Hindu Temples as a representation of the Cosmos- Part II

The Altar as a Representation of Time and Earth, and the Axis and Perimeter as a representation of Cosmic Distance.
Keywords: Altar | Motion of Sun and the Earth | Temple Plan | Vedic Philosophy | Auspicious Numbers

The Śatapatha Brahmana, described as the most complete, systematic, and important of the commentaries on the Vedas, informs us that the altar is to represent the mystery of time. Its dimensions are to represent earth. “As large as the altar is, so large is the earth” (ŚB 3.7.2.1) indicates that it symbolically represents objective knowledge. 

In the Śatapatha Śandilya says:

▪  Prajāpati is the year, and the bricks are the joints, the days and nights. The altar is the earth, the Agnicayana– the air, and the Mahad Uktham- the sky. In other terms, the altar is the mind, the Agnicayana the air, and the Mahad Uktham the speech (ŚB 10.1.2.2-3).

▪  The Year, doubtless, is the same as Death. Prajapati (The Bhagavad Gita describes him as giving special instructions to the gods and the human beings after creating them to perform yajña or sacrifice as a link between them) said: “You do not lay down all my forms, making me either too small or too large. That is why you are not immortal… Lay down 360 enclosing stones, 360+36 yaju¬mat» (special) bricks, and 10,800 lokampanā (ordinary) bricks and you will be laying down all my forms, and you will become immortal.” (ŚB 10.4.3.8)

The 10,800 count represents the number of muhurtas (48-minute interval) in a year.

Some of the rituals directly present astronomical information contained in the Śatapatha regarding the motion of the sun around the earth

The special Yajusmati bricks are placed 98 in the first layer, 41 in the second, 71 in the third, 47 in the fourth, and 138 in the fifth layer. These add up to 395; the earth filling between the bricks is taken to be the 396th brick. The sum of the bricks in the fourth and fifth layers together with one space-filling is 186 (half the tithees in the solar year), the number of bricks in the third and the fourth layers equals one third the number of days in the lunar year, and so on.

Some of the rituals directly present astronomical information contained in the Śatapatha regarding the motion of the sun around the earth (the nākasads, ŚB 8.6.1). It is striking that this arrangement sees accurately the two halves of the year as being unequal by the use of 29 special bricks in the fifth layer of the altar.

This is the basic temple plan, and it has the overall dimensions 60×30, with a perimeter of 180. The overall temple proportion of 1:2 is attested in later texts such as the Brhat Samhitā and Śilpa Prakāsa.

The Axis and the Perimeter

The Agniksetra or the later temple plan of the Vedic ritual represents two significant numbers, 180 and 54, which, when doubled, correspond to astronomical knowledge related to the 360 days of the year (attested in the Rigveda) and the ubiquitous number 108, which shows up as the number of beads in the rosary (japamālā), the number of dance movements (karanas) of the Nātya Śāstra, the names of the God and the Goddess, the number of pithas, the number of dhāms, the number of arhats, and so on.

The correct interpretation of the auspicious number 108 is the distance to the sun and the moon from the earth in sun and moon diameters. 

This number 108 has traditionally been derived from the auspicious number 9 when written as 1 + 8, from where it also becomes the auspicious number 18 of the number of Purānas, or the chapters of the Bhagavad Gita and sections of Mahabharata. The number 108 is further seen as being auspicious since it is 27×4 where 27 is the number of Naksatras. The auspiciousness of 1,008 is related to the fact that the Kalpa has 1,008 Mahāyugas, and thus this number symbolizes the completion of time.

In my Astronomical Code of the Rigveda, I argued that the correct interpretation of the auspicious number 108 is the distance to the sun and the moon from the earth in sun and moon diameters. This number codes a fundamental measure related to our physical universe. 

