From Vedanta to Plato: the Deep Links between India and Europe (Part 1)

Vedanta and Plato. Mahabharata and Homeric poems. Venus and Vena. Kupros and Shukra. What’s behind the fascinating parallels?

Professor Subhash Kak delves into the deep connections between India and the Graeco-Roman world which show up not only in language, but civilizational ideas, philosophy, mythology, astronomy and art. This is Part 1 in a two-part series.

Ganga: The River of Heaven

by Subhash Kak

The Ganga, rising in the Himalayas and emptying into the Bay of Bengal, flows through one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Draining nearly one-fourth of the Indian subcontinent, it cuts through the heartland of India where its earliest kingdoms were situated. On its banks, thousands of years ago, sages established ashrams and composed hymns and texts that form the core of the Vedic tradition.  The wisdom of the Vedic rishis, in its various forms such as Yoga and Vedanta, continues to inspire people in India and the rest of the world and Vedic hymns are chanted today as they were millennia ago.

The river begins as the Bhagirathi at the edge of the Gangotri Glacier at the height of 13,200 feet. It becomes the Ganga after joining up with the Alakananda at Devaprayag. Other tributaries merge into it before it flows from the mountains at the ashram town of Rishikesh and then moves into the plains just a few miles south at the pilgrimage city of Haridwar.

In its course of 1500 miles, the Ganga passes through ancient cities such as Kannauj, Prayag, Varanasi, and Patna and via its distributaries in the modern cities of Kolkata and Dhaka; the modern capital of Delhi and the Mughal capital of Agra are on its tributary, the Yamuna.  Its first major distributary is the Bhagirathi-Hooghly, which travels through West Bengal.  Upon entering Bangladesh, it is known as the Padma and joins the Jamuna River, the name by which the Brahmaputra is known here. Farther downstream, the Padma joins the Meghna River, and takes on that name as it enters the Meghna Estuary, which empties into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganga delta is the world’s largest by breadth, which extends to 220 miles, and third largest by volume.

The famous River Hymn of the Rigveda lists ten rivers of which the Ganga appears to be the easternmost with Sarasvati to its west. Archaeological remains of the Sindhu-Sarasvati tradition (also called Indus civilization) that go back to about 8000 BCE have the Sarasvati River as the main focus with most sites scattered in its valleys. The Sarasvati arose in the Himalayas just to the west of the Ganga and it is lauded in another Vedic hymn as the greatest river of its time, going from the mountains to the sea.

Map showing the now-dry Sarasvati river

Scholars believe that changes in climate and earthquakes caused the Sarasvati to dry up in the Western Desert about 2000 BCE. Some have speculated that the main cause of the diminution of the Sarasvati was that the course of its tributary, Yamuna, changed towards the Ganga after a major earthquake.  By the time of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the encyclopaedic Puranas, the Ganga was the preeminent river of Indian culture. But, Sarasvati was not forgotten. Since it didn’t reach all the way down to the sea, it was imagined to join up with the Ganga — and the tributary Yamuna — through a subterranean passage at Prayag (Allahabad). If the Ganga was the river carrying Indian culture in its broadest sense, Sarasvati remained the goddess of wisdom and learning.

The Descent of the Ganga

The Milky Way, called the Akaash Ganga in India

The Ganga embodies all sacred waters in Hindu mythos and it is invoked in ritual just as Sarasvati was in an earlier age. There are three Gangas: in the heavens as the Milky Way; the familiar terrestrial river of north India; and a subterranean river. The mythology of the river can be understood within the context of Vedic cosmology according to which reality is recursive and the skies are mirrored on the earth and within one’s being and everything is interconnected.

The samudra manthana (churning of the ocean) is one of the central themes of the Vedas, and it not only takes place only at the cosmic level but also in the heart of each individual by the dictum yat brahmaande tad pinde (as in the cosmos, so in the body). The recursion carries into the very neural pathways of the body and I have seen an Ayurveda text showing channels in the brain that mirror the Sarasvati and the Ganga.

