Turtles (and elephants) all the way down?

J L Brockington J.L.Brockington at ED.AC.UK
Fri Apr 2 08:34:25 UTC 2010

Extracts from my note in FLS News: Newsletter of the Folklore Society  
23, June 1996, p. 6 [in response to W.M.S. Russell, ?How many  
elephants??, FLS News 21, June 1995, p. 7] --

"The number four is in fact the standard one for this grouping of  
mythical elephants ... .  They are guardians of the compass points,  
and so either four or sometimes eight in number. ...  E.W. Hopkins is  
fully justified in asserting in relation to the epic material: "There  
is no myth of a world-upholding elephant" (Epic Mythology, Strassburg,  
Trübner, 1915, p. 17).  ...
    The most widespread Hindu cosmography is based on the myth of the  
churning of the ocean, found in the Br?hma?as (e.g. ?atapatha Br?hma?a, the epics (e.g. Mah?bh?rata 1.15-17) and the Pur??as (e.g.  
Matsya Pur??a 249-251).  Here there is no mention of elephants, but Mt  
Meru is used as a churning stick or paddle to churn the ocean, and  
Vishnu takes the form of a tortoise (k?rma) on which Mt Meru is set,  
while the king of the snakes is used as the rope by which gods and  
Asura rotate the mountain.  At some stage the system of the four  
elephants of the quarters seems to have been conflated with this ...  
possibly in the Svayambh? Pur??? (a late Nepalese Pur??a); certainly  
it is not found in any of the major Pur??as."

John Brockington

Professor J. L. Brockington
Secretary General, International Association of Sanskrit Studies
Asian Studies
7-8 Buccleuch Place
Edinburgh EH8 9LW

----- Message from westerhoff at CANTAB.NET ---------
Date: Fri, 2 Apr 2010 08:21:46 +0100
From: Jan Westerhoff <westerhoff at CANTAB.NET>
Subject: Turtles (and elephants) all the way down?
To: INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk

> 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
> support.
> I would be most grateful for any suggestions you may have!
> Yours
> Jan Westerhoff
> ***************************
> JC Westerhoff
> Department of Philosophy
> University of Durham
> 50 Old Elvet
> Durham DH1 3HN
> United Kingdom
> www.janwesterhoff.net
> westerhoff at cantab.net

----- End message from westerhoff at CANTAB.NET -----

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