Dawn of the Vedas

rohit gupta | Updated on January 20, 2018

The divine move: In this undated painting, nakshatras (constellations) are seen marching through the celestial man

Rohit Gupta   -  BUSINESS LINE

On the astronomical reading of the ancient texts by Lokmanya Tilak

In two of the most sensational monographs published during India’s struggle for Independence, Bal Gangadhar Tilak used astronomical data inside hymns to calculate the age of Vedas. Not only did he date their composition prior to 4000 BC, Tilak’s analysis placed Aryan antiquity in the Arctic region. Pushed from these Northern tundras by an Ice Age, he suggested, they migrated down to Central Asia and then eastward, to their present tropical latitudes.

Indologist Hermann Jacobi provided further evidence to support Tilak’s thesis, citing Hugo Winckler (1907) who found invocations to the names Mitra, Varuna, Indra and the Ashvins on tablets in Boghazkoi, or modern-day Turkey. The document Winckler found is a treaty “between Subbiluliuma, king of the Hittites, and Mattiuaza, king of Mitani (Northern Mesopotamia), of the time about 1400 BC,” who clearly worshipped these Vedic gods.

Undoubtedly, Tilak wanted to show the British Raj that Vedic culture was far more ancient (and hence superior) to them. In doing so he had to challenge the very notion that Aryans had any claim to the Indian subcontinent as a motherland. Thus he placed the vastness of age above the question of territory, and sharpness of intellect above the rigidity of faith. Mahatma Gandhi himself supported Tilak’s theory in his commentary on the Bhagwad Gita, in which Krishna declares, “Among the months, I am Mrigashirsha...among the seasons, I am Spring.”

Tilak deduced in his book Orion (1893) that the name Mrigashirsha translates to “the antelope’s head”, which is the constellation of Orion in western terminology. The onset of spring is signalled by the vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere, in late March. “It’s the time of year when day and night are nearly equal. At an equinox, the Earth’s terminator — the dividing line between day and night — becomes vertical and connects the north and south poles,” says the website Astronomy Picture of the Day. We now know that due to the Earth’s axis changing its direction in a full circle over 26,000 years, the position of stars is altered in the same cycle. So was there a time in the distant past when the first dawn of a vernal equinox was heralded by the rising of Orion?

In The Presence of Siva, Stella Kramrisch describes this transition in Vedic mythology, “The motion of the vernal equinox, of the beginning of the year, of all rites on which life depended and which were enacted in the sacrifice.... the realization that the Sun, which had always appeared rising in Orion, had slowly left that station to rise in another star (Aldebaran) was startling. It appeared anomalous, it came as a shock. The beginning of the year had moved…” (A more thorough analysis of subsequent Aryan migration is found in the works of SB Roy, Rajesh Kochhar and others.)

Meanwhile, some contemporaries of Tilak in Europe, astronomers were studying the causes of the Ice Age, so important to both geology and evolution. Most prominently Agassiz, Adhemar, and James Croll suspected that the long cycle of axial precession was forcing a pattern of climate change across the globe; add to it the fact that the Earth’s elliptical orbit itself rotates in space. This theory would come to its logical conclusion in the 1920s with Serbian astronomer Milutin Milankovitch linking Earth’s movement with a 100,000 cycle of Ice Ages.

A curious by-product of Tilak’s output is the idea that Vedic myths encode astronomical events, and that Hindu gods represent astronomical objects. Krishna is a shepherd, so is Orion. Shiva is depicted adorned with a Moon on his head; the Pleiades are known as Krittika or nurses to Kârttikeya, a son of Shiva. Brahma’s four heads seem like the four cardinal directions of north, south, east and west. A plethora of Hindu gods are shown with multiple arms arrayed like Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’. Could these arms be the residual myths of celestial maps, pointing at various directions like a compass, encoding the geometry of constellations? It is noteworthy that the often bandied count of Hindu gods — all 330 million of them — had at one point surpassed the number of Hindus themselves, but is probably more sensible as an estimate of the number of stars.

One cannot prove mythology like a theorem, nor ascertain the true origin of the Vedas with any authority. Save their own, for the authors of the Vedas forego any certainty about their cosmological knowledge. In one of the highest paeans to scepticism that can be found in world literature, placing creation before gods (like the Big Bang before the birth of stars), the ‘Nasadiya Sukta’ of the Rig Veda (translation by AL Basham) says:

But, after all, who knows, and who can say

Whence it all came, and how creation happened?

the gods themselves are later than creation,

so who knows truly whence it has arisen?

(Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah)


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Published on June 03, 2016
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