Summary – Nakshatras and Upanakshatras by David Frawley
The Vedas show a division of the zodiac into 27 Nakshatras or lunar mansions. That they might have more subtle divisions of the zodiac than 27 should not surprise us. A twentysevenfold division would demand finer divisions for accurate calculations. In this regard Satapatha Brahmana describes Upanakshatras or secondary Nakshatras with each Nakshatra divided into 27 parts equalling a total of approximately 720.
It is generally thought in the West that the zodiac of 360 degrees and 12 signs is an invention of Babylonian thought and was brought to India by the Greeks after the time of Alexander (after 300 BCE). However the Vedas, all the way back to the oldest Rg Veda, contain references to a sun wheel or wheel of heaven divided into 360, 720 and 12, as well as other numbers. Vedic literature describes these divisions as located in “heaven” or the sky. Satapatha Brahmana clearly notes them as “rays” and “directions,” giving them a spatial orientation and equates them with the Upanakshatras furthering making them into divisions of a zodiac.
In other words, Satapatha Brahmana presents a zodiac of 720 Upanakshatras equated with the 720 rays and directions that surround the sun. This shows a zodiac divided into 720 parts or 360 X 2. Such a zodiac existed in India at the time of Satapatha Brahmana. While modern scholarship has generally dated this text around 800 BCE, recent new discoveries in India, like that of the Sarasvati river,**1 may push this time back much further. The same text speaks of the vernal equinox in the Krttikas or Pleiades (which occurred around 2000 BCE). Hence it can be suggested that a zodiac of 360 or 720 portions was known in India by this period.
In order to establish the background for the concept of Upanakshatras, let us first examine the complexity of Vedic thought in regard to science, astronomy and calendars. The Vedic zodiac is part of a larger system of mathematical thought, and not merely an interpolation, borrowing or an extraneous factor. It is integral to this entire system, particularly for constructing fire altars, which was probably the most important and complex aspect of Vedic thought. Vedic knowledge of the zodiac must be viewed in the context of other carful observations made in that area.
The Rg Veda (IV.58.3) speaks of the cosmic bull with “four horns, three feet, two heads and seven hands.” This has been identified by some as the kalpa number 4,320,000,000, the great age in Vedic astronomy. The Atharva Veda (VIII.2.21) also mentions yugas of 10,000 years in length, “ten thousand, two yugas, three yugas, four yugas,” or a total period of 100,000 years. Meanwhile the Yajur Veda (Sukla Yajur Veda XVII.2) relates the universe to the number 1,000,000,000,000, giving names for numbers from one to ten all the way up to this number which is ten to the twelfth power.
According to Satapatha Brahmana X.4.2.25 all the three Vedas amount to “ten thousand eight hundred eighties (of syllables)” or 864,000, the number of muhurtas (48 minute periods or 1/30 of a day) in eighty years. Such numbers show a use of mathematics on a grand scale to understand the universe in which we live, not only in terms of time but in terms of space. This concern for large numbers is well known in later Indian mathematics and astronomy of the classical period.
Satapatha Brahmana XII.3.2.5 shows a knowledge of very subtle time divisions as well:
“And there are ten thousand and eight hundred ‘muhurta’ in the year; and fifteen times as many ‘kshipras’ as there are ‘muhurta’; and fifteen times as many ‘etarhi’ as there are ‘kshipra’; and fifteen times as many ‘idani’ as there are ‘etarhi’; and fifteen times as many breathings as there are ‘idani’; and as many spirations as there are breathings as there are ‘idani’; and as many spirations as there are breathings; and as many twinklings of the eye as there are spirations, and as many hair-pits as there are twinklings of the eye, and as many sweat-pores as there are hair-pits; and as many sweat-pores as there are so many drops it rains.”
Similar data occurs in Taittiriya Brahmana as well and is also characteristic of later yogic thought.
