Popularized by the late British cosmologist Steven Hawking, the turtles-all-the-way-down metaphor comes from the ancient, flat earth theory, which postulates that earth is supported on the back of a world turtle.Who supports this turtle? Another turtle, which, in turn, is supported by yet another turtle leading to turtles all the way down. Like the chicken-and-egg conundrum, the turtles-all-the-way-down metaphor emphasized the idea of endless continuation and is often used when an argument is circular.
Back in the 17th century, it was mistakenly believed that this myth came from India even though variations of the flat earth theory were popular in many cultures including the Chinese. In some of these tales, the turtle was replaced by an elephant or a serpent. Fascinated with world turtles and elephants, the British philosopher John Locke in 1689 claimed-with no supporting evidence-that the Hindus believed the earth is held in the universe by eight pairs of elephants that rest on the back of a turtle.The earthquakes that wreak havoc on earth were caused by elephants and turtle getting tired and shaking their burden. This belief gained currency in the 20th century and was perpetuated by writers like Bertrand Russell and Henry David Thoreau. Although Locke based his claim on hearsay, the turtle-earth myth probably was influenced by the concept of Lokpalas and Dikpalas in Hinduism.
Meaning "rulers of directions," the Dikpalas are eight in number and rule the eight directions of the universe. In Hinduism each direction is assigned to a deity, who presides over it and is responsible for protecting the occupants. Elephants play a big role in Hindu mythology. They are the mounts of choice for these guardians of directions, and the pachyderms are often accompanied by their mates. Thus Indra rides the elephant Airavata, whose mate is the elephant Abhramu. When the eight gods are depicted in royal attire with their mounts (eight elephants and their mates), the gods are known as Lokpalas, or "rulers of the world."Most of the prominent Vedic gods like Indra, Varuna, Yama, and Vayu are on the list of Lokpalas. Also on it is the little known Nirrti, who is often associated with pain, misfortune, and destruction. The Rigveda mentions only one hymn about Nirrti, although she is mentioned several times in the hymn. The concept of Dikpalas did not exist in Vedic times.The Rigvedic hymns make no mention of the Dikpalas. During the Vedic period the twelve Adityas-who included luminaries like Indra and Varuna-ruled the skies and watched over the world. 55 Like the Adityas, whose number progressed from seven in the Rigveda to twelve in the Puranas, the Dikpalas also evolved over time. In the Upanishads there were four of them, but by the time of Puranas there were eight.
Even the members of the Dikpalas have changed over time.In the Upanishads Surya was the regent for east, Yama for south, Varuna for west, and Soma for north. Later Indra replaced Surya as the guardian of east. The tantric tradition adopts a three-dimensional view of the cosmos and adds a zenith and nadir, which extends the number of Dikpalas to ten. The two additional regents mentioned in the Tantras are rooted in the myth about Linga in which Shiva appears as the axis of the universe with Brahma at the peak and Vishnu at the base.
The significance of the directions and their presiding deities is evident in ancient sacred architecture, particularly in the design of temples and Vedic altars. Their influence also shows up in city planning and ritual offerings. South has been always associated with Yama, the lord of death. Hindus always face south to make ritual offerings to the deceased. The east is the direction for most rituals and ceremonies conducted at home, such as the house-warming ceremony.In some rituals, such as the child-naming ceremony known as namakarana, invocations are made to all directions.
The concept of the Dikpalas inevitably associated several deities with one specific direction. It also led to the creation of a number of myths and became the basis for Vastu Shastra,the traditional Hindu system of architecture. Often equated with Feng Shui, Vastu Shastra integrates architecture with nature and is rooted in traditional Hindu beliefs. Originally Vastu Shastra was applied in the architecture of Hindu temples and stipulated the orientation of a temple. Shiva temples, for instance, often face northeast, the direction of Isana, an aspect of Shiva. Vishnu temples face west, the direction of Varuna, an Aditya. The best example of a Vishnu temple is the world-famous temple Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which is oriented to the west. Surya temples, on the other hand, always face east, like the Sun Temple of Konark.
Today the influence of Vastu Shastra can be seen in India as the concepts are applied to both residential and commercial constructions. Such is the popularity of Vastu that the number of Vastu experts is second only to that of cricket, a sport that preoccupies the nation. Furthermore, among the Vastu experts, there are varying opinions on which rules and principles comply with Vastu. Many traditional Hindus believe that the northeastern corner of a room should be left vacant because the direction belongs to Shiva.
They would also rather do business while facing north,because Kubera, the lord of wealth, rules the north. Many orthodox Hindus also avoid dwellings that face south because it is in the direction of Yama. What if you are stuck with a piece of land facing south ? Vastu provides several remedies, such as shifting the main entrance toward the east or making the walls of the south and west higher than those of east and north. With the increasing pressure of availability of space in modern cities, most people find it chal lenging to acquire the perfect plot let alone adhere to the Vastu principles. For most households Vastu serves as useful guidelines, not hard-and fast rules. In short, although the Dikpalas have their own preferred directions, they are not set on stone and can be negotiated or remediated.