East meets West:
Cosmology then and now
Eastern religious traditions can
provide us with new cosmological insights
if we have eyes to see them.
By Paul Utukuru
Science and Technology News:
(June 6, 2005)
Symbolism is a common feature in all
religious traditions. Bread and wine symbolize the flesh and blood of Jesus
in the Christian Eucharist. Jesus himself spoke in parables. The ancient
Hindu and Greek mythologies personify stars, planets and the elements. While
this may seem strange now, a quick look around will show you that science
and technology does the same thing.
Brahmaa, Vishnu and Shiva are said to be the creator, sustainer and the
destroyer respectively of the universe in Hinduism. Setting aside the
personified symbolism here, the idea can be seen as an extrapolation of what
is observed on earth to the universe at large: birth, growth, decay and
recycling are central to everything we observe in the world within us and
around us. Extrapolation from the particular to the general is commonly done
in science, especially physics.
Based on similar considerations, some ancient astronomers seemed to have
arrived at the conclusion that the creation of the universe, its growth, its
eventual decay and regeneration are eternal processes without a beginning
and without an end, repeating in endless cycles.
The Hindus named each half
cycle a night or day of Brahma in symbolic terms. There is also the mention
of a transition or a twilight zone referred to as Yugasandhi between these
Similar cosmologies evolved in ancient Babylon and Greece also
during pre-Christian times. Whether the Hindus developed their ideas on
their own, or borrowed them from Babylon and Greece, is still a matter of
debate among historians.
In any case, the point of interest to us here is that the metaphor extends
to some amazing mathematical details. According to the Hindu scriptures,
each half cycle is said to last for 4.32 billion years. The Sun, too,
revolves around the center of our galaxy once in 325.5 million years. Modern
science pegs this in the range of 225 to 270 million years.
The point of
departure between ancient Hindu cosmology and modern cosmology is that
unlike modern cosmology, ancient Hindu cosmology relates the rotational
speed of our own galaxy to the period of oscillation of the endless cycles
of creation, growth and eventual decay.
Our known galaxy is known as Parameshti Mandala, and it is said to rotate around Svayambhu Mandala, the
center of all galaxies with a time period of 4.32 billion years, also.
Interestingly, the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggested
that the universe might actually consist of rotating systems rotating around
larger rotating systems.
Pursuing this chronology further in detail, it can be
shown that the present day of Brahma began exactly 5 Brahma hours, 28
minutes and 40 seconds ago as of April 1, 1986.
Going a step further, they
calculate the age of our present universe is 19.252 billion years, amazingly
close to the modern-day estimate.
Modern historians have also documented
that according to some ancient Hindu scriptures, the Sun is 108
Sun-diameters from the earth and the moon 108 Moon-diameters away. The
modern values for these figures are 107.6 and 110.6 respectively.
What does it mean to look at the universe with eastern
(Photo: Jeff Schwartz/Flickr)
Parenthetically, the number 108 has special significance in astrology and in
most Hindu rituals even today. The rosaries used in many Hindu and Buddhist
chanting routines contain exactly 108 beads. Also, the number 108 is exactly
one quarter of 432, the most important number in the ancient Hindu and
Today, we are still faced with issues such as the singularity problem, the
horizon problem, the magnetic monopole problem, the smoothness problem, the
flatness problem, anisotropy of the 3º K cosmic ray background and the
recently-discovered phenomena of gamma ray bursts by satellites and space
We have not yet figured out whether the big bang is a one-time
affair or a cyclical affair. Proton decay is yet another unresolved issue.
Cosmologists are also not sure whether the universe is open, flat or closed.
Quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity have still to be reconciled.
The most recent development in this regard has been a return to a cyclical
theory of expansion and contraction of our universe by Paul Steinhardt at
Princeton and Neil Turok at Cambridge University. In their view, the big
bang is a bridge to a pre-existing contracting era. The universe undergoes
an endless sequence of cycles in which it contracts in a big crunch and
re-emerges in an expanding big bang, with trillions of years of evolution in
between, almost exactly as outlined in ancient Hindu cosmology.
and Turok contend that the visible universe exists within a
three-dimensional membrane, or brane, that is like a stretched rubber sheet.
Another membrane separated from ours by only a microscopic thickness contains a
universe in which there is only dark matter. In each periodic cycle, a
collision between the two membranes results in enormous amounts of matter
I am by no means suggesting here that the cyclical model is right and the
one-time big-bang model is wrong. Rather, my point is that since birth,
growth, decay and recycling are universal phenomena throughout nature, their
extrapolation to the universe at large, following the tradition of the
ancients, might give us newer insights.
Likewise, it may be worthwhile to
recognize the similarities between the atom and the solar system and see if
the extrapolation of this might lead us to a more elegant cosmological model
involving rotation of systems within systems in an endless fashion.
I will close with one final note. Whether or not we take ancient cosmologies
such as the one discussed here seriously, it is interesting that their
methods for predicting solar and lunar eclipses yield results almost as
accurate as our modern ones. In the case of India, the Hindu pundits still
Paul Utukuru is a retired medical