Vedic View of Time
Taittiriya Brahmana (III.10.1) gives separate names for the days and nights of the bright half of the moon and their muhurtas, the days and nights of the dark half of the moon and their muhurtas, the twelve bright and twelve dark halves of the month in the year, the thirteen months of the year (including the intercalary month), and a fifteen fold division of muhurtas (muhurtas of muhurtas). These are all connected with various Vedic rituals and with the construction of the Vedic fire altar. This suggests a very strong awareness of time and its calculation.
Vedic time and the Vedic ritual were equated. The rituals were various ways of following the cosmos and its rhythms through time and space. Such a culture needed to have the basis for determining stellar positions.
The Nakshatras are a twenty-seven or twenty-eight division of the zodiac based upon the Moon, which takes 27-28 days to go around the zodiac (to be more accurate 27.3 days). The Nakshatras are listed in their entirety in late Vedic texts like the Atharva Veda (XIX.7) and Yajur Veda (Taittiriya Samhita IV.4.10). They are presented in great detail in the Taittiriya Brahmana (III.1), which gives special verses to the deities governing each Nakshatra. They are also a topic of Satapatha Brahmana (II.1.2) and the Atharva Veda Parisisthani. They are an integral part of all Vedic symbolism and the basis for the timing of all Vedic rituals down to the present day.
Nakashtras and the Rg Vedic Code
Knowledge of the Nakshatra system through symbolism of the number 27 is built into the very structure of the Rg Veda, which is extensively examined in the recent work of Subhash Kak.**2 The Rg Veda consists of ten books (mandalas). These contain different numbers of hymns (suktas), which if added together in various ways yields much interesting astronomical information.
1—-191 2—-43 3—62 4—-58 5—-87
6—–75 7—104 8—92 9—-114 10—191
For example, if we add the hymn counts of books four to seven, the central four of the ten books of the text we arrive at 324, the Nakshatra year of 12 X 27 days. The book counts are Book 4-58 hymns, Book 5-87 hymns, Book 6-75 hymns, book 7-104 hymns. This means that the total of books 4 and 7 equals 162 as does that of books 5 and 6, which together equal 324. In addition the total number of hymns in the first four books (191+43+62+58) equals 354 or the total number of days in a year of twelve lunar months (12 X 29.5 days), thus further affirming the astronomical nature of the code.
Moreover the total number of hymns in the Rg Veda is 1017, which is 324 times Pi. 324 is also 108 X 3. 108 is the number of quarters in each Nakshatra (27 X 3). 1017 is also 339 X 3. 339 is the total number of bricks in the upper two layers of the Vedic fire altar (78 + 261 (Satapatha Brahmana).
2. Upanakshatras and the Vedic Zodiac
The Vedic fire altar is an image of time, the year, the human being (purusa) and the universe. Perhaps the most extensive examination of the fire altar occurs in Satapatha Brahmana, particularly chapter X, which deals with the secret meaning of the altar. In X.5.4 the altar is equated with 1. the earth, 2. the atmosphere, 3. heaven, 4., the sun, 5. the Nakshatras, 7. the meters, 10. the year, 12. the body or self (Atman), and 14. with the entire universe (all beings, all gods). The fire altar is not only an image of time but of space and of consciousness. In equating the fire-altar with the Nakshatra, the idea of the Upanakshatras arises.
But, indeed,- that Fire-altar also is the Nakshatras; for there are twenty-seven of these Nakshatras, and twenty seven secondary stars accompany each Nakshatra,-this makes seven hundred and twenty, and thirty-six in addition thereto. Now what seven hundred and twenty bricks there are of these, they are the three hundred and sixty enclosing-stones and three hundred and sixty Yajushmati bricks’ and what thirty-six there are in addition, they are the thirteenth (intercalary) month.”
Satapatha Brahmana X.5.4.5
A question of calculation arises. 27 X 27 equals 729, not merely 720, is this not merely poor mathematics, an incapacity even to accomplish simple multiplication? This is a misunderstanding. The Vedas are seeking to establish equivalence between various types phenomena. For this purpose they use various approximations. The equation with 720 is such an approximation to correlate the Nakshatras with the days and nights of the year. In fact 720 itself is not the number of the days and nights of the year, which the Vedic people also knew, but used because of its mathematical value for dividing up the sky.
