When śāstra clashes with pratyakśa

Jambūdvīpa is not an account of a physical reality.

The purāṇas contain a bewildering array of information about the material world that does not match with pratyakśa or direct perception. A typical example is the account in the purāṇas of a lotus-like Bhū whose pericarp is the Meru mountain. North, south, east and west of Meru are the varśas collectively called Jambūdvīpa. Jambūdvīpa itself is surrounded by seas of different liquids- of sugarcane juice, liquor, ghee, curds, milk and so on. Further surrounding them is a land of gold which is further surrounded by the lokāloka mountain. Below Bhū are present seven more lokas, and above are present the bhuvar-lokas extending upto the sun. Beyond them and the sun is the moon (!) and so on followed by svar-loka, and finally seven more lokas (mahar, jana, tapa upto satya).

Now of course nobody can point to the sky and identify these lokas, oceans and so on. What is one to make of such fantastical descriptions? There have been two extreme approaches in some modern sects of Caitanya Vaisṇavism. In one approach, faithful bhaktas insist that these descriptions are real and that astronomers are clueless about the real structure of the universe. For this reason, they reject that humans went to the moon because it is much farther away from the earth than the sun! Other bhaktas have tried to interpret the purāṇic distances in such a way that they can be reconciled with astronomical descriptions.

The first approach is mere fanaticism or andha bhakti. The second approach misses the point- the descriptions of Bhū are not of the physical universe at all.

As Śrī Babaji explains it, śāstra describes the experiences of yogīs in trance of things beyond the material world (adhidaivika level), but an untrained reader may try to interpret the information as literally referring to a physical reality. Before the account of the universe in the Bhāgavatam, Śukadeva Goswami mentions how what he is about to narrate is beyond the ability of the mind to grasp, even if one thought about it for the lifetime of Brahmā. And yet, there are those who try to make sense of these accounts. What a waste of effort!

Are these accounts false then? They are clearly untrue as far as the adhibhautika level is concerned. But these stories may not be completely false, in that they could be experiences of the adhidaivika type of great yogīs.

What is the need for these narratives in the scriptures? There is no one answer to this question of course, because such questions can crop up for many different narratives in the scriptures. For the case of Jambūdvīpa, one simple reason could be that the audience understand their own insignificance in light of the magnificence of the world. The stories are embellished by interesting portrayals – an ocean of sugarcane, a land of gold and so on – to engage the reader. It is an example of pedagogy, and not to be taken literally.

Grappling with material mechanisms in the darśanas

Now it is undeniable that the darśanas contain accounts of material mechanisms that are mistaken. As an example, in refuting advaitavāda, Śrī Vaisṇavism posits that there is no such thing as bhrama or illusion. Advaitavāda considers everything perceptible to be ultimately a projection of thought and not really real. A favorite example of advaitavāda is that one is liable to see silver in an oyster shell but it is not actually present there. Similarly the world is not present in a real sense but only appears to exist being superimposed by māyā on Brahman. Śrī Vaisṇavas refute this by positing that there is no such thing as bhrama or illusion. When one sees silver in an oyster shell, it is because there actually is silver there! They justify this by the process of pañcikaraṇa. Simply put, the five mahabhūtas are present in each other, and therefore silver can be present even in the oyster shell. Of course, we know well that the silver on the oyster shell is a trick of light reflecting from its surface at an angle, and not due to the literal presence of silver there.

Advaitavādis posit that an object is seen when the antaḥ-karaṇa or subtle sensory instrument flows out through the eye to envelope the object. Of course, we now know that light from the object enters the eye and gets decoded in the brain.

What is one to make of these accounts of material mechanisms? It is useful to keep in mind that the goal of the darśanas is not to teach about material mechanisms but to teach difference between matter and the ātman, or prakṛti and puruṣa. All darśanas, whether sāṅkhya, advaita vedānta, or vaisṇava vedānta accept that prakṛti is distinct from the puruṣa. The goal of these darśanas is not only mokṣa or prema but it is also to make one happy here and now. So the Sāṅkhya-kārikā begins with duḥkha traya abhighātāt jijñāsa – because of the problem of the three fold misery, there is the desire for inquiry (into the means of alleviating misery). It is a fact that happiness is not to be found by learning about material mechanisms.

