Research Article

By Dr. Buddhike Sri Harsha Indrasena, Sri Lanka
First version: December 2013
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In this modern era two types of zodiacs can be found in use among the astrologers. These are called tropical zodiac popular in western countries and the sidereal zodiac popular in Indian subcontinent. Both zodiacs use the same zodiac names starting from Aries (Mesha) and ends with Pisces (Meena). The terms sidereal and tropical are modern inventions to differentiate the two types of zodiacs in use. Sidereal refers to ‘related to stars’ and tropical refers to ‘related to tropics’, the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn. The zodiac that is related to the stars is called sidereal zodiac and the zodiac that is related to the solstices is called tropical zodiac. The tropical zodiac starts from the point of intersection of the ecliptic and equator. The sidereal zodiac starts from an arbitrarily or otherwise predefined point along the ecliptic. The Surya Siddhanta1 (chapter 1 page 14) describes a kind of zodiac in the Madhya Gati chapter as follows:

It is clear from the above verses that the author of the Surya Siddhanta1 describes a zodiac which starts from the end of Revati asterism consisting of twelve signs each consisting of thirty degrees. As a result this zodiac completes a full circle of 360°. Since this zodiac has been described in relation to the stars (Revati asterism) it can be called as sidereal zodiac. The Surya Siddhanta1, the author relates zodiac signs to seasons as follows (chapter 14 page 267):


Research Article

By analysing the stanzas like above in the scriptures some scholars have opined that the zodiac starts at the vernal equinox. If it starts at the vernal equinox it is needless to say that the ending point is also the next vernal equinox. Since the zodiac has been related to the onset of the seasons this kind of zodiac can be referred to as tropical zodiac. Obviously the Surya Siddhanta cannot be talking about a sidereal zodiac in the latter instance when it gives the position of the equinoctial and solstice points in it. This is because equinoxes and solstices can coincide with the beginning of Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn only once in one cycle of precession. It is not possible to the zero of sidereal Aries to coincide with vernal equinox more than once in one precessional cycle. Therefore some scholars are forced to think that the zodiac is tropical and the starting point of tropical Aries is the moment of vernal equinox. If the latter concept is followed, in every year the beginning of Aries would be the moment of the vernal equinox. However because of the precession of the equinoxes the distance between two consecutive vernal equinoctial points does not amount to a complete circle of 360°. At present the rate of precession is about 51” per year. Therefore if this theory of tropical zodiac was followed the tropical zodiac would complete one cycle of twelve signs in 359°59'09" rather than 360°. This is 51" short of the span of a circle of 360°. From this it is clear that the tropical zodiac related strictly to seasons is not a meaningful one because the seasons do not complete a full circle along the ecliptic. The zodiac can never be from one vernal equinox to the following vernal equinox because the span between the two consecutive vernal equinoxes s is never 360° but 54" (average for the whole precessional cycle2) less than that. The sidereal zodiac is described with reference to the stars. As per the Surya Siddhanta its starting point is the end of Revati asterism and each sign is of 30° completing one whole circle of 360°. Therefore there is no controversy in the definition of the sidereal zodiac.


Research Article

Tropical longitudes
However the astronomers measure the longitude of stars with reference to the vernal equinox, and it can be found that the longitudes vary from 0° to 360°. It is worth finding out if the tropical zodiac is short of 360° how it is possible for the modern astronomers to give celestial longitudes within a range of full 360°. Since the vernal equinox is ever moving the measurement of longitudes with reference to a moving vernal equinox is highly complicated. Further vernal equinox to next vernal equinox distance along the ecliptic does not cover a full 360° circle as described above. To circumvent these problems the astronomers calculate longitudes with reference to a vernal equinox of a particular year taking that vernal equinox as stationary with reference to the stars. One such reference point is the position of the vernal equinox at noon on the Terrestrial Time scale on January 1, 2000 CE. This is the standard epoch in use today, and is known as 2000 Jan 1.5 TT (JD 2451545.0) or simply J2000.0. This point lies in the early part of the astronomical constellation known as Pisces. Since the astrological sidereal zodiac closely follows the astronomical constellations it can be said that the vernal equinox of J2000.0 epoch lies in the early part of sidereal astrological Pisces. A new standard epoch is chosen every 50 or 100 years; the future epoch will be J2100.0. Before about 1984 CE, the coordinate systems dated to 1950 CE or 1900 CE were commonly used. In an epoch based system the vernal equinox is stationary for the given period of years. For example the longitudes of planets in 2014 CE are measured with reference to the vernal equinox of 2000 CE and not with reference to the vernal equinox of 2013 CE or 2014 CE. The beginning and the end points in this system is the vernal equinox of the same year rather than the vernal equinox of the next year. Therefore this cycle of vernal equinox to vernal equinox of the same year covers a full 360° circle. Although it is not possible to fit a 360°-zodiac in a vernal equinox to next vernal equinox cycle, it is possible to fit 360°-zodiac in a vernal equinox to same vernal equinox cycle. In effect the astronomical tropical longitudes are similar to the sidereal longitudes with the only difference being periodic shift of the reference point in accordance with the epoch, i.e. the vernal equinox of the epoch. The introduction of epochs enabled the astronomers to convert vernal equinox to next vernal equinox incomplete cycles (359°59'06") 2 to a complete circle of 360° facilitating them to introduce a celestial coordinated system based on the vernal equinox or seasons.

