Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rig Veda: Chariot, Constellations & Pole Star

Chariots are the trademarks of the Aryans. So it's very logical that everything they do would have chariots in it. Rig Veda has several references to chariots. Chariot and its spoked wheel appear in double meanings to represent multiple things. In the discussions on Rig Vedic Gods we've seen that one hymn says Indra rules over the world like the rim, nemi, of the wheel containing the spokes, ara. Even intricate parts of a wheel like dhura, the peg with which the axle pole, aksha, is fastened to the center or navel, nabha, of the wheel, appears in hymns. Almost each and every part of a spoked wheel and chariot is used in RV.

Unlike the chariots and spoked wheels constellations are not the trademarks of the Aryans. In fact the Babylonians were the first in the world, at least in the recorded history, to have stared at the night sky with bewilderment and amazement. They were surely the earliest sky gazers, predating the Aryans by at least a thousand years, if we consider the dare of RV from 1700 BC onwards. It may not be unnatural for any one to stare at the night sky and feel a profoundness within. The unending darkness sprinkled with an unending number of sparkles of stars vanishing into nowhere has always aroused lot of questions in the minds of humans. The Aryans were not unique in this regard.

Staring at the sky for hours can very easily bring out some basic facts:
  1. the sky in the shape of an inverted bowl along with millions of stars seem to revolve around you: this is nothing but the celestial sphere in astronomical terminology.
  2. the sun, moon and the visible planets always appear in a line, rather, an arc: this arc or line is the ecliptic; in astronomical lingo it's the projection of the earth's orbital plane on the celestial sphere; simplistically it signifies the plane on which earth orbits round the sun; it's also roughly the plane on which all the planets orbit round the sun.
  3. the line, on which appear the sun, moon and the planets, is marked by a number of bright fixed stars which can divide the line into several compartments - the sun, moon and the planets seem to be moving from one of these compartments to the other in a fixed cycle of time: the Babylonians were the first to study these stars, which are located close to the earth's orbital plane and which later constituted the twelve zodiac constellations; for the Rig Vedic Aryans these stars that compartmentalize the ecliptic constituted the twenty seven asterisms, nakshatras; the number twenty seven comes from the twenty seven lunar days that roughly make a lunar month - dividing the ecliptic into twenty seven compartments makes the moon appear everyday in a new compartment, which is eventually called lunar mansion.
  4. there's only one star that doesn't seem to revolve - it doesn't move, doesn't rise, doesn't set, remains at the same place as long as the night sky is visible: this is the Polestar, the star that's located exactly to the north of or above the earth's north pole; each and every star appears to be rotating around the Polestar.
It can be assumed that it didn't take much intelligence for the Rig Vedic Aryans to observe these basic things about celestial sphere, ecliptic, lunar mansions and Polestars. Incidentally almost all the ancient civilizations made the same observations. What's different in the case of the Rig Vedic Aryans is that they used these basic astronomical observations liberally in their double meanings and poetic creations.

Before proceeding further let's see how the night sky looked like around 2000 BC in Arkaim - the site of an early Aryan settlement.

Below are a number of sky-maps, all with the same legend and in the same format - the red arc is the ecliptic; the constellation boundaries are marked in green; the names of the constellations and the bright stars visible very easily with naked eyes are marked in yellow and red.

The first sky map show how the night sky looked like on 10th April, 2000 BC in Arkaim. It was just a day before the full moon nearest to Vernal Equinox. Some of the lunar mansions with very bright stars like Spica, Arcturus, Antares and Shaula are marked on the ecliptic. In 2000 BC Thuban of the Draco constellation was very close to being the Polestar (it was the Polestar around 2800 BC). Due to the precession of equinoxes, discussed in details earlier, different stars, all arranged in a circle, become Polestars at various points of time. Thuban (2800 BC), Polaris (now) and Vega (12000 BC & 14000 AD) are marked in the sky-map. On this particular day, 10th April, the moon is in the nakshatra Anuradha.

Next are the sky-maps of 9th and 8th April, 2000 BC. 9th was a full moon coinciding with the Vernal Equinox, something that happens once in roughly nineteen years. On 9th and 8th the moon was in the adjoiningnakshatras Vishakha (full moon) and Swati. These sky maps show how the moon passes from one nakshatra to another with each passing day.

Next is the sky-map at the time of sun rising on the Vernal Equinox, 9th Apr, 2000 BC, in Arkaim. The sun is in Krittika and the full moon in Vishakha. Identifying the stars during the day time is not that trivial. But it may not be tough to interpolate the nakshatras from the previous knowledge of their locations in the night. It has been observed earlier that at a place like Arkaim, where the ecliptic comes quite close to the horizon, it's quite trivial to observe the stars and map them to their respective nakshatras on ground.

