What Can The Lifespans Of Ṛṣabha, Bharata, Śreyāṃsa, And Ara Tell Us About The History Of The Concept Of Mount Meru?

Posted: 04.03.2015
Updated on: 02.07.2015

International Journal of Jaina Studies
(Online) Vol. 11, No. 1 (2015) 1-24


 

Abstract

Willibald Kirfel (1920/1990), in his major study of Indian cosmology, Die Kosmographie der Inder nach den Quellen dargestellt, compares the Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jaina cosmological systems, and concludes that the early Brahmanical cosmology forms the basis of the later cosmology found in the epics and Purāṇas, and that of the Buddhist and Jaina systems, as well. Contrary to Kirfel, this paper will present some provisional ideas which suggest that the concept of Mount Meru entered Brahmanical literature under the influence of the culture out of which Jainism and Buddhism arose, the culture of Greater Magadha. This hypothesis is based on three observations: 1) the concept of Mount Meru ("the golden mountain at the center of the earth and the universe, around which the heavenly bodies revolve") is prominent in the Jaina and Buddhist canons, but strikingly absent from Brahmanical literature prior to the Mahābhārata; 2) its late introduction into Brahmanical literature marks the shift from Vedic to epic and Purāṇic cosmology at a time when Brahmanical contacts with Buddhism, Jainism, and their region of origin, Greater Magadha, were possible and presumably established; and 3) a special group of numbers, "the number eighty-four and its multiples," is also prominent in the Jaina and Buddhist canons, and in Ājīvikism, but likewise absent from Brahmanical literature prior to the Mahābhārata. The lifespans of Ṛṣabha, Bharata, Śreyāṃsa, and Ara, and the height of Mount Meru are linked to this special group of numbers, and will serve, amongst others, as examples.

 

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What Can The Lifespans Of Ṛṣabha, Bharata, Śreyāṃsa, And Ara Tell Us About The History Of The Concept Of Mount Meru?

1. Introduction

Willibald Kirfel (1920/1990), in his major study on Indian cosmology, Die Kosmographie der Inder nach den Quellen dargestellt, compares the brahmanical, buddhist, and jaina cosmological systems, and gives an account of Mount Meru's characteristics in all three systems. He concludes that the early brahmanical cosmology forms the basis of the later cosmology found in the epics and purāṇas,[1] and that of the buddhist and jaina systems, as well.[2] Suzuko Ohira (1994: 22, §69) also adheres to Kirfel's point of view, and claims in her study of the Viyāhapannatti (= Bhagavatīsūtra): "[...] both Jainas and Buddhists built their own cosmographical features after the models of the Hindus."[3]

Contrary to Kirfel's hypothesis, this paper will present some provisional ideas that suggest that the concept of Mount Meru entered brahmanical literature under the influence of the culture out of which Jainism and Buddhism arose, the culture of Greater Magadha.[4] Thus, the introduction of the concept of Mount Meru into brahmanical literature in the Mahābhārata[5] might, I propose, be the result of a different historical reality than that which Kirfel perceives. That is to say, one that gives rise to a syncretic form of brahmanical cosmology.[6] This hypothesis is based on the following observations:

1) The cosmological concept of Mount Meru (hereafter defined as: "the golden mountain at the centre of the earth and the universe, around which the heavenly bodies revolve") is prominent in the earliest jaina and buddhist literature, but strikingly absent from brahmanical literature prior to the Mahābhārata.[7]

2) Its late introduction into brahmanical literature marks the shift from vedic to epic and purāṇic cosmology at a time when brahmanical contacts with Buddhism, Jainism, and their region of origin, Greater Magadha, were possible and presumably established.[8]

3) "The number eighty-four and its multiples," a special group of numbers associated with cosmological phenomena and entities of importance, is prominent in the jaina and buddhist canons, and in Ājīvikism, but absent from brahmanical literature prior to the Mahābhārata.[9] The first occurrence in brahmanical literature of a number from this group with cosmological purport is found in Mahābhārata (Mbh 6.7.10)[10], which states that Mount Meru rises 84,000 yojanas above the earth.

