Identity and genetic trail of the Saka tribes – II
by Jayasree Saranathan on 13 Jun 2021 1 Comment

Did an “Old” Saka exist?


Some inscriptions written in Brahmi or Kharoshthi are found to indicate an unspecified era. Scholars refer to it as the Old Saka with some of them linking with it the Jyothisha Siddhanta of Bhaskara II. Since Siddhantic tradition adheres to the Saka era of Kali Yuga, it is blatantly wrong to suggest that Bhaskara had given the date of Siddhanta Shiromani from the “Old Saka”. To put at rest the mis-information of linking the Siddhanta with the Old Saka, let me examine the list of inscriptions on the so-called ‘Old Saka’ given in Epigraphia Indica, Volume XIV.


Written in Brahmi or Kharoshthi these inscriptions carry the year number either as the regnal year of the king or the year number of an unspecified era that goes upto 399. Most of these inscriptions mention the month name, while some of them state the tithi and the day of the month. Notable is the fact that the month name is not always Vedic. In some inscriptions the Greek name of the corresponding Vedic month is given.


The 1st inscription from Taxila refers to the month as “Panemus” – the Greek equivalent of Ashadha – Sravana of the Vedic system. This name was never in use in India. The king was ‘Moga’ (Maues) of foreign origin who occupied Bactria and Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan where this inscription is found. There is no name of an era (Saka) but the statement of 78 years could not be the regnal year of the king.


Another inscription is also found in the same region (Taxila) attributed to king Azes, again a foreign name, made in the year 136. He is identified as a Kushana King by the author in the Epigraphia Indica volume (no. 8 in the list). This was issued on the same Ashadha month but on the 15th day, which could refer to the day of the Full Moon. The absence of any reference to the Full Moon - a tithi in the Vedic system - can have only two explanations, that the tithi system was absent in the time scale of this dynasty or there was no importance to the day of Full Moon as in the Vedic system. Only borrowed material can appear devoid of core elements.

All the inscriptions (Epigraphia Indica, Vol. XIV) mention the Vedic months and some of them the tithis too. Most of these inscriptions were made in the times of the Kushana kings having their own era. “Gushanasa rajami” in Panjtar inscription (No. 7) is an obvious reference to a Kushana king. The Kushanas were not of Indic origin but moved from north China to Greco-Bactria as per the Chinese Book of Later Han. [] The Hellenistic influence on them is seen in the names of the months in the inscriptions. One-way transfer of the elements of Time from Vedic to Greek is inferred from the adaptation of the tithi-months that have their own cycles traceable from the beginning of Kali Yuga.

An era is obviously detected in inscriptions No. 11 and 12 while the others refer to the regnal year of the king. The 13th inscription was made in the reign of Devaputra Kanishka of Kushana dynasty in the month Daisika, a Greek name. The appearance of the Greek month name in the inscription need not be construed as proof of presence of Greek language in the local vernacular.


Generally the text of the grant is dictated or given by an officer of the royal court at the order of the king. Greek names popping up here and there in the inscriptions show the mix of local and Greek language in the royal court. It is also probable that the issuing officer was of Greco-Bactrian origin. However the use of tithi-lunar month is proof of the absence of indigenously developed Time computation in the Kushana tradition but a liberal borrowing from the Vedic calendar. In this backdrop the year numbers running up to 399 and 384 could only refer to the beginning of their dynasty. 


The month name “Apelaios” in the 17th inscription is also alien to the Vedic calendar. But the tithi of that month appearing in the inscription goes to show that only the month name was altered, and nothing was done about the tithi “Dashahi” (Dasami).


The common features running through all these inscriptions are,

-        No name of the era is found in any of them. They have only recognized a certain beginning and counted the years from that.

-        The blend of Greek names suggests the origin of these kings as different from the Indo-Scythians or the ‘Sacae’ tribes. The location and the language suggest connections with the Yavana tribes, who however appear along with the Saka-s in Indic references to Mleccha tribes.

-        The Kushana kings appearing in these inscriptions with Greek names indicate a high probability of Yavana- Kushana association in the past.

-        All these inscriptions similar in language (either Brahmi or Kharoshthi) and in the expression of the dates point to a same dynasty, i.e. Kushana.


