Sumeru - A Question of Size

Sumeru (Sanskrit) or Sineru (Pāli) is the name of the central world-mountain in Buddhist cosmology. Etymologically, the proper name of the mountain is Meru (Pāli Neru), to which is added the approbatory prefix su-, resulting in the meaning "excellent Meru" or "wonderful Meru".

The concept of Sumeru is closely related to the Hindu mythological concept of a central world mountain, called Meru, but differs from the Hindu concept in several particulars.

According to Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośabhāsyam, Sumeru is 80,000 yojanas tall. The exact measure of the yojana is uncertain, but some accounts put it at about 24,000 feet, or approximately 4 1/2 miles. It also descends beneath the surface of the surrounding waters to a depth of 80,000 yojanas, being founded upon the basal layer of Earth. Sumeru is often used as a simile for both size and stability in Buddhist texts.

Sumeru is said to be shaped like an hourglass, with a top and base of 80,000 yojanas square, but narrowing in the middle (i.e., at a height of 40,000 yojanas) to 20,000 yojanas square.

Sumeru is the polar center of a mandala-like complex of seas and mountains. The square base of Sumeru is surrounded by a square moat-like ocean, which is in turn surrounded by a ring (or rather square) wall of mountains, which is in turn surrounded by a sea, each diminishing in width and height from the one closer to Sumeru. There are seven seas and seven surrounding mountain-walls, until one comes to the vast outer sea which forms most of the surface of the world, in which the known continents are merely small islands. The known world, which is located on the continent of Jambudvīpa, is directly south of Sumeru.

The dimensions stated in the Abhidharmakośabhāsyam are shown in the table below:

Name Width Height/Depth
Sumeru (Sineru) mountain 80,000 yojanas 80,000 yojanas
Sea 80,000 yojanas 80,000 yojanas
Yugandhara mountains 40,000 yojanas 40,000 yojanas
Sea 40,000 yojanas 40,000 yojanas
Isadhara (Isadhara) mountains 20,000 yojanas 20,000 yojanas
Sea 20,000 yojanas 20,000 yojanas
Khadiraka (Karavīka) mountains 10,000 yojanas 10,000 yojanas
Sea 10,000 yojanas 10,000 yojanas
Sudarśana (Sudassana) mountains 5,000 yojanas 5,000 yojanas
Sea 5,000 yojanas 5,000 yojanas
Aśvakarna (Assakanna) mountains 2,500 yojanas 2,500 yojanas
Sea 2,500 yojanas 2,500 yojanas
Vinadhara (Vinataka) mountains 1,250 yojanas 1,250 yojanas
Sea 1,250 yojanas 1,250 yojanas
Nimindhara (Nemindhara) mountains 625 yojanas 625 yojanas
Outer Sea 32,000 yojanas relatively shallow
Cakravāda (Cakkavāla) mountains

(circular edge of the world)

312.5 yojanas 312.5 yojanas

The 80,000 yojana square top of Sumeru constitutes the "heaven" (devaloka) of the Thirty-three gods, which is the highest plane in direct physical contact with the earth. The next 40,000 yojanas below this heaven consist of sheer precipice, narrowing in like an inverted mountain until it is 20,000 yojanas square at a heigh of 40,000 yojanas above the sea.

From this point Sumeru expands again, going down in four terraced ledges, each broader than the one above. The first terrace constitutes the "heaven" of the Four Great Kings, and is divided into four parts, facing north, south, east and west. Each section is governed by one of the Four Great Kings, who faces outward toward the quarter of the world that he supervises.

40,000 yojanas is also the height at which the Sun and Moon circle Sumeru in a clockwise direction. This rotation explains the alteration of day and night; when the Sun is north of Sumeru, the shadow of the mountain is cast over the continent of Jambudvīpa, and it is night there; at the same time it is noon in the opposing northern continent of Uttarakuru, dawn in the eastern continent of Pūrvavideha, and dusk in the western continent of Aparagodānīya. Half a day later, when the Sun has moved to the south, it is noon in Jambudvīpa, dusk in Pūrvavideha, dawn in Aparagodānīya, and midnight in Uttarakuru.

The next three terraces down the slopes of Sumeru are each longer and broader by a factor of two. They contain the followers of the Four Great Kings, namely nāgas, yaksas, gandharvas, and kumbhāndas.

The names and dimensions of the terraces on the lower slopes of Sumeru are given below:

Name Height above the sea Breadth Length (on one side)
Cāturmahārājika 40,000 yojanas 2,000 yojanas 24,000 yojanas
Sadāmada 30,000 yojanas 4,000 yojanas 32,000 yojanas
Mālādhara 20,000 yojanas 8,000 yojanas 48,000 yojanas
Karotapāni 10,000 yojanas 16,000 yojanas 80,000 yojanas

Below Sumeru, in the seas around it, is the abode of the Asuras who are at war with the Thirty-three gods.

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