The birth (and death?) of the Universe
A Hindu history of time
By Sudhakar Raje
TWO books published in recent times address the same question of universal curiosity, but do so from opposite planks. The question is: When and how did the universe originate, and when and how it is likely to end? The books are: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988), and Big Bang and the Bhagavad Gita by R.A.S. Kocha (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1991).
Mind of God
Hawking is a world-famous British theoretical physicist, and his book is a brilliant piece of scholarship in this field. Specifically meant for the ?non-expert?, it is written in a style that is easy, although his explanation of the various phenomena involved is not always so. He begins with the question posed above, but goes on to say: ?Modern science has become so technical that only a very small number of specialists are able to master the mathematics used to describe them. Yet the basic ideas about the origin and fate of the universe can be stated without mathematics in a form that people without a scientific education can understand. This is what I have attempted to do in this book.? At the same time Hawking is also attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand ?the mind of God?. His conclusion, as Carl Sagan concludes in his introduction is: ??at least so far, a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time?, and, ? perhaps? absence of God?.
Carl Sagan has praised Hindu cosmology. In an interview some years back, Sagan said it is known that the earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 to 20 billion years old. He says the Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years. To quote him, ?It is the only ancient religious tradition on earth which talks about the right time-scale.?
Mind of Hawking
In this book Hawking, the scientist, reveals the frontiers of physics, astronomy and cosmology. Curiously, however, even at his most analytical best, he does not rise above his Western mindset and his Christian moorings.
Beginning with Aristotle, he says the Greek philosopher had, in his book On the Heavens (340 b.c.) put forward scientifically sound theories for believing that the earth was round. Then, in second century a.d., Ptolemy prepared a cosmological model in which the earth was at the centre. About a millennium and a half later, in a.d. 1514, Copernicus proposed a model in which the earth and the planets orbited around a stationary sun at the centre. A century later, Galileo Galilei supported Copernicus'stheory, and his observation of the night sky with a telescope, which had just been invented, gave the death-blow to the Aristotle/Ptolemy theory in a.d. 1609. In the same century, in 1687, Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which Stephen Hawking describes as ? probably the most important single work ever published in the physical sciences?.
For three centuries after Newton, that is before the twentieth century, no one had suggested that the universe was expanding or contracting. It was generally accepted that either the universe had existed forever in an unchanging state, or that it had been created at a finite time in the past, more or less as we observe it today.
And here Hawking surprises us by going Semitic. He specifically mentions the ?Jewish/Christian/Muslim tradition?, according to which the universe began not only at a finite but also not a very distant time in the past. And as if going Semitic was not enough, he even goes Biblical and mentions the Book of Genesis, according to which the universe was created about 5000 b.c. That a brilliant scientist like Hawking should quote the scripture of a notoriously unscientific religion like Christianity in truly amazing. To quote George Bernard Shaw in Everybody'sPolitical What'sWhat: ?The Bible is a jumble of superstition (and) obsolete cosmology…The Bible'sversion of starry universe is so childish… that it is the Bible-educated human who is now the ignoramus.? Shaw even calls such a person ?a lunatic?. But instead of dismissing the Bible'sridiculous claim about creation out of hand, Hawking tries to rationalise it by saying: ?It is interesting that this is not so far from the end of the last Ice Age, about 10000 b.c., which is when archaeologists tell us that civilisation really began.? In that case it would be still more interesting for him to learn that this date tallies remarkably with the probable beginning of the Hindu civilisation, the original human civilisation, about 12,000 years ago.
Anyway, in the early twentieth century, in 1929, Hubble made the landmark observation that the galaxies are moving away from us, that is, the universe is expanding. This means there was a time, estimated about 10,000 or 20,000 million years ago, when everything that now makes up this expanding universe was exactly at the same place, at the instant the ?Big Bang Singularity? happened and the universe began. This was when time too began. Rather, this was the beginning of Einstein's?space-time?, which Hawking defines as ?the four-dimensional space whose points are events?.
Ptolemy propounded the flat-earth theory. How is this chronologically logical? (Curiously enough, there is still a Flat Earth Society reportedly existing somewhere in the West.) Kocha goes on to say that the geo-centric theory was replaced by the helio-centric (sun-centred) theory of Galileo and Copernicus.
Like Hawking?s, Kocha'sbook also begins with a question, but of the opposite type-?Did the Upani-shadic sages and the mystic founders of religions know about the Big Bang long before science thought of it?? His thesis is that they did.
Talking about the ?new physics? and the matter-energy duality, he says, recent advances in physics have culminated in the particle-wave duality, with which matter has lost its solidity and disintegrated into a net of vibrations. At the same time, with Einstein'sRelativity Theory, space and time became elastic concepts and were transformed into a four-dimensional space-time continuum. Thus, says Kocha, ?Neo-physics has come to believe that matter-energy as well as space-time are related to human consciousness.? That even elementary particles (photons) have consciousness has been proved by the well-known EPR (Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen) experiment in 1972. Kocha argues that this consciousness at the core of creation is ?beyond Physics?, which is the literal meaning of the word ?metaphysics?.
