Varudhini Reddy

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Jyotisa: The Beginnings of Ancient Indian

                                              Varudhini Reddy
                                               Stanley Owocki
                                 PHYS 133 Extra Credit Project
                                             3 December 2008
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“Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world
to another.” - Plato

       Jyotisa, meaning a light heavenly body, is the ancient system of Indian astronomy
and astrology. It is one of the six disciplines for the understanding of the Vedas - one of
the oldest forms of Indian literature. Jyotisa is also subdivided into 3 branches, Siddhanta
– astronomy, Samhita – mundane astrology, and Hora – predictive astrology. Like many
ancient cultures, astronomy was linked with astrology and was thought to influence the
daily lives of people. Jyotisa was originally founded to seek this connection between the
macrocosm (the heavenly bodies) and the microcosm (people). Of course, due to the fact
that culture was also tightly bound to religious practices, astronomy also affected ancient
Hindu practices. As time went on, astrology did not form into a pseudo-science like it did
in the West, but instead it developed side by side with astronomy – both of which were
considered factual and part of an integral part of Indian society.
       Ancient Hindu beliefs held that the sun united two worlds, one of which we could
not see. As well, they maintained that Surya, the sun, was the center of creation. This lead
let Indian astronomers have advanced notions about the Earth’s relation to the sun, over a
thousand years ago. Furthermore, astronomers used their knowledge of the connections
or “bandhu,” which means relation or binding, to expand and develop the system of
Jyotisa. This concept of bandhu was also explored in Hindu religion and culture, where
sages and priests would contemplate the soul’s connection to the universe. Consequently,
this became a way for astrologers to verify their predictions with astronomical evidences.
Ancient astronomy thus became a way to explain religion and culture. Nonetheless,
advancements in Indian astronomy itself did occur and led to accomplishments such as:
the calculations and occurrences of eclipses, determination of the Earth’s circumference,
the theory of gravitation, and sun’s relation to the planets in this solar system.
       The Rig Veda contains some of the earliest documentations of ancient Indian
astronomy - Siddhanta, which can be dated back to 2000 B.C. As well, astronomical
references were also found in treatises after that period. Finally in 500 A.D., some of the
most important contributions to Indian astronomy were being made. Aryabhata theorized
a heliocentric system where Earth revolves around the sun as do other planets, and also
rotate on their own axis. An couplet found in ancient scriptures, “Sarva Dishana, Suryha,
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Suryha, Suryha,” means that the night sky is full of suns – which Aryabhata also
recognized stars to be too. In addition, he calculated a day to be from one midnight to the
next in his book Aryabhata-Siddantha. Finally, he also calculated the ratio between the
rotations of the earth to lunar orbits to be 27.39, which is close to the actual astronomical
ratio. Varahamihira claimed that there might be a tractive force keeping the heavenly
bodies in place. The Sanskrit word for gravity is Gurutvakarshan, which means attracted
to the master. A few years later at the astronomical observatory in Ujjain, astronomers
such as Brahmagupta summarized other findings in texts as early as 628 A.D, where he
calculated the Earth’s circumference to be 5000
yojanas or 3600 kms, which is near accurate. Later
in 1114, astronomical observer Bhaskara wrote the
Magnum Opus Siddantasiromi, which consisted of
two major parts – Goladhaya (sphere) and
Grahangita (mathematics of the planets), which
influenced what Indian astronomy is called today.
Today, the science of astronomy is referred to as
khagola-shashtra, which means system of the sphere
of stars.

                                                    Statue of Aryabhata, the father of scientific astronomy and
                                                    mathematics by the Hindus. Stands in IUCAA, Pune.

        Most of the accomplishments made
by Indian astronomers were done by mathematical calculations and observations by the
naked eye. These astronomers had no telescope to back their findings, however recorded
their observations in Kosthakas, which were sets of astronomical tables that would help
solve these scientists questions abou astronomy. Aryabhata describes many instruments
that could measure the sun’s movements from its shadow on earth, in the Siddantha.
Some of these instruments included the gnomon, a shadow instrument, angle measuring
devices, a cylindrical stick, an umbrella shaped device, and bow-shaped/cylindrical water
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clocks. As well, most Indian astronomers used an armillary sphere based on equatorial
coordinates with an elliptical hoop. In addition Bhaskara II invented the Phalaka-yantra,
which was used to determine time from the sun’s altitude in 1185. The Kapalayantra was
an equatorial sundial used to determine the sun’s azimuth. Many years later however, at
Jaipur, India the Jantar Mantar was created between 1727 and 1734, to hold a collection
of different astronomical instruments. The instruments include about fourteen geometric
tools that can measure either time, predict eclipses, tracks stars in their orbits, determine
the declination of planets, or determine the celestial altitudes. This is where the world’s
largest sundial also exists – Samrat Yantra, which is 27 meters tall. Similar 18th century
observatories were built in Delhi, Varanasi, and Benares.

