What is Mt. Meru in Hinduism and Buddhism?

Mt. Meru is a cosmological belief found within ancient Indian mythologies and literature, notably of Hinduism and Buddhism, in a golden mountain located at the center of the physical and spiritual universe.

The imagery and descriptions of Mt. Meru are rich and detailed. The mountain transcends time and space and is surrounded by oceans and continents. Various heavens sit on the top of the mountain whereas hell realms lie beneath it. 

The mountain is also the dwelling place of the gods and it reaches into both the heavens and down below the ground. Major Indian gods have their own celestial kingdoms on or near the mountain where they are surrounded by various celestial beings.

The mountain is described as being broader at the top than at the base and having a heavenly lake whose waters are the waters of immortality. The mountain is the source of the Ganges river, a holy river of immense importance in Hinduism. The sun and moon are said to go around the mountain in opposite directions. 

Descriptions given of it suggest Mt. Meru is large. There are eighty thousand yojanas (one yojana roughly equals 8 miles or 12.8 kilometers) above the thirty-three gods at the top. 160,000 yojanas above Jambudvipa, a continent situated near Mt. Meru, are the Yama gods. Further above the Yama gods are gods in several heavens: the Tushita heaven, Nirmdnarati heaven, and Paranirmita heaven. 

In one myth narrating conflict between the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons, or titans), Mount Mandara, a mountain to the east of Mt. Meru, was used as a churning stick by the gods to create the world out of an ocean of milk. Various creations manifested, such as the moon, the four-tusked elephant Airavata (Indra’s mount), Madira (the goddess of wine), a celestial horse called Uccaihshravas, and others.

A commentary on the Abhidharmakośabhāsya, a Buddhist text dating to around the sixth century CE, describes Four Great Kings who live for 500 years with each day being fifty human years. Midway up the mountain are the chariots of the sun, moon, and stars, and at the top are thirty-three gods. 

Although Buddhism has no concept of heaven as an eternal realm, it recognizes a hierarchy of spiritual levels above and beyond this world. Alongside the Hindus, Mt. Meru is thought to be at center of the world. It is into these levels that one is reborn, possibly even being reborn as a god.

For Buddhists, the universe constitutes thirty-one planes and three realms. These realms are called Arupyadhatu (the formless realm), Rupadhatu (the realm of form), and Kamadhatu (the realm of desire), and all three contain many worlds inhabited by numerous beings.

These heavenly realms are impermanent states which means that one can be reborn into a lower realm should that person’s good karma run out. The primary goal of the Buddhist is therefore nirvana.

Many material pieces of evidence provide further insight into the belief in Mt. Meru in ancient Indian thought. Notable is temple architecture and its symbolism linking the sun with the mountain. The temple tower contains the amalaka which represents the celestial world containing the sun. In Bali, temples are commonly called Merus and the slopes of the holy Mount Penanggungan in East Java are dotted with these temples.

Shrines are also connected to this cosmic mountain. Located at these temples, the shrines and their waters are not static or lifeless but are manifestations of vital energy. The Panchayatana design, notable in India and Cambodia, contains five shrines, a central Meru, and the sanctum sanctorum that represents Mt. Meru. Four smaller shrines around it represent the four mountains that distill the energies of the four cardinal directions. 

It is possible that the idea of Mt. Meru was inspired by ziggurats, whose seven tiers represented heavenly spheres, of ancient Sumer, Mesopotamia, given the early trade links between ancient India and the Euphrates region.

Recommended Resource

Keown, Damien. 2004. A Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press.

Mabbett, I. W. 1983. “The Symbolism of Mount Meru.” History of Religions 23(1):64-83.

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