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Indian Cosmology - Reflections in Religion and Metaphysics

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by A. K. Chakravarty

The exact origin of astronomical studies in India is not known to us though it is fairly clear that it eventually formed part of ancient Vedic people. The earliest text on this subject now available, Vedanga Jyotisa, aims at determining the most suitable time for performing a yajna in consideration of the luni-solar-stellar situation at that time. The subject was based on so crude astronomical parameters that its failure could not escape the notice of any sky-watcher, till then it was never questioned by anybody perhaps because of its association with religious yajnas. This scheme of astronomy survived for some 2000 years.

In later India, these parameters were scraped, scope of astronomy was extended to include natural phenomena, like, eclipses, identification of planets and formulations of their motions, etc., till then astronomers often invoked metaphysics to explain cosmological facts. It occurs to us that the general people of that period in that class-ridden society was more interested in earning punyaphala through religious functions than acquiring pure knowledge. Astronomers could not or did not ignore this sentiment and so, to honour this sentiment, they found it necessary to blend religion and metaphysics with cosmology in an astronomical background. Science in ancient times had to be supplemented by speculative materials and was thus mixed up with myths and metaphysics.

The period of the 5-yearly cycle in Vedanga and Jain Jyotisa

The Vedanga Jyotisa (VJ) is essentially a guidebook for finding positions of the sun and moon in the asterism divisions (naksatras) at parvas (new or full moon), the beginning or ending moment of a parva in the day, the tithis and naksatras in which the solstices occur and above all, the description of a 5-yearly cycle (Yuga). We shall consider this yuga in further details in a later section, for the present we state that the text itself says (Yajus 2, 3) that yajnas are to be performed in proper time, and astronomy is the science of time. One who knows this science of time also knows yajnas.

Now, major part of this text is obscure or corrupt in form. We give one specific illustration.

Yajus 12: Duheyang parva chet pade. . .

A straightforward translation of it is: If a parva ends in a quarter of a day, then duheya it. But, according to Tilak, "there is no verbal form as duheyang or even duheya in sanskrit".

As shown in 3, the astronomical contents of the VJ appear to be earlier than the period of Vedic Aryan and hence the presumption is that the text contains certain words and expressions inherited from an unknown earlier language. Hence the commentator Somakara often fails to make a clear sense of many words in the text. Many modern scholars, tactly assuming that it is a textual corruption try to suggest what the original word could have been. We cite two examples only.

Tilak suggests here dyu heyang (day to be omitted) to make the meaning: if a parva ends in a quarter of a day, then that day is to be omitted, i.e., no tithi rites (like fasting, bathing, etc.) should not be performed on that day.

Dixit’s emendation makes the meaning: if a parva ends in a quarter of a day, observe tithi on that quarter.

It is now almost impossible to know what the original author intended to say. Only this much is obvious that the verse gives an instruction on parva rites should a parva end in a quarter of a day.

We have stated that astronomy was used as a science of computing times for yajnas. Time’s role was to be auspicious or unauspicious for yajnas and had no other role like recording chronology, etc. Chronology has been recorded in contemporary period through a history of genealogical tables as we find in the two great epics and Puranas. In Ramayana, (Bal., 70) Vasistha gives the chronolgy of Rama in the ancestral order from Manu, Iksvaku and so on up to Dasaratha and in reply Janaka stated his ancestral order from Nimi to himself.

We construct the following story on origin of the science of astronomy in ancient India.

The Aryans had been performing yajnas since their settlement in India. It is a separate branch of studies as to whether they formulated these yajnas of their own or they brought these ideas from elsewhere. Our present concern is that they performed various yajnas on different seasons for different purposes and also observed tithi-rites on parvas. When such functions multiplied in number, the task of maintaining the order or sequence of such functions became somewhat technical and it became necessary to detail a section of priests to specialise in computing times for yajnas. Astronomical literature as it comes down to us owes its birth to meet this need of the priestly class, and so it is more connected with dharmasastras than astronomy proper, and accordingly this subject was named Vedanga, i.e., a limb of the Vedas.

The very basic principle of VJ is that the solsticial colour passes through the

star -Delphini. A little of spherical astronomy shows that this was indeed the situation around 1500 bc and so astronomy appeared as a separate subject around this time.

Then rises a pertinent question: Whether the rsis followed the same 5-yearly cycle in earlier period for computing times for Yajnas. The following example shows that the answer is in the affirmative.

