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Did You Know?
By D.P. Agrawal

Question: Did you know Varahmihira?


Varahmihira was a great astronomer and a polymath. He was born in the last quarter  of the 5th Century AD.

 Jyotisa embraces both astronomy and astrology and is one of the six Vedangas (branches of knowledge accessory to the Vedas). In its popularity it is equalled only by Ayurveda (medicine, science of life) and Mantrasastra. It is the most important Vedanga being described as the eye among the angas (limbs) of the Veda.

 The systematisation of this branch of learning probably started with the treatise called the Vedanga-jyotisa, which  consists of three main branches: Siddhanta, Samhita and Hora. Varahamihira is famous for his Brhatsamhita

 While the Siddhanta deals with the calculation, etc., of planets, i.e., the astronomical part, the Hora deals with individual horoscopes, auspicious and inauspicious times for doing a particular thing and other matters of this nature. Prasna or Horary astrology (and also Tajika – a later adoption) comes under this latter branch. Samhita (i.e., collection), as the term indicates, deals with astrology collectively, i.e., in general, taking the effect of the various natural phenomena on human life into consideration. Included in it are a variety of subjects, the auspicious and inauspicious physical characteristics of men and animals (elephants, horses, etc.), science of precious stones, iconography, Vrksayurveda, etc. Varahamihira enumerates them in his Brhatsamhita (I. 9). The eighteen ancient sages who propounded Jyotisa are given by Kasyapa as follows: Surya, Brahma (Pitamaha), Vyasa, Vasistha, Atri, Parasara, Kasyapa, Narada, Garga, Marici, Manu, Angiras, Lomasa, Paulisa, Cyavana, Bhrgu and Saunaka.

 This list of sages shows how the science started developing from very early times. There is an extensive literature on the subject now available to us.

 In the long history of  Indian Jyotisa, Varahamihira’s name is as famous as that of  Bhaskara, his brilliant twelfth-century successor, who successfully emulated him in introducing poetical excellence in the presentation of the dry subject of astronomy.

 Varahamihira is still considered the greatest name among all the authors on Jyotisa,  as he enriched all the three branches of the science, Ganita, Hora and Samhita. The precious gift he bequeathed to posterity was the compilation of the  five ancient Siddhantas (the details of which would have otherwise been lost to us). He also wrote a work in the Samhita branch which has never been surpassed by any other work of its kind till today, besides giving us works on Horasastra. Each one of his works bears the stamp of his deep knowledge of the previous works on the subject available to him. What makes Varahmihira unique among ancient scientists is his versatility, encyclopaedic knowledge, poetic talent, and his deep grounding in Sanskrit grammar and the science of metres. No surprise then that a later tradition includes him among the Nine Jewels of Vikramaditya’s court. Although the contemporaneity of the nine ‘gems’ stands disproved, the inclusion of his name here is a proof of the high esteem in which he was held throughout the ages.

 Son of Adityadasa, Varahamihira belonged to Avanti (Ujjain) and studied Jyotisa from his father. He was an ardent devotee of the sun from whom he is said to have  received a boon in Kapitthaka (the name of the place occurs also with a variant Kampillaka, identified by some with Kalpinagar). The names of both the father and the son, viz., Adityadasa and Mihira, show that not only the son, but the father also was a worshipper of the sun.

 At the and of the Brhajjataka, he gives us information about himself.  In his Pancasiddhantika Varahamihira uses Saka 427 (A.D. 505) for Aharagana. From this we can presume that he was born in or about the last quarter of the 5th century. Amaraja in his Khandakhadya Karanatika tells us that Varahamahira passed away in Saka 509, i.e., 587 A.D., thus living a long life. 

Varahamihira refers to Aryabhata in his Pancasiddhantika. He, therefore, lived a little later than Aryabhata or was probably a younger contemporary of the latter. Aryabhata gives us information regarding his date: 

“When three of four ages were past, and 60 times 60 years, then 23 years from my birth were past.” The years given here, namely, Kali 3600, correspond to A.D. 499. Aryabhata (reference is to Aryabhata I) was then 23 years old. This makes Varahamihira a younger contemporary of Aryabhata. Some scholars believe that Varahamihira was a Magadha Brahmin, who, after getting acquainted with the work of Aryabhata, migrated to Ujjain and settled there. It may be noted that Aryabhata belonged to Kusumapura, which scholars identify with modern Patna. Madhava Sarma, however, refutes the view that Varahamihira belonged to Magadhadesa, as Varahmihira himself  claimed to be an Avantika – which term means one who belonged to Avanti. He was, therefore, a Brahmin belonging to Avanti and to a family devoted to the worship of the sun. It is possible that he had visited Kusumapura and got acquainted with Aryabhata’s views. 

 There is overwhelming evidence in his works to show that Varahamihira was a Brahmin, a follower of the Vedas. The reference to the description of the sun in various forms in the Vedas may also be noted. In fact, the invocation is an exposition and elaboration of the Gayatri hymn, addressed to Savitr (sun) in the Vedas. 

Each one of his works is written after a deep study of the entire relevant earlier literature on the subject, presented with his own views, in a brief but attractive style, often embellished with poetic and metrical flourishes. He says that the science of Jyotisa is a safe boat in a vast ocean. He repeatedly mentions that he is writing the particular work after consulting all the previous authors. In the Brhajjataka also we have a similar statement that he studied the works of earlier writers and condensed the knowledge contained in them. His works are characterised by not only brevity but also by a deep knowledge of grammar and the poetic style. A large variety of metres were used by him in both the Brhajjataka and the Brhatsamhita. Although the expressions used are sometimes brief, they are fully expressive of the desired meaning. 

