Episodic Survey of the History of the Constellations

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M: Indian Constellations

23: Early constellations in India

The page illustration above is a modern publication of the Rig Veda. Indian astronomy had its beginnings in the Vedas. The earliest known Indian texts are the Vedas, the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads. Unfortunately their astronomical content, though rudimentary, is obscure. (Very little attention is given in the Rig Veda to the sun, moon, and stars. Out of the more than 1000 hymns of the Rig Veda not one is addressed to the moon and less than 100 are addressed to the sun. A lot of attention is given to the elements of fire, air, and water, and on the properties of the juice of the Soma plant.) Claims for a vast antiquity for Indian astronomy (i.e., dating back to circa 5000 BCE) have failed to withstand critical scrutiny.) European scholars who advocated a great antiquity for Hindu astronomy were Jean Bailly (1736-1793, French astronomer), William Jones (British philologist, 1746-1794), and Samuel Davis (District Judge (British) in Bengal, 1760-1819). European scholars who advocated a more recent origin for Hindu astronomy were John Playfair (Scottish mathematician and natural philosopher (physicist), 1748-1819), John Bentley (British scholar, circa1750-1824?), and Pierre Laplace (French mathematician and astronomer, 1749-1827). The proper foundations for the history and antiquity of Hindu astronomy were laid by Henry Colebrooke (British lawyer and member of the East India Company, 1765-1837), Albrecht Weber (German Sanskrit scholar, 1825-1901), William Whitney (American philologist, 1848-1914), George Thibaut (French Indologist/Sanskritist, 1848-1914), and also Edward Sachau (German Orientalist and historian, 1845-1930), and Hermann Oldenberg (German scholar of Indology, 1854-1920) who wrote critical comments on the text of the Rig Veda. The more recent work of David Pingree (American Sanskritist, 1933-2005) has clarified may issues and supports a recent origin for Indian astronomy. It appears that, in general, Hindu astronomers were not very interested in uranography.

The Rigveda is all that exists (as documentation) for studying the ancient period of the Indo-Europeans. The Vedas are a collection of hymns and other religious texts composed in an ancient form of Sanskrit in what is now the Punjab region of India and Pakistan between about 1500 and 1000 BCE. The Vedas are dedicated to the various gods/goddesses of the Vedic tradition. The Vedas comprise the founding texts of Hindu scripture - an ancient work of Vedic ritual, prayer, philosophy, legend and faith. It includes elements such as liturgical material as well as mythological accounts, poems, prayers, and formulas considered to be sacred by the Vedic religion. It consists of a collection of 1,028 poems grouped into 10 "circles" (mandalas). It is generally agreed that the first and last books were created later than the middle books. The Rigveda was orally transmitted before it was written down circa 300 BCE. Philological and linguistic evidence indicate that the Rigveda was composed in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent, most likely between circa 1500 and 1200 BCE—though a wider approximation of circa 1700–1100 BCE has also been given. The Rigveda (also spelled Ṛgveda), (Sanskrit: "The Knowledge of Verses"), is the oldest of the sacred books of Hinduism. The form Rig veda/Rig Veda dates from 1776.  It has been remarked that the oldest "family books" of the Rig Veda fall into two categories, one group emphasizing text terms relating to the sacrificial tradition (Indra, Agni, and Soma; Books 2, 3, 4, and 6) and the other group emphasizing the sun gods Mitra, Surya, and Vishnu (Books 5 and 7) suggesting the apposition of at least two major distinct tribal affiliations in the early Vedic community.

According to David Pingree, (scientific) astronomy developed in India in successive phases of Babylonian, Greek, and Arabic influences. In turn, Indian astronomy may have later influenced the development of (scientific) astronomy in the Islamic Caliphate; the Zijs as example. Numerous practical astronomical handbooks (known as Zijs/Zījes) existed in the Arab-Islamic world. The Zij is an important genre in medieval Arabic astronomy. A Zij was a common kind of practical astronomical work in the Arab-Islamic world. A Zij (Zīje) is a handbook of astronomical tables, including tables for working out positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, and auxiliary material and instructions for how to use the material. According to Paul Kunitzsch Zijs: "... usually consist of a theoretical introduction, and a collection of astronomical tables, for chronology, for the planets, sun and moon, etc. Mostly a star table is also included. The star tables in the zīj-works mostly are merely the result of computation or compilation, and not the result of independent star observations."

