Greek Astronomy

Frontier research in Sanskrit genethliacal astrology (jātaka)

Among the earliest philological research done on the Greco-Indian astral science was undertaken by the Dutch orientalist Henrik Kern, who was known mostly for his works in Buddhist and Austronesian studies. Kern studied Utpala’s commentaries of the Bṛhatsaṃhitā and Bṛhajjātaka in the late 19th century and most of the jyotiṣa entries from the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English dictionary are based on Kern’s notes (not entirely reliable as Kern was only in his twenties then!) Subsequently, a number of important historical studies on the jātaka was published by P.V. Kane around the 1950s, followed by David Pingree from the 1960s onward. The Indian and Western scholars followed largely Kane and Pingree’s footsteps, with notably Indo-centric vs. Greco-centric bias. A much more balanced approach was undertaken by the Japanese scholars, most notably Yano Michio and his student Sugita Mizue, who jointly published an annotated Japanese translation of the Bṛhatsaṃhitā in 1995 . In addition, Sugita produced the e-texts of a number of key jyotiṣa work such as the Bṛhatsaṃhitā and the Bṛhajjātaka.

The next step of jātaka studies would be a comprehensive comparative study of the major Greco-Indian Jātakas, namely Sphujidhvaja’s Yavanajātaka, Mīnarāja’s Vṛddhayavanajātaka and Varāhamihira’s Bṛhajjātaka. At the moment, the e-texts of all the texts together with key passages and citations in Utpala’s commentaries have been prepared. For the past three years, Yano and myself have read and analyzed Utpala’s commentary on the Bṛhajjātaka (80% complete as of today). This summer at the World Sanskrit Conference, I will present my new edition of the Yavanajātaka. Today at a drinking party, Yano and myself have decided to begin our reading of the Vṛddhayavanajātaka once our reading of the Bṛhajjātaka is finished, probably some time before the end of the year.

The comparative study of the three jātakas will reveal most likely the historical relation of the three texts and to point us to the right direction in terms of what kind of Greek astrology it was supposedly based on. Since the origin and the earliest form of Greek astrology are rather sketchy, perhaps some important clues may be gleaned from the Sanskrit sources.

Moving forward in the study of the oldest Indo-Greek astral text, the Yavanajātaka

The Yavanajātaka, “Genethliacal astrology of the Greek,” has long been thought to be the earliest Sanskrit treatise on Greek astrology. New reading and evidences suggest however that David Pingree’s dating of the original by Yavaneśvara (149/150CE) and translation by Sphujidhvaja (269/270CE) is untenable. In the first place, there has all along been only one author, Sphujidhvaja, who was known also as Yavaneśvara. Furthermore, there was no date given in the colophon. The dates were Pingree’s own emendation (!).

A number of vexing questions remain. If this important text is not as old as we thought, when was it composed then? What kind of Greek astrology and astronomy was it based on?

It turns out that a lot of elements of this work cannot be traced to any known extant Greek sources. Pingree in some cases would argue that the Indians have preserved what has been lost in Greece. But it is clear that the Yavanajātaka contains many Indian or even specifically Vedic elements. For Pingree who insisted that “there is nothing original in Indian astral science,” these apparently non-Greek elements for him could only be interpolation. Rather than following Pingree’s convoluted arguments, a simpler solution to the problem may be that the work was an amalgamation of Greek and indigenous Indian astral science from the very beginning. In fact, the last chapter on mathematical astronomy is largely Indian, with core concepts such as yuga, tithi, nakṣatras and mentioning of Indian sage such as Vasiṣṭha.

References: Mak 2013:16; Mak 2014:73-75.

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