At the outset I wish to state that though astronomy and astrology deal with planets and stars, the scope and utility of astrology are totally different from astronomy such that the rules and parameters are exclusive and unique for astrology which is of less or no consequence to the goals of astronomy. In this age of fast movement of knowledge dissemination, the common man / reader who is not well informed of how astrology works is likely to get carried away by such articles on astronomy which are written with no idea of how astrology uses astronomy.
The first part of that article deals with Makar Sankaranthi.
Makar sankaranthi means entry into Makar rasi (Caprocorn) This starts at zero degree of the sign, Capricorn. When the Sun enters Capricorn,,that marks Makar Sankaranthi. But the article talks about the position of the Sun on the Tropic of Capricorn, which is the southernmost point in the movement of the Sun.
That point is known as Utttarayana. Those who find fault with Makar sankaranthi not being observed on the day the Sun touches the Tropic of Capricorn, must think about why no one talks about Dakshinayana In olden times, people have done both Uttarayana homas and Dakhsinayana homas. They have also done Rithu homas (homas at the start of the seasons). And there were sankaranthi vrathas too. The uttarayana and Rithu homas are no longer in vogue. They are not done nowadays. If some one wants to do them, they will do them on the exact points of Uttarayana and dakshinayana and not on Makar Sankaranthi day.
In fact from the now available few verses of Rig Jyothisha given by Sage Lagadha, Uttarayana started at Danishta star in Lagadha’s time – at the junction of Capricorn and Aquarius and not at the start of Capricorn.
(Verse 6 of Rig Jyothisha :-
“Prapadyete sravishtadou soorya chandramasa vuduk sarpardhe
Dakshinarkarkastu magha sravanayoh sada”)
At the current rate of precession at 72 years per degree, this means that it happened so in the 18th century BC. Without knowing this date, the astronomer-writer glorifies the Greek astronomers of 2nd century BC!!
Our astrological texts keep a continuous track of the movement of sun. If Uttarayana started at Dhanishta star in Lagadha’s time, it started at 2nd pada of Uttarashada in Varahamihira’s time. This puts the time at BC 130.
This also shows that Uttarayana did not coincide with Makar sankaranthi in Varahamihira’s time also. They coincided for some time in the beginning of the common era. Today Uttarayana starts at 2nd pada of Moola (6 degrees Sagittarius). Our elders did not confuse Uttarayana with Makar sankaranthi. Even today those who want do Uttarayana – dakshinayana homas would do them on the exact points of those ayanas only.
Today we follow only the sankaranthi vrathas which are about the exact entry points of the Sun in various rasis. Sankaranthi means entry – derived from the word sankramana. This entry or sankramana is NOT synonymous with uttarayana or dakshinayana. Hence there is no merit in what the astronomer-writer says.
Before going into the other issues in that article, let the readers know the relevance of Makar sankranthi.
Makar sankaranthi is noted in astrology for the ‘Karana’ at the time of entry of the sun into Capricorn to know whether activities undertaken in the ensuing year starting from Chithrai would bear fruit or not.
(Karana is half of thithi. A thithi is 12 degrees long as counted from the sun to the moon once after the moon leaves the conjunction / amavasya or opposition / pournami with the Sun. Half of the thithi is 6 degrees long which is known by a name in karana. In marriage invitations we used to see a phrase ‘shubha yoga, shubha karana’ It is this karana which determines whether a particular act will bear fruit if done in that duration of karana. Makar sankaranthi is noted for the karana running at that time to predict the success of undertakings in the ensuing year)
Astrology talks about many sankaranthis and not just Makar sanakaranthi. But somehow people think that sankaranthi means only Makar sankaranthi.
The astronomer- writer and others (who are not connected with astrology) are obsessed with Makar sanakaranthi and deliver their sermons on tropic of Capricorn. They must also take a look at Tropic of Cancer – karkataka sankaranthi. This point is Dakshinayana, a time for vratha and homas. No one does them today but the relevance of sankaranthi remains for ever.
There are many vrathas connected with all sankaranthis.
For example, Dhanya sankaranthi vratha is observed on Mesha sankaranthi (entry into Aries) and Thula sankaranthi (entry into Libra). Those who observe these are said to attain the results equivalent to Agnishtoma homa.