(1) Introduction: Periods of Indian Astronomy

In India the first references to astronomy are to be found in the Rig Veda.

The character of Indian astronomy only began to take shape in the 5th-century BCE with Mesopotamian influence that emphasised astrological omens. Some time in the 1st-century CE Greek astrological writings, part of which contained mathematical astronomy were translated into Sanskrit. Then Babylonian astronomy took hold in India after the Persian conquest of India in the 5th-century CE. The Indians were primarily interested in astronomy for religious and astrological purposes (i.e., preparing calendars and other time scales for religious observances).

No remains of observatories of the Hindu period (circa 200 BCE - 1100 CE) are known. In the early 18th-century the Maharaja of Amber, Savāī Jayasimha II (1699-1743, a Kachwāha Rajput), built observatories at Benares, Mathura, Delhi, Ujjayini, and Jaipur in imitation of Ulugh Beg's early 15th-century observatory at Samarkand.

The following broad (i.e., somewhat loose) periods of Indian astronomy can be identified.

(a) Period of the astronomy of the Rig Vedas - circa 2000 BCE/1500 BCE - 1000 BCE.

(b) Period of the astronomy of the texts of the Brahamanas - circa 1000 BCE - 500 BCE.

(c) Period of the astronomy of the early Puranic writings and early Siddhantic writings (i.e., post-Vedic astronomy) - circa 500 BCE/400 BCE - 400 CE/500 CE.

(e) Period of Classical and Medieval astronomy - circa 400 CE/500 CE onwards.

However, as much of the content of Indian astronomy (and organisation of scheme of constellations) was imported from Mesopotamia it is perhaps easier to set out the discussion in the format below.

(2) Sumero-Akkadian Period

There is convincing evidence for extensive contact between Mesopotamia and the Harappan civilization toward the end of the 3rd millennium BCE. (The Harappan civilization flourished at Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley from circa 2600 BCE to circa 1900 BCE.) Some persons have also speculated (on the basis of the inscriptions on Harappan seals) that the evidence also shows the existence of an astral religion in both locations. The argument made for such is generally considered unsatisfactory and unsubstantiated.

(3) Babylonian Period

There is evidence for contact between Mesopotamian and Indian cultures (or at least the diffusion of Mesopotamian astronomical knowledge to India) during the Assyrian Period.

Indian texts mentioning star calendars date from circa 1000 BCE.

The Vedāṅga Jyotiṣa (Vedanga Jyotisha), or Jyotiṣavedāṅga is one of earliest known Indian texts on astronomy and astrology (Jyotisha). The Vedanga Jyotisha attributed to the Sage Lagadha is the earliest treatise exclusively on Indian astronomy. The extant text is usually dated to the final centuries BCE, but it may be based on a tradition reaching back to about 700-600 BCE. (A more radical dating for its origin is between the 12th and 14th centuries BCE; with some persons placing the possible date of the composition of the text to a later period, perhaps circa 1000 BCE.)

The Rig Veda (basically an early collection of Hindu religious hymns) lists a number of stars. (There is no sophisticated astronomy within the Rig Veda. From internal evidence the date of the composition of the Rig Veda is indicated as being between 1500-1400 BCE.) The Rig Veda reference (i, 162:18) to 34 lights has been interpreted as referring to the sun, the moon, the 5 planets, and the 27 naksatras. (The Rig Veda gives no complete list of the naksatras.) The Rig Veda does mention 3 possible asterisms: Tisya [Tishya] (v, 54:13; x, 64:8, Aghas and Arjuni (x, 85:3). In some of the late hymns of the Rig Veda (dating approximately to the first half of the last millennium BCE i.e., 1000 BCE to 500 BCE) the astronomical knowledge is related to the content of the late 2nd-millennium Mesopotamian astronomical text known as Mul.Apin. This Mesopotamian text includes a catalogue of some 60 constellations in order of their heliacal risings, and 17 constellations in the path of the moon, beginning with Mul.Mul (the Pleiades). (Also like Mul.Apin it has an ideal year of 360 days of 12 x 30 day months. This ideal year also appears in a late hymn of the Rig Veda and also in the Atharva Veda.)

