Early Indian Astronomy
The practices of astronomy and astrology in ancient India had their
roots almost four thousand years ago. Much of what we know about Indian
astronomy comes from the Sanskrit sacred books called the Vedas. These religious
texts were a series of hymns composed over several hundred years, and offer
intriguing insights into the way Indians of the time viewed the sky. As in most
ancient cultures, events in the heavens were believed to have direct effects on
people. The practice of astrology, of divining a person's future based on
physical phenomena, was a driving force in the advancement of astronomy as a
In the Veda texts, the gods were called Devas, which means 'bright'
and refers to the luminous nature of the sun and stars. The Sun, comets, the
sky, dawn, and the horizon were all deified based on their attributes. To the
ancient Indians, the horizon held an immense amount of mystique: it was there
that the question 'Will the sun rise again?' was answered every day. A beautiful
verse from a Veda mentioning the Indian affinity for dawn says:
'Thou art a blessing when thou art near
Raise up wealth to the
worshipper, thou mighty Dawn
Shine for us with thy best rays, thou bright
Thou daughter of the sky, thou high-born Dawn.'
The earliest Veda text mentioning astronomy is called the Rig Veda, and
was written around 2000 B.C. At that time, the earth was considered to be a
shell supported by elephants, which represented strength, and were themselves
supported by a tortoise, representing infinite slowness.
Astronomy in the First Millenium
As time progressed, Indian astronomy became more scientific and less
spiritual. Beginning in the first century, it seems clear that Indian
astronomers recognized that the stars are the same as the Sun, only farther
away. Verses mention that the night sky is full of suns, and that when our Sun
goes below the horizon, a thousand suns take its place. This is an incredible
scientific leap in thought. The Earth was at this time considered to be
spherical, and various astronomers attempted to measure its circumference.
Interestingly enough, the Sun was widely believed to be the center of the
universe, an idea which pre-dates western science (with the exception of a few
Greek believers) by about 1100 years. However, this idea may be much older:
vague references to the sun being in the center of the universe exist in Vedic
writings from as early as 3000 B.C.
In the 5th century, a great Indian astronomer and mathematician named
Aryabhatta advanced this heliocentric theory and also discussed his idea that
the Sun is the source of moonlight. He also studied how to forecast eclipses
(see photo below). His books and others were translated into Latin in the 13th
century, and profoundly influenced European mathematicians and
Several Indian scientists of the 6th century also were the first to
advance the idea of gravity. They noticed that a special force keeps objects
stuck to the earth, and hypothesized that the same force might be responsible
for holding heavenly bodies in their place. The idea pre-dates Newton's
conception of gravity by about 1100 years.