Earth is a sphere
Thus everywhere on [the surface of] the terrestrial globe,
people suppose their own place higher [than that of others],
yet this globe is in space where there is no above nor below.
—Surya Siddhanta, XII.53
Translator: Scott L. Montgomery, Alok Kumar
Many people who are familiar with Indian Epic the Ramayana, will recall the many deeds of Ravana, including the capture of Sita. Less known are the extraordinary feats of King Maya. According to the legend, the Hindu Sun god, Surya, imparted highly specific knowledge of the universe to Maya. The series of treatises on that subject is known as the Surya Siddhanta. It is the most ancient book on astronomy believed to exist and it’s alarmingly accurate. In the history of astronomy and astrology, it is a key document of inestimable value.
To define our terms, Surya is the Sun or Sun god. Solar deities are ubiquitous for reasons that are plain enough. Without the Sun there is neither light nor heat, rendering life impossible..
Siddhanta is a Sanskrit term denoting the established and accepted view of any particular school within Indian philosophy. Literally “settled opinion or doctrine, dogma, axiom, received or admitted truth; any fixed or established or canonical text-book on any subject” (Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary). Surya (the supreme light) was the main solar deity in Hinduism; and also represents the Sun in India and Nepal. He is one of the core elements of Hindu astrology; “Surya was the chief of Navagraha and the Classical Planets. He had 3 wives; Saranyu, Yama, and Yami. From northeast India, 11th century CE”. (Curator at National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, UK)
It has become increasingly apparent, with the re-discovery of Hellenistic and Arabian astrology that we don’t have all the pieces. Without the study of Persian and Indian astrology, metaphysics and astronomy, we are missing elements that cause the relative break down in later systems. I notice this often in the venerable Greek texts, where I’m not alone left wondering what on earth the writer was thinking. Moreover, some of the techniques handed down to us from these sources lack consistent credibility. Some appear to be next to useless after decades of experimentation.
It would be quite impossible of course to do more than provide an introduction to the Indian systems and to point to particularly relevant sources of influence. I believe the greatest synthesis of early astrological synthesis was achieved in ancient Persia. This is only natural as Persia is like a geographical bridge between the Hellenistic, the Babylonian and Indian. This is the first of what I anticipate will be three articles.
Western culture, beginning with the Greeks, developed a taste for, and some ability at, writing more or less objective histories. Cultures who valued reason and logic over the mythological have strong advantages and many disadvantages. Indians did not make absolute distinctions between history and mythology and appear to have been particularly adept at finding a way for reason and mysticism to flourish. The Vedas were never considered ‘fiction’ as such. A linear narrative has no place in this view and in fact, most Indians believe the Vedas have neither a beginning nor an end. They are immortal. They are spiritual. They offer practical guidance and even mathematical knowledge. At the same time, the age of the universe is the age of Brahma.
The easiest way to realize the difference, which I have admittedly simplified to some extent, is to ground the understanding in the infinite, a reality in which the temporal is subordinate to the infinite in all respects. The infinite is, of course, the source of the temporal, but Western culture became amnesiacal about this a very long time ago. Logical categories can be helpful but they can quickly become nothing more than cookie cutters. This system attempt to reduce the complexities of human existence by making things appear to be smaller, more manageable and separate from each other. However, consolation is not always the road to truth.
The Surya Siddhanta is a treatise on traditional Indian astronomy, said to date back over 1500 years and attributed to Mamuni Mayan, a Promethean hero in Tamil culture. There is a vibrant tradition that tells us the work is 2 million years old. Be that as it may, it forms the basis of the Hindu and Buddhist calendars. Subsequent mathematicians and astronomers such as Aryabhata and Varahamihira frequently referred to it.
In his own work, entitled Pancha Siddhanta, the esteemed Varahamihira,, besides the Paitamaha Siddhantas (more or less identical to the “classical” Védanga Jyotisha ) of Siddhantas Paulisha and Romaka (directly inspired by Hellenistic astronomy ) and Vasishta Siddhanta. Varahamihira was one of the only renowned Indian Astronomer, Mathematician and Astrologer whose name became familiar throughout India.
The book Surya Siddhanta has clearly been reworked more than once. However. it is not impossible that there was a volume with the same title from the Mauryan Empire, providing a date sometime in the third century B.C. in southernmost, including what is now Sri Lanka. Al Biruni’s India is a rich source of astronomical knowledge in India at that time.
Of immediate interest to the student of the history of astronomy and astrology, we are provided with rules allowing us to assign to the stars movements in accordance with their position in the sky. It provides the positions of several different stars of the lunar nakshatras and even addresses the calculation of the solar eclipse.
In the upcoming series of articles, I intend to look closely at some core elements in the Surya Siddhanta in light of astrological theory. One such element is the importance of the Nakshatras.
The Introduction to the work tells us that “The Surya Siddhanta is at the top of this class of revelations. It was revealed to Maya an Asura, in all probability an Assyrian or rather a Babylonian.” (See Surya-Siddhanta (11935) The Assyrian and Babylonian element is not at first particularly obvious, but as the work progresses we find some markedly interesting parallels. much of it in the realm of what in these days referred to as visible astrology, the periods and phases of the planets and more. Yet The work itself tells us that the Surya-Siddhanta was “revealed more than 2,164,960 years ago, that amount of time having elapsed, according to Hindu reckoning, since the end of the Golden Age” (p.I)
It is these massive periods that have left many astronomers aghast, although the late Carl Sagan was fascinated by them. We do, after all, look through a glass darkly and the ordinary human mind is not equipped to deal with concepts such as infinity or to fully grasp the significance of the knowledge that the light of stars that died a million years ago that haven’t reached us yet. What we are seeing in deep space is the distant past.
The antiquity of the transmission is calculated using the Nakshatra system – the matching of an asterism at the very point at which it would have to have occurred in this system.:
“In calculating the conjunction (yoga) of a planet and an asterism (nakshatra), in determining the setting and rising of a planet, and in finding the elevation of the moon’s cusps, this operation for apparent longitude (drkkarman) is first prescribed.” (p. 190)
- Cf. Bhāskarācārya, Bapu Deva Sastri, la traduction en anglais du Surya Siddhanta, Lancelot Wilkinson (ISBN 3-76481-334-2, lire en ligne [archive])