There are many instances of approximations used in Vedic literature. Such approximations occur with sound in the same Brahmana. For example (S.B.X.6.8-9), uktha, is repeatedly equated with ut-stha.
“Agni is uk, his offerings are tham. By the offerings Agni rises up (uttistati).
Aditya (the Sun) is uk. His moon is tham. By the moon the sun rises up (uttistati).”
Clearly the Vedic priests knew that “uk” and “ut” were different sounds. Their equation was an approximation. Similarly with these numbers, a correlation was established of a general nature, which is not to deny that the Vedic people had more specific knowledge. The purpose of these Vedic equations was not to promote mathematical accuracy but to link the universe into a common understanding.
Yet the question does arise were these Upanakshatras actually 729 and merely equated with 720? Or were they 720 , which would require some Nakshatras sharing an Upanakshatra? For this three Nakshatras would have to share one Upanakshatra. It is probably the latter because the division of the zodiac into 720 parts is easier to calculate mathematically than 729 and is more important because of its correlation with the days and nights and the sun. The existence of the Upanakshatras clearly indicates a concern for smaller divisions of the zodiac, down to at least 720, half a degree.
The Sun and the Zodiac of 360 degrees
There are references as early as Rg Veda, the oldest Vedic text to a wheel of heaven of 360 spokes divided into 12:
With twelve fellies, the wheel is one, with three axles, who can comprehend it? On it are three hundred and sixty spokes that moving are not disturbed.
dvadasa pradayascakram ekam trini nabhyani ka u tacchiketa
tasmintsakam trisata na sankavo arpitah sastirna calacalasah
With twelve spokes, it is not exhausted, the wheel of the law revolves around heaven. Oh Agni (fire or the sun) there your twin sons stand who are 720.
dvadasaram nahi tajjaraya varvarti cakram pari dyam rtasya
a putro agne mithunaso atra sapta satani vimsatisca tasthuh
The same hymn also refers to this wheel as 720 spokes (each a twin or a couple) divided into twelve parts (Rg Veda I.164.11). This same idea occurs in a number of places in Vedic literature. The God Vishnu, a Sun God, is said to have four times ninety names (Rg Veda I.155.6), perhaps reflecting the equinoxes and solstices. More specifically in the Satapatha Brahmana the fire altar is said to be the sky (X.5.4.3). The fire altar is also the Sun (X.5.4.4).
“But, indeed, that Fire-altar also is the sun:-the regions are its enclosing stones, and there are three hundred and sixty of these, because three hundred and sixty regions encircle the sun on all sides;-the rays are its Yajushmati bricks, for there are three hundred and sixty of these, and three hundred and sixty rays of the sun.”
The sun is surrounded by three hundred and sixty directions and gives forth three hundred and sixty rays that relate to these directions. This suggests a zodiac or belt through which the Sun travels. The idea is developed further in the same section.
“But, indeed, that built Agni (the fire-altar) is all beings, all the gods; for all the gods, all beings are the waters, and that built fire-altar is the same as those waters;-the navigable streams (round the sun) are its enclosing stones, and there are three hundred and sixty of these, because three hundred and sixty navigable streams encircle the sun on all sides; and the navigable streams, indeed, are also the Yajushmati bricks, and there are three hundred and sixty of these, because three hundred and sixty navigable streams flow towards the sun.”
The Sun is figured as riding in a boat as early as the Rg Veda (for example RV V.45.10-11) but also other ancient literature, like the Egyptian. Three hundred and sixty streams circle and sun and three hundred and sixty more flow toward the sun. The sun in its travels crosses over these, which are like lines of longitude.
While these 720 rays and directions or streams are equated with the days and nights of the year, they clearly have a spatial existence as well. This is verified further by their equation with the Nakshatras and Upanakshatras.
