The following is a response to some questions that have arisen regarding the 7th chapter in the book Mystic Universe. The central problems pertain to the following key issues:
- I have shown Jambudvīpa as a stepped structure, while others take it as flat
- I have shown that the mountains are stepped, rather than off a common ground
- As a result, the mountains have depths in addition to the heights
There are two kinds of response to this question—a general conceptual basis, and the other based on a systematic analysis of scriptures.
Table of Contents
The Conceptual Basis of Heights
Let’s start with the conceptual basis.
The conceptual basis of steps is that the places in Bhū mandala and Jambudvīpa are described to be places of different qualities—e.g. the nature of the body, dharma, and pleasures. We come across such descriptions in the study of the 14 planetary systems as well, and the height is therefore associated with qualities—the higher quality is also a higher place. Therefore, if we treat Jambudvīpa as a flat structure, then, we will present a contradiction in the cosmological model—sometimes, qualitative difference involves different heights, and sometimes it does not. There is no resolution to this problem other than treating Jambudvīpa also as a stepped hierarchical structure.
In this description, the different Varṣa have different heights. For example, Lord Siva who resides on top of Himavān, has a qualitatively different place to live. Likewise, Illavrta Varṣa is said to be the place of Lord Siva (likely a different form) in which ordinary men (including Arjuna) were not allowed to enter. We cannot explain these qualitative differences between places unless we recognize different heights for them.
Quotations from Matsya Purana
The second method based on the analysis of the scriptural texts is also presented in Mystic Universe, but contradictions arise between the different scriptures. The stepped structure emerges from the resolution of these contradictions, which I discuss next.
The following analysis is based on the descriptions of Matsya Purana and the Śrīmad Bhagāvatam.
द्वे द्वे सहस्रे विस्तीर्णा योजनैर्दक्षिणोत्तरम्
dve dve sahasre vistīrṇā yojanairdakṣiṇottaram
varṣāṇi—the varsa; yāni—those; saptātra—the seven here; teṣāṃ–those; vā—covering; varṣaparvatāḥ–the varsa mountains; dve dve sahasre—two-two thousand; vistīrṇā—longer, wider, deeper; yojanair—yojana; dakṣiṇottaram—to the north and south.
- The term vistīrṇā can be interpreted as broader, longer, wider, etc.
- If we take it to mean longer/broader, then the sloka would mean that the mountains must get longer/broader as we go toward the north or toward the south
- That will contradict the fact that as we go to the north/south, the widths must decrease
- Therefore, the interpretations can be wider (in thickness) or deeper (i.e. lower)
- I shall return to this point again at the end of this post after we have discussed the other points
नीलश्च निषधश्चैव तेषां हीनाश्च ये परे
nīlaśca niṣadhaścaiva teṣāṃ hīnāśca ye pare
jambūdvīpasya—of the Jambudvīpa; vistāra—the extent; teṣām—of that; yāma—the end or limit; ucyate—is said; nīla—Nīla; ca—and; niṣadha—Niṣadha; ca—and; eva—certainly; teṣāṃ–that; hīnāśca—and smaller; ye pare—those beyond.
- The Nīla and Niṣadha are adjacent to Illavrta varṣa.
- Sveta and Sṛṅgavān are to the north of Nīla
- Hemakūṭa and Himalaya are to the south of Niṣadha
- Nīla and Niṣadha are mentioned explicitly
- And then other four are mentioned as those “smaller” and “beyond”
श्वेतश्च हेमकूटश्च हिमवान्श्रृ ङ्गवांश्च यः
जम्बूद्वीपप्रमाणेन ऋषभः परिकीर्त्यते
śvetaśca hemakūṭaśca himavān śrṛṅgavāṃśca yaḥ
jambūdvīpapramāṇena ṛṣabhaḥ parikīrtyate
śveta—Śveta, ca—and, hemakūṭa—Hemakūṭa, ca—and, himavān—Himavān, ṣṛṅgavāṃ—Sṛṅgavān, ca—and, yaḥ—which, jambūdvīpa—Jambūdvīpa, pramāṇa—the evidence or proof, ena—this, ṛṣabhaḥ—the bull, parikīrtyate—glorify humbly.
