Mystic Universe

Indian cosmology is relevant not only from a historical perspective, but also because it explains human creativity and the mystery of consciousness

Mystic Universe
To begin to understand any civilisation, one must start with its cosmology. By cosmology we don’t mean a mathematical theory but rather the general idea of the nature of the universe. It is the structure that informs the artist and the philosopher. For example, in certain civilisations it was assumed that god lived in a paradise in the sky and the world unfolded to god’s command. Modern science, on the other hand, takes the laws of nature to be fundamental, but doesn’t explain free will and consciousness.

In India, the rishis concluded that the nature of reality was not to be described by any simple picture. Upon deep reflection, they concluded that physical universe and consciousness were two complementary aspects of reality. The study of both was essential for self-knowledge. This is the reason why astronomy (concerning outer reality) and yoga (concerning inner reality) became important subjects in Indian thought.

The Rigveda is India’s oldest text, while the archaeological record has an unbroken continuity going back to about 7500 BC, and there is a rock art tradition that is even older. The setting for the hymns of the Rigveda is the area of Sapta Saindhava, the region bounded by the Sindh and Ganga rivers although lands beyond this heartland are also mentioned. The Rigveda describes the Sarasvati to be the greatest of the rivers that goes from the mountains to the sea. The archaeological record, suggesting that this river had turned dry by1900 BC, indicates that the Rigveda was prior to this epoch.

Cosmological ideas

The Vedic thinkers were aware that formalargumentation about the universe leads to logical paradox. Language has limitations (as in the statement: neti, neti “not this, not this”) and understanding ultimately derives from direct experience. The source of the direct experience is atman, which mysteriously can fathom the universe (ayam atman brahma).

The rishis believed that the universe was governed by laws (rita). This meant that it could not have appeared from nowhere and thus it is infinitely old. Furthermore, as all systems change and decay, the universe itself should go through cycles, or yugas. The encyclopedic Puranas speak of the universe going through a current cycle of 8.64 billion years, and the period of the largest listed cycle is 311 trillion years.

In analogy with the identity of selves in biology, physical matter was considered atomic. Indian physics describes nine 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 (the universal self) and another that is the individual mind.

The rishis mention that the experience of space and time is not absolute., and the day of Brahma is astronomically longer than the human day. That space and time flow at different rates is in many Vedic and Puranic stories. Indian astronomers assumed an uncountable number of worlds (solar systems). In Puranic texts, the diameter of our own solar system is taken to be about 500 million yojanas which is about 7.5 billion km.

The Vedas maintain that consciousness is present everywhere and it is the primary ground of reality. Minds do not emerge from matter; rather, the universe exists because of the presence of mind. This idea that consciousness is more fundamental than the physical universe is invoked to explain how the rishis turned out to be roughly right about the age and the size of the universe and the speed of light, while the modern scientist would take these as no more than numerical coincidences.


Vedic astronomy used a luni-solar year. Since the lunar year is 11 days shorter than the solar year, an intercalary month was employed every third year to adjust with the solar year. The movement of the moon was marked by its nightly conjunction with one of the 27 or 28 nakshatras. The Rigveda also speaks of another tradition of dividing the zodiac into 12 equal parts. The Rigveda and other early Vedic literature have astronomical references that go to the fourth and third millennium BC which is consistent with the hydrological evidence related to the Sarasvati river.

Indian astronomers estimated correctly that the sun and the moon are approximately 108 times their respective diameters from the earth (perhaps from the discovery that the angular size of a pole removed 108 times its height is the same as that of the sun and the moon), and this number was used in sacred architecture. The distances to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple from the gate and the perimeter of the temple were taken to be 54 and 180 units, which are one-half each of 108 and 360.

The astronomical basis of the Vedic ritual was the reconciliation of the lunar and solar years. Analogously, yogic practice was meant to reconcile the processes inside the body, taken to mirror that of the sun and the moon, which occurs when the eddies inside the mind (vrittis) are calmed.

Fire altar designed in the shape of a falcon

Fire altars, with astronomical basis, have been found in the third millennium cities of India. Vedic texts describe the design and ritual of the fire altars which were oriented towards the east and whose design, using bricks laid in five layers, coded astronomical knowledge of its times. The best known of the fire altars is the falcon altar shown in the figure above. The altar represented the universe and the choice of the falcon was to declare that the mystery of reality was that of change and time.

A series of seven fire altars were excavated at the Harappan site of Kalibangan in Rajasthan

The incommensurability between the lunar and the solar reckonings led to the search for ever-increasing cycles to synchronise the motions of the sun and the moon. This is how the yuga astronomical model was born. Vedic ritual was sacred theatre to communicate outer and inner knowledge to the participants so that they could reach within and be in touch with their own true selves.

Present relevance

The centrality of the obs­erver in Indian cosmology is similar to that of quantum theory, which is the deepest theory of physics. Erwin Schr­ödinger, one of the creators of quantum theory claimed that Upa­nishadic ideas were central to his discovery of the structure of the new subject. He wrote in an autobiographical essay that the idea of interconnectedness of quantum theory came to him as an echo of “that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as ‘I am in the east and the west, I am above and below, I am this entire world.’”

Indian cosmology is of interest not only from a historical perspective but also because it has the potential to explain human creativity and the mystery of consciousness. But there are challenges. Those who know Sanskrit texts do not know modern science and vice versa. One may even ask if it is possible to translate technical Sanskrit vocabulary related to consciousness into scientific terms that have an entirely different provenance.

(Subhash Kak is Regents professor of engineering at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of 20 books that include The Architecture of Knowledge)

For Printed Version : 09know1, 09know2

As always, a pleasure to

As always, a pleasure to read these articles.

Seeing an article by Dr. Kak after a long time. Was worth every minute of reading.



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