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Revisiting the Zodiac Controversy in Indian Astrology

Updated: Feb 26

Indian astrology gained significant popularity in the western world long before the revival of Greek and Arabic texts, which predominantly occurred after the 1990s. Ernst Wilhelm made an argument about the usage of the tropical zodiac in Jyotisa, and it is worth noting that a majority of his followers also utilize the tropical zodiac in Jyotisa. In addition to Wilhelm’s efforts, Vic DiCara, known for his astute understanding of astronomy, played a crucial role in actively encouraging the acceptance and usage of the tropical zodiac in Jyotisa. As long as individuals continue with their own pursuits, Indians are generally unbothered. However, the issue arose when certain Westerners started claiming that Indian astrology has been practiced incorrectly for the past 2000 years. The Indian astrologers have not taken kindly to this, expressing their views with great emotion, similar to their western counterparts. However, if we examine this situation through the lens of academia, it becomes clear that it is in the best interest of the entire astrological community to arrive at a more rational and well-founded conclusion or at least, a path towards conclusion.

Western scholars quote the verses from Srimad Bhagavatam and Surya Siddhanta to base their arguments for the usage of tropical zodiac in Jyotisa. Indians, on the other hand, have quoted Surya Siddhanta and all the other astrological texts from history to argue that Indian astrology has been inherently sidereal. Let us now go through the verse from Srimad Bhagavatam before getting into the tricky territory of dealing with the ambiguity in Surya Siddhanta.

From Srimad Bhagavatam

SB 5.21.4: When the sun passes through Meṣa [Aries] and Tulā [Libra], the durations of day and night are equal. When it passes through the five signs headed by Vṛṣabha [Taurus], the duration of the days increases [until Cancer], and then it gradually decreases by half an hour each month, until day and night again become equal [in Libra].

SB (Srimad Bhagavatam) is clearly defining the tropical zodiac here as it associates the signs of Aries and Libra with equal days and nights while also mentioning the increase of light until the Sun reaches Cancer and decrease of the light from Cancer.

SB 5.21.5: When the sun passes through the five signs beginning with Vṛścika [Scorpio], the duration of the days decreases [until Capricorn], and then gradually it increases month after month, until day and night become equal [in Aries].

SB states that the light starts decreasing as the Sun reaches Scorpio and from Capricorn, the light slowly starts increasing until becomes equal when the Sun reaches Aries. This can only be a tropical definition because the foundation is set with the passing of the Sun along the ecliptic and therefore, it acknowledges the length of day and night.  SB implies that the tropical zodiac begins with vernal equinox. It is abolsutely clear that SB defines the tropical zodiac. The question is, this is just the definition of the tropical zodiac and nothing is said of astrology or the practice of astrology in this context. This is one of the arguments of Indian astrologers and also some scholars of Indian history.

SB 10.8.5: O great saintly person, you have compiled the astrological knowledge by which one can understand past and present unseen things. By the strength of this knowledge, any human being can understand what he has done in his past life and how it affects his present life. This is known to you.

SB 10.8.6: My lord, you are the best of the brāhmaṇas, especially because you are fully aware of the jyotiḥ-śāstra, the astrological science. Therefore you are naturally the spiritual master of every human being. This being so, since you have kindly come to my house, kindly execute the reformatory activities for my two sons.

Recognizing Sage Gargacharya and his expertise in astrology, Mahārāja Nanda identified a valuable chance to gain insight into the unseen events spanning across time - the past, present, and future. It is incumbent upon a father to have an understanding of the astrological positioning of his children and to undertake whatever is necessary to ensure their happiness. Mahārāja Nanda requested Gargacharya  to create a horoscope for Nanda’s two sons, Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma. By understanding this verse, we can argue that SB may be referring to horoscopy using the tropical zodiac. There would be no reason as to why they would define a tropical zodiac and a few chapters later, why would they ask an astrologer to create a chart which would not be tropical? This is supported by the mention of Mahārāja Nanda’s recognition of Gargacharya as a highly esteemed astrologer, who has compiled a vast amount of astrological knowledge. This knowledge is then utilized to gain insight into the nature and quality of life, taking into account both past and present.

