Astronomical Models of Lunar Position
By Thakur Haridas das
This article is inspired by two articles on Dandavats.com written by Bibatsu Prabhu, regarding the apparent discrepancies between modern scientific and ancient Vedic descriptions of the universe. His articles touch upon a number of controversies.
Let us approach the topic in terms of the epistemological principles used by modern science and by Vedic science. I will apply these principles to the controversy concerning the distance of the moon from earth; the same principles can be applied to other controversies as well.
In Challenges to the Astronomical Paradigm, Bibatsu Prabhu asserts that westerners are taught to accept certain scientific hypotheses as dogma, and that we are prejudiced by this conditioning.
In A Brief History of Astronomical Theory and Western Cosmology he states that he has written the article “because of the scientific community’s departure from scriptural accounts.”
Bibatsu’s article expresses scepticism of devotees who are trained and expert in modern science, and raises very important epistemological questions.
What is the validity of modern science? Should we disregard scientific evidence and methods? Should we be satisfied to simply quote sastra? How can we be sure that we understand the meaning of sastric quotes?
What is valid knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? How do the methods of acquiring spiritual and physical knowledge compare? How can we be confident that we really know what we think we know?
As Vaisnava practitioners of bhakti yoga, we faithfully accept the teachings of Srila Prabhpuada, the great acharyas, and the Vedic literatures. At the same time, the many benefits of modern science and a scientific methodology are obvious.
Srila Prabhupada appreciated the scientific approach, and stressed that Krishna consciousness is scientific. He wrote, “Modern scientific research is just like Sankhya philosopy, which analyzes material elements. We are also Sankhya philosophers to some extent.” – SSR Tiny World of Modern Science (p.218)
Of course, Srila Prabhupada justifiably condemned atheistic interpretations of scientific theories such as the Big Bang and evolution, which go beyond the evidence and jump to unwarranted conclusions. He wanted his devotee scientists to counteract these false conclusions by proper and expert use of science itself.
I would like to offer simple definitions of modern physical science and of Vedic spiritual science to clarify this discussion. Both sciences involve reasonable faith in epistemological principles, but it is clear that Vaisnava scientists have more faith, which is both a blessing and a burden.
Srila Prabhupada neatly defines the Vedic scientific method: “Vedic literature, direct perception, history and hypothesis are the four kinds of evidential proofs. Everyone should stick to these principles for the realization of the Absolute Truth.” SB 11.19.7 quoted in Cc Madhya 9.362
These, then, are four valid epistemological methods or sources of knowledge for devotees: sastra, sense perception, historical precedent, and logical hypothesis. One who follows these methods is applying Vedic science.
In this regard, there is a nice article entitled The God Logic by Abhijit Toley in Back to Godhead, Nov/Dec 2010, which describes the application of scientific method to spiritual life.
How does Vedic science differ from modern material science?
Modern science has achieved remarkable success following a peer reviewed system of observation, identification, description, replicable experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.
Science may include sophisticated mathematical models and experimental techniques. But, basically, physical science accepts just three types of evidence: sense perception, logical hypothesis and historical precedent.
Thus, the essential difference between Vedic science and modern materialistic science is faith in the Vedic literatures. Vaisnavas respect and accept Vedic literatures as divine mercy in the form of knowledge descending from above, which transcends the flaws of human limitations.
In A Brief History of Astronomical Theory and Western Cosmology Bibatsu Prabhu writes, “For acquiring knowledge, there are two basic methods; ascending and descending. . . . I recommend taking the straight and less troublesome path of descending knowledge.”
This recommendation may be suitable for one who is not interested in a scientific approach. But, as quoted above, Bhagavatam 11.19.7 recommends a more rigorous and scientific approach, including both ascending and descending methods!
Vedic literature, shabda brahman, descends. Pratyaksha, anumana, and itihasa comprise the ascending process in this world. All are accepted as valid pramana or evidence, although it may require much careful thought to keep them all in harmony.
The recommendation to apply both ascending and descending methods is echoed in Isopanishad: “Only one who can learn the process of nescience and that of transcendental knowledge side by side can transcend. . . “ Isopanishad Mantra 11
And, “One should know perfectly the Personality of Godhead and His transcendental name, as well as the temporary material creation. . . “Isopanishad Mantra 13
Bibatsu Prabhu favors a less troublesome path, but we can’t just quote scripture, ignore empirical and logical evidence, and call it scientific. The scientific process recommended in Bhagavatam is rigorous and exhaustive.
