|[Posted March 31, 2006]
Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy
L. Thompson, PhD
When solar fears eclipse reason
feared, eclipses are now often eagerly anticipated
Solar eclipses are nowadays major tourist attractions, but in ancient
times, they were events of ill omen, to be dreaded and feared.
While scientific knowledge has explained the phenomenon, some
superstitions continue to hold sway.
An eclipse in Nigeria in 2001 was seen by Muslim youths as anger from
god for sinful activities.
And the ancient belief that an eclipse presaged war and devastation is
still preached by some mystics in India.
A belief persists in India that all cooked food left uneaten during an
eclipse should be given away, as it will have become impure.
L. Thompson, a disciple of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Prabhupada and founding member of the Bhaktivedanta Institute, holds a
PhD in mathematics from Cornell University, and is the author of a
number of scientific works on evolutionary biology and archeology. The
article that follows below is taken from his book Vedic
Cosmography and Astronomy.
If we go 80,000
miles above the region of the Siddhas, Charanas, and Vidyadharas, we
come to the level of the planet called Rahu. Some 80,000 miles above
Rahu we reach the level of the sun, which is said to lie between
Bhurloka and Bhuvarloka in the middle of antariksha (Srimad-Bhagavatam
5.20.43, 5.24.1). We note that these measurements account for only part
of the distance from Bhu-mandala to the sun, since this is given as
100,000 yojanas (or 800,000 miles) in Srimad-Bhagavatam
In the Vedic literature it is often mentioned that Rahu causes solar
and lunar eclipses by passing in front of the sun or moon. To many
people, this seems to blatantly contradict the modern explanation of
eclipses, which holds that a solar eclipse is caused by the passage of
the moon in front of the sun and a lunar eclipse is caused by the
moon's passage through the earth's shadow. However, the actual
situation is somewhat more complicated than this simple analysis
The reason for this is that the Surya-siddhanta presents
an explanation of eclipses that agrees with the modern explanation but
also brings Rahu into the picture. This work explicitly assumes that
eclipses are caused by the passage of the moon in front of the sun or
into the earth's shadow. It describes calculations based on this model
that make it possible to predict the occurrence of both lunar and solar
eclipses and compute the degree to which the disc of the sun or moon
will be obscured. At the same time, rules are also given for
calculating the position of Rahu and another, similar planet named
Ketu. It turns out that either Rahu or Ketu will always be lined up in
the direction of any solar or lunar eclipse.
In Chapter 1 we have already described how the astronomical siddhantas
define the orbit of Rahu, and a similar definition is given for Ketu.
The positions assigned to Rahu and Ketu correspond to the ascending and
descending nodes of the moon—the points where the orbit of the moon
(projected onto the celestial sphere) intersects the ecliptic, or the
orbit of the sun. These nodal points rotate around the ecliptic from
east to west, with a period of about 18.6 years. One of them must
always point in the direction of an eclipse, since the moon can pass in
front of the sun or into the earth's shadow only if the sun, moon, and
earth lie on a straight line. Thus, by placing Rahu and Ketu at the
nodal points of the moon, the Surya-siddhanta conforms
both with the modern theory of eclipses and the Vedic explanation
involving Rahu and Ketu.
One objection that may be raised to the explanation given in the Surya-siddhanta
is that it contradicts the Vedic statement that the moon is higher than
the sun. However, we have seen that this statement refers to the height
of the moon above the plane of Bhu-mandala, and not the distance along
the line of sight from the earth globe to the moon.
Another objection one might raise is that the explanation in the Surya-siddhanta
seems to be a cheap compromise between the Vedic account of eclipses
(which many will regard as mythological) and the modern account (which
many will regard as an import into India from the Greeks). It is true
that Rahu and Ketu seem to play a rather superfluous role in the
eclipse calculations given in the Surya-siddhanta.
However, there are reasons for supposing that these planets do not
appear in these calculations as a mere decoration.
The principal reason for this is that the positions of Rahu and Ketu
play an important role in astrology. This means that astrologers need
some system of calculation that will tell them where Rahu and Ketu are
at any given time. We have argued in Chapter 1 that astrology has
traditionally played an important role in Vedic culture. From this it
follows that some methods for calculating the positions of Rahu and
Ketu have traditionally been required in Vedic society. Since we have
no evidence that any other method of calculating these positions has
ever been used, this can be taken as an indirect indication that the
method used in the Surya-siddhanta has co-existed with
the Vedic shastras for a very long time.
Of course, by this argument we cannot conclude definitely that this
particular method of calculation has always been used. But we can at
least be sure that the Vedic society, with its emphasis on astrology
and the astronomical timing of religious ceremonies, has always needed
more than a mere qualitative story to account for eclipses and other
In the West there is also a long tradition ascribing solar and lunar
eclipses to the action of some celestial beings of a demonic nature.
There these beings have also been associated with the nodes of the
moon, and they are known as the head and tail of the dragon. The story
of this eclipse-dragon may help give us some indication of how little
we really know about history. Figure 16 is a medieval Islamic picture
showing an angel severing the head of the eclipse-dragon. (This is
reminiscent of the story of the decapitation of Rahu by Lord Vishnu.)
Figure 17 is a strikingly similar picture showing St. George, the
patron saint of England, slaying a dragon. Unless this is a complete
coincidence, it would seem that the story of the eclipse-dragon was
somehow woven into the iconography of early Christianity without any
indication of its significance being preserved. (St. George is said to
have been born in Asia Minor in about A.D. 300, but there is apparently
no information indicating how he came to be connected with a dragon
(BD, p. 539).) Unfortunately, our knowledge of the ancient history of
this story is practically nonexistent.