It is curious that we celebrate the “Return of the Light” on the darkest day. We do this because even though it is the darkest day, it is also the day the Sun appears to change direction in the sky. In fact to call it the “day” the Sun changes direction is a little misleading. Because it is like saying “the day I turned on the light”. A day is too long of a time increment to measure this “moment”.
The Sun began getting lower and lower in the sky, and its rays darker, in the Northern Hemisphere, since June 21, the day of the Summer Solstice. It reaches its absolute lowest point one second before it changes direction – the moment of the Winter Solstice.
One second it is getting darker, the next moment it is getting lighter. The Sun will continue to give more and more light for the next 6 months in the Northern hemisphere after the Winter Solstice – until the Summer Solstice – when It changes direction again, in the sign of Tropical Cancer.
This is how the Tropical Zodiac works. It is based on the Seasons. The first day of Capricorn in Western astrology is the winter solstice (which has nothing to do with the named constellation / stars) of Capricorn.
This is the Zodiac used in Western astrology, a seasonal Zodiac. Some also use it is Vedic astrology now, due its precision in marking the Earth’s orbit around the Sun and the indisputable evidence that the ancient Indians also used it (as the texts are full of references to the tropical Zodiac). In almost every classical literature piece, whenever the Zodiac is referred to it was tied to the Seasons, which is something very easy to observe, and at the time the 2 Zodiacs were aligned. Thus, when a Vedic text describes the Northern Course beginning in Capricorn, that was true for BOTH Zodiacs – at that time.
Two Zodiacs and a 1500 Year Old Mistake
Vedic astrology uses a Sidereal Zodiac that measure the position of the planets as they move through the ecliptic as seen against the background of stars or star groups / sections of stellar energy (called Naksatras). At some point in history these stars groups were named either coincidentally or intentionally at a point when the stellar Zodiac and the tropical Zodiac were in synch. Meaning, there was a time when when the zero point of the Zodiac (in Aries) lined up with the first Nakshatra of Aries (Ashwini) and the moment the Sun crossed the Celestial equator moving North (the first day of Aries to this day in Western Astrology / tropical Zodiac).
Early authors of astrology made statements about the two Zodiacs that lead to much confusion in retrospect. These authors spoke of the two zodiacs, that at the time occupied the same space – AS IF they would always be occupying the same space. Perhaps they were just doing this for the sake of expediency, but 2,000 years later it has led to errors, such as celebrating Makar Sankranti on the Sidereal ingress of the Sun into Capricorn, when clearly it was meant to be a Solstice celebration, based on the Tropical Zodiac.
Below are quotes from a few Vedic astrology texts on the Seasons and the Zodiacs.
Yavana Jataka (from 191 AD)
V. 30. One should find that the northern course of the Sun begins at the beginning of Capricorn, and the southern course at the beginning of the fourth sign (Cancer); the first equator (crossing) in the year is at the beginning of Aries, the second at the beginning of Libra.
59. By terrible feats of asceticism the two Asvins learned this science from Prajapati, and the Sun learned it from them; hence the Creator placed the pair of horses (Asvini) at the beginning of his head in the circle of signs which is the body of Kala.
Even the great Varahamihira did this in Brihat Jataka, considered to be a sort of “Bible” of Vedic astrology. In Brihat Jataka Varahamihira states:
“In the celestial Chakra (globe) the signs commencing with Mesha and Aswini, are each formed by nine padams (quarters) of stars and govern the following organs of Kalapurusha,.. “.
He is clearly saying “Mesha commences with Ashwini”, that would be correct through the history of Indian astrology, as here would be connecting the Sign to the Nakshatras. Some have determined (curiously enough) that this might indicate that the great Vedic astrologer Varahamihira (as well as the Yavanas) did not know of the precession, as these statements would not hold true if he were discussing Tropical rasis (which he clearly was not).
This theory is laid to rest, as in later works, (Panchasiddhantika and Brihat Samhita) Varahamihira shows that he understands the precession. So we can assume, (Varahamihira) and others were speaking about the sky they observed when they placed both Sidereal / non precessional Zodiac (Ashwini) in the same space as Aries – what could be interpreted as a “Tropical” / precessional Zodiac.
From Brihat Samhita (500 AD):
“There was indeed a time when Dakshinayana began from the Middle of Aslesha and Uttarayana from the commencement of Dhanishta. For it has been stated so in ancient works.
At present, Dakshinayana (Southern Course – first day of Summer) starts from the beginning of Cancer and the other (Northern Course – Uttarayana – first day of Winter) from the initial point of Capricorn. This actual fact, which goes against the old statement can be verified by direct observation.”
Notice he says, “at present Dakshinayana starts,…”. He is making it clear that in earlier times the Northern and Southern courses happened in Nakshatras that were in higher degree than at the time of his writing. Thus, instead of zero Cancer and Capricorn, the Summer and Winter Solstices were happening when the Sun was at least 23:20 (0 Dhanishta – middle Aslesha) of their respective signs – a time at least 2000 years earlier (approximately).
As we can see, and can measure scientifically, 1500 years ago, the “Return of the Light” coincided with the Sidereal Zodiac and Tropical Zodiac both at 0 Capricorn and Cancer – just as thousands of years earlier it happened when the Sun was in the middle of Cancer and Capricorn. Currently, Uttarayana happens when the Sun is in the middle of Mula (6:40 Sagittarius) Dakshinayan happens at 0 Ardra (6:40 Gemini).
To celebrate Makar Sankranti on January 14, 2017 would be to repeat a 1500 year old mistake.
The Courage to Question – Vedic Sciences Are Not Religions
I have brought this mistake up for several years now, and often I am met with people who get offended that I would dare question “The Sastras”, “the Traditions”,…etc. The Sastras are correct. It is those who do not understand them that need to get straight. Of course those who say such things have never delved into the sticky logistic mess of trying to sort this stuff out and actually looked into the Sastras themselves. If they had they would notice the mountain of contradictions that exists from text to text, etc.
One bottom line to remember:
Everything is NOT a Sastra written by a master. That does not take away from their greatness, excellence or contribution. Many of these ancient Vedic texts were written by astrologers of their day (people like me) but without the benefit of computers or even great texts like Brihat Parashara Hora Sastra, etc. Verily, a modern researcher has as much to offer to the canon of Vedic literature than the court astrologers from the medieval era. Their greatness was in keeping the traditions together and offering some wonderful insights into the practice. I am grateful for it and them.
My deep pranams to Varahamihira, Mantreshwara and others.
But these great Sciences were passed down through Rishis, (Spiritual Scientists – Like Parashara and Jaimini, Vyasa and others) who would not have wanted or allowed blatant factual errors to persist for thousands of years, especially at important moments and energetic openings that exists at the Cardinal points of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.
Does anyone actually think a Rishi would NOT correct this error in the Zodiac interpretation on this holiday.
I actually had a few people last year lecture me that there are a “different set of truths from the east and the west” and I should “open up my mind since I represented Vedic teachings”. I “owed it to the tradition” to just accept these inconsistencies because they were all great and from the sastras, etc.
We disgrace both the religion and the Science when we bury our head in the sand this way.
This is the same religious thinking that caused the Catholic Church to excommunicate Galileo and Copernicus for daring to say the (interpretation of the) Bible was wrong in asserting that the Earth was the center of the Universe etc.
It is totally understandable and excusable for people (and even governments) to have repeated this error, but it is time to overcome the religious thinking and actually experience a “Return of the Light” and celebrate Makar Sankranti when it is supposed to be celebrated, on the Winter Solstice.