- The previous sloka mentioned mountains that are “beyond” and “smaller”
- This sloka lists those mountains as Sveta, Hemakūṭa, Himavān, and Sṛṅgavān
- These are called the identifiers or identifiers of Jambudvīpa
- The significance of this identification needs more study
- They are said to be the glorification of Jambudvīpa
- In short, the identifiers are the glorious indicators of the Jambudvīpa
हिमवान् विंशभागेन तस्मादेव प्रहीयते
अष्टाशीतिसहस्राणि हेमकूटो महागिरिः
- The Hemakūṭa is glorified as a “great mountain”
- Yet it is called “smaller” by 12 parts. Smaller than what? It is Meru.
- Likewise, Himavān is smaller by 20 parts. Smaller than what? Again Meru.
- The Himavān is said to be 80 yojana
- In the previous sloka, Hemakūṭa is shorter by 12 and Himavān is shorter by 20
- So, the larger thing must be defined as being 20 + 80 = 100 yojana
- Thus, again, the height is established to be 100 yojana which is Meru
Quotations from Śrīmad Bhagāvatam
Now, we take the following two verses from Śrīmad Bhagāvatam.
Just north of Ilāvṛta-varṣa — and going further northward, one after another — are three mountains named Nīla, Śveta and Śṛṅgavān. These mark the borders of the three varṣas named Ramyaka, Hiraṇmāyā and Kuru and separate them from one another. The width of these mountains is 2,000 yojanas [16,000 miles]. Lengthwise, they extend east and west to the beaches of the ocean of salt water. Going from south to north, the length of each mountain is one tenth that of the previous mountain, but the height of them all is the same.
Similarly, south of Ilāvṛta-varṣa and extending from east to west are three great mountains named (from north to south) Niṣadha, Hemakūṭa and Himālaya. Each of them is 10,000 yojanas [80,000 miles] high. They mark the boundaries of the three varṣas named Hari-varṣa, Kimpuruṣa-varṣa and Bhārata-varṣa [India].
The First Contradiction
Et voila, we have a (seeming) contradiction:
- Matsya Purana says the heights are 88,000 and 80,000
- Śrīmad Bhagāvatam says that the heights are equal and 10,000
Now, the resolution of this contradiction. The following is said in Mystic Universe:
In the Purāna we can find two kinds of descriptions of these mountains: (1) which describes the elevation of the mountain from the surface of a varṣa and the other which describes the mountain’s total height. The below two verses from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and Matsya Purāna describe these two approaches, and Figure-28 illustrates how these two accounts can be combined into a single composite picture of the mountains.
Hemakūṭa is shorter than Meru 12,000 yojana and Himavāna is shorter than Meru by 20,000 yojana. The great Hemakūṭa is 88,000 yojana. The mountain Himavāna is 80,000 yojana. It goes from east to west. [Matsya Purāna, Chapter 113, 24-25]
Similarly, south of Ilāvṛta varṣa and extending from east to west are three great mountains named (from north to south) Niṣādha, Hemakūṭa and Himalaya (Himavāna). Each of them is 10,000 yojana [80,000 miles] high. They mark the boundaries of the three varṣa named Hari-varṣa, Kimpuruṣa-varṣa and Bharata-varṣa. [Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, 5.16.9]
Thus, to begin with, two approaches are noted, and a contradiction is recognized.
Then the contradiction is resolved by using the following figure in which both descriptions are recognized as being true, but distances are measured differently.
