2. Astronomical data and the Aryan
2.3. THE PRECESSION OF
2.3.1. The slowest hand
on the clock
strong evidence for a high chronology of the Vedas is the Vedic information
about the position of the equinox. The phenomenon
of the “precession of the equinoxes” takes the ecliptical constellations
(also known as the sidereal Zodiac, i.e. those constellations through
which the sun passes)12 slowly past the vernal
equinox point, i.e. the intersection of ecliptic and equator, rising due
East on the horizon. The whole tour is made in about 25,791 years,
the longest cycle manageable for naked-eye observers. If data about
the precession are properly recorded, they provide the best and often the
only clue to an absolute chronology for ancient events.
we can read the Vedic and post-Vedic indications properly, they mention
constellations on the equinox points which were there from 4,000 BC for
the Rg-Veda (Orion, as already pointed out by B.G. Tilak)13 through
around 3100 BC for the Atharva-Veda and the core Mahabharata (Aldebaran)
down to 2,300 BC for the Sutras and the Shatapatha Brahmana (Pleiades).14
references to the constellational position of the solstices or of solar
and lunar positions at the beginning of the monsoon confirm this chronology.
Thus, the Kaushitaki Brahmana puts the winter solstice at the new moon
of the sidereal month of Magha (i.e. the Mahashivaratri festival), which
now falls 70 days later: this points to a date in the first half of the
3rd millennium BC. The same processional movement
of the twelve months of the Hindu calendar (which are tied to the constellations)
vis-a-vis the meterological seasons, is what allowed Hermann Jacobi to
fix the date of the Rg-Veda to the 5th-4th millennium BC.15
Indeed, the regular references to the full moon’s position in a constellation
at the time of the beginning of the monsoon, which nearly coincides with
the summer solstice, provide a secure and unambiguous chronology through
the millennial Vedic literature.
not only the Vedic age which is moved a number of centuries deeper into
the past, when comparing the astronomical indications with the conventional
chronology. Even the Gupta age (and implicitly the earlier ages of
the Buddha, the Mauryas etc.) could be affected. Indeed,
the famous playwright and poet Kalidasa, supposed to have worked at the
Gupta court in about 400 AD, wrote that the monsoon rains started at the
start of the sidereal month of Ashadha; this timing of the monsoon was
accurate in the last centuries BC.16 This
implicit astronomy-based chronology of Kalidasa, about 5 centuries higher
than the conventional one, tallies well with the traditional “high” chronology
of the Buddha, whom Chinese Buddhist tradition dates to ca. 1100 BC, and
the implicit Puranic chronology even to ca. 1700 BC.17
2.3.2. Some difficulties
indications about the processional phases may be unreliable insofar as
their exact meaning is not unambiguous. To say that a constellation
“never swerves from the East” (as is said of the Pleiades in the Shatapatha
Brahmana 2:1:2:3) seems to mean that it contains the spring equinox, implying
that it is on the equator, which intersects the horizon due East.
But this might seem insufficiently explicit for the modem reader who is
used to a precise and separate technical terminology for such matters.
But then, the modem reader will have to accept that technical terminology
in Vedic days mostly consisted in fixed metaphorical uses of common terms.
This is not all that primitive, for the same thing will be found when the
etymology of modern technical terms is analyzed, e.g. a telescope
is a Greek “far-seer”, oxygen is “acid-producer”, a cylinder
is a “roller”. The only difference is that we can use the vocabulary
of foreign classical languages to borrow from, while Sanskrit was its own
classical reservoir of specialized terminology.
factor of uncertainty is that the equinox moves very slowly (10
in nearly 71 years), so that any inexactness in the Vedic indications and
any ambiguity in the constellations’ boundaries makes a difference of centuries.
This occasional inexactness might possibly be enough to neutralize the
above shift in Kalidasa’s date - but not to account for a shift of millennia
(each millennium corresponding to about 14 degrees of arc) needed to move
the Vedic age from the pre-Harappan to the post-Harappan period, from 4000
BC as calculated by the astronomers to 1200 BC as surmised by Friedrich
other hand, it is encouraging to note that the astronomical evidence is
entirely free of contradictions. There would be a real problem if
the astronomical indications had put the Upanishads earlier than the Rg-Veda,
or Kalidasa earlier than the Brahmanas, but that is not the case: the astronomical
evidence is consistent. Inconsistency would prove the predictable
objection of AIT defenders that these astronomical references are but poetical
tabulation without any scientific contents. However, the facts are
just the opposite. To the extent that there are astronomical
indications in the Vedas, these form a consistent set of data detailing
an absolute chronology for Vedic literature in full agreement with the
known relative chronology of the different texts of this literature.
This way, they completely contradict the hypothesis that the Vedas were
composed after an invasion in about 1500 BC. Not one of the dozens
of astronomical data in Vedic literature confirms the AIT chronology.