The Lavana sankaranthi vratha is observed on the day before the Mesha sankaranthi. The result of this is attainment of Surya loka.
Bhoga sankaranthi is same as above but in addition gift of cows to Vediks is done.
Rupa sankaranthi vratha is done on any sankaranthi day with Homa to Sun God and gift of ghee in golden pots to Vediks.
Teja sankaranthi vratha is done on Year beginning, that is, Mesha sankaranthi with kalash puja.
Sowbhagya sankaranthi vratha is also done on any sankaranthi with specific homas and daanam.
Thaamboola sankaranthi and Manoratha sankaranthi are done on Mesha sankaranthi day.
Ashoka sankaranthi vratha is perhaps the only of its kind done on uttarayana, dakshinayana and Vishus and not exactly on sankramana days. Here the entry into the sign is not stipulated. Thus we see the utility of the vratha and homas vary for the sankaranthis and ayana kalam.
On predictive side, each sankaranthi day comes with a prediction related to specific people. These sankaranthis are noted for the vaaradhipathi (lord of the day when sun enters the sign, eg, moon is the lord of monday if the sankaranthi falls on a Monday) to make specific predictions. The Nava nayaks which one can find in any Panchanga are about various sankaranthis.
· For instance Mesha sankaranthi (zero degree Aries) is noted for making predictions for the entire land. In other words, Mesha sankaranthi shows “Sarvadesa- udhyogadhipathi”.
· Vrushabha sankaranthi is noted to identify the lord of elephants. Whether the elephants in the land would suffer and would be healthy in that year is known from the planet ruling the day of vrushabha sankaranthi. It also signifies the welfare of Purohits in that year.
· Mithuna sankaranthi (Gemini) tells about the welfare of cattle) while Karkataka sankaranthi tells about whether the government gets backs its dues.
· Simha sankaranthi (Leo) tells about the welfare of the army while Kanya sankarathi (Virgo) tells about the villages.
· Thula sankaranthi (Libra) tells about the garments produced in the year while Vrischika sankaranthi (Scorpio) tells about gems produced in the country.
· Dhanus sankaranthi (Sagittarius) tells about the nature of trees and forests while Makar sankaranthi (Capricorn) tells about the welfare of animals.
· Kumbha sankaranthi (Aquarius) tells about the threat from snakes / poisonous substances while Meena sankaranthi (Pisces) tells about welfare of daivagyas (astrologers).
I have just noted one issue for each of these sankaranthis. There are more than one issue related to them. But what I want to make out is that while we have 12 sankaranthis connected with the entry of the Sun into each of the 12 signs, it looks absurd to see comments from people accusing our astrology as not being in tune with astronomy. It is their lack of acquaintance with what astrology considers as sankaranthi and uttarayana and how and where they are fitted in the system of predictions and austerities – the two important issues with which Vedic astrology is associated.
The next issue in that article is about the starting of the year. It sounded like reading an explanation from Karunanidhi! The year starts from Chaithra – at the entry of Sun for Solar calendar and on the first day after No moon just before sun enters Aries for the Lunar calendar. Both these signify the most important of the Nava nayaks namely, Minister and the King. These two are part of the same system and in vogue throughout India in accordance with local customs and traditions. It must be noted that the start of seasons or ayanas are not taken into consideration for this.
The reason for this is traced to the start of the present era, namely Kali Maha yuga. At the start of this yuga which began soon after Krishna exited this world, Sun was at entering Aries. This is taken as year beginning for the entire Era of kali! This is told in Surya Siddhnatha also which the writer seems to rely on. Whatever be the background precession, the time Sun enters Aries will the time of the beginning of the year.
In this context, the article talks about Vedangha Jyothisha. One must understand that Vedangha Jyothisha and Vedic Jyothisha existed side by side in our country. Vedangha Jyothisha is like the present day Panchanga (almanac) which shows the daily movement of sun and the moon in addition to the 5 factors of Vara, thithi, nakshathra, yoga and karana which are dependent on sun and moon only. Using the Panchanga one can find out the time for doing various activities. This was exactly the purpose of Vedangha Jyoithisha also.
