Turtles (and elephants) all the way down?

Jan Westerhoff westerhoff at CANTAB.NET
Fri Apr 2 07:21:46 UTC 2010

Dear Colleagues,

in his "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1:391-92 of the Dover
edition) John Locke mentions an Indian who, "saying that the world was
supported by a great elephant, was asked what the elephant rested on; to
which his answer was, a great tortoise. But being again pressed to know
what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied, something, he
knew not what."

I am wondering what the source of that cosmological theory is. (In more
contemporary versions involving a variety of scholars, including Bertrand
Russell and William James this has metamorphosed into an elephant
supported by a downward infinite series of turtles). I am aware of the
notion of the turtle-king (kuurmaraaja) supporting the world, as well as
of that of a set of four (according to the Raamaaya.na) or sixteen
(according to the Amarako.sa) elephants doing the same, but I have been
unable to trace any Indian authority describing a stacked elephant-turtle

I would be most grateful for any suggestions you may have!


Jan Westerhoff

JC Westerhoff
Department of Philosophy
University of Durham
50 Old Elvet
Durham DH1 3HN
United Kingdom

westerhoff at cantab.net

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list