Turtles (and elephants) all the way down?

Smith,Travis LaMar tlsmith at UFL.EDU
Sat Apr 3 14:51:42 UTC 2010

In v.35 of Bhartr̥hari’s Nītiśataka (M.R. Kale’s Motilal edition) there are no elephants mentioned, but the “stacking” of world-bearers (serpent, tortoise and ocean) is made rather explicit:

vahati bhuvanaśreṇīṃ śeṣaḥ phaṇāphalakasthitāṃ
kamaṭhapatinā madhyepr̥ṣṭhaṃ sadā sa ca dhāryate |
tam api kurute kroḍādhīnaṃ payodhir anādarād
ahaha mahatāṃ niḥsīmānaś caritravibhūtayaḥ ||

Travis L. Smith
Assistant Professor
Department of Religion
University of Florida
From: Indology [INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk] On Behalf Of Toke L. Knudsen [toke.knudsen at ONEONTA.EDU]
Sent: Friday, April 02, 2010 11:22 AM
To: INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk
Subject: Re: Turtles (and elephants) all the way down?

Continuing with references to the earth being supporting by a single
tortoise:  In the bhuvanakoza section (verse 31) of the
SiddhAntasundara (ca. 1500 CE), JJAnarAja presents the following
argument for the earth having support:

   dhRtavaktrasarIsRpo 'pi gRdhraH
   praharaM tiSThati khe 'lpavIrya evam /
   gagane na kathaM sa kUrmarUpaH
   pratikalpaM dhRtabhUr acintyazaktiH //

"A vulture, which has only little strength, rests in the sky holding a
snake in its beak for a prahara.  Why can [the deity] in the form of a
tortoise, who possesses an inconceivable potency, not hold the Earth
in the sky for a kalpa?"

More references to the earth resting on a tortoise is found in verses
63 and 78 of the same section.


On Apr 2, 2010, at 9:56 AM, Robert Goldman wrote:

> In the VAlmIki RAmAyaNa (critical ed.) at 6. 105. the gods praise
> Rama as the Primal Being etc. Among many other things they tell him
> (6.105.20), “You support all beings as well as the earth with all
> its mountains.” (tvaM dhArayasi bhUtAni vasudhAM ca saparvatAm) The
> commentator MahezvaratIrtha (ca. 15th century) sees this as a
> reference to ViSNu in the form of the primal tortoise, remarking,
> “Now they praise (him) as the primal tortoise. (saMpraty
> AdikUrmAtmanA stauti). This may perhaps be a reference to the
> KUrmAvatAra which was mentioned by John but there it is, as he
> notes,  only Mt. Mandara that is supported and not the entire earth.
> For what it is worth MahezvaratIrtha evidently has in mind a single
> tortoise that supports the whole earth.
> Best,
> Bob Goldman
> Dr. R. P.  Goldman
> Professor of Sanskrit
> Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies
> MC # 2540
> The University of California at Berkeley
> Berkeley, CA 94720-2540
> Tel: 510-642-4089
> Fax: 510-642-2409
> On Apr 2, 2010, at 2:04 PM, 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 -----
>> --
>> The University of Edinburgh is a charitable body, registered in
>> Scotland, with registration number SC005336.

Toke L. Knudsen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Mathematics
Department of Mathematics, Computer Science, and Statistics
State University of New York, College at Oneonta
108 Ravine Parkway
Oneonta, NY 13820

(607) 436-3726 (phone)
(607) 436-2173 (fax)
<toke.knudsen at oneonta.edu>

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list