The Cosmological Principle of Ancient India
by Konrad Rudnicki
Discovery of ancient civilizations
With time, we are increasingly aware of the existence of ever older cultures. As recently as the 18th century, it was believed that human culture was something very recent - that the first roots of it are to be found only in the social and scholarly institutions of ancient Greece and Rome. The Europeans of that time thought that prior to ancient Greece there were only uncivilized customs and barbaric art and therefore ideas about nature, and particularly about the Universe, must have been quite primitive, too. Furthermore, it was commonly thought that though, to be sure, the Greeks had laid the foundations for modern science, true scientific research had actually begun only in the Renaissance era.
There was something known about the ancient Egyptian knowledge of nature, but in fact genuine interest into the culture and civilization of Egypt began in Europe only with Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. The Europeans discovered the surprising fact that Egyptian culture, though a few thousands years older than the culture of the ancient Greeks, had apparently been much more advanced scientifically. The first Egyptologists were enchanted by the mathematical proportions of the astronomically oriented pyramids. In the 19th century, ancient Egypt and its culture became fashionable in Europe.
But all developments of ancient Egypt were still considered an exception to the universal uncouthness that was believed to dominate throughout the ancient world.
In the course of time, ever more such exceptions were discovered. Historians digging into documents, but above all archaeologists excavating old settlements, palaces, tombs and shrines, found more and more evidence of great advanced civilizations in the remote past. At first they were civilizations rather close to those of ancient Egypt and Greece: Babylon, Chaldea, Persia. But later on, traces of fairly developed civilizations were found also in the Caucasus, Central Asia, India, China, the Americas, Oceania and the Central Africa. It seemed as if the entire Earth had consisted of such "exceptional" regions where one or another past civilization once used to be.
The development of human culture and civilization seems not to have proceeded by straight lines. Rather there was an advanced civilization somewhere in the world in almost every millennium. It is also evident that every civilization after its efflorescence falls into decay and degeneracy. What do present-day Egyptians have in common with the ancient Egyptian culture? And inhabitants of Polynesia - with the monuments of Easter Island? And the contemporary British - with the master-builders of Stonehenge?
It is not my aim to determine how long some particular culture persisted, or how long humanity fostered some particular ideas concerning the Universe as a whole. With more discoveries, the history of human culture seemed to reach further into the past. I would not like to affirm or reject here any old stories about missing continents and civilizations such as Lemuria and Atlantis. As long as no records are available about attitudes of their inhabitants toward the Cosmos as such, the issue of their existence is of no significance for our considerations.
Culture of Ancient India
The first culture of which we have definite information concerning its cosmological ideas is ancient India, meaning the period of India's history prior to that of the wars in the south of the Indian Peninsula. That was an epoch of efflorescence of the Hindu spirit when the Indian nation lived peacefully in the northern part of what is now India. This epoch carne to an end as early as about six thousand years before Christ. It is sometimes called the epoch of great Rishis - great teachers of India. There is no consensus among Indologists in which millennium those general beliefs about the Universe arose.
Some scholars place them even before the 9th millennium B.C. We can reproduce the natural environment of this nation as abundant and favorable to people who lived in rather small communities scattered all over the country. The soul mood of ancient Indians was very different from our own. That difference has to be grasped if we are to understand what is today called the Cosmological Principle of Ancient India.
Ancient Indians considered all that is perceived by the physical senses as an illusion or "maya". They felt it discomforting to have to live within that maya. Instead, they strove toward spiritual reality, which they wanted to grasp and experience, not by conceptual and logical thinking (logic as such did not exist yet!) but through ardent fee1ings.
It is true that this epoch left no direct written records behind, but it did leave a great oral tradition. The Indians up to the present day, living in the echoes of that culture, inherited traditions richer and stronger than other nations, and the extraordinary collective memory, cultivated by appropriate exercises, preserved many ancient oral works for posterity. Most of those works were written only in post-Christian times. But their content as well as the fact that they are in Sanskrit, a language that has not been spoken for thousands of years, is taken by Indologists as evidence that they go back to ancient times (cf. Radhakrishnan 1951). In any case, the roots of a meditative attitude towards the world, so characteristic for India, had formed very early, thousands of years before the strictly historic era of India began.
World view of Ancient India
The content of most ancient works preserved to date is varied: some are completely incomprehensible for a contemporary researcher used to logical thinking; some were meant for educated people, others for the ordinary public -like today's popularization of science.