2.3.3. Regulus at summer
Shulba Sutra appended to Baudhayana’s Shrauta Sutra, mathematical instructions
are given for the construction of Vedic altars. One of its remarkable
contributions is the theorem usually ascribed to Pythagoras, first for
the special case of a square (the form in which it was discovered), then
for the general case of the rectangle: “The diagonal of the rectangle produces
the combined surface which the length and the breadth produce separately.”
This and other instances of advanced mathematics presented by Baudhayana
have been shown by the American mathematician A. Seidenberg to be the origin
of similar mathematical techniques and ‘discoveries’ in Greece and Babylonia,
some of which have been securely dated to 1700 BC. So, 1700 BC was a terminus
post quem for Baudhayana’s mathematics, which would reasonably be dated
to the later part of the Harappan period which ended in ca. 1900 BC.
Seidenberg was told by the indologists that these Sutras, or any Vedic
text for that matter, were definitely written later than 1700 BC.
But mathematical data cannot be manipulated just like that, and Seidenberg
remained convinced of his case: “Whatever the difficulty there may be [concerning
chronology], it is small in comparison with the difficulty of deriving
the Vedic ritual application of the theorem from Babylonia. (The
reverse derivation is easy)… the application involves geometric algebra,
and there is no evidence of geometric algebra from Babylonia. And
the geometry of Babylonia is already secondary whereas in India it is primary.”18
To satisfy the indologists, he said that the Shulba Sutra had conserved
an older tradition, and that it is from this one that the Babylonians had
learned their mathematics: “Hence we do not hesitate
to place the Vedic (…) rituals, or more exactly, rituals exactly like them,
far back of 1700 BC. (…) elements of geometry found in Egypt and Babylonia
stem from a ritual system of the kind described in the Sulvasutras.”19
then one of those “entities multiplied beyond necessity”: a ritual, annex
altar, annex mathematical theory, which is exactly like the Vedic ritual,
annex altar, annex mathematical theory, only it is not the Vedic ritual
but a thousand or so years older. Let us simplify matters and assume
that it was Baudhayana himself who devised his mathematical theories “far
back of 1700 BC”. Is there a way to find independent confirmation
of this suspicion? Yes, there is: the precession of the equinoxes.
Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, A.A. MacDonell and A.B. Keith
cite the opinion of several philologists about a reference to a solstice
in Magha in the Baudhayana Shrauta Sutra (as well as in the Kaushitaki
Brahmana 19:3), to which the Shulba Sutra is an appendix. Magha is
the asterism around the star Regulus, but the name is used for an entire
month (names of months are typically the name of the most prominent one
of the two or three asterisms/nakshatras which make up that one-twelfth
of the ecliptic), spatially equivalent to a zone of about 300
around that star, so any deduction here must take a fair degree of imprecision
into account. The 18th- and 19th-century philologists cited disagree
about whether a Magha solstice was in 1181 BC or in 1391 BC. The
authors themselves consider it “only fair to allow a thousand years for
possible errors”, and settle for a date between 800 BC and 600 BC, “quite
in harmony with the probable date of the Brahmana literature”.20
it is very easy to calculate that Regulus, currently at almost exactly
600 from the solstitial axis, was on that axis about 60 x 71
years ago, i.e. in the 23rd century BC, Though we must indeed allow for
an inexactitude of up to 150, equivalent to about 1100 years,
the Magha solstice described is much more likely to have been in 2200 BC
than in 1100 BC, and Keith and MacDonell’s 600 BC is quite beyond the pale.
It may have taken place even before the 23rd century BC: maybe only the
asterism around Regulus had reached the solstitial axis but not yet the
star itself. Most likely, then, this reference to a Magha solstice
confirms that the Bra and Sutra literature including the Baudhayana Shrauta
Sutra (annex Shulba) dates to the late 3rd millennium BC, at the height
of the Harappan civilization. In that case, Seidenberg’s reconstruction
of the development and transmission of mathematical knowledge and the astronomical
references in the literature confirm each other in placing Baudhayana’s
(post-Vedic!) work in the later part of the Harappan period.
2.3.4. One Veda can hide
point, the only defence for the AIT can consist in a wholesale rejection
of the astronomical evidence. This can be done in a crude way, e.g.
by simply ignoring the astronomical evidence, as is done in most explicitations
of the AIT. A slightly subtler approach is to explain it away, as
is done by Romila Thapar, who affirms her belief in “the generally accepted
chronology that the Rig-Vedic hymns were composed over a period extending
from about 1500 to 1000 BC”. When “references
to what have been interpreted as configurations of stars have been used
to suggest dates of about 4000 BC for these hymns”, she raises the objection
that “planetary positions could have been observed in earlier times and
such observations been handed down as part of an oral tradition”, so that
they “do not constitute proof of the chronology of the Vedic hymns”.21
imply that accurate astronomical data were indeed made from the 5th millennium
onwards, and that they were preserved for more than two thousand years,
an unparalleled feat in oral traditions. If such a feat is not an
indication of literacy and of written records, at the least it supposes
a mnemotechnical device capable of preserving information orally, and the
one that was available then was verse. So, some poems with the memory-aiding
devices of verse, rhythm and tone must have been composed when the information
was available first-hand, i.e. close to the time of the actual observation,
and those hymns would of course be the Vedic hymns themselves. Otherwise,
one has to postulate that the Vedic hymns were composed by borrowing the
contents of an earlier tradition of verse, composed at the time when the
equinox was observed to be in Orion.