The Rig Veda has an incomplete list of 27 (or 28 stars/asterisms) (naksatra), also associated with the path of the moon, and also beginning with the Pleiades (called Krttikas). Not all naksatra lie exactly in the path of the moon. (The word naksatra seems to refer to any star (Nakatra (literally na-katra, non-moving, fixed; nakta-tra, 'guardian of the night')). Usually the naksatras were asterisms (small star groups/patterns which were assigned specific names). Technically the naksatras are the lunar mansions. The naksatra each measure an arc of 13 20' of the ecliptic circle. ) These constellations were in use (in late Vedic times) at the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE. (In later literature Indian astronomers inserted a 28th naksatra. However, see: Frawley, David. (1994). "Planets in the Vedic Literature." (India Journal of Science, Volume 29, Number 4, Pages 495-506) who supports the existence of a system of 27 Nakşatras with a 28th periodically inserted (intercalated) to keep order with the Moon traversing the Nakşatra system in 27.3 days.) (Other Vedic texts similar to the Rig Veda mention constellations. Two passages in the Yajur Veda list 27 constellations. A third passage in the Yajur Veda and a passage in the Atharva Veda mention 28 constellations.) Some 20 naksatra have correspondences with the Mul.Apin list of asterisms in the path of the moon. The Indian lists of naksatras were established during the early first millennium BCE. They show striking resemblances to the Mesopotamian constellations; especially to List VI in the Mul.Apin series. Strictly, the calendars of the Vedic and Brahmanic Periods were luni-solar. The naksatras were used to mark the positions of the sun, moon, and planets.

Several naksatra make their appearance in the Rig Veda. From the time of the Rig Veda the system of naksatra is gradually built up. It becomes complete in the Atharva Veda and also in the Yajur Veda. This indicates that the system was established in India by circa 850 BCE.

Of the 27/28, naksatras 12 are used to give the names of the lunar months. In Hindu astronomy lunar months are measured from one new moon to the next. (Some groups, however, measure from the full moon.) Early allusions to a lunisolar calendar with intercalated months are found in the hymns in the Rig Veda, dating from the 2nd-millennium BCE. Other literature from circa 1300 BCE to 300 CE, provide more specific information. The oldest system, and essentially the basis of the classical one, is known from texts of about 1000 BC. It divides an approximate solar year of 360 days into 12 lunar months of 27 (according to the early Vedic text Taittiriya Samhita, or 28 (according to the Atharvaveda, 19.7.1.) days. The Indian calendar is inherited from a system first mentioned in Vedanga Jyotisha of Lagadha (the first treatise on time-reckoning), a late BCE (circa 100 BCE) addition to the Vedas, and standardised in the Surya Siddhanta (3rd-century CE). It was subsequently reformed by astronomers such as Aryabhata (499 CE), Varahamihira (6th-century CE), and Bhaskara (12th-century CE).

The positions of the naksatras in the sky are not defined at all in any of the very early texts. However, in late texts they lie roughly along the ecliptic. In the equivalent system in Arabia they also lie roughly along the ecliptic. (In the equivalent system in China they lie roughly along the equator.) The original number of the Hindu lunar mansions is not yet resolved The modern Indian lunar mansions system comprises 27 equal divisions (nearly all equal divisions) of the ecliptic. Whether the early lunar mansion system had 27 or 28 is not yet agreed upon. The number may have fluctuated. It is agreed that in the early system the sky was divided into 27/28 divisions, nearly all of them equal (overall each one of them measuring 13ŗ-20ŗ. In the Indian and Arabian systems of 'lunar houses' the stars/asterisms comprising such are, on average, about 13 degrees apart and related in an approximate way to the moon's nightly change of position on its eastward movement through the fixed stars.  