Concerning "the number eighty-four and its multiples," it should be noted that my hypothesis does not rely upon research into the symbolism of these numbers. For, although these numbers are very prominent, their significance is nowhere explained. Thus, regardless of any symbolic meaning they may have possibly (but not necessarily) had for the various religious traditions in the early historical period, there is evidence for these numbers associated with cosmological phenomena or entities in the jaina and buddhist canons, and in Ājīvikism, and none for them in brahmanical literature prior to the Mahābhārata.[11] This, I believe, is a sufficient basis upon which to question their historical implications.[12] Consider the examples which follow.

2. The Number Eighty-Four and its Multiples in the Jaina and Buddhist Canons[13]

 

2.1 The lifespans of Ṛṣabha, Bharata, Śreyāṃsa and Ara

The Pajjosavaṇākappa, a Śvetāmbara canonical text, states that Ṛṣabha's earthly lifespan was 8,400,000 puvva.[14]

The Jambuddīvapannatti [15], the sixth upaṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, also attests to 8,400,000 puvva for Ṛṣabha's lifespan (JDP1 2.40; JDP2 2.88)[16] and the same number of puvva for Bharata's lifespan (JDP1 3.87.2; JDP2 3.225).[17]

The Viyāhapannatti, the fifth aṅga of the Śvetāmbara canon, states, more generally, that the lifespans of naradevā (cakkavaṭṭtī) last a minimum of seven hundred years and a maximum of 8,400,000 puvva (Viy4 12.9.13); and those of devāhidevā (titthagara), a minimum of seventy-two years and a maximum of 8,400,000 puvva (Viy4 12.9.15)[18].

The Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra, a non-canonical Śvetāmbara universal history,[19] also confirms Ṛṣabha's and Bharata's lifespans of 8,400,000 puvva, and mentions Śreyāṃsa's lifespan of 8,400,000 years, and Ara's of 84,000 years.[20]

2.2 Calculable (Gaṇiya) Time Measures

In the Śvetāmbara and Digambara traditions, "the number eighty-four and its multiples" are omnipresent in the category of "calculable" (gaṇiya) time measures. Their function is to designate calculable time periods of great magnitude within the osappiṇī ("down-moving") and ussappiṇī ("up-moving") two half-motions of jaina cosmic time.[21] Hence, the use of these numbers to designate the extraordinarily long earthly lifespans of Ṛṣabha, Bharata, Śreyāṃsa, and Ara.[22]

Textual paradigms for the Śvetāmbara gaṇiya time measures are found in the Viyāhapannatti (Viy3 6.7.114) and Jambuddīvapannatti (JDP1 2.24; JDP2 2.4.4); and those of the Digambara gaṇiya time measures in the Tiloyapannatti (TP 4.282 ff.), Trilokasāra and Trilokadīpikā.[23] The Viyāhapannatti and Jambuddīvapannatti cite the gaṇiya time measures from the smallest unit of time (one samaya) up to the largest "calculable" unit (one sīsapahelika). From the time unit of eighty-four vāsasayasahassa upwards, "the number eighty-four and its multiples" are omnipresent in this system of time measures.

According to Viy3 6.7.1141:

8,400,000 years

= 1 puvvaṃge

8,400,000 puvvaṃgā

= 1 puvve (= 70,560,000,000,000years1)

