Determination of the exact period of the Mahabharata, the greatest epic of the Sanskrit language and treasure of Hindu tradition, has been one of the most difficult and controversial problems of religious history since the eighteenth century. Religious historians outside India have consistently argued that the events described in the Mahabharata and the Purans are completely mythical and have virtually no relationship to history. On the other hand, Indian scholars have argued, equally vehemently, that the stories of Hindu scriptures are irrefutable facts of history. It has been pointed out that nothing comparable to the genealogy of the Bible exists in the entire collection of Hindu sacred literature. All the generations of mankind between Abraham and Jesus Christ are clearly identified in the Bible while the purans merely mention that 1115 years will pass between the reign of Nanda, the first famous king of Kali-age (kaliyuga), and Parikshit, the last Pandava king of the Dwapara age.
Detractors of ancient Indian tradition have used this argument for centuries as the most powerful weapon in their intellectual arsenal to attack the foundations of the rich and varied tradition of Sanskrit epics and Puranas which represents a perfect socio-cosmic harmony of history and mythology.
Fortunately, many works of the Vedic and Puranic tradition contain a sufficient number of clues in the form of astronomical observations which can be used to determine the approximate date of Mahabharata and thus establish the historical authenticity of the events described in this great epic.
Notable among these works are the Parashar Sanghita, the Bhagvat Puran, Shakalya Sanghita, and the Mahabharata itself. Aryabhatta, one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers of India in the fifth century AD, examined the astronomical evidence described in the Mahabharata in his great work known as the “Aryabhattiya”. According to the positions of the planets recorded in the Mahabharata, its approximate date was calculated by Aryabhatta to be 3100 BC implying that the great war described in the Mahabharata was fought approximately 5000 years ago, as most Hindus have always believed.
A number of British scholars of the 19th century, especially Friedrich Max Muller, tried to interpret this astronomical evidence to prove that the observations recorded in Hindu scriptures are imaginary. As an amateur astronomer, I propose to examine the astronomical evidence presented in the Bhagvat Puran and Max Muller’s criticism of this evidence in light of the advances made in astronomy in the past fifty years. Max Muller, in the preface to his translation of the Rigveda, examines the astronomical observations described in the Bhagvat Puran and concludes that these observations are “imaginary”, apparently because they did not agree with the prevalent views of the European, primarily British, Indologist of the nineteenth century about the time of the Mahabharata.
These astronomical observations about the positions of the Saptarishis (Ursa Major) and some predictions based on their movement are contained in the second chapter of the twelfth Canto of the Bhagvat Puran. In relating the story of lord Krishna’s life to king Parikshat, the grandson of Arjuna, Rishi Shukdeva explains:
saptarshinam tu yau purvau drshyete uditau divi |
tayostumadhye nakshatram drshyate yat samam nishi || 27 ||
tenaita rishayo yuktastishthantyabdashanta nranama |
tey tvadiye dwijaha kale adhuna charshita maghaha || 28 ||
“When the Saptarshis (the constellation of Ursa Major) rise in the east, only two stars are visible at first. In the middle of two stars, one of the lunar mansions (nakashatra) appears on the opposite side of the sky. The seven rishis stay with this lunar mansion (asterism) for hundred earth years. Parikshit! from the time of your birth to the present time, they have been positioned with the ‘Magha’ lunar mansion”.According to a similar observation, recorded in the Shakalya Sanghita, “their (Saptarshis’) movement is eight minutes of the arc a year …. and moving in the north into different positions, the rishis employ 2700 years in revolving through the assemblage of twenty seven lunar mansions (translated by Max Muller)”. Max Muller accepts the interpretation of the shlokas in the Bhagvat Puran, especially the phrase “the lunar mansion in the middle of these two stars (tayostumadhye Nakshatram),” as the extension of the line connecting the two stars away from the pole star”.
With this interpretation, the movement of the Saptarshis does indeed become imaginary, as noted by Max Muller,
“Now although this movement of the seven Rishis is but imaginary, it was used for chronological purposes.”