The goal of the dārśanikas was not to understand material nature and indeed, they were ill-equipped to do so, lacking as they were in the expertise and instruments of modern science. Their goal was teaching about non-material reality as they had experienced it, and indeed that was their singular purpose. To the extent that they were obliged to engage with accounts of material nature, whether to refute ideas contrary to the realization of their experiences, or simply because those ideas existed in the times in which they were present, they engaged with them.

These great yogis were unparalleled, however, in their understanding of human psychology, of the origin of emotions, and of the reasons for why humans behave the way they do. They taught techniques and concepts that helped their followers to transcend material emotions and the material mind and experience that which cannot be experienced by material implements like the senses and the mind. This experience, then, is the only goal of the scriptures. Because understanding how light works or the brain functions was not their focus, the dārśanikas’ understanding in these matters was limited.


Frequently the accounts of material nature in the scriptures do not refer to physical reality. Accounts of material mechanisms by the dārśanikas can also be mistaken. The interest of these dārśanikas was not in understanding material mechanisms, but in experience of a reality beyond material nature. Because that was their singular purpose, their descriptions of spiritual reality are reliable and should be the focus for a sādhaka. Those whose goal is to understand material nature are called scientists. Their accounts of the material world are reliable to the extent that their instruments and theoretical concepts allow them to understand it.

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15 replies »

  1. The below line in the Summary is counter-intuitive given the conclusion in this article about material nature (“the accounts of material nature in the scriptures do not refer to physical reality”):

    “Because that was their singular purpose, their descriptions of spiritual reality are reliable and should be the focus for a sādhaka.”

    How can one refute the argument that the spiritual reality described in the śāstras is also an experience of the yogīs in trance and can also be mistaken?

    Thank you

    • Spiritual reality is the focus of the yogis and therefore their descriptions are reliable. That it is perceived in trance does not invalidate experience. Material reality is not their focus and so their explanations need not be perfect.

      • Just a thought – instead of discarding the explanations of Material reality because they don’t align with *current* scientific measurements (eg. distance between earth and moon vs earth and sun, etc.), can’t we consider that the scientific measurements are based on our 3-dimensional view of the universe.

        For example, if you project a 3D object on a 2D plane, the size of the object (similarly, the distance between 2 objects) varies depending upon how the 2D plane slices through the 3D object(s).

        As such, the spiritual/material world combo could be made up of higher dimensions, and their projections on our 3D perspective would yield the measurements that we observe. But the yogis could have described the universe from the perspective of a higher dimension…

      • “..because they don’t align with *current* scientific measurements (eg. distance between earth and moon ..” – There are things that are uncertain in science and there are things that are not uncertain. The diameter of the earth is precisely known and its not going to improve, so it is not a matter of ‘current’ science. Likewise, the distance between the earth and moon is precisely known.

        “can’t we consider that the scientific measurements are based on our 3-dimensional view of the universe.” – We can consider whatever we want, but I don’t see where in shastra, it is written that the distances are a two dimensional projection. It is unclear if such interpretations are valid (and there have been several such attempts in the last few decades), given that the tradition did not try to give such interpretations.

      • ‘To me’, the way that the distances, diameters of the objects in our solar system are someway or other based on the number 108 appears that what we ‘observe’ is a projection of a much vast manifestation.

        The reason for sharing my opinion is just to call out that ‘to me’ it doesn’t make sense to accept some descriptions in the scriptures as perfect (like that of the spiritual reality) and reject some descriptions as not perfect (like that of material reality).