In other words a zodiac of 360 or 720 divisions was known in the late Vedic period long before any contact with Greek astronomy or even much of Babylonian astronomy. This zodiac has antecedents in Vedic literature going all the way back to the Rg Veda itself and may have existed there as well. This suggests the existence of a long and independent tradition of astronomy in India.
Now this wheel of heaven of 360 parts, as already noted, is also divided by twelve. As this wheel has a spatial as well as temporal reality, this suggests a zodiac divided into twelve divisions. In other words a zodiac of twelve divisions does exist at least as an idea in Vedic thought going back to the Brahmanas or perhaps even to the Rg Veda. However there appears to be no place in Vedic literature where these twelve divisions are given names like the twelve signs of the zodiac. Nor are we certain at which point in the zodiac they began, but further research may help answer these questions.
3. Later Vedic Astrology
Vedic Astrology of the classical period, after Varaha Mihira, stresses a fourfold division of Nakshatras or Nakshatra padas of which there are 108 or 27 X 4. One hundred and eight is a sacred number in Vedic thought going back to the Vedas.
Upanakshatras resemble Vedic divisional charts, which may similarly date to an early period. Vedic astrology divides the 12 signs into smaller divisions. For example, it has a twelvefold division of each sign, a sign of the sign, much like the Upanakshatras that are Nakshatras of Nakshatras. It has divisions of signs by 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 12, 16, 20, 24, 27, 30, 40, 45 and 60 (hora, drrekana, caturtamsa, saptamsa, navamsa, dasamsa, dvadasamsa, sodasamsa, vimsamsa, caturvimsamsa, saptavimsamsa, trimsamsa, khavedamsa, aksavedamsa, sastiamsa,). Such divisional groupings are characteristic of Vedic astrology and are little used in Greek astrology.
The Upanakshatras are the same the subtlest or sixty fold division (Sastiamsa), with 12 X 60 = 720 just like the Upanakshatras. This is the last and perhaps most important of the subdivisions of the zodiac in Vedic astrology and the only one in which each of these subdivisions is given a special name (Brhat Parasara Hora Sastra VI.33-41). The existence of these divisional factors in later Vedic astronomy may reflect the trend of thought already in evidence in Satapatha Brahmana.
Astronomical Dating of Vedic Texts
Vedic Nakshatra lists (Atharva Veda, Taittiriya Samhita, Taittiriya Brahmana, Satapatha Brahmana) make Krttika (Pleiades) the first of the Nakshatras. Satapatha Brahmana specifically relate it to the eastern direction. This yields clear astronomical data. Let us examine this position in a hymn of Atharva Veda, which mentions all the Nakshatras.
Easy to invoke, oh Agni, may the Krttikas and Rohini be, auspicious Mrigasira and peaceful Ardra. Graceful be Punarvasu, beautiful Pusya, bright Aslesa, with the solstice at Magha for me. Virtuous be Purva Phalguni and Uttara, Hasta and Citra peaceful and may Svati give me joy. Bounteous Visakha, easy to invoke, Anuradha, the best Nakshatra Jyesta, I invoke, and Mula. May Purva Asadha provide me nourishment and Divine Uttara Asadha give me strength. May Abhijit provide virtue, as Sravana and Sravista grant beauty. May Satabhisak give me greatness for expansion, and the two Prostapadas give protection. May Revati and Asvayujaur give me fortune and Bharani grant me wealth (AV XIX.7.2-4).
The term ‘ayana’ specifically means solstice in later astronomical literature, so we cannot ignore such a meaning in its occurrence here. We find it in the northern and southern courses of the Sun as uttara-ayana and daksina-ayana. Moreover, we see Agni, the God of the east and the vernal equinox, leading the list of the Nakshatras, as Ashvini did in later times.
Taittiriya Brahmana states:
One should consecrate the (sacred) fire in the Krttikas;…the Krttikas are the mouth of the Nakshatras (T.B. i.1.2.1).