As Krishna says in the chatur-shloki, “A person who searches after the Supreme Absolute Truth must certainly search in all circumstances, in all time and space, and both directly and indirectly.” SB 2.9.36
In the Mayapur Temple of the Vedic Planetarium Srila Prabhupada wants his scientific and Ph. D. disciples to create a Vedic model of the universe, which should explain the passing seasons, eclipses, phases of the moon, the diurnal rhythm of night and day, etc.
Such a model cannot be based only on sastra. To be scientific and convincing it must have explanatory and predictive power in the physical world. It should be based upon Vedic literatures, logical hypothesis, empirical observation, and established historical precedents.
The Bhu-mandala model of the universe described in Srimad-bhagavatam is thousands of years old, and apparently describes reality very differently than modern science. Bibatsu Prabhu argues that we should accept the Bhu-mandala description and reject the findings of modern science.
But how can we blindly accept? Lord Caitanya said that each verse of the Bhagavatam is pregnant with unlimited meanings. Do we understand correctly? Blind following is condemned. We should use our intelligence and the Vedic scientific method.
Sadaputa Prabhu’s Mysteries of the Sacred Universe extensively analyses the Bhu-mandala model. Sadaputa suggests that this model encodes multiple levels of meaning regarding astronomical, geographical and spiritual realms.
Although very old, Bhu-mandala has aspects similar to the modern model of the solar system. For example, the shape and size of the “shell” of the Bhu-mandala model is similar to the heliosphere detected by modern science. [A picture of the heliosphere from Wikipedia can be seen at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliosphere.]
The congruencies between the Bhu-mandala model and modern discoveries suggest that ancient Vedic astronomical science was very advanced. Sadaputa writes, “In Indian astronomy and in Indian culture in general, the idea is always prominent that knowledge dates back to a very remote era.”
As Vaishnavas we believe that ancient Vedic civilization was greatly advanced in both spiritual and material sciences. Hopefully, the Temple of Vedic Planetarium will attract young intelligent devotees to research and investigate the traces of ancient knowledge and to revive the Vedic culture.
Bibatsu Prabhu lists as a false dogma of science that “the moon is nearer than the sun.” He accepts that the moon is actually farther from the earth than the sun, based upon his interpretation of the Bhu-mandala model. We can call this the “distant moon” interpretation.
Let us consider this controversy through the lens of Vedic science and the four pramanas. Do we really understand the evidence? To approach this problem in a Vedic scientific manner, we should carefully and patiently examine all four types of evidence with detachment.
What does the Bhu-mandala model show?
The model shows that the Moon is farther from Bhu-mandala than the Sun is. Sadaputa Prabhu points out, “However, this distance refers to height above Bhu-mandala, and it does not say how far the sun is from the earth globe.”
Since we do not perceive Bhu-mandala, which is described as a flat disk billions of miles in diameter in the plane of the ecliptic, it is presumptuous to jump to the conclusion that the distances of moon and sun from Bhu-mandala are the same as their distances from the earth globe.
However, another Vedic literature does give evidence about the distances of the moon and sun from earth.
Srila Prabhupada accepted as authoritative Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s translation of, “the authentic astronomy book known as Surya-siddhanta.” [CC AL 3.8p]
Surya-siddhanta “explicitly assumes that eclipses are caused by the passage of the moon in front of the sun or into the earth’s shadow. It describes calculations based on this model that make it possible to predict the occurrence of both lunar and solar eclipses and compute the degree to which the disc of the sun or moon will be obscured.” – Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy by Richard L. Thompson (Sadaputa dasa)
Thus, according to Surya Siddhanta, the moon is closer to the earth than the sun.
Now consider sense perception, another valid type of evidence.
We can ourselves observe that only the side of the moon facing the sun is bright. As the moon approaches nearer to the sun, its crescent becomes thinner. It appears that the side away from the earth is lit by the sun, and the side toward the earth is dark. This indicates that the moon is between the earth and the sun, as Surya-siddhanta describes.
