Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Astronomical evidence and the Upanishads

A famous Flemish emeritus professor recently reacted to my off-hand mention of a date for the major Upanishads, viz. “second millennium BCE”. He thought that this should be 900-500 BCE, a date obviously borrowed from the textbooks. It is no big deal that a Western philosopher, not specializing in the chronology of Indian history, should abide by the received wisdom in this matter; but the few specialists know it to be highly controversial.

When scholar upon scholar claims just as off-hand that the Brhadaranyaka, Chandogya, Katha etc. Upanishads date from 900-500 BC, I always wonder: how do they know this? Where did they get it? The texts themselves never give such a date, nor other premodern texts referring to them.

A few scholars even date them all later than 500 BCE, the time of the Buddha. Animated by the “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good” doctrine, they are puzzled by the existence of undeniably profound ideas in the Upanishads, clearly related to the Buddhist teachings, so they want to explain these as “borrowed from Buddhism”. Of course, the notion of Buddhism as a separate religion was constructed only recently, by the first Western Buddhologists, whereas Hindu tradition rightly considers the Buddha as only one of the Hindu sect founders/leaders of his time, though for sociological reasons (his high birth and top connections) the most successful one. Hindu writers of idol-making manuals treat the Buddha on a par with Krishna and the others.

At any rate, the linguistic anteriority of the preclassical Sanskrit of the Upanishads date them to before the Buddha and to his probable contemporary Panini, the codifier of classical Sanskrit. Though most Western and Westernized scholars share this “Hinduism bad, Buddhism good” framework, they still agree that the great Upanishads definitely predate the Buddha. That is why these works don’t refer to any specifically Buddhist concept.

But for them, 900 BCE is more than enough time distance to 500 BC. The Upanishads should not be dated earlier, for then the Aryan invasion framework runs into difficulties. This is roughly as follows:

·         1700-1500 BCE: Indo-European or “Aryan” nomads invade India;

·         1500-1200 BCE: they compose the Rg-Veda;

·         1300-500 BCE: they compose the other Vedas and their ancillary literature;

·         900 BCE onwards: among these writings are the Upanishads.       

In Chinese history, all important and numerous unimportant events are dated precisely from at least the 8th century BCE, and approximately so for a thousand years earlier. In Indian history, by contrast, many important events or the birth years of famous persons are only vaguely known, mostly but not even always in their proper chronological order, and without any absolute chronology. We maintain that the usual estimate for the first Upanishads misses the mark by at least five hundred years.

There are only few chronologically relevant references in the Upanishads, and that mostly to other insecurely dated characters of Hindu literature. Thus, Yajnavalkya of Brhadaranyaka fame wins a debate at the court of king Janaka of Videha, and this king is usually taken to be the father of the Ramayana’s heroine Sita, also known by her patronymic Janaki. But that doesn’t get us very far, if only because the paucity of data makes it difficult to be sure that the same Janaka is meant, as this is not an unusual name. But the larger literary framework contains better chronological clues.

The ecliptic was divided into 28 lunar houses, like in China and Arabia, rather than in the 12 Babylonian-Hellenistic signs of the Zodiac. The precession of the equinoxes, at 1° per ca. 71 years, makes data about the relation between fixed stars and equinoxes or solstices or other seasonal phenomena into a secure chronological pointer. For instance, an ancillary work of the Vedas, the Vedanga Jyotisha (“Veda-Ancillary of Stellar Science”, at that time meaning astronomy though now used to refer to astrology), conventionally dated to 500-200 BCE, dates itself twice to ca. 1350 BCE, viz. by explicitating which stars are on the winter solstice and spring equinox points. This is an explicitly post-Rg-Vedic texts, so the Rg-Veda was already complete by the time the Aryan Invasion Theory lets the Aryans invade India. It is quite amusing to read the mental and verbal acrobatics which conformistic scholars try out to neutralize this inconvenient evidence.

 The Atharva-Veda lists all the lunar houses, starting with Krttika/Pleiades, presumably because it was on the spring equinox point, which it was ca. 2300 BCE. The Yajur-Veda also gives this position thrice. But could this not be a reminiscence, a classical enumeration which endured even when the asterism concerned had, after some 900 years, shifted and left the place of honour to the next asterism? Unlikely, for astrologers typically change the list to reflect the changing of asterisms on the equinoctial point; they no longer treat Krttika as number 1. The Shatapatha Brahmana, traditionally held to be from the same period (but which modern textbooks date to 900 BCE or so), later than the Rg-Veda but just before the Upanishads, confirms this synchronism by referring to the same position, telling us that Krttika “never swerves from the east”, i.e. from the equinox, the intersection of ecliptic and equatorial plane. This passage, like the Vedanga Jyotisha passages, is part of a practical instruction under which to conduct a certain ritual, so it is observational par excellence, not a traditional prayer-type text where an ancient reminiscence might have survived.

