Nearly a hundred years ago, English historian George Rusby Kaye remarked that “the History of Indian Astronomy has a considerable history of its own.”
He was referring, of course, to the greatly fluctuating opinion in Europe, during the 18th and 19th centuries, regarding the substance and originality of Indian Astronomy.
It is widely acknowledged that the Indian civilization is among the oldest in the world, if not the oldest. The vast region of the Indian subcontinent, which can comfortably house the entire continent of Europe, has been home to many nations, cultures, customs, languages and religions over the millennia.
The most ancient texts of Indian literature show clear evidence of being at least 6000 years old. The subcontinent has also produced the two longest epics ever written by the hand of man.
In the field of astronomy too, ancient India appears to have produced a significant amount of output. We read in the ancient texts of at least 18 major treatises on astronomy, most of which have unfortunately been lost.
While the West has acknowledged the great age of the Indian civilization, the same has not been accorded to Indian Astronomy, the main reason for which has been political. The bulk of Western research into Indian Astronomy was carried out during the 18th and 19th centuries, when India was a colony of the British, and a major effort was on by the colonizers to impose their culture and religion on the Indians, to make them pliable and comfortable with the idea of western subjugation. In such a scenario, it is only to be expected that Indian Astronomy was deprecated by western scholars, and even accused of being plagiarized from Europe (read Greeks).
Even so, the history of Indian Astronomy from a European perspective is an enthralling area of research. The views and counter-views of the European scholars of those times make for fascinating reading. While the majority espoused the vision that the Indians had borrowed their Siddhantic Astronomy from the Greeks, a small minority took the opposite view.
Unlike the Indians, the West has had an enormous head-start in their extolling and eulogizing of Greek Astronomy. As one enters the field of Archeo-Astronomy, one becomes acutely aware of the vast gulf that exists between resources available for Greek and Indian astronomies. For anyone wishing to learn the ins and outs of the Greek science, there are bountiful resources available, including Otto Neugebauer’s comprehensive three-volume set on Greek Astronomy.
In contrast to Greek Astronomy, where the single text of Ptolemy’s Almagest reigns supreme, Indian Astronomy has multitudes of books, each with its own unique significance. There has been little effort, as yet, to synthesize the essence of these Indian texts into a comprehensive resource on Indian Astronomy. The available literature, such as it exists, can be aptly described as “meager”, with a good chunk of it having been written by western scholars, with their typical Greek bias. Most Indian papers and articles that one comes across appear to only skim the surface of its topic, utterly lacking in depth and rigor. Indian Astronomy, it appears, waits in hope for its Neugebauer.
In this series of articles, we will firstly examine the discovery of Indian Astronomy by the western world, starting in the late 17th century, and the effusive praise that was showered on it by various Europeans. Later, we will delve into the politics of colonization that led eventually to the enforced deprecation of Indian Astronomy by western scholars, with such lasting effects, that even today, in the eyes of the world, Indian Astronomy bears the ignominious stamp of being a second-hand science, borrowed from foreign sources by incompetent, bungling amateurs.
How did that initial euphoria for Indian Astronomy in Europe, of nearly ten decades, turn within a short period of time into ridicule and contempt? How did this reversal come about? After a hundred years of research, books and articles – all commending Indian Astronomy for its originality, antiquity, depth and accuracy – how did all that get swept away, to be replaced with the conclusion that the Indians had simply borrowed it all from the Greeks? There is surely a good story somewhere in there.
From a European perspective, the evolution of the history of Indian Astronomy can be divided into three distinct phases: 1) Discovery and Euphoria, 2) Entry of Colonial Politics and Start of Deprecation, 3) Full-Blown Deprecation. We will examine these phases one by one.
Phase-I (Discovery and Euphoria)
The seminal event in Europe’s discovery of Indian Astronomy was the publication in 1691 of a small treatise on Indian astronomical rules by Jean Dominique Cassini, the renowned French-Italian astronomer.
Ironically, Europe first learnt of Indian Astronomy, not from India, but from Siam (Thailand). It so happened that a French envoy had been dispatched in 1687 to Siam, where there existed a flourishing Buddhist-Hindu kingdom. That gentleman brought back to Paris several artifacts and curiosities from the Kingdom, including an obscure manuscript relating to the astronomical traditions of that country.
