Precession in Hindu astrology – Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst“Hindus use the term “Vedic astrology” wrongly by applying it to Hellenistic astrology, but there was indeed a pre-Hellenistic Vedic astrology, though not an individual birth-based horoscopy. The rishis employed the 28 lunar houses (also used in China and Arabia), which later became 27 to accommodate the 12-part Babylonian-Hellenistic Zodiac. These houses were used to determine good times for a ritual, the founding stone of a house, or a wedding. The auspicious times for marriage are its most important remnant in modern India.’ – Dr. Koenraad Elst

ZodiacVijaya Rajiva wants to know why I say that “Indian astronomy” is borrowed from the Greeks. Though she piles on each other all manner of purely imaginary motives attributed to me, I will very briefly answer her—because the subject can indeed be settled very briefly.

As N.S. Rajaram has rightly observed, Seidenberg traces Babylonian mathematics and astronomy to Indian models. He suggests the Kassite dynasty (18th-16th century) as the channel of transmission, as the Kassite language has an Indo-Aryan substrate. This is eminently reasonable. Thus, Babylonian astronomy  divided the ecliptic in 18, yet by the first millennium it had adopted a division in 12, the same as existed in Vedic culture, where a nightly division into 28 lunar houses was complemented by a daily division of the ecliptic in 12 half-seasons (Madhu, Madhava etc.), and where the rishi Dirghatamas introduced the first-ever division of the circle into 12 and 360. Till today, the division into 360 is explained in textbooks as a Babylonian invention, but the earliest mention is Indian.

While in Babylon, the division into 12 was filled up with the symbols now known as the 12 signs. These were taken over by the Greeks (already before Alexander’s conquest of Babylon, see Euctemon‘s Athenian calendar in the 5th century BC) who communicated them to India. Contrary to what I earlier thought, these are not attested in Vedic literature. They appear in an interpolated part of the Ramayana, viz. Rama’s horoscope, which is an ideal horoscope fitting the ideal man. It dates from the final editing, when the Hellenistic zodiac had become known.

Alexander IIIThe adoption of Hellenistic astronomy and astrology in India dates from 2000 years after the Kassite regime in Babylon. Confusing those two, such as by claiming that the one phenomenon refutes the other (as numerous Hindus do, including Vijaya Rajiva) shows a defective sense of time-depth. Orientalists have berated Hindu civilization for its defective history, and I try to paint a more positive picture of Hindu historiography; but these Hindus insist that, indeed, Hindus may tell stories set in the past but are allergic to real history.

Evidence of the Hellenistic origin of Hindu (now sold as “Vedic”) astrology is manifold. Many texts refer to Mediterranean names, like the Yavana-jatakaRomaka-shastra and Paulisha-shastra. Or they refer to branches and terms of Hellenistic astrology, like Hora-shastra (after what is still called horary astrology), drekkana (from dekanos) etc. The names of the twelve signs were originally Sanskrit transcriptions of the Greek names (Varahamihira) before becoming Sanskrit translations of the Greek names. Some techniques of Hindu astrology, even techniques now lost in European astrology and thus distinctive of Hindu astrology, can be traced back to Hellenistic techniques existing in the 3rd century BC, such as the “harmonic horoscopes” (navamshadvadashamsha) or the “planetary periods“. Aside from those, there are also truly distinctive techniques of Hindu astrology, either developed in the course of ca. seventeen centuries of Hindu horoscopy, or borrowed from the internal but different tradition of Vedic astrology.

Hindus use the term “Vedic astrology” wrongly by applying it to Hellenistic astrology, but there was indeed a pre-Hellenistic Vedic astrology, though not an individual birth-based horoscopy. The rishis employed the 28 lunar houses (also used in China and Arabia), which later became 27 to accommodate the 12-part Babylonian-Hellenistic Zodiac. These houses were used to determine good times for a ritual, the founding stone of a house, or a wedding. The auspicious times for marriage are its most important remnant in modern India.

Hipparchus of Nicaea was a Greek astronomer and geographer.  He is universally recognized as discoverer of the precession of the equinoxes in 127 BCAs for the precession [ayanamsa], I am willing to consider whatever arguments Vamadeva Shastri is offering in his new edition of the Vedic Aryans book. Until then, I abide by the version of all scientists the world over, viz. that its discovery was due to Hipparchus in ca. 150 BC. If you have proof for an older date, you can become famous overnight. Leave out all the baggage of the Aryan debate etc., just write a paper purely on the precession and prove your point: knowledge of the precession long predated Hipparchus, the Vedic rishis already had it. I wouldn’t ask any better: firstly because I sympathize with the Vedic cause, secondly because by temperament I tend to applaud reversals in received opinion. If you don’t want to do that, just smugly keep on claiming a theory for which you don’t want to publish the evidence, I have no reason to believe you have proof for this revolutionary revision of history. – Excerpted from the Koenraad Elst Blog, 1 February 2014

Postscript: About Rishi Bhrigu and the Bhrigu Samhita, Dr Elst says, “Ram Swarup used to say that it has all planetary positions of all horoscopes, but my impression was that it is one of those recipe books that indeed has all positions, like “Jupiter in Libra in house IV means…” And that, at any rate, it belongs to the tradition of Hellenistic horoscopy, just arbitrarily named after the ancient Vedic sage Bhrigu.” – Excerpted from a letter to the blog Editor

» The views expressed in this article are Dr Elst’s own.

» Dr Koenraad Elst studied at KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy. He blogs at http://koenraadelst.blogspot.in/

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Comments are closed because those who disagree with Dr. Elst’s views invariably resort to abusive, racially-motivated ad hominem attacks rather than offering scholarly criticism or engaging in informed academic debate. 
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