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S¯yana’s Astronomy a .

Subhash C. Kak Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering Louisiana State University Baton Rouge, LA 70803-5901, USA FAX: 504.388.5200; Email: Indian Journal of History of Science, vol. 33, 1998, pp. 31-36
Abstract In his commentary on the Rigveda, the fourteenth century scholar S¯yana mentions a specific speed for the sun which can be used to dea . termine the distance to the sun. Vartak has interpreted this statement to stand for the speed of light but we cannot place that in any reasonable historical context. The distance to the sun implied by S¯yana’s a . statement suggests that there was another astronomical tradition in India which is now lost. KEYWORDS: Medieval astronomy, solar system, Siddh¯ntas a



S¯yana (c. 1315-1387) was a minister in the court of King Bukka I of the a . Vijayanagar Empire in South India; he was also a great Vedic scholar who wrote extensive commentaries on several ancient texts. In his commentary on the fourth verse of the hymn 1.50 of the Rigveda on the sun, he says1 tath¯ ca smaryate yojan¯n¯m sahasre dve dve ´ate dve ca yojane a a a. s ekena nimis¯rdhena kramam¯na namo ’stu ta iti a. .a


from the Mah¯bh¯rata. The well accepted popular scientific figure is 186. half a nimesa equals 8/75 seconds.. the passage is not an interpolation. to 400 A.1 miles per second..1-3. The yojana is a well known unit of distance and the value ascribed by Vartak is the usual one.and according to Mah¯bh¯rata. edges that he is only quoting from an old tradition. We have no knowledge that S¯yana was an astronomer and he acknowla . we cannot place such knowledge in context.5 Even if one argues that there was no standardization of measures in the ancient world and the specific values assigned by Vartak for yojana and nimesa were not used by all the ancient authorities. velocity of light comes to 187. We do know that in the Indian tradition a finite speed was associated with the astronomical processes.300 miles per second. which means that one nimesa is 75.4 The specific definition of a nimesa is there given by 450 × 30.202 yojanas in half a nimesa.3 S¯nti a a Parva. . But if one discounted that possibility then. 16 nimesa = 1 muh¯ rta (48 minutes). fact that there could be mention of a finite speed of light three centuries before that discovery by Roemer is not believable. Furthermore. which is usually assigned to 400 B.084. the fourteenth century. wanting evidence of instrumentation that would have allowed an actual measurement of the speed of light to have been made in medieval India of S¯yana’s time. Padmakar Vishnu Vartak in a recent book2 has argued that this statement refers to the speed of light. onds. Taking 1 Yojana = 9 miles. Thus in the S¯rya Siddh¯nta 2.0625.22 miles per second. a ..1 .D. From all accounts. He says.3 secu . 231. There are those who would suggest that consciousness reflecting on itself can obtain such quantitative information. So should we take the statement of S¯yana as an amazing coincidence? a .] bow to you. you who traverse 2. . the u a 2 . If calculated on this data the . Sir Monier Williams gives one Yojana equal to 4 Krosha = 9 miles. so we label this note as “S¯yana’s astronomy” only in the sense of what was known by his time in a .C. the only way Vartak’s interpretation can be justified is to assume that the speed was a lucky guess..” This is astounding because it is in remarkable agreement with our current knowledge about the speed of light! Vartak’s reference on the nimesa . ´a 110 yards = 9 1/16 miles = 9.413. “One Yojana is equal to 9 miles. a a is correct. the velocity comes to 186. just the . ..Thus it is remembered: [O Sun.

