The Forgotten Vedic Samvatsar: A Modern Quest

Author: Lalit Mishra | Date: 13 April 2022

About Author

Founder of Indology Foundation, member of the advisory board at the Institute of Vedic Sciences, BHU, formerly a member of the advisory board of the department of history, Amity University, Noida, and life member of the Mahamana Malviya Mission, New Delhi.

In the renaissance period of Europe, when pioneer astronomer Nicolas Copernicus was perusing heliocentric model of our Solar system, Jean Filliozat, a French historian of science, working in 1960s-70s, reported that Indian astronomical methods were used in England as well as in other parts of the Europe, which to me, speaks of growth and advancement of traditional Indian astronomy.

Banaras, one of the greatest centres for Hindu learning, had an observatory at Man-mandir. An observatory is a place for overserving positions of stars and planets. The said observatory existed much before the 17’th century when it was revamped, new instruments were installed on the roof of existing old structure. The Man-Mandir used to be a point of attraction for European travellers since early 18th century as records do attest, which is however, never seen much light in left-liberal historians works and that happened, in spite of internationally reputed journal Nature’s report of 1971 on this observatory.

The Revamped Man-Mandir Observatory Banaras, 17th Century

India is a land of star gazers, from North to South and from East to West, wherever you go and in whatever season, you shall find abundance of fairs, religious travels and festivals being celebrated in some or other way, related to celestial configuration of planets and stars, for Instance, the festival of ‘Indradhvaj’ (hoisting of Indra’s Flag) has been celebrated in Āryāvarta as informed in Ramayana and also in Pandyan Madurai as informed in Tamil epic Silapathikaram.

The Holi, widely known as ‘festival of colours’ has been seen through the prism of interesting legend of ‘Prahlad’ and ‘Holika’, however, Holi is one such festival that is related to most important ancient celestial phenomenon, the formation of the ‘Vedic Samvatsar’ or the new ‘Year’ in modern parlance. We now having forgotten the history, celebrate over two dozen ‘Samvatsars’ or ‘Years’ in India within 30 days of celebrating Holi. In this context, our readers should also know that before introduction of Julian calendar, Roman empire used to have its New Year in the month of March, approximately near Holi which is being discussed by the author in another article titled ‘Crazy Calendars of Europe’.

The Unscientific European  ‘Year’

Before delving into details of ‘Samvatsar’ in question, its important to understand the critical difference between the concept of a ‘Year’ and a ‘Samvatsar’ which lies in the etymology of these two words. The European (Indo-European or IE from now onwards) ‘Year’ is an unscientific phenomenon, whereas the ‘Samvatsar’ is absolutely scientific. The IE ‘Year’ is a new word which didn’t mean a ‘Year’ until 12’th century CE. The IE ‘Year meant ‘Season’. The questions as to why the ‘Year’ should mean ‘Season’ or the ‘Season’ should mean ‘Year’, still posit challenge to European linguists and historians, such question remains an unexplained riddle.

Etymological dictionaries (Carl Darling Buck 1949, Julius Pokorny 1959; Alexander Lubotsky 2008 etc.) ultimately trace origin of ‘Year’ to uncertain Proto-Germanic *jēr and farther to imaginary PIE *yer-o. In all the probabilities, the Idea of a ‘Year’ is a borrowing in Europe, therefore, IE languages lack the right meaning and linguistic root of the word ‘Year.

Dīrghatamasa Auchathya: Modelling Year as a Wheel of 12 Months

It’s the R̥ṣis of R̥gvedic period who visualized the ‘Samvatsar’ or the ‘Year’ as a wheel with twelve spokes attached to it. Historically, this visualization is very important as in Europe its been missing till the renaissance period. Indians must not forget R̥ṣi Dīrghatamasa Auchathya who not once, but twice presents ‘Year’ with the metaphoric wheel of twelve spokes (“द्वाद॑शारं न॒हि तज्जरा॑य॒ वर्व॑र्ति च॒क्रं” RV 1.164.11; “द्वाद॑श प्र॒धय॑श्च॒क्रमेकं॒” RV 1.164.48), Similarly, R̥ṣi Vasishta in context of Atirā̱tra sacrifice (“द्वादशस्य ऋतुम्…सं॒व॒त्स॒रे प्रावृषि आऽगतायाम्” RV 7.103.9) calling for keeping the integrity of Samvatsar secured. The relevant portions of the mantras are cited inline for the curious readers.