Theory of the 5-yearly cycle

    According to VJ,

        62 lunations = 62 X 29 = 1830 days

        5 solar years = 5 X 366 = 1830 days

Hence, 62 lunations fit into 5 solar years. In practice, the practical yajnic year is a lunar year of 12 lunations. A cycle begins from a new moon at winter solstice. In the time of composition of VJ, this solstice was identified with the star -Delphini. Hence the text says: Cycle begins from the winter month Magha when the sun, moon, Dhanistha ( -Delphini) are in conjunction at Uttarayana (winter solstice). After two years each of 12 lunations, one lunation is intercalated at the middle of the 3rd year, then at the end of the 5th year one more lunation is intercalated at the end of the year. After these 62 lunations the sun and moon again come at conjunction with Dhanistha at the winter solstice and the cycle is repeated. The shift of winter solstice from Dhanistha due to procession can be detected even by naked eye in a hundred years or so. Identification of this solstice by various other stars are also found in early Brahmanic literature. The principle is that a yuga begins from a new moon at winter solstice and so solar year is, in fact, tropical year and not sidereal.

The correct values of the above parameters are:

        5 tropical years = 1826 days 5 hours app.

        62 lunations = 1830 days 21 hours app.

Thus, the cycle is bound to collapse unless provisions are made for periodic corrections. We give a specific illustration.

From standard tables (say, Tables of the sun by N.C. Lahiri) we get that on 22nd December, 1900, the tropical longitude of sun was 270o 14' and it was a new moon day. This day was the beginning of a 5-yearly cycle. From the same table, we further get:

    The 62nd lunation ended on 27th December 1905. The first yuga closes and the second yuga begins on 27th December, 1905. But the intervening period is not 1830 days, the luni-solar conjunction is not at winter solstice.

    The 3rd cycle begins on 1st January, 1911, 10 days later than first cycle. The date is not winter solstice day.

    Similarly, when the seventh cycle begins, the month is not winter month and also, as above, the date is not winter solstice day.


The calendar totally collapses. But it did not collapse and survived for some 2000 years. The VJ does not say anything about how this derangement was stopped. If it is there in the VJ, it is hidden in obscurity.

We propose to show that the priests had some domestic methods connected with yajnas to keep the cycle running in order. They extracalated these accumulated days by practical observations, i.e., sky-watching.

Brahmanic literature contains description of Satras, i.e., annual sacrifices. "The satras, which lasted for one year were nothing but an imitation of the sun’s yearly course" (From Dr. Haug). Such descriptions are found in Taittiriya Samhita, Tandya Brahmana, etc. The following extract is quoted from Taittiriya Samhita: (English Translation by Tilak).

Those who are about to consecrate themselves for the year (sacrifice) should do so on the Ekastaka (day). The Ekastaka is the wife of the year; and he (i.e. the year) lives in her (i.e., the Ekastaka) for the night. (Therefore they) practically sacrifice (by) beginning the year. Those who sacrifice on the Ekastaka, sacrifice to the distressed (period) of the year. It is the season whose name comes last. Those that sacrifice on the Ekastaka, sacrifice on the reversed (period) of the year.

The Ekastaka is defined to be the 23rd tithi of the month of Magha, and corresponds to the 23rd day of the moon which can be easily recognized as it is the dichotomized phase of the moon. The word distressed (artam va ete) has been interpreted by Sayana to mean that the old year has ended and a new year has started by this Ekastaka, i.e., visibility of the half-disc moon. Sabara maintains that the word reversed (vyastam va ete) means a change in ayana and consequently means that a new year has already started by that time (ayanaparivrttih vyastasabdena ucyate). Thus both the commentators agree that the visibility of a half-disc moon after winter solstice indicate that the new year had started from the previous first day of the moon and that the month was Magha, the Ekastaka was the 23rd tithi of the month. The following table will clarify the above discussions.

    First Cycle begins on 22nd December 1900

    half disc moon seen on 12th January 1901

    Second Cycle begins on 27th December 1905

    half disc moon seen on 18th January 1906

    Third Cycle begins on 1st January 1905

    half disc moon seen on 24th December 1910

In the last case, there has been an accumulation of some 10 days and the yuga is heading for a collapse. But the half disc moon is seen on 24th December 1910, just after winter solstice. This day is therefore an Ekastaka and so constitutes the 23rd tithi of Magha. Thus Magha commenced on the previous new moon, on 2nd December 1910. By this criteria of Ekastaka, the excess days are extracalated and the 3rd yuga is reckoned from 2nd December 1910 and not from 1 January, 1911.

The priests of the yajnas knew the science of time, and they kept the yuga in order.

Antiquity of Vedic Astronomy

Brahmanic literature contains sufficient references to stellar phenomena. We consider some such references purposely selected to trace the origin of astronomical studies by Vedic Aryans.

