It is common in Indian literature to compare exemplary humans to Mount Meru. Even in current news reports you may see the usage of this word to mean ‘great’, or ‘of a tall order’. Going back a few centuries, in a well-known composition in composer Tyagaraja refers to Rama as Meru samana dheera, meaning Rama’s valor and majesty are comparable to that of Meru mountain. In his composition in raga Lalita, Syama Shastri calls out to the divine mother Parvati as ‘Sumeru madhya nilaye‘ , — ’she who dwells in the great mountain of Meru‘. Given that Parvati is the daughter of Himavan and wife of Shiva, who dwells in Kailasa, it was probably common practice to associate Mount Meru to be somewhere in the Himalayas.
But where is Mount Meru, exactly? If you believe Wikipedia, it could be anywhere from the Himalayas to Tibet to Central Asia to Tanzania! However, instead of looking at the fanciful identifications, let us see some references in Indian literature to figure out the location of Meru.
The Mahabharata (in Bhishma Parva) describes Mount Meru as a globular mountain made of Gold. Surely a poetic description but not something that would help in identifying a geographic location. The Bhagavata too has several references to Mount Meru, in the 5th Skandha. But this text too leaves us with descriptions that tell us it is ‘somewhere to the north of Bharata Varsha‘, ‘surrounded by the ocean‘, ‘Golden mountain‘ etc, which don’t help in identification.
But in addition to poets such as Vyasa or Kalidasa may have had colorful descriptions, we are lucky to have Aryabhata and Varahamihira, who in spite of being a little fanciful, gave descriptions that help us identify Mount Meru,
In the Golapada section of Aryabhateeyam, Aryabhata (5th century AD) says the following:
मेरुर्योजनमात्रः प्रभाकरो हिमवता परिक्षिप्तः
नन्दनवनस्य मध्ये रत्नमयस्सर्वर्तोवृतः ||११ ||
“In the center of the Nandana forest is the bright Mount Meru that’s a yojana in size, that is full of precious stones, and surrounded by the Himalaya Mountains” — Sure, this is as poetic as the description in the Bhagavata or Mahabharata. Hence, not much of use here.
स्वर्मॅरू स्थलमध्ये नरको वडवामुखश्च जलमध्यॅ
अमरामरा मन्यन्ते परस्परमधस्स्थितान्नियतम् || १२||
“At Meru Mountain, at the center of the landmass, live the devas; At Vadavamukha, at the center of water live the asuras. Now each of them thinks that the others are situated below them”
Again, not much help here , but a few verses down in the same chapter, Aryabhata says the following:
देवाः पश्यन्ति भगोलार्धमुद्न्मेरु संस्थितास्सव्यं
अपसव्यगं तयार्धं दक्षिणावडवामुखे प्रेताः || १६||
“The devas situated on Mount Meru see half of the starry sphere, and the departed souls on the south end, see the other half of the starry sphere”.
Now this is a very good description of how the sky is seen from the Earth’s two poles. At each pole, only half of the starry sphere can be seen and the views at these two poles are mutually exclusive. This implies that Mount Meru should be located at Earth’s North pole and Vadavamukha, at the South pole. However, it must be pointed out that the shloka does not plainly say that Mount Meru is at the North Pole. For that, we must visit the work of Varahamihira (6th century AD).
In verse 34 of the 12th chapter ( titled भूगोलाधिकारः ), of Surya Siddhanta section from Panchasiddhantika, a work of Varahamihira, we find the following description:
अनेकरत्न निचयो जाम्बूनदमयो गिरिः
भूगोल मध्यगो मेरुरुभयत्र विनिर्गतः
“Filled with different types of precious stones, the golden Meru mountain goes through the center of the globe onto either side”
This is as close as it gets to saying that Mount Meru is the Earth’s axis. The reference to ‘nada’ in “jAmbUnadamaya” (“of Jamboonada gold, or of golden etc) probably refers to gold panning in river waters.
The next verse (35) goes on to say the Gods live in the top of the Meru and the demons at the bottom of the Meru. Now compare it with the description by Aryabhata cited earlier in this post, and you will find that they are exactly talking about the same thing. What does go through the “center of” Earth’s globe and project to both ends? It’s nothing but the earth’s axis. Underneath all the glittering gold, and being the abode of devas and asuras being spoken about in the shlokas, we see the truth plainly told — that Meru refers to nothing but the earth’s axis. The top of Meru is the North pole, and the bottom of the Meru is the South pole.
Then in the next few verses, Varahamihira talks about 4 (fictitious, although the text doesn’t explicitly say so) cities that are separated by 90 degrees on the earth’s equator. Incidentally one of these is called “Lanka” and is in Bharatavarsha – at a distance of one fourth the circumference of the Earth, due south of Meru’s top end. This implies the author of Surya Siddhanta knew that Bharatavarsha was close to the equator. However, the “city” which he calls Lanka can’t be in India because it is due south of Ujjain and on the equator, and falls in the Indian ocean and not on land. We can only assume that he made up these “cities” to be able to describe the globe, and the movement of the globe, and Bharatavarsha included the oceans around the land of Bharata as well.
Later verse 68 in the Surya Siddhanta section of PanchaSiddhantika tells how at the top of the Meru there is a 6 month day, which there is a six-month-long night at the bottom of the Meru. In verse 72, he says as you travel towards the Meru, in either direction, the altitude of the Pole star keeps increasing — This is a very direct way of saying that Meru (or the northern end of it) is nothing but Earth’s North pole.
So where is Meru? All these references confirm that Meru means nothing but the Earth’s axis. Leaving aside the stuff about the imaginary cities ( even there, the astronomy of these points are accurately described) and Gods and demons living at either end of the Meru mountain, other astronomical descriptions are accurate.
Why didn’t I write down all the verses here? Because, there is nothing as gratifying as finding it in the source. If you are interested to read the verses I cited, click on the PDF file in the link below:
http://www.wilbourhall.org/pdfs/suryasiddhanth035839mbp.pdf Check page 286 for the shlokas and the commentary.
Now it should leave us with no doubt about the identity of Mount Meru!