Epochs in Vedas
A similar epoch based system can be seen in the ancient Vedic astronomy texts. The ancient astronomers, too, had tried to fit the 359°59'06"-seasonal cycles to 360°zodiac by taking reference points periodically. This allowed them to locate the seasons by looking at the sky at dawn. For example once they located the onset of winter season when the 4/5 star group known as Dhanishta was seen rising at dawn. Another time they located the onset of winter when they saw the zodiac sign Capricorn was rising at dawn.


Research Article The stanzas of the Surya Siddhanta and other Vedic scripts that relate seasons to the zodiac can be considered as epochs of that era. Since solstice to next solstice of the same name or equinox to next equinox of the same name do not complete a full circle of 360° but 360° minus the rate of precession of equinoxes of that year, it is impossible to fit a 360°-zodiac into the seasonal cycles of 359°59'06" without considering epochs.

The Surya Siddhanta
The author of the Surya Siddhanta had related the beginning of Capricorn to the winter solstice and the beginning of Cancer to the summer solstice (chapter 1 Madhya Gati1).

As a result the time of ingress to Capricorn was taken as the onset of northward course of the sun during his period. The currently available version of the Surya Siddhanta is dated to a period of 3rd century BCE to 6th century CE by many scholars. The above stanza is similar to modern astronomers taking the vernal equinox of J2000.0 (in the early part of the constellation of Pisces) to represent vernal equinox for another 100 years. The fact that the Surya Siddhanta is talking about an epoch is further strengthened by incorporating two signs in each season, which are six in number. If the author is talking about a true seasonal year from one vernal equinox to next vernal equinox or one winter solstice to next winter solstice it is not possible to fix 12 signs of 30° making a 360° circle in a vernal equinox to next vernal equinox cycle of only 359°59'06". In Chapter 12 (Bhugoladhyaya1) the Surya Siddhanta says (page 249)

These stanzas describe how the length of the day increases gradually from the vernal equinox towards the summer solstice and shortens from the autumnal equinox towards the winter solstice. One cycle of six seasons completes one seasonal year. However this does not cover a complete circle of 360° along the ecliptic but 359°59'06"2 only. If so how is it possible to fit a 360°-zodiac in a seasonal cycle of 359°59'06"2? Therefore this is again an expression related to an epoch measuring


Research Article seasons from one vernal equinox to the same vernal equinox (rather than the next) after one seasonal year, and this is similar to the epochs described by the modern astronomers.

The Vishnu Purana
This text is dated to 1st century BCE to 4th century CE. The following stanzas relate seasonal points to zodiac names in Vishnu Purana3. Part II, Section VIII, page 139

Part II, Section VIII, Pages 141 and 142

Clearly the above stanzas exactly relate the seasons to the zodiac, i.e. 359°59'06" seasonal cycle to 360° zodiacal cycle. This is possible only with defined epochs. Otherwise it is not possible in nature. The epochs described in the Surya Siddhanta and Vishnu Purana are same. Both texts belong to a same time period.

The Vedanga Jyotish
A different epoch is seen in the Vedanga Jyotisha4, which is thought to have been compiled in 1400 -1200 BCE. Section IV Text 19, Page 45


Research Article

The winter solstice can coincide with the beginning of Dhanishta asterism only once in one precessional cycle. Many scholars attribute the Vedanga Jyotish to period around 1400 BCE. It is unlikely that the Vedanga Jyotish was valid only for that particular year. Just like J2000.0 epoch is valid for another 100 years the winter solstice of the Vedanga Jyotish was valid for a number of years probably until Varahamihira who used a different epoch of 3rd century CE. The epoch of the Vedanga Jyotish is different from the epoch of the Surya Siddhanta by 23°20'00". The fact that Lagadha was also talking about an epoch is confirmed by the following stanza: Section II, Text 10, Page 38

In a season there are 4.5 asterismal segments. In a year there are six seasons. Therefore in a year there are 27 asterismal segments, i.e. one complete circle of 360°. Had Lagadha talked about the true seasonal year from winter solstice to next winter solstice it would not have been possible to make such a statement because the span of true seasonal year is only 359°59'06".