The Taittiriya, Kathaka, Maitrayani Samhitas and the 19th book of Atharva Veda contain a list of 27 stars/star-groups (the last two mention an additional name, abhijit, making a total of 28 stars.)

The Satapatha Brahmana says that the Krttikas do not shift from the east. The Krttikas rise in the east and the seven sages (Ursa Majoris) rise in the north.

Svati ( Bootes) is an outcast (for being far away from other stars) and is ever traversing the northern way.

The VJ itself estimates the length of the longest day as 14 hours 24 minutes.

We give the astronomical significances of the above statements in plane language for the general reader. A command over spherical astronomy is necessary for understanding the mathematical proofs of our analysis.

The krttikas can rise in the east and may not shift from the east if the central and brightest star of the krittika group, -Tauri lies on the equator. This was indeed the situation around 3000 bc.

Around 3000 bc, -Draconis was the pole star (within tolerable limits of accuracy) and -UM had the highest co-declination. A straigh-cut meaning of seven sages rising in the north is that the seven stars were circumpolar or at least -UM touched the horizon at rising. This hold true at a place above 30oN latitude.

Exactly similarly, Svati can be seen to rise and set at a place below 40oN latitude.

With proper allowances for refraction, the length of the longest day can be 14 hours 24 minutes at a place of latitude 33o N.

In short, the above observations were made around 3000 bc from a latitude-belt of 30o - 40o North, and there was no Vedic settlement in that region of India at that period. It is indeed an interesting course of study as to how Vedic Aryans collected all these data and included these in their literature. From the viewpoint of Vedic Aryans, these observations were no longer true, as till then they recorded all these data without any verification. Thus from evidences in Brahmanic literature it appears that Vedic Aryans got ready at their hands a course of astronomy before settling in India.

Jain Cosmology

As Brahmanism declined with rise of Jainism and Buddhism, the yajnic aspect of VJ lost its importance. When the Jains developed their astronomy and cosmology, they adopted the parameters of VJ, but the cosmology developed by them is so unconventional to Indian tradition that we totally fail to understand what prompted these astronomers to develop this theory. According to the Jains, there are two sets of sun, moon and asterisms; while one set works, the other set rests behind the Meru mountain.

The concept of a Meru mountain at the north pole, also called Sumeru mountain, is found in the Mahabharata, Puranas, Jain Cosmology and in Aryabhata. Using the Aryabhatiyan scale for yojanas, the dimensions of Meru are:

    Mahabharata : 193 km inside the earth’s surface, 1017 km above.

    Puranas : 193776 km inside the earth’s surface, 823548 km above.

    Jains : 12111 km inside the earth’s surface, 1198989 km above.

    Aryabhata : Cylindrical in shape, of height 12 km and diametre 12 km

Many of the present researchers have found out some inner meanings in these descriptions of the Jain Meru and have traced astronomical depth there. But in developed astronomy we also expect developed astronomical literature and terminology. Brahmagupta bitterly criticised this cosmology as a fantasy. We are also unable to connect this cosmology with Jain traditions on religion and metaphysics.

The Jains borrowed at least the 5-yearly cycle from Brahmanic tradition, but later Brahmanic tradition totally ignored Jain astronomy.

The Siddhantic Period

Astronomical literature in India took a comparative scientific turn around 300 ad., and this literature is now called siddhantic astronomy. They identified the planets and formulated laws governing their motions, computed the times of beginning and ending of eclipses from a scientific viewpoint through mathematical approach, and till then, as we shall see, they were obsessed with the doctrines of dharmasastras, the priests and pandits.

We can easily guess the literacy and science consciousness of the general public in the caste-ridden society of that period. The ruling castes were then more interested in religious punyaphala and security of life and property because of political uncertainty of that period. The priests and pandits took full advantage of the first sentiment, the horoscopic astrologers that of the second, and both of them used astronomy as a common platform.

Perhaps astronomers also realised that in such a background a mathematical description of astronomy cannot be presented unless these common sentiments are properly acknowledged, or may be that due to inherent tradition, they also developed some obsessions for the dharmasastras from which they could not fully recover. We shall see next that many of the celebrated astronomers made statements which cannot be correlated with the beauty of the mathematical equations they developed for planetary motions. Astronomy continued to develop with three distinct objects: its application to dharmasastras, to horoscopic forecastings, and the science proper.

When asked to account for the circular orbits of the planets, Aristotle replied that circles are most natural curves and motions of planets are taken for granted. Hence planets move along natural curves by nature. He did not invoke any super power or metaphysics to account for this motion. But Aryabhata, and for that reason even Bhaskaracharya II in the twelfth century replied that a super wind, Pravaha vayu drives the planets in circular orbits. The Suryasiddhanta further says that the gods of ucca, manda and pata, holding reins attached to the planets, guide the planets once to the east and then to the west by pulling these reins.

