Vedic Origins of the Zodiac: The Hymns of Dirghatamas in the Rig Veda

(one of a series of articles by David Frawley on Astrology in the Vedas)

The Zodiac and Dirghatamas

Some scholars have claimed that the Babylonians invented the zodiac of 360 degrees around 700 BCE, perhaps even earlier. Many claim that India received the knowledge of the zodiac from Babylonia or even later from Greece. However, as old as the Rig Veda, the oldest Vedic text, there are clear references to a chakra or wheel of 360 spokes placed in the sky. The number 360 and its related numbers like 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, 108, 432 and 720 occur commonly in Vedic symbolism. It is in the hymns of the great Rishi Dirghatamas (RV I.140 – 164) that we have the clearest such references.

Dirghatamas is one of the most famous Rig Vedic Rishis. He was the reputed purohit or chief priest of King Bharata (Aitareya Brahmana VIII.23), one of the earliest kings of the land, from which India as Bharata (the traditional name of the country) was named.

Dirghatamas was one of the Angirasa Rishis, the oldest of the Rishi families, and regarded as brother to the Rishi Bharadvaja, who is the seer of the sixth book of the Rig Veda. Dirghatamas is also the chief predecessor of the Gotama family of Rishis that includes Kakshivan, Gotama, Nodhas and Vamadeva (seer of the fourth book of the Rig Veda), who along with Dirghatamas account for almost 150 of the 1000 hymns of the Rig Veda. His own verses occur frequently in many Vedic texts, a few even in the Upanishads.

The hymns of Dirghatamas speak clearly of a zodiac of 360 degrees, divided in various ways, including by three, six and twelve, as well as related numbers of five and seven. We must remember that the zodiac is first of all a mathematical division of the heavens such as this hymn outlines. This is defined mainly according to the elements, qualities and planetary rulerships of the twelve signs. The symbols we ascribe to these twelve divisions is a different factor that can vary to some degree. The actual stars making up the constellation that goes along with the sign is yet a third factor. For example, some constellations are less or more than thirty degrees, but the mathematical or harmonic division of each sign will only be thirty degrees. What is important about the hymns of Dirghatamas is that he shows the mathematical basis of such harmonic divisions of a zodiac of 360 degrees.

For Dirghatamas, as was the case for much of later Vedic astronomy, the main God of the zodiac is the Sun God called Vishnu. Vishnu rules over the highest heaven and is sometimes identified with the pole star or polar point, which in the unique view of Vedic astronomy is the central point that governs all celestial motions and form which these are calculated.

According to Dirghatamas Rig Veda I.155.6, “With four times ninety names (caturbhih sakam navatim ca namabhih), he (Vishnu) sets in motion moving forces like a turning wheel (cakra).” This suggests that even in Vedic times Vishnu had 360 names or forms, one for each degree of the zodiac. A fourfold division may correspond to the solstices and equinoxes. Elsewhere Dirghatamas states, I.164.36, “Seven half embryos form the seed of the world. They stand in the dharma by the direction of Vishnu.” This probably refers to the seven planets.

Most of the astronomical information occurs in his famous Asya Vamasya Hymn I.164. Much of this hymn can be understood as a description of the zodiac. It begins:

1. Of this adorable old invoker (the Sun) is a middle brother who is pervasive (the Wind or lightning). He has a third brother, whose back carries ghee (Fire). There I saw the Lord of the people (the Sun) who has seven children.

This verse is referring to the usual threefold Vedic division of Gods and worlds as the Fire (Agni) on Earth, the Wind or Lightning (Vayu) in the Atmosphere and the Sun (Surya) in Heaven. This also may refer to the three steps or strides of Vishnu through which he measures the Earth, the Atmosphere and Heaven. The Sun is also a symbol of the supreme light or the supreme Sun God that is Vishnu. The Sun or supreme light has seven children, the visible Sun, Moon and five planets.

We should note that the zodiac of twelve signs is divided into three sections based upon a similar understanding, starting with Aries or fire (cardinal fire ruled by Mars, who in Vedic thought is the fire born of the Earth), then with Leo or the Sun (fixed fire ruled by the Sun), and then with Sagittarius, the atmospheric fire, lightning or wind (mutable fire ruled by Jupiter, the God of the rains).