The Kaushitaki Brahmana points to the same period, ca. 2300 BCE, by means of a different astronomical pointer, viz. the star Regulus on the summer solstice point. Another text where the position of Regulus is mentioned, is the epic Mahabharata, but there it is said that an event, the death of the hero Bhishma coinciding with the full moon near Regulus, took place after the winter solstice, i.e. centuries after 2300 BCE.

The importance of this information is that it shows how the astronomical evidence does not always support a high chronology. Indians say that the war described in the Mahabharata took place in 3139 BCE. This is based on the length of the Four Ages given in the Puranas, a type of mythohistorical literature from the first millennium CE. The doctrine of Four Ages is very ancient, attested also in Greek and Germanic mythology, but their quantification is apparently linked with the precession of the equinoxes, discovered by Hipparchos ca. 150 BCE and introduced in India only in subsequent centuries. There are no pre-Hellenistic mentions of the fourth age starting in the 32th century BCE, 37 years after the Mahabharata war, as Hindus traditionally (i.e. Puranically) believe. The astronomical evidence of the Mahabharata itself, however, points to well after 2300 BC.   

This lower chronology is supported by another passage from the Puranas. As said, it mixes historical data with mythology, so we have to be very cautious, but the following sentence is sufficiently clear. The Puranas record that either 1050 or 1015 years elapsed between the birth of Mahabharata hero Arjuna’s grandson Parikshit and Magadha-based emperor Mahapadma Nanda’s coronation in either 378 or 382 BCE. This puts the Mahabharata war (predating Parikshit’s birth by less than a year) in about 1400 BCE. This is earlier than the textbooks’ date of 900 BC, but lower than the traditional date. It is further confirmed by archaeological periodization. The second half of the second millennium BCE marked the high tide of chariot warfare, cfr. the war between the Hittite and Egyptian empires or the Trojan war. Chariot warfare is central to the Mahabharata story, not some literary addition by a later editor. And there was simply no chariot warfare in 3139 BCE.

According to Hindu tradition, the grandfather of the Mahabharata heroes is the one who ordered the Vedas in their definitive and still prevailing form: Krishna Dvaipayana alias Veda-Vyasa, “analyser/editor of the Veda”. In the oldest Upanishads already, the Rg-, Sama- and Yajur-Veda are mentioned as known and complete wholes. So, the Upanishads started at or after the time of the Mahabharata battle, though at a different location. The Bharata clan was based between the Yamuna and the Saraswati/Ghaggar, in present-day Haryana, while Yajnavalkya, the philosopher featured in the first Upanishad, is shown winning a debate at the court of king Janaka in Mithila, in the present-day Bihar, far to the east. At any rate, the first eight or so of the Upanishads easily predate the Buddha. The line of thought laid down in the Upanishads thus had almost a thousand years to develop, between the Mahabharata war (ca. -1400) and the Buddha (-500).

Conclusion: the astronomical evidence (not treated in its completeness here) is internally consistent, faithfully following the relative chronology of the different Vedic writings, e.g. it does not date the Upanishads earlier than the Rg-Veda. It is higher than the conventional AIT chronology, irreconcilable with it. But it is also lower than some of the wilder chronologies popular in India.


Turbolag Panja said...

Great Article Sir...BB Lal said around 9th century BC for Mahabharata War

but I can believe the 14th century BC timeline as it is also the time of chariot warfare between Hittites and the Egyptians

ysv_rao said...

If India is an old enough civilization ,it is quite possible chariots were around before 14th century BC and the technology was exported to the Near East via the Mitannis for instance

It is this discrepency between the traditional Mahabharata dating of 3100 and the 1000 year gap between Mahapadma Nanda(350 BC) that compels some scholars to drag Nanda back 2000 years and claim that Chandragupta Maurya was not Sandracottus of Seleukus fame

The trouble with that theory is that Emperor Ashoka, Chandragupta Maurya's grandson is that rare monarch in Indian history whose inscriptions and foreign relations can be pinned down to specific dates

My opinion : I hold on to the traditional Mahabharata dating as well as the commonly accepted Nanda/Maurya dating around the Macedonian invasions

How to reconcile the two: Simple some geneologies were tampered with by the likes of Nandas to give them greater respectability

A good chunk of knowledge was lost when the Huns destroyed Taxila and Muslims Nalanda.
Many Brahmins who used to transmit and record geneologies orally were also killed. There are some gaps in Indian history that possibly may not ever be filled

Alexandros Demos said...

