Billions and Billions

Over the weekend, spent some time with old friends in San Francisco. P was visiting from Delaware and B from North Dakota. Beautiful weather after the exhilarating storms that passed through a few days before that.

Sitting in the financial district Holiday Inn lobby waiting for A to show up (stop and go traffic, he kept telling us over the many cell phone contacts), the conversation drifted to ‘faith’.

B wanted to know what was it that made people have faith. I confessed that I have absolutely zero faith. P said that he had faith in his ability. B said that he was more interested in the faith that people have in an afterlife and in god and so on. I said that only feeble-minded people need the crutch that faith provides against the terrors of non-existence that follows death.

Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher and emperor, was not feeble-minded when he wrote in his “Meditations”

What a soul that is which is ready, if at any moment it must be separated from the body, and ready either to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist; but so that this readiness comes from a man’s own judgement, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.

That was the attitude that Carl Sagan expressed when he was dying of cancer. He wrote

“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking

. . .the world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides

…  Many [people] have asked me how it is possible to face death without the certainty of an afterlife. I can only say that it hasn’t been a problem. With reservations about feeble souls, I share the view of a hero of mine, Albert Einstein: I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I, nor would I want to, conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear for absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoting striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

Sagan passed into the great beyond in December 1999. A truly great soul, in a manner of speaking of course. I don’t have faith in soul. I am not one who believes that the universe is made of ‘matter’ and ‘spirit’. It is all of one thing — call it matter or call it spirit — take your pick. But you can’t have both.

Sagan is remembered for his great and triumphant attempt at sparking an interest in our wonderous universe in millions of people through his television series COSMOS and his many popular writings. And his trade mark “billions and billions” expression which many people affectionately remember him saying in his COSMOS series (but which in fact he never did.)

He did say billions though and said it many times. But what can you say when you are talking about the age of the universe or the number of galaxies and the number of stars in these galaxies. I dare you to talk about all this without the use of ‘billions.’

When you talk about the length of a Day of Brahma, you have to say billions. One episode of COSMOS focused on India. When asked why so, he remarked that it did so

because of that wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology which first of all gives a time-scale for the Earth and the universe — a time-scale which is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years.

He is referring to Mahakalpa. One thousand Mahakalpas is equal to one Day of Brahma.

Brahma’s waking period lasts 4.32 billion years. Following that he sleeps for another 4.32 billion years. While asleep, he dreams the world into existence.

We are a dream in Brahma’s mind. Brahma is running a simulation of the world while asleep. When he awakes, that simulation ends and so on.

We are just a lot of dream stuff.

The ancients in India dreamt all that stuff up, of course. And the physicists of today are dreaming more such stuff. And from time to time, there are surprising convergences between the two. Again Sagan says

As far as I know [Hinduism] is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale. We want to get across the concept of the right time-scale, and to show that it is not unnatural.

In the West, people have the sense that what is natural is for the universe to be a few thousand years old, and that billions is indwelling, and no one can understand it. The Hindu concept is very clear. Here is a great world culture which has always talked about billions of years.

Finally, the many billion year time-scale of Hindu cosmology is not the entire history of the universe, but just the day and night of Brahma, and there is the idea of an infinite cycle of births and deaths and an infinite number of universes, each with its own gods.

And this is a very grand idea. Whether it is true or not, is not yet clear. But it makes the pulse quicken, and we thought it was a good way to approach the subject.

It is a cyclic universe. Big crunches following big bangs following big crunches. The boom and bust cycle of the economy played on a stage the size of the known universe.

And I am at the center of that known universe. Just as you are of course. And so is everyone else at the center of the known universe. Everything is at the center of the known universe.

And the universe is perfect at every moment.

It is the perfect dance of Shiva as he dances the Tandava in his form as the King of Dancers, the Nataraja. Shiva dancing at the “Edge of Forever”. Which is the title of a chapter of COSMOS. Sagan explains

The traditional explanation of the Nataraja is that it symbolizes the creation of the universe in one hand and the death of the universe in the other — the drum and the flame — and after all, that is what cosmology is all about. So in addition to being artistically exquisite, the Nataraja provides exactly the kind of symbolism that we wanted.

