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Hindu eras (Yuga's) in relationship to stratigraphy and the origin of Earth

H indu gods, demigods, their supremacies and related stories. Basically, the philosophy in all these legends is to teach humans the values...

Hindu gods, demigods, their supremacies and related stories. Basically, the philosophy in all these legends is to teach humans the values of Dharma (justice) and how God prevails in sustaining ‘dharma’ in the world (Sinha 1954; Rajendranath Seal 1958). Initially, all these were Smrirtis (sacred teachings) and subsequently were documented in the form of books (Vedas) by great saints (Rishis).

All these ancient books were originally written on palm leaves and preserved for centuries, some of which are still preserved, even today. During the creation of these legends, several geological phenomena and events became embedded within them either knowingly or unknowingly. 

Whether it is Ramayana, Mahabharata or Puranas, these doctrines are presented in the form of folklore or mythological stories. Hinduism always preaches dharma in order to maintain world peace and to curb evil by any living being. 

This paper discusses how geological events and processes became entangled in these epics. All these refer to events that happened on Earth (or occasionally in the heavens) and hence geological processes became an integral part of them. 

Though examples of several such close relationships between geology and mythology exist in Hindu texts, only a few are elaborated in this paper. A similar relationship between myths and thermal springs over the world was compiled by the Geothermal Resources Council in their volume Stories from a Heated Earth (Cataldi et al. 1999).

Hindu eras in relationship to stratigraphy and the origin of Earth
According to Hindu Vedic cosmology, the age of the entire universe is divided into four yugas (eras): 1. Satyuga, 2. Trethayuga, 3. Dwaparayuga, and 4. Kaliyuga. The time span of each yuga varies in a manner similar to geological eras. 
  1. According to Hindu mythology, the Satyuga lasted for 1.728 Ma; 
  2. Trethayuga lasted for 1.296 Ma; 
  3. Dwaparayuga lasted for 0.864 Ma; 
  4. Kaliyuga, the present era has so far completed 0.432 Ma (Somayaji 1971). 
The Trethayuga and the Dwaparayuga are the most important eras since they encompass the most important epics of India, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, respectively.

This four-fold stratigraphic division of time-scale is similar to that used in geology (cf. Precambrian, Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic). Some authors consider each yuga as ‘Maha Yuga’, meaning that each should be multiplied by 1000 years.

In which case the sum of all these yugas amounts to the age of the Earth (c. 4.3 billion years) which constitutes a day for Lord Brahma (Brahma day), the creator of the universe (Somayaji 1971; Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada 1986).

The destruction of the universe is called ‘pralaya’ or catastrophe—synonym to the present day floods, earthquakes and tsunamis. In each era, Lord Vishnu, the savior, emerges into this world in the form of ‘avatar’ (incarnation).

According to Hindu mythology, these ‘avatars’ are in the form of animals or semi-animal demigods (part is human and part is animal: Fig. 1). In each avatar, he destroys the evil and restores ‘Satya’ (justice) in the world.

The ten avatars are: 
  1. Matsya (fish), 
  2. Koorma (tortoise), 
  3. Varaha (boar), 
  4. Narasimha (the man-lion), 
  5. Vaamana (the dwarf), 
  6. Parasurama (the angry man), 
  7. Rama (the perfect human; avatar in Trethayuga), 
  8. Krishna (the divine statesman; avatar in Dwaparayuga). 
  9. Buddha (Buddhist avatar in Kali-yuga )
  10. The tenth avatar which is yet to appear is Kalki. 
Lord Vishnu is always seen with his conch and Chakra (Vishnu Chakra; the wheel) in his hands.
He is reborn (as a new avatar) after a major catastrophe (pralaya) when the entire species on Earth becomes extinct. After every Brahma day, Lord Brahma creates new life on Earth.

In Hindu mythology, it is said that after one such catastrophe, Brahma was busy creating new life on Earth and did not pay attention to the Demon Hiranyaksha who had pushed the mother Earth into (Patal Lok) the Ocean (i.e. trying to destroy the Earth).

Brahma, realizing that his new creation of life has to live on Earth, pleaded with Vishnu to save the Earth. Vishnu took the form of Varaha (Fig. 1: Subramanya Sastri 1989; Pandey 1979) and lifted the Earth with his tusks from the ocean bottom and reinstated it in its proper orbit. One may interpret this geologically as the birth of the planet Earth or an analogy of seafloor spreading at mid-ocean ridges where new material is created.
Rahu, Ketu
Rahu and Ketu
Rahu, Ketu and the eclipses
Lunar and solar eclipses are natural phenomena of the solar system and for that matter, an eclipse is common to all the planetary bodies.