The Vedic sages, meditating on the banks of the Ganga and the Sarasvati, arrived at a subtle understanding of reality. They claimed that although consciousness is the one single basis of reality, limitations of the mind and of form engender duality of experience that becomes the source of ignorance and suffering. They came up with many means to overcome bondage and to find divinity within. These means can be viewed as the joining of the celestial and material currents in mind and body.

Ritual is one way to liberation. It is sacred theatre that helps one dissociate from reflexive behaviour to find the centre of one’s being. But it can also become reflexive, the sages warn and, therefore, creativity is essential even in ritual. Other methods to salvation include direct pursuit of knowledge, devotion, service and even a life of action that includes contemplation.

The variety of prescriptions may appear to be an excessively eclectic approach to living life. But it makes perfect sense and as the art historian Heinrich Zimmer stated: “The whole edifice of Indian civilization is imbued with spiritual meaning. The close interdependence and perfect harmonization of the two serve to counteract the natural tendency of Indian philosophy to become recondite and esoteric, removed from life and the task of the education of society. In the Hindu world, the folklore and popular mythology carry the truths and teachings of the philosophers to the masses.”

Ganga descending to earth through Shiva’s locks as a boon to King Bhagiratha

The point of the story of the descent (avatarana in Sanskrit) of the heavenly Ganga to Earth is to stress the connections between the spiritual and the material.  The descent was a boon to King Bhagiratha who undertook austerities to restore ancestors who had met untimely deaths, and the river is, therefore, also called Bhagirathi. However, since her turbulent force would shatter the earth, Bhagiratha entreats the Great God Shiva to receive Ganga in the coils of his hair to break her fall. From Shiva’s dreadlocks the waters are released to many waterways in the Himalayas and to a subterranean channel. For this act, Shiva is depicted in Hindu iconography as Gangaadhara (Bearer of the Ganga), with the river shown as a spout of water, rising from his hair.

Ganga’s descent from heaven

The Ganga is seen replicated beyond the plains of north India. The Godavari in Central India and the Kaveri in South India are each the Ganga of its region. Hindus in far lands choose a local river for the rituals.

Because Ganga descended to Earth, she is also the vehicle of ascent to the heavens. This ascent is accomplished by an actual or symbolic crossing of the river. For laypersons the crossing is done at the fords (teertha in Sanskrit) but for the learned it is through a training of the mind by one of the many forms of yoga.  A person is deemed blessed if given a sip of Ganga-water on their deathbed.

The waters of the Ganga are considered purifying. People are aware that large portions of the river are now badly polluted but its effects are ultimately spiritual. The Ganga is all accepting and forgiving and it connects the worshiper to the larger currents of life.

Hindu temples all over India had statues and reliefs of the goddess carved at their entrances. The Ganga’s mount is the makara which has the lower jaw of a crocodile, the snout or trunk of an elephant, the tusks and ears of a wild boar, the darting eyes of a monkey, the scales and the flexible body of a fish, and the hind feathers of a peacock. She is shown carrying a full vase (kumbha or kalasha) which represents auspiciousness, fertility and generative power. She is also shown with a parasol.

Varanasi, the City of Light

Varanasi, known for its fine silk and cotton fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture, is one of the most famous pilgrimage centres on the Ganga and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities anywhere. Known also as Banaras, it is situated on the western bank at a place where it takes a broad crescent sweep toward the north. Seen from the river at dawn, the high-banked face of the city looks luminous, explaining its old name, Kashi (Kashi, City of Light).

Panoramic view of Kashi from the Ganga
Kashi Vishwanath Temple

Most of all, Varanasi is the city of Shiva and the home of the great Kashi Vishvanath temple. This temple which is called the Vishveshvara has Shiva’s jyotirlinga, the icon of sheer light, from which Kashi gets its name. The three hills in the city are seen as the tips of Shiva’s trident. During the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries, Muslim invaders destroyed the Kashi Vishvanath at least four times and it was last rebuilt by the Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar in 1780.