Contrary to the speculations made by European linguists with an intent to somehow relate old IE ‘Year’ to modern ‘Year’, the author promulgates the view that old IE ‘Year’ might have come into existence after the Sanskrit ‘Ara’, embedded in the Dīrghatamasa‘s metaphoric wheel of the ‘Year’, travelled from India to Europe. It’s a borrowing from Sanskrit in IE languages and therefore, the credible linguistic roots able to explain formation of the word ‘Year’ have been absent in IE languages.

The Vasistha’s Samvatsar of Summer Solstice

In the Vedic period, star gazing sages inspired by numerous self-discoveries of theirs, proposed many ‘Years’ starting on different days. However, all those ‘Years’ had some form of astronomical significance. Vasishta as cited above (“जुगुपुः द्वादशस्य ऋतुम् ……. सं॒व॒त्स॒रे प्रावृषि आऽगतायाम् तप्ताः घर्माः अश्नुवते” RV 7.103. 9) has been understood to talk first about a Samvatsar that had its beginning in summer solstice as he mentions scorching summer (‘तप्ताः घर्माः’).

A metaphoric description of summer solstice is found in mantra (RV 1.24.7) given by Śunaḥśepa Ājīgartiḥ where Varuna is praised for sustaining a dome of acute elevation (वनस्य ऊर्ध्वम् स्तूपम्) tied to nothing (अ॒बु॒ध्ने) wherefrom beam of light falls straight (नी॒चीना॑: स्थुरु॒परि॑) down on the earth which is an astounding correct observation of summer solstice which is only possible in the tropic of cancer. Probably this is the earliest accurate record of summer solstice in human history. However, it appears that Vasistha’s discovery, although regarded and taken in the R̥gveda, the Samvatsar, however, didn’t earn warm reception in the Vedic age and therefore, its not well attested in succeeding tradition.

The astronomical coordinates of Vedic Samvatsar

The Vedang Jyotish of Lagadha

In the later Vedic period, however, we come across an improvised version of Vasishta’s Samvatsar which had its year beginning on the winter solstice. This new samvatsara has been preserved in the treatise written by Lagadha who expounded 5 years yuga system. Vedang Jyotish samvatsara has been referred to in both the schools of Yajurveda: Taittirīya and Vājasaneyī-Mādhyandina, Mahabharata and a few Puranic texts which indicates that this Samvatsar had earned considerable acceptance for some time before going out of fashion.

Prof T.S. Kuppanna Shastry having corelated Vedang Jyotish’s solstice markers (“प्रपद्येते श्रविष्ठादौ …सार्पार्धे दक्षिणार्कस्तु” VJ 7) with that of Varahmihira’s markers (“सांप्रतमयनं सवितुः कर्कटकाद्यम्” Brihat Samhita 3.2; “सांप्रतमयनं पुनर्वसुतः” Pancha Siddhantika 1.21), rightly estimated the date of Vedang Jyotish between 1150 BCE and 1370 BCE. David Pingree’s convoluted appropriation of 1180 BCE too doesn’t go much of the mark. Vedang Jyotish had its ‘Year’ beginning on the winter solstice occurring on the new moon of Magha at the heliacal rising of Dhanistha nakshatra.

The Blunder of 1200 BCE 

That Lagadha is not mentioned in Vedic texts and that his Vedang Jyotish relies on the nakshatras known since the R̥gvedic period which were evidently compiled much before the period Lagadha lived, the date of R̥gveda would obviously shift much before the fictious date of 1200 BCE proposed by an inexperienced Max Muller in his mid-thirties in 1859, which although he revised to 2000 BCE around 1882, having earned another 23 year’s experience, however, inexcusably, colonial and left-liberal historians have been glued to 1200 BCE, as if, the blunder is no blunder but an immutable figure of sacrosanct nature. It shows the deplorable situation as to how badly updated are such historians.

