[Public Lecture] Brahmins, Monks and Their Astral Lore — The Origin, Development and Transmission of Greco-Indian Astral Science in South Asia and Beyond

6:00 PM
ISAW Lecture Hall

Bill M. Mak
ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

Described by the Indian scholar and Sanskritist P. V. Kane as “a problem not satisfactorily solved,” the introduction of a new form of astral science in India during the early centuries of the first millennium C.E. which resembles its Greco-Babylonian counterpart has been a heated topic in Indian historiography and history of science between Indian and Western scholars. Subsequent to the meticulous comparative analysis of David Pingree and his 1978 publication of a critical edition of the Yavanajātaka (“Genethliacal astrology of the Greeks”) dated to the second century C.E., a great number of questions concerning the origin and evolution of Greco-Indian astral science were clarified. However, with the recent discovery of new manuscripts and other materials, the issues appear to be far from being settled and some of Pingree’s widely accepted assertions now require serious reconsideration. As it turns out, this Greco-Indian astral lore which impacted not only the South Indian subcontinent, but reached as far as Japan and Southeast Asia, was far more than just a local adaptation of a foreign science; it was part of a bigger picture of the circulation of knowledge in pre-modern Eurasia and a testimony of the ongoing negotiation and acculturation of ideas as cultures and traditions came into close contact with each other.

Bill M. Mak completed his linguistic training at McGill University (B.A. Hons.) specializing in Sanskrit and East Asian languages and received his Ph.D. in Indian literature and Buddhist philology from Peking University. Mak held a number of research and teaching positions at Hamburg University, University of Hong Kong and Kyoto Sangyo University, before his current appointment as Associate Professor at Kyoto University and Visiting Research Scholar at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University. Among Mak’s academic interests are Sanskrit Buddhist literature, historical Sino-Indian relation and Indian astral science (jyotiṣa). Since 2012, Mak has been invited to present over thirty papers and lectures in topics related to Sino-Indian and Buddhist culture and Indian astronomy, in India, China, Taiwan, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

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The Mystery (or Mistake?) of the Grand Central Station Celestial Ceiling

The starry ceiling was one of the artistic marvels of New York’s Grand Central Station when it opened in 1913. The constellations are based largely on Johann Bayer’s star atlas Uranometria (1603), which is the first Western atlas to cover the entire celestial sphere. Astronomically the Grand Central atlas is reversed from East to West and it was widely believed to be a mistake made when the artists transferred to the ceiling the draft provided by Columbia University’s Harold Jacoby, professor of astronomy. While some had argued that this corresponded to the ancient practice of representing the Heaven from without instead of from within, a commemorative postcard which is supposed to represent the original design indicated that the constellations were indeed painted backward.

The atlas contains also a number of additional quirks which are of historical and general curiosity: (non-)reversion of Orion, the Triangulum Minus (non-standard constellation) was added during the 1945 restoration, and the hole above Pisces left from the time when the Redstone missile was exhibited in the Main Concourse in 1957, after the Soviet Sputnik was launched in the same year.

Photos 1: Grand Central Terminal celestial ceiling. The ceiling shows “left-to-right” from Aquarius to Cancer (here only to Orion, below Taurus).

Photo 2: Comparison of Orion with that of Uranometria (from Daniel Thurber, Untapped Cities)

Photo 3: Commemorative postcard from the “New Grand Central Terminal”

Crystals, demon worshipping and psychobabble

As a simple Buddhist who reads Buddhist texts and tries to understanding and practice the teachings of the wise, I am always bewildered by how others experience Buddhism, especially here in America.

I had a delightful visit to the Rubin Museum yesterday. I was somewhat surprised by the museum activities. One was apparently a Hare Krishna group teaching about female deities, followed by chanting with great exuberance. Another was a crystal healing workshop with many participants accompanied by their yoga mats. Both groups, which numbered to probably 50 in total are exclusively female. Not exactly the crowd I would expect in an otherwise serious and respectable museum. I was quite certain that I was witnessing a new religion.

I was particular curious in how the curators explained the sexual and demonic deities in Himalayan Buddhism which baffled so many, myself included. The explanation is nothing unexpected, in manner critics would label as “psychobabble”. Granted, there is always a metaphoric and psychological way to look at everything. Indeed Sexual Bliss could be a metaphor for Enlightenment, and a perpetually erect penis for potency (this one I do not doubt!). But when it comes down to what it is, the sexual elements in these Tantric form of worship originated in transgressive practices found commonly in Tantric Śaivism. As for the wrathful deities, their origin is no different from those of shamanic religions. Were native practitioners ever explained or need to be explained that the blood, severed heads are all just symbols? In reality, practitioners follow such practices most likely for anything but Enlightenment.

In an age of tolerance, I must say that I have as much respect to these practices in Tibetan Buddhism, as I do to the teachings of the Jehovah Witnesses. I do not mean this sarcastically because I have genuine friends who are fervent believers. But crystals and demons definitely do not belong to the Buddhism I understand or practice. And no amount of psychobabble is going to convince me otherwise.