The common features hint at the Yavana-Kushana connection and the assimilation of the features of the Vedic calendar tradition. Historically too, the Yavana-Kushana connection had existed. A brief historical analysis is done on their beginnings to pick out the relevant connections.


Kushana history


The Kushana origins are traced to the Yuezhi tribes from the valley of Gansu on the northern borders of China who migrated to the north of the Oxus River (Amu Darya). Bactria in this region was earlier lost to the Saka tribes by the Greeks. The Saka tribes present at the time of Yuezhi migration were driven out to the south by the Yuezhi. This happened sometime during the 2nd century BCE.


The Khalchayan archaeological complex in that region represents the transition of the Yuezhi into Kushana leadership. [Hans Loeschner, “Notes on the Yuezhi – Kushan Relationship and Kushan Chronology”] The Khalchayan also reveals a “bridge between the Hellenistic art of Bactria and the Hellenized Kushan Art.” [Kazim Abdullaev, “Nomad Migration in Central Asia”] After making Khalchayana their base, the Kushanas started moving out. They conquered the south of Oxus and then entered the Indian subcontinent through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taxila inscription by Moga could perhaps be the earliest inscription by the Yuezhi-Kushanas.


There is an alternate opinion that Moga was a Saka king. This is supported by the remaining part of the Taxila inscription stating, “of the Kshaharata and Kshatrapa of Chukhsa-Liaka Kusuluka by name - his son Patika - in the town of Takshasila.” This can also be read as the identity of the donor, Patika, and not the king. All these inscriptions in Kharoshthi and Brahmi indicating donations to Buddhist or Jain establishments, it is probable that the pilgrims of different ethnicities and different locations could have visited Taxila ruled by the Kushanas.


More details are available in the literary sources of the Chinese on Yuezhi migration. According to the Chinese book called “Shiji” (Book of History) authored by Sima Qian, the Yuezhi tribes (mentioned as Da Yuezhi) initially migrated westward from Gansu in China. The defeats they suffered on the way pushed them into Bactria in the north of Oxus in the year 176 BCE. A Chinese Ambassador by name Zhang Qian had visited them in the year 129/128 BCE and found them well settled by then. [Hans Loeschner, “Notes on the Yuezhi- Kushan Relationship and Kushan Chronology”] It is more likely that they founded the Kushana dynasty and an era as well sometime between 176 and 129 BCE. According to scholars they had their own language that resembled the Saka language. The Bactrian influence had lent Greek words into their vocabulary. This is reflected in the inscriptions found in the Indian sub-continent.


There are diverse opinions among western scholars on the number of eras deduced from Yuezhi-Kushana coins and inscriptions. Up to three different eras are hypothesized by them, but all of them are unsubstantiated. This uncertainty added to the confusion of those working on the date of the Siddhantic works which can never refer to an era outside the Kali era format.


The unspecified “Old Saka” seen in the above inscriptions can be resolved through another literary source – an astrological text of the Yavanas. This text written in Sanskrit and titled as “Yavana Jataka” refers to only one era of the Kushanas besides referring to an era of the Yavanas. It also gives a conversion formula between the Kushana and Yavana years. This greatly helps in solving the mystery of the so-called “Old Shaka” and also to prove that it has no connection with the Siddhantic references to the Saka years.


The Era of the Yavanas


The Yavana Jataka is an astrological text of horoscopy written in Sanskrit. Two authors are recognized in the colophon of the text in its last chapter. The text was composed by Yavaneswara or Yavanacarya in his native tongue and was made into Sanskrit by the King Sphujidhwaja. An alternate version exists in Bhattotpala’s commentary to Brihat Jataka that both are the same.