Other interpretations are, however, possible if the recorded positions of the seven rishis are examinedwithout the predictions made in the Bhagvat Puran about the direction of their movement. This modified interpretation can reinforce the conclusions drawn by Aryabhatta from his calculations about the date of Mahabharata.
A more plausible interpretation of the observations described in the Bhagvat puran, especially the phrase “the lunar mansion in the middle of the two stars (tayostumadhye nakshatram)” is that “the perpendicular line drawn from the midpoint of these two stars towards the ecliptic” intersects at a certain lunar mansion (nakshatra), when extended towards the ecliptic. It is entirely likely that ancient Indian mathematicians deliberately avoided the use of the term “perpendicular” in describing the astronomical observation, for the simplicity of interpretation. A sky map in exhibit 1 depicts the approximate position of the Saptarshis in relations to the zodiacal constellations visible in the evening sky in the month of August 1990 from North America.
The positions of the astronomical objects shown in this exhibit are in general agreement with the positions of stars in the sky maps published in the August 1990 issue of the “Astronomy” magazine. These observations, made from Boston area which has a latitude of approximately 43 degrees North, can be easily verified without a telescope or binoculars since most of these stars and constellations are clearly visible with naked eye in the evening summer sky in the northern hemisphere. As compared to northern India from where the observations of the Bhagvat Puran were made, this latitude is too far north and from Boston the Saptarshis appear to be circling the pole star during the night instead of rising in the morning. On an early morning in the month of August, the two stars of the Saptarshis highest over the horizon from Boston are the so called pointers.
Approximate Positions of the Saptarshis (August 1990):
The line connecting these stars intersects at the north pole when extended northwards. In most parts of India, except the extreme northern parts of Kashmir, these stars will appear to be rising in early morning. Arabian astronomers, who transmitted most of the knowledge of astronomy in the middle ages to Europe, named these stars Merak and Dubhe. Arabian mathematicians and astronomers had, as a well established fact of history, acquired most of their knowledge of algebra, arithmetic and astronomy from India. In 1990, as shown in the map in exhibit 1, this line intersects between the zodiacal constellations of Libra and Scorpios, very close to the brightest star in the constellation of Libra.
The entire constellation of Scorpios has a clearly identifiable shape and the two bright stars of Libra are also clearly visible with naked eye. According to the Indian system of naming the twenty seven stations through which the moon passes each night during its periodic movement, the brightest star of Libra is known as the “Vishakha” nakshatra. The Saptarshis are thus positioned in the “Vishakha” nakshatra in the present century.
Between the current location of the Saptarishis and the position mentioned in the Bhagvat, i.e., the Magha nakshatra, twenty three lunar mansions intervene, from Anuradha to Ashlesha, if the direction of movement opposite to the commonly accepted interpretation of the predictions made in the Bhagvat is followed (Exhibit 2). This direction of movement is equally likely since no records are available to establish the exact direction the saptarshis have historically followed.
Exhibit 2: Direction of the movement of the Saptarishis
Position of the Saptarshis at the time of the Bhagvat Puran
Current position of the Saptarshis
The relative movement of Saptarshis through twenty three mansions implies that the observations described in the Bhagvat Puran must have been made either around 300 BC, or 3000 BC, since the positions of the Saptarshis repeat every 2700 years. The possibility of these observations in 300 BC can be completely ruled out because the period around 300 BC is a matter of recorded history.
The historical events of the fourth century BC are recorded in sufficient detail by many Indian as well as Greek historians. Alexander, the Great, invaded a part of India during this period, when Chandragupta Morya was the ruler of Pataliputra, and these events are described by Plutarch in “Parallel Lives” with meticulous detail. The stories of Bhagvat were as prevalent in India in the fourth century BC as they are now and most of the Purans are considered older than 300 BC.