Measuring Samvatsar: Managing Seasons and Months

Hypothetically, time can be reckoned from any point in the wheel of the year but when comes the point of implementation for the masses, wider consultations are required for building consensus. Individualistic endeavours whatever merit they may have, can’t be imposed on an awakened society like it was in the Vedic period. In the R̥gveda which is more an anthology of over 400 r̥ṣis, we come across such hymns which are ascribed to no single individual R̥ṣi but to collective wisdom. One such hymn is 10.90 which informs us that the R̥ṣis had arrived at a agreement that the transitioning point (“ऋतुसंधि” Goptath 2.1.19) of the season of spring, termed ‘Vasant’ (“व॒स॒न्तो अ॑स्यासी॒दाज्यं॑ ग्री॒ष्म इ॒ध्मः श॒रद्ध॒विः” RV 10.90.6) and summer termed ‘Grīṣma’; should be taken as beginning of the ‘Samvatsar’. The mantra says Vasant is the ‘melted ghee’ which burns the fuel, the fuel is the summer and the ‘havi’, the material for oblations is the autumn of the Samvatsar that was visualized as ya̱jña. The harmonious agreement arrived at, became a standard for the beginning of ‘Year’, ‘Season’, ‘Month’ and ‘Tithi’ or the ‘Day’.

As explained hitherto, the standardized ‘Year’ has been maintained across all the branches of Vedas. The beginning of Samvatsar was believed to be an auspicious occasion for initiation of students and performing ya̱jñas, although more than one options were provided to chose from but the importance of standardized ‘Samvatsar’ never got diluted. Taittirīya Saṁhitā’s passage (7.4.8.1) cited below is important evidence. It reflects the acceptance across the different schools, the passage informs us that “the mouth of ‘Samvatsar’ opens at the full moon of Falgun” which we know through the continuing tradition, has been happening at the junction of ongoing night of full moon and subsequent dawn of the Chaitra.

संवत्सरस्य यत् फ़ाल्गुनीपूर्णमासः । मुखत एव संवत्सरम् आरभ्य दीक्षन्ते । (TS 7.4.8.1)

In the brāhmaṇa texts pertaining to different branches the consensus arrived in Rgvedic period, has been adhered to, for instance – the Śatapatha that belongs to Vājasaneyī-Mādhyandina branch, the Taittirīya that belongs to same Taittirīya branch, the Gopatha that belongs to Atharvan branch and the Śāṅkhāyan that belongs to R̥gvedic Śākalya branch, all appears to follow the new order of standardized Samvatsar, as cited below.

एष ह संवत्सरस्य प्रथमा रात्रिर्या फाल्गुनी पूर्णमासी॥ (Śatapatha 6.2.2.18)
एषा वै प्रथमा रात्रिः संवत्सत्स्य यदुत्तरे फल्गुनी॥ (Taittirīya 1.12.9)
एतत् संवत्सरस्य यत् फाल्गुनी पौर्णमासी मुखम् उत्तरे फाल्गुन्यौ ॥ (Gopatha 2.2.1.19)
मुखं वा एतत्संवत्सरस्य यत् फ़ाल्गुनी पौर्णमासी तस्मात्तस्या मदीक्षितायनानि प्रयुज्यन्ते (Shankyayan, 4.7)

This standardized Samvatsar was a luni-solar Samvatsar, lunar ‘Year’ of 354 days was mapped to solar or tropical ‘Year’ of 365 days, the observation has been preserved in Taittirīya Samhita (7.2.6) which prescribes a sacrificial rite of 11 days (“एकादशरात्रम्”) to bridge the gap. however, the correct length of ‘Year’ is neither 354, nor 365 days nor 366 days and therefore an intercalation was discovered to ensure perfect harmony between season and samvatsar. In the part II of this article, author discusses great Euopean problem of measuring the length of year and crazy calendars of Europe.

