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How the Greeks of India Taught Astronomy to the World

Plate depicting Cybele, a votive sacrifice and the sun God. Ai Khanoum, 3rd century BCE (National Museum of Afghanistan
How the Greeks of India Taught Astronomy to the World. Credit: Public Domain. Plate depicting Cybele, a votive sacrifice and the sun God.( Ai Khanoum, 3rd century BCE National Museum of Afghanistan). It is a remarkable example of hybrid Greek and Oriental imagery that typified the arts of Hellenized Asia

The Horoscopy of the Greeks, known as “Yavanajataka,” was composed around 270 A.D.. This text had a phenomenal influence on later Indian astrology and astronomy; the Greek origin of this treatise is reflected by its title since Greeks are known by the name Yavana in India, originating from the word Ionia, as the Ionian Greeks were the first to come in contact with Indians.

The Greeks of India found the culture of their fellow Indians very rich and somehow appropriated it and assimilated substantially into the larger mainstream. Irrespective of appropriation of and assimilation to the native culture of their adoptive homeland, it is quite difficult to destroy the “Greekness” in a Greek no matter where on earth or in the universe they reside—or, for that matter, regardless of how long they remain away from their original homeland, Greece.

The Greeks of India contributed substantially to intellectual developments in South Asia, and their work, research, and teachings inspired a number of Indian scholars, intellectuals, and scientists. This continues to hold true to this day. Several disciplines of knowledge have been enriched by the Greek presence in India. One of those disciplines that has attracted phenomenal interest of modern intellectuals is astronomy, the study of the “language of stars.”

As nations are now in a space race to outperform each other and send satellites for observations and communications—as well as humans to explore the universe—the fact that Greeks in India had been thinking about the universe for many years and were interested in the regions outside the very planet we inhabit is itself worth appreciating. It was not only astronomy but also astrology which saw phenomenal contribution by Indo-Greeks.

Greek intellectuals in India

There are reports by writers of the Hellenistic and Roman periods that Greeks had visited India in much earlier times than the arrival of Alexander the Great. In his mentions, the Greek philosopher, historian and biographer Plutarch refers to the legendary Lycurgus of Sparta, who visited India. In fact, Plutarch, Diodoros Sikeliotes (known as Siculu), and Diogenes Laertius managed to send just about every Greek sage into the East, including Pythagoras and Democritus— although the same does not hold true for Socrates and Aristotle.

Even if such journeys did take place, these sages are more likely to have brought back philosophical rather than scientific ideas, as pointed out in Nicholas Kazanas’ book “Archaic Greece and the Veda.”

Greek Corinthian capital with the Buddha in the center, from Jarmal Garhi
Corinthian Capital with figure of Buddha. Credit: Public Domain/James Craddock

Greek polity in India after Indo-Greek rule

The Greeks appear to have had some sort of political organization within the state ruled by Scythian nomads in India, a successor to the Indo-Greek states of North India, of which Yavanesvara, Raja Sphujidhvaja, Minaraja the Yavanadhiraja, and Yavanacarya were all leaders. Yavanesvara and Sphujidhvaja, who gives himself the title of Raja, meaning King, were “Lords of the Greeks.” (The Greeks are known by the name Yona and Yavana in Sanskrit).

What this means is that men exercising a kind of authority over Greeks settled in the domains of the Western Ksatrapas, basically Sakas. Scythian nomad rulers in those areas of India later came to be known as Gujarat, Malwa, and Rajasthan. The date of Yavanesvara places him in the middle of the reign of Rudradaman I, the greatest of the Western Saka kings.

The Origin of “the Language of the Stars”

“The Yavanajataka” (Sanskrit: yavana ‘Greek’ + jātaka ‘nativity’ = ‘nativity according to the Greeks’) of Sphujidhvaja, a Greek king alias, was perhaps composed around 270 A.D.. This text had a phenomenal influence on later Indian astronomy and astrology, and the Greek origin of this treatise is reflected by its title and the Babylonian character of its planetary theory. From the concluding three verses of “The Yavanajataka,” we are informed that it is a versified version of a prose translation of a Greek text with a high degree of probability from Egypt, Alexandria.

