history and philosophy of astrology

The Transmission of Hellenistic Astrology to India

Over the course of the past century researchers have discovered that Hellenistic astrology was transmitted to India sometime around the 2nd century CE. Inklings of this transmission were noted in the late 19th century, for example by the historian August Bouché-Leclercq in his 1899 work L’astrologie grec, although it was not until the middle part of the 20th century that the source of this transmission was confirmed and identified in a work known as the Yavanajātaka.

This was not a simple matter of one tradition lightly influencing another though, but rather, the text that was transmitted to India in the 2nd century actually formed the basis of virtually all later traditions of horoscopic astrology on the Indian subcontinent.

The pioneer of this discovery was a scholar named David Pingree. Pingree, who sadly passed away in 2005, was a historian of science that was fluent in a number of ancient languages, including Sanskrit, Greek, Arabic, Pahlavi, Latin, and Akkadian, as well as a several other modern European languages. Although Pingree did not believe in astrology as a legitimate phenomenon, he did acknowledge its place as a legitimate science in the ancient world that is deserving of serious academic study, and he dedicated his career to studying the history and transmission of the subject.

For his doctoral dissertation Pingree edited, translated and wrote a commentary on the Yavanajātaka. ((Pingree published his critical edition of the Yavanajataka as well as his English translation and commentary as a two volume set in 1978.  The first volume contains the Sanskrit text itself along with a critical apparatus and brief introduction.  Volume 2 contains his English translation of the Yavanajataka along with his commentary.  See David Pingree, The Yavanajataka of Sphujidhvaja, 2 Volumes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1978.))  The main purpose of his dissertation was to compare the astrological doctrines contained in the Yavanajātaka with those of various astrologers from the Hellenistic tradition, in order to demonstrate that the Indian tradition of horoscopic astrology was largely derived from Hellenistic astrology, and that the Yavanajātaka was in fact the principle source of this transmission.

Pingree accomplished this by showing that the Yavanajātaka was the earliest Indian text on horoscopic astrology, and that it formed the basis of virtually all later traditions of astrology in India.  He pointed out that the Yavanajātaka, which actually means ‘Horoscopy of the Greeks‘, was actually a Sanskrit translation of a Greek astrological text, and that the vast majority of doctrines contained in the text could be traced back either directly or indirectly to Hellenistic sources.

The Origins of the Yavanajātaka

According to Pingree, the original Greek text of the Yavanajātaka was probably composed in Egypt sometime in the 1st century CE, likely in Alexandria. In the early 2nd century it was transported on a trading ship to the western coast of India where a number of Greek trading colonies were set up, some of which were still left over from the earlier conquests of Alexander the Great.

The Greek original was then translated into Sanskrit in 149/150 CE by a Greek in the Indian city of Ujjain known as Yavaneśvara, who had adopted Indian customs and apparently converted to Hinduism. This text was then versified in the mid-3rd century by another Indianized Greek known as Sphujidhvaja. This text was subsequently drawn on in one way or another by virtually every other major Indian astrologer, as was demonstrated by Pingree in his commentary through comparisons with the later Indian texts.

Linguistic Evidence of the Transmission

The strongest evidence that Indian astrology is of Greek origin is, as Pingree pointed out, the fact that many of the technical terms in the early Indian tradition, and even today, are simply transliterations of Greek terms into Sanskrit. ((See David Pingree, From Astral Omens To Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner, Istituto Italiano Per L’Africa E L’Oriente, 1997, pgs. 34-35 for a concise summary of this argument.  For a more detailed treatment of the terms used in the Indian texts and their derivation from Greek words see Pingree’s extensive commentary on the Yavanajataka in The Yavanajataka of Sphujidhvaja, vol. 2, pgs. 195-415.))

In Greek these words have a range of concrete and abstract meanings, but in Sanskrit the words just become technical terms that have little or no meaning outside of their astrological application. That is to say, most of these transliterated terms don’t actually mean anything in Sanskrit outside of their technical usage, but in Greek the terms have actual semantic connections with other words, thus showing their origin in the Greek language.