Varahamihira believed in the intuition of the ancient sages. But he is not a blind follower of the old. He accepts things on their own merit. He says that a view is not to be rejected simply on the ground that it was not mentioned by the ancients and it comes from a new author. One is here reminded of Kalidasa’s statement in his play Malavikagnimitra that things are not good merely because they are old nor bad merely because they are new. He gives the views of his predecessors, but also boldly points out the defects in them, if any. For instance, after giving the Yoga Vajra, etc., in the Brhajjataka, he says that he gave the view of the earlier works but it was not astronomically possible. 

An intellectual with a broad outlook, he respected learning wherever it was found. He had an intimate acquaintance with the astrological literature of the Greeks and, in his Brhatsamhita, refers to the respectful position in which they were held, quoting the words of his predecessor Gargacarya. A good many Greek astrological terms are found in the Brhajjataka: 

In a spirit of humility, Varahmihira requests his successors in the field to make good the deficiencies that may be found in his works and also cautions them against textual corruptions that may creep in the course of time. 

The exact number of his works is not yet certain. The main known works are Pancasiddhantika, Vivahapatala, Brhajjataka, Laghujataka, Yatra and Brhatsamhita. According to some, these were written in the above order. There are scholars who believe that he wrote the Samasasamhita also (just as he has written the Laghujataka as an abridgement of the Brhajjataka) as an abridgement of the Brhatsamhita. But if he wrote it, it has not come down to us. This belief is not supported by any textual evidence. Though the Brhatsamhita statement gives us some inkling of the order in which the works were written, it does not make their number explicit. 

The Pancasiddantika is a work on astronomy, a Karana Grantha. The five Siddhantas, schools of systems of ancient astronomy, dealt with here are the Paitamaha, Vasistha, Romaka, Paulisa and the Saura. Speaking about the relative importance in treatment of these by Varaha, Thibaut observes: “Varahamihira then also states his views as to their order of importance, assigning the first place to the Surya Siddhanta, placing next the Romaka and Paulisa Siddhanatas as equally correct, and declaring the two remaining works to be greatly inferior to the three mentioned. In agreement with this estimate very different amounts of space are allotted to the individual Siddhantas in the body of the work.” But for Varaha much of the information regarding these ancient Siddhantas would have been lost to us. 

The Brhajjataka deals with Jataka, i.e., individual horoscopes, in 25 chapters. It is still the most authoritative work on the subject. Almost all the later writers on this branch of Jyotisa from Kalyanavarman, author of the Saravali have drawn upon it. Each verse in the work bears ample testimony to the ability of the author to express briefly without sacrificing what is intended to be said, and to his poetical talent and command over the use of metres. He wrote it after studying almost all the previous authors on the subject. Among those who are referred to are Maya, Yavana, Manittha, Parasara, Visnugupta, Devasvamin, Siddhasena, Jivasarman and Satya or Bhadanta (also spelt as Bhadatta), the last receiving greater importance for his views than the rest. The Laghujataka is an abridgement of the Brhajjataka. The Yogayatra and the Vivahapatala, as the names indicate, deal with the auspicious times for journeys and marriage, respectively. Manuscripts of both the works are known to exist. The contents of the Yatra are given at the end of the Brhajjataka and some believe that this work, consisting of three chapters, is a supplement to the Brhajjataka. The Tikkanika Yatra is a further condensed work on the subject. 

The Brhatsamhita, a work on the Samhita branch, is Varahamihira’s magnum opus and also the work, which, as we know at present, he wrote last. It consists of 106 chapters with a total of nearly 4000 slokas. The range of subjects dealt with here is very large, including the effect of movements of planets and natural phenomena on human life, geography, characteristics of Khadga (sword), Angavidya (Samudrika), architecture, iconography, auspicious and inauspicious characteristics of men and animals (elephant, horse, dog, goat, etc.), omens. Manufacture of cosmetics, Vrksayurveda (Botany), science of precious stones, etc. there is a chapter in praise of women. It is more a poem than a chapter on women. Varaha, as noted already, possessed a great poetic and aesthetic sensibility.  

The Brhatsamhita must have been of immense use to people, particularly to kings of ancient India, providing guidance in their daily life in respect of many things. A critical study of this work is very important from the point of view of our cultural history. It shows the range and wide sweep of Varahamihira’s mind. 

By enriching and preserving  all the branches of Jyotis, Varahamihira acquired for himself not only the eminent position of the greatest author on the subject, but he kept the lamp of knowledge alight for posterity. No wonder that the tradition puts him on the same pedestal as Dahanvantari and Kalidasa. 

Sources and Further Reading

Bag, A.K. 2000. Mathematical and astronomical heritage of India. In Maths, Astronomy and Biology in Indian Tradition (Eds.) D.P. Chattpadhyaya et al. New Delhi: PHISPC. 

Bose, D.M., S.N. Sen and B.V. Subbarayappa.(Eds.). A Concise History of Science in India. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. 

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad.(Ed.). 1981. History of Science in India. Volumes 1& 2. New Delhi: Editorial Enterprises 

Sarma, K. Madhava Krishna. 1990. Bhaskaracarya. In V. Raghavan (Ed.) Scientists. Delhi: Publications Division.

Posted Sept 27th 2004

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