Chronological Framework for Bharatiya Culture – Part 5 (Conclusion)

In this series of articles, we are introducing the research ‘On the Chronological Framework for Indian Culture’ by Shri Subhash Kak, to readers old and new. (To read Part 4 of the series, click here.)

The Saptarsi Era and the Greek Notices

The Bharatiya tradition of the seven rishis, the stars of Ursa Major, is an ancient one which goes back to the Rgveda. The Satapatha Brahmana speaks of a marriage between the rishis and the naksatras; specifically it mentions that the rishis were married to the Krttikas.

In the Puranas, this notion of marriage is elaborated when it is clearly stated that the rishis remain for a hundred years in each naksatra. This Puranic account implies a centennial reckoning system with a cycle of 2,700 years. Such a system has been in use in parts of Bharat since centuries before Christ, and it is called the Saptarsi era. Each cycle of 2,700 years was called a chakra, or cycle. By current reckoning in Kashmir, in use at least from the time of Kalhana (1150 AD), Saptarsi era began in 3076 BC, and there is evidence that, originally, it started in 6676 BC. [23]

It appears that it is the beginning of this era that is quoted by the Greek historians Pliny and Arrian:

From Father Liber to Alexander the Great, they reckon the number of their kings to have been 154, and they reckon (the time as) 6,451 years and 3 months. [Pliny, Naturalis Historia, 6.59-60]

From Dionysos to Sandrocottos (Chandragupta) the Bharatiyas count 153 kings, and more than 6,042 years; and during this time, thrice for liberty … this for 300 years, the other for 120 years. [Arrian, Indica, 9.9]

These two traditions, perhaps derived from the same source, can be reconciled if the Arrian years are all added up, which gives (6,042+ 300+ 120) or 6,462 years, which is only 11 years different from the other account. These eleven years might represent the gap between the time of Alexander and the Greek embassy to Chandragupta Maurya. If one takes the year 314 BC for the embassy to Chandragupta, one gets 6776 BC as the beginning of the Bharatiya calendar in use at that time. This is just one centennial removed from the epoch of 6676 BC suggested by its current beginning of 3076 BC, together with an additional 3,600 years.

As to the count of 153 or 154 kings, it accords quite closely if one follows up the list until the Bharata War, with the kings of the Magadhan line together with the ten kings of the Barhadrathas, whose names the Puranas tell us are lost. This total up to Chandragupta is 143, which is only ten or eleven less than the Greek total. This close accord tells us that the king lists of the fourth century BC are about the same as those now, excepting that the current lists have dropped a few names. This loss of about ten kings from the lists in a span of five or six hundred years, when the current versions of some of the Puranas became fixed, suggests that a similar loss might have occurred before, and it supports the view that the genealogies are incomplete.

It has been argued that the Kaliyuga and the Varahamihira traditions about the Bharata War can be reconciled if it is assumed that a change in reckoning from a system of 28 naksatras to that of 27 naksatras took place sometime after the time of Chandragupta. It is also suggested that the Kaliyuga tradition might be authentic and the Varahamihira tradition was derived from it.

But the evidence from the Rgveda supports the notion that the original system of naksatras was 27 and that it was modified to 28 later. The notion of 27 naksatras can also be found in the Taittiriya Samhita. It is significant that the epoch of 6676 BC is exactly 3,600 years earlier than the starting point of 3076 BC for the Saptarsi era, as accepted now.

Since it is clear that at the time of the Mauryas, the cycles of the Saptarsi era were counted back to 6676 BC, it appears that the new count that goes back to 3076 BC was started later to make it as close to the start of the Kali era as possible.

There exists another plausible explanation for how the tradition of the starting point of 6776 BC arose. By the time of the Greeks, the naksatras were listed starting with Asvini (as in Surya Siddhanta 8.9). As Magha is the tenth naksatra in a count beginning with Asvini, one needs to add 900 years to find the epoch for the beginning of the cycle. This takes one to 3976 BC. One more complete Saptarsi cycle of 2,700 years before that brings us to 6676 BC.

Although the limitations and ambiguities of the Puranic evidence have been much debated, it should be realized that much old criticism has lost its weight in view of the new archaeological discoveries indicating continuity in Bharatiya culture. Thus the calendrical framework described above is perfectly consistent with the other evidence, although one would take it to have been confirmed only after its details are corroborated independently.

Relative Chronology of the Texts

Our examination of the evidence leaves us with three choices for the Bharata War: 1924 BC, 2449 BC, and 3137 BC. One might wish to speak of a High Chronology and a Low Chronology to indicate the limits within which one might safely place the War based on the current evidence. If we anchor our dates to the catastrophic events of 1900 BC and see the Mahabharata story as the mapping of a geological disaster into a human one, then one must place the Rgvedic era somewhat before 2000 BC. The tradition that the Bharata War began about 1,500 years before the Nandas would agree completely with this view.

The Brahmanas and the Aranyakas would then belong to the early or mid-2nd millennium BC, the forest age between the two early urbanizations of Bharat.

Since the earliest Vedic literature, as in the Samhitas, is encyclopaedic, the longer time-spans over which it developed allow us to narrow the gap between the three choices. We don’t wish to depend on literary tradition alone, and therefore take the physical event of the drying up of the Sarasvati river to help determine the period of the texts.