8,400,000 puvvā

= 1 tuḍiaṃge

8,400,000 tuḍiaṃge

= 1 tuḍie

8,400,000 tuḍie

= 1 aḍaḍaṃge

8,400,000 aḍaḍaṃge

= 1 aḍa

8,400,000 aḍā

= 1 avavaṃge

8,400,000 avavaṃge

= 1 avave

8,400,000 avave

= 1 huhuaṃge

8,400,000 huhuaṃge

= 1 huhue

8,400,000 huhue

= 1 uppalaṃge

8,400,000 uppalaṃge

= 1 uppale

8,400,000 uppale

= 1 paumaṃge

8,400,000 paumaṃge

= 1 paume

8,400,000 paume

= 1 ṇaliṇaṃge

8,400,000 ṇaliṇaṃge

= 1 ṇaliṇe

8,400,000 ṇaliṇe

= 1 atthaṇiuraṃge

8,400,000 atthaṇiuraṃge

= 1 atthaṇiure

8,400,000 atthaṇiure

= 1 auaṃge

8,400,000 auaṃge

= 1aue

8,400,000 auā

= 1 pauaṃge

8,400,000 pauaṃge

= 1 paue

8,400,000 paue

= 1 ṇauaṃge

8,400,000 ṇauaṃge

= 1 ṇaue

8,400,000 ṇaue

= 1 cūliaṃge

8,400,000 cūliaṃge

= 1 cūliā

8,400,000 cūlie

= 1 sīsapaheliaṃge

8,400,000 sīsapaheliaṃge

= 1 sīsapaheliyā

 

2.3 The Number 84,000 and the Height of Mount Meru

The Digambara Tiloyapannatti[24] states that there are five Merus (here also called Mandara) in all. One in the centre of Jambūdīva (Jambūdvīpa): 99,000 yojanas above the earth, and 1,000 yojanas below it;[25] two on the island-continent of Dhādaīsaṇḍa (Dhātakīkhaṇḍa): 84,000 yojanas above the earth, and 1,000 yojanas below it, respectively;[26] and two are on the half island-continent of Pokkhara (Puṣkarārdha): 84,000 yojanas above the earth, and 1000 yojanas below it, respectively.[27] The Trilokasāra[28] provides the same information as the Tiloyapannatti.[29]

In the Pāli canon, the Aṅguttara Nikāya states that Sineru (Meru) is 84,000 yojanas high and wide, and that it descends 84,000 yojanas beneath the sea.[30]

There are other significant occurrences of the number 84,000 in buddhist literature. For example, there are the 84,000 dharmaskandhas of the Buddha[31] - i.e., portions of the teaching relating to laws (dharmaskandhavaśena caturaśītisahasravidham)[32] - and the 84,000 stūpas containing the relics of Śākyamuni[33] which were distributed by Aśoka out of the original eight portions.

In the Bhīṣmaparvan of the Mahābhārata (Mbh 6.7.10),[34] as well as in the purāṇas,[35] it is stated that Meru rises 84,000 yojanas above the earth and descends 16,000 yojanas below it. The height of Mount Meru in the Mahābhārata is the first occurrence in brahmanical literature of a number with cosmological significance from the group of "the number eightyfour and its multiples."[36]

2.4 The Number 8,400,000 for Jainas and Ājīvikas

The Viyāhapannatti (Viy4 13.1.4; 13.1.10-16) lists the seven regions of the Lower World (ahe-loga) and gives the number of abodes of hell (niray'-āvāsa) for each respective region. The total number of places of hell is 8,400,000.[37]

Also in the Viyāhapannatti (Viy1 15.101; Viy2 15.68), the number 8,400,000 refers to the number of mahākappas through which a person must pass before he can reach salvation according to the Ājīvikas.[38] The same concept, attributed to the teachings of Makkhali Gosāla, is expressed in the Sāmmannaphala Sutta of the buddhist Dīgha Nikāya (DN 1 p. 54).[39]

Padmanabh S. Jaini (1980: 228) also draws attention to the fact that the number 8,400,000 has been retained in [the jaina] system to the present-day, although in a significantly altered context.[40] This number is for Jainas the sum total of conceivable birthsituations (yoni) (i.e., the four destinies divided into all their sub-categories, sub-subcategories, etc.) in which souls may find themselves, again and again, as they circle through saṃsāra.[41]