toward their own place. stationed in the zodiac (bhagana). of invisible shape. Can one consider the possibility that nimesa in S¯yana’s statement only a . forward or backward. this would make this choice just an astonishing coincidence. .motion of the planets is described in terms of the action of cords of “air”: Forms of Time. they proceed by a varying motion. attached to these beings by cords of air. then. moreover. its orbit.202 yojanas in relation to a figure of speech. being drawn away forward and backward. then should we take it to be the speed of the sun? That this is likely is because the luminaries were taken to move at speeds that were more or less fixed. 2 On nimesa and yojana . and node (p¯ta).202 yojana to half a nimesa was chosen . no need to give a precise figure of 2. It is possible that the speed of 2. that light must have also been compared to a wind and thus taken to have a finite speed. with the right and left hand. just to make the time spent by light on its journey from the sun to the earth equal a round number in some convenient units. are drawn away by them.858. For the other planets this speed was considered to be 11. if Vartak’s interpretation—that the statement refers to the rays of the sun—is wrong. called the conjunction (´¯ sıghrocca). In such a situation. Again. A wind. One would assume. means the “twinkling of an eyelid”– the usual non-technical meaning of the term? This possibility is not credible because then S¯yana would have had a . a “thousand (for ‘a large number’) yojanas in a 3 . In this note we explore the implications of this interpretation that S¯yana’s remarks referred to the speed of the sun in a . apsis (mandocca). called provector (pravaha) impels them toward their own apices (ucca). are causes of the motion of the planets. .75 yojanas. a The planets. On the other hand.6 The important point here is that gravitation is expressed in terms of a force which is compared to a wind. according to nearness.7 and there was a corresponding tradition regarding the speed of the sun.

e. He takes nr (man) to be equal . 4 .000 cubits [“cubit” is hasta. the definition a . to 96 angulas and then he considers a yojana to equal 8. distance covered before the yoke is taken off. 9.” Nimesa. This amounts ˙ .8 which is attributed to Kautilya (320 B.000 dhanus or 32. It is a stage.600 yojanas. including in one commentary by Yallaya. 499) is different. . who lived just a century later than S¯yana in South India.000 nr. We see the same definition of yojana in most astronomical texts over several centuries. a writing a century later. second. the height of a person. ¯ of yojana by Aryabhata (c.C. a yojana is 8.1 miles approximately. Burgess provides the following commentary on the unit of yojana:11 The usual reckoning makes the yojana equal 32. assigning about 6 feet to it is reasonable. The definition of nimesa in the Pur¯nas generally agrees with that given a. So it seems .000 dhanus (dhanus means bow.. 150 nimesas equal 1 kal¯ and 80 kal¯s equal one muh¯rta (48 a a u . a .nimesa (for ‘a twinkling of an eyelid’)” might have been used. One dhanus is considered equal to 108 angulas (fingers). which is approximately 9 miles.000 hastas. hand. . ¯ to his yojana being equal to approximately 7 1 miles. This means that one nimesa equals 25 or about one-fourth of a . A dhanus is also taken to be equal to one paurusa. Yojana is an ancient measure which we come across in a a the Rigveda. . sources.9 On the other hand.10 Aryabhata takes the . quite certain that a specific meaning of the term nimesa is meant here. so . uses another definition of yojana so that the earth’s diameter is 1. i. and a nimesa is given by the equation that .050 yojanas. Yojana.20 of the Artha´¯stra. 18 nimesas = 1 k¯sth¯ a. 8. 2 earth’s diameter to be 1. one can speak of what should be the “standard” unit of yojana and nimesa by considering astronomical texts.): sa . and according ˙ to Kangle it has “reference to the ‘yoking’ of bullocks. in the Mah¯bh¯rata.12 According to these . but it is also sometimes regarded as composed of 16. and it is accordingly estimated by different authorities at from four and a half to rather more than ten miles English. whereas his commentator Bh¯skara I. 6 minutes). Nevertheless. which ought to be close to 18 inches].000 cubits. taken to be about 6 feet). This is how the two units are defined in the chapter 2. . .

6 that the heavens are 1.s . ¯ be 459. 16 6 8 variants being 1 . S¯yana’s statement can be used to determine the distance Rs to the sun. definitions.000 earth diameters away from the earth. 5 .6 × 106 yojanas. If S¯yana was using a .3 . a short measure of yojana then his estimate was only 10 times greater than ¯ the modern value. . indicate that the Indians knew that the orbit of the sun was not perfectly symmetrical. Rs .—which was typical for the ancient and the medieval 1 world until the time of Copernicus and Brahe. 25 . The earliest of these is the statement in the Pa˜ cavim´a Br¯hmana n a . 5 3 The Distance to the Sun We first note that there exist many traditions regarding the distance to the sun. Aryabhata’s estimate—and a similar . a ¯ ¯ Aryabhata. nimesa is approximately one-fifth to one-fourth seconds: the four . 75. a .13 Here we are interested in reviewing the tradition about the distance to the sun during the Siddh¯ntic period.30 k¯sth¯s = 1 kal¯ a. The correct value for the distance is 93 million miles. There are other references in the Br¯hmanas that a . 8×π ¯ This is approximately 740 times larger than the estimate during Aryabhata’s . This amounts to the distance to the sun being equal to Rs = 2202 × 90 × 60 × 60 × 12 ≈ 340. and 45 . On the other hand. Since the sun was taken to be half-way to the heavens this indicates a distance of 500 earth diameters. assuming the same yojanas were used. We have π × Rs = speed/hour × 12 hours. time. But remember that Aryabhata uses a measure of yojana . 96 14 which is 108 of the standard yojana. in his Aryabhat¯ 1. to ıya . gives the distance of the sun. .15 was about 27 of the correct value. 16.6.8. estimate by Ptolemy.585 yojanas. a a 30 kal¯s= 1 muh¯ rta (48 minutes). In the various . a u 8 This amounts to one nimesa being equal to 45 seconds.

have considered the solar system to be enormously large trying to reconcile this size to the huge numbers related to the cycle of 8.). to mean the speed of the sun. M¨ ller.V. 1995. S¯yana’s a . ment becomes approximately 3. a . the distance of the sun by S¯yana’s statea . statement. these may be two sources to begin looking for non-Siddh¯ntic and “non-standard” astronomical notions current in the foura teenth century. Perhaps. if interpreted as the speed of light.000 million miles which is almost as far as the far reaches of the solar system. a.64 billion years in the Pur¯nic theory of the kalpa. If we take this to be no more than a coincidence and interpret S¯yana a .If we use the standard yojana. The Indian books also speak of lost Siddh¯ntas.. Delhi. Oxford University Press. comes pretty close to the true value. References and Notes 1. Max (ed. P. Collecting astronomical references in the various Indian texts that do not fit into the standard Siddh¯ntic models may lead to the recovery of a some of the lost traditions. This second interpretation also leaves us with an unresolved puzzle. This tradition may a . 4 Concluding Remarks Even considering the “standard” measures of yojana and nimesa. the resolution of this puzzle lies in the recognition that there existed astronomical ideas in India other than those which have survived as the extant Siddh¯ntas. 1890. Vartak. a a S¯yana appears to quote from one such lost tradition. Nag Publishers. called the K¯la-M¯dhava) and a commentary on the Par¯´ara-Smrti known a a as . The referee of this paper notes that S¯yana’s a . as the Par¯´ara-M¯dhav¯ as a ıya. brother M¯dhava wrote two books on astronomy. then we get a distance to the sun which is much greater than anyone could have imagined before the speed of light was actually computed by Roemer. 6 . . Scientific Knowledge in the Vedas. 2. London. the K¯lanirnaya (also a a . Rig-Veda-Samhita together with the Commenu tary of S¯yana.

E. The Kautil¯ Artha´¯stra. K. Basham. Burgess. 1976. a ı.. ¯ ¯ 14. Motilal Banarsidass.M. Mah¯bh¯rata (G¯ a Press Edition). 1970. chapter 231. page xliii.. S¯nti Parvan. Bh¯rat¯ya Jyotisa. Sidgwick and Jackson. page 43. 1967. A. 11. Lakhanau. The Wonder that Was India. Shukla. 1976. O. page 422. verse 12. 6. it. page 19. 12. Aryabhat¯ of Aryabhata. Basham. 1989 (1860). Aryabhata uses another measure of yojana a . . ıya. The Mah¯bh¯rata.. 15. Ganguli. Burgess. page 155. ¯ ¯ 9. A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy. R. In the Aryabhata-siddh¯nta.´a 3. New Delhi.. Shukla. pp. Delhi. 1963. 1967. Academy. K. 7. The S¯rya Siddh¯nta... Motilal Banarsa . ¯ which is two-thirds the one in the Aryabhat¯ .S. 1975. Neugebauer. This whole question will be discussed in a separate paper. page 504. ıya . 7 . Delhi. Translated from Marathi into ıks ´ a ı . D¯ . ´ Hindi by S. Springer-Verlag.L. 505-506. Indian National Science . S. Jh¯rkhand¯ Hindi Samiti. 10. 13. Berlin. 5.P. Kangle. a a Delhi. ıya sidass. Munshiram Manoharlal. a a ıt¯ 4. 1986 (1972). B. 1989. 8. 1896. London.. vol 9. u a page 53.