I have been reading some posts, now im looking forward to get some of your books. I also have been reading a little bit from Eisel Mazard, ¿what do you think about his research on Theravada? Regards from Perú.

Virendra said...

Mr. Elst what do you have to say about the Arundhati observation given in Mahabharata?
How does that influence your “internally consistent” astronomical data?

Virendra said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shravan Tanjore said...

The Shukla Yajurveda was entirely composed/seen by Rishi Yagnavalkya, does not the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad form a part of it?. If so how come Yagnavalkya could have composed the Shulka Yajurveda before the Mahabharata events and The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad after those evevts?. We would have to then believe that he lived during the same time if so how come Mahabharatta does not mention him as a contemporary?.

I think there might be a passage in the Ramayana in which Ram and Hanuman are discussing the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

Koenraad Elst said...

@Shravan: I have only affirmed that the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad must al least be 500 years older than usually assumed. Further narrowi,g down should be aimed at, and will requirz sime work. In this particular case, we do not dispose of astronomical data (to my knowledge), and scriptural references have their own problems. Thus, the editorial history of the epics is based on a fairly accurate eyewitness testimony, but then keeps piling on this centuries worth of data pertaining to other events. Thus, the Mahabharata refers to the Yavanas/Greeks, who only appear on India's borders a Thousand years after the battle. It would indeed already be something it wz could establish the chronological relation between the Bharata battle and the older Upanishads. You are right that the writing of the Yajur-Veda, the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and early Upanishads overlaps. So we have our work cut out before us, and please keep your feedback coming. Meanwhile, we can at least agree that the school version has a far too low chronology, and that scholars declaring 800 BC or so for the Brhadaranyaka are just guessing

Shravan Tanjore said...

I found your speculation very interesting but just had a doubt. I do not see why you will need my feedback, I know I can ask good questions and will continue to but I am not an expert.

Shailesh Tupe said...

Sir, a very interesting topic. What I have observed about ancient India is that people have been extremely knowledgeable and yet did not bother to adhere to recording events chronologically nor did the bother to proudly associate oneself with any discovery. Imagine the knowledge of astronomy at that time. It clearly shows that sages were aware of the paths taken by planets very accurately which is possible only if it is known that planets (including earth) revolve around Sun and Moon revolves around Earth as they were also aware of Rahu & Ketu. Interestingly, this also means that they were aware that Earth is spherical in shape. Though this knowledge may not reflect always in lesser public domain as it was not required then and even now for our day to day life. In a way, even now we say that Sun rises & sets for convenience. WIth the profound knowledge of vedanta and respect for sages who scripted upanishads that people or even kings had, I don't think these people were type who would invade. Maybe there could be battles between Kingdoms but invasion is highly unlikely. They were and are not aggressive enough imo.

Gururaj BN said...

Dear Dr.Koenraad Elst, This is another view, though I claim no authority on linguistics. Languages take long time to change or evolve. @0th/21st century are an exception because of growth of speedier transportation and communication brought speakers of different languages together and influenced each other. But, in the age of Rg Veda or later vedas, such evolution or change in language would have taken longer time. The difference in the sanskrit language of Rg Veda and those of even Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is so diffferent, the latter is more easily comprehended in the original, by a person who has learnt classical sanskrit, than a hymn of Rg Veda. Such evolution in language can take very long time. I would estimate that the evolution of pre-Paninian sanskrit between Rg Veda and Brihadaranyaka could have easily taken a millennium, in an age where contacts amongst peoples was difficult and slow. This would also put the date of old prose Upanishads to at least mid second millennium BCE.

Kev A said...

Pls help promote dharma.Thanks http://www.speakingtree.in/blog/myth-buster4-was-vanavas-a-punishment-and-was-sita-deserted-by-ram,http://www.speakingtree.in/blog/were-balabhadra-and-arjuna-getting-cold-feet, http://www.speakingtree.in/blog/was-draupadi-molested, Was Mahabharat justified?http://www.speakingtree.in/blog/mahabharata-a-dharmayudh-based-on-swadharma

Pls read and share if you like to help get rid of myths about ramayan and mahabharat