In the sixth century BCE, the Buddha visited Varanasi and in nearby Sarnath he delivered his first sermon.  Varanasi is also home to two of India’s great devotional poets, Kabir and Tulsidas. The Chinese traveller Xuanzang (earlier spelling Hiuen Tsang) who visited Varanasi in the seventh century, attested that the city was a centre of religious and artistic activities, and that it extended for over three miles.  He further described a mass bathing ritual held during the reign of Emperor Harsha at the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna in Prayag.

Evening Ganga puja at the Dashaswamedh Ghat

The eighty-four ghats – a series of steps leading to the river — along the arc-shaped Ganga symbolize the integration of the twelve signs of the zodiac with the seven divisions of space and time. Every morning approximately twenty thousand people arrive at the ghats for puja, the ritual bath, or just to gather.  The number of bathers approaches a million on special occasions such as the full moon in October–November (Karttika Purnima) and on solar and lunar eclipses.

One of most important pilgrimages in the approximately fifty-mile Panchakroshi circuit around Varanasi includes visits to many temples and pedestrians take a few days to complete it. For the faithful, Varanasi is the holiest of places as celebrated below in a poem in the Kashi section of the ancient Skanda Purana.

Are there not many holy places on this earth?
Yet which of them would equal in the balance one speck of Kashi’s dust?
Are there not many rivers running to the sea?
Yet which of them is like the River of Heaven in Kashi?
Are there not many fields of liberation on earth?
Yet not one equals the smallest part of the city never forsaken by Shiva.
The Ganga, Shiva, and Kashi: where this Trinity is watchful, no wonder
here is found the grace that leads one on to perfect bliss.

(Kashi Khanda 35. 7-10, from Banaras: City of Light by Diana L. Eck)

Count Herman Keyserling in his highly regarded Indian Travel Diary (1914) wrote thus of Varanasi: “Benares is holy. Europe, grown superficial, hardly understands such truths anymore…. I feel nearer here than I have ever done to the heart of the world; here I feel every day as if soon, perhaps even to-day, I would receive the grace of supreme revelation. . . The atmosphere of devotion which hangs above the river is improbable in its strength: stronger than in any church that I have ever visited. Every would-be Christian priest would do well to sacrifice a year of his theological studies in order to spend this time on the Ganga: here he would discover what piety means. For in Europe all that exists is its remote reflection.”

The Kumbha Mela

The origin of the Kumbha as a congregational ritual is in the churning of the ocean by the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons). The purpose of this churning is the amrita (nectar of immortality) that both the devas and the asuras covet. At last, as the churning proceeds, a kumbha appears and in the struggle between the two parties to get hold of it, amrita spills at four places: Haridwar, Prayag, Nashik, and Ujjain on the banks of Ganga, the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna, Godavari, and Kshipra, respectively.

The seeker wishes to connect to the cosmic by journeying to the Mela at the four places where the amrita fell.  In this he is guided by Brihaspati (Jupiter), the teacher of the devas and the pilgrimage is completed with a bath in the river. Since the orbit of Jupiter is twelve years, the Kumbha comes around at this frequency. The specific month is determined by the conjunction of Jupiter with a different nakshatra associated with the place. Every 144 years, the Mela is called a Mahakumbha.

Mark Twain visited the Kumbha Mela of Prayag in 1895. Told that two million pilgrims come to the Mela, he spoke of his experience thus: “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.”

The Kumbha Melas were traditionally managed by the akharas (organizations of sadhus), but now the government makes the general arrangements. The Melas are the greatest peaceful congregations of people and there are reports that the Prayag Kumbha of 2013 attracted nearly 120 million people

Pushkaram (or just Pushkar) is another festival dedicated to the worshiping of twelve sacred rivers that range from the Ganga to the Kaveri. This celebration takes place at specific temples along the banks in a manner quite like the Kumbha. Each river is associated with a zodiac sign, and the river for each year’s festival is based on the conjunction of the river sign with Jupiter.

