10 years ago I had a very painful debate with the elite of the Gaudiya Discussions web-forum about figures mentioned in śāstra, in which I found myself practically alone combatting an army of mundane intellectual sceptics and frogs-in-the-well having devotee-names. Recently a couple of devotees posted an article on Facebook that supports my stance at the time (and now too). I wish to quote a selection of the evidence they provided here -
“Some of the numbers given in Vedic literatures seem too large to be true. For example, the forty-first verse of chapter ninety of the tenth canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavata states:
tasraḥ koṭyaḥ sahasrāṇām aṣṭāśīti-śatānica
āsan yadu-kulācāryāḥ kumārāṇām iti śrutam
“[In Dwarka] the Yadu family [had so many children] that they employed 38,800,000 teachers to educate them.” The next verse says lakṣeṇāstesa āhukaḥ — Maharaja Ugrasena had an entourage of thirty trillion attendants. Approximately 4,000 times the entire present population of the earth planet. And aside from that, there were also cooks, laborers, priests, housewives, children, soldiers, and the rest of a variegated population of Dvārakā. Regarding the number of personal servants of Mahārāja Ugrasena, Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartipāda offers an explanation in his commentary to the Śrīmad Bhāgavata 10.90.42 as follows:
atrāyutānām iti bahu-vacanaṁ kapiñjalādhikaraṇa-nyāyena. tritva-viśiṣṭāyāṁ saṅkhyāyāṁ paryavasāyitam ayutānām ayuta-lakṣaṇena bindu-trayodaśa-yuktena trayeṇa śaṅkha-trayeṇety arthaḥ. āsīd iti vaktavye āsta iti nitya-līlā-sphūrtyā uktam.
The plural in the term “ayutānām” should be understood according to the maxim of kapiñjala-nyāya. [The kapiñjala-nyāya says that whenever plural is used in context of numbers, it should be understood as the number 3]. Thus, the number here is 3 followed by thirteen zeros (30,000,000,000,000).
(This was evidence I quoted in the 2004 Gaudiya Discussions debate)
The present tense term “āste” (are) in this verse is used instead of the past tense “āsīd” (were) and this indicates that this great number is being spoken of by Śrīla Śukadev Gosvāmī from the remembrance of the continuous ongoing nitya-līlā of the Lord [in Goloka Vṛndāvana, and not from the pastimes that happened on earth].
What to speak of the cows of Vṛndāvana! In his purport to Śrīmad Bhāgavata 10.12.2, Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartīpāda says that the number of Kṛṣṇa’s cows exceeded one followed by seventeen zeros. That’s in the realm of one hundred quadrillion cows. And Visvanātha says that was just the young calves, the older cows far exceeded that amount. In his commentary on Bhāgavata 10.12.2, Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī explains:
evaṁ vatsānāṁ bālānañcānantyam uktam. itthaṁ vane bālaiḥ pālyamānānām api vatsānāṁ yadīyattā nābhūt tarhi vraje ruddhānām abhinavānāṁ tṛṇa-carāṇāṁ tathā go-saṅge gatānāñca mukta-stanyānāṁ vatsānāṁ tathā tan-mātṝṇām anyāsāñca gavāṁ tathā vatsatarīṇāṁ vṛṣāṇāñca śrī-gopāla-deva-prabhāveṇa nityaṁ vivardhamānānām iyattā katham āstām? mahiṣyādayaśca kena vā gaṇyā ity evam asaṅkhyeyāḥ paśavas tad-anusāreṇa gopa-gopyādayaś cānantā jñeyā.
“The boys and calves of Vṛndāvana together could not be counted. If the number of calves that they herded in the forest was beyond calculation, how many more calves must have been left back in Vraja -- the small calves taking milk from their mothers, as well as the mothers of the calves that went to the forest, other cows, the elder male and female calves, the bulls, whose numbers kept increasing daily by the power of Gopal, and the buffaloes as well? Thus the animals, cowherd and cowherd women were unlimited in number.”
How do we understand such numbers? Are they exaggeration? Allegory?
Śrīla Viśvanath Cakravartīpāda gives an answer in his Sārārtha-darśini commentary on Śrīmad Bhāgavata 10.12.3:
na ca ṣoḍaśa-krośī-mātrasya vṛndāvanasya pradeśe tāvanto vatsāḥ naiva bhāntīti vācyaṁ bhagavad-vigrahasyaiva dhāmnaś cāsya tathāparimitatve ‘py acintya-śaktyā vibhutvāt tat-pradeśaika-deśe ‘pi pañcāśata-koṭi-yojana-pramāṇa-brahmāṇḍārbudānāṁ bhagavataiva brahmaṇe etat-uttarādhyāye darśayiṣyamāṇatvād ata
“One should not argue that such a large number of cows could not possibly fit into the thirty-two square mile area of Vṛndāvana, because the dhāma is unlimited by the inconceivable energy of the Lord. Even a small portion of the holy dhāma is sufficient to accommodate billions of universes each measuring fifty million miles in diameter. Kṛṣṇa showed this to Brahma in a later chapter.”
Another example is found in Śrīmad Bhāgavata 10.33.38 which states brahma-rātra upāvṛtte — Kṛṣṇa danced with the gopīs for an entire night of Lord Brahmā. Kṛṣṇa describes the length of Lord Brahmā’s day and night in Bhagavad-gītā (8.17):
sahasra-yuga-paryantam ahar yad brahmaṇo viduḥ
rātriṁ yuga-sahasrāntāṁ te ’ho-rātra-vido janāḥ
“By human calculation, a thousand ages taken together form the duration of Brahma’s one day. And such also is the duration of his night.”
A thousand yugas together equals four million three hundred and twenty thousand years. The Bhāgavata describes that the duration of those thousand yugas entered into a single twelve-hour night in Vṛndāvana during which the gopīs danced with Kṛṣṇa. Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartīpāda compares this inconceivable expansion of time to the fact that many universes fit within the forty-mile range of earthly Vṛndāvana. Similarly, he says, one may consider how Mother Yaśodā was unable to encircle the abdomen of her child Kṛṣṇa using many, many ropes, or how on another occasion Kṛṣṇa displayed many universes in his mouth to Mother Yaśodā. Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī writes in his Laghu Bhāgavatāmṛta (1.5.515):
ataḥ prabhoḥ priyāṇāṁ ca dhāmnaś ca samayasya ca
avicintya-prabhāvatvād atra kiṁ ca na durghaṭam
“In Gokula, nothing is impossible for the Lord, the devotees, the abode, and everything in the abode, by the power of the Lord’s inconceivable energy.”
Evidence from the Puranas
Kṛṣṇa, his devotees, and his abode are not in this material world and cannot be understood by the material senses. In his Śrī Mathurā Māhātmya, Śrīla Rupa Gosvāmī cites many evidences from various Purāṇas regarding the unlimited glories of Vṛndāvana. In text fifty-one he quotes the Ādi-varāha Purāṇa:
ṣaṣṭhi-koṭi-sahasrāṇi ṣaṣṭhi-koṭi-śatāni ca
tīrtha-sāṅkhyā tu vasudhe mathurāyāṁ mayoditā
“O Vasudha, I have manifested six-hundred-sixty billion holy places in Mathura.”
In the next text Rupa quotes the Mathurā-khaṇḍa of the Skanda Purāṇa:
bhūme rajāṁsi gananā kālenāpi bhaven nṛpa
māthure yani tīrthāni teṣāṁ saṅkhyā na vartate
O king, the particles of dust in this world may be counted in due course of time, but it is impossible to count the number of holy places that are present in Mathura.
Rupa Gosvāmī declares atha prapañcātītam — “[This area of Mathura] is transcendental to the material world.” he then quotes from the Ādi-varāha Purāṇa:
anyaiva kācit sā sṛṣṭir vidhātur vyatirekiṇī
na yat kṣetra-guṇān vaktum īśvaro ’pīśvaro yataḥ
“Mathura is completely different from the creation of the creator, because even the controller of this world is unable to describe the unlimited qualities of this holy place.” (Text 121)
Vṛndāvana is Like a Lotus
Another perspective is given in Prema-vilāsa (16, 174–191), wherein the author Nityānanda Dās relates a conversation that he had with Śrīla Raghunāth Dās Gosvāmī at Rādhākuṇḍa:
Raghunath Dās Gosvāmī said, “While staying here and visiting the various pastime places, be careful not to commit any offense even in your mind. The pastimes of Kṛṣṇa cannot be understood, but if you read the books of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī then you will understand them. If you did not read these books you must hear it from the mouth of the Guru. A faithful person becomes firm in his mind when he hears from (Guru’s) mouth. You should understand the different pastimes that Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are performing day and night in different places in Vṛndāvana. Although Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are always performing pleasure pastimes in Vṛndāvana, no one can perceive them. The amazing parakīya-pastimes of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa are only understood by the sakhīs.”
Nityānanda Dās replied to Raghunāth Dās, “There is one doubt in my heart. If you give me your kind permission I will express it to you. My inquisitive mind has become blessed by hearing from your lotus mouth about Vṛndāvana. The distance between Vṛndāvana and the bank of Rādhākunda and Śyāmakunda is about eight krośas [a krośa is about two miles or three kilometers] and Govardhan is two krośas from the kuṇḍas. Sanketa is eight krośas from Vṛndāvana, Nandīśvara is two krośas and Yāvat is one krośa. Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa travel between these places in a moment. How is it possible for Rādhā, Kṛṣṇa, and their associates to travel such distances daily? For a long time I have had a desire to hear the answer to this question. Otherwise how can a sādhaka understand these pastimes?”
kṛpā kori kohe śuno nityānanda dāsa! yei yei sthāne sadā kṛṣṇera vilāsa
padma-prāy jeno vṛndāvaner ghaṭan; śāstra vākye āche mahāprabhur sthāpan
mudita prakāśa haila dui to prakāra; vilāse mudita hon līlāya vistāra
ei rūpe hoy sob gamanāgamana; tadāśrita yei tāra hoy ei mana
yogamāyā bale ihā ghaṭanā āchaya; yāṅhāra gamana sei kichu nā jānaya
Mercifully, Dās Gosvāmī said, “Listen, Nityānanda Dās! All these places where Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes are eternally taking place in Vṛndāvana are like a lotus flower. Mahāprabhu has established this through śāstra. As a lotus, Vṛndāvana is manifested in two ways, closed and open. It closes itself in pleasure, vilāsa, and opens itself in sport, līlā. In this way Rādhā Kṛṣṇa and their associates come and go. Only surrendered devotees of the Lord can understand this. By the strength of yogamāyā one can understand these matters. Other persons cannot understand.”
Advise to sceptic mundane scholars – jāo bhāgavat poro vaiṣṇavera sthāne (Caitanya Caritāmṛta Antya 5.131) “Go and study the Bhāgavat from a Vaiṣṇava!” The Bhāgavat itself says (1.1.2) it is only understood by kṛtibhiḥ suśrūṣubhiḥ, saints who are eager to hear and obey. Ultimately, of course, the issue of such vast figures in the śāstras does not touch a rāgānugā devotee, because such huge figures will anyway damage the human view or conception of Kṛṣṇa-līlā which is required to relish sweet rasa. All figures need to be modest in order not to create a feeling of aiśvarya or superhuman divine majesty.