In the last chapter of Yavana Jataka the author makes significant references to the Yuga of the Yavanas and the Saka of the Kushanas. The Yavanas had a great Solar Yuga and a Smaller Yuga for predicting eclipses. [Yavana Jataka: 79-2] The Yavanas had followed a Yuga of 165 years. While stating this it is also told that some Yavanas find it good to follow the opinion of sage Vasishtha, but according to the best of the Yavanas the Yuga consists of 165 years! [Yavana Jataka: 79-3]


The reference to Vasishtha reminds us of the earlier occasions the Yavanas were saved from Sagara by Vasishtha and the Yavanas coming to fight on behalf of Vasishtha against Vishwamitra to restore the sacred cow. The Yavanas seemed to have enjoyed cordial relationship with the lineage of the Vasishtha-s and at some point of time received the knowledge of astrology from one of the Vasishtha-s. By the time of the composition of Yavana Jataka, parallel development of astrological theories seemed to have taken place. A major theory seems to be the idea of the Solar Yuga of 165 years. This is something unheard of anywhere in the world.


Yavana Jataka continues to describe the marker for this Yuga. “This solar Yuga begins on the first tithi in the Sukla paksa of Caitra in the Spring, when the Sun and the Moon in their course are in conjunction in the first degree of Aries and when Aries is in the ascendant (i.e., at dawn).” [Yavana Jataka: 79-4]


The conjunction of all the planets except Rahu at the beginning of Aries marked the beginning of Kali Yuga. In contrast the Yavana Yuga started at the conjunction of only the sun and the moon at the beginning of Aries with Shukla Pratipat running at sun rise.


This implies that the sun entered Aries on the day after Amawasya in Caitra. This close conjunction of the two luminaries at Caitra Shukla Pratipat in the beginning of Aries can happen in Nija masa, with the previous month being Adhika Caitra. Adhika Caitra can recur once in 15 to 17 years on an average. There is another rider implied by the verse. The conjunction at the beginning of Aries means that the star Aswini was transited by both the sun and the moon.


Additionally one more feature is given in the same text, pertaining to the week day. It was a Sunday when the Solar Yuga of 165 years began.


Thus there are four features:

1) Caitra Shukla Pratipat

2) Aswini

3) Sunday

4) 165 year cycle


Of these four, the conjunction of the first three can happen only once in 1890 years (LCM of 30 tithis, 27 stars and 7 week days).This number can be more if Adhika masa occurrence is included. Each cycle starting every165 years, the probability of this conjunction is stretched to 20,790 years. (The LCM of 30, 27, 7, 165 = 20,790)


At best the subsequent cycles (of 165 years) could have started at Caitra Shukla Pratipat. This is the same as the Yugadi observed in South India every year. The unique date of the conjunction of the four factors was grabbed by the Yavanas to herald a new Yuga of their own.


Yavana Jataka further states the number of elapsed years of the Saka when the Solar Yuga began. [Yavana Jataka: 79-14] Sunday as the first weekday of the Yuga is stipulated in this context. Let me reproduce two translations. [Bill M. Mak, “The Date and Nature of Sphujidhwaja’s Yavanajataka Reconsidered in the Light of Some Newly Discovered Materials”]


Pingree’s Translation:

When 66 years of the Sakas have elapsed, that is the truth (i.e., foundation) of the calculation of time. At dawn on Sunday begin that year and the yuga of the Sun.


New Translation:

When 56 years (of the yuga) have gone, this (i.e., the following) is the (upper) limit of the reckoning of time for the Sakas. On a Sunday in the yuga of the Sun, the Sun moved progressively; the beginning of that year is the beginning of the yuga of the Sun.


The verse clearly states the beginning of Ravir Yuga (Yuga of the Sun) on a Sunday (Surya Dina). The confusion comes in the number of elapsed years, whether it is 66 or 56. Number 56 is more acceptable as half of hundred (50) and six.


The main issue is the “idam Sakanam” of the elapsed years.

Idam: this

Sakanam: of the Saka (Plural, 6th case)


Fifty six years of “this Saka” were gone when the Ravi Yuga started at the conjunction of the sun and the moon at the beginning of Aries on a Sunday when Shukla Pratipat was running – this is the import of the verse. The first year of the Saka – the first year of Ravi Yuga = 56 years.


The identity of this Saka is variously debated, with many writers referring to the Shalivahana Saka of 78 CE. But in the absence of even a suggestive reference to an outside era such as Shalivahana or Vikrama anywhere in the text that is totally devoted to the astrology of the Yavanas, we are led to treat this as the Saka of the Yavanas. If it is a Vedic Saka, the author would have indicated as he did when he quoted Vasishtha’s name to clarify that the Yuga of the Yavana was different.


