(Extracted from talks at Vikasa, Rishikesh, December 2016. A session on Indian astronomy)
Astronomy is also called Jyotisha. Jyotisha is one of the Vedangas. Before the study of the Vedas, the Triveda, or the Chaturveda – Rig, Sama, Yajur, Atharva, one had to go through the study of the Vedangas. (Veda + Anga; Anga meaning “limbs”. Vedangas are considered the limbs of the Vedas)
The Vedangas were 6 in number – Nirukta, Vyakarana, Chandas, Shiksha, Kalpa and Jyotisha.
The first 4 – Nirukta, Vyakarana, Chandas, Shiksha – dealt with language and its construction. For example, Shiksha was phonetics. Nirukta was etymology, root words and derivations from root words. A simple example is how scientific the whole design of the language was. Just to illustrate that, in Sanskrit “Vid” means “to know”. Vidya means knowledge. Vidyarthi means a student or seeker of knowledge, or one for whom, artha, wealth, is knowledge. Vidyashala or Vidyalaya means alaya, abode of learning. Vidyapeetha, seat of learning. Vidvan, expert. All these are interrelated. From one root word, you could derive. But in English, if you look at these words – student, university, knowledge, school – these seem to be purely memory based. You need to use brute force methodology to just remember them. And connect them with each other. They are not cognitively interconnected. They are separate cognitive aspects but you need to somehow connect them together with experience. But that is not how it is in Sanskrit. That is the design of the language structure. The reason why I am illustrating it is, people studied the design of the language structure and it was passed on from generation to generation and four of the most important Vedangas, before the commencement of the study of the Vedas, formed language and its constructs. So primary constructs being phonetics. There is a science of phonetics – how you pronounce. That is why you have: ka kha ga gha nga. These use the entire system of the body and modulations to the sound to produce a specific phoneme. And that is combined together with specific combinations to form syllables and words. And those words indicate certain aspects. So all this is built up. So etymology – from a root word, syllables or root words, combination of syllables are formed and they have a specific meaning. From that you derive further, based on certain constructs. And then you have grammar, combination of words to produce meaningful sentences.
One of the important components, for example in Sanskrit and other Indian languages, you will see that a word could be placed anywhere in the sentence, so spatially it was free. You could place it anywhere to get the same meaning.
But in English, you would not be able to do that.
Do that you will not be able to.
Do that you will not able to be.
Do that able to not be will.
Slowly it will stop making sense. But in Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi or Indian languages you will see structures, which allow you to locate words. And hence that spatial constraint is liberal, it is free, you could locate words. Chandas was metrical composition. That would allow you to locate syllables within a word itself. You could juggle with syllables. And hence it formed powerful poetry. For example, one very famous chandas is Gayatri chandas. So that is a meter. You use that meter. For example in English poetry we use rhyme. So rhyme alone is not sufficient. You need much more, in terms of flexibility with syllables. You should be able to play with it. That play was possible in a language like Sanskrit. Vyakarana was the rules of grammar. So that used to be one part of the Vedangas, to study.
The next 2 were Kalpa Shastras and Jyotisha. Jyotisha was considered very important because that provides you with a science to time events, or see for example, how do we time events? What is the intelligent way to decide when to do something? That is a very critical question. We now time it based on mostly our convenience. And hence it is not an exact science. But in India it was considered very very important to time events appropriately. The timing of events was considered exceptionally important and hence the science of Jyotisha. You would align your timing according to the astronomical basis, astronomical alignment. And then there was Kalpa Shastra. Kalpa was to do with using all of this, in actual hands-on stuff, to achieve a certain goal. So for example, design of the altar. You will need to “square the circle, circle the square”, use threads to do that and so many things were dealt as part of the Kalpa Shastras. So all this formed a systematic study. So basically Kalpa Shastras and Jyotisha are astronomical mathematics and practical mathematics. So mathematics and language formed the basic level study, along with Itihasa and Puranas which would give someone a certain value background. In fact, if you see now, we study only this. Is it not so? In fact, what we study is devoid of a little values. Otherwise it is primarily language and mathematics. Sciences depend on language and mathematics, and is an expansion of mathematics and language. You cannot do physics, chemistry – all that without mathematics. But for mathematical equations we use something other than English. But in Sanskrit, it was built into the structure.
So it is very interesting to look at all these aspects and hence believing in the words that we were a primitive society, agrarian society alone, seems very far-fetched, actually! If you consider it logically, an intelligence that can design such aspects so very well, cannot be a primitive intelligence. It has to be very far advanced. Because, still, we are not able to grasp that!
Take even architecture for example, the place that we are in is Coimbatore, we have 2000 year old temples still standing intact! While modern construction, how many years would it last? Something like 30-40 years. Maybe 60 years, not even 100 years. Generally even bridges and dams and so on, you see, even earthern dams lasting so long, what did the ancients do? For example, Iron pillar and so on, it has been studied, but how do you arrive at such perfection that it does not rust? Or solidifying mercury. Such things are not a joke. And hence our civilization was highly advanced.
Even if we consider,”Okay, it was not widespread, it was one instance!” But still that one instance itself shows how advanced the whole knowledge should have been. What are the background which will lead to that one instance? For example there is a “stray incident” of Ramanujam, arising in an otherwise intellectually bankrupt Indian scenario. That is how the English consider it. Britishers consider it. See Ramanujam has created almost like a cottage industry now. 200-300 mathematicians working on his notebooks. Even now. That cannot be a fluke! There has to be whole background for a Ramanujam to arise. Otherwise it is simply not possible. Even logically it is not possible. So that is critical to understand and that will give us a certain appreciation of our civilization and its advanced knowledge.
With the mathematics used in Jyotisha, people can predict when an eclipse is going to be. But today, we modern people cannot predict when an eclipse is going to be without referring to NASA, or ISRO. They will have to predict for us. So that is how powerful our sciences were. These are personalized astronomies. Personalized. Anybody can pick it up. NASA’s astronomy, or modern astronomy, you and I cannot pick it up. You need a PhD degree to pick it up. So that also shows the popularisation of the science in our tradition. For example, nowadays, in nutrition and dietetics, people do PhDs. But in our places, everyone cooks as per the scientific principles of Vata, Pitta, Kapha – the Tridosha in Ayurveda – no matter where you go in India. You will find what is called Anjaraipetti. What is that called in the North, I don’t know. Spice box? Turmeric, mustard, tadka, etc, and also mixing and matching ingredients, the individual flavour might differ, but the overall science is the same. That is the science of Ayurveda. So we were very advanced with respect to popularising science and making it practical for anybody to use. That is how education spread. Knowledge spread to this everybody.