QUESTION: In the traditional Indian Scriptures there are given some dates for the creation of the universe, and these dates conflict. For instance, there is one view that the life of the universe is 8,640 million years, but there are other calculations which make it much older than that. These are clearly simply speculations, in contrast to science, which gives us exact knowledge. But it is the same voice in the Indian scriptures which also tells us of spiritual truths as they are called. Does not the fantastic and self-contradictory nature of the cosmology discredit what the same authority tells us about all other matters?
ANSWER: First let us dismiss the rhetoric which claims that science here gives us exact knowledge. The estimate of the age of the oldest globular clusters is put at between 10,000 million and 20,000 million years. Some astronomers try to be more exact and put it at 12,000 million years ‘or perhaps younger’. We cannot call this exact knowledge. Popularisers often make these entirely unfounded rhetorical claims for science when attempting to over-awe laymen, claims which they would never dream of making in a scientific context.
As a matter of fact, on this scale, there is not so much difference between the 8,000 million years of the Indian cosmology, and the 12,000 million years, or younger, last quoted.
Now, as to the conflict in the traditional Indian (and other religious) accounts. These were visions, which do not come accompanied with a graph or calendar. Compare the case of several people on a small mountain, looking over a landscape. There is a river flowing across in the distance. They all see the same thing. But ask them afterwards, separately, to say how far away the river was, and the estimates, in miles, will be very different indeed.
The great commentator S’ankara says that there are indeed contradictory accounts of creation in holy scriptures, but the details are of no significance. They could be taken to correspond to the varying accounts, by different people, of a landscape.
The point of giving them is to make it clear that the creation, maintenance and final dissolution of the universe is a consciously directed and purposeful process; the teaching adds that it is partly illusory, a projection of Maya, tentatively described as a sort of magical power.