2. Seven yoke the chariot that has a single wheel (chakra). One horse that has seven names carries it. The wheel has three naves, is undecaying and never overcome, where all these beings are placed.

The zodiac is the single wheeled-chariot or circle yoked by the seven planets which are all forms of the Sun or sunlight. It is the wheel of time on which all beings are placed. The Vedic horse (ashva) is symbolic of energy or propulsive force.

3. This chariot which the seven have mounted has seven wheels (chakras) and is carried by seven horses. The seven sisters sing forth together, where are hidden the seven names of the cows.

The seven planets create their seven rotations or seven wheels. Each has its horse, its energy or velocity. Each has its feminine power or sister, its power of expression. It carries its own hidden name or secret knowledge (symbolically cows or rays). This refers to the astrological influences of the planets.

11. The wheel of law with twelve spokes does not decay as it revolves around heaven. Oh Fire, here your 720 sons abide.

The circle of the zodiac has twelve signs. It has 720 half degrees or twins, making 360 total. The Shatapatha Brahmana X.5.5, a late Vedic text, also speaks of a wheel of heaven with 720 divisions. “But indeed that Fire-altar is also the Nakshatras. For there are twenty seven of these Nakshatras and twenty-seven secondary Nakshatras. This makes 720.” Twenty-seven times twenty-seven Nakshatras equals 729, with which some overlap can be related to the 720 half-degrees of the zodiac.

12. The Father with five feet and twelve forms, they say, dwells in the higher half of heaven full of waters. Others say that he is the clear-seeing one who dwells below in a sevenfold wheel that has six spokes.

The five feet of the father or the Sun are the five planets or the five elements that these often refer to (to which Vedic thought associates the five sense organs and five motor organs in the human body). His twelve forms are the twelve signs. The Sun in the higher half of heaven with the waters is the signs Leo with Cancer (ruled by the Moon), with the other five planets being the five feet, each ruling two signs. In Vedic thought, the Sun is the abode of the waters, which we can see in the zodiac by the proximity of the signs Cancer and Leo.

The sevenfold wheel is the zodiac moved by the seven planets. The six spokes are the six double signs through which the planets travel. The same verse occurs in the Prashna Upanishad I.11 as a symbol for the year.

13. Revolving on this five-spoked wheel all beings stand. Though it carries a heavy load, its axle does not over heat. From of old it does not break its ancient laws.

The five-spoked wheel is again the zodiac ruled by five planets and five elements and their various internal and external correspondences.

14. The undecaying wheel (circle) together with its felly (circumference), ten yoked to the upward extension carry it. The eye of the Sun moves encompassing the region. In it are placed all beings.

This may again refer to the ten signs ruled by the five planets, with each planet ruling two signs. The eye of the Sun may be the sign Leo through which the solar influence pervades the zodiac or just the Sun itself. The upward extension may be the polar region.

15. Of those that are born together, the seventh is born alone. The six are twins (yama), Divine born rishis. The wishes that they grant are apportioned according to their nature. Diversely made for their ordainer, they move in different forms.

The six born together or are twins are the twelve signs, two of which are ruled by one planet (considering the Sun and Moon as a single planetary influence). The seventh that is singly born is the single light that illumines all the planets. Elsewhere the Rig Veda X.64.3 speaks of the Sun and Moon as twins (yama) in heaven.

The planets are often associated with the rishis in Vedic thought, particularly the rishis Brihaspati (Jupiter), Shukra (Venus) and Kashyapa (the Sun) which became common names for the planets. Their ordainer or stabilizer may be the pole star (polar point).

48. Twelve are its fellies. The wheel is one. It has three naves. Who has understood it?

It are held together like spokes the 360, both moving and non-moving.

This perhaps the clearest verse that refers to the zodiac of twelve signs and three hundred and sixty degrees. The same verse also occurs in Atharva Veda (X.8.4). The zodiac has three divisions as fire, lightning and Sun or Aries, Sagittarius and Leo that represent these three forms of fire. The 360 spokes are the 360 degrees which revolve in the sky but remain in the same place in the zodiac.

Yet another verse (43) of this same hymn of Dirghatamas refers to the Vishuvat, the solstice or equinox, showing that such astronomical meanings are clearly possible.

