Comparative Cosmology

Aug 2004

In the study of religions, one of the curious and neglected by-ways might be called "comparative cosmology." In the west, until quite recent times, the universe was visualized as a closed system of concentric spheres, with the Earth at the centre, and the so-called "fixed stars" equidistant on the outermost sphere. Even after the Copernican revolution of the 16th century, the universe remained bounded, although the Earth was now offset a bit from the centre. It was not known that other galaxies exist until well into the 20th century.

In India, by comparison, the universe was perceived of as open and unbounded; made up of world-systems more or less like our own, extended outwards in all directions to infinity.

With the coming of Christianity, the western universe became bounded also in the temporal sense, with a definite moment of creation leading to a final termination in some apocalyptic future. Traditionally, the time-scale was thought of as quite small, a few thousand years from beginning to end.

In India, the universe was imagined to proceed through long cycles of billions or trillions of years that repeated ad infinitum, beginingless and endless. So, the universe as understood by the contemporaries of the Buddha was infinite in both the spatial and the temporal sense.

It is interesting to speculate how the different conceptual universes of the two civilizations may have effected other aspects of thought and culture. Of course, on a day-to-day level most people carry on making money, love and war regardless of abstract cosmological theory. But it is probably fair to say that the idea of a limited or unlimited universe, one world or an infinity of worlds, must have had a subtle but powerful influence as a deep background to culture, philosophy and the spiritual life.

I would suggest that the western cult of the individual is as rooted in this as in anything else. The universe was finite with clear boundaries in both space and time, and so was the individual human ego. As above, so below. Conversely, it may have only been in the cultural milieu of infinity that the Buddha's liberating teachings of egolessness and the void-nature could have taken hold. Consciousness, in Buddhism, is not a discrete personal entity with a definite moment of creation but a beginingless and endless series of mind-moments joined by cause-and-effect but not by identity.

It may be more than coincidence that the 20th century saw both the final "opening" of the western world-view and the first successful transplant of Buddhist thought into the west.

In the 21st century, we are seeing the universe open up even more, as our telescopes and probes make new discoveries about the other worlds in this vast universe. However, there is another side to progress. It is now one year since the great blackout of 2003. One of the most poignant stories of that episode was how astonished many city-dwellers were to look up and see the night-sky in all it's glory. Many young people had their first ever glimpse of the Milky Way that first night of the power failure.

It is a sad commentary on modern civilization that we are once again closing down the open universe. We are the first humans who cannot see the stars. This is an important metaphor for how we are imprisoning ourselves with our own technology. As a culture, we are unconscionably profligate in our use of energy. When the world is facing a major energy crisis, do we really need to brilliantly light up our cities? We are trading a neon advert for bottled cola for the hundred billion world-systems.

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