For example, in the Yavanajātaka the Greek word for an angular sign, kentron, becomes kendra in Sanskrit. The Greek term for a succedent house, epanaphora, becomes panaphara.  The Greek term for a cadent house, apoklima, simply becomes apoklima.

In other instances, the Greek term for a void of course Moon, kenodromia, becomes kemadruma. The term for an application, sunaphe, becomes sunapha.  The 10° segments of the ecliptic known as decans or dekanos become drekanas. The Greek word for a “trine” or “triplicity,” trigonon, simply becomes trikona. And so on.

In the vast majority of the cases the actual technical application of the astrological concepts that are described by these transliterated Sanskrit terms are still very similar, if not identical, to the Hellenistic application of the same concepts. While many technical modifications and adaptations had already been made to the Indian system by the time of the composition of the extant version of the Yavanajātaka, the overwhelming emphasis of this early Indian astrological tradition is still remarkably similar to what was being practiced in the Hellenistic tradition of astrology.

Synthesis of the Hellenistic and Indian Astrological Traditions

The astrology that was imported into India from Egypt was merged with the indigenous form of lunar astrology known as the nakshatras. There were also probably some other earlier forms of astrology already in India prior to the Yavanajātaka that were derived from Mesopotamian sources. The Indians subsequently made this form of astrology their own though, and it has flourished there for nearly 2,000 years now, with many new developments and innovations that are quite unique to the Indian tradition. For example, horary astrology may have originally been developed by Indian astrologers.

Even by the time the Yavanajātaka was rewritten in verse in the 3rd century by Sphujidhvaja considerable changes had been made to the text, and while the overall nature and feel of the text is still clearly Hellenistic, it already makes significant departures in some places from the Hellenistic astrological tradition. For example, the unique aspect doctrine that is employed by Indian astrologers is already in place in the versified form of the Yavanajātaka, and there is no precedence for it in the Hellenistic tradition. Other peculiar deviations from the Hellenistic system abound.

Indian Astrology Today

An interesting result of this transmission is that Indian astrology today, in the 21st century, is much more similar to the original form of Hellenistic astrology than modern western astrology is to Hellenistic astrology. One prominent example of this is the fact that Indian astrologers still use whole sign houses as the primary form of house division, just as the Hellenistic astrologers did 2,000 years ago.

The reason for this is that the astrological tradition in India has been relatively continuous for the past 2,000 years, and they have had a relatively long and unbroken transmission since the 2nd century, with only a moderate amount of change due to the influx of other traditions and the development of new doctrines.

On the other hand, in the west there have been several major transmissions of astrology from language to language and culture to culture, as well as a long period between the 17th and 19th centuries when the practice of astrology nearly died out all together.  Each time western astrology was transmitted to another language or a new culture it was transformed in some way.

As a result of this, western astrologers actually have much to gain from the study of Indian astrology. Because of the continuity of their tradition, and their connection with some of the earliest astrological doctrines, Indian astrologers can provide their western counterparts with an unprecedented view into a living tradition of ancient astrology.

Their astrology does not date back to the Vedas, which is why I have not used the misnomer “Vedic astrology” in this article, but they do in fact have a much closer connection with the earlier traditions of horoscopic astrology than many astrologers do today. They have much to share on the application of certain techniques that we have only recently begun to recover, such as the time-lord or dasha systems for example.

In looking to the Indian tradition today in order to see how they practice astrology in modern times, we may in fact be able to reconstruct a better working practice of our own tradition of ancient astrology in the future.

23 replies on “The Transmission of Hellenistic Astrology to India”

My only comment on the “transliteration” evidence is that since Greek and Sanskrit both belong to the Indo-European Language family, there is every reason to expect similarities between words in Greek and Sanskrit – especially ancient words such as those mentioned.