Next is the sky-map on 4th October, 2000 BC - the full moon close to Autumnal Equinox. It can be recalled that the location of full moon around Autumnal Equinox is same as that of sun on Vernal Equinox and vice versa. The full moon at Vernal Equinox was in Vishakha and the sun in Krittika. Hence the full moon around Autumnal Equinox should be in Krittika - that's what is seen in the sky-map too.

These observations, which can be noticed in the night sky without much difficulty, had left deep impact in the minds of the peoples of Rig Veda. Very poetically they have merged their favorite chariots with these and composed some wonderful hymns. Let's see some of these hymns.

sapta yuñjanti ratham ekacakram eko aśvo vahati saptanāmā |
trinābhi cakram ajaram anarvaṃ yatremā viśvā bhuvanādhi tasthuḥ || 1.164.02

Seven to the one-wheeled chariot yoke the Courser; bearing seven names the single Courser draws it.
Three-naved the wheel is, sound and undecaying, whereon are resting all these worlds of being. 1.164.02

imaṃ ratham adhi ye sapta tasthuḥ saptacakraṃ sapta vahanti aśvāḥ |
sapta svasāro abhi saṃ navante yatra ghavāṃ nihitā sapta nāma || 1.164.03

The seven who on the seven-wheeled car are mounted have horses, seven in tale, who draw them onward.
Seven Sisters utter songs of praise together, in whom the names of the seven Cows are treasured. 1.162.03

The first verse talks about a single wheeled chariot, ekachakra ratha, yoked to seven horses and driven by a single horse. In the next line it stresses on the fact that the wheel is three naved, trinabhi, undecaying and strong, ajaram an
arvam, and on it rests the whole world, vishva bhuvana. It's really tempting to identify the single wheel with seven horses with the ecliptic, which is also a sort of wheel that carries the seven horses - the sun, moon and the five visible planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The stress on the point that the wheel is three naved, or with three centers, again point very simplistically to the ecliptic. The part of ecliptic that's visible to anyone during night does appear like an ellipse - with the three foci an ellipse really has three centers or naves. Another interesting thing in this verse is the term 'driven by a single horse'. Perhaps this is the first usage of an expression that means horse power - the gravitational power that drives the wheel, the ecliptic, is wonderfully and poetically referred to as the power of a single horse.

The next verse talks about seven horses, sapta ashva, driving a seven wheeled chariot, sapta chakra ratham, on which rests the Seven. This seems to be a reference to the Big Dipper asterism, the seven stars of the Ursa Major constellation representing the seven sages, Saptarshi.

In another verse there's a reference to the One that's beyond the seven sages, sapta rishi; the One that has fixed firmly, tastambha, the six regions of the sky, rajamsi; the One on whom rests the whole world, vishvani bhuvanani tasthu; the One that supports the sky as if it's the peg, dhura, with which the axle pole of the entire wheel of the sky, rajas, is affixed. The outer and simplistic identity of this One is surely the Polestar, the One that's at the center of the celestial sphere, the entire sky that rotates round it. Knowing that many natural things are used as the outer layers for something more profound and philosophic it's very likely that the Polestar, that doesn't move, doesn't rise or set, remains unchanged, unaltered and firm since ages, would be used in Rig Veda very effectively.

Indeed it's used in several verses to refer to someone who's regarded even by Vushwakarma, who's strong in mind,vimana vihaya, and who's the Maker and Disposer, dhata vidhata; someone who's sought after even by He who has made us and who knows the whole world, bhuvanani vishva; someone who has created all things that have existence, bhutani; someone who's older than the Gods and the Asuras and earlier than the earth and heaven, prithivi and diva; someone who's like the germ primeval, garbham prathamam.

The following few verses talk about this One in the typical Rig Vedic style of double meaning.

acikitvāñ cikituṣaś cid atra kavīn pṛchāmi vidmane na vidvān |
vi yas tastambha ṣaḷ imā rajāṃsi ajasya rūpe kimapi svid ekam || 1.164.06

I ask, unknowing, those who know, the sages, as one all ignorant for sake of knowledge,
What was that ONE who in the Unborn's image hath stablished and fixed firm these worlds' six regions. 1.164.06

indraś ca yā cakrathuḥ soma tāni dhurā na yuktā rajaso vahanti || 1.164.19

And what so ye have made, Indra and Soma, steeds bear as ’twere yoked to the region's car-pole. 1.164.19

viśvakarmā vimanā ād vihāyā dhātā vidhātā paramota sandṛk |
teṣām iṣṭāni sam iṣā madanti yatrā saptaṛṣīn para ekam āhuḥ || 10.82.02