David Pingree suggested (The Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia by Hermann Hunger and David Pingree (1999, Page 63)) that the Mesopotamian association of gods/goddesses with constellations in the late 2nd-millennium BCE probably influenced the Vedic Indians to also associate one or a set of their gods/goddesses to each of their lunar mansions (naksatras). According to David Pingree it is also likely that the influence for the development of the Indian system of naksatras originated in Mesopotamia, specifically with star list VI in the Mul.Apin series (17/18 stars/asterisms in the path of the moon). The original use of the scheme of naksatras was simply to record the location of the moon among the stars. The scheme of naksatras was later extended to an astronomical system for recording the positions of planets (and the lunar nodes). Examples of this later use are to be found in the Mahabharata. (The Vedic convention of 27 or 28 lunar mansions has survived in modern Indian calendrical practice.

It seems likely that the Mesopotamian idea of associating stars with cardinal directions is reflected in Indian texts such as the Vedic Satapatha Brahmana. The Satapatha Brahmana states the Saptarsis (Ursa Major, "Wagon" (Babylonian: MAR.GID.DA)) rise in the North, and the Krttikas (= the Pleiades, "Stars" (Babylonian: MUL.MUL)) rise in the East. The science historian and Sankritist David Pingree believed that all of the astronomical information from the Mesopotamian Mul.Apin series reached India through Iran.

(4) Graeco-Babylonian Period

Ancient Persian (Iran) was one of the intermediate stages in the transfer of Babylonian astronomical ideas to India and China. The Babylonian scheme of 12 equal divisions of the ecliptic (and then ultimately the 12 zodiacal signs) most likely reached India through a Greek intermediary sometime in the late first millennium BCE or in the early first millennium CE. Elements of Mesopotamian astronomy were transmitted to India during the Achaemenid Period (circa 550 to 330 BCE); especially during the Achaemenid occupation of the Indus Valley in the 5th-century BCE. This was a significant stage in Mesopotamian astronomy reaching India. The period of the astronomy of the early Puranic writings and early Siddhantic writings (i.e., post-Vedic astronomy) - circa 500 BCE/400 BCE - 400 CE/500 CE saw the transmission of both Greek and Persian ideas on cosmology. (It is not uncommon, however, to see exaggerated arguments for the influence of Indian astronomy on the West and the emphatic minimisation or denial of the influence of Babylonian astronomy on India.)

The transmission of various elements of Greek astronomy into India was complex. It extended over several centuries, beginning in the 2nd-century BCE and continuing until the late 4th- or early 5th-century CE. A significant stage was the Seleucid Period (with Babylonian astronomical methods modified by the Greeks). The influence of Greek astronomy on Indian astronomy may have taken place as soon as the Hellenistic period, through the agency of the Greek colonies of the Greco-Bactrians and the Indo-Greeks. Greek astronomy is known to have been practiced at the doorstep of India in the Greco-Bactrian city of Ai-Khanoum from the 3rd-century BCE (circa 256-circa 55 BCE). Numerous interactions with the Mauryan Empire (the largest and most powerful political and military empire of ancient India), and the later expansion of the Indo-Greeks into India suggest that some transmission may have happened during that period.

Indian astronomy underwent a general reform during the first few centuries CE, when advances in the content of Babylonian and Greek astronomy became widely known.

As summary: "Babylonian astronomy entered India from Persia in the late 5th century BCE, following the Achaemenid dynasty's conquest of northwestern India. Examples of Babylonian influence include the equal-sign zodiac and arithmetrical rules for calculating the length of daylight. A greater wave of transmission occurred during the Seleucid period (roughly the last three centuries BCE). Babylonian arithmetrical methods were again transmitted, but this time often in modified forms showing Greek influence. The history of this transmission is complex. Greek geometrical theories from the time between Hipparchus and Ptolemy also made their way into India." (The Classical Tradition edited by Anthony Groften, Glenn Most, and Salvatore Settis. (2010, Page 91).)

(5) Christian Era

After the Vedic and Brahmanic Periods an enormous increase in astronomical literature occurred, particularly during the first few centuries of the Christian Era. (The Vedic Period includes the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE continuing up to the 6th-century CE.) Many Greeks settled in India or conducted trade there. Also, India had been wide open to Babylonian influences from the time of the expansion of the Persian Empire until the time of its re-conquest by Alexander the Great.