But one must understand that the utility of Panchanga and predictive astrology (Vedic astrology – it is so called because it was given by Vedic sages. 18 sages have given them) is not the same. In the above quoted Rig Jyothisha we will find only those information such as thithi, parvas, muhurthas etc that are relevant for doing homas based on Rig veda.
Similarly Yajusha Jyiothisha has relevant factors needed to see for doing homas for yajur Vedins. Though we have today a few verses from them, it is wrong to say that they only constituted the entire Vedangha Jyothisha. Like the Panchanga made every year, these books also would have been updated periodically.
It is also wrong to say that Rig Vedas came into existence only in the 18th century BC, based on the position of Uttarayana as told in Rig Jyosthisha. The fact is that we have got only this book which was used in 18th century BC. There could have existed Vedangha Jyothishas in periods prior to Lagadha.
Before going to the next issue, I want to emphasize again that Vedangha Jyothisha is not the only source of astrological knowledge for Hindus. It was actually a Panchnaga kind of computation of current times whereas the Body of astrology is very vast, having in itself, Siddhanthas (principles), predictive astrology and samhithas that speak about everything under the sun.
With vast knowledge of astrology of our sages, it is absurd to attribute our astrology to the Greeks!! The 12 sign zodiac was not an invention of the Greeks. Those who have read by previous post on movement of people from India to Europe would know that knowledge travelled from India to those places including Greece and not in the reverse (1)
Vedic astrology revolves on 4 basic factors, namely Stars, planets, signs and houses (bhavas). From the sankaranthi explanations given in the beginning, the reader would have understood how vast and detailed our system of 12 signs is and this is completely absent in Greek systems.
Infact the birth of astrology can be traced to 1000s of years ago, in the times of Daksha prajapathi. The first concept of identifying 27 stars came in his time as it was explained that he had 27 stars as daughters. The movement of Moon around the zodiac through the 27 stars is also related to his times. The story of moon’s special affection for Rohini is nothing but cosmological as moon passes close to Rohni than any other stars. Moon’s crossing through Rohini is watched every month for predictions.
The starting of the zodiac at Aries must have started at Daksha’s time itself as there is a story related to Daksha getting the head of a ram. Today we donot know the time period related to daksha, but what is sure is that it was in a much older time - before the start of end of the Ice age. Daksha’s time coincides with the shifting of Sanjna, Sun’s wife to Uttar Kuru (Siberia) and Sun following her. This is a symbolism of end of Ice age in northern latitudes and warm days coming up there. This happened 13,000 years ago.
Now coming to the last issue of the article, there is a confusion on equinox.
There are 2 equinoxes, one applicable on the earth and the other celestial.
The celestial one is the point of intersection of earth’s plane and celestial equator. This keeps wobbling and it is estimated to move at the rate of 72 years per degree. This is the equinox that astronomers are concerned about. But lest they know that Vedic astrology does not speak about this but about another kind of equinox.
What affects human life is the equinox of day and night and of seasons. This is formed by the tilt of the axis of the earth. This is the actual ayana chalanam or movement of the equinox which can be felt / known by people on earth. This also influences human life. Varahamihira and sages before him have talked about this ayana chalanam which is also known as “Vishnu Chalanam”! It is regrettable that the article takes a dig at the renowned sages.
Today this tilt has been gauged by science in a concept known as “Milakovitch cycle”. The tilt of the earth varies from 22 degrees to 25 degrees as a result of which the equinox day and tropics of Cancer and Capricorn will keep moving upward and downward gradually. In direct observation, the sun will be seen to be moving in the backdrop of the stars. This has been mentioned as equinox falling in Kritthika some time and on Ashwini sometime and in Revathy some time in our scriptures. Accordingly, the ayanas also shift. What we read about uttarayana falling dhanishta, then Uttrashada and currently in Moola are the result of this sway.
Our sages had a clear idea of how far this sway can happen. The sway can not happen on one direction perpetually, because once the tilt changes in the opposite direction, the sway will start moving in the reverse.
That is, from the present Moola, it will go back through Poorvashada, uttarashada etc. This is an oscillatory motion having zero degree Aries as the central point and moving 27 degrees forward and backward. This is depicted in this picture.
