The Dharmic Sun
by Vijaya Rajiva on 15 Jan 2014 17 Comments

Many ancient civilisations (Mayans, Aztecs, Egyptians, Babylonians) have been sun worshippers. They have fallen by the way side and Hindu civilisation alone has survived for several millennia, despite brutal conquests and occupations. The Rig Veda inaugurated the worship of the sun in India, through an elaborate set of rituals called the yajnas, which have persisted to this day. These fire sacrifices, major and minor, animate the life of the subcontinent.


The major reason for this survival is that the Rig Vedic Rishis made the sun the centre of their religious devotion and this devotion was not only internalised but made the subject of intense philosophical speculation. While the physical dimensions of the rituals continued apace, they generated a set of core values that have continued to dominate the Hindu universe. These are Rtam, Satyam, Yajna, Dharma, Brahman. An enormous network of social practices arose concurrently.


It is this combination of ritual, religious practice, philosophical speculation, the evolution of Sanskrit (the special language of Hinduism) and attendant social practice provided the vast and impregnable network that has stood the test of time and resulted in the continued strength of the Hindu world. Needless to say, undesirable, unacceptable social practices that later sprang up, have been and have to be diligently weeded out.


Let us look at the beginning of all beginnings, the Rig Vedic worship of the sun, made possible by the knowledge embedded in Hindu astronomy. What follows below is a summary of information collated on Hindu Astronomy in Gods, Sages and Kings (David Frawley, 1993). Essentially, there are two central themes involved here; one, the Vedic peoples knew about the precession of the equinoxes, and two, the dating of the four Vedas is possible because of the astronomical references contained therein.

The central point about Vedic knowledge of astronomy is the knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes and following that the times of the seasons, the spring and winter solstices. The Vedic yajnas (the fire sacrifices) were timed with these events: “Precessional changes were the hallmark of Hindu astronomy, the essence of the system. We cannot ignore them in ancient texts just because they give us dates too early for our conventional view of human history” (p.148).

The Precession of the Equinoxes

The equinox is the time when the earth’s plane is at exactly the midway point at the sun. This happens during the year when the earth moves in its orbit around the sun. However, the sun, the planets, the moon, the earth are all in constant slow motion in the universe. The earth which is spinning around its own axis every twenty four hours is also spinning with that axis in the universe. The is simply the division of the Sun’s path into 12 longitudinal spaces (constellations) in which the planets also move relative to the Constellations and the Sun. the constellations have been assigned names such as Aquarius, Libra in the west; the Hindu zodiac has its own names.

Hindu astronomy uses the sidereal year, which means it takes into account all of the above mentioned movements of the heavenly bodies, against the fixed stars. Early western astronomy calculates the motion of the sun against the zodiac and the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Hence, they used what is called the Tropical year.

The change in the earth’s motion relative to the sun is known as the precession. The earth rotates once a day on its axis, while this axis itself rotates slowly completing a rotation in 25, 800 years. The precession of the equinoxes moves in a westerly direction, in opposition to the easterly motion of the sun in its path (called the sun’s ecliptic). Hindu astronomers calculate this and other motions of the heavenly bodies against the fixed stars. The stars are the clocks; the precession changes every 25,800 years.

Hindu astronomy also uses the lunar calendar, that is, a calendar based on the motion of the moon as observed against the fixed stars and the zodiac and the sun’s path. This motion is observed not mechanically from one full moon to another, but from the moon as it returns at full moon in exactly the same position among the fixed stars. Likewise, in what is called a sidereal year (which Hindu astronomers used) the sun’s path is observed as completing a cycle when it reaches the same position against the fixed stars.

Vedic astronomers carefully watched the heavens for a variety of changes so that their rituals could be held at the proper time: The Vedic people recorded calendrical positions over long periods of time that required adjustment relative to the precession. That is the main point. This is not to say that they were always aware of the full cycle or rate of precession. The Vedic ritual year… began with the winter solstice after which the rituals were done in reverse order. So the ritual was linked to the solstices, which make sense with the connection of Agni and the Sun and the seasons - which was the main factor symbolically. Agni as rtvik is connected to the seasons.

At the same time the Vedic calendar was based upon Nakshatra months, adjusted with intercalary months as needed. The Vedic sages noted that the times of the month and points in the Nakshatras at which equinoxes and solstices occurred changed over time (about one full Nakshatra every thousand years). This required calendrical changes or reforms periodically, which made them aware of precessional changes. (Frawley; informal discussion).

A Nakshatra month is the period between one full moon and the next full moon as it reaches its position among the Constellations. This motion is also mediated by the zodiac and the sun’s ecliptic. Hence, the Hindu astronomer/astrologer takes into account the motion of sun, moon and the planets.


Scholarly Interest in Vedic Astronomy

The references in the Rig Veda and the Brahmanas can help establish the date of the composition of the four Vedas, the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda. Frawley dates the Rig Veda to approximately 6000 BC: “When ancient people observed the stars, they saw a different orientation than we do today. The seasonal points of the solstices and equinoxes fell among different stars than they do now. This is because of slow changes in the earth’s orientation to the constellations according to the precession of the equinoxes.

The Vedas present such ancient astronomical positions in many places. These have been largely ignored because they give dates much earlier than those conventionally ascribed to Vedic culture, and because there is a tendency among Western scholars not to trust any astronomical data from the Hindus... However, such a calendar as the Vedas mention must have worked to some degree or it would not have been used. An obsolete calendar, like a bad clock, wouldn’t have sufficed for such important things as agricultural planting and sacred rituals” (p.147).

The Dharmic Sun

The writer has previously stated (‘Rtam and the Rig Veda’, Haindava Keralam, Nov. 4, 2011) that there are five central themes in the Rig Veda: Rtam, Satyam, Yajna, Dharma and Brahman. Prof Shivaji Singh mentions these themes in his essay ‘The Continuity of Vedic Culture: New Paradigms’ (2010). All five themes originated in the Vedic worship of the Sun: Rtam (cosmic order), Satyam (the existential truth of the cosmos) Yajna (rituals), Dharma (social practice) and Brahman (the sacred word). All later developments in Vedic religion can be traced back to these five original themes.

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