Battle of our time
Hindu cosmology is closest to science, but nobody bothers to explain.
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
I have not heard my cat Subba ask me how old he is. Nor does he seem to be bothered how old I am and when we are both going to die. According to the animal shelter in Missouri where I picked him up in August 1993, Subba was about eight weeks old then. That makes him twelve and a half years now. Our cat Subba is a precious part of our household and we know he is getting old in terms of cat years.
When I was struggling to get Subba rid of ear-mites and ticks and when he was sickly for the first three months of his life with me, I read up a lot on cats. I learned that stray cats live no more than a couple of years in the wild. Cats that are fed by people regularly but which are not house pets live for about seven or eight years having to deal with the elements and with cat fights. Cats that are house pets can live up to seventeen or eighteen years before they have to be taken to a veterinarian to be put to sleep, because their body begins to fail around that time.
Our cat, therefore, should be with us at least for another five years. In human years, Subba is between sixty four and sixty seven now. If he lives up to eighteen years, he will be seventy eight in cat years. I don’t think he will live up to thirty years to be a grand old centenarian in cat years.
Subba does not seem worried about his age. He is happy licking his paw and sitting in front of the fire this winter season. It is my wife and I who wonder sometimes if he has slowed down, if he is getting old.
Our three year old son, Sudhanva, does not also seem to be bothered about all this “age” business. To the usual stranger’s question at the mall, or of any of our new acquaintances’ “How old are you?” he will quickly answer, “I am three years old.” He does not hold up his fingers to show he is three years old. He still cannot match symbols and words. He will count to thirty but of course has no mathematical sense. That will begin to happen soon, or at a time that paediatricians and child development specialists say it is going to happen.
But we adult human beings are too much wrapped in time and around time. We live in a linear world where life and time will end when we die and many of us are afraid, therefore, of getting old and dying. Death and dying and what happens after death, therefore, get a lot of our attention and they are subject to a lot of our speculation. Depending on which religious faith or non-religious faith you subscribe to, you may imagine that you will go to heaven or hell (Christians, Muslims, Jews) or that you will be reborn as a human being or some animal species based on the life you have led (Hindus), or be reduced to dust and ashes (secular, scientific and/ or reductionist).
Based on our religious/ spiritual identities, we have projected backwards and forwards about how old “life” is, how old “time” is, how old our “tradition” is and so on. Fundamentalist Christians believe that the world was created in six days about six thousand years ago and that very soon, those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord will be rescued from this burning earth/ hell and be taken to heaven to live happily ever after.
For the Muslim, too, the world was created in six days, but there is some re-interpretation of what those six days mean. According to one explanation, there is a difference between the Muslim and the Christian belief. They say Koranic verses that mention “six days” use the Arabic word “youm” (day) and that the word connotes different measures at different points in the Koran, fifty thousand years, or one thousand years. According to this interpretation, the word “youm”, therefore, should be considered as denoting a long period of time, an era or eon. The length of these eras or eons is not precisely defined, nor does the Koran mention any specific developments that took place during each period.
The Hindus either have been more creative, or more wildly imaginative, or have speculated about time when they were hallucinating on “soma”, or they have had some magical inkling about the nature of the cosmos, of time and of life, that somehow is closer to modern day scientific discoveries but also very different in terms of what science says about the antiquity of different forms of life.
Recently, when Hindu groups involved closely in the California school textbook controversy, were taken to task by a self-proclaimed “expert” group, one of the members of the “expert” group spread the word on the Internet that the Vedic Foundation (VF), one of the petitioners to the California Board of Secondary Education, was a fundamentalist organisation whose claims about the age of India and of Hinduism were ludicrous.
On the VF web pages, for which the “expert-critic” provided evidence, the VF claimed that Indian civilisation reached back 1, 972 million years. This is over 1.7 billion years before the age of dinosaurs, the critic mocked. The VF web page contains other assertions that, at first glance, seem both “unscientific” and “absurd”.
According to the Vedic Foundation:
- India’s original name is Aryavart and Aryans were the original Indian race.
- Indian civilisation has unceasingly existed for 1, 972 million years as the fully developed Ganges civilisation.
- Sanskrit has been in its perfect state since its origin millions of years ago.
- Hinduism’s real name is Sanatan Dharma. Sanatan = eternal; Dharma = that which uplifts the soul.
- Hindu religion was first revealed 111.52 trillion years ago.
- Bhagwan Ram ruled Ayodhya during the previous tretayug, 18.144 million years ago.
- The Great War of Mahabharata was fought in 3139 BC, five thousand years ago. During the same time Bhagwan Krishna descended on planet earth.
- The origin of life on earth and the functioning of the planetary system are described in the Vedic scriptures.
- Bharatiya religion is universal and applies not only to Hindus but to the entire world.
Even ignoring the idiosyncratic spelling, misspellings and archaic use of the English language, it seems as if the critic of the Vedic Foundation has the right to mock what, on the surface, are patently absurd claims. According to the critic, the Vedic Foundation has removed this page from the Internet based on his criticism. However, if the Vedic Foundation really believed what they originally published, they should have tried to explain to the uninitiated what was behind their claims.