If we examine the hymn overall, we see that a heavenly circle of 360 degrees and 12 signs is known, along with 7 planets. It also has a threefold division of the signs which can be identified with that of fire, wind (lightning) and Sun (Aries, Sagittarius, Leo) and a sixfold division that can be identified with the planets each ruling two signs of the zodiac. This provides the basis for the main factors of the zodiac and signs as we have known them historically. We have all the main factors for the traditional signs of the zodiac except the names and symbols of each individual sign. This I will address in another article.

Elsewhere in Vedic literature is the idea that when the Creator created the stars he assigned each an animal of which there were originally five, the goat, sheep, cow, horse and man (Shatapatha Brahmana X.2.1). This shows a Vedic tradition of assigning animals to constellations. The animals mentioned are the man, goat, ram, bull and horse, which contain several of the zodiacal animals.

The zodiac in Vedic thought is the wheel of the Sun. It is the circle created by the Sun’s rays. The Shatapatha Brahmana X.5.4 notes, “But, indeed, the Fire-altar also is the Sun. The regions are its enclosing stones, and there are 360 of these, because 360 regions encircle the Sun on all sides. And 360 are the rays of the Sun.”

The Zodiac and the Subtle Body

Clearly this hymn contains a vision of the zodiac but its purpose is not simply astronomical, nor is the zodiac the sole subject of its concern. Besides the outer zodiac of time and the stars there is the inner zodiac or the subtle body and its chakra system. The seven chakras mentioned are also the seven chakras of the subtle body. In Vedic thought the Sun that rules time outwardly corresponds inwardly to Prana, the spirit, soul or life-force (Maitrayani Upanishad VI.1). Prana is the inner Sun that creates time at a biological level through the process of breathing. It is also the energy that runs up and down the spine and flows through the seven chakras strung like lotuses along it.

According to Vedic thought (Shatapatha Brahmana XII.3.28) we have 10,800 breaths by day and by night or 21,600 a day. This corresponds to one breath every four seconds. The same text says that we have as many breaths in one muhurta (1/30 of a day or 48 minutes) as there are days and nights in the year or 720, so this connection of the outer light and our inner processes is quite detailed at an early period.

In Vedic thought the subtle body is composed of the five elements, the five sense organs and five motor organs, which correspond to different aspects of its five lower chakras .On top of these five are the mind and intellect (manas and buddhi) which are often compared to the Moon and the Sun and relate to the two higher chakras. They can be added to these other five factors, like the five planets, making seven in all. The chakras of Dirghatamas, though outwardly connected to the zodiac, are inwardly related to the subtle body, a connection that traditional commentators on the hymn like Sayana or Atmananda have noted.

This hymn of Dirghatamas contains many other important and cryptic verses on various spiritual matters that are connected to but go beyond the issues of the zodiac. It is written in the typical Vedic mantric and symbolic language to which it provides two keys;

39. The supreme syllable of the chant in the supreme ether, in which all the Gods reside, those who do not know this, what can they do with the Veda? Those who know it alone are gathered here.

45. Four are the levels of speech. Those trained in the knowledge, the wise know them all. Three hidden in secrecy cannot be do not stir. Mortals speak only with the fourth.

There is clearly a hidden knowledge behind these verses, which reflect an esoteric tradition of spiritual knowledge that was mainly accessible for initiates who had the keys to open its veils. We cannot simply take such verses superficially but must look deeply and see what they imply. Then the pattern of their inner meaning can come forth. If we do this, the astronomical and astrological side cannot be ignored.

Pingree’s Views

Western scholars of the history of astronomy like David Pingree have accepted the astronomical basis of this hymn. In an article, “Astronomy in India” in Astronomy Before the Telescope, C. Walker (ed.), St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1996, pps. 123-124, Pingree suggests that Mul. Apin, Babylonian tablets that date from 687 to 500 BC has “‘an ideal calendar’ in which one year contains 12 months, each of which has 30 days, and consequently exactly 360 days; a late hymn of the Rgveda refers to the same ‘ideal calendar’. And Mul.Apin describes the oscillation of the rising-point of the sun along the eastern horizon between its extremities when it is at the solstices; the same oscillation is described in the Aitareya Brahmana.'” This ideal calendar is the basis for the zodiac and its twelve signs at a mathematical level. Clearly Pingree is referring to Rig Veda I.164 as his ‘late’ hymn of the Rig Veda.