Various Graeco-Roman astrological treatises are also known to have been imported into India during the first few centuries of our era. The Yavanajataka ("Sayings of the Greeks") was translated from Greek into Sanskrit prose by Yavanesvara (probably a Greek living in India) during the 2nd century CE, under the patronage of king Rudradaman I, ruler of the (Western) Ksatrapas. (Yavanesvara literally means "Lord of the Greeks" and was a name given to many officials in western India during the period 130 AD - 390 AD. During this period these "Lord of the Greeks" officials acted for the Greek merchants living in the area.) Later in the 6th century CE, the Romaka Siddhanta ("Doctrine of the Romans"), and the Paulisa Siddhanta ("Doctrine of Paul"), works of Western origin, were considered as two of the five main astrological treatises, which were compiled by the Indian (or Iranic) astrologer Varahamihira (505-587 CE) in his Pańca-siddhantika ("Five Treatises") (dated circa 575 CE).

The period of Classical and Medieval astronomy - circa 400/500 CE onwards was heavily indebted to Greek astronomy. The Vedanga Jyotisha, with the ecliptic divided into 27 nakshatras, became obsolete when the Siddhanta calendar with the ecliptic divided into 12 rashis was developed and came into popular use circa 400 CE.

At the end of the 8th-century CE, with the flourishing Arab-Islamic civilization, an astronomical science was developed which absorbed and revised first the Indian, then the Greek astronomical tradition.

(6) Transmission from India

Some elements of Indian astronomy reached China with the expansion of Buddhism (25-220 CE). Later, during the period (618-907 CE) a number of Indian astronomers came to live in China. Later again, Islamic astronomers collaborated closely with their Chinese counterparts particularly during the period 1271-1368.

Buddhist missionaries were instrumental in carrying astronomical material from India to Tibet, Central Asia, China, Southeast Asia, and Japan. (The commonly accepted date for the birth of Buddha is 560 BCE.) Early Buddhist astronomy was an extension of the earlier Hindu astronomy. The astronomy of early Buddhism  in India is the same as that found in the Hindu Purānas (a group of important religious texts). Buddhist missionaries from India began their visits to China starting 65 CE. The Babylonian signs of the zodiac were adopted in India at some time during the first half of the 1st millennium CE. Circa 600 CE missionary Buddhist monks brought the 12-sign zodiacal system from India to China.

Michio Yano (Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan) sets out on Buddhist astronomy: There is no independent Sanskrit Buddhist text that is entirely devoted to astronomy. What is meant by the term 'Buddhist Astronomy' is the sum of the astronomical content which is sporadically found in early Buddhist texts. From a viewpoint of the history of science, the long history of Indian Buddhism is divided into three periods: (1) Early Buddhism; (2) Mahayana Buddhism; and (3) Tantric Buddhism. In the first period 'lunar astrology' was prevalent. The most important role was played by the lunar mansions (naksatras). The planets (grahas) play no significant role. The most important Sanskrit Buddhist text belonging to this period is the oeāduulakarnāvadāna. In this text knowledge of astronomy and astrology was conveyed by the king of the Mātanga tribe (a segregated group that is sometimes identified with the outcaste people called Candāla). It appears the knowledge of astronomy and astrology in this text was conveyed by ex-Brahmins who converted to Buddhism. This interpretation is supported by the King of the Mātanga tribe saying that he can remember the Vedas which he learned in his 'previous life' (puurvajanma). This statement can be interpreted as his 'life before conversion to Buddhism.' Likely there were many cases of converted Brahmins who shared their knowledge with Buddhist colleagues. The knowledge of astrology communicated in the oeāduulakarnāvadāna is very close to that of the Naksatrakalpa of the Atharvavedaparoeista.

Arab-Islamic scholars borrowed from the Hindu concept of the lunar zodiac. The Caliphs of Baghdad (750–1258 CE) employed Indian astronomer/astrologers. In 8th-century Baghdad there were 2 main traditions of astronomy, Indian and Greek. The first tradition to reach Baghdad came from India. It was, however, largely displaced by the Greek tradition that arrived shortly afterwards.

(7) Astral Gods/Goddesses

In Indian mythology the worlds are supported by the gods Varuna and Mitra. The antiquity of Varuna and Mitra go back at least to circa 1400 BCE, where their names appear on an inscription of the gods of Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia. Varuna made the sun, established the morning and evening, the movement of the moon, the stars to shine at night, and regulates the months of the year. Varuna and Mitra are greatly concerned with the waters of the atmosphere and they make the rain fall.

