Discrepancies Between Shastra and Science

Question: A devotee scholar explained that when śāstra clashes with pratyaksa, we should accept modern science when it comes to descriptions of Vedic cosmology, and not be literal fanatics of śāstra. I am confused by this. Why should we accept the arguments of NASA for the moon landing and the shape of the Earth as absolute truth?

Answer: Yes, no need. But then you should be able to explain the visible phenomenon like the cycle of days and night, change of seasons, solar and lunar eclipses, etc. Moreover, we have the word Bhū-gola in Sanskrit, which means round earth.

Question:  Śrīmad Bhāgavata describes in Fifth Canto Bhūmaṇḍala, Jambūdvīpa and our position in Bhārata-varṣa. In Mahābhārata is described how Arjuna went through other varṣa of Jambūdvīpa and with Kṛṣṇa along the whole Bhūmaṇḍala. Are we supposed to think that all this is a myth?

Answer: No.

Question: My mindset as a devotee is to believe in śāstra, rather than in the explanations of scientists. Nowhere in śāstra is stated that we live on a spinning ball in a dark universe. Quite opposite, it is clearly stated that we live on the southern tip of Jambūdvīpa, in one of nine varṣas – Bhārata-varṣa.

Answer:  That is perfectly fine, but you must also describe where the other varṣas are. Where is the Jambū tree which has fruits of the size of an elephant? Where is the Jambu-nada, the river made from the juice of these Jambū fruits? Where are the oceans of milk and liquor? [ Devotees will be happy with the milk ocean and the nondevotees with the ocean of liquor !] Where is the Meru Mountain, which 80000 yojana high? You also must explain the process of day and night as well as the making of the seasons. All this need to be explained.

Question: Thinking that these descriptions are just realizations of elevated yogī’s and that our reality is that which NASA tells us is really destroying my faith. “This Bhāgavata Purāṇa is as brilliant as the sun, and it has arisen just after the departure of Lord Kṛṣṇa to His own abode, accompanied by religion, knowledge, etc. Persons who have lost their vision due to the dense darkness of ignorance in the Age of Kali shall get light from this Purāṇa. How should we, lost persons in the Age of Kali will get light from this Purāṇa if descriptions are not reality?” (SB 1.3.43)

Answer:  The above verse is talking about Śrīmad Bhāgavata giving light to those who have lost their vision out of ignorance. There is no mention about teaching astronomy. Kṛṣṇa did not come to teach cosmology. He came to establish dharma (Gītā 4.7, 4.8). I have not read anywhere that He comes to teach cosmology or astronomy. Thus the Bhāgavata, being a representative of Kṛṣṇa, has appeared to teach about dharma. If you want to learn cosmology from a book of dharma, you will be frustrated. It is like trying to learn quantum mechanics from a biology book. Vyāsa tells in SB 1.1.2, vedyaṁ vāstavam atra vastu, and in 1.1.3, pibata bhāgavataṁ rasam ālayam. Every śāstra describes its subject (viṣaya) and object to be achieved (prayojana) in the very beginning. We have to study that carefully and then read the śāstra, keeping these two things in mind. Vyāsa has mentioned these in the first three verses of the first chapter. To know more about these two subjects, please read verses 1.7.4 – 7, which describe the samādhi of Vyāsa. Śrīmad Bhāgavata is an explanation of Vyāsa’s experience in samādhi. To understand   this better, please read verses 2.10.1 and 2.10.2. Here the list of the ten topics described in Śrīmad Bhāgavata is given. Astronomy or cosmology are not included here. Moreover, the first nine topics are secondary. They are meant to explain only the tenth topic, which is Kṛṣṇa. The last quarter of verse 2.10.2 is noteworthy. It explains that these topics are described directly as well as indirectly (to put it in simple words). This means that not everything in Śrīmad Bhāgavata is a literal description.

This is made clearer in SB 12.3.14, especially with the words vaco-vibhūtīr na tu pāramārthyam. To get an idea of what Śrīmad Bhāgavata describes, consider SB 12.13.12, 12.13.18, 12.5.1. Was Parīkṣit bitten by a real snake or saṁsāra-sarpa—a snake in the form of saṁsāra (SB 12.13.21)? These are statements from the Bhāgavata itself.