Despite the clear evidence that the Mahabharata took place around 3102 BC, certain western scholars continue to assert that astrology did not exist prior to the Babylonians and that India only adopted horoscopy from the Greeks. One potential explanation for their unfamiliarity with the historic Indian texts is that they have not had the opportunity to read through them, or they may have intentionally chosen to overlook their significance, or they might have mistakenly believed that Krsna had Greek origins. Without any more delay in reinforcing the already established facts, let us redirect our attention to the zodiac, particularly to Surya Siddhanta (SS).

From Surya Siddhanta and Siddhanta Siromani

SS 14.7: In the midst of the zodiac (Bhachakra) are the two equinoxes (visuvat), situated upon the same diameter (Sama Sutraga), and likewise the two solstices (Ayana); these four are well known.

In the Surya Siddhanta, there is a clear definition of the tropical zodiac. The zodiac is not defined tropically, but rather it defines the tropical zodiac. By carefully reading the entire chapter, I was able to comprehend that the main focus of the 14th chapter of the Surya Siddhanta is the calculation and measurement of time. It became clear that in order to accurately reckon time, the zodiac plays a crucial role. This is because we associate the zodiac with the Sun’s movement through the equinoxes and solstices. It can be argued that the definition provided is specifically intended for calendrical purposes, and this argument holds weight considering that the Surya Siddhanta, being an astronomical treatise, does not make any references to astrology.

Before getting into the most ambiguous verse in the 1st chapter of Surya Siddhanta, let us first get to a verse in Bhaskaracharya’s Siddhanta Shiromani (SSM) because this is the verse that completely changed my understanding of the verse in the 1st chapter of the Surya Siddhanta.

SSM 1.30: The Samhitikas declare that a Samvatsara is equal to the time of a mean sidereal revolution of Guru (Jupiter).

This verse reveals that the Indians had a comprehensive approach to measuring time. Not only did they rely on solar and lunar perspectives, but they also incorporated the sidereal revolutions of Jupiter into their calculations. The concept of a sidereal revolution involves a planet coming back to a particular fixed star after completing a full revolution. In this scenario, we are specifically discussing Jupiter’s return to Aswini after one complete revolution. Indians have assigned Sanskrit names to each of the 60 years, which collectively make up 5 revolutions, with each revolution lasting around 12 solar years. This verse from Siddhanta Siromani led me to rethink my understanding of the verse which is incorrectly perceived to be the definition of the sidereal zodiac.

SS 1.27: One which moves swiftly passes through them in a short time one which moves slowly, in a long time. By their movement, the revolution is accounted complete at the end of asterism Revati.

Almost everyone assumed that this is the definition of the sidereal zodiac, but after reading the chapter in Siddhanta Shiromani, I revisited the first chapter of the Surya Siddhanta and came to an understanding that the entire chapter is about the “Mean motion of the planets” and there is no explicit definition of the zodiac in the entire chapter as it was specifically mentioned as Bhchakra (zodiac) in the 14th chapter of the Surya Siddhanta. The 1st chapter of Surya Siddhanta talks about the mean motion of planets. The particular verse (1.27) simply says the motion of the planets is identified to start and end at Aswini and Revati respectively. This is nothing but the sidereal revolutions of the planets and not the sidereal zodiac as argued by many Indian astrologers. If we read thorough various Indian texts, we will come to know that Indians had the knowledge of precession and used the Nakshatras as the time tracking tool by identifying the beginning of the years with reference to the equinoxes and solstices.

Astrologer Adam Smith pointed out to me the possible definition of the sidereal zodiac in addition to the verses mentioned earlier and I wanted to review it and make it as part of my argument. I went through the Chapter 1 of Surya Siddhanta and understood that the mean motion of the planets starting from Aswini to Revati talks about the sidereal revolution of the planets from Aswini to Revati across the circle over "time".

SS 1.28: Sixty seconds (vikala) make a minute (kala); sixty of these, a degree (bhaga)l of thirty of the latter is composed a sign (Rasi); twelve of these are a revolution (Bhagana).

