THEOSOPHY, Vol. 37, No. 7, May, 1949
(Pages 301-306; Size: 17K)
THE HINDU CALENDAR(1)
THE Westerner, observing daily life in India, may be perplexed by the apparently indiscriminate mixing of politics and agriculture with religion and philosophy, and the tendency to base all activities on astronomy or astrology. If it is difficult to understand and to draw a line between these fields of learning, the reason is that there is no such line, therefore it cannot be drawn -- not in India, at any rate. To appreciate the synthesis which Indian daily life is -- a synthesis of philosophy, religion, politics, science and agriculture -- not forgetting the ever-recurrent basis of the movement of the Sun and Moon and planets among the stars, is to take a very important step toward solving the problem of India's long political subjugation to the rule of foreign invaders. Since India is so essentially a country of innumerable little villages and since her population is primarily interested in the cultivation of the soil, one who would understand the country as a whole, must study the life of the village.
Indian life is based on tradition -- tradition which has its taproot in a knowledge long since passed beyond the ken of the average man and woman, but a tradition zealously guarded and kept alive because embodied in the daily religious observances of the most illiterate. The growth of agricultural knowledge in India is empirical rather than strictly scientific. It affords many examples from which the West can learn (and in some cases has learnt, as witness the volume, Man, Moon and Plant, by H. H. Staddon). It may at first seem superstition, it may appear to be dictated by religious ignorance, but for untold ages a scientific religion and a religious science has been the guide; its traditional practice is often naïvely followed. "What did my father and my father's father do? How was this or that undertaken in the days of the Mahabharata?" If one could answer these questions, he was content and happy to follow. But in the West, hardly a year passes but systems change, knowledge advances, and theories and practices insisted on at the time of planting are already obsolete before the time of the crop's harvesting!
The Westerner may desire, for example, to have a short and simple picture of the Indian calendar which, he finds, plays so important a role in the lives of the people. But the more one studies the intricacies of the problem, the more engrossed he becomes, for the task is far more formidable than it appears, and the student may have to resort to such highly technical volumes as Indian and Foreign Chronology, by V. B. Kethkar (Royal Asiatic Society Journal), and to Pillai's An Indian Ephemeria, whose calculation tables enable us at a glance to place Sun, Moon, Planets, Stars, and all the resulting celestial phenomena for thousands of years both in the past and in the future, showing the vastness of the knowledge possessed by Ancient Astronomers.
The intricacies of the subject can be sampled by those who have access to H. P. Blavatsky's magazine, The Theosophist, in a series running from August, 1881, to February, 1882, under the title (previously used by H.P.B. herself) of "Antiquity of the Vedas." [Note: The article in the link is the "previous" one referred to; it was written by HPB and was in the October, 1879 issue of The Theosophist magazine.--Compiler.] The writer, Krishna Shastri Godbole, was evidently a scholar of distinction in the fields of ancient Indian language, mathematics, and astronomy, and for those who can follow the astronomical calculations he gives the evidence for his assertions that the Bhagavad-Gita must be dated at least 20,000 years B.C.; that the composition of the Vedas cannot be more recent than 30,000 B.C.; and that the months of the Hindu calendar were originally named in 46,000 B.C., or a few thousand years earlier!
It may be of interest to take a few notes from Godbole's enumeration of the months as first named, showing how the names are appropriate to the seasonal activity. The year began with the spring season, the vernal equinox (one of Krishna's "divine perfections" in the tenth chapter of the Gita), which was the "flowering season," when the trees have nectared flowers. Each season has two months, and in the summer the first has the root meaning, to grieve, because "people suffer from the excessive heat," while the second means to purify, to be wet, for then "early showers remove the dust from trees, and the earth is moistened by occasional rainfall." Next are the two months of the rain or cloud season, followed by the harvest season with months named after the words signifying to go or to wish -- "the first month of the harvest season in which people go out to their fields to collect corn or for long journeys" -- and, second, to be strong, to strengthen, because in the second month of harvest "strength is derived by the use of new food." The months of Winter celebrated in their names the ability to resist or oppose cold or clouds, for in that season "all the animals have power to bear cold, and the sun is clear from clouds." Finally, comes the thawing season, when "the heat of the sun is sufficient to melt the snow previously accumulated," and these months have names meaning to warm, to heat.