That enigmatic manuscript, which may well have ended up lying unnoticed in some dusty corner of the Royal French archives, somehow passed into the hands of Cassini, who was able to decipher its cryptic contents, including the fact that the document originated in India.
Though the manuscript was only a small fragment of its parent volume at Siam, it contained enough material to provide tantalizing hints of the width and depth of Indian Astronomy. There were, however, some difficulties on the way for Cassini, who was working with a French translation of the manuscript: 1) The text of the manuscript was rather terse, with no explanations provided, 2) Some vital data appeared to be missing, 3) Some of the concepts and formulations in the manuscript were entirely new to him, 4) Several calculations were presented in an obfuscating manner, so as to obscure and conceal the nature of the operations behind them, 5) The French translator had kept the original Sanskrit technical terms as is, without translating them into French, or providing the meaning of these terms.
In the face of these seemingly unsurmountable difficulties, where lesser men may have thrown up their hands, Cassini persevered and overcame them with passion and brilliant insight, to provide Europe with the keys to Indian Astronomy. One should surely thank the fates for having delivered the manuscript into his capable hands. Not for nothing, it would appear, has Cassini been awarded the title of ‘The First Astronomer of Europe’!
Cassini’s lifetime achievements could easily fill an entire book by itself. Starting from humble beginnings, he rose by dint of his sharp intellect, passion and perseverance, to rise to the Directorship of the Paris Observatory, the leading institution for astronomy in the world.
He was the first to provide an accurate estimate of the Astronomical Unit, the distance between the Earth and the Sun. His Tables of the Satellites of Jupiter were the most accurate ones in those times, which enabled an accurate determination of longitude on the Earth, which in turn greatly reduced the errors in the maps of Europe of the day. The western coast of France, for example, was found to be 70 miles less wide than previously thought, which led King Louis XIV to lament in jest that he was losing more land to his astronomers than to his enemies! In these studies, Cassini also came close to being the first person to determine the speed of light, though the honor would ultimately go to his assistant Ole Romer. Cassini was one of the first scientists to make heavy use of the telescope for astronomical purposes, making numerous ground-breaking discoveries in the heavens. Readers may perhaps know that he was the first to observe a gap in the rings of Saturn, which now goes by his name – the Cassini Division. In his honor, about two decades ago, a spacecraft named the Cassini Orbiter was dispatched to Saturn by NASA to study the planet, which recently completed its mission. On the flip side, Cassini is also known for his entanglements with Isaac Newton on various issues, in all of which Newton ultimately prevailed.
Returning back to our story, coming as it did, from Europe’s top astronomer, Cassini’s detailed description of the data and techniques in the Siamese Manuscript created a great sensation in Europe.
Till that time, it was thought that of all ancient peoples, only the Greeks had cultivated astronomy as a science. Not only were the data and methods of the Siamese Manuscript superior to the Greek, they even rivaled the modern.
Some of Cassini’s interesting observations on the Siamese Manuscript are as follows:
No Tables Used European astronomers of those times used Tables that were painstakingly prepared, to predict the positions of various heavenly bodies like the Sun, Moon and Planets. The Rudolphine Tables, compiled by the celebrated Kepler, were the most accurate ones available in Cassini’s time. Cassini’s first observation was that the Siamese Manuscript used no Tables at all.
These Rules are extraordinary. They make no use of Tables, but only of the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of certain numbers, of which we do not presently comprehend the basis of, nor to what these numbers refer.
Concealed Data: Cassini determined that the seemingly innocuous numbers used in the Manuscript were actually based on astronomical data of various types.
Under these numbers are concealed various periods of Solar Years, Lunar Months and other revolutions, and the relationship of the one with the other. Under these numbers are likewise concealed several sorts of Epochs, which are not clearly stated as such, like the Civil Epoch, the Epoch of the Lunar months, that of the Equinoxes, Apogee and the Solar cycle.
Concealed Operations: He found that in several operations in the Manuscript, the calculations were deliberately obfuscated, perhaps to conceal their actual purpose.
