Mandala Of Indic Traditions
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.
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
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
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
Posted Sept 27th 2004
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