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Seven Astonishing Ideas in Indian Cosmology

September 25, 2020 Authored by: Subhash Kak

The Indian cosmology, with its expansive notion of the equivalence between the outer and inner, produced many original ideas. Imaginative notions, such as those of airplanes, space travels, weapons that can destroy the world, embryo transplantation, multiple babies from the same embryo, remote viewing, space travel are to be found in the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Lest I be misunderstood, we are not speaking of real airplanes, bombs, and biotechnology, but rather of the conception of their possibility. Here is a list of the seven most astonishing ideas:

An Extremely Old Universe: The idea that the universe is very old is quite startling, when one notes that humanity’s collective memory doesn’t go further than a few thousand years. The Puranas speak of the universe going through cycles of creation and destruction each of 8.64 billion years, together with longer cycles (the universe is actually supposed to be infinitely old). The figure of 8.64 billion years is about right based on current astrophysical estimates. The revolutionary nature of this idea becomes clear when one notes that only a couple of hundred years ago the dogma in most Eurasia was that the world was created in 4004 BC.

An Atomic World and the Subject/Object Dichotomy: According to the atomic doctrine of Kanada, there are nine classes of substances: ether, space, and time that are continuous; four elementary substances (or particles) called earth, air, water, and fire that are atomic; and two kinds of mind, one omnipresent and another which is the individual. This system also postulates a subject/ object dichotomy, as was done in Samkhya and Vedanta as well. In these systems, the conscious subject is separate from the material reality but he is, nevertheless, able to direct its evolution. The atomic doctrine of Kanada is much more interesting than that of Democritus.

Relativity of Time and Space: That space and time need not flow at the same rate for different observers is a pretty revolutionary notion. We encounter it in Puranic stories and in the Yoga Vasistha.

Here’s a passage on anomalous flow of time from the Bhagvata Purana 9.3:

Taking his daughter, Revati, Kakudmi went to Brahma in Brahmaloka to inquire about a husband for her. But when Kakudmi arrived there, Brahma was busy in a musical concert of the Gandharvas. Therefore, Kakudmi waited. At the end of the performance, he saluted Brahma and made his desire known. Hearing his words, Brahma laughed loudly and said, ‘O King, all those whom you may have decided within the core of your heart to accept as your son-in-law have passed away in the course of time. Twenty-seven caturyugas have already passed those you chose are gone, and so are their sons, grandsons, and other descendants. Even their names are lost.’ 

Evolution of Life: The Puranas have a chapter on creation and the origins of mankind. It is said that man arose at the end of a chain where the beginning was with plants and various kinds of animals. Here’s a quote from the Yoga Vasistha 6.1.21:

I remember that once upon a time there was nothing on this Earth, neither trees and plants, nor even mountains. For a period of eleven thousand years the Earth was covered by lava. Then demons (Asuras), who were deluded and powerful, ruled the Earth as their playground. And then for a very long time the whole Earth was covered with forests, except the polar region. Then there arose great mountains, but without any human inhabitants. For a period of ten thousand years the Earth was covered with the corpses of the Asuras who had roamed the Earth.

The urge to evolve into higher forms due to the changing ratios of the gunas is taken to be inherent in nature. A system of an evolution from inanimate to higher life is spelled out in the system of Samkhya. At the mythological level, this is represented by an ascent of Visnu through the forms of fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, the dwarf, finally, into man. Aurobindo has argued that this evolution of intelligence is still at work.

A science of Mind, Yoga: Yoga psychology, described in early texts and systematized by Patanjali in his Yoga-sutras is a comprehensive description of the nature of the human mind and its capacities. It makes a distinction between memory, states of awareness, and the fundamental entity of consciousness. It analyses mind processes with such clarity and originality that it continues to influence scholars and laymen. Several kinds of Yoga are described in the Bhagavad Gita. They provide a means of mastering the body-mind connection, Indian music, dance, and other arts have an underlying yogic basis.

Binary Number System, Zero, Infinity: A binary number system was used by Pingala (450 BC, if we accept the tradition that he was Panini’s brother) to represent metres of songs. Perhaps this number system contributed to the inventions of the sign for zero that appears to have taken place around 50 BC – AD 50. It is true that the binary number system was independently invented by Leibniz in 1678, but the fact that the rediscovery had to wait almost 2,000 years only emphasizes the originality of Pingala’s idea.

The idea of infinity is understood correctly in that it is unchanged when infinity is subtracted from it.

A Complete Grammar, Limitation of Language. The Ashtadhyayi is a grammar of the Sanskrit language by Panini (450 BC) that describes the entire language in 4,000 algebraic rules. The structure of this grammar contains a meta-language, meta-rules, and other technical devices that make this system effectively equivalent to the most powerful computing machine. No grammar of similar power has yet been constructed for any other language. Panini’s book is one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

The flip side to the discovery of this grammar consists of the idea that language (as a formal system) cannot describe reality completely. This limitation of language is ascribed to the fact that the language basis is finite, whereas the world is infinite. Paralleling this, truth can only be experienced and never described fully.

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