The debate on whether the Earth is flat or it’s a globe drags on and it looks like it’s not going to be resolved any time soon. Sometimes it sounds inconceivable that in this day and age we can’t settle such a fundamental matter with our immediate access to all kinds of information. My prediction, however, is that they’ll squabble for a bit and then everyone will forget about it until someone brings it up again on another occasion.
This has happened before with Śrīla Prabhupāda himself. When he wanted to build a Vedic Planetarium his disciples naturally tried to present a model of the Vedic universe and they talked to Prabhupāda about it day and night for weeks. Nothing came out of it then, nothing will come out of it now.
Pro-globe party relies on several Prabhupāda quotes where he advocates that the Earth is a globe but they’ve got nothing else to go on because this view is not supported in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and other śāstras, at least no explicitly. Vedic astronomy, however, treats the Earth as a globe, but the answer to that is that astronomy books are meant for people while Bhāgavatam presents the view of the gods.
From this article published on Dandavats we learn that our predecessor ācāryas had different views on this and that there are commentaries saying that even sages like Parāśara Muni were mistaken in presenting certain facts and numbers. Even the demigods understand Mount Meru differently, we learn. Indra sees it as circular while Bṛhaspati sees it as pentagonal. We don’t see it at all yet are compelled to argue for our “correct” understanding of the cosmos. In our defense we can see the Earth, we walk on it everyday, so we can argue about it, but probably not about its relation to the rest of the universe or Bhū-maṇḍala.
Anyway, for a couple of weeks in the summer of 1977 several disciples led by Tamāla Kṛṣṇa Gosvāmī pestered Prabhupāda with questions about cosmology but ultimately had to drop the issue because no clear information was forthcoming. At one point Prabhupāda told them to pud ads in the newspapers soliciting help from knowledgeable Vedic astronomers but that project also failed and satisfactory answers remained elusive.
The shape of the Earth has certainly come up a number of times in those conversations and one could argue that Prabhupāda’s answers at that time override his previous statements about the Earth being definitely a globe. I got this information from the relevant section of this paper (pdf) called Sailing to Jambudvipa. I haven’t read the rest of it yet but I sense it’s more of the same – the Earth is flat and every other perception of it is illusory.
The paper quotes from Tamāla Kṛṣṇa’s Gosvāmīs’ memoir how Śrīla Prabhupāda was losing sleep over this and once complained that this constant arguing interferes with his translation work. On one occasion he got up several times during the night with some new insights, each building on the previous one. The conclusion was that we can’t see things as they are due to our conditioning and should take the words of the Bhāgavatam as an authority. It was from the time when Prabhupāda explained how we can actually travel as far west as we want without ever completing a circle – contrary to our experience here.
Another argument for the Earth globe is the story with Lord Varāha lifting the Earth from the bottom of the Garbhodaka ocean. In every depiction of this pastime the Earth is drawn like a globe but in this conversation from September 28, 1977, Śrīla Prabhupāda agreed with Bhāgavatam based argument that it was the entire Bhū-maṇḍala that fell down and was rescued.
There were other occasions, too, when Prabhupāda admitted that he didn’t know the cosmology beyond what is written in the Bhāgavatam and if we have any questions he can’t answer then Bhāgavatam should be our resource. His quoted statements about Bhū-gola, the Earth globe, were never supported by śāstric quotes and we don’t know where he learned this information from but we do know that he was open to reconsidering it if Bhāgavatam or other authoritative scriptures said differently, which they do – there are no references to the Earth as a globe in Bhāgavatam itself, as I already said.
Actually, Prabhupāda could and had answered all our questions, the problem is that his answers didn’t make much sense in light of our direct experience. That was the only problem – how to reconcile the Bhāgavatam version with what we see as reality. This is what we have to solve indeed – “how to reconcile”, not “what it is”. We already know what it is, we just can’t accept it and even Prabhupāda couldn’t satisfy our curiosity, and this inability to put the matter at rest irritated him.
Many of us think that Prabhupāda was omniscient but only the Lord knows everything, His devotees, no matter how dear they are to Him, know only what He allows them and nothing more. Our ācāryas are not Kṛṣṇa’s rivals, they are fully empowered to pass down science of God realization but they are not empowered to know each nook and cranny in the universe. I bet even Nārada’s Muni’s knowledge of the material world is still incomplete and he himself would readily admit it.
Speaking of Nārada – there was a time when he could appear before us, humans, and everyone could see him even as he traveled between material and spiritual worlds. On rare occasions people could also see the demigods attending public sacrifices. This means that there’s a subtle reality normally imperceptible to us but we can, in theory, perceive it. When or if we did we’d see the universe as it’s described in the Bhāgavatam but until that happens our vision will always be limited, no matter what we read in the śāstra. That’s just how it is and Kṛṣṇa doesn’t want it for us any other way.
I mean we could argue that we’d offer so much better service if we were free from this gross illusion but Kṛṣṇa knows better – He has half a dozen heavenly planetary systems where demigods can see it all but their service also happens to be mixed with large doze of selfishness. Even when they met Kṛṣṇa Himself they still wanted to return to their heavenly planets, as was the case with the Yamala Arjuna trees and two demigods trapped in their trunks.
Nope, Kṛṣṇa wants us here, doing our service in the thick of the Kali yuga, seeing the tiny sliver of the reality and still using it to serve Him and our guru. He doesn’t want us to know everything, He wants us to make the best use of what He has given. From this perspective going in circles around Flat Earth problem is, perhaps, not the best use of our time, though trying to understand how Bhāgavatam is right is certainly a worthy endeavor.