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Astronomy and the Antiquity of Vedic Civilization

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Traditional Chinese stories tell of a monkey named Sun who goes through remarkable adventures. In one story, two “harpooners of death” capture him, claiming he has reached the limit of his destiny on earth and is due to be taken to the underworld. The story’s translator tells us that according to the Chinese the constellation Nan Teou, the Southern Dipper, decides everyone’s death, and the harpooners of death carry out the decision.

In my last column I compared Vedic ideas about time with similar ideas found in cultures around the world. We saw that many cultures share highly specific Vedic thoughts about how long ancient people lived and what happened in ancient human societies. This suggests that an ancient cultural tradition existed worldwide, hinted at today in many cultures through fragmentary and poorly understood memories but spoken of in detail in the Vedic writings.

In this column we turn from time to space. And we find that ancient traditions about the layout of the universe bear similar traces of a common cultural background.

Vedic literature divides the visible heavens into regions, which transmigrating souls are said to reach according to their karma. We can think of the constellations of stars as a road map for the soul’s travel after death. First I shall describe this map. Then I shall give some evidence that people in old cultures all over the world had a similar cosmic map, often agreeing with the Vedic map in many minute details.

To describe this map I need to introduce some basic ideas from astronomy. In both Indian and Western astronomy, the lines of latitude and longitude on the earth are projected onto the sky and set into a daily spin about the polar axis, so that to an observer on earth they seem to rotate once a day with the stars. This gives us a celestial coordinate system in which each star has a latitude, called its declination, and a longitude, called its right ascension.

We can think of the stars as points on a huge imaginary sphere, called the celestial sphere, surrounding the earth. Just as the earth has a northern and southern hemisphere separated by the equator, so does the celestial sphere.

Each year, against the background of stars, the sun completes a circuit called the ecliptic, a great circle tilted 23 degrees from the celestial equator. Around the ecliptic in a broad band stretch the twelve constellations of the zodiac and twenty-eight constellations called nakshatras, or lunar mansions.

Books of Vedic astronomy list the nakshatras and important stars. And more recent astronomers have identified the modern names of the constellations and stars to which these Vedic luminaries are thought to correspond. (The map above marks these correspondences, giving the ancient Sanskrit names and the modern locations.)

According to the Vishnu Purana, north of the star Agastya and south of the three nakshatras Mula, Purvashadha, and Uttarashadha lies the road to the region of the Pitris, Pitriloka. This is said in Vedic literature to be the headquarters of Yamaraja, the demigod who punishes sinful human beings. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.26.5) says that this region, along with the hellish planets, lies in the south of the universe, beneath Bhumandala, the earthly planetary system.

The nakshatra mentioned here match parts of the southern constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, and Agastya is thought to be the star Canopus, which lies in the southern hemisphere. From the description in the Vishnu Purana, therefore, we can locate Pitriloka in terms of familiar celestial landmarks.

The Milky Way is seen in the sky as a great band of light, densely packed with stars, running roughly north and south, cutting the celestial equator at an angle of about 62 degrees. A very bright region of the Milky Way intersects the ecliptic in the constellation Sagittarius. This is close to the nakshatra Mula and Purvashadha, which form the beginning of the path of the Pitris.

Just as Pitriloka is south of the ecliptic, the higher planets are to its north. So the mystics who follow the path to these planets, the path of the demigods, also begin at Mula and Purvashadha, but they travel northward. Their journey is described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.2.24-25) and in the Vishnu Purana.

Moving along the ecliptic, the mystics travel up to Revati. (This leg of their journey is called Vaishvanara.) From Revati they move through the nakshatras Ashvini, Bharani, and Krittika and travel on to the planet of the fire-god, Agni. There they are purified of all contaminations.

From Agni the mystics keep going north, through Brahmahridaya and Prajapati, following the Milky Way, and as they reach the latitudes of the seven rishis they enter Vishnupada, the path of Vishnu. This is the path they follow until they at last reach the polestar, Dhruvaloka, a spiritual planet within the material universe.