(click the pic to see the details)
This shows that equinox shifts from the beginning of Kritthika to Poorva bhadrapada 4th pada. This is expressed as Veedhis or streets in astrology. They are Uttara Veedhi, Madhya Veedhi and Dakshina Veedhi. The Madhya Veedhi consists of Pisces and Aries on the one side and Virgo and Libra on the other because the equinox will move within these signs only.
They can be depicted as follows.
It must be noted that an old Tamil sangam song from paripadal mentioned the location of planets on the basis of Veedhis only. Sage Valmiki also recalls the Veedhi when he describes the Ram Sethu after it was built that it resembled the Madhya Veedhi – also called as Swathi Padam as Equinox was in Swathi star in Libra in his times.
This movement is palpable and was recorded so that the ayana homas and vrathas can be done on exact timings. Beyond that it does not have utility in the life of people of Vedic system.
One must know that our calendar is scientific with the division of the zodiac in equal parts with Surya sankramana, based on which the months have been allotted days. The number of days of the months varies depending on the law of orbital mechanics very much before Kepler or Newton told about them. In contrast the Greek astrology is not at all scientific. There is no specific cosmological relevance for the start of the year or month or even the duration of a month.
There are lot more one can speak on the relevance and reason behind Vedic astrology. People can rest assured that our system of astrology and calendar works perfectly well for the current times.
Clarification regarding the confusion and doubts raised by Elst's article can be read in the comment section of this link:-
The story of India’s faulty calendars.
As the earth goes around the sun, the sun appears to move against the constellations of the zodiac.
IMAGINE having a faulty wristwatch that ticks slightly faster than it should. You may ignore the small difference it makes, but if it is not set right then after a while the watch may show noon when it is still morning. Then suppose you refuse to correct it and do something absurd, and call morning our ‘noon’. The traditional Indian calendars have become just such an absurdity today. They are slowly going out of sync with the seasons – by ‘ticking’ faster than they should – and they have already accumulated an alarming gap.
Fifty years ago, a new calendar system was introduced in India – called the Indian National Calendar – to correct the faulty traditional ones, but we hardly use it; most of us are even blissfully unaware of it. In the meantime, the calendars in use have become more and more out of step with the seasons just like the faulty wristwatch. Today, the time gap stands at roughly 24 days – almost a month.
That is why Makara Sankranti, which is actually the day the sun shines overhead on the Tropic of Capricorn (Makara), that is December 22 (the winter solstice), is celebrated in the middle of January. Most of us often wonder about the significance of January and Makara, unaware of the fact that the fault lies with our calendar system, that it cannot keep step with the seasons. It is like looking out at noon and trying to understand why we call it morning because our watch says so.
And it is all because of a mistake made in the medieval times. Moving faster than the seasons, Indian calendars jump ahead by a whole day in roughly 60 years; so they must have accumulated the present gap of 24 days in approximately 1,450 years. The calendars of today came into use circa 5th-6th century C.E. This was the time when the siddhanta (conclusive) system of astronomy was being formulated. There was a lot of debate and discussion at that point of time about a crucial issue, but somehow the prominent astronomers chose to disregard the truth and our calendar system is paying the price for it. The issue was about a discovery made in 2nd century B.C. in Greece, and something that medieval astronomers in India could have easily checked instead of indulging in wordy debates.
What was the crucial issue? And what makes our calendar tick faster than it should? It has to do with the slow motion of the earth’s axis, which is not very apparent to us but can be detected with careful astronomical observations.
We know that the earth’s axis is tilted with respect to the plane of its orbit around the sun. We have seasons on earth because of this tilt – the sun shines overhead during some parts of the year and it shines obliquely during other times, giving us summer and winter and other seasons in between.
If the length of the seasonal year turns out to be different from the length of the year according to the stars, then the sun sign at spring, for example, will shift over time. The sun used to be against Aries on the spring equinox when the Siddhanta books of astronomy were written and now it goes to that position in May, because the belt of zodiac has moved relative to the orbit of the earth around the sun since then.