Appendix 1: The Indian naksatras (constellations) had yogataras (junction stars). Each naksatra was named after the most prominent visible star (called yogatara or junction star) contained within its range. All were situated in the zodiac. According to B. Subbarayappa: " ... but one can say that only nine of the twenty-eight hsiu determinatives are identical with the corresponding yogatārās or 'junction stars' of the Indians, while a further eleven share the same constellation but not the same determinative star. Only eight of the determinative stars and yogatārās, however, are in quite different constellations, and of these two are Vega and Altair. On the Chinses side it is possible to say that the nakshatra do not show so clearly the coupling arrangements whereby hsiu of greater or lesser equatorial breadth stand opposite each other. Indian astronomy moreover, which was far more influenced by Greek astronomy than the Chinese was, does not show that keying of the hsiu and the circumpolar stars which is so important in China, in fact the essence of he Chinese system. Besides, the distribution of the nakshatra asterisms is much more scattered than that of those of the hsiu, following even less closely the position of the equator in the 3rd millennium B.C." David Pingree and Patrick Morrisey (1989) argue against the common origin or even association of the 28 Chinese xiu (hsiu) with the Indian nakşatras.

Appendix 2:  Constellations other than the naksatras were also known. Stars and constellations identified by the Hindus (that are similar to our own Western constellations) include: Dhruva (the Pole Star), the Rksas (Seven Rishis (the "seven sages" but perhaps earlier called the "seven bears"); the 7 stars of the Greater Bear, Ursa Major), and Lesser Bear (Ursa Minor), Asvinau (the two divine Dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor/Castor and Pollux), the Boat (Argo Navis), Tisya/Mrgavyadha (Sirius (also later called Lubdhaka), but some identify the Praesepe), Canopus, the Krittikas (the Pleiades [in Taurus], the wives of the Seven Rishis (the "seven bears"), Orion, Rasabha (Twin Asses), and Rohini (Aldbaran, but possibly ? Tauri). The Three Kalakanjas may refer to ?, e, d Orionis. The pole star (Dhruva) is mentioned in Vedic and Puranic texts. In the Rig Veda Sirius is Tisya [Tishya]. It would appear that α (alpha) Carinae (Canopus (Agasthya)) in Argo Navis was the only star in the southern sky named during the Vedic period. The Aitareya Brahmana mentions Mrga (Orion), and Mrgavyadha (Sirius). The Satapatha Brahmana provides an overview of the broad broad aspects of Vedic astronomy. It has been argued on etymological grounds that mention of Asva, Rasabha, Aja, and Kurma refers to the Sun, Gemini, Capricorn (goat), and Cassiopeia respectively. Trisanku remains an unidentified constellation.

The constellation Ursa Major (comprising the 7 'dipper' stars) is generally known in India as the sapta-Rsis (= the 7 Rsis). The 7 Rsis (pronounces "Rishis") have an important place in Indian literature and thought. and the many traditions of the 7 Rsis derive primarily from Sanskrit tradition. The Rsis have been identified with the 7 ('dipper') stars of Ursa Major for circa 2000 years. A passage in the Satapatha Brāhmana (thought to be composed circa 8th-century BCE) states that in earlier times the Rsis in the sky were known as the rksas or (7) Bears. (In the Rig Veda and the Brāhmana they were also known as the 7 Oxen.) The Pleiades (called Krttikas) were the wives of the 7 Rsis (but in one Rig Veda hymn the Krttikas are male). Arundhati - the wife of the Rsi Vasistha - is identified with Alcor (the faint star close beside ζ Ursa Major. Vasistha - the husband of Arundhati - is identified with the star ζ Ursa Major.

In the Surya Siddhanta, a late astronomical work, only 7 stars besides the naksatras are mentioned. The 7 stars named are: Brahmahridaya (? Aurigue), Agni or Hutabhui (? Tauri), Prajapati or Brahma (d Aurigae), Mrigavyadha or Lubdhaka (Sirius), Agastya (Canopus), Apas (? Virginis), and Apamvasta (d Virginis).

