Mount Meru and Mandala Geography

Womb World, 13th c. one of a pair of hanging scrolls, Mandalas of Both Worlds, Metropolitan Museum (Photo: NY Times)

Womb World, 13th c. one of a pair of hanging scrolls, Mandalas of Both Worlds, Metropolitan Museum (Photo: NY Times)

On the trail of Mt. Meru and its source

The best known earthly manifestation of Mt Meru today is perhaps Mt. Kailas (Mt Kailash) in the Himalayas, see excerpt below from Mount Kailas and Lake Manasarovar

The Aryans, migrating into India, called the Himalayas the ‘abode of snow’: Himavant, Himachala or Himalaya; in their cosmography, the core of the universe was mount Meru, that of the ‘blazing appearance’ – situated beyond and to the north of the Himalaya ranges – according to the Hindu epic Mahabharata ‘kissing the heavens by its height, shining like the morning sun and like a fire without smoke, immeasurable and unapproachable by men of manifold sins’. On the summit of Meru stood Swarga, heavenly city of Indra (the Vedic god of rain and storm) – a paradise ‘furnished with heavenly flowers and fruit and covered everywhere with bright gold dwellings’. The greatest gods dwelt in this city; lesser gods and saints had to be content with palaces further down the mountainside. Leading up to Meru itself was the pathway of the stars, a never-never land of fragrant trees and flowers where the souls of the dead awaited rebirth. Now, the Mahabharata and its stodgier cousin, the Ramayana, are dated to about 500 BC; in them appears also mention of mount Kailas (then a lesser holy mountain not associated with Meru) and also a lake called Manasarovar appears in a line of the Ramayana ie ‘the lake Manasa … swollen with water on the arrival of the rains’.

Mount Kailas and Lake Manasarovar

Mount Kailas: since time immemorial, most of the people of the East have believed that somewhere in the Himalayan massif, between China and India, stood a sacred mountain: the navel of the earth, the axis of the universe. From its summit flowed a mighty river which fell into a lake, from which stemmed the great rivers of Asia. This was the holiest of mountains, revered by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as the home of their gods. In metaphysical terms it was Meru or Tise; in its earthly manifestation it was Kailas, the crystal, or Kang Rinpoche, jewel of the snows. The swastika mountain.

“As the dew is dried up by the morning sun so are the sins of men dried up by the sight of the Himalaya, where Shiva lived and where the Ganga falls from the foot of Vishnu like the slender thread of a lotus flower. There are no mountains like the Himalaya, for in them are Kailas and Manasarovar.” From the Skanda Purana.

The Puranas (eighteen holy texts composed between 200 BC and 800 AD) give a description of the world. This the earth is made up of seven continents, ringed by seven oceans. The central land has as its heart Meru, and this the centrepoint of the world-mandala is bounded by three mountain ranges to the north and three more to the south, itself lying between them like the pericarp of a lotus. The Indian subcontinent is called by the name Bharatha. The world-pillar Meru stands eighty-four thousand leagues high, its four faces being variously of crystal, ruby, gold and lapis lazuli. From the nail of the great toe of Vishnu’s left foot flows the Ganga, washing clean the face of the moon ere it pours down upon the summit of Meru; the stream circles the mountain and divides into four mighty rivers flowing to the four quarters of the earth: the Sita, Alaknanda, Chaksu and Badra. The Sita flows east through the country of Bhadrashva to the ocean; the Alaknanda flows south through Bharatha (India) dividing into seven as it does, and falls into the sea; the Chaksu flows west through mountains and the country of Ketumala into the sea; and finally the Badra washes the country of the Uttara Kurus and empties itself into the northern ocean. This image or map forms the Buddhist mandala and the Hindu version of the same, the yaanta. Thus the mystic meditates upon the balance of the circle, water, with the square, earth: these are Taoist yin and yang, the Tibetan tantric yab and yum, or the Shaivite tantric Shiva-Shakti. 

Black belief: old shamanistic religion of Bon-Po. According to old Bon texts, the nine-story swastika mountain (Mt. Kailas) the heart of their religion, had to be moved to its present site from NE Tibet….

The legends, puranas and Hindu epics frequently state that Surya, the sun-God, circumambulates Mount Meru every day. In late 19th c. when it was believed that Aryans may have had their original home Urheimat in North Europe, it was thought that Mount Meru may actually refer to the “center of the world.”

To the Jains, followers of Jainism(who were known to have emerged from the Kalinga and East Bengal region of the Indian continent), Kailash is also known as Meru Parvat or Sumeru. The Kalinga War and the fall of Kalinga is said to  be responsible for the ultimate conversion of Ashoka, leader of the Mauryan Empire, and for his becoming a Buddhist king, as well as for the impetus for the exodus of people to Southeast Asia who then set up Indianized kingdoms with their ancient Meru-mandala-like megalithic cities such as Angkor Wat) upon arrival (the Greater India theory).