To quote from David Pingree’s “History of mathematical astronomy in India,” in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, C.S. Gillespie (ed.), pp. 533-633, Charles Scribners, New York, 1981, page 534: “In the case of the priority of the Rgveda to the Brahmanas, it is not always clear that the views expressed in the latter developed historically after the composition of the former. All texts that can reasonably be dated before ca. 500 BC are here considered to represent essentially a single body of more or less uniform material.” The point of his statement is to try to get such Rig Veda references as those of Dirghatamas later than the Brahmana texts as both reflect a similar sophisticated astronomy, which is necessary to make it later than the Babylonian references and a product of a Babylonian influence as he proposes. This requires reducing all the layers of Vedic literature to a more or less uniform mass at a very late date, which is contrary to almost every view of the text.

Clearly this Rig Veda hymn, which has parallels and developments in the Brahmanas (like the Shatapatha Brahmana quoted in this chapter), must be earlier and show that such ideas were much older than the Brahmanas. To maintain his late date for Vedic astrology, Pingree must assume that this hymn or its particular astronomical verses were late interpolations to the Rig Veda, around 500 BCE or about the time of the Buddha. This is rather odd because the Buddha is generally regarded as having come long after the Vedic period, while the actual text is usually dated well before 1000 BCE (some have argued even to 3000 BCE).

Even the Brahmanas, like the Upanishads that come after them, are pre-Buddhist by all accounts. Perhaps the main Vedic ritual given in the Brahmanas, the Gavamayana, follows the model of a year of 360 days and is divided into two halves based upon the solstices, showing that such an ‘ideal’ calendar was central to Vedic thought. That such an ideal calendar has its counterpart in the sky is well reflected in Vedic ideas saying that equate the days and nights with the Sun’s rays and with the stars (as we have noted in Shatapatha Brahmana with 720 Upanakshatras)*. The Brahmanas, we should also note, emphasize the Krittikas or the Pleiades as the first of the Nakshatras, reflecting an astronomical era of the Taurus equinox. The Shatapatha Brahmana notes that the Krittikas mark the eastern direction.

In addition, the hymn, its verses and commentaries on them are found in many places in Vedic literature, along with support references to Nakshatras. It cannot be reduced to a late addition but is an integral part of the text.

That being the case, a zodiac of 360 degrees and its twelvefold division are much older in India than any Greek or even Babylonian references that he has come up with.

Pingree also tries to reduce the ancient Vedic calendar work Vedanga Jyotish to 500 BCE or to a Babylonian influence. However, the internal date of this late Vedic text is of a summer solstice in Aslesha or 1300 BCE, information referenced by Varaha Mihira in his Brihat Samhita (III.1-2). “There was indeed a time when the Sun’s southerly course (summer solstice) began from the middle of the Nakshatra Aslesha and the northerly one (winter solstice) from the beginning of the Nakshatra Dhanishta. For it has been stated so in ancient works. At present the southerly course of the Sun starts from the beginning of Cancer and the other from the initial point of the sign Capricorn.” The middle of Aslesha is 23 20 Cancer, while the beginning of Dhanishta (Shravishta) is 23 20 Capricorn. Calculating the precession accordingly, this is obviously a date of around 1300 BCE.

There are yet earlier references in the Vedas like Atharva Veda XIX.6.2 that starts the Nakshatras with Krittika (the Pleiades) and places the summer solstice (ayana) in Magha (00 – 13 20 Leo), showing a date before 1900 BCE. These I have examined in detail in my book Gods, Sages and Kings (Lotus Press). Clearly the Vedas show the mathematics for an early date for the zodiac as well as the precessional points of these eras long before the Babylonians or the Greeks supposedly gave them the zodiac.

It is not surprising that India could have invented the zodiac and circle of 360 degrees. After all, the decimal system and the use of zero came from India. In this regard, as early as the Yajur Veda, we find names for numbers starting with one, ten, one hundred and one thousand ending with one followed by twelve zeros (Shukla Yajur Veda XVII.2).

The Rig Veda has another cryptic verse that suggests its cosmic numerology. According to it the Cosmic Bull has four horns, three feet, two heads and seven hands (Rig Veda IV.58.3). This sounds like a symbolic way of presenting the great kalpa number of 4,320,000,000 years. Such large numbers for the universe are typical to Indian thought, but scholars such as Pingree would also ascribe them to a Babylonian origin. However, the literature suggests the opposite.

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