How to understand the Bhagavatam’s cosmology?
Transcriber: Suresh Gupta
Edited by: Raji Nachiappan
Question: How to understand the Bhagavatam’s cosmology? This seem to be very difficult to understand.
Answer: This subject is something which I have studied, contemplated, prayed, discussed, for over twenty years. It is not an easy question to answer. There is a five-step reflection to understand this, as described below:
I. Understand the purpose of science
II. Understand the purpose of scripture
III. Understand the scope of science
IV. Understand the scope of scripture
V. See how science and scripture can be harmonised.
I. The purpose of science:
Science, as understood in today’s world is a methodology which is used for getting material explanations for material phenomenon. When Newton saw the fruit falling, he questioned the cause which led to the fruit falling. He could have said god caused the fruit to fall. Yes, while that is true and Newton also believed that the laws of nature came from god, he was looking for a material cause, and not to God as a cause. Science focusses on looking for material explanations for material phenomenon. In the scientific world, this is called as naturalism or methodological naturalism. Science in itself does not make any statements about anything non material and whether it exist or does not exist. Therefore, the purpose of science is to look for material explanations for material phenomenon.
II. The purpose of scripture:
When we consider the Bhagavatam, it is spoken to Parikshit Maharaj when he was about to die in seven days. The purpose of Shukadeva Gosvami speaking to Parikshit Maharaj is to help him to fix his mind on Krishna. The Bhagavatam’s Fifth canto cosmology is also spoken with that same purpose. It is said in the starting of that section in the fifth canto that, while meditating on the universe in this way, one’s appreciation and devotion to Lord Hari will increase. Therefore, the purpose of everything in the Bhagavatam is to help us to fix the mind on Krishna. It is not that Shukadeva Gosvami was giving Parikshit Maharaj knowledge about how he could go on space travel. That was not the purpose. Everything has to be seen in the light of its purpose. The purpose of science is to give natural explanation for natural phenomenon and the purpose of scripture is to help us fix the mind on Krishna.
III. Scope of science:
Science does not offer us reality; it offers us models of reality. For example, there is quantum physics and there is relativity. These are two fundamental branches of physics and both of them are violently contradictory. The model of reality that is offered by quantum physics is very different from the model of reality offered by relativity. This is a technical subject but suffice it to say that these two are just not reconcilable. Scientists use whichever model works. When dealing with the subatomic realm, it is quantum physics that works and for cosmic distance and cosmic objects, it is relativity that works.
Now, what is the nature of reality: is it particles or is it waves? Or is it something else like space-time? What is it? In science, there is the ontological approach to reality and the functional approach to reality. Ontology means the study of reality as it is. Functional means reality as we can function with it. If we go seriously into the study of science, science makes no pretentions of giving us knowledge of reality. It simply gives us models of reality. Quantum physics offers one model and relativity offers another model. What reality actually is, that is something else. We do not know it from science. Reality may be something entirely different. These are working models offered by science. When we say models, it does not mean they are false. They are useful, but they give one particular picture of reality. For example, if we have a map of America, the map is a very useful tool, however the map does not contain everything. If we use a map to go to our friend’s house and everything on the map turns out to be true, our confidence in the map increases. When we finally reach our friend’s house and when our friend welcomes us, we do not look at the map and tell our friend that since they are not present in the map, they do not exist. The map is not meant to show people, the map is a model of a territory and hence it does not depict everything.
Science does not have a monopoly on the explanation of reality. Science offers an explanation that works within a particular framework, however there can be other explanations and other perceptions from other scales of observations. For example, if I take a white chalk and black coal and I grind both of them into powder and then I mix the powder together, I will have grey granules. However, if I look at the mixture under the microscope, I will not see any grey granules, I will see white and black particles. Hence, what is it really? Is it grey granules or is it white and black? Therefore, what it is, depends on our scale of observation. In the same way, science can offer us particular models of reality that comes from a particular scale of observation. There can be other models of reality that can be from other scales of observation and science cannot inherently disapprove them. Science offers one model, there may be another model from another perspective.
IV: Scope of scripture:
The Bhagavatam offers a particular cosmology. At the same time, the Bhagavatam’s cosmology is not the only cosmology in the Indian tradition. If we consider astrology, it is based on the Jyotisha Shastra where a different cosmology is given. The Bhagavatam’s cosmology is different from Jyotisha’s. No astrologer uses the Bhagavatam’s cosmology for predicting anything. They all use Jyotisha cosmology, including Vaishnava astrologers. Even Vaishnava acharyas, who have commented on the Bhagavatam, if they had to do anything with astrology, they used the Jyotisha cosmology. That means, the Bhagavatam’s cosmology is even within the Vedic tradition, not considered to be only cosmology. Bhagavatam offers a particular vision of reality which is Krishna centred. However, for functional purposes even in Vedic tradition there is other cosmology which is used. The Jyotisha Cosmology in many ways is similar to modern cosmology. The point of is, the acharyas are not saying that the Bhagavatam cosmology is mythological or imaginary. It is just of a different scale.
V: How science and scripture can be harmonised:
We do not have to position science and scripture as competitors. If we position scripture as competitor to science, we devalue scripture. Science gives us functional knowledge for operating in this world. Scripture give us knowledge for raising our consciousness and going beyond this world. Sometimes, scripture may also give functional knowledge for living in this world and we can use that. However, that is not the purpose of scripture. Parikshit Maharaj was not interested in learning how to make a plane or how to make a mobile. He was interested on how to focus his mind on Krishna and how to attain Krishna. Hence, these two have different purposes, and without that understanding if we position scripture as a competitor to science, we actually devalue scripture.
In this world we have to take care of our material needs and there can be different ways for taking care of the material needs. To cure a bodily ailment, we may take Ayurveda or we may take Allopathy. The important point is not that we become a campaigner for or against allopathy or Ayurveda. As devotees, our purpose is to get healthy, so we can serve Krishna. Similarly, we do not have to become a campaigner for science saying that everything science says is right or we do not have to become campaigner against science saying that everything science says is wrong.
Our purpose is, science is functional and scripture is transcendental. For practical purposes, we do what is required. What we should not do is to let science determine our values and goals. Science does not actually give knowledge on values and goals because that is outside the scope of science. If we understand what the purposes of science and scripture are, then we will not unnecessarily obsess over certain sections of scripture, which are difficult to make sense of. The Bhagavatam offers a cosmology which is primarily meant to help us to fix the mind on Krishna. If we find that by studying the Bhagavatam cosmology, it does not make any sense to us or that it seems strange and even agitates us, then the purpose of fixing the mind on Krishna is not being served. Srila Prabhupada, even in the Bhagavatam’s fifth canto cosmology purports, does not go too much into the technicalities. Rather, Prabhupad expertly focusses on the principles of the spiritual life. Those principles are important to us. Hence, if we have the purpose of fixing of the mind on Krishna, then we can ourselves understand scripture appropriately and more importantly present it in a way that helps people to come close to Krishna.
End of transcription.