by Yakshas and Rakshasas, and with their assistance he brought it back to Indraprastha. After presenting the club to Bhima and the conch shell to Arjuna, he commenced work. (Mahäbhärata: At Mainaka Mountain P. 152)

Weber’s method of speculation is not without bias since the commentators clearly wanted to diminish the value of the Indian culture and their astronomical treatises.

Is this verse, then, a fragment of a different, and perhaps more ancient, account of the orgin of the treatise, for which, as conveying too ingenuous a confession of the source of the Hindu astronomy, another has been substituted later? Such a supposition certainly does not lack plausibility. There is something which looks the same way in the selection of a demon, an Asura, to be the medium of the sun’s revelation; as if, while the essential truth and value of the system was acknowledged, it were sought to affix a stigma to the source whence the Hindus derived it. Weber (Ind. Stud. ii. 242; Ind. Lit., p. 225), noticing that the name of the Egyptian sovereign Ptolemaios occurs in Indian inscriptions in the form Turamaya, conjectures that Asura Maya is an alteration of that name, and that the demon Maya accordingly represents the author of the Almagest himself; and the conjecture if; powerfully supported by the fact that al-Biruni (see Reinaud, as above) ascribes the Päuliça-Siddhänta, which the later Hindus attribute to a Pulica, to Paulus  al-Yunani, Paulus the Greek. (Comment by Reverend Burgess)

Rev. Burgess reveals his approach to translating and commenting upon theSürya-siddhänta. He speculates that Romaka refers to the modern Italian city of Rome although according to the text the conversation was spoken millions of years before modern Rome appeared. Further he removes the text from the book because he felt it out of place. In the following statement Burgess expresses his frustration with “Hindu” writings.

[The former is] curiously illustrative of a fundamental trait of Hindu character: a fantastic imaginativeness, which delights itself with arbitrary theorizings, and is unrestrained by, and careless of, actual realities. Thus, having no instruments by which they could measure even seconds with any tolerable precision, they vied with one another in dividing the second down to the farthest conceivable limit of minuteness; thus, seeking infinity in the other direction also, while they were almost destitute of a chronology or a history, and could hardly fix with accuracy the date of any event beyond the memory of the living generation, they devised, and put forth as actual, a frame-work of chronology reaching for millions of millions of years back into the past and forward into the future. (Comment by Rev. Burgess on Ch. 1.11)

Burgess finds it difficult to accept the concept of celestial days as described in the Vedas. Furthermore he conceives that the descriptions of Mount Meru as given in the Çrémad Bhägavatam must be referring to the north and South Pole of this earth planet.

In the astronomical reconstruction of the Puranic system, however, a physical meaning has been given to this day of the gods: the gods are made to reside at the north pole, and the demons at the south; and then, of course, during the half year when the sun is north of the equator, it is day to the gods and night to the demons; and during the other half-year, the contrary. The subject is dwelt upon at some length in the twelfth chapter (xii. 45, etc.). To make such a division accurate, the year ought to be the tropical, and not the sidereal; but the author of the Sürya-Siddhänta has not yet begun to take into account the precession. See what is said upon this subject in the third chapter (vv. 9-10). (Sürya-siddhänta Ch. 1.14 Comment by Burgess)

In fact Burgess, like the other Western commentators, has presented his own belief that Mount Meru could only mean the North Pole.

The “seat of the gods” is Mount Meru, situated at the north pole. (1.62 Comment by Burgess)

Burgess attributes Bhaskaracarya, author of Siddhänta-çiromaëi, with inventing a theory which contradicts the Çrémad Bhägavatam.