In one of the first lucid English accounts of Hindu mythology and cosmology, Heinrich Zimmer (Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, 1945) describes how Hindus imagined the age of the cosmos. In Hindu mythology, each world cycle is subdivided into four yugas or world ages, Krita, Treta, Dvapara and Kali. Krita yuga lasts for 1, 728, 000 years, Dvapara yuga 1, 296, 000 years, Treta yuga for 864, 000 years and our present age of Kali 432, 000 years. This is because Krita yuga is perfectly governed by dharma and is anchored firmly on four quarters and the succeeding ages lose one quarter each, with Kali representing the “dark age” subsisting on a mere twenty-five per cent of dharma. The grand total of the four yugas is 4, 320, 000 years. One thousand mahayugas equal four billion and three hundred and twenty million years (4, 320, 000, 000) that constitutes a single day of Brahma, a single kalpa.
Zimmer further notes that, “Every kalpa is subdivided into fourteen manvantaras, or Manu intervals, each comprising seventy-one and a fraction mahayugas and terminating with a deluge…. The progress and decline of every kalpa is marked by mythological events that recur similarly, again and again, in magnificent, slowly and relentlessly rotating cycles…. They are typical moments in an unvariable process and this process is the continuous history of the world organism.” This simply means that there are no new actors in the world. We were all alive before and we are all going to die and we are all going to reappear in future yugas. The Vedic Foundation specifically claims that Rama ruled Ayodhya in the Treta yuga some eighteen million years ago.
Zimmer explains to the Western reader the symbolism of these “fantastic” claims. The Western mind believes in epoch-making historical events, man’s mastery of/ over nature through struggle and invention and his regard of world history as a “biography of mankind”. Thus, the vast time consciousness of the Hindu both overwhelms and “leaves cold” the Western mind, even the scientific mind that has sought to plot the age of the cosmos and which has come up with numbers approximating the Hindu mythological claims.
A University of California at Los Angeles tutorial says, “When applied to rocks on the surface of the Earth, the oldest rocks are about 3.8 billion years old. When applied to meteorites, the oldest are 4.56 billion years old. This very well-determined age is the age of the Solar System”. A 2003 Science magazine article says, a team of researchers had recalibrated the age of the universe to be between 11.2 billion and twenty billion years old. Just before that claim was made, other researchers had estimated that the universe was between ten billion and fifteen billion years old. In 2002, data supplied by the Hubble Space Telescope led to an apparently refined estimate of thirteen billion to fourteen billion years.
If the oldest meteorites are said to be about 4.56 billion years old, there seems to be an eerie and uncanny similarity to the Hindu claim that a mahayuga is 4.32 billion years. Maybe the correlation between the scientific finding and the mythological speculation is nothing but pure chance, a stroke of luck. We need not, however, be too concerned about these numbers as much as what the philosophical implications of such claims are.
Zimmer, unpacking the Brahmavaivartapurana says, “Suddenly the empty sheaves of numbers were filled with the dynamism of life. They became alive with philosophical value and symbolic significance. So vivid was the statement, so powerful the impact, that the story did not have to be dissected for its meaning. The lesson was plain to see…. But the wisdom taught in this myth would have been incomplete had the last word been that of the infinity of space and time. The vision of the countless universes bubbling into existence side by side and the lesson of the unending series of Indras and Brahmas, would have annihilated every value of individual existence. Between this boundless, breath-taking vision and the opposite problem of the limited role of the short-lived individual, this myth effected the re-establishment of a balance…. We are taught to recognize the divine, the impersonal sphere of eternity, revolving ever and agelessly through time. But we are also taught to esteem the transient sphere of the duties and pleasures of individual existence, which is as real and as vital to the living man, as a dream to the sleeping soul.”
It is rather strange, therefore, that neither the Vedic Foundation nor its harsh, swaggering critic has bothered to put their assertions and their critiques in perspective. The losers in the battle are, therefore, the rest of us, either shamed into thinking that the mythological symbols and allegories are “merely fantastic”, or the “reductionists” who believe they have firmly put a “fundamentalist’s claim” to rest.
In an interview for an Indian news portal, Carl Sagan, the acclaimed physicist, says that in filming the tenth episode of COSMOS, he approached the subject through Hindu cosmology. “…the main reason that we oriented this episode of COSMOS towards India is because of that wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology which first of all gives a time-scale for the Earth and the universe – a time-scale which is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years” (since a day of Brahma is 4.32 billion years and a night of Brahma is 4.32 billion years).
Sagan argues that Hinduism is the only ancient religious tradition “which talks about the right time-scale”. Like Zimmer, he explains that, “In the West, people have the sense that what is natural is for the universe to be a few thousand years old and that billions is indwelling and no one can understand it. The Hindu concept is very clear. Here is a great world culture which has always talked about billions of years. Finally, the many billion year time-scale of Hindu cosmology is not the entire history of the universe, but just the day and night of Brahma and there is the idea of an infinite cycle of births and deaths and an infinite number of universes, each with its own gods. And this is a very grand idea. Whether it is true or not, is not yet clear. But it makes the pulse quicken and we thought it was a good way to approach the subject”.
Now, why would a Sanskritist from Harvard, or the Left/ secularists ranked against Hindu petitioners to the California School Board of Education, want to ignore what physicists have acknowledged and are deeply interested in? It seems that in the battle to write history, any means to defeat the contender is acceptable. To paint the Hindu groups as fundamentalists or nationalists, “secular” historians, linguists and epigraphists, therefore, seem committed to hiding information that will enlighten the decision makers.
As the battle for rewriting the history and religion textbooks rages on in California and as political groups, vested interests, concerned parents and serious academics join in the debate, it is time, therefore, that we warn our children and our students not to fall either into the trap of “literalism/ fundamentalism” or into the trap of “reductionism/ scientism”.