Mathomathis would like to present the following article on Buddhist Conception Of The World; The following article is available more on Shodhganga. The Buddhist texts and commentaries furnishes with the Buddhist conception of the world and the system, of which it forms a constituent. But in most cases the descriptions seem to he very much fictitious. Sober geography happens’ to appear before us only when the known and familiar places or countries are to be described. Thus the account of Jambudvipa or the Indian subcontinent is much more reliable from the geographical point of view than that of extra-Indian continents or countries. The oldest Buddhist texts describe the universe as consisting of a single circular world system which is termed as Cakkavala by them. It is surrounded by a mountain of iron which is known as Cakkavala and to which the world system owes its name. These Buddhist authors while describing the Cakkaval (= Sanskrit Cakravala)-cosmos, do not present any sort of interpretation before us and are satisfied only by cataloguing some names and measurements. The basic outlines of the single world system of the “Cakravala-cosmology,, are more or less the same throughout the Buddhist literature and form a prominent feature of the Pali texts as well as the Buddhist Sanskrit ones. The Mahaprajna-piramita-shastra and the Abhidharmakos’a, for instance, are in almost complete agreement with the details of Pali canon and commentaries in this regard. The single circular world system, however, is a prominent feature of also the Hindu and Jain cosmologies, though with many important differences in detail. Randy Kloetzli in his “Buddhist Cosmology” brings out beautifully the essential difference between the two in the following lines: “Stated briefly, it appears that the Pali intended as a more or less practical guide to the Bhikkhu in his meditations, while the Sanskrit Cakravala is part of a more self-consciously speculative system”. The Cakkavala is represented as a disk surrounded by seven circular golden mountain ranges. These mountain ranges are arranged concentrically, with Mt. Meru at the centre and the Cakkavala wall of iron at the perimeter. Proceeding outward from the center, the mountains are known as Meru, Yugandhara, Isadhara, Khadirika, Sudassana, Assakenna, Vinataka, Nimindhara and Cakkavala. Mt. Meru has a height of 80,000 yojanas and each of the mountain ranges is one half of the height of the preceding range. All of the mountains except the Cakkavila ring which is made of iron, are excrescences of the golden earth. The excellent waters of the various seas (Sita) fill the regions between the mountain ranges. The mountains penetrate these waters in an extent equal to their height.

The inhabited land masses are situated in the great ocean (mahasamudra) which flows about the seventh mountain range. The four land masses located at the points of compass are spoken of as islands (dvipa, Pali dipa), and are known as Purvavideha (Eastern Yideha) in the east, Jambudvipa in the south, Aparagoyana or Ap aragodaniya (Western Pasturage) in the west and Uttarakuru (Northern Kuru-land) in the north. These four islands of the Cakkavala are distinguished from each other in a number of way, particularly with regard to the size, shape and duration of life of their inhabitants. These four Great continents are lit up in succession at an interval of six hours from each other by the sun turning round Meru. All these are said to rest bn a layer of golden earth (Kancanamayi bhumi) which: is definitely fictitious. The importance of this conception, however, cannot be doubted. The Puranas also speak of the lokaloka mountain which surrounds the circular world and is composed of the golden earth. No ring mountain is to be found in the Puranas although a series of seven ring islands and seven seas 5 encircling them occur in.their places. It may be said that the concentric islands and the seven surrounding seas of the Puranas are juxtaposed to the circular mountain system of the Buddhist cosmology.’” The interest of the oldest Buddhist tradition in this regard seems to have been limited to a single world system. But we also find traces of themes associated with multiple world systems in Pali canonical texts. A 10,000 world system .6 is mentioned in the Jatakas, though with little elaboration. It has been dealt with in a systematic way in Buddhaghosa’s Atthasalinl,~” commentary on the Dhammasanganl, which states, that four things are infinite, viz., space, the number of universe, the number of living beings and the wisdom of the Buddha

In the Majjhima Nikaya (Samkharuppatti sutta) a sahasso brahma governing a sahassl lokadhatu has been distinguished from a dvisahasso brahma, a trisahasso brahma, a catussahasso brahma, pancasahasso brahma and a satasahasso brahma. These gods rule over 1,000 up to (1000∧100) worlds In the Buddhist Sanskrit text Mahavastu we read that the Buddhaksetra is the equivalent of sixtyone. triple chiliocosms, while an upaksetra is four times as large

Ekasastim trisahasrani Buddhaksetram pariksitam

Ato caturgunam jneyam upaksetram tathividhsm.