To decipher the date of the Yavana Saka we have to find out the Ravi Yuga beginning. I checked Jhora astrological software to locate the date of Ravi Yuga when the sun and the moon joined at the beginning of Aries on a Sunday at the time of Shukla Pratipat. It threw up the biggest surprise. The date was close to Caitradi Vikrama Saka! Since the Yavanas were located north-north west of India, I had taken up Srinagar for checking the date.


All the features mentioned in Yavana Jataka are fulfilled in this date.

-        Aries lagna

-        Sun- Moon conjunction with the sun having just entered Aries

-        Caitra Shukla Pratipat

-        Sunday


As expected Nija Caitra began on that day. This date coincided with Vikrama Saka at Kali 3045, a year later than the originally devised Vikrama Saka date. This was discussed in the last part where I showed the rationale of Kartikadi Saka of Vikrama in the year 57 BCE after the lapse of 3044 years of Kali Yuga. By Caitra of 56 BCE, a year was gone in Vikrama Saka of 135 years. That year was taken as the first year of Ravi Yuga by the Yavanas considering the once-in-twenty thousand year plus conjunction.


The rarity of the date explains why the Yavanas had two time scales, a Saka era and Ravi Yuga. They had originally conceived the Saka era. Nearly half a century later they must have witnessed the Vedic people gearing up for the change of their Saka from Yudhisthira to Vikrama. Unfortunately the Vedic people seemed to have been caught in a dilemma on the choice of the starting date between Caitra Shukla Pratipat on 57 BCE when Yudhisthira Saka formally ended at Kali 3044 and the same tithi of the next year (56 BCE) with alignment of the Sun and the moon as they were at the beginning of Kali Yuga. They settled in between the two on the day of Tula Sankramana in 57 BCE having the conjunction of many features.


The 56 BCE date was available up for grabs by the Yavanas who in spite of having started a Saka era by then, chose to make it part of their time scale by starting a new Yuga from then onwards.


Fifty six years of the Yavana Saka were gone by then when this Yuga was started. This locates the beginning of the Yavana Saka at 112 BCE (56 years before 56 BCE). Therefore “idam Sakanam” in the verse cannot be about Vikrama Saka or Shalivahana Saka but a Saka of the Yavanas.


Further evidence for this Saka of the Yavanas appears in the next verse. Let me clarify two features, one about the simulation used for locating the Yavana Yuga and the other about Bhattotpala’s reference to a Saka when Sphujidhwaja composed his work.


Jhora Surya Siddhanta works for dates closer to zero ayanamsa


The Ravi Yuga date could be derived only from the Surya Siddhanta astronomy and not from any other system. No researcher could get this Ravi Yuga right mainly because they had used western astronomy based calculations which work on standard approximations for past dates. But the date of the Yuga coming closer to zero degree ayanamsa, I checked with the Surya Siddhanta model and it concurred perfectly. [Zero ayanamsa years in Surya Siddhanta Model: 3101 BCE, 499 CE] For comparison, let me show the same date for Lahiri ayanamsa, based on current rate of precession approximated to 2000 years ago, almost in the same way the western astronomy calculations are made.


The tithi had changed though it was a Sunday. But the sun was in Pisces, away from Aries by 4 degrees. It would take four days for the sun to reach Aries but by then the moon would have entered Taurus and the tithi would have advanced. No other year comes closer to the required parameters. This is a very clear proof of unworkability of Lahiri ayanamsa beyond a few centuries in the past.


Bhattotpala on Saka of Sphujidhwaja


Bhattotpala in his commentary to verse 7-9 of Brihat Jataka has referred to a “Saka” when Sphujidhwaja made his composition (Yavana Jataka). He has written,

 “eva? sphujidhvajak?ta? sakakalasyarvag jñayate


eva? = thus, so, really

sphujidhvajak?ta? = done by Sphuji Dhwaja

sakakalasya  = of saka kala

arvak = near, within,

Jñayate = is known, are understood

Sphujidhwaja had done a work (Yavana Jataka) close to a Saka era, is the overall meaning.


