Nārada the Astronomer?

By David Reigle on July 29, 2012 at 6:09 am

When introducing Stanza II of the anthropogenesis portion of the “Book of Dzyan,” given in volume 2 of The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky informs us that the commentary thereon refers to Nārada and Asura Maya (p. 47):

“Stanza II., which speaks of this Round, begins with a few words of information concerning the age of our Earth. The chronology will be given in its place. In the Commentary appended to the Stanza, two personages are mentioned: Narada and Asura Maya, especially the latter. All the calculations are attributed to this archaic celebrity; and what follows will make the reader superficially acquainted with some of these figures.”

Blavatsky then gives a section titled, “Two Antediluvian Astronomers” (pp. 47-51), which begins with this paragraph:

“To the mind of the Eastern student of Occultism, two figures are indissolubly connected with mystic astronomy, chronology, and their cycles. Two grand and mysterious figures, towering like two giants in the Archaic Past, emerge before him, whenever he has to refer to Yugas and Kalpas. When, at what period of pre-history they lived, none save a few men in the world know, or ever can know with that certainty which is required by exact chronology. It may have been 100,000 years ago, it may have been 1,000,000, for all that the outside world will ever know. The mystic West and Freemasonry talk loudly of Enoch and Hermes. The mystic East speaks of Narada, the old Vedic Rishi, and of Asuramaya, the Atlantean.”

The asura named Maya is indeed a famous astronomer, writer of the most authoritative Sanskrit text on astronomy, the Sūrya-siddhānta. Nārada is certainly a well-known rishi in Indian tradition, and astronomy is in fact one of the subjects that he is said to have mastered, but he is primarily known for his mastery of music. There is no Sanskrit astronomical treatise in use that is attributed to him, and the classical Indian astronomers do not refer to or quote him. In Blavatsky’s statement, “To the mind of the Eastern student of Occultism,” we have to emphasize the words, “of Occultism”; and in her statement, “The mystic East speaks of Narada,” we have to emphasize the word “mystic.” To the mind of the Eastern student in general, Nārada is the divine musician; and the East in general speaks of Nārada the musician, not Nārada the astronomer. Yet, for Blavatsky and her contacts, Nārada was the great astronomer Nārada. We must inquire why this would be so.

As just seen, the secret commentary on the “Book of Dzyan” is reported to refer to the astronomers Nārada and asura Maya. Then, in the section titled, “The Chronology of the Brahmins” (pp. 66-74), figures are given including the age of humanity as 18,618,728 years (in 1887 C.E.), taken from the Tirukkanda Panchanga = Tiru Ganita Panchanga, based on the Sūrya-siddhānta. After giving these figures, Blavatsky writes (p. 70): “These sacred astronomical cycles are of immense antiquity, and most of them pertain, as stated, to the calculations of Nārada and Asuramaya.” So is there some astronomical text that we perhaps no longer have, but that is associated with Nārada, even mythologically?

Ebenezer Burgess, introducing his 1860 translation of the Sūrya-siddhānta, writes (p. 142):

“Among the different Siddhāntas, or text-books of astronomy, existing in India in the Sanskrit language, none appeared better suited to my purpose than the Sūrya-siddhānta. That it is one of the most highly esteemed, best known, and most frequently employed, of all, must be evident to any one who has noticed how much oftener than any other it is referred to as authority in the various papers on the Hindu astronomy. In fact, the science as practised in modern India is in the greater part founded upon its data and processes. In the lists of Siddhāntas given by native authorities it is almost invariably mentioned second, the Brahma-Siddhānta being placed first: the latter enjoys this preeminence, perhaps, mainly on account of its name; it is, at any rate, comparatively rare and little known.”

We see that, at least mythologically, there is a text that is regarded even more highly than the Sūrya-siddhānta, namely, the Brahma-siddhānta. But the genuine original Brahma-siddhānta is apparently no longer extant; otherwise it would surely be in wide use. Nonetheless, there is an extant text called the Brahma-siddhānta, and this tells us why Nārada would be so highly regarded as an astronomer: in it, the god Brahmā teaches astronomy to Nārada. So we may assume that in the original Brahma-siddhānta also, Nārada is the recipient of the knowledge of astronomy from Brahmā. This is like in the Sūrya-siddhānta, where the asura named Maya is the recipient of the knowledge of astronomy from an incarnation or part (aṃśa) of the sun, sūrya.

The now extant text called Brahma-siddhānta calls itself the second praśna or section of the Śākalya-saṃhitā. There is no English translation of it. It was first published in 1912 in the Sanskrit collection titled, Jyautiṣa-siddhānta-saṃgraha, edited by Vindhyesvari Prasad Dvivedi, in the Benares Sanskrit Series, no. 39. The puzzle of why it calls itself the second praśna was not solved until several decades later. When D. G. Dhavale was preparing a critical edition of the Brahma-siddhānta, he saw that one of the eight manuscripts he had gathered contained many additional verses in its first chapter. These verses showed that the various praśnas or sections of the Śākalya-saṃhitā each summarized an astronomical siddhānta. The first section summarized the Sūrya-siddhānta, and the second section summarized the Brahma-siddhānta. Six more sections summarized the Pauliśa-siddhānta, the Soma-siddhānta, the Romaśa-siddhānta, the Gārgya-siddhānta, the Bṛhaspati-siddhānta, and the Vāsiṣṭha-siddhānta. Of these sections of the Śākalya-saṃhitā, only the summary of the Brahma-siddhānta is now extant. It provides our only window into this long lost text. It shows us that the original Brahma-siddhānta was taught by Brahmā to Nārada.