The  author of the Siddhänta-Çiromaëi, more submissive than the writer of our chapter to the authority of tradition, accepts (Goladhy., chap. ii) the series of concentric continents and oceans, but gives them all a place in the unknown southern hemisphere, while he regards Jambudvipa as occupying the whole of the northern. (Comment by Burgess on Sürya-siddhänta 12.32-44)

As out of the Puranic Meru the new astronomical geography makes the axis and poles of the earth, so out of these mountains [Lokäloka] it makes the visible horizon. (Comment by Burgess on Sürya-siddhänta 13.15-16)

Clark

Walter Eugene Clark, Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard and Master of Kirkland House has translated and commented upon the Aryabhatiya of Aryabhatta in 1930. This book is very similar to Sürya-siddhänta and Siddhänta-çiromaëi—the commonly accepted date of this treatise is 499 A.D.

Stanza IV, 9, in spite of Parameavara [a previous commentator], must be interpreted as maintaining that the asterisms are stationary and that the Earth revolves. And yet the very next stanza (IV, 10) seems to describe a stationary Earth around which the asterisms revolve. Quotations by Bhaööotpala, the Väsanävärttika, and the Madéci indicate that this stanza was known in its present form from the eleventh century on. Is it capable of some different interpretation? Is it intended merely as a statement of the popular view? Has its wording been changed as has been done with I, 4? I see at present no satisfactory solution of the problem. (Walter Eugene Clark, Professor of Sanskrit in Harvard University; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago, Illinois Preface P. xiv)

From this we learn that tremendous confusion exists among scholars as to what the authors of Jyoti çästras meant. For example Professor Clark cannot be sure whether Aryabhata subscribed to the idea that the earth revolves or is or is stationary nor whether the earth revolves around a stationary set of asterisms or visa versa. Thus one cannot gain any solid Vedic cosmological evidence from these books as translated and commented upon by secular scholars. Only original Sanskrit texts of the Jyoti Çästras properly translated and explained by qualified Vaiñëavas, as was done by Çréla Bhaktisiddhänta Sarasvaté Goswämé, should be accepted as bona fide.

Today’s so-called Vedic scientists utilize the translations and commentaries of Jyoti çästras given by secular scholars to substantiate their own imaginative cosmological theories. In my humble opinion, works by secular scholars or scientists should not be trusted.

avaiñëava-mukhodgérëaà
pütaà hari-kathämåtam
çravaëaà naiva kartavyaà
sarpocchiñöaà yathä payaù

“One should not hear anything about Kåñëa from a non-Vaiñëava. Milk touched by the lips of a serpent has poisonous effects; similarly, talks about Kåñëa given by a non-Vaiñëava are also poisonous.” (Hari-bhakti-viläsa: Çréla Sanätana Gosvämé)

I have included the available English translations of Jyoti Çästras by secular scholars in the later chapters of this book, therefore, merely to show how scholars and scientists, both past and present, enjoy tinkering and tampering with the Vedic literature.

It is the nature of secular scholars and scientists to ever postulate new theorems supposedly surpassing those of former reformers. Remember according to academic rules, if an academic puts complete faith in anything other than his own intellect, he at once ceases to be an academic. Thus a “true” academic cannot be a real Vaiñëava.

If the readings of our text are correct it is difficult t to see how the two stanzas can be brought into agreement. The ninth stanza states unequivocally that the asterisms are stationary and implies  the rotation of the Earth. The tenth stanza seems to state that the asterisms, together with the planets, are driven by the provector wind. This would imply the ordinary point of view of most Indian astronomers that the Earth was stationary. But since several other stanzas (I, 1; I, 4; III, 5; IV, 48) and the testimony of later writers who quote Aryabhata prove that Aryabhata believed in the rotation of the Earth, it is impossible to follow Paramesvara. We might understand in stanza 10 the phrase “they seem to move” as stating a purvapaksa (the erroneous view), but in the absence of any word to suggest this interpretation it is a doubtful expedient. Stanza 10 cannot be regarded as an interpolation (unless one stanza has been dropped out in order to make room for it) because the last three sections of Aryabhata’s work were known to Brahmagupta [an earlier jyoti sastri] as “The Hundred and Eight Stanzas” (and our text contains 108 stanzas). (Professor Young commenting on Aryabhatiya Chapter 4. 10)

Sengupta, Gangooly

Prabodh Chandra Sengupta (Sengupta) wrote a forty-two page foreword for Burgess’s Sürya-siddhänta.