Thus, since the Rgveda mentions a Sarasvati flowing all the way down to the sea, this text should be earlier than 1900 BC. How much earlier, we cannot say. Indeed, if the theory that the Sarasvati river ceased to reach the sea about 3000 BC is true, then the Rgveda should be prior to this early epoch. But wishing to be as conservative as possible, we take the latest possible date for the drying up of the Sarasvati, and this has the virtue of being the about same as the Puranic date of 1924 BC. This has further support from the reference in the Brahmanas about the migration east from the Sarasvati area due to heat and, presumably, famine.

Analyzing the astronomical evidence alone, Sengupta in 1947 came up with the following chronology for the references in the texts: the Vedic Samhitas, 4000-2500 BC; Brahmanas, 2500-1000 BC; Baudhayana Srauta Sutra, 900 BC; and so on. My own analysis of the astronomy gives three phases: [24]

Rgvedic astronomy: 4000 – 2000 BC

The astronomy of the Brahmanas: 2000 – 1000 BC

Early Siddhantic and early Puranic astronomy: 1000 BC – 500 AD

The date of Vedanga Jyotisa of Lagadha is 1300 BC, thus placing it in the Brahmana age.

Much of the early Sutra literature can be expected to belong to the first half of the first millennium BC, which may also be the age of the Bhagavad Gita.

The Development of Ideas

Bharatiya culture, as depicted by its texts and its art, has unique features. For example, the ancient Bharatiya rock art, which is believed to be several tens of thousands years old, has tessellations that are unique in the ancient world. [25] Some have suggested that these designs may represent “mystical” experience. The Vedic texts are mystical, and they themselves say so when they assert that words have limitations.

The Sindhu-Sarasvati cultural tradition has characteristics that indicate a social and political organization, and hence a world-view, different from the other traditions of West Asia. There is very little monumental architecture and it appears that the elites were a religious aristocracy.

The Harappan art includes motifs that could very well represent the goddess imagery of the Puranas. One image is a cylinder seal from Kalibangan that shows a goddess holding back two warriors; here, using a very clever, representational style, the goddess is also shown separately merging into a tiger, suggesting that the tiger is the mount of the goddess. Durga as Mahisasura-Mardini is depicted in the Puranas as riding a lion or a tiger.

A significant building at Mohenjo-Daro has been identified as a fire temple. The building has a central courtyard and a symmetric arrangement of rooms. Every alternate room has a low brick platform and one of the rooms has a staircase leading to an upper floor. It appears that a fire altar was placed in the central courtyard.

This fire temple has symmetric features that have much in common with the architectural mandalas discovered in North Afghanistan, [26] which have been dated to 2000 BC. Since textual evidence suggests that such mandalas came to be employed long after the Rgvedic age, this evidence provides a useful chronological marker. Apart from the textual evidence, one would expect that an artistic representation of the abstract yantric concept would take centuries to develop.

The notion of the yantra and the mythology of the goddess represent a mature stage in the evolution of Bharatiya religious imagination. Their existence in the 3rd millennium calls for a drastic revision of the academic chronology for these ideas.

Libation vessels made of the conch shell turbinella pyrum have been found at Mohenjo-Daro. One of these has vermillion filled incised lines. We know such conch vessels were used in the Vedic ritual and for administering sacred water or medicine to patients.

The Vedic altars had an astronomical basis. In the basic scheme, the circle represented the earth, while the square represented the heavens or the deity. But the altar or the temple, as a representation of the dynamism of the universe, required a breaking of the symmetry of the square. As seen clearly in the agnicayana and other altar constructions, this was done in a variety of ways. Although the main altar might be square or its derivative, the overall sacred area was taken to be a departure from this shape. In particular, the temples of the goddess were drawn on a rectangular plan. The dynamism is expressed by a doubling of the square to a rectangle or the ratio 1:2, where the garbhagrha is built in the geometrical centre.

The constructions of the Harappan period appear to be according to the same principles. The dynamic ratio of 1:2:4 is the most commonly encountered size of rooms of houses, in the overall plan of houses and the construction of large public buildings. This ratio is also reflected in the overall plan of the large walled sector at Mohenjo-Daro called the “citadel mound”.

If the Harappan iconography expresses the ideas of the original Purana, we are quite close to the traditional chronology of Bharatiya history.

Concluding Remarks

New findings are leading to a new view of ancient Bharat, revealing substantial convergence between the archaeological record and the literary tradition. To be as conservative as possible within the parameters of the new archaeological and astronomical evidence, we think it prudent to consider 2000 BC as the divide between the early Vedic and the later Vedic literature.

The new paradigm is of the greatest significance in understanding the development of philosophical ideas in Bharat. As the Harappan record becomes more accessible, we will be able to provide material evidence of innovations that had their parallels, or inspiration, in philosophical thought.



(Featured image for representational purpose only. Source)


23. See Kak (1994a) for a further discussion.

24. Kak (1998c). For another attempt to construct a new chronology of the texts, see Feuerstein (1998).

25. See, for example, Rao and Kak (1998). For further details on the rest of this section, see Kak (1998a, 1998d) and Feuerstein et al (1995).

26. Kak (1994a), pages 43-46.