Even though the original text by Nārada is long lost to us, although perhaps not to the Theosophical Mahatmas (see SD 1.47-51), the tradition of the two great antediluvian astronomers remained known to astronomers in India. A verse from the seventeenth century C.E. Indian astronomer Kamalākara’s Siddhānta-tattva-viveka (verse 65 of the bhagaṇa-māna-adhyāya, chapter on elements of revolutions) is quoted by Sankar Balakrishna Dikshit in his Bharatiya Jyotish Sastra, English translation, vol. 2, p. 47, saying: “That pure (science of astronomy) which was revealed to Maya by the god Sun, was described to Nārada by Brahmā, to Śaunaka by Himaguru (Moon or Soma) and to Māṇḍavya by the sage Vasiṣṭha.”

As for the astronomical contents of the Brahma-siddhānta according to its summary in the Śākalya-saṃhitā, already in 1896 Sankar Balakrishna Dikshit had determined that this summarized version copies the modern Sūrya-siddhānta. He writes (Bharatiya Jyotish Sastra, English translation, vol. 2, p. 4): “The basic principles, propounded by the Śākalya Brahma Siddhānta, even it be more ancient than Brahmagupta, are exactly the same as those propounded by the modern Sūrya-siddhānta.” Again, he says (p. 49): “The number of revolutions and other elements in this tally entirely with those of the Sūrya-siddhānta in all respects and have already been given.” This was confirmed by D. G. Dhavale when preparing his Sanskrit critical edition, The Brahmasiddhānta of Śākalyasaṃhitā (Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1996). He writes in his English Introduction (pp. xi-xii): “It is generally agreed that this Brahmasiddhānta is based on the modern Sūryasiddhānta. In order to compare the two siddhāntas I prepared a line index to the S.S. [Sūryasiddhānta] . . . On comparison it was found that agreement in actual wording of the two siddhāntas occurs in 65 lines or caraṇas. . . . The present Brh. [Brahmasiddhānta] closely follows the modern S.S. in data about the planetary motions etc.” It seems certain, then, that like the Sūrya-siddhānta, where we have only a modern revision of the original text, so the summary of the Brahma-siddhānta in the Śākalya-saṃhitā is only a modern revision.

Nonetheless, although this summary apparently does not preserve the original astronomical data of the original Brahma-siddhānta, Sankar Balakrishna Dikshit noticed that it was unique in a couple of ways. First, “the subject of religion also, which is never met with in an astronomical work, has been included in it” (op. cit., p. 49). Further on this, D. G. Dhavale found in the one manuscript that had additional verses in the first chapter, an entire additional chapter, a seventh adhyāya. It, too, apparently pertains to religion. He writes (op. cit., p. ix): “The contents of the seventh Adhyāya, however, do not justify its inclusion in a treatise on astronomy. In fact the chapter reads more like a Purāṇa than an astronomical essay. Whatever astronomical references there are in it are about the same as are found in some of the Purāṇas.” For this reason, he unfortunately did not include this otherwise unknown chapter in his edition, so we do not know exactly what is in it. There is an astrological text attributed to Nārada, the Nāradīya-saṃhitā, on divination and muhūrta. A Sanskrit edition of it was prepared by Haridāsagupta and published in 1905. Much of its contents are included in the Nārada-purāṇa, according to a comparison made by K. Damodara Nambiar (published in the journal, Purāṇa, Jan. 1974, pp. 103-112, and cited in Ganesh Vasudeo Tagare’s Introduction to his English translation of The Nārada-Purāṇa, Part 1, Delhi, 1980, p. 30). Perhaps some of this material in fact came from the original Brahma-siddhānta.

Second, the Brahma-siddhānta is also unique in that it gives otherwise unknown information about the seven stars of what we call the Great Bear or Big Dipper constellation, known as the Seven Rishis (saptarṣi). Sankar Balakrishna Dikshit writes (op. cit., p. 50): “It is the specialty of this work that it gives the latitudes and longitudes of the Saptarṣi group (i.e. Great Bear), which are not given by any other siddhānta.” There is a very unusual cycle associated with the Seven Rishis, taught by the ancient astronomer Vṛddha Garga in a now lost text (quoted by Bhaṭṭotpala in his commentary on Varāha-mihira’s Bṛhat-saṃhitā, chapter 13). These stars are supposed to move through one asterism or nakṣatra in exactly one hundred solar years. Of course, the fixed stars have no such physical motion. Nonetheless, the cycle is real, and has been in use in parts of India and Kashmir from ancient times, as seen in stone inscriptions, and right up to the present. It has been studied in detail by John E. Mitchiner in his 1982 book, Traditions of the Seven Ṛṣis. I have written a little about it and its relation to Theosophical teachings in my article, “The Centennial Cycle” (Theosophical History, vol. 11, no. 4, Oct. 2005, pp. 5-15; http://www.easterntradition.org/centennial%20cycle.pdf). According to David Pingree, Nārada is “one of the interlocutors in the Vṛddhagārgīsaṃhitā” (Census of the Exact Sciences in Sanskrit, Series A, vol. 3, 1976, p. 148; see also vol. 2, 1971, p. 118). Whether or not Nārada and Vṛddha Garga here discuss the cycle of the Seven Rishis, the fact that Nārada gives unique information on the Seven Rishis associates him with old teachings on astronomical cycles.

It is clear from the above that Nārada is considered to be an ancient astronomer, one of the very most eminent as the recipient of the astronomical teachings from Brahmā that formed the original but now lost Brahma-siddhānta.

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