SuttaCentral

Did the Buddha know the Earth is round?


#1

It is astonishing that the Buddha seemed to know things about the universe - at large. With ordinary vision the best we can do is see the stars but, world-systems?

The Buddha seemed to have a sense of the great age of the universe. He also taught that in the vast expanse of space there are worlds where sentient life exists.

There is a theory of kalpas in Vedic cosmology. In the Vedas there are teachings about yugas and kalpas - vast periods that stretch for aeons. In these teachings there is a description of a ‘wok-shaped’ Earth with a giant mythical mountain - Meru - in the centre. Did the Buddha ever mention Mount Meru?

As far as I know, the discovery of the Earth as a spheroidal planet in space post-dates the Buddha?

Is it possible that the Buddha’s cosmology was derived from earlier sources and had little, or nothing to do with supernormal powers?

The Buddha was from a wealthy family and would have had access to a good education. He seemed to be familiar with the sophisticated teachings of the ‘Samkhya’ tradition - founded by Kapila - as well as the ‘Tri-Vidya’ (the 3 Vedic collections). Both these traditions contain cosmological teachings.


#2

As far as I know, the Thai intellectuals of the 19th century had great difficulties with accepting that the Wrath is round since it contracticted Traibhumikatha, one of the foundational texts for the Thai culture. So, at least the later Buddhist tradition was not only unaware of th exact shape of the Earth but even actively rejected it. However, I don’t know whether it is also true for the Nikayas.


#3

Good question - I would like to get a better handle on these things too.

More than once I have seen someone claiming that the Buddha believed the earth was flat. However, as of yet, I have not seen anything in the EBTs that would indicate this is true. Is this just being inferred based on mentions of Mount Meru?


#4

I cannot remember hearing or reading that the Earth is round anywhere in the Buddha’s teachings? What are we to conclude from this omittion? I think it was in ancient Greece that the notion of a round Earth was first proposed. A Greek mathematician measured the angle of the suns rays by putting sticks in the ground at different points on a straight beach - at the same time of day. He then set about calculating the diameter of the Earth. He got within a few kilometres of its actual size. It took Christopher Columbus’s circumnavigation of the Earth many hundreds of years later for the idea to catch on! :slightly_smiling_face:


#5

If knowing shape of earth pertained to the first noble truth, which implies in the ennobling task of fully understanding suffering, then he must have known it.

However, I know that in myself the knowledge of the shape of earth does not bring me any step closer towards fulfilling the first ennobling task of understanding suffering.

Then and therefore I assume that the fact that in no EBT we see the Buddha alluding to the knowledge of the shape of the world in his exposition of the four noble truths can only mean that from the perspective of liberation not only the knowledge of the shape of the world is irrelevant but as well there is a chance Buddha never bothered to acquire it!

Interestingly, the Buddha in EBTs seemed to have considered relevant to bringing to others mind and heart inspiration in taking the four ennobling tasks teaching them about the massive scale of and space and how stressful it is to simply not acknowledge it and allow for it to reach an end!

That’s at least how I read the sort of cosmology found in suttas like DN27 and the story of Rohitassa the astronaut (found in AN4.45, AN4.46 and SN2.26).

What we need to keep in mind is that the Buddha was not interested in making declarations on the existence, shape and mechanics of things. His sole purpose was to guide us through understanding suffering and bringing it to an end.

:anjal:


#6

The idea of a spherical earth likely only got to India ca. 100-200 CE, and it came from Greece. There’s no need to find something in the Nikayas one way or the other because the idea wasn’t present at that time; instead, layered realms and whatnot were the main ideas.

Yes.


#7

Magellan


#8

I agree the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is the understanding of suffering and the hearts release. When you say the Buddha did not mention the Earth was round because it was irrelevant you may be right?

You also said it may be the case that the Buddha did not know that the Earth is spheroidal because he did not turn his attention to this fact.

It may also be the case that he simply did not know because it had not been discovered yet. They already had existing cosmologies in his cultural milleu and the Earth as a ball in space was unthinkable. It is only when you see the Buddha as a superhuman entity that it becomes necessary to dismiss this scenario.

