It’s been a common occurrence in Indian poetry, to compare exemplary humans Mount Meru. Even in current news reports, you may see the usage of this word to mean “great”, “of a tall order” etc.
Going back a few centuries,in a well known composition in Raga Mayamalavagoula, Tyagaraja calls Rama as Meru samana dheera, meaning Rama’s valor and majesty to that of Meru mountain. You can listen to an equally majestic rendition of the composition here by none other than Sri BMK. In his composition in raga Lalita, Syama Shastri calls out to the divine mother Parvati as “Sumeru madhya nilaye” , one who dwells in the great mountain of Meru. Given that Parvati is the daughter of Himavan, and wife of Shiva, who dwells in Kailasa, I think it was common practice to associate Mount Meru to be somewhere in the Himalayas. By the way, you can listen to an epic rendition of nannu brovu lalita here, by LGJ.
But where is Meru, exactly? If you believe the Wikipedia, it could be anywhere from the Himalayas to Tibet to Central Asia to Tanzania! But is it that difficult to identify it if it were so intertwined with our history?
The Mahabharata (in Bheeshma 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 ( 5th Skandha), but that too leaves us with poetic descriptions that tell us it is “somewhere to the north of Bharatavarha”, “surrounded by the ocean”, “golden mountain” etc.
However, no need to despair. In addition to poets such as Vyasa or Kalidasa may have had colorful descriptions, but we are lucky have had people like Aryabhata and Varahamihira, who in spite of being a little fanciful, gave descriptions that would 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. Not much 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 think that the others are situated below them”
Again, not much help here – How does it matter where the devas and asuras live to identify Mount Meru? You are bound to ask me.
Thankfully, in the 16th verse in the same chapter, Aryabhata spills the beans!
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 halves are mutually exclusive. This implies that the Mount Meru should be located at Earth’s North pole, and Vadavamukha, at the South pole. However, it must be pointed out that 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, 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 the Mount Meru is on Earth’s axis. Note that the reference here is not to Jambu Dweepa (or India) but to “jAmbUnadamaya”. As per the dictionary, this term means “of Jamboonada gold, or of golden etc. Narayana Pandita’s Gudharthaprakashika commentary to Surya Siddhanta also adds a shloka to show how “Jambunadamaya” implies gold. It 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 that I 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 at is the South pole.
Then in the next few verses, Varahamihira talks about 4 (fictitious, although the text doesn’t explicitly say so) cities which 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 Surya SiddhantaKara 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 later verses tell 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( verse 68). 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 meaning 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 quite 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 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 you with no doubt about the identity of Mount Meru!