The tilt of the axis is 23.5°; and so the latitudes of 23.5° on either side of the equator mark the two extreme points that the sun can shine overhead – these are the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The sun shines overhead at these latitudes on June 21 and December 22, and it shines overhead on the equator on two equinox days – March 21 and September 22. These are two days when the lengths of day and night are equal. The other markers, the solstice days in June and December either have the shortest or the longest day in the year – these are the two extreme days in a year.
As the earth goes around the sun, from the earth’s point of view the sun completes a circle in the sky, moving against the distant stars. The belt of stars that the sun appears to move against is called the zodiac and is divided into 12 constellations. This is the origin of the different sun signs at different times of the year. For example, the sun shines against the constellation of Pisces during the spring equinox on March 21 now. In other words, if one could somehow see the stars at daytime on that day, one would have seen the sun in that constellation in the sky.
It is natural to take one of these four days – two equinoxes and two solstices – as the starting point of a year. According to some historians, people of the Indus Valley civilisation took the autumnal equinox (September 22), or the first full moon after it, as their New Year day. A seal from Mohenjodaro has been interpreted by scholars such as Asko Parpola as depicting New Year celebrations. It shows seven ladies, possibly denoting Krittika (Pleiades), and a figure between two branches of a tree, possibly denoting the star Vishakha (shakha meaning branches). During the equinox at that epoch, the sun used to be against the star Vishakha (in Libra, whose symbol, incidentally, is a Balance).
Later, two traditions developed, one with the winter solstice (December 22) and another with the spring equinox (March 21) as the beginning of a new year. When the ancient Vedanga Jyotisha system of astronomy was discarded in favour of a new system – a process that took five centuries, from the 1st to the 6th century C.E., to settle down – it adopted the spring equinox day as the beginning of a year.
Next, to have a reliable system of calendars, one should be sure about what a year means. If the spring equinox day marks the beginning of every year, a year has to be the time between two consecutive spring equinox days. In fact, experimental methods described in Siddhanta books give a way of measuring this length of time (called a solar or tropical year).
But one can also define a year in terms of the stars rather than seasons (and therefore called the ‘sidereal’ year). It is the time period between the sun’s appearance against a star and its coming back to it. If the sun appears at one point in the sky in a zodiac sign, then the time taken for it to come back to the same spot is one ‘sidereal’ year.
It would have been easy on the astronomers if the lengths of the two years – according to seasons and according to distant stars – were the same. But they are not, for a simple reason. The motion of the tilted earth around the sun is analogous to that of a spinning top. The axis of the top also rotates – although much slower than the spin of the top – because of the earth’s gravity working on the tilted top. In the case of orbiting earth, the gravitational force between the sun and the earth makes the earth’s axis rotate slowly. Very slowly indeed. It takes about 25,800 years for the axis to complete a cycle. This slow movement is called the precession of the earth’s axis.
The seasons in the northern hemisphere are shown at different positions of the earth’s orbit around the sun. On equinox days in spring and autumn, the earth’s axis is positioned in such a way that the sun shines equally on the two hemispheres. As the tilt of the earth’s axis slowly changes, the positions in the earth’s orbit where equinoxes would occur also change. So, the time for seasons also changes. So, the seasonal year is somewhat shorter than the total time elapsed in the orbit, which is defined according to distant stars. It is explained in the picture how the change in the tilt hastens the occurrence of spring. The change shown here is much exaggerated for clarity.
On equinox days, the day and night boundary on the earth passes exactly through the North and South Poles. In other words, the sun shines equally on the two poles, or on the two hemispheres. By the time the earth comes back to the same position in its orbit – when the sun appears against the same star in the sky – the axis would have moved to a different direction, and the north-south axis has moved, so it would not be an equinox any longer. The equinox would have occurred about 20 minutes earlier than this.
So the year according to seasons is shorter by 20 minutes than the year according to the distant stars. It is a small difference no doubt, but this amounts to a difference of almost a day in 72 years. (The length of a year adopted in traditional Indian calendars is another three minutes off the correct value, making it jump even faster, and accumulate an extra day in about 60 days.)