However, in Indian mythology, it is a chase between Rahu and the Moon and Ketu and the Sun. Indra, one of the celestial gods or ‘Suras’, was cursed by Durvasa for insulting him by throwing away the flowers offered by him. By nature, Durvasa is short-tempered and cursed Indra and all the gods that they would lose their vigor and strength. So the gods started losing power while the ‘Asuras’ (demons) started gaining power. The gods pleaded with Vishnu to help them to regain their power so that the demons would not overtake their kingdom.

Vishnu advised the gods to churn the milky sea using serpent ‘Vasuki’ mount Mandara as a stirrer to obtain celestial nectar (elixir) that would restore their power (Fig. 2). Thus both the gods and the demons churned the ocean and the nectar emerged from the ocean. Vishnu deceived the demons by taking the form of a beautiful lady (Mohini) and diverted their attention while the gods consumed the elixir. However, two ‘Asuras’ (Rahu and Ketu), aware of Mohini’s trickery, took the guise of gods and also consumed some of the celestial nectar and became immortal. The Moon and the Sun reported this incident to Vishnu who became furious and chopped off their heads with his Chakra (see Fig. 3). Since Rahu and Ketu consumed the nectar, they remained in the universe and started chasing the Moon and the Sun as an act of revenge.

Thus in Hindu mythology, Rahu and Ketu are regarded as celestial bodies that swallow the Moon and the Sun thus causing lunar and solar eclipses respectively. Indian astronomers as early as AD 300 discounted this myth and presented the orbital paths of the planets and their moons thus accounting for lunar and solar eclipses.
Mahakal crustal extension zone and Mahakaleshwar
While Rahu and Ketu were consuming the celestial nectar, a few drops fell on Earth. Wherever drops of the celestial nectar or the elixir spilled, those places became divine or holy shrines for Hindus.

Ujjain is one such place. Ujjain is located within the northern flank of the mid-continental Narmada rift. The Mahakal rift zone extends from the NE part of Madhya Pradesh to SW part extending up to Ujjain. The famous Tattapani thermal springs in Chattisgarh district (east of Jabalpur,) emerge through this rift system (Chandrasekharam & Antu 1995; Subramnya Sastri 1989).

Hindu mythology mentions such a rift zone through which Lord Shiva (known as Mahakaleswar) emerged to save his devotees in Ujjain by killing the demon Dushana who was living in Ratnamala hills (Dave 1991a). Though there are no hill ranges around Ujjain, the Ratnamala hills may be the Vindhyans that form part of the Narmada rift system. Geographically, Ujjain attained importance for nurturing great Hindu astronomers and because the Tropic of Cancer passes through it. Ujjain was considered the ‘Greenwich’ of Hindu astronomers.
Thrimurtii: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva
Vishnu, Shiva, and marine fossils
Fossils are considered divine and are thought to represent Hindu gods. For Indians, ammonites and echinoderm fossils are sacred and are known as ‘saligrams’ or ‘saligramas’ (the actual name or term in Sanskrit is ‘Salagraman’ and is one of the names of Vishnu; Swami Nityananda 1998).

In Hindu mythology, ammonites are considered as Vishnu Chakra and the echinoderms and cephalopods (belemnites) as Shiva (in his phallic form, Linga). The ammonite fossil with a circular shape and radiating ribs look very similar to Vishnu Chakra (Fig. 3) with radiating spikes. All types of ammonite fossils (e.g. Meekoceras Varaha; Promicroceras planicosta; Almatheus margaritatus; Fig. 3. Vishnu, the Hindu deity, holding the Vishnu chakra (also known as Sudarshan chakra) and the Serpent, Vasuki, sheltering Vishnu.

Eoderoceras bispinigerum; Cardioceras; Discoscaphites nebrascensis; Acanthoscaphites nodosus: Krishnan 1968) are given different names indicating different manifestations of Vishnu (Swami Nityananda 1998). The ammonite fossil Meekoceras Varaha found in the Triassic formation of the Central Himalayas (Krishnan 1968) resembles the Vishnu Chakra. Varaha is one of Vishnu’s avatars. It is not clear whether this name is given to the fossil because of its resemblance to Vishnu Chakra or it attained this name accidentally. Indian geology textbooks mention of the ‘saligram’ (Krishnan 1968; Wadia 1978); some of the echinoderm and cephalopod fossils look like a phallus, symbolizing Shiva. In India, these Jurassic and Cretaceous fossils are extensively found in Spiti Shale Formations of upper Himalayas and brought to Nepal by Gandak River (Krishnan 1968), which joins the Ganges in the Gangetic plain in India. Vishnu became incarnate in the form of Saligram to save the demons and semi-gods alike. These fossils are kept in temples and households as natural symbols of Vishnu

Stalagmites and Amarnath cave
Shiva is part of life for many Indians and he is worshipped in the form of Linga (phallus) by a large number of Hindus. Some Hindus carry the Shiva Linga (phallus) on their body (especially the echinoderm fossils).

