In the last few articles, we discussed pole star condition in Maitrayāṇī Araṇyaka Upaniṣhad and Hanuman’s utterance on ancient observation of Swati’s path, both going back thousands of years into Paleolithic times. So, the observation of the skies in ancient times is the object of study today in this article. It gleans upon whether the observation was just incidental for philosophical purposes or some prescriptions for observation were assigned which continued into philosophies.
Indian astronomy unfolds its captivating essence when delving into its fundamental conceptual foundations, the nomenclature of stars, their etymology, and their practical applications interwoven with philosophical insights. As you gaze into the skies, curious shapes emerge within your mind, linking various stars even when you are not aware of the constellation charts of your culture and tradition. Among these, a remarkable form takes shape in the northern sky during the summer solstice — resembling an upright 'question mark'. This distinctive configuration easily captures the attention of even those unfamiliar with astronomy. With the changing seasons, its
position shifts, occasionally resembling a ladle or dipper, springing up, upright or falling down adding to its allure by mirroring the everyday utility of a question mark while one pens in today's time. This is called Saptaṛṣis in Indian astronomy and Big Bear or Dipper in the Western Constellation Chart.
It is a phenomenon observed worldwide that upon spotting the constellation Ursa Major, one often seeks to identify the Pole Star or another prominent star pattern nearby during seasonal transitions. In contemporary times, the most effective method to locate the Pole Star, Polaris, utilizing the Big Dipper involves connecting two stars, Dubhe and Merak. (See image 1)
By drawing a line between these stars and extending it roughly five times, you eventually pinpoint Polaris. However, this technique is not a recent discovery by modern astronomers. Instances of aligning the Big Dipper with the Pole Star, known as Dhruva, are found in our Upaniṣhads, Gṛhya and Śrauta Sūtras, as well as Vedic texts*. In fact, our precision in observing the Sapta-Ṛṣis, including a faint star within the constellation of the Big Dipper, is noteworthy. Intriguingly, this faint star served a purpose, which I have elaborated upon in the Arundhatī Darśana Nyāya.
There is an ancient prescription that allows us to locate the pole star in the vicinity of the Big Bear constellation in Āśvalāyana Gṛhya Sūtra, Sāṅkhāyana Gṛhya Sūtra, i. 17, 2 et seq.; Lāṭyāyana Śrauta Sūtra, iii. 3, 6, etc..
ध्रुवमरुन्धतीं सप्तऋषीनिति दृष्ट्वा वाचं विसृजेत जीवपत्नीं प्रजां विन्देयेति २२,
“When she sees the polar-star, the star Arundhatī, and the seven Ṛṣis (ursa major), let her break the silence (and say), May my husband live and I get offspring.” — Āśvalāyana Gṛhya Sūtra
Sāṅkhāyana Gṛhya Sūtras gives a similar statement for polar star. (site)
Let them sit silent, when the sun has set, until the polar-star appears.
He shows her the polar-star with the words, ‘Firm be thou, thriving with me!’
Let her say, ‘I see the polar-star; may I obtain offspring.’— Sāṅkhāyana Gṛhya Sūtras
In Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa the Dhruva is described as the remaining (i.e., preserved) Graha which having been drawn in the morning is not offered till evening, (ŚBr; Vaitani sutra). The whole of the Ṛgveda Sukta mantra 10.173.1 is dedicated to Dhruva which imparts firmness and stability to heaven and earth and every being in the heaven and on the earth, the Ṛṣi-mantra draṣṭā of this Sukta is Dhruva himself.
The question arises how and when did this prescription of locating polestar come into being? and why was the need? Since at times, there won’t be a pole star at or near the North celestial pole point pointed out from Saptaṛṣis. To this question, we have an answer in one of the Ṛgveda’s mantra where the word dhruvacyuto (shaking and dropping of dhruva) means that the axis of the earth is the subverter of what is stable and immoveable i.e., pole star becomes less and less aligned with the North celestial pole.
हि॒र॒ण्यये॑भिः प॒विभि॑: पयो॒वृध॒ उज्जि॑घ्नन्त आप॒थ्यो॒३॒॑ न पर्व॑तान् । म॒खा अ॒यास॑: स्व॒सृतो॑ ध्रुव॒च्युतो॑ दुध्र॒कृतो॑ म॒रुतो॒ भ्राज॑दृष्टयः ॥Ṛgveda 1.64.11
“Augmenters of rain, they drive with golden wheels the clouds asunder, as elephants (in a herd break down the trees in their way); they are honoured with sacrifices, visitants of the hall of offering, spontaneous assailers (of their foes), subverters of what are stable, immoveable themselves, and wearers of shining weapons.”
Dhruvacyut (ध्रुवच्युत्):—[=dhruva-cyut] [from dhruva] mfn. shaking the immovable, [Ṛg-veda]
Such a phrase comes in MAU also where King Bṛhadratha says ‘dhruvasya pracalanaṃ’
अथ किमेतैर्वान्यानां शोषणं महार्णवानां शिखरिणां प्रपतनं ध्रुवस्य प्रचलनं स्थानं वा तरूणां निमज्जनं पृथिव्याः स्थानादपसरणं सुराणं सोऽहमित्येतद्विधेऽस्मिन्संसारे किं कामोपभोगैर्यैरेवाश्रितस्यासकृदिहावर्तनं दृश्यत इत्युद्धर्तुमर्हसीत्यन्धोदपानस्थो भेक इवाहमस्मिन्संसारे भगवंस्त्वं नो गतिस्त्वं नो गतिः ॥ १.७॥ " इति प्रथमः प्रपाठकः ॥
“And what of these? There is the drying up of other great oceans, the falling of mountains, the moving of the pole-star, the cutting of the wind-ropes (that hold the stars), the submergence of the earth, and the departure of the gods (suras) from their place. In such a world as this, what is the use of the enjoyment of pleasures, if he who has fed on them is seen to return (to this world) again and again! Design therefore to take me out! In this world, I am like a frog in a dry well. O Saint, thou art my way, thou art my way.” /1.7/
If there are instances of such statements present in Indian texts, where the polestar is described as moving away from the alignment with the Earth's axis, it indicates that our ancestors needed a circumpolar star cluster to determine the location of the polestar. The constellation Saptaṛṣis (Big Bear), with its discrete cluster of stars, effectively fulfilled this requirement in the North and maybe these were observed for multiple cycles of axial precession in the past. Do we find any evidence in Itihāsas of such observation where Saptaṛṣis and polestar are mentioned together? Yes, indeed, we find one such evidence in Rāmāyaṇa.
ब्रह्म राशिर् विशुद्धः च शुद्धाः च परम ऋषयः |
अर्चिष्मन्तः प्रकाशन्ते ध्रुवम् सर्वे प्रदक्षिणम् || ६-४-४९
Dhruva, the very bright pole-star (which is recognized by the contiguity of the stars presided over by the seven Brahmana sages) is becoming clear. All the pure great sages having bright light are shining are shining around Dhruva star.
This has been the tradition of observing the skies through prescriptions which made observation mandatory to be followed for various purposes from the Ṛgvedic times which Rāmāyaṇa also specifically observed from time to time.
Title image source: HinduPad; Text image provided by the author.