The first attempt at reconstructing the Ancient Indian Cosmological Principle was made in 1972 (Heller and Rudnicki, 1972), but its more correct formulation was presented only ten years later (Rudnicki 1982, 1989). In investigating the ancient Indian mode of thinking, it must be kept in mind that there was no philosophy in the modem sense then. Issues which belong today to philosophy were previously approached through artistic activity. Philosophy was still immersed in poetry or, rather, poetry was the way of expressing what we would call now philosophical beliefs. To c1arify, to talk about primeval Indian philosophy, meaning "philosophy" as it is understood today, would lead to conceptual confusion. Most ancient Indian texts were supposed to be experienced, not argued about logically or discussed. Indian philosophy as such carne about only much later, arising in its more or less contemporary form a few centuries before Christ, at approximately the same time that Greek philosophy was born. In those times, there was no philosophy and no science in today's sense. But if we are to find, through the ancient Hindus, the roots of modem science, then we can say that what is natural science today was in those days elaborated on the one hand with the highest principles of universal existence, and on the other with the finest sensory perceptions.
Spiritual, like physical perceptions, were felt to be revelations. Nobody thought of proving truths about the world; they were true by intuition.
Documents about the cosmological views of Ancient India
The highly spiritual Vedic cosmological texts are now incomprehensible to us. Myths about the Earth, the Sun, and the planets, in the form they reach us, belong rather lo the "popularization of science;" and they refer only to the immediate vicinity of the Earth. The most distinct source of the ancient Hindu outlook of the Cosmos is the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita. The poem itself was created in relatively modern times, just a few centuries - maybe two, no more than six - before Christ, but that chapter contains the oldest cosmological concepts available to us, expressed in a language comprehensible to us without resorting to precarious interpretations. One might say that here we encounter the old Vedic contents in a form elaborated for our purposes in later times. These are some excerpts from the eleventh chapter of Bhagavad-Gita in translation by Michael Lipson (quoted from Rudnicki 1991) - a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna:
Krishna: See me then, O son of Earth,
As one in the plurality of forms
As a more heavenly Nature, various
And countless as the stars of heaven are...
Regard as a unitary Whole
The whole world, with all its forms.
It is my body. I myself its spirit:
And everything that is, is all in me...
Now, when the Lord of worlds had spoken thus,
He revealed to the son of earth
Himself, in his own true form,
As the Ruler who contains the entire world.
With countless faces, countless
Forms of consciousness, regal, multiform,
Arrayed with every glory of heaven,
And steeped in every heavenly power.
Even if a thousand suns at once
Rose on the horizon, yet the light
Would not compare to that glory
Which Arjuna's spirit-eye beheld.
Pandava saw the whole of the Universe
And everything within it that moves
Or does not move, as multiple in appearance
Yet in truth as only One.
Shocked with wonder Arjuna sank down,
Shivering; then with devotion
Bowing his head, he folded his hands,
And spoke thus to the Lord of the Universe:..
I see you now: with many arms,
With countless breasts to nourish
Everything in the world, and many eyes;
With no beginning, middle, or end...
Without beginning, middle, or end,
Infinite in power and in activity...
A Contemporary formulation of the Ancient Indian Cosmological Principle
According to the oldest Indian traditions, the Universe is understood to be the body of the highest, infinite spiritual being and thus has some of his properties. If we attempt to render this into the language of contemporary science, we arrive at the following formulation:
The Universe is infinite in space and time and is infinitely heterogeneous.
This means also: our Earth is not a unique, exceptional, celestial body. It does not have any favored position in time or in space. Many such "earths" (those oldest cosmological considerations do not refer to any specific kind of celestial bodies) preceded and many will follow our Earth in time. Also, in present time there are many other "earths" of the same significance for the Universe as that of ours. On the other hand, the Earth is not something average either in its location in space or time or in respect to its inner qualities. No average values can be arrived at when differences between objects tend to infinity.
The ancient Indians left some concepts about the structure of the neighborhood of the Earth (e.g. the familiar picture of the Earth resting on a great turtle), but they left no overall system of the Universe as such. In ancient Indian documents nothing can be found that could be called a model of the Universe as a whole. When we grasp the content of their cosmological principle, we can see that it is not incidental. No mathematical model of the Universe involving the Ancient Indian Principle can be constructed even now, since mathematics have not yet developed any tools to deal with the notion of infinite heterogeneity. The development of the newly elaborated theory of fractals tends to this direction, but the heterogeneity that theory is able to deal with is still too limited. Cosmology based on fractal structure of the Universe (cf. e.g. Mandelbrot 1977) is still far from the ancient Indian outlook. An Indian sage from many thousands years ago would say to the contemporary cosmologist: the Universe is much too complicated to be put into those primitive mathematical formulae of yours.