The sequence of great ritual associated with the Ganga and other rivers in India is to help the seeker find connection with the cosmos. Indian social theorists, in the dharmashastras, foresaw the problem of emptiness arising from materialism, and to counter this resulting emptiness, they exalted the idea of renunciation and self-denial. To them the pursuit of happiness was a subtle dance between enjoyment and sacrifice.

To find the balance in one’s own life there is nothing as instructive as getting lost and rendered anonymous in the vast multitudes of the Kumbha. This is one of the reasons the Westerner is so fascinated by the congregations. These Melas, the Pushkarams and other pilgrimages are a wonderful system of spiritual journeying that is distributed across the entire land of India. They offer participation in a deeply personal yet universal act that has the potential to heal and let each person connect with the larger current of humanity.

Read also by Subhash Kak: Art, cosmology and the Divine – a study of indian culture

Art, Cosmology and the Divine | Part V

Main photo (above) is a Basohli illustration to the Gita Govinda, ‘Hail, Keshava, Hail! Ruler of Wave and Wood!’, c.1730

The penultimate part of this six-part series (Read earlier parts: Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV) in which distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak shows how traditional Indian art is not only aesthetically sublime, but is a reflection of the cosmos and of the Divine itself. In Part V we see how the stories of Krishna, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, reflect a harmony between materiality and spirit.

Part V: Krishna’s dance

Krishna, the divine flute player



Read this article in the LivingWise Project Digest.




Read Part I: Introduction
Read part II: General equivalences
Read Part III: Temples and Gods
Read Part IV: Churning of the ocean
Read Part VI: Indian aesthetic in an age of war

Art, Cosmology and the Divine | Part III

Main photo (above) is a Basohli illustration to the Bhagavad Purana, Krishna Bringing the Parijata from Indra’s Heaven,  Tira-Sujanpur, c.1780

Continuing this six-part series (Read Part I and Part II) in which distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak shows how traditional Indian art is not only aesthetically sublime, but is a reflection of the cosmos and of the Divine itself. In Part III we see how ancient Hindu temples were designed to reflect the cosmos. The representation of the cosmos simultaneously at the level of the universe and the individual, was meant to facilitate the devotee’s spiritual transformation.

Part III: Temples and Gods

The temple is considered in the image of the Cosmic Purusha, on whose body is displayed all creation in its materiality and movement. Paradoxically, the space of the Purusha (Rigveda 10.90) is in the sanctuary only ten fingers wide, although he pervades the earth.

The outer cosmos is expressed in terms of various connections between the temple structure and the motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets; the inner cosmos is represented in terms of the divinity (universal consciousness) in the womb of the temple and various levels of the superstructure that correspond to the states of consciousness. The position of the gods in the Vastupurusha-mandala within the temple is a symbolic representation of the spatial projections of the cosmic Purusha in his body. There are other iconic representations of sacred space, as in the Sri Yantra where the body’s three parts – vagbhava, madhya, and mula – have recursive structures within, that represent Vedic cosmology in a unique fashion.

The prototype of the temple is the Agnikshetra, the sacred ground on which the Vedic altars are built. The Agnikshetra is an oblong or trapezoidal area on which the fire altars are built. During the ritual is installed a golden disc (rukma) with 21 knobs or hangings representing the sun with a golden image of the purusha on it. The detailed ritual includes components that would now be termed Shaivite, Vaishnava, or Shakta. In Nachiketa Agni, 21 bricks of gold are placed one top of the other in a form of shivalinga. The disk of the rukma, which is placed in the navel of the altar on a lotus leaf is in correspondence to the lotus emanating from Vishnu’s navel which holds the universe. Several bricks are named after goddesses, such as the seven krittikas.

Ganesha: elephant-headed, wise with mouse as his vehicle

The Hindu temple represents the Meru mountain, the navel of the earth. It is the representation of the cosmos both at the level of the universe and the individual, making it possible for the devotee to get inspired to achieve his own spiritual transformation. The purusha placed within the brick structure of the altar represents the consciousness principle within the individual. It is like the relic within the stupa. The threshold to the inner sanctum is represented by the figure of Ganesha (see right), who, like other divinities, symbolizes the transcendence of oppositions.