The Mahaprajna-para-mitasastra and the Avatamsakasutra also speak of this thousand world system. For the most part, however, it is the trisahasra mahasahasra lokadhatu which emerges as the cosmological equivalent of the buddhaksetra. A very well-known passage on this concept, occurs m the Anguttara Nikaya. Now, we may speak a few words about the great mountain Mem or Maha Meru. According to some scholars Mt. Meru appears to be an exaggeration of the Himalayan range. It has been described as being at the summit and at the base 10,000 yojanas in diameter and in circumference 31,428 yojanas, 2 gows, 22 isubus, 18 yastis or and 1 cubit. Leaving out the upper part at the distance of 42,000 yojanas from the summit on a level with the rocks called Yugandhara, it is 30.000 yojanas in diameter and in circumference, 94,285 yojanas, 2 gows, 68 isubus, 11 yastis and 3 cubits, and in the centre it is 50,000 yojanas in diameter and in circumference 157,142 yojanas, 3 gows, 34 isubus, 5 yastis, and 5 cubits. From the base to the summit, its entire height is 168.000 yojanas, one half of this measurement, being under the water of the great ocean, and the other half rising into the air. Mount Meru was known to the Greeks by the name of Meros. The Visnu Purina says that it is in the centre of Jambudvipa, its height being 84,000 yojanas and its depth below the surface of the eartji 16,000. Between this Maha Meru and the circular wall of rock bounding the Great Barth, called the Cakkavala are the seven famous ring mountains Yugandhara etc. Between the different circles of rocks there are seas the water of which gradually decreases in depth from Mahi. Meru near which it is 84,000 yojanas deep, to the Cakkavala near which it is only one inch deep. It is very interesting to note that almost all ancient, nations believed in the existence of a fathomless sea; beneath and around the earth. The Buddhists hold that the earth is supported by a world of air which is more scientific than that of the Vedic Culture who believed that it is borne upon a tortoise.

Let’s now come down to the more specific world system of the four island continents. According to the Buddhist conception in each Cakkavala, between the Cakkavala pabbata and the outermost of the rocky circles which environ the Meru mountain, lies a vast ocean and the four mahadvlpas (great islands or continents) are situated in the said ocean, equidistant from each other. The word dvipa (= dlpa in Pali) literally means “double-watered”. According to Dr. H.C. Raychaudhuri it originally meant nothing more than a ‘land between two sheets of water* (usually river). Thus dvipa is not identical with ‘island’. It includes peninsulas and sometimes doabs also. The Buddhists with the epithet Maha prefixed to it, always usedit to denote the four Great Continents though sometimes they call these continents simply cattaro dvipa. It is very curious that they seem to have paid no heed to the literal meaning of the term dvipa (= dlpa), for even if we leave out the three other continents over the uncertainty hanging on their exact identification, the Jambudvipa, which is very faithfully depicted by the Buddhist geographers, cannot be described as a “dvipa” in the literal sense of the term, for three sides of it are surrounded by the ocean. It is not a dvipa even in the popular sense of the term, i.e. a piece of land surrounded on all sides by water, for the northern side of it is occupied by the Great Himalayan Range. Dr. H.C. Ray Chaudhuri also says “the epithet sagara samvrtah applied to Kumari Dvipa, hardly accords with reality”. In a number of instances again, we find that the term dvipa has been indiscriminately used to denote only a division of land, and no more Simhalese writers frequently use the word dip a for the island of Simhala (Srilahka) as being to them the island par excellence, e.g., dipavisi, “an inhabitant of Simhala”, dipag an an am Buddhassa, “the arrival of the Buddha at Srilanka” and so on.

