Turtles (and elephants) all the way down?

Dominic Goodall dominic.goodall at GMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 2 13:22:19 UTC 2010

This passage in Murāri's Anargharāghava may not be evidence of an  
elephant-turtle stack, since we have just a list of things that hold  
up the earth, but here are the elephants and the turtle at least  
brought together.

kūrmarājabhujagādhipagotragrāvadikkaribhir ekadhurīṇaḥ
māṃ prasūya katham astu vigīto hā parārthavimukho  
raghuvaṃśaḥ 1.38

In Rājaśekhara's Bālarāmāyaṇa they are exhorted to work together:

pṛthvi sthirā bhava bhujaṅgama dhārayaināṃ
tvaṃ kūrmarāja tad idaṃ dvitayaṃ dadhīthāḥ.
dikkuñjarāḥ kuruta tattritaye didhīrṣāṃ
devaḥ karoti harakārmukam ātatajyam 1.48

Dominic Goodall

On 2 Apr 2010, at 14:04, J L Brockington wrote:

> 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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