Referring to early theories, Kocha writes: ?The most ancient conception of the cosmos was confined to the flat-earth theory of Ptolemy (second century a.d.). ?Here we meet the first road-block in a comparison between the two books. Hawking says Aristotle postulated the round-earth theory in 340 b.c., while Kocha says (but Hawking does not) that about five centuries later Ptolemy propounded the flat-earth theory. How is this chronologically logical? (Curiously enough, there is still a Flat Earth Society reportedly existing somewhere in the West.) Kocha goes on to say that the geo-centric theory was replaced by the helio-centric (sun-centred) theory of Galileo and Copernicus.
Here it is remarkable that despite a galaxy of brilliant astronomers among ancient Hindus, Kocha falls back on the Greeks to trace the beginning of cosmology in astronomy. Actually, the motion of the heavenly bodies was either discovered by or was known to Aryabhatta (a.d. 499), Latadeva (a.d. 505), and Brahmagupta (a.d. 628). That the earth is a sphere and it rotates on its axis was known to Varahamihira and Bhaskaracharya (fifth century a.d.) had calculated the time taken by the earth to orbit the sun with unbelievable accuracy and mentioned it as 365.258756484 days. (incidentally, in his work, Siddhanta Shiromani, Bhaskara-charya also mentions a force of attraction resembling gravity. Hawking says gravitational attraction is the only force that will endure when all other forces cease.)
But all these Hindu astronomers, however brilliant, lived nearly a thousand years after Aristotle. On the other hand, it has been authoritatively stated that motions of the heavenly bodies calculated by Hindu astronomers, who lived some 4,500 years ago, vary not even by a single minute from the Tables of the Western astronomers that Cassine and Meyer used in the nineteenth century. Who were those astronomers? No names are available. Even some Western scholars acknowledge Vedic accounts of the solar system as well as galaxies. Does that mean there was not only a Vedic astronomy but also a Vedic cosmology? And in that case, who were its sage-scientists, founders as a science? Asking for their names should not be considered asking too much, because while it is generally acknowledged that Vedic mathematics originated in the Sulba Sutras, the names of as many as 27 Vedic sages are available who are said to have developed mathematics before the Sulba Sutras.
In such a situation, would it be logical to presume that there was an advanced Hindu astronomy without any cosmology? It would be neither logical nor true. On the other hand, Carl Sagan has praised Hindu cosmology. In an interview some years back, Sagan said it is known that the earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 to 20 billion years old. He says the Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years. To quote him, ?It is the only ancient religious tradition on earth which talks about the right time-scale.?
Instruments of Knowledge
But who were the founders of Hindu cosmology, the historians of the Hindu history of Time? The answer is complicated by the fact that cosmology is a blend of the science of astronomy and the philosophy of religion. Ancient Hindus certainly had what Sagan calls the ?right? cosmological ideas, but probably they did not devote their brilliant intellect to the development of cosmology as a science because they perceived that for the ultimate knowledge of cosmic events, like the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, the creation and eventual dissolution/re-emergence of the cosmos, the instrument of human intellect (even aided by the most sophisticated man-made implements) will need to be replaced by the instrument of intuition. This is the realm of religion/ philosophy.
Big Bang in Religion
The Big Bang is the first cosmic event, without any eye-witnesses to record the birth of the universe. But, argues Kocha, ?It is possible that the mystic founders of most religions, as well as the sages of the Upanishads, might have perceived the event through mystic insight. This conclusion becomes inescapable if one studies the scriptures of all religions critically, where there are may veiled references to the event in figurative language.
?Thus in the Hindu Upanishads the very name ?Brahman?, representing Ultimate Reality, appears to be nothing but an implicit reference to the ?Big Bang? itself. The word Brahman is derived from the Sanskrit root brh, which means to ?grow big? without limit, and can be an oblique reference to an explosion.?
The Big Bang, whether in science or in religion, marks the birth of the cosmos. Does the Big Crunch denote its death? The answer seems to be ?no? in both science and religion. For, if the universe had a beginning with the Big Bang in the remotest time-when time itself began-and has been expanding since then, such expansion cannot possibly go on for ever, as it will reach the maximum limit in the remotest future. A point in time will eventually be reached when expansion will cease and contraction begin-till the whole cosmos comes together again for the next Big Bang. This is the cosmic cycle.
Most oriental religions hold similar views of this cycle of creation, which Hindus call ?kalpa?. The Gita says at the commencement of each cosmic cycle, all manifest things emerge from the un-manifest, and at the conclusion of the cycle they are re-absorbed into the un-manifest. Perhaps, that un-manifest may be the ?mind of God?, the mind that is not manifest to man.