Sidereal and tropical year
Sidereal year
A sidereal year is the time taken by the earth to orbit the sun once with respect to the fixed stars. Since the Surya Siddhanta considers one revolution of the planets as the movement of the planets from the end of Revati asterism to the same point after one cycle of movement, the reference star has to be the junctional star or the principle star of the Revati asterism. The longitude of the junctional star of Revati has been given as 359°50' in the Surya Siddhanta1 (chapter viii, page 177). However this star is not visible nowadays. All the stars in the region of Pisces, including the famous zeta Piscium, are quite faint stars. The other possibility is that Spica (Chitra) as the reference star. This is because the Surya Siddhanta1 gives Spica’s longitude as a whole 180° (chapter viii, page 177). No other star has got a rounded longitude like that of Spica in the Surya Siddhanta1. The ancient astronomers determined the sidereal year by comparing the distance between the moon and the sun before sunset and the distance between the moon and the reference star (Spica) when the star appeared after sunset. After considering the motion of the moon during the interval it was possible for them to determine the distance between the sun and Spica daily until the sun completed one revolution with


Research Article respect to that star. Given below are the lengths of the sidereal year measured by astronomers in the past (the Surya Siddhanta1, page 24).

The modern value of sidereal year is 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes, 9.54 seconds in units of mean solar time8.

Tropical year
The definition of a tropical year has changed over centuries because of the complexity of its measurement. Until the beginning of the 19th century, the comparison of the dates of equinoxes and solstices was practically the only way to find the length of the tropical year5. This is better termed equinoxial or solstice year. The seasonal cycle was measured in the past by observing the north/south movement of the position of sunrise6. On equinox days the sun rises exactly in the east or sets exactly in the west. On solstice days these points will be the farthest from the exact east or west. This is not easily measurable except in high altitudes. As a result although the seasons have been mentioned in the Surya Siddhanta the length of the tropical year has not been mentioned. The Surya Siddhanta1 (chapter 1, page 13) defines a solar year with respect to the zodiac, which is 360°, as opposed to seasonal cycle, which is only 359°59'06".

The credit goes to Hipparchus of 2nd century BCE as the first scientist to measure the length of the tropical year5.

It was Hipparchus who made, for the first time, the distinction between the tropical and sidereal year. Due to the nutations and planetary perturbations the tropical year is not constant from year to year as seen below5.


Research Article

Since the angular speed of the sun is not uniform along the ecliptic the length of the tropical year based on solstices is different from the tropical year based on equinoxes as seen below5.

Since the tropical year is subjected to so many variations it is no wonder why the ancient Vedic astronomers ignored the tropical year in their writings.

There cannot be a zodiac of 360° confined to the seasons because the seasonal cycles are shorter than the span of a circle by the yearly rate of precession of equinoxes (359°59'06" on average). To circumvent this problem the modern astronomers define epochs and the current epoch is vernal equinox of J2000.0 coinciding with the first quarter of Pisces. Similarly the astronomers of Vedic period defined epochs. According to Lagadha the epoch was the winter solstice coinciding with the beginning of Dhanishta asterism. In the era of Varahamihira the epoch was the vernal equinox coinciding with the beginning of Aries constellation. There could be other epochs, too. The tropical year is also not Vedic because it is subjected to so many variations. In the same breath it has to be concluded that the tropical zodiac cannot be a reality because the seasonal year covers only 359°59'06". Only the sidereal year and sidereal zodiac must have been in use among the Vedic astronomers and astrologers in the past. The difference between the true vernal equinox of the 21st century and the vernal equinox of the epoch of Varahamihira is nearly 24°. Therefore it is necessary to define a new epoch as applicable to the 21st century for the benefit of cultures that still practise Vedic sciences.


Research Article

1. Ebenezer Burgess, Translation of Surya Siddhanta, E Hayes, New Haven 2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

1860, pp. 14, 249,267. B. S. H. Indrasena, “Understanding time through Surya Siddhanta”, The Jyotish Digest, 10( 2013) M. N. Datt, Vishnu Purana, H. C. Das, Calcutta 1896, pp. 139, 141, 142. K.V. Sarma, “Vedanga Jyotish of Lagadha”, Indian Journal of history of science, 19(1984) 38, 45 J. Meeus, D. Savoie, “The history of the tropical year”, J. Br. Astron. Assosc., 102(1992) 40 – 42. N. Chidambaram Iyer, Brihat Samhita of Varahamihira, Souts Indian Press, Madura 1884, p. 12.