A brief excursion into the details of the Hindu system of reckoning the days and the years will provide another illustration of the complexity of the subject, and will help to explain why the doctrine of cycles is, as William Q. Judge remarked, "the least known and of all the one most infrequently referred to" in theosophical philosophy, although it is "one of the most important in the whole theosophical system."
The basis of Hindu calendar calculation is Vedic. This calendar has been modified and elaborated, but because it is based on the stars (nakshatras) visible to the naked eye, and on the visible Lunar phases, it is more accurate than any others of the past. The actual moments when Lunar months begin can easily be checked by the regular appearances of Solar eclipses, and the middle moment of a Lunar month -- Purnima or full moon -- can similarly be verified by the more frequent Lunar eclipses. Hence the Hindu calendar, not requiring special instruments for its rectification, has maintained great accuracy for thousands of years.
The oldest Aryan calendar is probably the Vedic; at first lunar, later with solar elements added to it. The sister Avesta calendar is similarly first Lunar, but later only Solar. Both these calendars (the oldest in the Aryan Race) are influenced by the prehistoric calendars of the first and second root races at the North Pole and its surroundings, as they reckon with days and nights lasting six months. (The Inca Zodiac, the Dendra Egyptian Zodiac, and the Chinese lunar mansions are possibly Atlantean or Atlanto-Aryan; though much has been added to both the Egyptian and the Chinese systems which is purely Aryan and post Vedic.)
For untold ages, the Hindus have observed the motion of the moon, the sun and the seven planets along a definite path that circles our sky and is marked by fixed clusters of stars. The moon afforded the simplest example. These early astronomers observed that the moon, moving among these fixed star constellations which they called nakshatras, returned to the same nakshatra in 27.32166 days, thus completing one nakshatra month. They found it convenient to divide these groups of stars into 27 almost equal sections, or the 27 nakshatras. By this method of reckoning, instead of giving the date of a month, as Western calendars do, the Hindus gave the name of the nakshatra in which the moon was to be seen. (The moon is in each of these nakshatras for approximately one day plus eighteen minutes.)
This scheme fitted nicely with the sun's cycle, for the Hindus noted that the sun traversed the same circle through the sky, but that it returned to its starting place only after 365.258756481 days, or what we call a Solar Sidereal Year. (Modern figures based on this Hindu figure quote 365.2596296 days -- a distinction without a difference, for ordinary purposes.) Now, having already divided the month into the 27 nakshatras for the convenience of reckoning the moon's voyage through the heavens, what more natural than that these same nakshatras should serve for the study of the Sun's course? Being in a circle of 360 degrees, each nakshatra takes up 131/3 degrees of that circle. The Sun, moving about 1 degree in a day, is seen for 131/3 days in each nakshatra. The system of reckoning according to the moon nakshatras is current today, that of the sun's being uncommon.
At present, the nakshatra reckoning, both Solar and Lunar, is begun from ASVINI, which is also the beginning of the first Zodiacal Rasi or sign Mesha. (Aswins, according to the Theosophical Glossary, are twin deities, "the Kumara-Egos, the reincarnating 'Principles' in this Manvantara.") This method obtains only at present, because, due to the precession of the equinoxes, not only will the English date change (after 1975) for the starting of the first Solar nakshatra, but in the course of a longer time, the sun's entry on any particular nakshatra will regress and occur during all the four seasons of the year. The Maitriopanishad (6.14) shows how, since the writing of that record, this regress has been taking place.
