On moons, planets, and orbits

BG 15.13 begins with:

gām āviśya ca bhūtāni
dhārayāmy aham ojasā

gām — the planets; āviśya — entering; ca — also; bhūtāni — the living entities; dhārayāmi — sustain; aham — I; ojasā — by My energy;

Let’s try to parse the meaning from word-for-word. We have “planets” and “living beings” and we have “enter” and “sustain” as verbs. The meaning is obvious, but let’s look at Srila Prabhupada’s translation:

“I enter into each planet, and by My energy they stay in orbit.”

Where did the “orbits” come from and where did “living being” go? Save for minor details, this translation is the same as in 1968 and 1972 editions, but is different from the available manuscript, where it goes:

“I enter into each planet’s moon, and by My energy these stay in orbit.”

There should be no surprise that “each planet’s moon” was edited out of published editions, but we want to know the meaning of the verse and the flow of Srila Prabhupada’s thought. Where did “orbits” come from?

planetary orbits

Thankfully, the purport provides an explanation, but before copy pasting it here I want to explain how it makes sense to me before you read and form your own s̶t̶u̶p̶i̶d̶ ideas. This was meant to be a joke, so lighten up a little.

The purport makes it easy to interpret as talking about modern model of the universe and the solar system, but it could be easily talking about Vedic universe, too (Bhagavatam/Puranic model). The thrust of the argument is the same – the Lord supports various planets preventing them from falling down. In the modern view this means planets have to constantly move to escape gravity, and this movement creates orbits, and therefore “sustain” means “keep in orbit”.

Orbits are described in Bhagavatam, too, so it holds. Bhagavatam doesn’t have gravity, however, and this should be the natural next question – why would things fall down without introducing gravity? How can we claim to explain the universe and not mention gravity? Nobody would take us seriously.

In the purport Srila Prabhupada talks about dust – if you hold in your hand it stays, but if you through it in the air it falls down. Gravity? Not necessarily so. Things don’t just fall down but they disappear, decompose, and dissolve. “Decompose” is also mentioned in the purport but in a different context. When dust falls to the ground it becomes invisible and unless we are talking about floors it merges into the earth. Gravity might make someone fall down to his death but it’s only one stage of the process – without sustaining force the body itself would gradually decompose, loose its shape, and eventually merge into the earth. With planets it’s even more obvious – if they fall into the Sun the cease to exist.

The point is – “sustain” means not only to hold in place but also hold shape and generally make the thing “exist”, keep it manifested and prevent it from going into unmanifest state again. Let’s not forget that all the beings come from earth, and all the planets came from their suns, too. Originally, everything was unmanifested but by the force of living energy everything becomes manifested. This is where “living entities” in the verse went – “bhu” in “bhutani” means “manifested” into what we call empirical reality and it’s Lord’s sustaining power that does that. This is explains “moons” in the manuscript, too – moons are manifested from their parent planets just as planets manifest from suns or people and plants manifest from planets. In Vedic universe they are all alive and, relative to their parents, they all become “bhutani”.

This power to manifest things from unmanifested state comes from the Lord and this is what the verse states.

At this point one could say but what about us? Don’t we contribute to this, too? There is a verse that says universe is sustained by the living entities (yayedaṁ dhāryate jagat – same dhara as in dharayami here). There is no explanation given in this verse but I would argue that the universe moves by Lord’s power and we take shelter of the manifested creations within it. We do not create our bodies (stars, planets, and moons are also someone’s bodies), they are brought forward by the Lord, by what we otherwise call “force of nature”. We like the experience of being in these bodies and we contribute a little, but without Lord’s sustaining power we can’t hold it on our own. When the Lord says “that’s enough, time to wind this all down” we have no choice but to comply.

Other commentaries explain this verse in the same way but without references to “moons” and “orbits”. Visvanatha Cakravarti’s:

    “Entering the earth (gam) by my own sakti (ojasa), and being situated there, I maintain the moving and non-moving entities (bhutani).”

Baladeva Vidyabhusana’s:

    “Entering the earth, which is just a lump of dust, I make it firm and thus support all moving and non-moving things by My sakti. The sacred text says yena dyaur ugra prithivi ca dridha: It is He by whom the heavens and powerful earth are made firm. (Rig Veda 8.7.3.1 This indicates that, if not for His power, the earth would perish, dissolving like a fistful of sand.”

Other commentaries go along the same lines. It should be noted that they all translate “gam” as “the Earth” but Srila Prabhupada included all the planets and mentioned their moons, too. Perhaps from the “go” root in “gam” – they all have to move to live, creating “orbits” in modern science. They do other things as well and so become “chandra” or “soma” mentioned in the second half of the verse, but as far as sustenance goes – they have to move and they all have to be “gam”.

Second part of the verse talks about the step in manifesting “bhutani” – soma, the Moon, nourishes plants that appear from the Earth, and imbues them with succulent taste, which makes them into “vegetables”, and this nourishment comes from the Lord, too.

Prabhupada’s purport:

    It is understood that all the planets are floating in the air only by the energy of the Lord. The Lord enters into every atom, every planet and every living being. That is discussed in the Brahma-saṁhitā. It is said there that one plenary portion of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Paramātmā, enters into the planets, the universe, the living entity, and even into the atom. So due to His entrance, everything is appropriately manifested. When the spirit soul is there, a living man can float on the water, but when the living spark is out of the body and the body is dead, the body sinks. Of course when it is decomposed it floats just like straw and other things, but as soon as the man is dead, he at once sinks in the water. Similarly, all these planets are floating in space, and this is due to the entrance of the supreme energy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. His energy is sustaining each planet, just like a handful of dust. If someone holds a handful of dust, there is no possibility of the dust’s falling, but if one throws it in the air it will fall down. Similarly, these planets, which are floating in the air, are actually held in the fist of the universal form of the Supreme Lord. By His strength and energy, all moving and nonmoving things stay in their place. It is said in the Vedic hymns that because of the Supreme Personality of Godhead the sun is shining and the planets are steadily moving. Were it not for Him, all the planets would scatter, like dust in air, and perish. Similarly, it is due to the Supreme Personality of Godhead that the moon nourishes all vegetables. Due to the moon’s influence, the vegetables become delicious. Without the moonshine, the vegetables can neither grow nor taste succulent. Human society is working, living comfortably and enjoying food due to the supply from the Supreme Lord. Otherwise, mankind could not survive. The word rasātmakaḥ is very significant. Everything becomes palatable by the agency of the Supreme Lord through the influence of the moon.

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