The temple construction begins with the Vastupurusha mandala, which is a yantra, mostly divided into 64 (8 × 8) or 81 (9 × 9) squares, which are the seats of 45 divinities. Brahma is at the centre, around him 12 squares represent the Adityas, and in the outer circle are 28 squares that represent the nakshatras. This mandala with its border is the place where the motions of the sun and the moon and the planets are reconciled. It is the Vastu in which the decrepit, old Chyavana of the Rigveda 1.116.10 asks his sons to put him down so that he would become young again. Chyavana is the moon and Sukanya, whom he desires, is the sun.

In the basic Vedic scheme the circle represents the earth and the square represents the heavens or the deity. But the altar or the temple, as a representation of the dynamism of the universe, requires a breaking of the symmetry of the square. As seen clearly in the agnichayana and other altar constructions, this is done in a variety of ways. Although the main altar might be square or its derivative, the overall sacred area is taken to be a departure from this shape. In particular, the temples to the goddess are drawn on a rectangular plan. In Shiva or Vishnu temples, which are square, change is represented by a play of diagonal lines. These diagonals are essentially kinetic and are therefore representative of movement and stress. They embody the time-factor in a composition.

The Hindu temple, as a conception of the astronomical frame of the universe, serves the same purpose as the Vedic altar, which reconciled the motions of the sun and the moon. The progressive complexity of the classical temple was inevitable given an attempt to bring in the cycles of the planets and other ideas of the yugas into the scheme. There was also further complexity related to the expansion of the tattvas within the temple. For example, in Shaivite temples we see the unmanifest (Shivalinga) expand into the intermediate state of manifest-unmanifest (Sadashiva), and finally into manifest (Mahesha).

The Ashtadhyayi of Panini (5th century BC) mentions images. Ordinary images were called pratikriti and the images for worship were called archa. Amongst other things we are told that a toy horse is called ashvaka. (This means that the queen who lay down with the ashvaka in the Ashvamedha did not sleep with the dead horse.) Deity images for sale were called Shivaka etc., but an archa of Shiva was just called Shiva. Patanjali mentions Shiva and Skanda deities. There is also mention of the worship of Vasudeva (Krishna). We are also told that some images could be moved and some were immoveable. Panini also says that an archa was not to be sold and that there were people (priests) who obtained their livelihood by taking care of it. They also mention temples that were called prasadas.

Complementing the tradition of the Vedic ritual was that of the munis and yogis who lived in caves and performed austerities. From this tradition arose the vihara, where the priests lived. The chaitya hall that also housed the stupa may be seen as a development out of the agnichayana tradition where within the brick structure of the altar was buried the rukma and the golden man.

The gods are the entities that hold up the inner sky of the mind. There is the single Brahman or Purusha, interpenetrating and transcending the inner and the outer universes. But the framework of the inner sky is held up by a variety of gods. The physical nature, governed by laws, is the Goddess or Shakti. If Brahma is the deity of the astral world, Shiva is that of the physical world, and Vishnu that of the causal or the moral world. They each have a consort: Brahma’s is Sarasvati, the goddess of learning and the arts; Shiva’s is Parvati, the goddess of power, energy, and intuition; Vishnu’s is Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune.

Shiva as Ardhanarishvara (Shiva-Shakti)

The gods themselves are interconnected. Brahma’s origin is from the lotus in Vishnu’s navel. Shiva is the god who subsumes all oppositions. He is the celibate, divine yogi, who is also the perfect husband to Parvati. He brings the world to an end by his dance, but he also creates the world. He is the heart of consciousness, the lord of all beings, the divine dancer. As Ardhanarishvara, he is half Shakti; as Harihara, he is half Vishnu.

