Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

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The Origin and Growth of Astronomy in India

ORF Newsletter

ORF Centre for the Study of Indian Knowledge Traditions

Special Lecture by Dr. Mayank Vahia, TIFR, Mumbai, on the ‘Origin and Growth of Astronomy in India’

The ORF Centre for the Study of Indian Knowledge Traditions:

The concept of the study centre arose out of ORF’s close interactions with Samskrit Bharati, an organization that is working towards the popularization of Samskrit, and the department of Samskrit in Mumbai University.  It was felt that a think tank like ORF Mumbai is uniquely positioned to bring together scholars in Samskrit and other languages for a more flexible yet focused intellectual pursuit. Some of the planned activities of the centre include 1) A 3-day National Seminar on ‘Social Sciences and Liberal Arts in Samskrit’ in December 2010, to be organized in partnership with the Dept. of Samskrit, University of Mumbai 2) Periodic lectures and seminars at ORF, Mumbai 3) Publication of papers, booklets and books by noted scholars 4) Scanning, digitization and annotation of rare books and manuscripts in collaboration with the Government’s National Manuscripts Mission and 5) Creative communication of scholarly works on the Internet. As a first step, ORF Mumbai will support Samskrit Bharati in creating an Internet edition of the widely acclaimed title ‘Pride of India’ which catalogues the important scientific discoveries and technological applications in ancient India.

The centre was inaugurated on May 1 2010. Shri Chamu Krishna Shastry, General secretary of Samskrit Bharati who spoke on the occasion called for the creation of a Jnana Ganga (Ganga of Knowledge) and pointed out that the literal meaning of the word ‘Bharat’ is a nation immersed in the creation and propagation of knowledge. Dr. Snehlata Deshmukh, former VC of the University of Mumbai and a renowned paediatric surgeon, inaugurated the centre by delivering a talk on ‘Education and Health for Sustainable Development’. She pointed out that education must aim for the holistic development of every child by focusing on all the key quotients of human development, intellectual, emotional, ethical and spiritual. It should equip children with courage to face adversity and make adjustment to the changing conditions of life.

The second lecture by Dr. Mayank Vahia of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai was held on 12 June 2010. The topic of the lecture was ‘Origin and Growth of Astronomy in India’. Dr Vahia’s research interests include the study of Archaeoastronomy, which investigates how the subject of astronomy originated in the Indian Civilization from the prehistoric period. In connection with this, he has been involved in studies of Indian Megalithic structure, dynamics of early civilizations and in particular in the science, art and script of the Indus valley civilization.

Dr Mayank Vahia’s lecture

Dr. Vahia began his talk by saying that while Archaeological data can give information about the technological sophistication of a culture, its Intellectual growth is reflected in Myths, Religion, Literature, Astronomy, Mathematics etc. Myths and Astronomy are closely related, but the latter is complex and exciting enough on its own to give new insights to our Prehistoric and historic pasts.

The interesting thing is that unlike in the West, where Pagan religions got replaced by more modern ones, the same religion has dominated in India albeit with major modifications. This continuity over 4000 years allows a more detailed study of the growth of ideas. He then took the audience through a tour of the most basic Astronomical phenomena including the seasons, phases of the moon, eclipses, the night-sky at different times of the year, comets and so on, pointing out at the same time that acquiring this depth of knowledge of the Heavens requires enormous expenditure of time, resources, intellect and technology which our ancestors in India had.

It follows that by knowing how sophisticated a culture’s astronomical work is, it is possible to determine its general intellectual and socio-cultural level. There are 4 stages in the evolution of Astronomy:

1)      Initial phase – in which nomadic man learnt about the relationship of the Sun to the seasons. Since this period coincided with the first Art, it often implied that astronomical observations were marked on stones.  Man identified the Sun as the source of warmth, life and light, the Rains, Sun and Sky as crucial life givers and thought of the Sky as the abode of the gods.

Stage 1: Rock Art believed to capture the oldest record of the sighting of Supernova H69 dating back to approx. 5000 BC. Copyright Archaeological Survey of India

2)      Settlement phase – Megaliths (large rock structures) were created and used to study sunrise patterns and for calendars. For example, the Vedas are accurate to a very large extent in defining the length of the year and its division into seasons. There is also awareness of the discrepancies between Lunar and Solar months and the need for intercalary month (Adhik Maas) for synchronising the two. It recommends 2 intercalary months in 5 years. The religion in this period was a tripartite contract between the Gods, Ancestors and Humans but the interesting thing is that the Moon, Planets or Constellations is not worshipped and there is no evidence of worship of the feminine form even though Vedic religion mentions about 30 Gods. While stage 1 is considered to date back from approximately 50,000 BC to about 5000 BC, this stage runs from 5000 BC to 2500 BC for the Harappans and upto 1500 BC of later for Vedic and other cultures in the subcontinent.

Stage 2: Large megaliths at Baise near Mangalore in Karnataka. The smaller one (bottom right) is about 2 meters tall. Pictures taken by Srikumar Menon

3)      Astronomy of Civilisations: This period includes the Indus Valley civilisation and Prof. Vahia dwelt at length on the fascinating astronomical works of this period which include the calendar stone from Mohenjo Daro, the Indus seals depicting astronomical patterns and temple architecture, dictated by astronomical considerations. There were two main styles of temple architecture: the Dravida style typified by the Madurai Meenakshi temple in which the entrances were more prominent than the interior and vice-versa in the Nagara style of the Somnath temple in Gujarat.  Ideas of Cosmogony (origin of the Universe) were captured in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and in other places. The concept of Yugas and the Dashavatar in the Vishnu Puran dating to 1 century BC were also part of this period. There was also the appearance of mathematical astronomy and the fascinating obsession with large numbers and infinities resulting in an interesting mix of mathematics and philosophy.

Stage 3: The shape of the structure at the entrance (Rajagopuram) closely resembles the shape of the early Megaliths (bottom right). The Sanctum faces east and is more modestly designed than the entrance.

Navigation was another important use of astronomy in this period. However, the charts in this case are completely different as seen below, and used symbols representing constellations.

Stage 3: Picture by B Arunachalam in Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation

4)      Stage 4 is the stage of technology based, state sponsored astronomy. In the Indian context, this phase begins around 500 AD with the advent of Siddhantic Astronomy and great astronomers like Aryabhatta. A lot of mathematical work was done during this period. Planetary locations were calculated and Astral Charts created for astrological purposes. It is important and interesting to note however, that knowledge of astrology was not considered to be a requirement for someone to become an astronomer, as noted in the Brihad Samhita of Varahamihira (505 AD). The climax of Temple architecture is reached in the Great Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (Kampuchia) during this time. This gigantic complex is an accurate mapping of the Hindu Cosmogony in every detail and aspect. Architecturally it is a very smooth blending of Nagar and Dravidian style to create a harmonious cosmos on Earth.

Stage 5: The epitome of temple architecture – Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Modern astronomy follows from the invention of the telescope and other sophisticated instruments and experimental setup, while also riding on advances in physics and other fields of science and technology. Prof. Vahia did not enter into this subject at all.

In summary, this absolutely fascinating lecture took the audience on a tour of the Intellectual growth of the Indian culture through its activities in the field of astronomy. The different stages in the evolution of cultures are dramatically different from each other and cannot be captured in the related archaeological data. Thus the study of astronomy gives us another, more detailed, window into our view of the past.


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This entry was posted on 14/06/2010 by in Science and Technology.
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