If the moon were farther than the sun, then even as it approached nearer to the sun it would still appear as a full moon because the side toward the sun would also face the earth. But this is not what we see. We can all make this common sense and logical observation.
Now, let us consider the moon landing, which impinges on the controversy regarding the relative distances of moon and sun. It seems that Srila Prabhupada made apparently contradictory statements in this regard, which we can try to reconcile with a Vedic scientific approach.
In many places Srila Prabhupada said that the astronauts did not go to the moon. But he also made many statements that they have gone to the moon. Two such statements follow.
“While the scientist and philosopher go to the moon but are disappointed in their attempts to stay there and live, the devotee makes an easy journey to other planets and ultimately goes back to Godhead.” SB 4.12.25 purport
“Though modern astronauts go to the moon with the help of spaceships, they undergo many difficulties, whereas a person with mystic perfection can extend his hand and touch the moon with his finger.” NOD p.10 (1970 paperback)
Srila Prabhupada has variously suggested that the moon landing was a hoax in the desert, that the astronauts mistakenly went to Rahu, that they went to the moon but were refused entry by demigod immigration, that they could not have gone to the moon because it is farther than the sun, etc.
To accept all these statements literally would be unreasonable because they are contradictory. We must try to understand them in a logical Vedic scientific framework, in the context of four types of pramana, and seek a reasonable explanation.
Srila Prabhupada had implicit faith in the Vedic literatures, which state that the moon is a heavenly planet where the inhabitants drink soma-rasa. The evidence from the moon landing was that the moon is a barren uninhabited place, which contradicts the sastric description.
Srila Prabhupada therefore gave various hypotheses to explain this discrepancy between sastra and the reports from the moon landing. Logical hypothesis is valid but it may prove to be false. There is no fault if a hypothesis turns out false, nor is Srila Prabhupada’s use of hypothetical explanations faulty in any way.
Ultimately, his essential point regarding the moon landing was that we have to accept the evidence of Vedic literature, even if other evidence apparently contradicts. This was Srila Prabhupada’s real sticking point, not whether or not men had landed on the moon.
Generally, when various kinds of evidence conflict, it is safe to assume that there is more to the situation than we perceive. It is not scientific to abandon valid evidence just because we don’t understand it. The challenge is to go deeper and try to resolve the mystery in a reasonable way.
Finally, regarding distance to the moon, what is the historical evidence?
Many nations claim to have sent manned or robotic missions to or around the moon and many more are planned. Here is an abbreviated list of such programs, some of which are ongoing:
Soviet Union’s Luna flyby and orbital satellites; Zond satellite flybys
USA’s NASA project Apollo, Surveyer Program landers, Ranger program, Lunar Orbiter, Explorer Orbiter, Galileo flyby, Clementine orbiter, Lunar Prospector, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite; Lunar Precurser Robotic Program
Japan’s Hiten orbiter, SELENE orbiter, RSAT, VSAT
European Space Agency SMART 1 orbiter
China’s Chang’e orbiters
India’s Chandrayaan 1 orbiter, Moon Impact Probe
(To these nations we may soon have to add Germany, as the German Aerospace Center (DLR) plans to send an unmanned space shuttle to the moon by 2013.)
These countries claim around 50 successful missions to impact or orbit the moon. (There were many other aborted or failed missions.) This evidence has to be considered. If the moon is not where modern science says it is, how can the claims of these missions be explained?
It is easy to criticize. But those who advocate the “distant moon” interpretation should provide a scientific model that accounts for astronomical phenomena, as Srila Prabhupada requested.
We are all eager to see a “distant moon” model, which can predict eclipses, tides, and phases of the moon accurately. That would be an amazing accomplishment. I am particularly interested to see how such a model will explain phases of the moon.
A “distant moon” model which is incapable of scientific explanation and prediction must be regarded as uncorroborated speculation. Hopefully, the model to be used for the Temple of Vedic Planetarium will be powerfully convincing and will satisfy Srila Prabhupada’s vision.
The author, Thakur Haridas das, received a B. S. In Mathematics at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1968, and continued his studies in Molecular Biology, Organic Chemistry, Physics, Logic and Philosophy until joining Seattle ISKCON in 1972. He is the president of Krishna Culture, which he founded in 1987.