        As you said, i haven’t come across any references in scriptures yet that what we see is a projection and so you can disregard this comment as some random guy’s opinion of no value for now 🙂

      • There are other ways to approach it. Babaji also explains that Bhagavatam is a kavya, and in kavya, there is license to say inaccurate things about peripheral issues, to meet a certain goal. The kavya is a creation of the kavi where the kavi is supreme. Here the goal is to show us how great the universe is. Another example of kavya is the Brhad Bhagavatamrta. Shastra primarily teaches through vyanjana vrtti, therefore literally interpreting everything is a strange approach that unfortunately began in modern times.

  2. Thank you for this novel explanation. I was wondering if there is any pramana or Acharyas’ statements to this effect that the descriptions of Jambudvipa are at adhidaivika level or that they are more of kavya type… That would make the case more solid.

    Because all acharya’s seem to have commented on them as though they are a reality at the adhibhautika level — please correct me if I am wrong.

  3. Thank you prabhu. But I think the translation you have quoted seems to say exactly the opposite of the actual meaning – Could you check it once prabhu?

    It should have been:
    O mighty Parīkṣit! I have related to you the narrations of all these great devotees who attained the Lord, who spread their fame throughout the world, with a desire to speak about their renunciation and their realization of the Lord. I have not spoken to show the power of words, but to give you the highest spiritual knowledge.

    As Viśvanātha Cakravarti Thakura says – kiṁ ca, imāḥ kathā vaco-vibhūtīr vacasāṁ vibhūtayo na bhavanti, kintu pāramārthyaṁ kathānāṁ paramārthatayaiva jñeyety arthaḥ ||14||
    I have spoken, not to show the power of words, but for you to gain the highest spiritual knowledge.

    • The verse can be translated in different ways depending on where you apply the ‘na tu’. Sri Visvanatha’s explanation does not oppose what I quoted. Both translations agree that the purpose is to explain transcendence.

      Here is Sri Jiva’s comment on this verse from the Bhakti Sandarbha. Sridhar Swami says something similar.

      rāja-vaṁśānukīrtanasya tātparyam āha kathā imā iti | vijñānaṁ viṣayāsāratā-jñānam | tato vairāgyam | tayor vivakṣayā | pareyuṣāṁ mṛtānāṁ vaco-vibhūtīr vāg-vilāsa-mātra-rūpāḥ | pāramārthyaṁ paramārtha-yuktaṁ kathanaṁ na bhavatīty arthaḥ

  4. But the question still remains why the acharyas have to comment extensively on the sections on cosmology if it were just kavya… they could have mentioned that it is of kavya type directly… Or if it were to be taken as adhidhaivika then they could have mentioned that and not bothered to provide so many details of the cosmology – but they don’t seem to mention that it is adhidhaivika – so is there a reason for this? Thank you.

    • By your logic, nobody should comment on any kavya whatsoever. Shastra teaches by vyanjana vrtti as Krsna Himself says in the Bhagavatam. Obviously the knowledge is not spelt out for everyone literally. Shastra is not a self-study manual; it has to be learnt from a teacher in the parampara. It is the parampara that teaches how to approach different sections in the shastra. Those who believe in ‘do it yourself’ must labor incessantly in confusion, bewildered by the myriad verses and ideas in the scriptures.

  5. That’s true that shastra can’t be learnt independently but should always be learnt from Guru, who in turn learns from his Guru and so on… So that way the Guru would be repeating the Acharyas right?

    So the simple question is – did any Acharya say that this particular section has such an interpretation as you are stating? Because it is not just some Gaudiyas who hold the view that it is literal but also the Madhwas. For instance the 12th century Madhwa saint Sri Vadiraja tirtha also said the same thing in his Bhugola Varnanam and he even had an elaborate sketch of the descriptions… And all the Madhwas hold the same view that it is literal.

    So how do we understand that this article is not simply trying to explain the difficult parts away?

    • As a clarification, this website is not the proper forum for back and forth debate and argument about things. Its great you have the interest to dive deeper, but I just don’t have the time to do this. I suggest you contact Sri Babaji if you are genuinely interested in understanding these topics.

      – Thanks.

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