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Accounts of the Tibetan Mt Meru go like this:

“In the mythology of Tibetan Buddhism, Mount Meru is a place which simultaneously represents the center of the universe and the single-pointedness of mind sought by adepts. Thousands of miles in height, Meru is located somewhere beyond the physical plane of reality, in a realm of perfection and transcendence. Symbolic representations of Mount Meru are commonly found in Tibetan mandalas, contemplative diagrams designed to aid meditators in focusing.

It is said that Meru has its roots in hell, and its summit in heaven. Meru is surrounded by seven rings of golden mountains, each separated from the other by one of seven circular oceans. It is crowned by a golden palace wherein Indra, king of Hindu gods, resides. This entire superstructure rises from an outer ocean, and is flanked by four main continents, each with two subcontinents.

The southern continent, Jambudvipa, corresponds to the physical earth. Each of the other continents represents a nearby planet upon which transmigrating souls following the yellow light-path may be reborn…

Shambhala forms a gateway between the physical and spiritual realms. It is endowed with riches, and is ideally suited for the habitat of enlightened souls. They are not attached to the fruits of karma, and are but one step from Buddhahood. This is the realm to be sought for rebirth if one desires the swiftest path to nirvana….

Many western explorers, hearing tales of a “golden city” of Shambhala, sought to find it in the frozen wastes of northern Tibet. This resulted in the present-day term “Shangri-la,” …

The City of Forever, Aaron Ross

 

According to Zharnikova’s reading of Indo-Iranian myths, the only likely candidate for the Scythian Ripei (Hyperborea), Indo-Iranian Hara and Meru sacred mountains is the Tien Shan mountain as “they are the only latitudinal watershed range in this part of Eurasia, and are very high, and are north of Iran and India” and as to its north lie the “Arctic or Kronian, or Dead or Milk Ocean or the huge Vourukasha Sea”. The cosmogonical legend of a river that descends from Mount Hara appears to have remained a part of living observance for many generations. A Greek inscription from Roman times found in Asia Minor reads ‘the great goddess Anaïtis of high Hara.

The Iranian-Scythian connection was also made out in Elena E. Kuz’mina’s The Origin of the Indo-Iranians in which she wrote and localized the Ripa mountains in the Ural mountains:

 “In Greek myth Apollo, the Sun god, was born in the north, in the Ripa mountains. In the vernal equinox white swans harnessed to a chariot carry him to Greece (Ivanov 1969: 54; 198). Ripa is the name of the Ural mountains, which are situated according to Indo-Iranian mythology in their homeland (Dovatur et al. 1982). In the Urals, on the vernal equinox, there is a mass swan migration (Chlenova 1983a). These facts support the existence of the areal Greek-Indo- Iranian contacts and the corresponding localization of the homeland in the steppes, to be more exact, in the Urals”.

Apart from Mt. Kailash, other local mountains have also been adopted or pinpointed as the actual Mt Meru. Below are some of the alleged locations:

  • Nysa in India:

In An account of a Diononysiac presence in Indian art and culture,  Sara Peterson, makes a case from accounts by Philostratus, Arrian and other Graeco-Roman sources that Mt. Meros was closeby Nysa, one of the only two places in India where the Greek military leader Dionysos (or according to the historian Arrian, it was Alexander who worshipped at the shrine of Dionysus on Mt Meros at Nysia in India) and Herakles were said to have invaded.

  • Nysa In Israel:

The Hellenistic period saw the reoccupation of the site of Beit She’an under the new name Scythopolis, possibly named after the Scythian mercenaries who settled there as veterans. Little is known about the Hellenistic city, but during the 3rd century BCE a large temple was constructed on the Tell. It is unknown which deity was worshipped there, but the temple continued to be used during Roman times. The local Greek mythology holds that the city was founded by Dionysus and that his nursemaid Nysa was buried there; thus it was sometimes known as Nysa-Scythopolis. Graves dating from the Hellenistic period are simple singular rock-cut tombs. From 301 to 198 BCE the area was under the control of the Ptolemies, and Beit She’an is mentioned in 3rd–2nd-century BC written sources describing the Syrian Wars between the Ptolemid and Seleucid dynasties. In 198 BCE the Seleucids conquered the region. 

  • Nysa in Caria, Anatolia(modern-day Turkey):

The name “Nysa” was mentioned in Homer‘s Iliad (Chapter 6.132-133), where he refers to a hero named Lycurgus, “who once drove the nursing mothers of wine-crazed Dionysus over the sacred mountains of Nysa.” Most likely in connection to this, the city was dedicated to Dionysus when it was founded, perhaps by Antiochus I Soter in the 3rd century BC. Nysa not only gained fame through Dionysus, but also through its scholars. The big library of Nysa stands proof of this period.

