Cross-cultural traces of Vedic Civilization
>From Back to Godhead magazine, May/June 1991
CROSS-CULTURAL TRACES OF VEDIC CIVILIZATION
by Sadaputa Dasa
(c) 1991 The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust
Used by permission.
The ancient Greek writer Aratos tells the following story about the
constellation Virgo, or the virgin. Virgo, he says, may have belonged to
the star race, the forefathers of the ancient stars. In primeval times,
in the golden age, she lived among mankind as Justice personified and
would exhort people to adhere to the truth. At this time people lived
peacefully, without hypocrisy or quarrel. Later, in the age of silver,
she hid herself in the mountains, but occasionally she came down to
berate people for their evil ways. Finally the age of bronze came.
People invented the sword, and "they tasted the meat of cows, the first
who did it." At this point Virgo "flew away to the sphere"; that is, she
departed for the celestial realm.
The Vedic literature of India gives an elaborate description of the
universe as a cosmos -- a harmonious, ordered system created according
to an intelligent plan as a habitation for living beings. The modern
view of the universe is so different from the Vedic view that the latter
is presently difficult to comprehend. In ancient times, however,
cosmogonies similar to the Vedic system were widespread among people all
over the world. Educated people of today tend to immediately dismiss
these systems of thought as mythology, pointing to their diversity and
their strange ideas as proof that they are all simply products of the
If we do this, however, we may be overlooking important information that
could shed light on the vast forgotten period that precedes the brief
span of recorded human history. There is certainly much evidence of
independent storytelling in the traditions of various cultures, but
there are also many common themes. Some of these themes are found in
highly developed form in the Vedic literature. Their presence in
cultures throughout the world is consistent with the idea that in the
distant past, Vedic culture exerted worldwide influence.
In this article we will give some examples of Vedic ideas concerning
time and human longevity that appear repeatedly in different traditions.
First we will examine some of these ideas, and then we will discuss some
questions about what they imply and how they should be interpreted.
In the Vedic literature time is regarded as a manifestation of Krsna,
the Supreme Being. As such, time is a controlling force that regulates
the lives of living beings in accordance with a cosmic plan. This plan
involves repeating cycles of creation and destruction of varying
durations. The smallest and most important of these repeating cycles
consists of four yugas, or ages, called Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali.
In these successive ages mankind gradually descends from a high
spiritual platform to a degenerated state. Then, with the beginning of a
new Satya-yuga, the original state of purity is restored, and the cycle
The story of Virgo illustrates that in the ancient Mediterranean world
there was widespread belief in a similar succession of four ages, known
there as the ages of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. In this system
humanity also starts out in the first age in an advanced state of
consciousness and gradually becomes degraded. Here also, the progressive
developments in human society are not simply evolving by physical
processes, but are superintended by a higher controlling intelligence.
It is noteworthy that Aratos' story specifies the eating of cows as a
sinful act that cut mankind off from direct contact with celestial
beings. This detail fits in nicely with the ancient Indian traditions of
cow protection, but it is unexpected in the context of Greek or European
One explanation for similarities between ideas found in different
cultures is that people everywhere have essentially the same
psychological makeup, and so they tend to come up independently with
similar notions. However, details such as the point about cow-killing
suggest that we are dealing here with common traditions rather than
Another example of similarities between cultures can be found among the
natives of North America. The Sioux Indians say that their ancestors
were visited by a celestial woman who gave them their system of
religion. She pointed out to them that there are four ages, and that
there is a sacred buffalo that loses one leg during each age. At present
we are in the last age, an age of degradation, and the buffalo has one
This story is a close parallel to the account in the Srimad Bhagavatam
of the encounter between Maharaja Pariksit and the bull of Dharma.
There, Dharma is said to lose one leg with each successive yuga, leaving
it with one leg in the present Age of Kali.
According to the Vedic system, the lengths of the Satya, Treta, Dvapara,
and Kali yugas are 4, 3, 2, and 1 times an interval of 432,000 years.
Within these immense periods of time the human life span decreases from
100,000 years in the Satya-yuga to 10,000 years in the Treta-yuga, 1,000
years in the Dvapara-yuga, and finally 100 years in the Kali-yuga.
Of course, this idea is strongly at odds with the modern evolutionary
view of the past. In the ancient Mediterranean world, however, it was
widely believed that human history had extended over extremely long
periods of time. For example, according to old historical records,
Porphyry (c. 300 A.D.) said that Callisthenes, a companion of Alexander
in the Persian war, dispatched to Aristotle Babylonian records of
eclipses and that these records covered 31,000 years. Likewise,
Iamblicus (fourth century) said on the authority of the ancient Greek
astronomer Hipparchus that the Assyrians had made observations for
270,000 years and had kept records of the return of all seven planets to
the same position. Finally, the Babylonian historian Berosus assigned
432,000 years to the total span of the reigns of the Babylonian kings
before the Flood.
We do not wish to suggest that these statements are true (or that they
are false). The point here is that people in the old Mediterranean
civilization evidently had a much different view of the past than the
dominant view today. And this view was broadly consistent with Vedic
Although the Bible is well known for advocating a very short time-span
for human history, it is interesting to note that it contains
information indicating that people at one time lived for about 1,000
years. In the Old Testament the following ages are listed for people
living before the Biblical Flood: Adam, 930; Seth, 912; Enos, 905;
Kenan, 910; Mahaleel, 895; Jared, 962; Enoch, 365; Methusaleh,969;
Lamech, 777; and Noah, 950. If we exclude Enoch (who was said to have
been taken up to heaven in his own body), these persons lived an average
of 912 years.