It is produced by a Yavanesvara in Ujjain, an ancient city of Central India. The prose translation of Yavanesvara (“Lord of the Greeks”) was evidently deemed an unsuitable means for the transmission of Sastraic knowledge. Therefore, Sphujidhvaja took upon himself the responsibility to versify the work. Sphujidhvaja himself was an Indianized Greek, and his name may be a compound of Greek and Indian vocables and regarded as equivalent to the Sanskrit Sukradhvaja.

It is in Sphujidhvaja’s work that interrogational astrology (Prasna) was introduced to India from the Hellenistic world. Interrogational astrology was developed in India in the second and third centuries A.D.. Weber has remarked that Varahamihira uses as many as thirty-four Sanskritized Greek words as technical astrological terms.

Paul the Greek and Manetho, the Hellenized Egyptian and their influence on India

Paulisa (Paul), of Greek origin, is the originator of the Paulisa Siddhanta, one of the five systems of astronomy of the early centuries of the Christian era. These were selectively updated in the Pancasiddhantika of Varahmihira, the genius Indian astronomer-astrologer of the sixth century AD. According to a traditional verse attributed to the sage Kasyapa, Paulisa is one of the eighteen originators of Indian astronomical systems.

Al-Biruni, the Persian scholar who sojourned in India from 1017 to 1030, stated that Paulisa Siddhanta was written by Paulus-Al-Yunani, i.e., “Paulus, the Greek.” Most likely, the Hindus prepared an Indianized Sanskrit or the formerly-mentioned Paulisa Siddhanta on the basis of the Greek work. There are numerous fragments of and references to the astrological work of the Greek Manittha—known as Manindha in South India—whose name perhaps represents the Greco-Egyptian.

Manittha is first mentioned by Varahamihira, and this makes him a contemporary of Sphujidhvaja or Minaraja. Unfortunately, the fragments of his work do not seem to have any particular connection to the long Greek poem of various authorship that goes under the name of Manetho.

The Brihajjataka is one of six major works of Varahamihira,
it was possibly Varahamihira who after learning the Greek language introduced and helped diffuse the Greek zodiac signs, names, and astrology. Credit: Sarah Welch/ Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Greek Astronomy in India

Professor O. Neugebauer believes that the Hindu arrangement of the planets is obviously Greek in origin for two reasons. First of all, it is based on the arrangement of distance from the earth and on the division of days into twenty-four hours. The ruler of the first hour is then considered to be the ruler of the day and thus one obtains the following rulers for the seven consecutive days: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn in that order.

Of course, this is still the Indian sequence of the days of the week and also the arrangement of the planets in Indian astronomy. Professor O. Neugebauer, seems to point toward astrology as an actual carrier of astronomical knowledge. Astrology has definitely gone through the Hellenistic medium. This is confirmed by the use of Greek terminology and by explicit references in the Indian sources to the Greeks (or Byzantines) as their authorities for the science of astronomy.

Greek Legacy Continues After Indo-Greek Kingdom Fall

The Greeks of India were inquisitive people, who, besides astronomy, contributed phenomenally to different fields of knowledge, and their descendants have become part of the larger mainstream. The transition from being rulers in India to being subjects of non-Greek rulers was difficult. However, the Indo-Greeks adapted to the changing times and focused more on learning and trade than on warfare after the last Indo-Greek Kingdom was ended by the Scythians, and the Greek kingdoms all across South Asia were destroyed by the migrating Yuezhi and Scythian nomads in conjunction with other warrior groups.

It is interesting that successor states to the Indo-Greek kingdom were substantially Hellenized in their form and orientation, though the political power of Greeks in India was on a downfall. Nonetheless, the intellectual achievements and prowess of Greeks continued to hold strong.

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