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History of thinking about extraterrestrial life in non-Western cultures?
January 6, 2014 8:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for any pointers to articles, books, or information about the history of pre-modern, non-Western thought about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. (To be clear, I'm not looking for anything about "ancient astronauts" or whether the ancient Egyptians were guided by aliens or anything like that.)

Rather, I'm looking for discussions about what pre-modern folks believed about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. I've already found lots of discussions about thoughts about alien life in the Western cannon (i.e., Lucretius, Plato and Giordano Bruno). But are there any (English language!) sources that discuss thinking on this topic (from antiquity to pre-modern times) in, for example, India, or Japan, or the middle East, or Africa, or basically anywhere that's not part of Western Europe?

Thanks in advance for any guidance anyone can provide.
posted by DevonKappa to Science & Nature (3 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I found this:

"During the Middle Ages, cosmic pluralism was depicted in fictional Arabic literature. "The Adventures of Bulukiya", a tale from the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), depicted a cosmos consisting of different worlds, some larger than Earth and each with their own inhabitants.[4] Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149–1209), in dealing with his conception of physics and the physical world in his Matalib, rejects the Aristotelian and Avicennian notion of the Earth's centrality within the universe, but instead argues that there are "a thousand thousand worlds (alfa alfi 'awalim) beyond this world such that each one of those worlds be bigger and more massive than this world as well as having the like of what this world has." To support his theological argument, he cites the Qur'anic verse, "All praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds," emphasizing the term "Worlds." (The traditional Islamic exegesis of this verse from surah al Fatiha, typified by Ibn Taymiya, interprets the "worlds" as being the heavenly and the earthly, or the angelic, the human, the animal, and the world of the djinn, similar to the traditional Christian exegesis of the "three heavens" [God's abode, stellar space, atmospheric space] of the Bible.)"

And this:

"In antiquity, it was common to assume a cosmos consisting of "many worlds" inhabited by intelligent, non-human life-forms, but these "worlds" were mythological and not informed by the heliocentric understanding of the solar system, or the understanding of the Sun as one among countless stars.[118] An example would be the fourteen Loka of Hindu cosmology, or the Nine Worlds of Old Norse mythology, etc. The Sun and the Moon often appear as inhabited worlds in such contexts, or as vehicles (chariots or boats, etc.) driven by gods. The Japanese folk tale of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (10th century) is an example of a princess of the Moon people visiting Earth.

Buddhist and Hindu beliefs of endlessly repeated cycles of life called Samsara have led to descriptions of multiple worlds in existence and their mutual contacts (Sanskrit word sampark (सम्पर्क) means "contact" as in Mahasamparka (महासम्पर्क) = "the great contact"). According to Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, there are numerous universes to facilitate the fulfillment of the separated desires of the numerous living entities. However, the purpose of such creations is to bring back the deluded souls to correct understanding about the purpose of life and achieve Nirvana. Aside from the numerous universes which are material, there is an unlimited number spirit worlds, where the purified living entities live with perfect conception about life and ultimate reality. The spiritually aspiring saints and devotees, as well as thoughtful men of the material world, have been getting guidance and help from these purified living entities of the spiritual world from time immemorial.[citation needed]

The Jewish Talmud states that there are at least 18,000 other worlds, but provides little elaboration on the nature of those worlds, or on whether they are physical or spiritual. Based on this, however, the 18th-century exposition "Sefer HaB'rit" posits that extraterrestrial creatures exist, and that some may well possess intelligence. It adds that humans should not expect creatures from another world to resemble earthly life any more than sea creatures resemble land animals.[119][120]

According to Ahmadiyya a more direct reference from the Quran is presented by Mirza Tahir Ahmad as a proof that life on other planets may exist according to the Quran. In his book, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth, he quotes verse 42:29 "And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of whatever living creatures (da'bbah) He has spread forth in both..."; according to this verse there is life in heavens. According to the same verse "And He has the power to gather them together (jam-'i-him) when He will so please"; indicates the bringing together the life on Earth and the life elsewhere in the Universe. The verse does not specify the time or the place of this meeting but rather states that this event will most certainly come to pass whenever God so desires. It should be pointed out that the Arabic term Jam-i-him used to express the gathering event can imply either a physical encounter or a contact through communication.[121]"
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:35 AM on January 6 [2 favorites]

Thanks showbiz_liz. I should have mentioned in my original question that I'm less interested in "moon people" or "sun people" or other planes of existence and more focused on thoughts about other physical planets with other civilizations (in other words, the kind of life we're looking for through SETI today). In that regard, that first quote that you found from the "Cosmic Pluralism" Wikipedia article, discussing Fakhr al-Din al-Razi's focus on the word "worlds," is right on point -- thanks for finding that!
posted by DevonKappa at 8:48 AM on January 6

Would pre-modern cultures really have understood the concept of a "planet" as distinct from a "plane of existence", or from the Moon?

In any case, my suggestion was going to be that you look into traditions and stories mentioning self-created deities whose existence is independent of the creation or existence of our own world, and see if there is any associated tradition or speculation about "mortals" as it were, other non-deities, whose existence is similarly independent.
posted by XMLicious at 2:04 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]

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