A large number of pilgrims travel to Amarnath cave annually to see the Lord. According to Shiva Purana (Subramnya Sastri 1989), Shiva recounted the secret of creation and eternal life to his consort, Parvati, in this cave.

The Amarnath cave is about 145 km NE of Srinagar, at a height of about 4000 m above mean sea level, in the Himalayas (Fig. 6). It is believed that the Shiva Linga in the cave forms every lunar month: during the first half the Linga starts forming and attains full size on the full-moon day (lunar day 15), and during the second half of the month the Linga starts decreasing and disappears on new-moon (Dave 1991b).

This cave attracts large crowds from all over India and more than 25 000 pilgrims visit this shrine between May and July. In reality, this cave is located in limestone-gypsum formation (Krishnan 1968) and the meltwater percolating into the cave from the roof through joints freezes on the ground and grows as a stalagmite (Fig. 7). Due to the heat generated by the pilgrim population visiting the cave, the stalagmite melts by June, thus reducing the size of the Shiva Linga (the stalagmite). White gypsum powder from the cave is distributed to the pilgrims as ‘Vibhuti’ (sacred powder). The Kashmir government reportedly is planning to extend the life of the stalagmite artificially.
Sea level change and Dwaraka
In Mahabharata, Lord Krishna was the chief advisor to the Pandavas (worriers and sons of King Pandu). Mathura was the abode of Krishna. Due to constant hostility between ‘Suras’ and ‘Asuras’, Kamsa, the demon, waged a war against Krishna. Kamsa had a curse on his head that he would be killed by Krishna.

In the ensuing battle, Kamsa was indeed killed. Krishna, who actually belongs to the Yadavas (a Hindu sect and disciples of Krishna), found it impossible to continue his stay in Mathura and shifted his abode to Dwaraka along the Saurashtra coast in Gujarat (Kamala 1977; Dave 1991b). According to the legend, Krishna’s disciples perished from infighting. Since the main task of killing Kamsa had been accomplished, Krishna decided to leave Dwaraka and in one of the texts, it was told that Krishna knew about the fate of Dwaraka and hence left for his heavenly abode. The town of Dwaraka was inundated by the Arabian Sea and subsequently submerged. The recent marine archaeological investigation discovered the mythological Dwaraka town intact, under the sea along Saurashtra coast (Gaur et al. 2000) (Fig. 8a,b). The sinking of Dwaraka was due to tectonic activity accompanied by sea-level rise; sea level was about 150 m below the present level. Signatures of Late Quaternary coastal tectonics and sea-level changes are well recorded along the cliffy coastline of Saurashtra.

A succession of raised terraces and wave-cut notches have resulted from changes in sea level whereas technogenic features are represented by steep vertical cliff faces, distorted morphology of wave-cut notches and staircase platforms (Pant & Juyal 1993a,b). This discovery gives an idea about the layout of Dwaraka and the forts believed to have been inhabited by the Yadavas of the mythological Mahabharata (Rao 1999; Gaur et al. 2000; Vora et al. 2002). Further, the entire Saurashtra coast has been subject to major tectonic events since Jurassic times (Mishra et al. 2001).
Coral reefs and Ramayana
Rama, the great hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana, was the seventh avatar of Vishnu. The epic Ramayana was written by Valmiki several centuries after Rama’s reign, which according to the astronomical data was around 2012 BC (Srinivasa 1955). Rama, Sita (his consort), and Laxmana (his brother) were in exile for fourteen years due to the wicked plan of his stepmother Keikeyi. While he was in the Dandakaranya forest, Surpanaka, sister of Ravana, the king of Sri Lanka, expressed her desire to marry Rama. Laxmana cut her nose and ears as a punishment for this desire (Srinivasa 1955; Rajagopalachari 1958; Lakshmi Narasimha 1984; Ganapati Sastry 1986; Dave 1991c). Ravana took revenge by kidnapping Sita to his kingdom. Rama decided to wage a war against Ravana. The main hurdle was to cross the sea between Rameswaram and Sri Lanka (Fig. 9).