Some again of the Hindu astronomical works are alleged as revelations, which means that their authors have hid their names and their times with the definite motive of making their astronomical systems and calculations acceptable to the people of Hindu India, by representing them as direct transmission from their gods. To this class belong[eighteen] Siddhäntas. Their name is eighteen to match the Puranas of which also the name is eighteen; so revelation is eighteen ways stated; The versifier might have easily pushed up the number to twenty which is the number of the authors of the Dharma Sastras. The Sürya Siddhänta is at the top of this class of revelations. It was revealed to Maya an Asura, in all probability an Assyrian or rather a Babylonian. The date is stated to be 2163102 B.C. to which no historical value may be attached.

Like his colleagues, Sengupta cynically denounces Sürya-siddhänta’s textual  date of transmission of two million years B.C. as absurd and assigns the asura Maya to be an Assyrian or Babylonian. And like others, he supposes that Hindu astronomy came from Babylonia and Greece.

A peculiar feature of the knowledge of astronomy of this period was the idea that the moon was more distant than the sun, which is also noticeable in the Puranas. Thus from 100 to 400 A.D. we have a great gap of three hundred years in which astronomical knowledge from Babylonia and Greece came to India. (Sengupta: Introduction to Sürya-siddhänta; xxxv January 16,1935.)

Within the appendix at the end book we find editor, Phanindralal Gangooly adding his own views on Vedic astronomy and cosmography:

It is now well known that Hindu culture cannot pretend to a remoter origin than 2000 B.C., and that, though marked by striking and eminent traits of intellect and character,  the Hindus have ever been weak in positive science; metaphysics and grammar—with, perhaps, algebra and arithmetic, to them the mechanical part of mathematical science— being the only branches of knowledge in which they have independently won honorable distinction. We regard the Hindu science as an offshoot from the Greek, planted not far from the commencement of the Christian era, and attaining its fully developed form in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries.

The whole [astronomical and cosmological]system, in short, may be divided into two portions, whereof the one contains truth so successfully deduced that only the Greeks, among all other ancient nations, can show anything worthy to be compared with it; the other, the framework in which that truth is set, composed of arbitrary assumptions and absurd imaginings, which betray a close connection with the fictitious cosmogonies and geographies of the philosophical and Puranic literature of India. (Appendix to Sürya Siddhänta p. 382-3)

Aftermath

With British (Wilkinson), American (Burgess, Clark), German (Weber) and Indian (Sastri, Sengupta, Gangooly) scholars each interpreting the Jyoti çästras according to their overt Western bias, it is no wonder that today misconceptions remain. Individually and as a loose confederacy, the Western scholars have employed and perpetuated the method of accepting or rejecting Vedic evidence based on empirical so-called scientific paradigms. Consequently, they have employed non-literal interpretations contrary to the directions of the very çästras they wish to explain.

In the course of their writings, the above-mentioned scholars have introduced four speculative interpretations in relationship to the Jyoti çästras.

Planisphere Interpretation

Broadly speaking, in the planisphere interpretation, Jambüdvépa as described in the Çrémad Bhägavatam  represents the lands of the northern hemisphere such as North America, Europe and Asia whereas Africa, South America, Australia and Antarctica are supposed to be the other six dvépas described in the Bhägavatam. This interpretation claims Bhü-maëòala to be actually the earth globe mapped onto a plane by stereographic projection. We may note above that Wilkinson and Sastri in their commentary on Sürya-siddhänta, treat the earth as a globe with Jambüdvépa as the northern hemisphere and Mount Meru as the north pole.