Now, this concept is of Vedic origin. We are told in the Mahabharata (Santi, 329) that while Vedavyasa was teaching Vedas to his son he said that seven Vayus, winds, are constantly blowing through the universe and each vayu is doing a specific job. The Abaha, also called Apana, causes the luminaries to rise and set, Pravaha also called Prana, causes activities in man. It seems that in later hands these Vayus changed their original duties and Pravaha was assigned the task of moving the luminaries including the sun, moon, planets and stars.

The concept of a universal wind as the prime cause of motion of the planets cannot be correlated with the mathematical depth of the equations of epicycles. Either astronomers invoked this idea to appeal to the religious sentiments of their students and followers, or they could not overcome their own religious sentiments.

The convention in science is that when a new theory is developed, the earlier theory becomes a history, and improved and refined parameters replace the earlier crude ones. Ptolemaic model became history after Copernicus, and the eccentric circles of Copernicus became history after Kepler formulated his laws of planetary motions. But in Indian astronomy the situation is different. Each astronomer founded a school of his own, and these schools co-existed irrespective of their merits or defects. Even when the Aryabhatian parameters were found defective, the school founded by Aryabhata continued to exist. Puranic or Sastric traditions were perhaps invoked to appeal to the religious sentiments of the followers to found such schools.

We are told in Mahabharata (Santi, 312) that Rsi Yajnavalkya gave the following description of cosmology to his disciple:

Ten thousand Kalpas make a day of Lord Narayana and a similar period makes a night of the Lord. He created Brahma in a golden egg. After one year Brahma created the universe consisting of the earth and the sky.

Astronomers adopted this theory of cosmology in a slightly modified form. According to Aryabhata, one day of Brahma is made up of 1 Kalpa which measures 4,35,45,60,000 years. Aryabhata subdivided this period into manu, yuga and quarter-yuga. The Kalpa we are passing through began on a Thursday.

Brahmagupta bitterly criticised Aryabhata arguing that these subdivisions do not follow the Smrtis, and further, the Kalpa should begin on Sunday. As Aryabhata has violated the smrtis, his entire astronomy is incorrect.

Vateswara (904 ad) questioned the correctness of Brahmagupta’s astronomy on the ground that the latter violated smrti’s doctrine that the moon should be beyond the sun.

Dharmasastras in Astronomy

The astronomical parameters differ only slightly in different astronomical texts. For our present discussions, these differences will not matter much and so we follow the Suryasiddhanta. According to this text,

        1 Lunar year = 29.5305 X 12 = 354.366 days

        1 Solar year = 365.2587 days.

Thus one lunar year lags behind the solar year and one lunation has to be added after 3 years to fit the lunar year into the solar one.

Astronomers have called this intercalary lunation as adhika month, and have asserted that this month is to be added to the lunar year. They have attached no religious or metaphysical property to this month, nor have they assigned any preferred or privileged position to it relative to the other months.

But priests and pandits of dharmasastras have outwitted the astronomers by capitalising this adhika month. A vast literature has been developed on the suitability or otherwise of this month for performing religious rites, and total authors on this literature outnumber the astronomers. We give below a short account of the literature on this month.

In an ordinary year of 12 lunations, the 12 new moons are most generally distributed uniformly over the 12 Zodiacal signs, i.e., one new moon falls in each sign. But when a lunation is intercalated and the year consists of 13 lunations, then two new moons must occur in one Zodiacal sign and so two lunations are to be designated by the same name. We call such a case as sign with two new moons. The situation becomes complicated in extreme cases when two signs contain two new moons each.

In such a situation, there must occur a sign void of new moon. The earlier tradition that the only role of time in astronomy is to be auspicious and unauspicious for yajnas was carried forward by the priests and Smarta pandits in selecting which months in such cases are auspicious and which are not.

We take the specific instance of such a case. The year 1370 Bengal San (commencing from 15 April 1963 sunrise and ending on 14 April 1964 sunrise) was an intercalary year, i.e., contained 13 lunations. The distribution of these lunations over the signs are shown in the following diagram: (We have drawn the relevant portion only and also the diagram is not to scale. Our aim is to point out the problem and so we have used the conventional Bengal school of Panchang).

New moon with date








Sing Kanya Tula Vrscika Dhanu Makara Kumbha Mina

From the point of view of astronomy proper, the months are to be named as.: . . . .Asvina, Karika, Agrahayana, Pausa, Magha, Phalguna, Caitra, Adhika month. No month can claim any preferred or privileged position over another.