In more familiar terms, Ashvini, Bharani, and Krittika match parts of the constellations Aries and Taurus. The seven rishis (saptarshi) correspond to the constellation Ursa Major, commonly known as the Big Dipper.

Opposite the point where the Milky Way meets the ecliptic in the southern hemisphere, it intersects the ecliptic in the north, at the boundary of Taurus and Gemini. It is here that we find the star Agni.

Once we locate the paths of the Pitris and the demigods on the celestial sphere, we can ask whether other cultural traditions offer similar accounts of the soul’s celestial travels. It turns out that many do. Here are some examples:

  1. We return to the story of the Chinese monkey, Sun, mentioned in the beginning of this column. The Chinese Southern Dipper consists of six stars in Sagittarius. It is interesting to note that this constellation shares stars with two of the nakshatras marking the beginning of the path of the Pitris.
    So the start of the route to Yamaraja corresponds in this Chinese tradition to the place in the heavens where the fate of the dead is decided. The Chinese tradition also has messengers of death similar to the Vedic Yamadutas.

  2. The German scholar Franz Boll has analyzed ancient Greek traditions regarding Hades, the River Styx, and the ferryman of the underworld. We tend to think of Hades as lying beneath our feet, within the earth. Boll, however, cites texts placing this region in the heavens around the southern crossroads of the Milky Way and the ecliptic.
  3. Boll points out a close relationship between Greek and Babylonian traditions. According to his analysis, the Babylonian god Dikud, the judge of Hades, may correspond to the star Theta Ophiuchi. This star lies close to the location mentioned in the Vedic writings as the beginning of the path of the Pitris. Boll cites a text referring to this star as “the beginning of the road of the lower heavenly vault.”
  4. In North America the Pawnee and Cherokee say that the souls of the dead are received by a star at the northern end of the Milky Way. There the path divides. “He [God] directs the warriors on the dim and difficult path, and women and those who die of old age upon the brighter and easier path. The souls journey southwards; at the end of the celestial path they are received by the Spirit Star.” The anthropologist S. Hagar thinks the Spirit Star is Antares. Antares (Jyeshtha) lies, again, near the beginning of the path of the Pitris.
  5. The Roman writer Macrobius, in his Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, says that souls of the dead ascend by way of Capricorn and, to be reborn, descend again through the gate of Cancer. Here Macrobius appears to have shifted everything by one sign of the zodiac; Capricorn is next to Sagittarius, and Cancer is next to Gemini. In fact, Macrobius says in his Commentary that Capricorn and Cancer lie where the zodiac crosses the Milky Way.
  6. In Honduras and Nicaragua the Sumo say that their “Mother Scorpion,” who receives the souls of the dead, dwells at the end of the Milky Way. “And from her, represented as a mother with many breasts, at which children take suck, come the souls of the newborn.”
    Here the “Mother Scorpion” is reminiscent of the constellation Scorpius. We note that the tail of the constellation Scorpius corresponds to the nakshatra Mula.

  7. In general, Polynesians have traditionally believed in reincarnation and have held that the Milky Way is the pathway of transmigrating souls. The Mangaians of the Austral Islands in Polynesia believe that souls can enter heaven only on evenings of solstices (north islanders at one solstice and south islanders at the other).
    The important point here is that the solstices occur when the sun is near the intersection of the Milky Way and the ecliptic.

These astronomical examples, and our earlier examples about time, indicate that old cultures around the world shared a view of the cosmos similar in many ways to the Vedic one.

The details that appear again and again in these stories suggest the existence of a common cultural tradition. Yet the stories differ, and we have no clear historical records of their origin. This suggests that their common cultural source dates from the remote past. So the existence of these stories is consistent with the Vedic accounts of an ancient world civilization with a spiritual view of the origin and purpose of the universe.

(Image of The Monkey King Sun Wukong courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)