Vikramidtya and Vikram Samvat: Understanding Modern Drift

Eminent historians and numismaticians (Vincent Smith, A.S. Altekar, D.R. Bhandarkar etc.) denied, but common people of India kept alive memories of Maharaj Vikrmaditya in the heart. Evidences for the valour and kindness of Vikramaditya starts flowing-in, from as early as 2nd century CE. The two earliest texts that admire Vikramaditya are the Satavahana king Hala’s Gāhā Sattasaī and Gunadhya’s Baddakaha (Brhatkatha). Gunadhya was also a Satavahana period scribe.

These denials despite such early references do show non-critical approach of our historians. They also failed to recognize that early epochs of Ujjaini, the ‘Krit’ and the ‘Malav’ and subsequently the ‘Vikram’ began from one and the same date of 57 BCE, but our historians were not to become curious to begin fresh enquiries. Thankfully, Prof. Rajbali Pandey, a noted historian from BHU and Dr. Suryanarayan Vyas, an expert of calendrical astronomy from Ujjain, came forward and piled huge amount of textual and numismatic data attesting Vikramaditya’s historicity.

The Vikram Samvat begins as Full moon of Falgun completes its course and Chaitra Pratipada i.e. the first day begins, that’s when we celebrate Holi. The Grihya sutras – Kathak and Laugakshi, connect Holi to full moon in words “राका होलाके”, hence, everything falls in sync.

The Modern Drift: Month Begins but Samvatsar Awaits 

Apparently, Vikram Samvat was not a new Samvatsar, it was, just another name assigned to the standardized Vedic Samvatsar, as discussed in the preceding passages, however, we experience a modern change, a drift that’s happening now. Its, although the new month Chaitra begins at the dawn after the full moon of Falguna as it should as per the mandate, but the Vikram Samvat begins after 14 days of the Chaitra takes its journey.

We can understand the drift better with the real time example: Pls note the ongoing Vikram Samvat 2079 begins on 2nd April, 2022 against the beginning of Chaitra, the first month of the same Samvatsar on 18th march, 2022 at the close of Falgun Purnima after a gap of 14 days which deaws us in a awkward situation wherein month begins but Samvatsar awaits.

A depiction of Aryabhatta and Varahmihira

Varahmihira and Saka Era

A careful scrutiny of Varahmihira’s work, brings forth unpleasant information about him, he appears to be knowledgeable but a tricky character. He is the first Sanskrit scholar and astronomer who deserted Vikram Samvat for the Saka era. He gives date of Yudhisthira and his own dates in Saka terms. He in his Romaka siddhanta, gives time of Varanasi and Ujjain on the scale of Alexandria’s timing, Alexandria is his Yavanapuri. He condemns all Indian astronomical treatises and contemporary astronomers inventing a derogatory term “दूर विभृष्टौ”, thus, he makes himself a controversial figure. He also gives credit for Surya Siddhantic astronomical knowledge to Mayasura but that’s not true. We come to know about evolutionary genealogy of Surya Siddhantic astronomy from within the Vedic tradition, no Asura myth is required. This genealogy is recorded in Taittiriya Brāhmaṇa which Varahmihira and other Suryasiddhantic commentators either didn’t know or overlooked. Unfortunately, following the recommendation of Calendar Reform Committee, Govt of India accepted Saka era as India’s national calendar which doesn’t conform to Vedic tradition. Saka era begins its year on 22nd March complying to Gregorian calendar.

Conclusion

Vikram Samvat appears to be continuation of earlier standardized Vedic era calendar, the modern drift between its month, season and year is doesn’t seem to be rational and needs to be resolved, provided we intend to follow the time reckoning of Vedic R̥ṣis.

Acknowledgement

Author acknowledges and appreciates timely support received from Mr. Anil Kumar Singh, Archaeologist, ASI Somnath Circle and Dr. Gyanendra Rai, Bharat Adhyayan Kendra, BHU for managing Man-Mandir observatory’s photograph.

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