The Earth, Sun and Moon System

The currently estimated mean diameter of the sun, Ds, is 1,392,000 km; the mean diameter of the earth, De, is 12,742 km; and the diameter of the moon, Dm, is 3,476 km. The estimated average distance between the earth and the sun is 149,600,000 km, so that

Average Distance to Sun/ Sun diameter ≈ 107.5

The distance between the earth and the moon varies considerably from the average perigee of 363,300 km to the average apogee of 405,500 km, for a mean of 384,400 km.

Average Distance to Moon/ Moon diameter ≈ 110.58 Diameter of Sun/ Earth diameter ≈ 109.24

It is thus correct for these distances to be approximated by the figure of 108. The origin of this number in ancient India may be the discovery that a pole of a certain height removed to a distance of 108 times its height has the same angular size as the sun or the moon. Therefore, the knowledge of the astronomical significance of this number in ancient India is not to be taken as fortuitous. But since such a comparison made by the naked eye can only be correct to 1 or 2 percent, it seemed logical to take the round number 108.

This interpretation of 108 cannot be taken to be a coincidence since we also have the numbers 261 and 78 explicitly associated with the atmosphere and the sky.

Taken together, they add up to 339, which is approximately equal to 108×π, in accord with the notion that the sun, 108 units away from the earth, will inscribe 339 disks from rising to setting. These numbers also show up in the very organization of the Rigveda and other texts, confirming their centrality in Vedic cosmological thinking.

This measure is also at the basis of the estimated distance to the sun in ancient canonical treatises. On the other hand, there is no evidence for the correct estimate of the size of the sun.

Conclusion

The plan of the Hindu temple, as seen in its earliest form in the Agnicayana rite, is a representation of the cosmos. Its axis, from the western gateway to the garbhagraha in the east, represents the distance to the sun (or the moon), and its perimeter represents the duration of the year in terms of the number 360. Specifically, the ratio 360/108 would characterize the standard temple in the proportions related to perimeter and axis.

Its axis, from the western gateway to the garbhagraha in the east, represents the distance to the sun (or the moon), and its perimeter represents the duration of the year in terms of the number 360. 

Some later temples deviate from this standard in a variety of ways; in some, the perimeter is not the lunar year of 360 tithis (or civil year of as many days) but rather its count of 354 days. In others, the representation of the axis and the perimeter is not in linear measure but rather expressed symbolically. Such deviations from the prototype make the layout unique and interesting and can tell us much about the cosmological ideas of the times.

The Vedic philosophy of bandhu takes the numbers 360 and 108 to be central to the inner cosmos of the individual also. Therefore, walking 108 steps to the sanctum, or doing the 108 beads of the rosary, is a symbolic journey from the body to the heart of consciousness, which is the inner sun.

The temple itself, in its three-dimensional form, codes several rhythms of the cosmos and specific alignments related to the geography of the place and the presumed linkages of the deity and the patron. The architecture may also incorporate themes related to royal power if it was built at the behest of a king.

But this does not mean that the relationship of the Hindu temple is to the physical cosmos alone. The Vedic philosophy of bandhu takes the numbers 360 and 108 to be central to the inner cosmos of the individual also. Therefore, walking 108 steps to the sanctum, or doing the 108 beads of the rosary, is a symbolic journey from the body to the heart of consciousness, which is the inner sun.

The Hindu temple has continued to reflect astronomical numbers and orientations, as is seen most dramatically in the great temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The subject leaves much to be discovered about scientific knowledge in our past. More importantly, it should vindicate our determination to foster a cultural and hermeneutic renaissance.

2 comments

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  • Wonder if these principles were utilized in the construction of all ancient Hindu temples?
    More importantly in the construction of the new Ram Temple in Ayodhya?

  • Very educative and fascinating to know as to how much our ancestors knew.
    Truly hallmarks of an enlightened civilization.

Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

Prof. Subhash Kak is Regents Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. His research is on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, archaeoastronomy, and history of science. He is a member of Indian Prime Minister’s Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council (PM-STIAC) since 2018, and he was awarded the Indian civilian award Padma Shri in 2019.

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