The identity of the Saka era mentioned here is a matter of debate. If Bhattotpala had meant the Yavana Saka, it means Yavana Jataka was composed close to the beginning of the Saka, i.e. 112 BCE. The gap between Yavana Saka and the Yavana Yuga is too huge to be treated as ‘arvak’ (on this side, from a certain point).


Considering the details of Ravi (Yavana) Yuga described in Yavana Jataka more or less on the lines of Vedanga Jyothisha, Yavana Jataka seemed to have served as the rule book for the Ravi Yuga. In all probability Yavana Jataka must have been composed close to the beginning of Ravi Yuga, i.e. just before that - outlining the details of that Yuga.


This notion is supported by the fact that the details of the Ravi Yuga appear only in the last chapter, as a kind of addendum. Any earlier Yavana writer, say, Yavanacarya recognized in the text could not have conceived the Yavana Yuga. This also rejects Bhattotpala’s version that Yavanacarya and Sphujidhwaja were the same. Sphujidhwaja had Sanskritized an earlier text of Yavanacarya and added a chapter on Ravi Yuga.


It must have been completed before the Ravi Yuga started in Caitra 56 BCE. At that time the nearest Saka was Vikrama Saka, not the Yavana Saka which was 56 years away. With the Yavana Yuga starting too close to the Vikrama Saka there is scope to interpret that Bhattotpala meant Vikrama Saka only. It is logical to expect anyone to remember or relate the development of a new astrological system of an alien group to one’s own calendar date. Bhattotpala had recorded that memory handed over through generations.

The Kushana Era


After stating the start of the Ravi Yuga, Sphujidhwaja goes on to give a formula to derive the elapsed years in the Ravi Yuga for the corresponding Kushana years. [Yavana Jataka: 79-15] The existence of the Kushana Era is made known from this.

“Take the number of years that have passed of the Kosanas, add 149, and subtract from this (sum) the time of the Sakas (i.e., the year in the Saka era); (the remainder) is the number of years in the yuga which have elapsed.”


The verse speaks about the Kushana (Saka) years and a Saka besides the Yuga of the Yavanas. Taken along with the previous verse, the Saka is understood to be that of the Yavana (112 BCE).


The verse gives a conversion formula between the Kushana years and the Ravi Yuga years using the Saka years. The known factors are:

-                Yavana Saka started in 112 BCE

-                Yavana Yuga started in 56 BCE

-                There is a gap of 56 years between Yavana Saka and Yavana Yuga.


Deduction of Yavana Saka years from a constant number 149 added to the Kushana years shows that the Kushana Era was older than the Yavana Saka.


In modern calendar years, Ravi Yuga = 56 BCE

By adding 93 years to that we get the first year of the Kushana Saka = 149 BCE (-56 (+) -93).




With the verse conveying a relationship between the Kushana and the Yavana Saka it appears that it was meant to be a formula for deriving the first year of the Kushana Saka. We cannot miss out the fact that the derived date (149 BCE) remarkably matches with the beginning of Kushana dynasty.


On the basis of the Chinese book of Shiji, we earlier derived that the Kushana Dynasty was formed sometime between 176 and 129 BCE. The now derived date of Kushana Saka at 149 BCE is well within this period. The literary, archaeological (Khalchayan) and astrological derivations are concurrent with each other on the date of the Kushana Saka with the astrological input giving the exact date.


The Saka dates derived so far are listed below:

Yudhisthira Saka = 3101 BCE (Vedic)

Vikrama Saka = 57 BCE (Vedic)

Yavana Yuga = 56 BCE

Yavana Saka = 112 BCE

Kushana Saka = 149 BCE

Our search for the Old Saka ends at the last two which were not Vedic, but used by the people in the domains occupied by the Yavanas and Kushanas.


It is erroneous to term these two as Old Saka-s. They were Mleccha Saka-s as far as Vedic, particularly the Siddhantins were concerned. A Jyothisha Siddhanta can never declare the date of composition from a Mleccha Saka. As such Bhaskara II could have never taken any of these Saka-s of Mlecchas to specify the date of composition. Our next task is to establish the identity of the Sakakaraka of Shalivahana Saka.


(To be continued…)

See also: Identity and genetic trail of the Saka tribes – I

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