2015 New Year in South and Southeast Asia – Mar 21 or Apr 14/15?

2015.4 Indian New Year

In India, the Hindus celebrate the New Year from the month of Caitra which begins from the New Moon, and in which the Sun enters “Aries” (Sanskrit: meṣa). Whereas, in Southeast Asia and certain parts of India such as Bengal, the New Year starts directly from “the moment the Sun enters Aries” (Sanskrit: meṣasaṃkrānti = Thai: songkran). Since the Gregorian calendar is solar, the latter Indian (solar) New Year is more or less fixed at around Apr 14/15. The former (luni-solar) Indian New Year is always close to the latter, but moves around depending when the New Moon is.


But what is the true significance behind either of these New Years?


Just like all the calendars, Gregorian, Chinese, etc., they preserve a distant memory of the past. The latter Indian New Year was originally associated with spring, when the vernal equinox was located in Aries at around 400 CE. (Due to precession, the equinoctial point has now moved to Pisces). This coordinate system was originally developed by the Greco-Babylonian astronomers a few centuries before the common era and was adopted by the Indian some centuries after the common era. Prior to that, the Indians used only a luni-solar calendar like the Chinese.


The concept behind the former luni-solar Indian New Year beginning with Caitra is therefore much older. In the Vedas, Caitra is associated with spring (vasanta) as well, but was associated with the vernal equinox at a much earlier date at least a thousand years earlier, located in the nakṣatra Kṛttikā (close to Taurus).


Although both the contemporary Indian New Years are completely arbitrary, tied to Aries which carries greater meaning in astrology than in astronomy, we can nonetheless see beautifully how precession brought us from Taurus (former luni-solar India New Year), to Aries (latter solar Indian New Year), and to finally Pisces (where vernal equinox is currently located).


While on the topic of astral science, I should point out that today we have the Sun, Mercury, Mars in Aries and the Moon in Taurus.


A belated happy new year to all my friends who celebrate the Indian New Year(s)!

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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