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The Buddhist Model for the Universe

The Model for the universe seems to be the ultimate goal to be achieved by any ideology striving for
knowledge. There is enough evidence to the fact that from the inception of the known history of the
humankind, attempts have been made to achieve this ultimate goal of knowledge.
Earliest idea in this regard is to attribute the universe to a creation by a god or by several gods.
This idea has no any credibility because if god(s) can exist without any cause before the creation, there
is no reason as to why the universe too cannot exist without any cause, that is prior to a creation by
Early Greek philosophers attributed the universe as constitute of some fundamental elements
(building blocks). Thales said the universe was made up of water, according to him the fundamental
element was water. Another philosopher believed that the fundamental element of the universe as fire.
Later a multi-element approach came up in Greece which attributed the composition of the universe to
the four elements, Earth, Fire, Water and Air. However, it is evident that Greeks did not satisfy with
this non-living model of elements of the universe and they believed that something was missing in
these models to derive some observable properties of the universe. They though that some non-material
element too is necessary to fill the gaps in the material models and they considered this non-material
fundamental element of the universe as soul. So, their final model of the universe consisted of both
material and non-material elements.
In the east; in India many ideologies have come up in regard to the universe. As in Greece, in India a
similar four element model have cropped up. In that model elements were patavi, apo, thejo and
vayo which seem to be more or less equivalent to the Greek model. In India too there were
discussions about the inclusion of a non-material element(s).
In the case of the ideology came up as Science, the main focus was to find a material model for
the universe, however, one can see that it too has not forgotten the non-material component
borrowed from the Greeks. Science did not give up learning Biology and Psychology parallel to the
other branches of Science which strived hard to find a model for the universe, though separately.
However, the formal models provided by Science did not and does not include that non-material
component and still trying to develop a sustainable model for the universe.
The Newtonian model of the Universe believed that all the properties of the universe can be
derived from a model which is a combination of space, time, matter, energy and forces. It
believed that these fundamental building blocks of the universe as absolute. However, with the
introduction of the Theory of Relativity in the 20th century, several centuries old Newtonian
model collapsed as invalid. Relativity showed that these fundamental elements were not
absolute as thought before.
The model most recognized by Science after the collapse of the Newtonian model came up in Big
Bang Theory. It recognizes different material elements including the elements mentioned in the
Periodic Table. It recognizes the existence of space, time, waves and matter until a certain point in
the past. It is the beginning of the universe and there was nothing before that particular event
known as Big Bang. However, this model is faced with many challenges to its sustenance and with
each challenge it has to assume more and more axioms for its survival. It had to assume the
existence of black holes, dark matter, dark energy, strings etc. etc., but science has no any clue for their
existence. However, Science keeps up developing its model by assuming more and more things,
disregarding what is said in Occams Razer. On the other hand it assumes that universe has a
beginning as one of its fundamental axioms. There seems no any justifiable reason to assume such a
mammoth axiom as one of the bases of any ideology which aims at solving a gigantic mystery. I think
the modern day model of Science of the universe is nothing more than a ball of entangled threads.
In such a backdrop, it is unwise if somebody does not look up for probable alternative models for the
universe. I think the Buddhist Model of the Universe is one of such probable models which deserves
such attention.
There is no such a model named as a Buddhist model specifically mentioned in Buddhist doctrines, the
reason may be because the objective of Buddhism is not that end. However, in the path of achieving its
end, Buddhism happens to mention about the the universe in various discourses. If somebody picks up
them and puts them together in a proper manner, one can see a probable Buddhist model for the
universe. This task should be undertake by a person who has some understanding of the Buddhist
doctrine and also some ability to understand the fundamentals of the other models presented. My
intervention in here confines to that task alone and all the honours in this regard should go to Buddhism
and to Buddhism alone. However, I admit that there could be some lapses in the model I compile due
to my personal incompetencies. I think readers will bear with it.
The Buddhist model of universe is a composition of both material and non-material building
blocks (elements), known as rupa and nama in Buddhist terminology. All rupa and
nama are contained in space. The fundamental nature of the universe is change
(anichcha). This change takes place in accordance with the Law of Cause and Effect. This is the
Buddhist model of the universe in brief and every phenomenon in the universe can be derived and
explained from this model.
Now I will describe the basic components of the model.
1. Rupa
Rupa represents all physical things in the universe. Rupa are crude in form (olarika) and all the
Rupas found in the universe are made out of one or more of the four fundamental elements (dhatu),
namely patavi, apo, thejo and vayo. Really these four elements are not matter, but some properties give
rise to rupas.
2. Nama
Namas are subtle (siyum) elements. These are non-physical elements. There are fundamentally four
namas namely, vedana (feeling), sanna (perception), sankara (recognition/reaction) and vinnana
Note :- Non living things, flora and fauna
When something is consisted only of rupa elements then it is a non-living thing. When something is
consisted of rupa elements and first three of the nama elements, they are flora or plants. When the
fourth element of nama is combined with rupa elements and three other nama elements its a being
Further, while all the entities in the universe are contained in the space, space too combines with with
other fundamental elements to form composite entities (sankara) in the universe. Therefore, space
is also considered as a passive element
3. Change
Change in Buddhism can be defined in Buddhas phrase Sabbe sankhara anichchathi, which means
all the sakaras are subject to change. Here the sankara means the composite entitieswhich are
made out of fundamental elements.
Note :- It should be noted that according to Buddhism only composite things are subject to change, not
the fundamental elements. Composite things can be decomposed into its composite elements and these
elements can combine again to form some other entities. These changes take place due to causes
(hethu) and conditions (prathya). Hethu is the main cause of a phenomenon and prathyas are the
inferior causes that give rise to the effect.
It should be also noted that time is not a fundamental element of the universe in the Buddhist model
as in the case of the western models. In Milinda Prashnaya time is mentioned as a pragnapthi
(something taken by convention). Really no one has ever detected or really experienced time rather
than taking it as granted as per the long deep rooted belief.
Really the definition of time denies the existence of such a fundamental element in the universe.
Time is defined in terms of events and therefore time depends on events. In a scenario where
events are non existent, time should also be non existent. Hence time originates subsequent to events
according to the definition and hence is not a fundamental element of the universe. Further, events take
place due to change and hence time is a derivative of the fundamental nature of the universe, that is
of change.
In my opinion all the things and phenomena of the universe can be explained in terms of the above
(Open to discussion)