This is what true science demands. But dharmasastras capitalised the situation to their benefit.

If the lunations are to be fitted into signs, the lunations are to be named as:. . . Asvina(1), Asvina(2), Karika, Agrahayana, (Pausa missing in the order), Magha, Phalguna, Caitra(1), Caitra(2).

Dharmasastras now became directly involved in this distribution of months as to the order in which monthly religious functions are to be observed. Monthly rites due on Asvina, and Caitra cannot be repeated twice each and also those for Pausa cannot be abandoned altogether. There are almost as many directives as there are celebrated pandits and the literature on this subject is perhaps richer than the science of astronomy itself.

Metaphysics in Astronomy

In all astronomical texts, the planets are celestial objects only and nothing more. The only metaphysical property attached to them is that the 7 planets in the order Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon are the Lords of the 24 hours (hora in text) of the day reckoned from sunrise at Lanka by turn and also, these planets in the order Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus are the Lords of the seven days of a week reckoned from Saturday (Arya - Kala 16). The Romakasiddhanta has further defined Lords of the years and for the 12 months of a year as well. Varahamihira comments here that he will explain the astrological aspects of all these in his Horatantra after examining the views of munis on this subject.

Babylonian astronomy also contains an exactly similar idea. The seven planets were identified with the seven Babylonian gods and these gods watched the world for 24 hours a day, one god for 1 hour, by rotation and the order of the planets in this task is the same as stated in Aryabhatiya. In this order, the 1st hour of the successive days from Saturday onwards are watched by Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus.

This part of metaphysics in Indian astronomy is undoubtedly of foreign origin. It is now known that weekdays, and weeks of 7 days each are of foreign import in India around third century ad, and along with the week system the whole metaphysics of planetary connections with weekdays was adopted in Indian astronomy. But VM together with other munis also, celebrated among them were Parasara and Bhrgu, assigned some more additional powers to the planets through which these could control human destiny as well. A rich literature developed in the hands of these astrologers on these capacities of the planets. Through this literature, it is possible, as claimed by these munis, to know in advance when a particular planet will cast evil or good look on an individual and what will be result of such looks.

It is now believed that the original works of Bhrgu are now lost and what now circulates as Bhrgu Samhita is not the original work.

Parasara is a legendary figure. His name is found in Mahabharata and other ancient literature. But astrologer Parasara is of much later period, and cannot be earlier than fifth or sixth century ad.

The Horasastra of Parasara (IV.12) states that the sun should be corrected for ayanamsa to ascertain the equinoctial day at beginning of Mesa. But the concept of ayanamsa in Indian astronomy first originated in the fifth-sixth century ad.

We quote below some forecastings from this text to illustrate how easily these appeal to the sentiments of an average man:

IX.59: If Jupiter or Moon stays in the 7th house of any person’s horoscope, he will get a beautiful and faithful wife.

If sun be in the 7th house, his wife will be unfaithful.

VI.7: If a dhuma planet stays in the lagna of an individual he will be weak, poor and unfaithful to his wife.

The author cautions the reader that one who disbelieves all these things will suffer in the Raurava Hell.

It is perhaps impossible to ignore or overlook these metaphysical and religious aspect of astronomy or its application for such purposes.

Earlier astronomers perhaps took resort to puranic and sastric traditions to give due weight to this sentiment.

Even in the present age also, when science consciousness has greatly developed among the general people, panchang reformers do not ignore this sentiment.

A movement for reforming Indian panchangs by using modern astronomical tables replacing the age-old traditional and obsolete parameters developed in India by the mid-nineteenth century and such reformed panchangs started appearing by the late nineteenth century.

The reformers claim that such panchangs are scientifically correct and that these are aimed at creating science consciousness among the general people.

Now, a scientist must have an all-round scientific viewpoint. A mathematician or physicist may not know the latest techniques in bio-science, till then a true scientist is supposed to believe in the broad outlines of bio-science inasmuch as an elephant’s head cannot be amputed on a man’s body or that eight additional hands also cannot be amputed on a human body. But scientific panchang-makers continue to print such photos in their panchangs aimed at preaching science proper. Modern science has not yet discovered any experimental device by which it can measure the amount of punya gained or lost if a sacrificial he-goat is beheaded at the proper moment or not, but they claim that only their timings are correct. They surely do not preach any science thereby however scientific their panchangs may be.

This is done to appeal to the religious sentiment of the general people. If this is the position at this present time, we can guess the situation in the initial stage of development of the science of astronomy. It was out of necessity that metaphysics and religion were blended with astronomy.