Excerpt from “Advanced Astronomy in the Srimad-Bhagavatam”
Today we take for granted that the earth is a sphere,
but the early Greeks tended to think it was flat. For example, in the fifth
century B.C. the philosopher Thales thought of the earth as a disk floating
on water like a log.1 About a century later,
Anaxagoras taught that it is flat like a lid and stays suspended in air.2
A few decades later, the famous atomist Democritus argued that the earth
is shaped like a tambourine and is tilted downwards toward the south.3
Although some say that Pythagoras, in the sixth century B.C., was the first
to view the earth as a sphere, this idea did not catch on quickly among
the Greeks, and the first attempt to measure the earth’s diameter is generally
attributed to Eratosthenes in the second century B.C.
Scholars widely believe that prior to the philosophical and scientific achievements of the Greeks, people in ancient civilized societies regarded the earth as a flat disk. So to find that the Bhagavata Purana of India appears to describe a flat earth comes as no surprise. The Bhagavata Purana, or Srimad-Bhagavatam, is dated by scholars to A.D. 500–1000, although it is acknowledged to contain much older material and its traditional date is the beginning of the third millennium B.C.
In the Bhagavatam, Bhu-mandala—the “earth mandala”—is a disk 500 million yojanas in diameter. The yojana is a unit of distance about 8 miles long, and so the diameter of Bhu-mandala is about 4 billion miles.4 Bhu-mandala is marked by circular features designated as islands and oceans. These features are listed in Table 1, along with their dimensions, as given in the Bhagavatam.
There are seven islands, called dvipas, ranging from Jambudvipa to Puskaradvipa. Jambudvipa, the innermost, is a disk, and the other six are successively larger rings. The islands alternate with ringshaped oceans, beginning with Lavanoda, the Salt Water Ocean surrounding Jambudvipa, and ending with Svadudaka, the Sweet Water Ocean. Beyond Svadudaka is another ring, called Kancanibhumi, or the Golden Land, and then yet another, called adarshatalopama, the Mirrorlike Land.5
Table 1—The radii in thousands of yojanas of the islands
and oceans of Bhu-mandala, as given in the Bhagavata Purana.
There are also three circular mountains we should
note. The first is Mount Meru, situated in the center of Bhu-mandala and
shaped like an inverted cone, with a radius ranging from 8,000 yojanas
at the bottom to 16,000 yojanas at the top. The other two mountains can
be thought of as very thin rings or circles. The first, called Manasottara,
has a radius of 15,750 thousand yojanas and divides the island of Pushkaradvipa
into two rings of equal thickness. (In Table 1 these are referred to as
inner and outer Pushkaradvipa.) The second mountain, called Lokaloka, has
a radius of 125,000 thousand yojanas and separates the inner, illuminated
region of Bhu-mandala (ending with the Mirrorlike Land) from the outer
region of darkness, Aloka-varsha.
At first glance, Bhu-mandala appears to be a highly artificial portrayal of the earth as an enormous flat disk, with continents and oceans that do not tally with geographical experience. But careful consideration shows that Bhu-mandala does not really represent the earth at all. To see why, we have to consider the motion of the sun. . . .
Suppose that Bhu-mandala represents our local horizon extended out into a huge flat disk-the so-called flat earth. Then an observer standing in Jambudvipa, near the center, must see the sun continuously skim around the horizon in a big circle, without either rising into the sky or setting. This is actually what one can see at the north or south pole at certain times in the year, but it is not what one sees in India. The conclusion, therefore, is that Bhu-mandala does not represent an extension of our local horizon. Since the sun is always close to Bhu-mandala, and since the sun rises, goes high into the sky, and then sets, it follows that the disk of Bhu-mandala is tilted at a steep angle to an observer standing in India.
In brief, Bhu-mandala is where the sun goes. It extends high into the sky overhead and also far beneath the observer’s feet. Furthermore, it must be regarded as invisible, for if it were opaque it would block our view of a good part of the sky.
Bhu-mandala is not the "flat earth," but what is it? One possibility is the solar system. In modern astronomy, each planet orbits the sun in a plane. The planes of these orbits lie at small angles to one another, and thus all the orbits are close to one plane. Astronomers call the plane of the earth’s orbit the ecliptic, and this is also the plane of the sun’s orbit, from the point of view of an observer stationed on the earth. To an observer on the earth, the solar system is a more-or-less flat arrangement of planetary orbits that stay close to the path of the sun. Bhu-mandala is far too big to be the earth, but in size it turns out quite a reasonable match for the solar system. . . .
If we superimpose the [geocentric] orbits of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn on a map of Bhu-mandala, we find that the boundary curves of each planet’s orbit tend to line up with circular features of Bhu-mandala. . . .
In conclusion, the circular features of Bhu-mandala from 8 through 18 correlate strikingly with the orbits of the planets from Mercury through Uranus (with the sun standing in for the earth because of the geocentric perspective). It would seem that Bhu-mandala can be interpreted as a realistic map of the solar system, showing how the planets move relative to the earth. Statistical studies (not documented here) support this conclusion by bearing out that when you choose sets of concentric circles at random, they do not tend to match planetary orbits closely and systematically like the features of Bhu-mandala.
The small percentages of error imply that the author of the Bhagavatam was able to take advantage of advanced astronomy. Since he made use of a unit of distance (the yojana) defined accurately in terms of the dimensions of the earth, he must also have had access to advanced geographical knowledge. Such knowledge of astronomy and geography was not developed in recent times until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was not available to the most advanced of the ancient Greek astronomers, Claudius Ptolemy, in the second century A.D., and it was certainly unknown to the pre- Socratic Greek philosophers of the fifth century B.C.
It would appear that advanced astronomical knowledge was developed by some earlier civilization and then lost until recent times. The so-called flat earth of classical antiquity may represent a later misunderstanding of a realistic astronomical concept that dates back to an earlier time and is still preserved within the text of the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard L. Thompson
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|1.||Kirk, G. S. and Raven, J. E., 1963, The Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press., p. 87.|
|2.||Kirk and Raven, 1963, p. 391.|
|3.||Kirk and Raven, 1963, p. 412.|
|4.||British readers, please note: The billions in this article are American; the British billion has three zeros less.|
|5.||The translation of Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.20.35 says that beyond the ocean of sweet water is a tract of land as wide as the distance from Mount Meru to Manasottara Mountain (15,750 thousand yojanas), and beyond it is a land of gold with a mirrorlike surface. But examination of the Sanskrit text shows that the first tract of land is made of gold, and beyond it is a land with a mirrorlike surface. We have listed this as Adarshatalopama, based on the text.|