3. The Concept of Mount Meru in the Jaina and Buddhist Canons

The Jambuddīvapannatti (JDP1 4.132)[42] describes Mount Meru (here called Mandara[43]) as being situated in the very middle of Jambuddīva, the innermost circular continent at the centre of the earth and the universe; and (JDP1 7.159 ff.) [44] as the mountain around which the suns, moons, constellations, and planets revolve. The Sūrapannatti (Sūrap 19.22.10-11; 19.23)[45] and the Tiloyapannatti (TP 4.435)[46] also attest to the sun and the moon revolving around Meru; and the Pajjosavaṇākappa (KS2-3 39)[47] mentions the concept in one of the fourteen dreams of Triśalā, the soon-to-be mother of Mahāvīra.[48] However, the concept of a central mountain around which the heavenly bodies revolve is absent from vedic literature, and only found for the first time in brahmanical literature in the Mahābhārata.[49]

The Pāli canon also attests to Mount Meru, but calls it Sineru or Neru.[50] There is a Sineru Sutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, [51] and a Neru Jātaka. [52]

In buddhist literature, Meru is associated with two systems. The first is the cakkavāla, or "single world" system,[53] which describes the cosmos as a flat disc with heavens and meditation realms above, and hells below. There are seven concentric golden mountain ranges with Mount Meru at the centre, and the cakkavāla, a circular mountain range made of iron, lies at the outermost perimeter of the disc. The second is the system known as "sāhasra cosmology," which has a thousand universes each with its own Meru, seven concentric rings of mountains, a sun, and a moon.[54] In both systems the wind, moon, sun, and stars revolve around Meru.

4. Conclusion

The examples presented here not exhaustive, but attest, nonetheless, to the prominence of "the number eighty-four and its multiples" and the concept of Mount Meru in the earliest jaina and buddhist literature; as well as the concept of 8,400,000 great kalpas in Ājīvikism.

Although the earliest jaina texts which have come down to us are relatively late, and their dating problematic, if the examples in the jaina canon are considered together with the other numerous examples in the Pāli canon, and those in Ājīvikism, this strongly suggests that the concept of Mount Meru entered brahmanical literature under the influence of the culture of Greater Magadha.

It is possible that the concept of Mount Meru was introduced into brahmanical literature as part of the overall response to the crisis that Brahmanism faced under the Nandas and Mauryas. At that time, Buddhism, Jainism, and other heterodox sects were favoured by rulers over Brahmanism - a situation which threatened Brahmanism's survival.[55] Brahmanism responded by developing various strategies to regain its former prominence in society. The reworking of vedic cosmology, and the introduction of new cosmological concepts from the cultural milieu of Greater Magadha, may have been one of those strategies.

For example, in vedic literature, the heavenly Sarasvatī falls down to earth on the world tree at Prakṣa Prāsravaṇa[56], but in the Mahābhārata (Mbh 6.7.27)[57], it is the heavenly Gaṅgā that falls down to earth on the summit of Mount Meru. By reworking and/or combining certain traditional vedic cosmological concepts, with those that were popular and prominent in the cultural milieu of Greater Magadha, one might speculate that the redactors of the Mahābhārata were better armed, ideologically, to persuade rulers of their superiority as ritual specialists. [58] The result, as we know, was that the Brahmins eventually succeeded in making themselves indispensable to rulers again, and not only as ritual specialists, but also as counselors to rulers for statecraft and governing, interpreters of divine signs and omens, pronouncers of curses and blessings, etc. (Bronkhorst, 2007: 271-73; 2008: 6 ff.; 2011: 30- 31). From the Mahābhārata onwards, the concept of Mount Meru became the pivot of brahmanical cosmology, and remained henceforth unchanged and prominent in brahmanical literature and sacred geography to the present day.