Another way of looking at this is that because of the precession of the earth’s axis, the positions of stars in relation to the earth slowly change with time. Since the axis points towards different spots at different times, what is North Star today would not remain so after thousands of years. In fact, after 14,000 years, the star Vega (Abhijit) that shines almost overhead on summer nights now will become the ‘north star’.
The slow shift also makes the zodiac wheel slide in the sky, almost imperceptibly, but which becomes apparent after one or two millennia. This makes the position of the sun on the equinox day shift from one zodiac sign to the next in almost 2,000 years. And this changing background of stars makes the measurement of a year very tricky.
The Greek astronomer Hipparchus discovered this phenomenon in the 2nd century B.C. He recorded the position of the sun on the equinox days when a lunar eclipse occurred around them (on April 21, 146 B.C. and March 21, 135 B.C.), and compared the data with ancient Babylonian records. Later, Ptolemy of Alexandria refined these measurements circa 100 C.E.
Indian astronomers were aware of this discovery even before the new calendar system came into vogue. The Indian tradition listed 27 stars (nakshatras) against which the sun and the moon apparently moved in the sky, and the first star in the list changed from time to time, most probably to take into account the slow slide of the zodiac stars.
In the first millennium B.C., the Vedanga Jyotisha system began the list with Krittika (Pleiades) since the sun on spring equinox then was close to this star. Later, in circa 285 C.E., the Surya Prajñapati recorded the list beginning with Ashvini in the constellation Aries (Mesha, the Lamb), since the sun on spring equinox had shifted to this spot by then. (And it has further shifted to Pisces –Meena, the Fish – at the present epoch.) So, Indian astronomers were probably aware of the gradual shift of stars in the sky, and also the effect it had on the length of year reckoned with respect to seasons.
Yet, there seems to have been a major confusion in the minds of the medieval astronomers. Varahamihira (505-587 C.E.) mentioned the phenomenon (‘ayana chalana’ – motion of the ‘ayan’, year) in his book Brihat-samhita, but he suggested that one should verify it through actual observations. Half a century later, Brahmagupta categorically judged the idea wrong in his book Brahma-sphuta-siddhanta.
Some astronomers thought that the precession did not constitute a cyclic but an oscillatory motion– so the shift in the calendar would decrease and increase periodically, and some others thought it was so small that one could ignore it. Much later, in the 10th century C.E., a few astronomers, such as Munjala and Bhaskaracharya, observed the correct shift but by that time our calendar system had become so deeply rooted in the older methods that it was not changed.
As if this was not confusing enough, later astronomers chose to record the positions of the stars in both traditions, with and without the shift due to precession (the sayana and nirayana system), but kept the calendar system rooted in the medieval times. This state of affairs suggests not carelessness but confusion.
The reasons for this confusion are not clear. On the one hand, the methods described in the Siddhanta books for the determination of the length of a year clearly show that medieval astronomers were calculating it according to seasons and not according to the stars. But their measure of a year – roughly 365.2588 days – was closer to the length of a year according to the stars (365.2564 days) than the seasonal year. The difference between their adopted value and the year according to the stars is about 3 minutes, and about 23 minutes off from the correct value. So it appears that they meant one thing (seasonal year) but measured something else (sidereal year), albeit with a bit of an error.
The Axis OF the earth rotates slowly with a period of 25,800 years. This 'precession of the earth's axis' is analogous to the rotation of a spinning top.
Why did they stick to the year according to distant stars while setting up the calendar system? Clearly, the reasons have to do with something more than the level of astronomical knowledge in medieval India, which was otherwise sophisticated.
The usual explanation given for the decline in Indian medieval science – that the rise of Brahminism after Sankaracharya led to a split of hand and brain and started a paradigm shift away from active experimentation – is probably irrelevant here; it was still the heyday of Nalanda and other Buddhist monasteries when the debate was going on, during Brahmagupta’s time, for example. (The school of thought in vogue in Nalanda at that time was the Yogachara philosophy, a kind of Kantian idealism, of negating reality; the famous Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, or Hieun Tsang, came to study it in Nalanda in the early 7th century C.E.)
