It doesn’t look like there will be a happy conclusion to the Flat Earth debate and whoever chimes in on it only makes it more complicated. There are arguments for and against any particular position and there are attempts at reconciliation but it’s all in vain, I think.
We were born into the world of the scientific progress but in the time of Bhāgavatam, or even in the time of Lord Caitanya, the world was perceived very very differently. Just think of it – five hundred years ago science, astronomy, and cosmology were in their infancy comparing to the modern level of knowledge. They were just starting to question the geocentric universe, they had no idea of the solar system or distances to the stars.
Even their knowledge of the Earth itself was very limited. Just think of the times before discovery of America and before Magellan’s journey around the world. They had no maps of much of the Earth’s surface and maps they did have were very inaccurate. And this is according to their best achievements in the most enlightened places like Europe. Outside of Europe geography didn’t exist. Sure there was trade and travelers must have known their routes but, in general, people had only vague ideas of the lands beyond their typical habitat.
When we read medieval descriptions of the Earth we can chuckle to ourselves, we have google maps now where we can look up any place on the planet and immediately get directions how to reach there, too. Same goes for the outer space – we KNOW the solar system and the universe and we compare information from books like Śrīmad Bhāgavatam to our existing knowledge. It wasn’t the possibility five hundred years ago, however.
I mention this because our popularly held view, attributed to Sadaputa Prabhu, is that Bhāgavatam offers several perspectives on the universe at once. We can map the Bhū-maṇḍala to the solar system, for example, and we can also map it to Central and South Asia as shown in this picture from what looks like an official ISKCON model:
Oh, wait, krishna.com is NOT an official ISKCON site, it’s the “original” BBT that publishes 1972 version of the Gītā and rejects later editions. Ours is BBTi – BBT International. We don’t have an official ISKCON model of the universe yet. Still, that picture illustrates Sadaputa’s proposal so it should be widely accepted – I don’t know anyone who challenges his understanding of Bhāgavatam cosmology.
Anyway, various unnamed mountain ranges in that region of the world are identified with mountains separating Bhārata varṣa from other areas of Jambūdvīpa. I’m not sure the mapping is right and not arbitrary – there are a lot of mountains there, wherever you want to draw the line there surely be some geographical feature to support it. Nevertheless, it must have been an intriguing discovery – Bhāgavatam description of Bhū-maṇḍala as a map of our Earth. Albeit it’s to scale.
Real mountains mentioned in Bhāgavatam are hundreds and thousands times higher than our Earthly Himalayas, the various varṣas in between them look too small to matter – they aren’t even separate counties or nations in modern times, and, most importantly, there’s no mountain Meru in the middle – just mountains of Pamir, which are slightly lower than Himalayas.
There’s a whole world outside that area and no one actually lives there, all human population is located elsewhere. It’s silly to say that this Bhāgavatam description fits Earthly geography. A couple of thousand years ago, however, people hardly knew of China or Europe, let along Australia, Africa and Americas while Himalayas were pretty close and people living on the other side of them were real.
Imagine an arduous journey across Kashmir, climbing higher and higher through ice and snow, and then finding pleasant lands and valleys on the other side. In popular consciousness they could have been construed as “paradise” and identified with varṣas of Bhāgavatam, which are untouched by Kali Yuga, btw. That’s how a modern scientist could have explained Bhāgavatam description of Bhū-maṇḍala and, perhaps, it was meant to be read that way by simple Indian villagers. The more sophisticated readers would have known better, I suppose.
Good argument against this alleged primitivism is that Indians knew their country very well. Everybody who was anybody visited lots of places of pilgrimage in his life, and those are scattered all around the place from Himalayas in the north to the tip of the peninsula in the south. They knew how to get to places and they knew distances between them. Lord Balarāma, for example, went on such a pilgrimage five thousand years ago to avoid the politics of war.
If they said that Bhārata varṣa was so and so many yojanas big then they couldn’t have possibly meant the couple of thousand kilometers occupied by India. If they said that Himalayas were 800,000 yojanas high they could not have possibly meant 8 kilometers for their highest peaks.
Modern explanation implies that ancient Indians had no idea what they were talking about and exaggerated numbers to impress ignorant followers but I bet almost in any village there would always be someone who actually went to those places and had a first hand experience.
Personally, I think that traveling in those days was different from traveling now. Sure, for common folk the sizes and distances were the same as on google maps but for real sādhus who could personally enter into divine realms of the dhāmas and interact with devas there geography looked different.
I’d posit that the effort required to get a darṣana of Nara-Nārāyaṇa, for example, is not measured in steps or kilometers but in changes to one’s consciousness, and since they had to bring their actual material bodies there they presented some sort of material equivalents of those efforts.
It’s not enough to simply climb up the mountain in Badrinarayan but one has to labor until his consciousness is sufficiently purified and it’s quite possible that time slows down and lots of actual steps go in vain – you made the step but your consciousness hasn’t gotten any closer so you have to take it again and again.
I’m saying that if you do it right and actually want to reach the places described in the Bhāgavatam you have to make an effort equivalent to traveling 100,000 yojanas or whatever large number is given there. So, technically speaking, the Mount Meru might be located in the middle of Pamir but to actually reach it and see it for yourself you need to drag your body for half a million kilometers in your consciousness.
I’m not talking only about getting there form our present conditioned state but changes in consciousness are required even for demigods and their interplanetary travel. If you want to speak with the Moon god in his own palace, for example, you have to be sufficiently cool yourself. You can’t just walk in there fresh from a football game and expect admittance. Such preparations in consciousness might be relatively easier for demigods but they still had to be there and so their traveling could still be calculated in millions of kilometers, it’s just that they do it faster.
Anyway, it’s just an idea, and it’s probably not even a plausible one, but this subject matter is very complicated and so multifaceted that practically anything could be considered true to at least some extent. These are just my two cents for today.