Here the Krttikas lead the list of the Nakshatras, not as a theoretical statement but as a practical timing for establishing the sacred fire. The same Brahmana also states:
The Nakshatras are the houses of the Gods…the Nakshatras of the Gods begin with the Krttikas and end with Visakha, whereas the Nakshatras of Yama begin with Anuradhas and end with the Apabharanis (TB i.5.2.7).
The Gods are identified with the constellations. They are divided into two halves, those that relate to the Gods or the powers of life, and those that relate to Yama, the God of death (Yama, we should note, is the ruler of Apabharani or Bharani and Agni of Krttika). This suggests a division of the zodiac by Agni as the point of the vernal equinox and the autumn equinox occurring between Visakha and Anuradha (03 20 Scorpio).
Satapatha Brahmana similarly states,
The Krttikas do not swerve from the eastern direction, all the other constellations do (S.B. II.1,2,3).
This shows a time when the Krttikas marked the vernal equinox, confirming this order. It provides us a number of references to a time in which the vernal equinox was in the Krttikas, along with the appropriate other Nakshatras.
Krttika marks early Taurus and Magha early Leo. The vernal equinox and summer solstice were in this area c. 2500-2000 BCE. Such data reflects the late Harappan era. This is the same as the late Sarasvati era, shortly before this river, which is prominent in the Vedas, ceased as a perennial stream, which occurred around 1900 BCE. Knowledge of the Upanakshatras would thus also be of the Harappan era, which is certainly a sophisticated enough urban culture, to produce such knowledge.
Planets in Vedic literature
I argued in an earlier paper**3 that the planets were also known in Vedic literature but generally as a group. This information on the Vedic zodiac and Upanakshatras shows a sophistication of astronomical observation that would have clearly noted planetary positions.
While one could argue that such subtler divisions were merely conceptual and that the Vedic people were unable to observe or to use them, the very fact that they had the idea gives them much more sophistication than generally granted them. If they had the idea, they would likely have tried to use it, particularly since they had many related ideas of different divisions of time and space, especially because Vedic texts speak of observing Nakshatras.
Such information as in this paper suggests that the Vedic level of calculation relative to time, space and the stars, was much higher than generally acknowledged and may have had a greater influence on other cultures than yet properly considered, perhaps extending to Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek thought in which modern scholars, not knowing the Vedic information, generally see the origins of a zodiac of 360 degrees.
Usage of the Upanakshatras Today
In Vedic astrology today, there are some computer programs like Sri Jyoti that do calculate the Upanakshatras. This allows us greater specificity in dealing with the Nakshatras and their meaning. The normal way of using the Nakshatras is to first examine their general meaning and second to look into the particular Nakshatra pada or quarter of the Nakshatra (a division of 3 degees and 20 minutes or 200 minutes), which have their subset of planetary rulers. These in turn relate to Navamshas and their respective signs.
The Upanakshatras provide us a deeper level of examination, with each Upanakshatra covering an area of slightly less than 30 minutes or half a degree. Examining the Upanakshatras and their effects on the life and personality is an important new area of chart examination. One looks at the relationship of Nakshatra and Upanakshatra in terms of nature and rulership and their interrelationship. This can be done not only relative to the Moon but also relative to all the planets. We would urge serious practitioners to examine this issue further.
Translations from Satapatha Brahmana are from the Sacred Books of the East Vol. 12, 26, 41, 43, 44. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988. All oher Sanskrit translations are by the author.
1. Frawley, David, Gods, Sages and Kings. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993. Note particularly pp. 67-77.
2. Kak, Subhash. The Astronomical Code of the Rgveda. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 1994. Note particularly pp. 97-109.
Kak, S. ‘The Astronomy of the Age of Geometric Altars,’ Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 36, 385-395,1995.
3. Frawley, David, ‘Planets in the Vedic Literature’, Indian Journal of History of Science, 29.4.495-506.