What the Bhagavatam has to say, and some shortcomings to science’s theories.
By Nandimukhi Devi Dasi
Astronomers can observe the universe only as it was some time ago, and not as it is at the moment.

How large is the universe and how old is it? These centuries-old questions are among the top compelling mysteries that fascinate human beings and carry implications for science, philosophy, and religion alike. Equipped with state-of-the-art telescopes and computers, astronomers today estimate that the universe is around 13.7 billion years old and has a diameter of 93 billion light-years (1 light-year is approximately 5.8 trillion miles). Srimad-Bhagavatam, an ancient Vedic scripture, gives different answers. In verses 3.11.40–41, Sage Maitreya tells Vidura that the universe, which to Maha-Vishnu seems like a parama-anu (the material manifestation’s smallest particle), has a diameter of 500 million yojanas (4 billion miles). A straightforward way to derive the age of the universe in the Bhagavatam context is to look at the age of Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe. Lord Brahma has lived fifty Brahma years and is currently in the first day of his fifty-first year (Bhagavatam 3.11.34). Since a day and a night for Lord Brahma is roughly 8.6 billion years for human beings (Bhagavatam 3.11.18–22), the universe has an age of about 155 trillion years.

There may be a number of ways to shed light on the apparent disagreements between modern astronomy and Srimad-Bhagavatam. This article provides a perspective based on a distinction between the universe seen through telescopes and computers and the one described in Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Current Astronomical Observations

The universe discussed in today’s astronomy forums is called the observable universe. Basically, it is a region comprising everything that observers on earth can see at present when looking out in space. To estimate parameters of interest (distance, age, etc.), in astronomical observations observers detect and analyze a variety of signals (visible light, x-ray, radio wave, gravitational wave, etc.) emitted from the observed objects (stars, galaxies, etc.). Since it takes time for these signals to travel from their sources to an observer, the image of stars or galaxies seen today is a picture of them in the past, which contains signals that were emitted from them long ago and are just reaching the earth now. Meanwhile, the current whereabouts of these stars or galaxies is unknown to the observer. As an interesting example, since it takes about 8.3 minutes for sunlight to reach the earth, the sun seen by observers at present is how the sun looked 8.3 minutes ago. If the sun vanished at that moment, observers would not be aware until 8.3 minutes later, when the sunlight would disappear before their eyes.

For the observable universe, its age is viewed as the time elapsed since the universe expanded from an initial state of high density and temperature (the Big Bang), and can be estimated by different approaches.* One approach is to relate it to the oldest observable stars. Another approach is to derive the expansion rate of the universe and use that rate to extrapolate the time it takes for the universe to expand from the initial state to the current state. Its size can be estimated from the expansion rate and the distance that light can travel over its age.

Consider that according to the current estimate the observable universe is 13.7 billion years old. Given that signals cannot travel over time and space faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, the maximum observable distance at present, in any direction, would be 13.7 billion light-years from the earth (the distance that light can travel in 13.7 billion years). Since the universe is said to be expanding, distant objects would have been moving away from the earth ever since they emitted the light that is just reaching the earth now. The radius of the universe is thus estimated to be about 47 billion light-years (greater than the maximum observable distance).

Shukadeva’s Panoramic View

Unlike the observable universe, the universe described in the Bhagavatam is not made from images of the past. In Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto Five, chapters 16–26, Shukadeva Goswami gives a panorama of the universe, including horizontal and vertical structures, orbital movements of stars and planets, and inhabitants of different regions. Such a panoramic view of the universe is not attainable by astronomers with the current observation technology; most celestial objects observed today are separated from the earth by a considerable distance in time and space. To achieve a panoramic view, astronomers need to see the universe at present rather than the universe in the past. This would require instantaneous (faster-than-light) communication between astronomers and the object they are studying. In this respect, since the universe seen through telescopes and computers and the one described in Srimad-Bhagavatam are not the same, it is not surprising that modern astronomy and the Bhagavatam give disparate measurements. Maybe someday observation technology could be advanced and astronomers could gain a better view of the universe. Still, with the sensory and intellectual power given to them, what they can see would be limited. Except for those who create and maintain the universe and those who learn from them, who would be able to know the universe in full scale?

In astronomy, the universe is a physical object measured by equations and parameters. In the conversation between Shukadeva Goswami and Maharaja Parikshit, however, the universe is regarded as the gigantic material form of the Supreme, on which all living entities repose (Bhagavatam 5.26.40). In his inquiry, Maharaja Parikshit expresses, “When the mind is fixed upon the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His external feature made of the material modes of nature – the gross universal form – it is brought to the platform of pure goodness. In that transcendental position, one can understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vasudeva, who in His subtler form is self-effulgent and beyond the modes of nature. O my lord, please describe vividly how that form, which covers the entire universe, is perceived.” (Bhagavatam 5.16.3)

In astronomy, it is said when one looks out in space, one looks back in time; the farther one sees, the more one looks into the distant past. With the telescope of Srimad-Bhagavatam, this statement can be rephrased: when one looks out in space, one looks at the Supreme; the more one studies, the more likely one’s devotional love for the Supreme Personality of Godhead increases.

* Van Den Bergh, S., 1981. “Size and age of the universe.” Science, 213(4510), pp. 825–830. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.213.4510.825

Nandimukhi Devi Dasi (Yanying Wang), a disciple of His Holiness Romapada Swami, was born and raised in mainland China. She came to the U.S. by herself in August 2014 and later came across Krishna consciousness and devotees via a bhakti-yoga club at The George Washington University. She completed her graduate education in statistics in the U.S. She cares about the development of ISKCON in China and the spreading of Krishna consciousness worldwide.