Appendix A: The Absence of the Concept of the Number Eighty-Four and its Multiples in Vedic Literature

In contrast to the frequent occurrences of "the number eighty-four and its multiples" in jaina and buddhist literature, the few examples to be found in vedic literature are not associated with concepts of cosmological significance. According to the Vedic Word-Concordance, in Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā (5.2.5) the number eighty-four occurs in a long list of numbers (4, 8, 12, 16, etc., up to 100). In the Ṛgveda Prātiśākhya (sūtra 949) the number also appears in a list of numbers (80, 84, 88, 92, etc., up to 104). In the Maitri or Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad (3.3) the number eighty-four occurs in the phrase: "The totality of beings which, determined by the three guṇas, evolve from eighty-four lacs of wombs, constitute the variety of its forms." Since this Upaniṣad is late, and this fits perfectly with the uses of eighty-four in Ājīvikism and Jainism, this is a clear case of borrowing. Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa (2.59) mentions the number eighty-four as being the total number of syllables (akṣaras) when the gāyatrī (24) and uṣṇih (28) and anuṣṭubh (32) are added together; when the paṅkti (40) and triṣṭubh (44) are added together; and when the bṛhatī (36) and jagatī (48) are added together. Finally, the occurrence of the number eighty-four in Atharvaveda Pariśiṣṭa (52.2.2) is too late to be of significance, nor is its utilisation in this phrase pertinent to this study.

Thus, the number eighty-four or its multiples, associated with phenomenon or entities of cosmological significance, appear very late in brahmanical literature, i.e., not before the Mahābhārata. This fact provisionally excludes the possibility that the cosmological concept of this group of numbers originated in the brahmanical context.

Appendix B: The Absence of the Concept of Mount Meru in Vedic Literature[59]

The Ṛgveda mentions the mountains of Himavat (10.121.4)[60] and Mūjavat (10.34.1). The later Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas mention Trikakud (Atharvaveda 4.9.8; Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 3.1.3.12) or Trikakubh (Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā 3.6.3; Kāṭhaka Saṃhitā 23.1; Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā 25.4; Pancaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa 22.14). The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (1.8.1.8) mentions manor avasarpaṇam, the mountain to which Manu's vessel is taken by the fish to save him from being washed away by the flood. The Taittirīya Āraṇyaka mentions Mahāmeru (1.7.1– 3),[61] Kraunca (1.31.2), and Maināka (1.31.2). However, none of these texts introduce the concept of a mountain at the centre of the world called Mount Meru, or called by any other name, and nor do they mention a mountain around which the heavenly bodies revolve.

Appendix C: Mahābhārata (Mbh) 6.7.8–19, 27

parimaṇḍalas tayor madhye meruḥ kanakaparvataḥ || Mbh 6.7.8cd ||
ādityataruṇābhāso vidhūma iva pāvakaḥ ǀ
yojanānāṃ sahasrāṇi ṣoḍaśādhaḥ kila smṛtaḥ || 9 ||
ucchaiś ca caturāśītir yojanānāṃ mahīpate ǀ
ūrdhvam antaś ca tiryak ca lokān āvṛtya tiṣṭhati || 10 ||
tasya pārśve tv ime dvīpāś catvāraḥ saṃsthitāḥ prabho ǀ
bhadrāśvaḥ ketumālaśca jambūdvīpaś ca bhārata ǀ
uttarāś caiva kuravaḥ kṛtapuṇyapratiśrayāḥ || 11 ||
vihagaḥ sumukho yatra suparṇasyātmajaḥ kila ǀ
sa vai vicintayāmāsa sauvarṇān prekṣya vāyasān || 12 ||
merur uttamamadhyānām adhamānāṃ ca pakṣiṇām ǀ
aviśeṣakaro yasmāt tasmād enaṃ tyajāmy aham || 13 ||
tam ādityo 'nuparyeti satataṃ jyotiṣāṃ patiḥ ǀ
candramāś ca sanakṣatro vāyuś caiva pradakṣiṇam || 14 ||
sa parvato mahārāja divyapuṣpaphalānvitaḥ ǀ
bhavanair āvṛtaḥ sarvair jāmbūnadamayaiḥ śubhaiḥ || 15 ||
tatra devagaṇā rājan gandharvāsurarākṣasāḥ ǀ
apsarogaṇasaṃyuktāḥ śaile krīḍanti nityaśaḥ || 16 ||
tatra brahmā ca rudraś ca śakraś cāpi sureśvaraḥ ǀ
sametya vividhair yajnair yajante 'nekadakṣiṇaiḥ || 17 ||
tumburur nāradaś caiva viśvāvasur hahā huhūḥ ǀ
abhigamyāmaraśreṣṭhāḥ stavaistunvanti cābhibho || 18 ||
saptarṣayo mahātmānaḥ kaśyapaś ca prajāpatiḥ ǀ
tatra gacchanti bhadraṃ te sadā parvaṇi parvaṇi || 19 ||...
puṇyā puṇyatamair juṣṭā gaṅgā bhāgīrathī śubhā ǀ
pataty ajaśravegena hrade cāndramase śubhe ǀ 27a–d ǀ