In antiquity, Nysa was also known as Athymbra (Ancient Greek Ἄθυμβρα); according to Strabo, who started his life of study in Nysa (which was an important center of learning in the 1st century BC), “Nysa resulted from a synoecism of three towns that were founded by three brothers, Athymbros, Athymbrados, and Hydrelos. Undoubtedly Athymbra served as the kernel for the later Nysa. The townspeople were still called Athymbrianoi in a letter sent … in 281 BC.”[1] For about a thousand years after that the city suffered from the depredations of the Christians, the Muslims and the Turks, and it was finally abandoned after being sacked by Tamerlane in 1402.(source: Wikipedia article, Caria)

  • Meroe, aka Meru in Egypt.

Curiously, the Egyptian alleged provenance for the earliest concept of Meru does not appear to have concerned a mountainous peak, but may, instead, have envisioned the sacred pyramid peaks above the Egyptian Underworld passages of the Dead. The Egyptian Meru is a reference to Meroe, an ancient city on the East bank of the Nile which is an archaeological site with 200 or so Nubian pyramid discoveries, or the rock sanctuary that on the Island of Meroe. The name Meru could disseminated to elsewhere via the Homeric tales Ulysses’s journey sailing up the Nile to the Island of Meroe. Harcourt writes in The Doctrine of the Deluge  that “Like the Hindoos, they venerated Sumeru, or Koh Meru and hence, higher up the Nile, we have the Island of Meroe, or Meru. Miru, pronounced Meru, is the Hades of the Society Islands, and the name of him, who, with Akea, rules the place of darkness, called Po…”

The Kushitic Kingdom of Meroë gave its name to the Island of Meroë, which was the modern region of Butana, a region bounded by the Nile (from the Atbarah River to Khartoum), the Atbarah, and the Blue Nile. Harcourt described the Island of Meroe as a rocky island at the junction of two streams, and the island had a sanctuary, a cavern in the rock. Meroë was the base of a flourishing kingdom whose wealth was due to a strong iron industry, and international trade involving India and China

  • Mt Meru is depicted, as part of Chinese Turkestan (ie. Xinjiang)

See the Painting of the World Mountain, Mount Meru, found in Buddhist cave sanctuary in Xinjiang, China 

The Eastern or Asian Mt. Meru, is an hourglass-shaped World Mountain, emerging from a Cosmic Ocean, flanked by sun and moon, topped by a golden city radiating sun-rays from it. 

Mt. Meru as the core motif of sacred geometric mandala art

Mt Meru is often incorporated into the mandala, a geometric plan representing the universe or cosmos, with Mt Meru as the Axis Mundi, at its centre, or as the Pure Land, a visual representation of paradise. It may be represented in painting form or as a clay or bronze or bonsai model, or as a stone pyramidal construction. As a sacred mountain motif, it is seen in Asian mandala art displaying HinduJain as well as Buddhist cosmological beliefs where Mt. Meru is featured as the center of all the physical, metaphysical and/or spiritual universes.

Mandalas may be objects of meditation or veneration, religious teaching devices, ritual objects in mystery religions, or a representation of a cosmological landscape…regarded as magical or living entities by esoteric practitioners.

The most famous mandala in Japan is the Taima Mandala, based upon the Contemplation Sutra, dated to approximately 763 CE. 

The Japanese branch of Mahayana Buddhism — Shingon Buddhism—makes frequent use of mandalas in its rituals as well, though the actual mandalas differ. When Shingon’s founder, Kukai, returned from his training in China, he brought back two mandalas that became central to Shingon ritual: the Mandala of the Womb Realm and the Mandala of the Diamond Realm.

 

Further reading:

Mandara in Japan – Ryokai Mandala, Daimond & Womb World Realms

Mandala (Onmark Productions)

Mandala

Taima mandala

14th c. Yuan dynasty Chinese mandala (collection of the Metropolitan Museum)

If You Go: Cosmic MapQuests to Enlightenment (NY Times, Jul 16, 2009)

On top of the cosmic mountain

Thymbra, Hanai-Tepe by Frank Calvert; Thymbra (Wikipedia); An early bronze age site in the Eastern Aegean: Surveys at Bozkoy-Hanaytepe in the Troad by Derya Yilmaz; Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlík (p. 198) by Susan Heuck Allen

The India-China connection Indian Inputs to Chinese Art by Radha Banerji.

On the possible location of the Holy Hara and Meru Mountains in Indo-Iranian (Aryan) mythology

The Origin of the Indo-Iranians, by Elena E. Kuz’mina; Edited by J.P. Mailory; Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series

The Legend of Semeru

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