Vishnu is the all-pervader, the primal person, without beginning or end. He is also known as Narayana, with his abode is in the waters. He is Hari, the golden-garbed one (like the Sun), and his mount is Garuda, the eagle. During the periods in between dissolution and creation, he sleeps on the cosmic serpent Ananta (the endless). He wields in one of his hands the discus, Sudarshana, which represents time. His consort, Lakshmi, appeared out of the Churning of the Ocean. Periodically, he descends to earth as an avatara to battle evil. Two of the most popular of these avataras are Rama and Krishna.

Read Part I: Introduction
Read part II: General equivalences
Read Part IV: churning of the ocean
Read Part v: Krishna’s Dance
Read part vi: Indian aesthetic in an age of war

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

Art, Cosmology and the Divine – a study of Indian culture | Part I

by Subhash Kak

Main photo (above) is a Basohli illustration to the Bhagavad Purana, The Birth of Krishna, early 18th c.

In this six-part series, distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak provides  a fascinating insight into traditional Indian art. Subhash shows how the art  forms of ancient India are not only aesthetically sublime, but a reflection of the cosmos and indeed of the Divine itself.


Part I: Introduction

The best way to understand India is through its art and the cosmology. Textbook narratives often overlook the synthesizing principles that represent the grammar of Indian culture, and they are much like the accounts of the six blind people who encountering an elephant describe it as wall, spear, snake, tree, rope, and fan, respectively.

The three notions that underlie Indian culture are that of bandhu, paradox, and yajña.

Bandhu is the binding between the outer and the inner that makes it possible to know, and this is the basis of the pervasive spirituality in India; paradox is the recognition that the bandhu must lie outside of rational system, leading to the distinction between the ‘higher’ science of consciousness and the ‘lower’, rational objective science; yajña is transformation that the individual undergoes by participating in Vedic ‘ritual’ or any other creative process. The cosmology related to this framework is that of infinity and recursion across scale and time.

Sri Yantra, which represents the universe recursively

The iconic representation of the universe as the Sri Yantra (above) shows recursion most clearly. First, the tripartite division into earth, atmosphere, and the sun, which is mirrored in the individual by the body, the breath, and the inner lamp of consciousness, is represented by three triangles. Second, within each triangle are lower hierarchical levels of two other triangles, of alternating opposing polarity that represents male and female principles. All together, this adds up to 9 triangles, which through their overlaps constitute a total of 43 small triangles. Right through the middle of this is the dot, the bindu that is Shiva, the Witness, or Consciousness. Nature evolves according to law (rta in Sanskrit), but it has a paradoxical relationship with the consciousness principle.

A north Indian temple showing recursion in its outer structural form

Art associated with this conception must communicate recursion, paradox and oppositions concerning ordinary experience of the universe. Aesthetics, as a philosophy of art, is best understood from the point of view of dhvani, which communicates, by suggestion, the universals of the outer and inner worlds.

Indian thought highlights the connections between these two worlds, and its art presents visions of the cosmos. Alongside is a picture of a north Indian temple where recursion is expressed in terms of the tower drawn to different scales on the superstructure.


Within the temple, the manifestations of the Supreme Being are as the One and its many forms. There exists in them, for example, a hierarchical order of cardinal and peripheral images in relation to the centre, a balancing or pairing of polarities, and representation of the temple as Mount Meru, the centre of the universe. The polarities represented iconographically related to female and male, asura (demon) and deva (god), left and right, body and mind, and so on. Aesthetics is alamkara shastra, that is ornamentation of the central synthesizing principle by means of the particular medium. The poet, kavi, is the inspired seer who sees the underlying vision most clearly. Dance, painting, and sculpture, just like poetry, have their canonical ideals, which are the visual equivalents of meter, rhyme, alliteration and the tropes of poetry.

The ritual is organized as sacred theatre that engages the senses to facilitate an epiphany that represents an experiential ‘rebirth’. Great art has the same capacity, and often it is a part of ritual. Not only is the temple a work of art, so is the sculpture that goes into it, and the dance and music performed in its hallways, and the paintings that hang on its walls. One can contrast this with Western conceptions. The cosmology is finite, with God separate from the individual; art is best seen in the sterile atmosphere of the museum or the gallery.

Read Part II in the series: General Equivalences
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