Rama’s disciples helped him to construct a bridge between Rameswaram and Sri Lanka. This is the legendary Rama’s bridge across Palk Strait. In reality, this bridge is a coral reef extending between these two landmasses.

A recent Indian remote sensing satellite picture clearly shows the presence of coral reefs, sand bars and clay deposits between these two countries (Fig. 9) which are separated at this point by a distance of 32 km (Bahuguna et al. 2003).

These coral reefs must have been exposed due to a change in sea level, near Sri Lanka, during that period described in the myth. Sea-level changes are not uncommon globally, and about 18 000 years BP the sea level was 100–150 m below the current level (IPCC 2001; Purnachandra Rao et al. 2003). These coral reefs must have been exposed to the surface—like those of Lakshadweep islands in the recent historical past—enabling Rama’s army to cross over to Sri Lanka. With sea levels rising at the rate of 2.5 cm per year (it has risen by about 10–20 cm in the 20th century; IPCC 2001), this bridge may never again be exposed.

Myths about thermal springs
Ancient Indian civilization considered all geological phenomena as evidence of divine power and gifts from the gods (Rajendranath Seal 1958). This is evident when one visits all the geothermal provinces in India where thermal waters with temperatures from 47–98 8C issues through various geological formations associated with major tectonic structures. A detailed account of the relationship between the thermal springs and Hindu mythology was given by Chandrasekharam (1999). These sites are associated with epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata and centers around Lord Shiva, the presiding deity at many thermal spring sites. Legends associated with some of the thermal spring sites are outlined below. Manikaran is situated along Parvati River near Kullu, 80 km north of Shimla. According to the legend, Parvati lost her earrings in the River Parvati and asked Shiva for help to recover them. Lord Shiva pierced the Earth with his third eye only to get gushing hot water along with the earrings. Manikaran is a famous pilgrim center for Hindus as well as for Sikhs.

A Shiva temple and a Gurudwara (Sikhs religious shrine) are located near the emergence of the thermal springs. Devotees offer rice to Lord Shiva cooked in the thermal waters. Rice is cooked in small cloth pouches dipped in the thermal pool. Gurudwara cooks rice on a large scale in copper vessels for devotees. The food is served free to all the devotees (Fig. 10). Similarly, the Tuwa thermal springs of Gujarat were believed to have been born due to Bhima’s (one of the Pancha Pandavas of Mahabharata) mystical power. Draupadi, the common wife of Panchapandavas, asked Bhima to fetch water to quench her thirst near Tuwa. Bhima, not finding any source of water in this drought-prone area, brought hot water to the surface (Chandrasekharam 1999).

In the case of the Agnigundala thermal springs near Bhadrachalam, Andhra Pradesh, hot water flows below the surface on the western bank of the River Godavari (Chandrasekharam et al. 1996). According to the legend, Rama and Sita rested in Bhadrachalam during their exile and Sita requested Rama to fetch warm water to beat the cold. Rama pierced the Earth with his arrow and brought hot water to the surface.

Bhadrachalam is famous for Rama temple, and during Rama Navami day (the birthday of Rama) thousands of pilgrims congregate at this temple and have a holy bath in the thermal waters. In general, in all the thermal spring locations, Shiva is the presiding deity. This is because these springs are considered as Ganga (water) which was brought from heaven to Earth by Bhagiratha (Macfie 1992). It was Brahma who gave the boon to Bhagiratha to enable Ganga to flow on Earth. To contain her fall, Shiva allowed Ganga to fall on his head and locked her in his matted hair thus controlling the flow. Ganga became part of Shiva and adorns Shiva’s head.

Geological processes or events are an important component of Indian mythology. Whether a major tectonic event, the growth of a stalagmite, formation of coral reefs or coastal submergence, these processes have been considered as manifestations of the gods.

The central theme of all the epics is ‘God’ and His activities on Earth and hence all the Earth’s activities/processes form an integral part of these myths and legends. What emerges is that all these geological processes were known to ancient Indian civilization. Since scientific explanation was not available at that time, such processes were embedded in the legends as God’s manifestations. In the Hindu faith, these myths and legends are passed on to the next generation. This may be the case not only in India but in the entire world (Cataldi et al. 1999). What has been described in the present paper is a fraction of what exists in Indian mythology. A detailed account of the relationship between geology and myths would run to many more pages.

A. Minissale and L. Piccardi were instrumental in inviting me to write this paper. Several people helped me in lending their books on the Indian legends and Puranas and translating certain books from their original language to English. My sincere thanks to all of them. I thank O. Vaselli and J. Garnish for their critical comments and suggestions and B. Masse for editing the text.