So there you have it. What we can be certain about is that fact that we are going to die one day, as Bipin pointed out. The rest is uncertain. How did the universe begin? What caused it to come into existence? What is the point in all this?

Big minds can perhaps answer these questions. Or maybe not. The “Hymn to Creation” of the Rg Veda concludes

Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born, whence came creation?
No one knows whence creation arose;
and whether god has or has not made it.

He who surveys it from the highest regions
Perhaps he knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

That’s the ultimate expression of agnosticism, of doubt, the first necessary step in the infinite journey of discovery and enlightenment. The ancients in India conjectured about the origin of the universe and why.  The Isa Upanishad:

“. . .in the beginning there was Existence alone
One only, without a second.
He the One thought to himself:
let me be many, let me grow forth.
Thus out of himself he projected the universe;
and having projected out of himself the universe,
he entered into every being. . .
He is the truth.
He is the Self.
And that, Svataketu,

It is all karma, neh?

[This recycled post is from Nov 2002.]

POST SCRIPT: It is best not to interpret the above to mean that I claim that there is some mystical connection between ancient Hindu thought and modern cosmology. I merely noted that the time scales are similar. Just as I could looking up at the sky point out that the pattern made by the clouds reminds me of a leaping tiger.

I am merely doing a bit of pattern recognition. I just noted a curious co-incidence. I would not stretch it to mean that all sorts of modern physical explanations derive their insights from Hindu metaphysics.

Author: Atanu Dey


16 thoughts on “Billions and Billions”

  1. Pingback: Ashish's Niti
  2. well.. cosmos aint the ONLY thing that the vedanta resonates with. .read the following on the nature of the Supreme Consciousness from Vasistha Yoga (for more read:

    When a vibration arises in that Cosmic Being, Lord Vishnu is born, even as a wave arises when the surface of the ocean is agitated. From that Vishnu, Brahma – the creator – was bornand Brahma began to create the countless varieties of animate and inanimate, sentient and insentient beings in the Universe. And Universe was as it was before the Cosmic Dissolution.

    so even the Consciousness is of two natures… wave form and physical! Something that Einstein came to believe to get the Nobel prize for photoelectric effect.

    Btw, one of my Chemistry profs who had witnessed a conference in which Satyen Bose was addressing.. he explained how Einstein got his idea.. He read a book by Victor Hugo on how Ramakrishna Paramhans helped Swami Vivekananda witness the “light” and then commented that all the “light” I had has gone to you in completeness.. “it does not go in percentages” – some thing that made Einstein come up with the concept of “Photons” – without which its impossible to explain the photoelectric effect and the variations experienced in it!


  3. Ashish’s comment indicates that my post is likely to be misinterpreted by some. My claim is NOT that there is “convergence between modern cosmology and ancient Hindu wisdom.”

    What I was pointing out was that Hindu cosmology has very long time-scales, just as modern cosmology has very long time-scales. There is convergence between the time scales but that does not imply that every bit of modern cosmology is mystically connected with Hindu wisdom.

    Desh makes the tenuous (in my opinion) connection between Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect and Ramakrishna Paramahansa. It is a stretch–from his Chem prof to Satyen Bose to Victor Hugo to Vivekananda to Ramakrishna.


  4. Quoting your words in your post, Billions and billions:
    ‘I said that only feeble-minded people need the crutch that faith provides against the terrors of non-existence that follows death.’

    I, for myself, and on behalf of the billions of the theists (in your words, ‘people with faith’) strongly condemn your deprecating comments on theists as feeble-minded and terrified. I don’t understand what made you think that theists are feeble-minded and so on. It is not proven that there is no God. Though it is also not proven ‘scientifically’ that there is God, it may be that science has not evolved enough to prove the existence of God, or that some things are beyond science just as some things are beyond mind. Even if there is no God in the real sense, you can’t deprecate people who believe otherwise without showing definite proof of the absence of God.