words, the Rg-Veda contains literal (though unacknowledged) quotations
from another hymns collection composed 2,500 years earlier. This
is as good as asserting that Shakespeare’s works were not written by Shakespeare,
but by someone else whose name was also Shakespeare. However, the point
to remember is that even Romila Thapar does not deny that somebody’s actual
observation of these celestial phenomena was the source of their description
in the Vedas.
not good enough for those who don’t like this evidence, to object that
they are not convinced by these astronomical indications of high antiquity,
on the plea that their meaning might be somewhat unclear to us. it is clear
enough and undeniable that the Vedic seers took care to mention certain
astronomical positions and phenomena. A convincing refutation would
therefore require an alternative but consistent (philogically as well as
astronomically sound) interpretation of the existing astronomical indications
which brings Vedic literature down to a much later age. But so far,
such a reading of those text passages doesn’t seem to exist. In no
case is there astronomical information which puts the Vedas at as late
a date as “generally accepted” by Prof. Thapar and others.
sidereal Zodiac, used in astrology by most Hindu and some Western astrologers,
consists of the actually visible constellations on the ecliptic.
It is contrasted with the tropical Zodiac, an abstract division of the
ecliptic in twelve equal sectors of which the first one starts by definition
at the equinox axis. This tropical Zodiac, used by most Western and
some Hindu astrologers, is unrelated to the background of constellations
(it could be constructed even if the universe consisted only of the sun
and the earth); but it does not figure anywhere in the present discussion.
As far as we know, the process of abstraction from visible constellations
to geometrical sectors took place only in the Hellenistic period, ca. 100
BC, and was unknown to the Vedic seers, though they did know the solstice
axis and equinox axis.
are aware that the equinox axis never points exactly towards the constellation
Orion, which lies south of the ecliptic; but it is understand a that the
relatively starless area between the constellations of Gemini and Taurus
was named after the conspicuous constellation Orion which lies nearby on
the same longitude.
that the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, the high tide of the Harappan
cities, is also identified by K.D. Sethna (KarpAsa in Prehistoric India:
a Chronological and Cultural Clue, Impex India, Delhi 1981) as the period
of the Sutras, the Vedas being assigned to the pre-Harappan period, all
on the basis of the evidence of material culture (with special focus on
cotton/karpAsa) as attested in the literary and archaeological records.
According to Asko Parpola, Indus~Saraswati seal 430 (reasonably datable
to the 24th century BC) depicting the Seven Sisters seems to refer to the
observation of the Pleiades.
G. Jacobi: “On the Date of the Rgveda” (1894), reproduced in K.C. Verma
et al., eds.: Rtambhara Studies in Indology, Society for Indic Studies,
Ghaziabad 1986, p-91-99.
can, therefore, say that about 2000 years have elapsed since the period
of Kalidasa”, according to P.V. Holay: “Vedic astronomy, its origin and
evolution”, in Haribhai Pandit et at.: Issues in Vedic Astronomy and Astrology,
Rashtriya Veda Vidya Pratishthan & Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, P.109.
argument for a higher chronology (by about 6 centuries) for the Guptas
as well as for the Buddha has been elaborated by K.D. Sethna in Ancient
India in New Light, Aditya Prakashan, Delhi 1989. The established
chronology starts from the uncertain assumption that the Sandrokottos/
Chandragupta whom Megasthenes met was the Maurya rather than the Gupta
king of that name. This hypothetical synchronism is known as the
“sheet-anchor of Indian chronology”. In August 1995, a gathering of 43
historians and archaeologists from South-Indian universities (at the initiative
of Prof. K.M. Rao, Dr. N. Mahalingam and Dr. S.D. Kulkarni) passed a resolution
fixing “the date of the Bharata war at 3139-38 BC” and declaring this date
“to be the true sheet anchor of Indian chronology”.
Seidenberg: “The ritual origin of geometry”, Archive for History of Exact
Sciences, 1962, p. 488-527, specifically p-515, quoted by N.S. Rajaram
and D. Frawley: Vedic Aryans’ and the Origins of Civilization, WH Press,
Québec 1995, p-85.
Seidenberg: “The ritual origin of geometry”, Archive for History of Exact
Scieces, 1962, p.515, quoted by N.S. Rajaram and D. Frawley: Vedic ‘Aryans’
and the Origins of Civilization, p.85.
MacDonell & A.B. Keith: Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, vol. 1 (1912,
reprint by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1982), p.423-424, entry Nakshatra.
Thapar: “The Perennial Aryans”, Seminar, December 1992.
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