Unless the transliteration follows the many discovered rules of transliteration along linguistic gradients, this is nothing but evidence of the ancient common origin of the languages, rather a later flow of information from Greece to India.

Further, Meier-Brügger et al. in their book Indo-European Linguistics, suggest through various evidence that the Proto-Sanskrit language predated the Greek language, and that infact might be the root language for the group of migratory communities knows as the “Aryans”. I of course refer to the true Aryan social group, without connotations that it has gained in modern times. The Aryan migratory pattern covers much of South-East Asia, Central and Middle East-Asia and Europe in pre-medieval times. It is thus that Proto-Sanskrit has evolved into the Indo-European Language family.

In this language family several thousand words with similarity can be quoted : The Sanskrit “Pitri” for Greek “Paetair” for one. These are not trnasliterations but transmutations of words over time.

If in fact, the so-called “transliteration” is the strongest evidence , it forms a poor basis for any interpretations on the matter.

Riiiight… Indian astrologers started using a full set of technical terms that don’t mean anything in Sanskrit all of a sudden in the 2nd century because of a common ancestral language dating back 2,000 to 4,000 years before that time, which they suddenly remembered and started employing again…

The strongest evidence for the transmission is the statements of the early practitioners of horoscopic astrology in India themselves, who explicitly say that they are basing the science on translations of foreign works. The transliterated Greek terms are simply the smoking gun.

I will make no pretense that I have read the books on astrology that you claim to hold such references.

However, I do understand something of Sanskrit and historical linguistics. Your hypothesis that the words mean nothing in Sanskrit is just that – a hypothesis. All of the above examples can be completely reversed with the same linguistic logic. Further, the Sanskrit scripts are phonetic scripts – you will understand that in such a script, there is no reason to transliterate at all. Any word in any language can be represented in its original form.

Perhaps, the early Indian astrologers were bad at spelling.

Unless one provides overwhelming proof as to why the particular words you mention are examples of transliteration as opposed to the large number of other words with similarities that are transmutations, the “transliteration” evidence , is in my opinion , invalid.

I think that that the evidence and parallels that Pingree provided in his commentary on the Yavanajataka were more than sufficient.

I was alluding to Sphujidhvaja’s statements at the end of the Yavanajataka above:

Previously Yavanesvara (the lord of the Greeks), whose vision of the truth came by favor of the Sun and whose language is flawless, translated this ocean of words, this jewel-mine of horoscopy, which was guarded by its being written in his tongue (i.e., Greek), but the truth of which was seen by the foremost of kings … (in the year) 71l (he translated) this science of genethlialogy for the instruction of the world by means of excellent words. (The Yavanajataka of Sphujidhvaja, 79:60-61, trans. David Pingree, vol. 2, pgs. 190-191.)

Pingree also opens up his edition of the Yavanajātaka with a relevant quote from Varāhamihira’s Bṛhatsaṃhitā on astrology:

For although the Greeks are barbarians, they have brought this science to perfection and so are honored as sages; how much more honorable, then, is an astrologer who is a Brāhmaṇa!

Good debate Chris . I have read the same sources as you and have a tendency to agree with the transmission of horoscopic astrology as going from west to east. It is a shame that Pingree left so many manuscripts untranslated when he passed that are now a part of Brown’s library. One of them may hold the key to the resolution of this debate.

Chris, my brilliant young colleague, I’ve just completed my coursework for MLA (master liberal arts) at U of chicago with Wendy Doniger’s class on the Hindu (her book is just out) I am delighted to report that I taught the good prof a lesson — her natal nakshatra (check her wicked(pedia) bio out, the date is right). She really liked my paper

I am thinking how to press my advantage and convince her to sponsor a big fundraiser for U Chicago in the Hindu community to support the Varaha Mihira Chair in Jyotisa at the Divinity School.

If you would like to post my paper “The Nakshatras: Quinessential Key to Hindu Identity” I would be delighted to forward you a pdf.