Another idea, originally of J.D. Bernal, is that the intellectual stimulus vanished once the stimulus of economic progress had dwindled. Historically, when the Siddhanta system was set in place circa 6th century, the political landscape of the subcontinent was changing rapidly. The Gupta empire had ended, and even during the rather peaceful reign of Harshavardhana (590-647 C.E.) several regional authorities – from Shashanka in Bengal to Pulakesin and the Pallava kings in the South – were striving to assert their power.
Amidst the chaos caused by military adventurism, the medieval trade guilds suffered losses. Some scholars have inferred from the manner Brahmagupta ignored his contemporary scholars in his book (circa 628 C.E.) that Indian mathematics and astronomy had split into various rigid schools of thought by his time. Is the confusion in our calendar due to this growing divergence at this stage? What were the political and economic reasons for this?
Irrespective of the reasons of the original sin in our calendar system, we seem to be stuck with it forever. There are a variety of calendars in use now, but all of them suffer from this generic defect. Some regions – States in the north, the east, and Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south – use a solar calendar, in which months are either 30 or 31 days long.
In some other regions – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat – people use a mix of lunar months (of 29.5 days) with a solar calendar.
In the solar calendar, the New Year begins in mid-April, and in the luni-solar calendar it is celebrated on the last new moon (Amavasya) day before the New Year in the solar calendar. So, all these calendars are anchored to the solar calendar, and they are all slowly shifting out of their seasonal contexts because of the precession of the earth’s axis.
The fact that the length of the year is not an integral number of days – it is, to be precise, 365.2422 days, or roughly 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes – makes the task of any calendar maker hard. How does one take into account the fraction of a day? We could not possibly announce the celebration of New Year at some particular hour one year, and then at a different date and time (being precise about the minutes and seconds); that would usher in a state of permanent chaos.
How is it done elsewhere in the world? First, one defines a year with 365 days, and then inserts appropriate corrections to take care of the missing hours and minutes. In the Gregorian calendar (adopted in the Western world in 1582), the year is taken to be 365.2425 days, and we add an extra day every four years (on the leap year), and then discount a leap year once every century, except after four centuries, so that year 1900, say, is not a leap year but 1600 and 2000 are leap years, and then again have a leap year every 4,000 years (so that year 4000 is a leap year).
All these small nuts and bolts make sure that the calendar keeps the spring equinox on March 21 for at least 20 millennia, after which one will need some extra corrections. Our traditional calendar makers still vouch by the medieval Siddhanta books, which specify 365.2564 days, which is off by about 20 minutes.
The Government of India set up a committee to reform our calendars in 1955 with the renowned physicist Meghnad Saha as its chairman. It surveyed the existing calendars and the methods of corrections adopted in each, and concluded that “the Hindu calendar... is a most bewildering production of the human mind and incorporates all the superstitions and half-truths of medieval times.... In spite of these errors, very few have the courage to talk of reform... the beginning of the year is now wrong by nearly twenty-three days, the result of accumulated error of nearly 1,400 years.”
The committee went on to lament “We are content to allow religious life to be regulated by the encyclopaedia of ‘errors and superstitions’ which is called the Hindu almanac, and to regard it as a scripture.”
The committee recommended that the year should start on March 22 and the first month should be called Chaitra instead of Vaisakh – so that the difference between the old dates and the new dates would be approximately 6 (= 30-24) days.
The Indian National Calendar was adopted in 1957 based on its report, and if one followed its recommendations – similar to the conventions in the Gregorian calendar – then it would stand corrected for several millennia to come.
But this National Calendar is hardly used anywhere outside the confines of the pages of gazettes or broadcasts of All India Radio, while lay people remain blissfully at the mercy of traditional calendar makers.
It is true that people take time to adopt new calendars; the Gregorian calendar took many years before a large number of countries adopted it. England was wary of adopting the recommendations of the Vatican, and finally relented after two centuries (in 1752 A.D.). One could argue that the delay by half a century in India is not too hopeless, but with no debates or discussions taking place, it seems unlikely that India’s traditional calendar makers will change their attitude in the near future.
The medieval hangover of Indian calendars continues, and we deny it the remedy it badly needs. •
Biman Nath is an astronomer and a writer. His first novel Nothing is Blue about medieval India will be published by HarperCollins (India) this year.