Appendix D: Mahābhārata (Mbh) 3.102.2-7:

lomaśa uvāca ǀ
adrirājaṃ mahāśailaṃ maruṃ kanakaparvatam ǀ
udayāstamaye bhānuḥ pradakṣiṇam avartata || Mbh 3.102.2 ||
taṃ tu dṛṣṭvā tathā vindhyaḥ śailaḥ sūryam athābravīt ǀ
yathā hi merur bhavatā nityaśaḥ parigamyate ǀ
pradakṣiṇaṃ ca kriyate mām evaṃ kuru bhāskara || 3 ||
evam uktas tataḥ sūryaḥ śailendraṃ pratyabhāṣata ǀ
nāham ātmecchayā śaila karomy enaṃ pradakṣiṇam ǀ
eṣa mārgaḥ pradiṣṭo me yenedaṃ nirmitaṃ jagat || 4 ||
evam uktas tataḥ krodhāt pravṛddhaḥ sahasācalaḥ ǀ
sūryācandramasor mārgaṃ roddhum icchan paraṃtapa || 5 ||
tato devāḥ sahitāḥ sarva eva; sendrāḥ samāgamya mahādrirājam ǀ
nivārayām āsur upāyatas taṃ; na ca sma teṣāṃ vacanaṃ cakāra || 6 ||
athābhijagmur munim Āśramasthaṃ; tapasvinaṃ dharmabhṛtāṃ
variṣṭham/agastyam atyadbhutavīryadīptaṃ; taṃ cārtham ūcuḥ sahitāḥ surās te ||

Appendix E: Mahābhārata (Mbh) 3.160.24-29:

etaṁ jyotīṁṣi sarvāṇi prakarṣan bhagavān api ǀ
kurute vitamaskarmā ādityo 'bhipradakṣiṇam || Mbh 3.160.24 ||
astaṁ prāpya tataḥ saṁdhyām atikramya divākaraḥ ǀ
udīcīṁ bhajate kāṣṭhāṁ diśam eṣa vibhāvasuḥ || 25 ||
sa merum anuvr̥ttaḥ san punar gacchati pāṇḍava ǀ
prāṅmukhaḥ savitā devaḥ sarvabhūtahite rataḥ || 26 ||
sa māsaṁ vibhajan kālaṁ bahudhā parvasaṁdhiṣu ǀ
tathaiva bhagavān somo nakṣatraiḥ saha gacchati || 27 ||
evam eṣa parikramya mahāmerum atandritaḥ ǀ
bhāvayan sarvabhūtāni punar gacchati mandaram || 28 ||
tathā tamisrahā devo mayūkhair bhāvayan jagat ǀ
mārgam etad asaṁbādham ādityaḥ parivartate || 29 ||

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