The following key points can be noted regarding this diagram:
- The width of Jambudvipa and the height of Meru are identical, i.e. 100,000 Yojana
- But, the Meru is “sunken”, because its height is also described as 84,000 Yojana
- This “sinking” of Meru presents us with a template that is applied to other mountains as well
- The mountain heights (in Matsya Purana) are said to be 96,000, 88,000, and 80,000 Yojana
- The mountain’s heights (in Śrīmad Bhagāvatam) are said to be uniform — i.e. 10,000 Yojana
- The paradox is resolved in the same way that it is resolved in the case of Meru
- The principle of conceptual dissimilarity is used to present a “staircase” structure
The Second Contradiction
This “staircase” structure presents a controversial point, which can further be resolved through the following.
These seven varsas and their boundary mountains are two-two thousand yojana longer (in thickness or depth) to the north and the south.
Just north of Ilāvṛta-varṣa — and going further northward, one after another — are three mountains named Nīla, Śveta and Śṛṅgavān. These mark the borders of the three varṣas named Ramyaka, Hiraṇmāyā and Kuru and separate them from one another. The width of these mountains is 2,000 yojanas [16,000 miles].
Now, we can put together the different statements, and note the following:
- Matsya Purana states that the height is 96,000, 88,000, and 80,000 Yojana
- The Śrīmad Bhagāvatam states that the breadth is 2000 Yojana
- We have multiple options for vistīrṇā (length) in Matsya Purana 131.21: “depth”, “width” or “breadth”.
- The “width” interpretation creates a contradiction because the widths decrease rather than increase as we go northward and southward
- The “breadth” interpretation creates a contradiction because the breadth is stated to be 2000 yojana in the Śrīmad Bhagāvatam
- Therefore, we are left with one conclusion: vistīrṇā must be “depth”
Based on this, we can update the above picture, and provide a missing link in the understanding.
This is a more complete picture because we have addressed all statements:
- The mountain height is 88,000 and 10,000
- The mountain’s width is 2,000
- The mountain depths increase by 2,000
Now, we can, if we want, not rely on the qualitative argument about places having different heights, because we also have the measures.
Potential Textual Errors
Such a long discussion was needed to eliminate “height” and “width” from the list of possible interpretations of vistīrṇā in Matsya Purana 131.21. This discussion would be totally unnecessary if the term was nistīrṇā instead of vistīrṇā, because nistīrṇā would clearly indicate “increasing depth”. In the Devanagari script, these two words are written as विस्तीर्ण and निस्तीर्ण. Note the similarity, which is exacerbated when these are handwritten because it is often very hard to differentiate between वि and नि. It is possible, that this mistake could have occurred while digitizing hand-written texts. We don’t have to exclusively rely on the conclusion that it indeed did happen, but it certainly would go a long way in making things easier.
The Process of Interpreting Texts
It is well-known that Vedic texts are not always consistent, and the correct method of understanding them is to take all the statements as being equally true and identify a description that reconciles the contradictions. The same holds true of cosmological texts as well. Democracy (i.e. the dominant interpretation is the one that is most recurring) and autocracy (this specific text is more important than the others) are not good ideas. Therefore, scriptural exegesis is not an easy task, because it involves two things: (1) collecting all the statements, (2) reconciling all the statements. Generally, the former is easily achieved, and the latter is very hard. This then leads to incessant debates, as we argue with different quotes in mind.
A common example of such a controversy is the personalist and impersonal understandings of Brahman. The fact is that there is a “primordial” state of consciousness in which the distinction between God, matter, and soul does not exist, and there is a “manifest” state in which the distinction exists. When the distinction doesn’t exist, then the whole truth is called “God” or Absolute Truth, and when the distinction exists, the soul and God are separated. To reconcile these two contrary positions, it is now said that God is the whole truth, and the soul is a part of the truth, and the nature of this whole-part relation becomes the basis of numerous Vedānta interpretations. Each interpretation of the whole-part brings some problems, as it fixes other problems. But the fact that such attempts to reconcile these contradictions have been ongoing, we too must reconcile these claims, even if it seems hard and long.