Perhaps further developments in mathematics will make it possible to calculate a model of the Universe concordant with the Cosmological Principle of Ancient India. But at present, without resorting to models and strict calculations, we can imagine a picture, or rather a number of different pictures of such a Universe, infinitely self-different at every point. Everything that is plausible comes to be realized somewhere in it. But still it is Cosmos, not Chaos, and the highest order and beauty govern it.
Of course, this is just one of many historical cosmological principles. It has few adherents nowadays (e.g. in connection with the Anthropic Principle, see Chapter 6), but its importance in the development of cosmological ideas is considerable. One can at 1east suspect, if not prove, that it influenced the cosmological ideas of some philosophers of ancient Greece. And when Nicolas of Cusa (Nicolaus Krebs 1401-1464 A.D.) revealed his view that the fabric of the world has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, we cannot be sure if this was a far echo of the Indian Principle or a precursor of the modern, Copernican, mode of thinking about the Universe or, perhaps, both. The comparison of this oldest known cosmological principle with contemporary principles shows major differences but some close similarities as well.
Ancient Indian "Scientific method" today
The content of the Cosmological Principle of Ancient India, as expressed in contemporary terms, is still of use in contemporary cosmology. This brings some people to the conclusion that the method used in those times can find an application nowadays. The great sages of ancient India did not think about the world in logical terms nor was their approach to reality based on "pure feelings," if we are to understand the term feelings in its contemporary sense. We could rather say that they "participated in the world through internal and external experiences." After this most remote style of world perception, many others followed, each connected with another epoch of human evolution.
The contemporary way of approaching reality, called science, has its roots in the works of Greek mathematicians like Euclid (306-283 B.C.) but developed only in the Renaissance era. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642 A.D.) is usually considered the founder of science. Gradually people learned to perceive the world with logical thinking and with full control of their self-consciousness. (That was the overall tendency but many scholars did not reach that stage.) Every epoch has its own manner of approaching reality and contributes its achievements to the overall development of humanity and general knowledge. We would not have science in its contemporary form if the ancient Rishis in India did not exist once upon a time, if the Persian, Egyptian, Chaldean, Greek and Medieval scholars did not make their contributions.
The results stay; the styles of epochs change. Of course it is still possible, with great endeavor, not only to understand an approach to the reality of great personalities of past epochs, but even to follow their footsteps, to imitate their inner spiritual mode and their ways of striving for truth. Such attempts are quite popular at present, and the epoch of ancient India is the favorite one for such experiments. Whoever does this is, at best, reproducing old results but in no way contributing anything new to science.
It is useless to discuss which epoch of human development was better or which comprehended reality in the most intrinsic way. I am far from claiming that the contemporary scientific world view reveals to us more important aspects of existence than that of ancient India. I do not maintain either that this world view is the final one and that it will remain up to the very end of human evolution. I would like to affirm only that it is not possible to obtain any results of importance in contemporary science by making use of ancient Indian or Egyptian methods. Whoever is not too fond of contemporary ideas has the full right to revive ancient outlooks but should not pretend to be a scientist in the true sense.
These remarks are certainly trivial but by no means superfluous. Some amateur astronomers and other laymen practicing science send letters to observatories and scientific societies with results of their investigations that are based or most often appear to be based on beliefs and concepts proceeding along the same lines of those prevailing in ancient times. I myself have received for reviewing no less than a hundred "scientific" papers of that sort. In most cases, no other objections could be raised against them other than that they were late by several thousands of years.
© Konrad Rudnicki 1995
From: "The Cosmological Principles"
Konrad Rudnicki is a professor at Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland. He is a member of the Free European Academy of Science (Holland), member of the Commission of Galaxies of the International Astronomical Union and member of the Mathematical-Astronomical Section at the Goetheanum, (Switzerland). Prof. Rudnicki has been Senior Research Fellow at the California Institute of Technology (1965-67), visiting professor at Rice University, USA (1988-89). His areas of interest are: extragalactic astronomy, cosmology, philosophy of science and methodology of science.