Mighty in mind and power is Visvakarman, Maker, Disposer, and most lofty Presence.
Their offerings joy in rich juice where they value One, only One, beyond the Seven Ṛṣis. 10.82.02

yo naḥ pitā janitā yo vidhātā dhāmāni veda bhuvanāni viśvā |
yo devānāṃ nāmadhā eka eva taṃ sampraśnam bhuvanā yanti anyā || 10.82.03

Father who made us, he who, as Disposer, knoweth all races and all things existing,
Even he alone, the Deities' narne-giver,him other beings seek for information. 10.82.03

ta āyajanta draviṇaṃ sam asmā ṛṣayaḥ pūrve jaritāro nabhūnā |
asūrte sūrte rajasi niṣatte ye bhūtāni samakṛṇvan imāni || 10.82.04

To him in sacrifice they offered treasures,—Ṛṣis of old, in numerous troops, as singers,
Who, in the distant, near, and lower region, made ready all these things that have existence. 10.82.04

paro divā para enā pṛthivyā paro devebhir asurair yad asti |
kaṃ svid garbhaṃ prathamaṃ dadhra āpo yatra devāḥ samapaśyanta viśve || 10.82.05

That which is earlier than this earth and heaven, before the Asuras and Gods had being,—
What was the germ primeval which the waters received where all the Gods were seen together? 10.82.05

tam id garbhaṃ prathamaṃ dadhra āpo yatra devāḥ samaghachanta viśve |
ajasya nābhāv adhi ekamarpitaṃ yasmin viśvāni bhuvanāni tasthuḥ || 10.82.06

The waters, they received that germ primeval wherein the Gods were gathered all together.
It rested set upon the Unborn's navel, that One wherein abide all things existing. 10.82.06

Here it's worth mentioning that the Seven Sages of Saptarshi, the Big Dipper asterism, made a perfect circle around the Polestar Thuban during the timeline of Rig Veda (~ 1700 BC). But now the stars of Big Dipper don't make a tight circle around the current Polestar Polaris. The term 'beyond the seven sages' surely made much more sense when the Polestar was really at the center.

The following sky-map shows how the Big Dipper stars revolved round the Polestar Thuban forming a perfect circle in 2000 BC. The dotted lines show the locations of the asterism at different times of the same night.

The next sky-map shows the locus of the Big Dipper asterism as seen now. Had Rig Veda been written now the Saptarshi stars might not have been so important - it no longer makes a proper circle around the current polestar Polaris.

Finally let's see how the ideas about these constellations impacted the calendar system in India. It's worth mentioning that a very precise and scientific calendar system has been in place in India since the Rig Vedic times.

Let's recall the following diagram we've seen in the discussions on Surya's Bridal. It depicts the scenario during 3000 BC - sun is in Mrigashira on Vernal Equinox and Uttara Phalguni on Summer Solstice. From a few verses of RV it can be deduced that one of the beginnings of year during Rig Vedic times is this Summer Solstice when the sun is in Uttara Phalguni. On the other hand another name of Mrigashira is Agrahayana, which means the commencement of a year. This means that the Vernal Equinox is also a beginning of year. In fact one or more of the four cardinal points - the two equinoxes and two solstices - have been considered beginnings of year in RV.

From the circular arrangement of the nakshatras we can identify that the nakshatra diametrically opposite to Mrigashira on the ecliptic is Mula - that's the location of sun on Autumn Equinox and that of full moon close to Spring Equinox. A lunar month in India is named after the nakshatra where the moon resides on the central full moon of that month. So the month of Vernal Equinox around 3000 BC is Mula. The word mula in Skt. means root, or the lowest part of anything. With respect to a year the 'root' month is nothing but its first month. So this again corroborates that Vernal Equinox is also a beginning of year. In fact later Vedic texts start the list of nakshatraswith Krittika, the location of sun on a Vernal Equinox around 2000 BC. The present enumeration of nakshatrasstarts with Ashvini. The sun was in Ashvini on Vernal Equinox around 500 BC. That's the time line of Surya Siddhanta, the astronomical treatise based on which the present list has been derived.

Now let's see the circular arrangement of the nakshatras in another format. The location of each nakshatra in the ecliptic, in terms of the longitudinal degrees it comprises, is specified starting from 0 degree for Ashvini. Along with the nakshatras, which divide the ecliptic equally into twenty seven compartments or lunar mansions, is given the location of the twelve zodiac constellations.