    I was glad, as many reasonable people were, when you condemned Mother Theresa and other fundamentalists who believe that their God is the only God and whose main goal of service was to convert as many people as possible to Christianity and not because of humanitarian reasons. I was also glad when you condemned fundamentalists of other religions. But, pardon me, I fail to understand why you are not a fundamentalist too. My understanding of a fundamentalist is one who thinks what he believes is true and the contrary false. Theists are not necessarily fundamentalists, as atheists are not necessarily liberal (as exemplified in your post).

    Hinduism, or more accurately ‘the religion of Vedanta’ in Swami Vivekananda’s words, never condemned other faiths or even atheists. In his words, ‘not just tolerating, but we accept all religions as true and equal’. To a person who uses his reason, the works of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna on God are enlightening. ( Sri Ramakrishna has said that man’s chief aim should be to realize God. Swami Vivekananda has said that every human being is potentially divine and his life’s goal is make people realize their potential. Swami Vivekananda’s arguments convince the vast majority of people in the existence of God. Initially, he was an atheist, but Sri Ramakrishna showed him God. His experience should be enough. You never looked at the proof of E=mc2 (square), yet you believe in it, don’t you? Why should this be different?
    It is strange that, despite being a Bengali, you missed to read/understand the works of two of the world’s greatest people. Yet, you believe in people that made little difference to the world, like Carl Sagan whom I have never heard of before – despite my being a reasonably well informed person.

    You also say, ‘I don’t have faith in soul. I am not one who believes that the universe is made up of ‘matter’ and ‘spirit’ . It is all of one thing – matter or spirit – take your pick. But you can’t have both.’

    This might be another of your ‘beliefs’. I wonder why we can’t have both matter and spirit. The uniqueness and eternality of spirit/soul is the core principle of Hinduism/Vedanta. I know the law of conservation of matter/energy, or mass-energy equivalence – whatever you call, yet soul doesn’t convert from one form to another or release/absorb energy. At the most it merges with the supersoul/God which process is called moksha/salvation/’liberation from the chain of life and death’.

    You are inclined towards the atheistic religion Buddhism and its founder Buddha, I’m led to believe from your posts. If you have read his own words, you should know that he took 50,000 births to realize himself. If there is nothing called soul, what is it that continued between those births? I learn that people who appear to use their reason fail to use it in the core sense.


  5. atanu, this is a thought-provoking post. i am not in agreement with you, though, that people who have faith are necessarily feeble-minded. in fact, allow me to observe that upon reading and re-reading the post, i found it rather disjointed, and off-handish, almost as if you sat down to write about the many mysteries of existence, and then decided that it was too much effort (or likely impossible to do the subject any real justice) and gave up. in any case, faith, god, soul – these are weighty issues, and my own opinion is that language cannot clarify these concepts very well. i wanted, however, to respond to one question that subhas raised – “If there is nothing called soul, what is it that continued between those births?”

    the following is a short piece from hans wolfgang schumann’s “buddhism – an outline of its teaching and its schools” (probably the most clear description of buddhist metaphysics i have read so far) :

    “According to the Buddha’s teaching rebirth indeed operates without a transmigrating soul. The continuity of the chain of rebirths does not lie in an imperishable substratum, but in the conditionisms of the forms of existence : each rebirth conditions another. Even though the simile is halting, one can illustrate the process with billiard-balls. Tapping a ball makes it roll for some distance and set the next ball in motion. Nothing material passes over from the first ball to the second and third, but each ball by its impact gives the next one motion and a certain, by no means accidental, direction. In Buddhism thinking in terms of substances is replaced by thought in terms of conditionalities. In the Nexus of Conditional Origination (paticasamuppada) the texts furnish the theoretical foundation for this kind of thinking.”

    there is lots more (that clarifies what conditioned origination means), but to transribe it all would take up more time than i have. i recommend the book to your readers who might be interested in learning about the subtler nuances of buddhist thought (especially how it differs from hindu metaphysics and also how the different schools of buddhism also differ in the extent to which they acknowledge this idea of conditioned origination).


  6. Also posted at “”

    “I said that only feeble-minded people need the crutch that faith provides against the terrors of non-existence that follows death.”

    My opinion on the crutch called faith.

    U say this without any scientific evidence at all or at least I don’t see any or maybe it is just your point of view, which is fair enough.

