Art, Cosmology and the Divine | Part II

Main photo (above) is a Basohli illustration of the Gita Govinda, The South Wind Cools Itself in the Snow of the Himalayas, c.1730

Continuing this six-part series (Read Part I) in which distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak shows how traditional Indian art is not only aesthetically sublime, but reflects the cosmos and the Divine itself. Here we look more closely at the astronomical codes reflected in Vedic art and rituals.


Part II: General equivalences

The view that the arts belong to the domain of the sacred and that there is a connection between them is given most clearly in a famous passage in the Vishnudharmottara Purana in which the sage Markandeya instructs the King Vajra in the art of sculpture, teaching that to learn it one must first learn painting, dance, and music:

Vajra: How should I make the forms of gods so that the image may always manifest the deity?

Markandeya: He who does not know the canon of painting (citrasutram) can never know the canon of image-making (pratima lakshanam).

Vajra: Explain to me the canon of painting as one who knows the canon of painting knows the canon of image-making.

Markandeya: It is very difficult to know the canon of painting without the canon of dance (nritta shastra), for in both the world is to be represented.

Vajra: Explain to me the canon of dance and then you will speak about the canon of painting, for one who knows the practice of the canon of dance knows painting.

Markandeya: Dance is difficult to understand by one who is not acquainted with instrumental music (atodya).

Vajra: Speak about instrumental music and then you will speak about the canon of dance, because when the instrumental music is properly understood, one understands dance.

Markandeya: Without vocal music (gita) it is not possible to know instrumental music.

Vajra: Explain to me the canon of vocal music, because he, who knows the canon of vocal music, is the best of men who knows everything.

Markandeya: Vocal music is to be understood as subject to recitation that may be done in two ways, prose (gadya) and verse (padya). Verse is in many meters.

Some of the early meters range from the gayatri with 3 sections of 8 syllables (3 × 8 = 24) to anushtubh (4 × 8 = 32), viraj (4 × 10 = 40), trishtubh (4 × 11 = 44), and jagati (4 × 12 = 48). These appear to be connected to the astronomical number 360, the number of civil days in the year. There are also many other more complex meters, with a less obvious astronomical basis.

To understand the principle behind the broader equivalences of Indian art and its cosmology, it is good to begin with the fire altars of the Vedic period that were themselves designed to represent astronomical (outer) as well as inner knowledge. An assumed equivalence between the outer and the inner cosmos is central to the conception of the temple, which is why numbers such as 108 and 360 are important in its design.

The number 108 in the distance from the earth to the sun and the moon

The number 108 represents the approximate distance from the earth to the sun and the moon in sun and moon diameters, respectively. (The diameter of the sun is also 108 times the diameter of the earth, but that fact is not likely to have been known to the Vedic rishis.) The number of dance poses (karanas) given in the Natya Shastra is also 108, as is the number of beads in a rosary (japamala). The ‘distance’ between the body and the inner sun is also taken to be 108, so that the number of joinings is 107. Not surprisingly, the number of marmas in Ayurveda is 107. The total number of syllables in the Rigveda is taken to be 432,000, a number related to 108.

The number 360 is taken in the Ayurvedic texts to be the number of bones in the developing fetus, a number that fuses later into the 206 bones of the adult. The centrality of this number in Vedic ritual is stressed in the Shatapatha Brahmana.

The primary Vedic number is three, representing the tripartite division of the physical world into the earth, the atmosphere, and the sky and that of the person into the physical body, the pranas, and the inner sky.

The Vedic altars had an astronomical basis related to the reconciliation of the lunar and solar years, which mirrors the reconciliation of the female and male currents within the body and mind of the individual. The fire altars symbolized the universe and there were three types of altars representing the earth, the space and the sky. The altar for the earth was drawn as circular, whereas the sky (or heaven) altar was drawn as square.

The fire altars were surrounded by 360 enclosing stones, of these 21 were around the earth altar, 78 around the space altar and 261 around the sky altar. In other words, the earth, the space, and the sky are symbolically assigned the numbers 21, 78, and 261. Considering the earth/cosmos dichotomy, the two numbers are 21 and 339 since cosmos includes the space and the sky.

The main altar was built in five layers. The basic square shape was modified to several forms, such as falcon and turtle. These altars were built in five layers, of a thousand bricks of specified shapes. The construction of these altars required the solution to several geometric and algebraic problems.

The falcon altar

Two different kinds of bricks were used: the special and the ordinary. The total number of the special bricks used was 396, explained as 360 days of the year and the additional 36 days of the intercalary month. Two kinds of day counts: the solar day, and tithi, whose mean value is the lunar year divided into 360 parts.

Three different years were considered: (i) nakshatra, or a year of 324 days (sometimes 324 tithis) obtained by considering 12 months of 27 days each, where this 27 is the ideal number of days in a lunar month; (ii) lunar, which is a fraction more than 354 days (360 tithis); and (iii) solar, which is in excess of 365 days (between 371 and 372 tithis).

A well-known altar ritual says that altars should be constructed in a sequence of 95, with progressively increasing areas. The increase in the area, by one unit yearly, in building progressively larger fire altars is 48 tithis which is about equal to the intercalation required to make the nakshatra year in tithis equal to the solar year in tithis. But there is a residual excess which in 95 years adds up to 89 tithis; it appears that after this period such a correction was made. The 95 year cycle corresponds to the tropical year being equal to 365.24675 days. The cycles needed to harmonize various motions led to the concept of increasing periods and world ages.

The number of syllables in the Rigveda confirms the textual references that the book was to represent a symbolic altar. According to various early texts, the number of syllables in the Rigveda is 432,000, which is the number of muhurtas in forty years. In reality the syllable count is somewhat less because certain syllables are supposed to be left unspoken. The organization of the Rigveda is also according to a plan, but that is a different story told in my book, The Astronomical Code of the Rigveda.

The verse count of the Rigveda can be viewed as the number of sky days in forty years or 261 × 40 = 10,440, and the verse count of all the Vedas is 261 × 78 = 20,358.

The Brahmanas and the Shulbasutras tell us about the altar of chhandas and meters, so we would expect that the total Rigvedic hymn count of 1017 and the group count of 216 have particular significance. Owing to the pervasive tripartite ideology of the Vedic books we choose to view the hymn number as 339 × 3. The tripartite ideology refers to the consideration of time in three divisions of past, present, and future and the consideration of space in the three divisions of the northern celestial hemisphere, the plane that is at right angle to the earth’s axis, and the southern celestial hemisphere. The number 339 is simply the number of disks of the sun or the moon to measure the path across the sky: π times 108 is approximately 339. The Rigvedic code then expresses a fundamental connection between the numbers 339 and 108. The numbers 108 and 360 appear as the axis and the perimeter dimensions of the temple.

Read Part I in the series: introduction
Read Part III: temples and Gods
read part IV: churning of the ocean
Read Part v: Krishna’s Dance
Read part vi: Indian aesthetic in an age of war
Scroll down to leave a comment on this article.

Sign-up for the weekly newsletter & join us on Facebook:
Subhash Kak
Scientist, Professor, Vedic Scholar
Subhash Kak is Regents professor at Oklahoma State University where his work has focused on artificial intelligence, quantum information, and history of science. He is also a Vedic scholar with contributions to the fields of Indian astronomy, architecture, and philosophy and he has written over a dozen books and several hundred research articles on these subjects. His two most recent books are Arrival and Exile: Selected Poems and The Circle of Memory: an Autobiography.

4 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply