A while ago I bought a book after reading an intriguing promo on Dandavats. I was hoping to finish reading it before I started making comments but it’s quite dense and I proceed rather slowly. Right now I’m only half way through but I think I’ve got more than enough material to start.
The purpose of these comments is not to write a review or to offer a critique, or even to offer answers to popular questions about the nature of the universe but to help me understand what I’ve just read. There’s so much information there that it needs to be processed and discussed before it becomes internalized. I don’t think there are many people who can get it right away and I’m certainly not one of them.
The benefits of understanding it vary with person to person. It’s certainly not a required reading to return back home, back to Godhead, but, depending on one’s interests in life, it can satisfy our quest for the Truth and release us from many illusions about our lives here. It’s not a devotional book but it’s one of those that might lead a person to realization that service to Kṛṣṇa is the only worthy pursuit and everything else we see here is worthless by comparison, and it’s still a book written by a devotee with customary quotes from our literature prefacing each chapter.
I’ve heard the name of the author, Ashesh Dalela, before, and from his post on Dandavats it appears that he is an initiated devotee, but I’d rather judge this book on its own merits than on all the other books and articles he produced, and he is a prolific writer. I’m not sure all of his writing is kosher by our ISKCON standards, he doesn’t usually advertise his affiliation and I’ve seen his articles referenced by non-devotees. Maybe one day I’ll investigate his background but, as I said, this book I first want to judge by its content.
It does not offer tons of scriptural references but it does faithfully follow Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and occasionally relies on other purāṇas and possibly other Vedic books as as well. Still, his approach is impeccable – Bhāgavatam is considered the final word in Vedic knowledge and all other sources must be viewed as compliant with it rather than contradictory or overriding Bhāgavatam’s authority. He uses all the familiar words and terms but often in an unexpected way. Unexpected but not prohibited, mind you – meaning that he highlights usages which often go under investigated in our society but still perfectly possible and perfectly plausible.
In general, his solution and his approach to the complex problem of Vedic cosmology is simple – just follow the Bhāgavatam. There are many people who studied the Fifth Canto which deals with the structure of the universe but he starts earlier – from the Third Canto and teachings of Lord Kapila, the philosophy of Sāṅkhya. First we need to know how material nature works, then we can look at the universe as complying with these principles, then it will all make sense, and I must admit it does. On every page there’s “why didn’t think of it myself” discovery for me. There’s nothing revolutionary there but a steady application of commonly available knowledge. No one has gone that far that meticulously, and maybe that’s why we are debating Flat vs Round Earth and our current model of the universe still fails to provide all the answers.
Anyway, in writing this commentary there are three sources – the book itself, “Mystic Universe: An Introduction to Vedic Cosmology”, there’s author’s write up on Dandavats which provides a good summary, and there’s my limited understanding of what I have read so far. All three are distinctly different. If I wanted to do a write up I wouldn’t go the same way Ṛṣirāja went (I guess that’s Asheesh Dalela’s initiated name). I wouldn’t pose the same questions and I would have chosen different answers, and it would still be more or less correct. By the time I’m done with the book my understanding might also change and things that I consider important now might go into the background, and some currently discovered answers might need serious rethinking.
Every day I learn something new from the book and it keeps my head occupied for hours. The commentary, however, needs to start at the beginning, so it will be a revision of sorts and I will be writing about things I have half forgotten. I hope it won’t become a problem. It would also mean that I have to re-read the book again from the start which might slow me down.
The first part of the book deals extensively not only with sāṅkya but with modern science as well. It’s an area where actual scientists might disagree with Ṛṣrāja’s assessment but I don’t think he said anything obviously incorrect. People can find reasons to argue anywhere and we should pay tribute to modern science only as much as we respect its findings. For some people explaining the scientific view from Vedic perspective would be very satisfying. I’m not one of them and I didn’t dwell on chapters that reconcile both views, but that’s what the book starts from – from a discussion of models and theories.
Models describe what the universe is and theories describe why it is so. Models must fit our observations but there may be different ways to explain what we see. The relationships between models and theories relies on certain assumptions about the universe, like that light goes in a straight line at a constant speed, for example. If we make different assumptions then we can have different theories explaining the same model. This means if the model is correct it doesn’t justify the truth about the universe, nor does it mean we know what truth is. Scientists are trying to reconcile all these issues but our students of Vedic cosmology do not.
It means that we have a correct model – as it’s described in the Fifth Canto, but we have no idea why it is true and what truth is. In the absence of a theory even our models are contradictory because Bhāgavatam says a lot of things about the universe that appear confusing – if we don’t know WHY it says these things, that is.
This book, in author’s view, intends to complement these perfect but confusing descriptions of a model with a perfect theory of sāṅkhya and thus dispel our confusion. It’s a noble approach that I fully support. How exactly it goes about this will be the bread and butter of all my future posts on this topic, and there will be many, of that I have little doubt.