Samrat Yantra Sundial of Jaipur, India
        The effects of these astronomical observations in ancient Indian culture and
religion were substantial. In horoscope making, the position of the nine planets and two
other mythical demons were considered. As well, the times many rituals associated with
religion took place were determined by astronomical observations. The ancient Hindu
calendar included, a lunar day, a weekday and a half-lunar day for social and religious
events, which were of course calculated by ancient astronomy.
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        Many cultural beliefs arose from the astronomer’s observations. Vastu shastra
was one of them, which dealt with the connection between physical and metaphysical
forces. The purpose of Vastu Shastra is to build an environment where these forces are in
harmony with each other, which is similar to Feng Shui. Its scientific sense is founded
upon the concept of direction and the elements of nature. Vastu Purusha Mandala is
based on the mathematical idea that the Earth has 4 corners with respect to the
relationship between the horizon and sunset/sunrise. This square plane concept was used
as a plan for the development of temple sites and temple construction that would
                                           incorporate the balance of the heavenly bodies
                                           and supernatural forces. Nine gods were used to
                                           designate 9 locations – Northeast (Faith), East
                                           (Sun/Sight), Southeast (Energy/Fire), South
                                           (Death), Southwest (History), West (Water),
                                           Northwest (Winds), North (Wealth), and Center
                                           (Desire/Universe). Mandala is also another
                                           metaphysical plan to determine site planning
                                           where the site is divided into grids or modules.
                                           The corners and directions of the grids similarly
                                           represent the 9 gods mentioned.
Vastu Shastra and Directions

        Astronomy also influenced the Indian culture in other ways. For example,
Samhita was third part of Jyotisa, which developed. It’s purpose lay in the prediction of
events such as war, earthquakes, political events, financial positions, elections, and
construction matters. Samhita therefore is a type of mundane astrology that deals with
community matters. This type of astrology is believed to be the most ancient form of
astrology, as it deals with matters that may affect more people than say does predictive
astrology. The signs of Rashi or the Indian zodiac was developed by divided the elliptic
into 12 equal parts. The signs are similar to western zodiac signs however the system
favors the sidereal zodiac (the signs align to the same constellations in the sky) whereas
the Western one does not. There are also 12 houses, which are based on local time and
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location. The 12 houses are lagna, dhana, paakrama, suhrda, suta, ripu, kama, mritu,
bhagya, karma, aya, and vyaya. These houses can be associated with different aspects of
politics and the state that include the nation, economy, education, land, entertainment,
working class, foreign affairs, crime, religion, science, national prestige, local
governments, and hospitals. In addition the panchangam is a hindu astrological calender
that predicts weather and eclipses based on the positions of the sun, moon, and the
planets. Although India was not a united in ancient times, there were several kingdoms
that interacted with one another in India. These kingdoms would have needed to have a
sense of comfort in knowing when chaotic events may occur, which is why they relied on
astronomical patterns to help predict the future.
       Finally, there was also predictive astrology or Hora. Hora uses the knowledge of
Lagna – the ascendant, Drishti – the aspect, Argala – the intervention, Arudha – the
mounted image, Yoga – the planetary combinations, Shabdala – the sixfold strength. The
Lagna is particularly important, as it is one’s ascendant, which rises on the east horizon at
the time of one’s birth. The Lagnas predict one’s social company, prosperity, marriage,
wealth, financial prosperity, name and fame. The planets are also each said to have an
impact of the daily lives of humans: the sun is related to father, the moon – mother, mars
– ego, Mercury – communication, Jupiter – teacher, Venus – wealth or reproduction,
Saturn – career, north lunar
node - chaos, and the south
lunar node – supernatural
influences. In addition, the
nakshatra or lunar mansions are
also used to calculate the
newborn’s mental make-up. The
nakshatra is one of the 27
divisions of the sky that the
Moon passes through during it
monthly cycle. Nakshatra is also
used in Indian astrological
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The most widely used form of astrology that makes use of astronomy in India is included
in the making of birth charts. Birth charts utilize all the information described previously
and are used to predict someone’s destiny. The charts included 12 houses, which each are
related to a particular astrological sign. Birth charts have been used for more than a
thousand years as well and are an important part of ancient Indian astrology.
       Astronomy in ancient India has now grown into a more organized scientific
system independent of astrology. Although astrology still relies on astronomical
observations, Indian astronomy no longer serves only as an explanation for religion or
culture but rather a science in itself. Over the years it has made many accomplishments
including the successful launch of the Chadrayaan-1-Moon probe by the Indian Space
Research Organization. As well, India now runs the world’s highest observatory in
Bangalore, called IAO, and progressed in methods relating to solar photography and
spectroscopy. On December 17, 2006, Sunita Williams became the first Indian-American
woman to walk in space through NASA just recently also. Thus, by having curiosity of
the unknown heavenly bodies above, Indian astronomers were able to connect the once
two separately considered worlds into one by their advancements in astronomy.
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Anonymous. “Astronomy in Ancient India.” 01 December 2008.
Anonymous. “Indian Astronomy.” Dhyansanjivani. 01 December 20008.
“Indian Astronomy.” Space Today Online. 2005 01 December 2008.
Rao, Radhakrishna. “The High Points of Indian Astronomy.” SRN. 23 January 2002. 01
      December 2008.

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