The verse, which appears to be difficult to comprehend, raises the question of whether Rasi refers to the signs of the zodiac, thereby making it questionable to consider that Surya Siddhanta explicitly defines a sidereal zodiac. Although the word “Rasi” has multiple meanings, such as sign and quantity, a careful analysis of the verse suggests that the author is primarily focused on calculating the time for measuring the sidereal revolution, which can be interpreted as another aspect of the term “Rasi”. Based on this understanding, I have concluded that its purpose is to measure the sidereal revolution of time. Rasi also means collection or group and Bhaga in this context refers only to degrees. Collection or group of 60 Kala would make a Bhaga (1°) and collection of 30 of these make a sign/portion and 12 portions of these complete a revolution. In the 14th chapter of the Surya Siddhanta, there is a specific mention of the word Bhachakra, which is used to refer to the zodiac. The inconsistency lies in the fact that the author chooses to define “Bhachakra” in chapter 14 but omits this explanation in Chapter 1 of Surya Siddhanta. Based on the chapter’s context, it seems that the sidereal zodiac is not explicitly defined, although it wouldn’t be incorrect to interpret it that way which basically leaves it open to speculations. Importantly, we cannot ignore the word Bhagana in the last part of the verse because it clearly means “A Revolution” which makes me think this is just collection of time across the circle for a body to complete a revolution.

In Adyaya II of the Aiteriya Brahmana of Rig Veda, we can understand one of these examples of Nakshatras being used as the time tracker.

The sacrifice went away from the gods; the gods could do nothing, they could discern it. They said to Aditi, “through thee let us discern the sacrifice. She said, so be it, but let me choose a boon from you. Let the sacrifices begin with me and end with me. So be it, they replied.

Season based rituals and sacrifices hold great significance for prehistoric Indians, making the beginning and the end of the year a crucial time for them. In order to ensure the precise timing of these rituals and sacrifices, they had to diligently track the equinoxes and solstices. The deity of Punarvasu Nakshatra is Aditi, and when the sacrifices commence and conclude with Aditi, it indicates that they commence and conclude with the Vernal equinox in Punarvasu Nakshatra which aligns roughly to 5500 BC. Likewise, Surya Siddhanta simply says that a sidereal revolution of all the bodies begins with Aswini and ends with Revati and doesn’t say that zodiac begins with Aswini and ends with Revati, unlike how the tropical zodiac is clearly defined in the 14th chapter of Surya Siddhanta.

So, do we have the definition of the sidereal zodiac in Surya Siddhanta? Arguably, No!

It is important for Indian astrologers who vigorously defend the notion that Surya Siddhanta defines the sidereal zodiac to grasp the concept that the sidereal revolution does not solely dictate the commencement and conclusion of the zodiac, at least within the context of the first chapter of the Surya Siddhanta. When it comes to Indian astrology, the sidereal revolution is an integral component that is taken into consideration for nearly everything, and it is important to note that I am not attempting to discredit or dismiss this phenomenon in any manner. I would like to clarify that my humble stand is solely focused on addressing the widespread misconception of SS 1.27. Therefore, we can come to an arguable conclusion that Surya Siddhanta doesn’t define the sidereal zodiac at all.

Does this prove Indian astrology has tropical origins and even precedes the usage of the sidereal zodiac? Although there may be room for debate which at this point seems very valid, based on my understanding, the majority of Indian astrological texts define the zodiac within a sidereal context. I doubt there can be a definitive conclusion to this because the 3rd Adyaya of Adiparva from Mahabharata says that the zodiac wheel begins with the Asvin twins and it indicates a sidereal zodiac. While some individuals may argue that this is a later addition, it cannot be deemed an academic or scholarly conclusion until we have definite confirmation that the specific portion was indeed added at a later time. So far, we have only seen western “scholars”(?) call something a later addition if a particular finding defeats the existing narrative. One of the issues with certain dogmatic western opinions is their tendency to simply dismiss Indian (or other) perspectives as being wrong, without taking the time to understand the origins and reason behind the development of the sidereal framework. In order to delve into a more scholarly analysis, it is necessary to comprehend the reason for the historical utilisation of the sidereal zodiac by Indian astrologers over a span of two millennia.

Srimad Bhagavatam quotes:

Surya Siddhanta quotes: Translation by E Burgess, 2nd edition 2015, published by New Bharatiya Book Corporation, Delhi.

Siddhanta Siromani quotes: Translated by Arkasomayaji, Published by Kendra Sanskrit Vidyapeetha, Tirupati, 1980.

Aiteriya Brahmana quotes: Harvard Oriental Series, Volume 25, Edited with the co-operation of various scholars by Charles Rockwell Lanman

Note: SS 1.28 (Addendum: 26 Feb 2024).

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