The Buddha may have possessed paranormal abilities but I do not feel the need to believe or disbelieve in them. Without having a fixed view on this matter I can still love, respect and, most importantly, learn from his profound wisdom, kindness and compassion.

I am happy with a wise and compassionate Buddha. I don’t need him to know about the blue-green ball we live on. My Buddha can be unaware of many things because he simply does not know them. I don’t find this troubling and it does not compromise my faith in him or his liberation teachings.

My teachers require no special qualifications. I am happy to learn from children, barking dogs, the traffic on the road to work, birth, old age, sickness and death - you name it! :hugs:


#9

I thought it was Columbus who was commissioned by the king of Spain to find an alternative trade route to India. He set sail across the Atlantic ocean which had never been attempted before because they feared they would sail off the edge of the flat Earth. He ended up sailing to America and he called the indigenous people ‘Indians’ because he thought he had found the alternative route to India?

Who was the first Captain to circumnavigate the Earth - was that Magellan?


#10

According to Wiki it was Magellan’s expedition that was the first to circumnavigate the globe - although Magellan himself didn’t make it all the way. Apparently he was killed during a battle in the Philippines - you learn something new every day!


#11

I think it was Columbus who tested the waters - literally and metaphorically? They used to hug the coast when they sailed on long journeys to avoid falling off the edge of the Earth. That’s why the trip to India was long and perilous. They wanted shorter voyagers to save lives and money - mostly money!


#12

Yes, but because he didn’t actually circumnavigate the globe, those voyages were not confirmation that the world was a sphere. Magellan’s later circumnavigation was, as far we know for sure, the first one.

However, educated people throughout much of the world had believed for centuries that the Earth was spherical. As you mentioned, Eratosthenes had attempted to measure the earth’s circumference in the third century BCE and had come up with a remarkably accurate result. Muslim astronomers and geographers derived an estimate in the ninth century CE, and it was also quite accurate. Even more accurate was a later measurement by Biruni.

Educated opinion in Europe throughout the Middle Ages concurred that the Earth was spherical. The scholar Edward Grant has claimed that no known author who studied at a medieval European university believed that the Earth was flat. By the time Magellan circumnavigated the globe, he was just adding an extra degree of confirmation to an already widely held belief, one that had already been subject to much scientific investigation.


#13

‘Traibhumikatha’ (the discourse on the three worlds) - the heavens, the Earth and, the paranoid realms. Maybe that teaching was a consequence of the Brahmin presence in Thailand’s royal court? The 3 worlds is a Vedic theme! In Buddhism we tease out a few more - as found on the wheel of life.


#14

No, the three worlds do not refer to the hell, the human realm and the heaves, ratherto the kama loka, rupa loka, and arupa loka, where the connection with the Vedic cosmology as we know it is less explicit.


#15

If you were the Buddha 2500 years ago and knew that you can go around the world, will you tell people that the world is round?


#16

"This great earth, Ananda, is established upon liquid, the liquid upon the atmosphere, and the atmosphere upon space. And when, Ananda, mighty atmospheric disturbances take place, the liquid is agitated. And with the agitation of the liquid, tremors of the earth arise. This is the first reason, the first cause for the arising of mighty earthquakes.>

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.1-6.vaji.html

Above is a quite a statement by Buddha.
Isn’t this enough evidence to say that Buddha knew the world is spherical?

It is very easy for the modern man to understand the above statement. But I wonder how many understood above statement in Buddhas’s time.


#17

No, not at all. All we can derive from that statement is that he believed the natural world was stratified into natural layers, composed of a few elements.


#18

It doesn’t seem to matter much, one way or another, to the question of their liberation. So I would expect him to have spent much time worrying about it.


#19

Well, Dan, 2500 years ago, if you heard that statement from Buddha will you accept it?
How do you visualise it?


#20

It would depend on what I already believed. If I believed in the flat universe picture, I would think he was talking about indefinitely extended planar layers. If I believed in the spherical world picture, I would assume he meant the layers surrounded the globe. I’m just saying that one cannot conclude much from the statement you quoted about which view he held.

It’s not a spiritually important question, I don’t think.

… Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.

SN 2.26