For example, Sir William Jones, the most famous Indologist of the 18th century, estimates the time of the Bhavishya Puran to be 550 BC in his translation of an article describing the game of chess in this Puran. Therefore, the most logical conclusion that can be drawn from these descriptions is that the astronomical observations described in the Bhagvat Puran were probably made approximately 5000 years ago, an entire cycle of Saptarshis before the reign of Chandragupta. The position of the Saptarshis in Magha during the time of Mahabharata is thus in complete agreement with the estimate of approximately 3000 BC given by Aryabhatta. It is extremely likely that Max Muller’s conclusions about astronomy of the Bhagvat Puran being “imaginary” were based on a questionable interpretation of the direction of movement of the Saptarshis.
An unavoidable question that arises from this modified interpretation is why have the conclusions of Max Muller remained so widely accepted for more than a hundred years? There are two possible reasons for it. First, most astronomers work with expensive telescopes in sophisticated observatories located primarily in advanced industrialized countries and are not familiar with the observations recorded in the Purans or Upanishads and second, most “pundits” and religious scholars in India are more concerned with astrology rather than the practical aspects of astronomy. The theoretical and speculative inclination of Indian intellectual endeavor has been a major stumbling block in the discovery and interpretation of many mathematical, scientific and astronomical facts recorded in the sacred books of India.
A largely unnoticed story from the history of early moslem incursions into India is extremely relevant to this argument. Alberuni, a famous Arabic scholar who accompanied Mahmud Ghazanvi on his seventh infamous compaigns across north India, once asked an average Indian pundit, well versed in mathematics and metaphysics, where the lunar mansion “Anuradha” was in the sky. The learned pundit showed total inability to associate any names mentioned in his almanac (Jantri) with the visible stars and constellations in the sky. There is certainly no dearth of learned scholars and pundits in India, but it appears that an average pundit does not have a great need or desire to understand the cosmic connection behind the religious ritual.
A third inescapable reason, perhaps far more important than the previous two, has also prevented a critical scrutiny of Max Muller’s arguments. Our knowledge of astronomy was extremely limited at the time of Max Muller but in the past 100 years it has advanced by leaps and bounds with the availability of large optical and radio telescopes and dedicated scientists. There are now convincing answers available to the question why the Saptarshis change their positions. According to the New Atlas of the universe by Patrick Moore, five of the seven stars of the Saptarshis (the Plough of Ursa Major) are travelling through the space in the same direction while other two, Alkaid and Dubhe, are moving in opposite direction.
Consequently, after a sufficiently long time the plough tends to lose its characteristic shape and the perpendicular line drawn from the midpoint of Merak and Dubhe crosses the ecliptic at different lunar mansions, changing 3.6 degrees of arc in a century. There is still no scientific explanation of why every 2700 years this movement should repeat but a clue can be found in the work of Anthony Aveni, the noted author of a recent book titled “The Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks and Cultures”. According to this book, there is a widespread belief in many African and American Indian cultures that the entire solar system revolves in our galaxy (VV comment: also refer to Atharva Veda Kanda 14 and Yajurveda Chap 3 and 33), the Milky Way, around the brightest star in the Pleiades. The cluster of Pleiades, in the Taurus constellation, is known as the Seven Sisters or “Krittikas” in Hindu astronomy. The brightest star in the Pleiades is Alcyone and the sun completes one revolution around this star in approximately 3000 years. There are no astronomical maps available to verify this observation and no scientific computations can prove or disprove this theory easily but this widespread belief has made Pleiads one of the most sacred object in the sky in practically every country and culture. This periodic revolution could be the reason why the Saptarshis repeat the positions described in the Bhagvat Puran, every 2700 years.
Carl Segan, a renowned astronomer at Cornell University, who hosted the public television series “Cosmos” in 1985, pointed out that Hindus were the only ones who came anywhere close to correctly estimating the real age of the universe. Unlike many cultural traditions which treat science and religion as antithetical to each other, the Hindu tradition encourages the study of physics and metaphysics both for a comparative understanding of the true nature of the cosmic mystery surrounding and pervading the universe.
The observations recorded in the Bhagvat Puran thus present a challenge to the modern astronomer to reestablish the connection between the diversity of what the scientists call “Phenomenon” and the underlying spiritual unity of what the renowned German philosopher Immanuel Kant called the “Noumenon”.