Whatever be the reason for coining the term dvipa or mahadvipa for denoting the continents, the Buddhists stuck to the simple pattern of these four Great Island Continents throughout their scriptures. The Brahmanical writers on the other hand fluctuated from one view to another regarding the exact number and description of the continents. The Brahmanical conception of the world, contained mainly in the Puranas is not very clear. According to this concept the world consists of seven conoentric islands the names of which are given as Jambu, Plaksa, Salmali, Kusa, Kraunca, Saka and Puskara. These are surrounded respectively by the seven seas of salt, sugar cane Jnice, wine, clarified butter, curds, milk and water. In the Brahmanical tradition contained in the Puranas the size of one continent is double the size’ of the former one. Thus the PIaksadvipa is double the size of Jambudvipa and so on. Similarly the rivers, mountains etc. of the following continent are double in size compared to those in the preceding one, and the size of the seas also is double of the preceding ones in the list. Thus the Buddhist and the Brabmanical conceptions in this matter are poles apart regarding every detail, e.g. number of continents, their arrangements, names and so on. The four Great Continents of the Buddhists are situated on the four comers of the compass, while the seven Puranic islands are arranged in a pattern of concentric circles. This Puranic pattern rather reminds us of the seven concentric circle of rocks and the seas between the rocks as found in the Buddhist literature. The Brahmanioal texts often contain conflicting statements regarding the island continents. Thus sometimes in the same work, e.g. in the Vayu Purana the earth is described as consisting of four island continents as well as of seven such continents. The Puranic four-continent theory evidently draws comparison with the Buddhist theory of Pour Great Islands. According to the Puranic theory the earth consists of four great dvipas resembling four petals of a lotus, the pericarp of which is. represented by the Meru or Sumeru mountain which the Mahabharata locates beyond the Himalayas near the Central Asian deserts.

The four islands are situated on the east, south, west and north of Mount Meru. This division on the basis of quarters is also similar to the Buddhist conception. These four islands are described as the four petals of the earth lotus. The continents are called Bhadrasva, Bharata, Ketumala, and TJttarafcuru (or kuru) respectively. The southern continent is called Jambudvipa instead of Bharata in the Mahabharata and some Puranas. It is very curious, because in the Buddhist literature we find that the name of Jambudvipa has been without exception used as a fixed nomenclature of the Indian subcontinent, while in the Brahmanical literature, inmost places, the name Jambudvipa has a wider connotation which includes within itself not only India, but also a considerable portion of the continent of Asia. The name of the northern continent i.e, Kuru or Uttarateuru is also common to both the Buddhist and Puranic lists. But the names of the eastern and western continents are different in the two lists. Thus in some respects the four island theory of the Puranas resemble the pour Great Island theory of the Buddhists and we may suggest that these two theories probably had a parallel development and the exponents of both were familiar with the main features of each other. Though Dr. D.C#

Sircar suggests that the Buddhists may have borrowed the four continent theory from the Puranic writers this suggestion’ must be examined thoroughly before we accept it. It seems very strange that the Buddhists borrowed the four continent theory from the Purinas instead of the seven continent one which was much more popular than the former. It is possible that the Puranic four continent theory was perhaps older than the conception of the seven continent earth as pointed out by Dr. D.C. Sircar with good reasons. But at the same time it must be borne in mind that while the Puranas give so many divergent opinions about the number of the islands, the Buddhist texts are very rigid on the number ’’four” and they never, in any instance, have cited a number other than “four” regarding the number of the Mahadvipas. This fact may lead us to assume that both the Brahmanical and Buddhist theories of four continents were perhaps independent developments. In fact it is quite natural and reasonable to divide the earth according to the four points of the compass, and this idea might have flashed, quite separately, on the pioneers of both theories. it is difficult to discern which theory was earlier. The mention of the four islands either in general or with their specific nomenclature is very frequent in the Buddhist literature. The Samyutta Nikaya speaks of four dipas the possession of which is not so precious as that of the four varieties. The Milindapanha speaks of the four Great Island continents. The Divyavadana gives the names of all the four. Among other Buddhist Sanskrit texts the Mahavastu, the lalitavistara, and the Bodhisattvavadanakalpalata very often refer to the four Mahadvipas. The Burmese version of the lalitavistara says: “His regards glanced over the four great islands and the 2,000 small ones. He saw that the island of Dzaboudiba, the southern one, had always been the favourite place selected by all former Buddhas …” The lalitavistara refers to the scripts belonging to the different continents. The same text also gives us the extents of these four Great Islands. The Pali commentary Samantapasadika too points out the extents of these four continents though with measurements varying considerably from the lalitavistara