After the Flood, however, the following ages were recorded: Shem, 600;
Arphachshad, 438; Selah, 433; Eber, 464; Peleg, 239; Reu, 239; Serug,
230; Nahor, 148; Terah, 205; Abraham, 175; Issac, 180; Job, 210; Jacob,
147; Levi, 137; Kohath, 133; Amaram, 137; Moses, 120; and Joshua, 110.
These ages show a gradual decline to about 100 years, similar to what
must have happened after the beginning of Kali-yuga, according to the
Here we should mention in passing that the Biblical Flood is
traditionally said to have taken place in the second or third millenium
B.C., and the traditional date in India for the beginning of Kali-yuga
is February 18, 3102 B.C. This very date is cited as the time of the
Flood in various Persian, Islamic, and European writings from the sixth
to the fourteenth centuries A.D. How did the middle-eastern Flood
come to be associated with the start of Kali-yuga? The only comment we
can make is that this story shows how little we really know about the
In support of the Biblical story of very long human life-spans in
ancient times, the Roman historian Flavius Josephus cited many
historical works that were available in his time:
"Now when Noah had lived 350 years after the Flood, and all that
time happily, he died, having the number of 950 years, but let
no one, upon comparing the lives of the ancients with our
lives...make the shortness of our lives at present an argument
that neither did they attain so long a duration of life...."
"Now I have for witnesses to what I have said all those that have
written Antiquities, both among the Greeks and barbarians, for
even Manetho, who wrote the Egyptian history, and Berosus, who
collected the Chaldean monuments, and Mochus, and Hestiaeus, and
beside these, Hiernonymous the Egyptian, and those who composed
the Phoenician history, agree with what I here say: Hesiod also,
and Hecataeus, Hellanicaus, and Acuzilaus, and besides Ephorus
and Nicolaus relate that the ancients lived a thousand years:
but as to these matters, let everyone look upon them as he sees
Unfortunately, practically none of the works referred to by Josephus are
still existing, and this again shows how little we know of the past. But
in existing Norse sagas it is said that people in ancient times lived
for many centuries. In addition, the Norse sagas describe a progression
of ages, including an age of peace, an age when different social orders
were introduced, an age of increasing violence, and a degraded
"knife-age and axe-age with cloven shields." The latter is followed
by a period of annihilation, called Ragnarok, after which the world is
restored to goodness.
The Norse Ragnarok involves the destruction of the earth and the abodes
of the Norse demigods (called Asgard), and thus it corresponds in Vedic
chronology to the annihilation of the three worlds that follows 1,000
yuga cycles, or one day of Brahma. It is said that during Ragnarok the
world is destroyed with flames by a being called Surt, who lives beneath
the lower world (appropriately called Hel) and was involved in the
world's creation. By comparison, the Srimad Bhagavatam (3.11.30) states
that at the end of Brahma's day, "the devastation takes place due to the
fire emanating from the mouth of Sankarsana." Sankarsana is a plenary
expansion of Krsna who is "seated at the bottom of the universe" (Srimad
Bhagavatam 3.8.3), beneath the lower planetary systems.
There are many similarities between the Norse and Vedic cosmologies, but
there are also great differences. One key difference is that in the
Srimad Bhagavatam, all beings and phenomena within the universe are
clearly understood as part of the divine plan of Krsna, the Supreme
Personality of Godhead. In contrast, in the Norse mythology God is
conspicuously absent, and the origin and purpose of the major players in
the cosmic drama are very obscure. Surt, in particular, is a "fire
giant" whose origins and motives are unclear even to experts in the
One might ask, If Vedic themes appear in many different societies, how
can one conclude that they derive from an ancient Vedic civilization?
Perhaps they were created in many places independently, or perhaps they
descend from an unknown culture that is also ancestral to what we call
Vedic culture. Thus parallels between the accounts of Surt and
Sankarsana may be coincidental, or perhaps the Vedic account derives
from a story similar to that of Surt.
Our answer to this question is that available empirical evidence will
not be sufficient to prove the hypothesis of descent from an ancient
Vedic culture, for all empirical evidence is imperfect and subject to
various interpretations. But we can decide whether or not the evidence
is consistent this hypothesis.
If there was an ancient Vedic world civilization, we would expect to
find traces of it in many cultures around the world. We do seem to find
such traces, and many agree with Vedic accounts in specific details
(such as the location of Surt's abode or the sacred buffalo's loss of
one leg per world age). Since this civilization began to lose its
influence thousands of years ago, at the beginning of Kali-yuga, we
would expect many of these traces to be fragmentary and overlain by many
later additions, and this we also see. Thus the available evidence seems
to be consistent with the hypothesis of a Vedic origin.
 E. C. Sachau, trans., Alberuni's India
(Delhi: S. Chand & Co., 1964), pp. 383-4.
 J. E. Brown, ed., The Sacred Pipe
(Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971), p. 9.
 D. Neugebauer, History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy
(Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1975), pp. 608-9.
 J. D. North, "Chronology & the Age of the World," in Cosmology,
History & Theology, eds. Wolfgang Yourgrau and A. D. Breck
(N. Y.: Plenum Press, 1977), p. 315.
 D. W. Patten and P. A. Patten, "A Comprehensive Theory on Aging,
Gigantism & Longevity," Catastrophism & Ancient History,
Vol. 2, Part 1 (Aug. 1979), p. 24.
 J. D. North, Ibid., p. 316-7.
 D. W. Patten, Ibid., p. 29.
 V. Rydberg, Teutonic Mythology, R. B. Anderson, trans.
(London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1889), pp. 88,94.
 Ibid., pp. 448-9.
Sadaputa Dasa (Richard L. Thompson) earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from
Cornell University. He is the author of several books, of which the most
recent is Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy.
Posted by Kalki Dasa for Back to Godhead (firstname.lastname@example.org)