Appendix 3: In the Bhagavata Purana (the god) Dhruva is identified as the Pole Star. It is somewhat usual to identify Dhruva (the Pole Star) with α (alpha) Draconis (Thuban, a pale yellow star) but it could have been perhaps the dim star Ketu (Kappa Draconis, or even α (alpha) Ursa Minor (Polaris). It is perhaps more likely that in the Bhagavata Purana the identification of Dhruva as the Pole Star meant α (alpha) Ursa Minor (Polaris). Dennis Hudson (at circa 2004), Emeritus Professor of Religion, Smith College (USA) is an expert on the Bhagavata Purana. From his research he has concluded that the Bhagavata Purana is a composite work which originated in different places at different periods. He dates its composition over a time span of 1600 years from circa 700 BCE to circa 900 CE. This dating does not give support for the recognition of Thuban as Pole Star. (It appears the Bhagavata Purana remained an oral tradition until written down circa 800 CE.) Also, Hudson's dating and the statement that no one had previously lived in Dhruva's place in the sky seems to support no knowledge of Thuban as a previous pole star.

Hermann Jacobi ("On the Antiquity of Vedic Culture." (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1909, Pages 721-726)) noted that the Gryha Sutras mention Dhruva as the Pole Star and also that the Maitrayana Brahamana Upanishad states that even the polestar moves (over a long period of time). Jacobi 's argument that these instances preserve memories from ancient times is not supported by mainstream scholarship. (Hermann Jacobi’s claim at the time it was proposed was opposed by William Whitney, A[?]. Keith, and others.) The chronology of Indian history and literature prior to the Middle Ages is notoriously uncertain and astro-archaeological methods arguing for very early dates are generally rejected by mainstream scholarship.

The 7 Rsis were associated with the centre of the sky i.e., the region of the north celestial pole. However, Dhruva (the Pole Star) came to assume this position when precession slightly shifted the location of Ursa Major.

If precession was common knowledge amongst 'intellectual elites' in the Neolithic period, due to diffusion from an original source in the Near East, then it is puzzling that in Hindu mythology the name Dhruva (immovable) is used to denote an astral god, identified with a star in the constellation of Ursa Minor which was the pole star in the last millennium BCE.

Appendix 4: The Vedas were composed approximately between 1500/1200 BCE and 500 BCE (in parts of present-day Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, and northern India).

Appendix 5: The religion of the early Indo-European-speaking peoples who, from circa 1500 BCE, migrated into India was Vedism. The oldest surviving literature of Vedism is the Rig Veda. Hinduism is an umbrella term for a religious system based on the Vedic traditions. Hinduism formed out of diverse traditions rather than originating from a single founder. Sanskrit is the classical language of Hinduism.

Appendix 6: The astronomer Bradley Schaefer has found the best estimate for the formation of the Hindu 'lunar mansion' system is 1750 BCE with a statistical uncertainty of roughly ± 1000 years.

Appendix 7: The almost invariable oral transmission of the Rig Veda involved the development of complex error correcting techniques. Very particular methods were used to ensure this. Also, oral transmission was even used to check written accounts. (See: "Oral and Written Transmission of the Exact Sciences in Sanskrit" by Michio Yano (Journal of Indian Philosophy, Volume 34, Numbers 1-2, 2006, Pages 143-160).)

Appendix 8: It is claimed by some people (including Asko Parpola) that at least the Pleiades asterism can be identified on the seals from the Indus Valley civilisation (Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Lothal; flourished circa 3750-1500 BCE). The representation on seals of 7 women tending a fire is interpreted (by some) as the Krittikas (Pleiades). Wendy O'Flaherty (Śiva, the Erotic Ascetic (1981)) contends that the 7 and 6 females on the Indus Valley seals are the constellation Krittika and that 7 goddesses were worshipped at Mohenjo-daro and 6 at Harappa. However, the script of the Indus Valley seals is not yet satisfactorily deciphered.


This essay is based on the views of David Pingree. For an alternative viewpoint see: "Measuring Time in Mesopotamia and Ancient India." by Harry Falk (ZDMG, Band 150, 2000, Pages 107-132).

Copyright © 2007-2018 by Gary D. Thompson

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