Also, the numbers which represent the differences between these Epochs are not clearly specified at the beginning of the operations to which they serve, as they ought to be, according to the natural order. Instead, they are often mixed with certain other numbers, and the sums or differences are multiplied or divided by others, for they are not always simple numbers, but frequently they are fractions, sometimes simple, sometimes compound, without being expressed in the manner of fractions, the numerator being sometimes in one Section and the denominator in another, as if they had a contrived design to conceal the nature and use of these numbers.
Great Accuracy of Data: The length of the Mean Lunar Month given in the Manuscript was found to be astoundingly accurate. Its value of 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 2.3 seconds, differed from the most accurate estimate in Cassini’s time of 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3.1 seconds, by only a fraction of one second! Similarly, the Moon’s Mean Apsidal Revolution Period was given as 3232 days, compared to 3233 days in modern times. Also, the 19-Year cycle, called the Metonic Cycle in the west, was known to the Indians with an accuracy within 3 minutes of its modern value, while the western system was off by 1.5 hours. At the end of the 19-Year cycle, the Indian Epact (lag) was automatically zero, while the western calendar lagged by 1 day, which needed a manual correction every 19 years.
The Lunar-Day: The Lunar-Day, which is a little shorter than the Solar-Day, is a unique concept, found only in Indian and Chaldean astronomies. Cassini finds that the Indians base their astronomical calculations almost exclusively on the Lunar-Day, unlike western systems.
Two Zodiacs: Cassini determines that the Indians appear to use two Zodiacs: 1) comprising the regular 12 constellations or signs, and, 2) one comprising 27 constellations. Both the Indian Zodiacs were fixed ones, unlike the Greeks, whose 12-sign-Zodiac was movable.
In summary, Cassini, in his brief memoir, is all praise for the Indian Astronomical system as found in the Siamese Manuscript:
These Rules are ingenious, and once understood clearly and purged of needless superficialities, they should prove useful to us in Europe, since they are easy to apply without the need of books (Tables).
He praises the Indian Calendric system, which, he marvels, had not run into any serious problems since its inception, and continues to be sufficiently accurate even after a thousand years, whereas the Western system had run into difficulties over time.
Thus, it appears that the calendar of the Indians has not run into the error which our old calendar had fallen into, where the New Moons were regulated by the cycle of the Golden Number.
After calculating New Moons for various months in his time (for the 1600s and 1700s), Cassini marvels that the results using the Indian methods match very well with those of the latest methods of his time (Rudolphine Tables).
Having by the same method calculated, according to the Indian Rules, the middle conjunctions of the Moon with the Sun for several years of this and the following centuries, we have always found that every one of these conjunctions fell upon a day whereon the middle conjunction happened according to our Tables.
As an aside, Indian texts on astronomy usually fall into one of three categories – Siddhanta, Tantra or Karana. Unbeknownst to Cassini, the Siamese Manuscript was only a Karana text, and not a full-fledged Siddhanta.
A Siddhanta is a full treatise, which starts with the fundamentals, and undertakes a complete and rigorous theoretical treatment of all topics on the subject. It does not provide examples, practical shortcuts and other such conveniences. It is written with the mathematician and theoretical astronomer in mind. A Karana text lies at the other end of the spectrum. It is composed for the benefit of the village astrologer; one whose needs are completely practical, and who is not very concerned with the background of his calculations, or with the theoretical aspects of the model. It usually has very simple and concise instructions, cryptic formulae, shortcuts and examples, with little or no explanation provided. A Tantra text falls in-between these two types.
It is interesting to speculate what Cassini would have remarked, had he come across a full Indian Siddhanta of Astronomy. Interested readers can check out the full story of the Siamese Manuscript in my recent book.
We will continue Phase-I of the History of Indian Astronomy in the next part of the series, where we will examine developments in Europe subsequent to the publishing of the Siamese Manuscript by Cassini.
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Anil Narayanan is former scientist at ISRO, now working as a consultant in Washington DC. His hobby is ancient astronomy to which he devotes most of his spare time. He is the author of the book ‘History of Indian Astronomy: The Siamese Manuscript’.