There's a difference between the Zodiacs (or Indian Rashis) and the Zodiac constellations. The former divides the ecliptic into twelve equal regions, very much like the nakshatras. But the constellations are the actual boundaries of the groups of stars that comprise them. While Zodiacs are all of the same length the constellations are quite different - the constellation Libra is smaller than half of Virgo. The sky maps presented earlier show the boundaries of the constellations. The constellations roughly along the ecliptic, shown in a read arc, are the Zodiac constellations. During the time frame of Surya Siddhanta (the centuries following 500 BC and more precisely the years around 0 AD), when the Western and the Indian astronomies both took proper shapes, the constellation Aries, the Indian nakshatra Ashvini and the zodiac/rashi Aries/Mesha all started at the same point - the point of the Vernal Equinox or, more correctly, the position of sun on the Vernal Equinox at that time.

The Rashis or the Indian zodiacs are still at the same locations as they were in the past. Due to the precession of equinoxes the Vernal Equinox no longer aligns with the start of Aries. But the Western Zodiacs have drifted in such a way that the start of Aries is still aligned with the Vernal Equinox (2000 AD). In fact Indian Zodiac is called sideral, relative to the fixed nakshatras, and Western tropical, relative to the drifting equinoxes. The positions of the nakshatras, Zodiac constellations and Rashis are fixed. The positions of Vernal equinoxes with respect to these fixed entities are shown in the above diagram.

The Western Zodiac has an offset against the Indian Rashis. The offset is around twenty four degrees - that's the amount by which the equinox has precessed over the past two thousand years.

Next let's see the scenario around 0 AD, the time when the Western Zodiac and the Indian Rashi began their reckoning and were aligned to each other. Vernal Equinox is at the beginning of the zodiac Mesha, Aries, and thenakshatra Ashvini. The sun enters into the zodiac Karka, Cancer, on Summer Solstice. Like wise the sun enters into the zodiac Makara, Capricornus, on Winter Solstice.

If Spring Equinox is taken as the beginning of the year then the year starts precisely when the sun enters into the zodiac Mesha, Aries. Though Vernal Equinox is no longer at the beginning of Mesha, still, even now, half of India (north, east, Tamil Nadu) celebrates new year when sun enters into Mesha, sometime around 14th April - it's called Vaishakhi. The rest of India (Maharashtra, Gujarat, south), celebrates new year on the new moon day just after the Vernal Equinox, sometime in late March or early April - it's called Ugadi. Beginning of a month on a new moon day has been the tradition in India since long. In fact that's the most logical thing to do for a lunar or a luni-solar calendar. In a luni-solar calendar the twelve lunar months totaling to roughly 356 days are synced up with solar year of roughly 365 days by adding an extra or intercalary thirteenth month from time to time. Rig Veda has reference to intercalary month.

A lunar month generally starts and ends with a new moon. Even the ancient Roman calendar, the predecessor of Julian and Georgian calendars, had lunar months. An interesting trivia is that in ancient Roman Kingdom the first day of the month, the new moon day, used to be announced loudly to the people. That's why in Latin a new moon or the first day of the month was called kalendae, coming from PIE root kale, meaning to shout, and akin to Skt.krand and Greek kalein. No points for guessing that the word calendar comes from the Latin kalendae.

Referring to the above diagram, the sun entered into Makara zodiac on a Winter Solstice. Passage of sun into a zodiac is called samkranti in Sanskrit and Makara Sankranti refers to sun's entry into Makara zodiac. Today the Winter Solstice is no longer on a Makara Samkranti, but still this is the only Samkranti that's celebrated in India with much veneration. A closer look will reveal why this is such an important day. In a tropical country like India, where winters are not at all dreadful, a winter solstice may not evoke any special feeling. But if we consider that the Rig Vedic Aryans actually came from a much colder northern Steppes we can understand why the day, which heralds the end of winter and beginning of longer days, is so important to them. It's possible that the Rig Vedic Aryans remembered their ancestors' veneration for the winter solstice. Much later, in historical times, when astronomy, astrology and rituals were being codified and given proper shapes in India this ritual of celebrating the winter solstice was retained. As it coincided with Makara Samkranti the latter name would have remained. Even later, when winter solstice no longer coincided with Makara Samkranti other significances were added the ancient ritual was retained for ever in India in its various later avatars.

It's worth remembering that the biggest festival of the Kalash peoples of the HIndukush is Choumos, celebrated around winter solstice.


Ramanathan said...

thks quite interesting and instructive.
suryanrayanan paris

justadream said...

I guess I am not sure what you mean by Rig Vedic Aryans. Can you tell me what the term means and what is the basis of the term?