Such an idea wreaks havoc on the Çrémad Bhägavatam’s version of the universe by misconstruing six immense circular islands Plakña, Çälmali, Kuça, Krauïca, Çäka and Puñkara as existing on this globe. The six circular islands, said to cover millions of yojanas as well as the six oceans of sugarcane juice, liquor, clarified butter, milk, emulsified yogurt, and sweet drinking water are entirely disposed of as antiquated folklore. Rev. Burgess, for example, also interprets this passage from Sürya-siddhänta Chapter 7.36 to support the planisphere interpretation: “Surrounding it [Meru] on every side is fixed next this great ocean, like a girdle about the earth, dividing the two hemispheres of the gods and the demons.”

Indeed hemispheres exist in the Bhägavata cosmology however they divide the entire universe not only this one planet. Rev. Burgess, of course considers many of the descriptions found in the Sürya-siddhänta and the Puräëas as mere mythology. (see Sürya-siddhänta p. 286-288)

In order to try to substantiate the planesphere interpretation, the first step is to neglect certain features of the Bhägavatam, in this case, the large dimensions assigned to the dvépas of Bhü-maëòala in the Bhägavatam. These begin with 100,000 yojanas for both the diameter of Jambüdvépa and the width of the surrounding, annular Salt Ocean.

Yet Çréla Prabhupäda says exactly the opposite:

The measurements given herein, such as 10,000 yojanas or 100,000 yojanas, should be considered correct because they have been given by Çukadeva Gosvämé. (Çrémad Bhägavatam 5.16.10 Purport)

One cannot remain neutral in such discussions. Either one sides with the so-called scientific secular scholars or with Çréla Prabhupäda and the Gauòéya Vaiñëava disciplic succession.

Local Map of India Interpretation

Due to wholesale rejection of the Puräëas, the above-mentioned scholars, cannot imagine how the Bhü-maëòala could apply accurately to the vast universe using what is according to their view,  “a primitive astronomical system.” Thus they speculate that Jambudvépa is a local map of India, the Himalayan region, and nearby territories in the south-central Asia.  Burgess thought that the city Romaka described in the Sürya-siddhänta was referring to the modern city of Rome and Mr. Weber speculated that the Maya Danava was a Greek. None of the scholars accept the dates given in the Vedas as realistic. If such secular theories are correct then the statements of Çréla Çukadeva Goswämé are fictitious and absurd. Both cannot stand. In order to make a valid case for the Local Map of India Interpretation, one would need to explain why Çréla Çukadeva Goswämé spoke so much nonsense to Mahäräja Parékñit. Then one would need to explain why Çréla Vyäsadeva chose to include such erroneous accounts in the Çrémad Bhägavatam. At last one would then have to demonstrate why all of our äcäryas, most notably Çréla Prabhupäda opposed such non-literal interpretations.

Çréla Prabhupäda repeatedly states that formerly Bhärata-varña referred to the entire planet not just modern-day India.  If at the time of Çrémad Bhägavatam’s writing, Bhärata-varña referred to the entire earth globe we inhabit, which makes up less than an approximated seven per cent of the area of Jambüdvépa, how can we suppose that Jambüdvépa in actuality, refers to a mere part of modern day India.

Celestial Map Interpretation

The question may arise as to whether the Bhägavatam is to be taken literally since Lord Brahmä is said to reside on Mount Meru yet elsewhere he is described as living on the highest planetary system Satyaloka. The answer is revealed in a discussion between Çréla Prabhupäda and his disciples:

Prabhupäda: Çivaloka? Çivaloka?
Prema-bhakti Swami: Yes, it is not actually Çivaloka, but residence of Lord Çiva.
Tamäla Kåñëa: One of his… He described it that like during the summertime you go to a hill station. Each demigod has their place where they also go.
Prema-bhakti Swami: Çivaloka is different, but Lord Çiva is…
Prabhupäda: Summer residence.
Tamäla Kåñëa: Yes.
Prabhupäda: Why not? If a man can have summer residence, Lord Çiva…
Prema-bhakti Swami: Actual residence is in Satyaloka. Brahmä is there in Satyaloka. That means 2,200,000,000 miles away from sun planet.
Prabhupäda: That… Then it is universe.
Prema-bhakti Swami: Yes, in the universe. It is very high.
Prabhupäda: And where is that cakra?
Prema-bhakti Swami: Cakra?
Prabhupäda: That polestar, center?
Tamäla Kåñëa: That will be in another…
Prema-bhakti Swami: We will give another picture.
Prabhupäda: Oh.
Tamäla Kåñëa: This picture only shows mainly part of Jambüdvépa and especially Ilävåta-varña, the middle of…
Prabhupäda: So Brahmaloka is in Jambüdvépa?
Prema-bhakti Swami: No, no, no. Brahmaloka is in Satyaloka.
Prabhupäda: Oh, then what is this?
Prema-bhakti Swami: This is Mount Meru.
Prabhupäda: But you said Brahmaloka.
Prema-bhakti Swami: Brahmapuré.
Prabhupäda: Brahmapuré, that.
Prema-bhakti Swami: Summer residence.
Tamäla Kåñëa: The middle part.
Prema-bhakti Swami: And then there are eight different residences of different loka-pälas, Indra, Agni, Varuëa…
Prabhupäda: Summer residence.
Tamäla Kåñëa: Yes, on top of Meru, like a hill station. (laughter)
(Showing of Planetary Sketches — June 28, 1977, Våndävana)

So again the Bhägavatam’s version of Bhü-maëòala is to be taken literally. Brahmä does in fact, reside atop Mount Meru but that residence is not Satyaloka but Brahmapuré, his “summer resort,” if you will.

Solar System Interpretation

There is still another interpretation which attempts to take the distances of Bhü-maëòala as described in the Çrémad Bhägavatam and compare them to modern astronomy’s estimates of the solar system. The logic here is that the orbits of the planets in our solar system are so big that they fill out the universe of four billion miles, therefore how can there be anything beyond them such as the galaxies and quasars to which we are so attached. Thus in  order to hold on to the dear galaxy theories of modern science, we shall turn the Bhägavatam’s version of Bhü-maëòala into our local solar system. However let us not forget that the fantastic so-called accurate distances of galaxies of modern science are solely based on Big Bang Theory, Red Shift and Doppler Theories which have all yet to be proven true.

The Vaiñëava community faces a challenge. It is being asked to accept speculative interpretations the Çrémad Bhägavatam’s fifth canto in a way which has never been attempted before by Gauòéya Vaiñëava äcäryas. The unifying principle of all the interpretations mentioned above, is to unilaterally dismiss the distances supplied in the Çrémad Bhägavatam’s cosmology. Intertwining Vedic statements with speculation has rendered a complex topic even more so thus confusing many a reader. Such misleading interpretation come from the Westernized commentators of the Jyoti çästras, past and present who attempt to overrule Vedic wisdom with theories linked to modern science. These speculative scientists are tricky folks—they juggle yojanas as adeptly as Mäyävädés wrangle  scriptural suffixes and prefixes.

The Bhü-maëòala must not be taken as a “literary device” to be interpreted as one likes. It is real and realizable to those who are faithful devotees of Krishna. Having unceremoniously expelled the large distances for Bhü-maëòala’s planetary systems, modern speculative scientists, now using Hubble telescopes and some probability math theory, assume that Bhü-maëòala doesn’t really exist as described in the Çrémad Bhägavatam, but actually refers to the geocentric orbits of our nearest planets.

 

FOOTNOTES:

1 (Richard F. Young “Political” Science: Astronomy in India, 1800-1850)
2  Christopher Z. Minkowski; The Pandit as Public Intellectual: The Controversy over virodha or Inconsistency in the Astronomical Sciences; Cornell University
3  (Richard F. Young “Political” Science: Astronomy in India, 1800-1850)
4 Christopher Z. Minkowski; The Pandit as Public Intellectual: The Controversy over virodha or Inconsistency in the Astronomical Sciences; Cornell University
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.

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