    “the crutch that faith provides against the terrors of non-existence that follows death”

    Faith may provide a crutch for people to go about their day to day hassles, in this unforgiving and fiercely competitive world, with hope that there is some power that will take care, not sure how many of them keep the faith thinking of the day they will die. A proof of it is that the greatest and die-hard followers of any faith are found in the less prosperous sections of society. Many of them may not be living lives worth all the suffering. Maybe I should not be judgemental about their lives.

    Anyway, having faith does not guarantee immortality, it may be better to stay on earth rather than end up in the fires of hell? Faith doesn’t guarantee heaven, no faith does! Faiths that talk of reincarnation, at least some of them talk of Karma. In very naive terms and I am no great exponent of philosophy, all they say is that you will pay for your own deeds (good or bad, what is good and what is bad may be matter of trial). Shouldn’t sound very good to most of these handicapped billions. Only ignorance of their faith can act as a crutch.

    Vivekananda in fact said that man should contemplate death and not shy away from it. He was a man of faith no man in need of crutches. So was Mahatma Gandhi (where I am not using Mahatma to imply that he was godly) who may have acted as a crutch for many but was very confident about the faith he followed. Man does go through various phases in a life time that is comprehendible to this world. There may also be a phase beyond what we humans can comprehend, the existence of which has not been disproved yet. It is OK not to accept something that has been disproved by science but scientists cannot ask people or ridicule people who believe in stuff that science has not been able to disprove, in fact have no proof against.

    Even Einstein, from what u have quoted (as said by Carl Sagan), despises people who think of immortality of their physical body or self not of reincarnation or after-life. Reincarnation doesn’t essentially mean that Einstein should be born as a great scientist in his next life. All it says is that one is caught in the infinite cycles of life and death till one rises above his own ego only to realise the oneness of this creation. In fact it talks of loosing one’s self (the soul included) to recognise the oneness(Well this is my understanding and may not be the absolute truth, if there is any).

    As an aside, I have recently read some beautifully written articles on the blogosphere that give reasons on why creationism is unscientific and why there is no great intelligent blueprint behind all what is evolving [link – got it via India Uncut’s link ]. But none of the people who supported the darwin theory of evolution just presented the ridicule of creationism. They had scientific discoveries made after extensive studies to prove their theory and disprove the theory of creationists who were without a proof.

    Acceptable that we are not clear about what the truth is but then that is a handicap that science will overcome with time. Till then it is not fair to call people who believe in faith as ones who require crutches.


  7. Deep, have you forgotten your physics?Mr.Wolfgang seems to not know that matter and energy are interchangeable. In his billiards ball example, energy is transferred. Energy is a form of matter. We are not wrong if we say that matter is transferred in his example. Therefore, that nothing is transferred in re-births is wrong. Something is transferred, and that is soul. If a Western man talks about things scientific, he is more likely to be right. If a Western man talks about Eastern thought, it is more likely that his understanding is inadequate.


  8. Though I am a full-blodded atheist, I do believe that there is a point in religion and faith. Even if it is based on shaky ground, belief in afterlife, purgatory gates etc. helps enforce order in the society by reducing crime. On the other hand too much violence happens because of fundamentalist faiths.. Which of this two has outweighed the other is a very interesting question indeed.
    I had written about the flaws with re-incarnation theory in my post My musings on death


  9. everything is in motion so somebody gave the first push.

    iam convinced with that. there is God and he is mysterious because that’s the only way we will keep searching for him.


  10. Sorry, I just want to oficially register the fact that I am laughing at Subhas’ comments above.

    Additionally, I think it is a marvellous coincidence that a few thousand years ago some people could end up writing the Rig Veda or Upanishads and that bits of them are ‘more or less’ similar to what scientific theory has discovered!

    How coincidental is it, when even someone can figure the age of the universe to be in billions of years? They could have easily chosen any number of zeroes couldn’t they? (dont think the zero was invented yet actually!)

    India is a history hole, we know there was something happening, but we really dont even know the dimensions of it yet. A pity. There is much to discover and elucidate us with.

    Good post Atanu, thanks for the information.


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