Mathomathis - Buddha
Mathomathis – Four Great Island of Buddhist Concept

Now we may proceed to give individual accounts of each of these four Great Islands.- First we should take up Jambudvipa or Jambhudvipa because it has been delineated in the Buddhist literature with the greatest amount of sobriety and authenticity. Jambudvipa according to the Buddhist conception is the southernmost of the four Kahadvipas. Brahmanical texts describe it as the most centrally situated island of the world comprising seven concentric islands separated from each other by seven encircling seas. The Brahmanda Purina tells us that Jambudvipa is the continent inhabited by human beings. 33 The Brahmanical texts also throw light on the shape of this island continent. It is said to be shaped like a lotus with Meru as its pericarp and the four var^as, viz., Bhadrasva, Bharata, Ketumila and Uttarakuru as its four petals. The Markandeya Purana: ~describes the Jambudvipa being low on the south and north, and highly elevated in the middle. The elevated region in the middle is named IIavrta or Meruvarasa. On the northern half of this elevated region there are three subcontinents, Ramyaka, Hiranmaya and Uttarakuru. On the south too are three, viz., Bharata, Kimpurusa and Harivaraa, Bharata being the southernmost region, separated from the Kimpurusa by the Himavat chain, and described like Uttarakuru (the northernmost region) as being shaped like a bow. So the Jambudvipa was almost circular in shape according to the Puranas.

IIavrta or Meruvarsa is situated between the two halves and is said to be shaped like the half-moon. East of it is Bhadrasva vara a and to the west lies Ketumaia. Though the description of several varsas of the Jambudvipa is idealistic and mythical to a great extent, yet there are “some faint indications that the original accounts may have been based on some real knowledge of the topography and physical features of central and perhaps also in Northern Asia. Dr. B.N. Seal in his Vaishnavism and christianity compares Mt. Meru with the plateau of Pamir. The Western Tars a, Ketumaia drained by the river Yanksu, may be connected with West Turkestan. Bhadrasva eastern Varsa, watered by the Sita (the mythical prototype of the Yarkand and Yellow rivers) may be referred to Eastern Turkestan and North China. The northernmost Tara a of the Jambudvipa, viz., Uttarakuru which has been placed beyond the Himalayas, is an indefinite semi mythic tract which is identified by N.C. Das with certain countries in Northern Asia.

Thus it is very probable that Jambudvipa in the Brahmanical literature may have denoted the continent of Asia as a whole. At least it definitely had a much wider connotation than India or Bharatavarsa which formed only a part of it. When we turn to the Buddhist literature for an account of the Jambudvipa we are surprised to find that this name denotes a far narrower piece of area than that found in the Brahmanical texts. In fact Jambudvipa always refers to India or Bharatavarsa and not the continent of Asia throughout the Buddhist literature. Childers in his Pall Dictionary points out that when opposed to Sihaladlpa, Jambudvipa means the continent of India. It is said that in Jambudvipa there is Mt. Himava with its 84,000 peaks, its lakes and mountain ranges. This continent owes its name to a colossal Jambu tree (also called Naga) 43 which grows there. Its trunk is 15 yojanas in girth, and its outspreading branches are 50 yojanas in length. Its shade is 100 yoganas in extent and its height 100 yojanas. On account of this tree Jambudvipa is also known as Jambuvana


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