How do we reconcile Bhagavatam cosmology with scientific cosmology?
Transcription: Suresh Gupta
Question: How do we reconcile Bhagavatam cosmology with scientific cosmology? For example, Bhagavatam cosmology talks about fourteen planetary systems whereas we have nine or ten planets, so how do we reconcile this?
Answer: We have a very simplistic notion of the cosmology that is given and explained in the Srimad Bhagavatam. Usually we say, heaven is up but if the earth is round and America and India are more or less on opposite sides of the earth then the question would arise – is the heaven above America or is it above India? There are two upper opposites. When the scriptures talk about heaven being up, that is not a simplistic geographical “up”. The Bhagavatam is talking about different levels of the cosmos. There are different levels of reality in the universe and we live at a particular level of reality. Within the Indian knowledge of cosmology, there are two broad systems of cosmological knowledge – one is called as Puranic cosmology and the other is called as Jyotisha cosmology. Jyotisha is also called as Siddhantic cosmology and Surya Siddhanta is one famous book from that set of books. Both these give very different vision of the cosmos and if we go to the Jyotisha cosmology, it gives many figures which are very similar to the figures that are in modern cosmology. For example – the distance between the earth and the moon and the earth and the sun as described in Jyotisha cosmology is found to be remarkably similar to what science has found in modern cosmology.
In the same system of knowledge, these two systems of cosmology were very closely connected. Astronomy is the study of planetary distances and astrology is study of their effects on people. For any astrological calculation, even the Vaishnava acharyas or devotee scholars have never used the Bhagavatam cosmology. They all use Jyotisha cosmology which shows that they knew that these two branches of astronomy existed. They themselves had their primary life dedicated to teaching the Bhagavatam, living the teachings of Bhagavatam, explaining the Bhagavatam, but when it came to astrology, they did not use the Bhagavatam cosmology, they used Jyotisha cosmology. What this means is that they too recognised that the Bhagavatam cosmology is not for functional purposes in this world, it is more for a vision of theistic universe (when I say vision, it does not mean that this is just a conception). It is a way of looking at the world which shows how God, devotion, dharma – are all pervading the universe. As far as operating in this universe is concerned, they used Jyotisha cosmology and they never put the two in conflict. Bhagavatam itself describes two important things in Canto 5. First is, studying this will enhance our devotion and second, ultimately because this cosmos manifests the glories of the Lord and since the Lord is infinite and cannot be completely understood, similarly the cosmos cannot be fully understood. Therefore, the Bhagavatam itself is telling that if we do not understand its vision of the cosmos, we do not need to agonise over it too much because the purpose is to enhance our devotion. For functioning in this world, we do use the modern cosmology and there is nothing wrong in that.
We need not position scripture as a competitor of science. Scriptures are primarily about spiritual knowledge, to learn how to evaluate our consciousness. When we position scripture as the competitor of science, we devalue scripture. Scripture has given us spiritual knowledge to elevate our consciousness and Science can give us some material knowledge about how to function in this world. There may be some areas of overlap or some contradictions and how to resolve all of them is for specialist to discuss. I have seminars on this where I have told how good scholars are already working on this but as far as we are concerned, we don’t have to unnecessarily highlight or aggravate this conflict because within the tradition itself there are the example of two different vision of the cosmos and both being used – the Bhagavatam cosmology for increasing ones focus on the Lord and the Jyotisha cosmology being used for doing practical functioning in the world.
Similarly, we can have for modern cosmology and Bhagavatam cosmology.
The Srimad Bhagavatam talking about fourteen planetary systems is talking about cosmos, seen from a different scale of perception, it is not a human centred scale of perception. If whatever Sukadeva Goswami was describing in the Bhagavatam was readily visible to the eyes, then Parikshit Maharaj could have simply looked at the sky and saw it. Sukadeva Goswami is describing it because that is not visible through the naked eyes. It is a different vision of universe, seen from a different scale of observation and the scale of observation can significantly change the object of observation. For example, if we have a chalk and charcoal and we mix them together, we will see grey powder but if we see the same thing under microscope, we would not see grey powder but instead would see black particles and white particles. So, the question arises, what is it really? Is it white particle or black particle or is it grey powder? Well, what it is, depends from where we perceive it.
Therefore, we see the universe a particular way through science which is from our level of perception. The Srimad Bhagavatam gives us another level of perception of the universe and we need not necessarily see them as contradictory because there is a different level and different kind of perception for different purposes.
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