Question: We are confused enough in this material world and thinking that Śrīmad Bhāgavata adds just more confusion is too much for me.

Answer: Śrīmad Bhāgavata is not adding confusion. But Śrīmad Bhāgavata is also not a storybook that you can read yourself in your leisure time and understand. It is the last work of Vyāsa, and it is the one that gave solace even to Him. There is a common saying among Sanskrit scholars, vidyāvatāṁ bhāgavate parīkṣā—one’s scholarship is tested if one can explain Śrīmad Bhāgavata. It is said to be an explanation of Vedanta-sūtraVedānta-sūtra is a brilliant work that gives the essence of Upaniṣads. It cannot be understood by self-study. Similarly, to understand the message of the Bhāgavata, one needs to study from a qualified teacher. Śrī Jiva Gosvāmi wrote Bhāgavat Sandarbha, a set of six books, just to explain the meaning of the Bhāgavata. Even his work needs further explanation. So the Bhāgavata is not adding confusion, but if we feel confused by it, then our approach to it is defective.

Question: Other varṣas are physically located north of Bhārata-varṣa. Great personalities as described in Śrīmad Bhāgavata and Mahābhārata traveled to other varṣas of Kimpuruṣa, Harivarṣa, Ketumāla, and others. This is not what we could perceive with our limited senses. Modern science could not prove the recordable curvature of the Earth, spinning of the Earth, landing on the Moon, etc. And why do high-speed jets never need to adjust their craft for curvature? There is no direct chain of evidence or observation. My understanding is that the descriptions and dimensions in the cosmology section of Śrīmad Bhāgavata are factual but beyond human logic.

Answer: When I asked where the other varṣas are, I did not expect a citation from śāstra but to hear from you where they are physically located. After all, with the inventions of airplanes and spacecraft, we know a lot about physical reality.

Why are neither Bhārata-varṣa nor the other varṣas visible, although it seems Arjuna went there? We know that north of Bhārata are the Himalayas, which are visible, and north of the Himalayas is China. This is also visible. Where is China in the picture provided by you? And where do the invisible varṣa begin? I mean, we have some visible parts, so where exactly does the invisible one begin? Is it right after the Himalayas? If yes, why is China not described in your picture? If no, then is China part of Bhārata-varṣa? If not, whose part is it?

But in any case, you have made an important statement, “This is not what we could perceive with our limited senses.” So this is what carries the solution to the discrepancy between the descriptions of śāstra and science.

Question: I heard the cosmological descriptions given in the Purāṇas are ādhidaivika, but you also mention on your website that the Bhāgavata Purāṇa contains kāvya. Therefore, parts of it could be literary devices. Is there some reference from the ācāryas or the Bhāgavata, where Purāṇic cosmology is labeled “ādhidaivika“?

Answer: There is no statement in the Bhāgavata per se. There is no label given to it. It is understood by pāriśeṣa-nyāya—or the principle of the remainder. The description is certainly not ādhibhautika, because it does not match our experience. Ādhibhautika is what we can experience with our senses. It can also not be wrong, because the Bhāgavata is pramāṇa—that which gives authentic knowledge. This being the case, we are left with the choice that either it is ādhidaivika, subtle, or ādhyātmika, spiritual. It cannot be ādhyātmika because it is part of the material world. So by the principle of the remainder, it can only be ādhidaivika.

Śrīmad Bhāgavata indeed describes objects at these three levels, and it describes things indirectly, as understood from verses such as SB 2.10.2. The description of the universe found in the Fifth Canto is the understanding through yogic vision. It is the understanding of sages like Śukadeva, and not of ordinary people like us. This is confirmed by Patañjali in Yoga-sūtra (3.26) bhuvana-jñānaṁ sūrye saṁyamāt, “By doing saṁyama on the Sun, the yogī gets knowledge of the structure of the universe.” Here the word saṁyama refers to dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi, the last three limbs of Āṣṭāṅga Yoga. Vyāsa writes an elaborate explanation of this sūtra similar to the description found in the Fifth Canto. This proves that the description of the Bhāgavata is not cognizable to our ordinary sense perception. Therefore, I do not consider the Bhagavata’s description to be wrong nor that of modern science. They belong to two different spheres.                                                                                                                                                                      

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