In brief, then, the earliest method, the Vedic, of counting, was to name the moon through the various nakshatras -- the circle or cycle repeating itself each Sidereal-Star-Month. Later the sun's place in the same nakshatras was noted, the year ending when the Sun returned to the same nakshatra. Then came the noting of the Solar and Lunar eclipses, and the observance of the New and Full Moons divided the month into the two phases of waxing and waning Moon, the month beginning at the moment of New Moon. This is how the Hindus reckon today, the month taking its name from the nakshatra in which the Full Moon is seen each month. The Full Moon being exactly opposite the Sun, the Solar nakshatra bears the same name as the Lunar month six months ahead, while each Lunar month bears the same name as the 14th Solar nakshatra ahead.
The Western student faced with these unfamiliar calculations may echo the old Persian proverb, "Why count big numbers and small fractions, when they are all amassed in 1?" But the Hindu looks on these figures from another point of view -- he lives with them, and among them, and by them, much of the time. Consider a Sanscrit sloka (verse) about the Savati or pearl nakshatra, which marks the new season after the monsoon is over. The sloka says, "If in the Swati a rain drop falls into the sea, that drop becomes a pearl." This may sound foolish, for the peasant, though he live in the depth of the interior of India, knows that pearls come from the sea -- even if he does not necessarily understand that these pearls grow inside the oyster. He does know, however, that if it rains at this period of the year, his crops will yield great wealth. And the pearl is synonymous with wealth among people who, if they have any money, invest it in jewelry, especially gold and pearls, rather than in the banks. (Poetically, rice, their staple food, is referred to as pearls.) Thus another apparently meaningless sloka which stumps the dry and intellectually bound translators, is found to contain "pearls of wisdom"!
Folk-lore, too, preserves many a teaching which the passing generations of peasants, lost in their faraway villages and farms, would forget -- and which their city-bred and college-educated sons deride as idle fairy tales -- teachings which are essential to their daily and seasonal life. The peasant knows in which nakshatra he should plant his seed. He knows, too, what work should be done during each of the succeeding and preceding nakshatras. His whole farm life is planned on this astronomically exact calendar. New fields are opened on what are called "auspicious days"; reaping, sowing, harvesting, threshing -- all are regulated according to this calendar of "superstition." Yet an American agriculturist might come to India, gather all this knowledge, and then, putting it to the test, discover, perhaps, its raison d'etre for himself. There are also notes that show how the flowering and fruitage of certain trees depict periods of dry and excessive rains. For example, the Tamarind fruits in March-April: when the Tamarind trees yield bumper crops, mango growers in that district know that their trees will bear but ill that year. Again, those who live in a country so often burnt by drought and where the deciding factor of where a man will start his farm will depend on his water supply, have learnt that if they dig near a wild fig tree, they shall find water: their "authority" is Varaha Mihira's Brihad-Samhita.
From even a glimpse of the wealth of wisdom embodied in the Hindu "calendar," who can wonder that those who live thus close to Nature -- interstellar and Cosmic as well as terrestrial -- are worshippers of the Sun and the Stars? For the true "child of the soil," every passing phase of life presents a moment inspiring worship: he adores moments of the rising and the setting Sun; pays homage to, by using, the changing periods of the Moon; worships in love, not in fear, the powers and forces of Nature (personified only that they may be the better imagined), and sees in all manifested form but vahans or vehicles of Deity. This is not ignorance, nor superstition. "Worship," writes Carlyle, "is transcendent wonder." It is seeing the Spirit that animates the seeming inanimate; it is discerning the beauty and the loveliness in all things. The "nature-worshipper" does not adore the Sun as the Sun; he does not pay homage to the Moon as the Moon; the planets, the stars, the winds and the monsoon rains -- these are other than their mortal own: "Not for the love of the loka (worlds) are the loka dear, but for the sake of the SELF are the loka dear. Not for the love of the gods are the gods dear, but for the sake of the SELF are the gods dear. Not for the love of all is all dear, but for the sake of the SELF is all dear. It is the SELF, the Atman that should be seen, and harkened to, that should be thought on and pondered on." So sang the ancient poets who saw beauty in all that inspired love.
HOW TO APPLY THE LAW
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(1) NOTE.--This article is mainly taken from a letter written several years ago by an Indian scholar to a Western friend living in India.--Editors THEOSOPHY.
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