Sonja Foxe

Before making any concluding remark the hypotesis need to be tested pratically. The hypotesis of “Pingree” is a data mining bias.
Without understanding the subject matter how come one can understand the history of subject?
If you are a astrology practisioner & want to verify the above hypotesis on pratical level, we can discuss.

yeah — and there is an intriguing theory that Pythagoras — is from sanskrit Pitr Guru —

Actually, i hypothesize that the pre-hellenistic vedic astrologers through mediated by the Medes and Magi of Cyrus Persian Empire put the natal into the Babylonian mundane forms …

look to herodotus and the book of daniel for that — eg the pre cyrus magi were a sacerdotal aryan tribe which members officiated at ritual and ceremonies (Pingree has an anti-aryan position saying the only thing the persians contributed to astrology was the ju/sa synod which of course is the motive of their presence in bethlehem; the magi who attended xerxes were astrologers — according to OT instructed by Daniel who’d pulled a Judas on Nebechadezzar and left open the gates of Babylon for Cyrus’s armies, thus becoming head of the Magi (he taught them the babylonian arts of astrology) and negotiated for return of the Nation Israel from the 70 years of the babylonian captivity.

persian and the hindu both aryan stock — i think the devi/asura split reflects that spiritually — lunar/solar — the magi ‘invented’ a divine force — zervan, time, which they added to the zarathustrian theology of the central fire — this of course is a solar/fire culture, the hindu astrology is lunar based equipped with the lunar nakshatran zodiac. vedic astrology was PERSONAL — the way the brahmin did mundane was to do deal with the ruler’s horoscope (no grahas).

i speculate that the ‘maga’ brahmins — pingree says that vahamihira was a maga brahmin — were magi who settled in india bringing babylonian astrology to the indus and developing early ‘western’ natal astrology by integrating the vedic personal with their recently learned babylonian arts — the 1st documented horoscope 410 bc as i recall

then came alexander who further refined the zorasterian divine fire by consigning to it the persian astro-texts …

Did you ever send me your paper on the Nakshatras Sonja? I’d be interested in checking it out.

To insert a mystical wedge into the entire dissertation: Where does he talk of Nadi Granthas? How does he explain them? I ask these questions, because a Scholar like Pingree is likely going to debunk the actual validity of such texts as the “Book of Bhrigu.” Now, many Jyotishis claim the system to have been channeled by the Great Rishis over 5,000 years ago. Where does this come into play? I like the whole idea…I just intuit many holes in his “date mining.” Not being a scholar, I won’t go there. The Spiritual development of the author Pingree. Anybody can make an argument, the question is: How is the information being handled and understood. If he doesnt understand Jyotish roots, or Astrology in any real depth, how can a man from an armchair surrounded by stacks of books with a computer glaring at him really move in the proper direction of analysis. Indians were tremendously influenced by the Greeks and their refined system (you encounter this when studying Jyotish), but …but….but… all remains a mystery from my vantange point. To allow it to remain an ineffable blessing and mystery…
Thanks Chris for posting.

“Now, many Jyotishis claim the system to have been channeled by the Great Rishis over 5,000 years ago. Where does this come into play?”

It comes into play in the sense that it has about the same historical validity as Alice Bailey’s claim to have channeled her ‘Esoteric Astrology’ system from “The Master Djwal Khul” in the early 20th century.

Except whereas Bailey claimed this explicitly right from the beginning, many of the early Indian astrological authors actually attribute the system to the ‘Greeks’, and it is only later ideologues from the Indian tradition that attempt to attribute far flung dates to the system.

Well, to compare the Holy Vedas to Alice Bailey’s channeled system is a bit of a stretch for me. We are talking about the oldest sacred surviving text on this green Earth, and to it match it side by side with a single kosmic download, is ridic. I feel the truth is, we cannot know. The reason for this is because the Jyotish system was oral up to a recent point in our “civilized” history. How can we really know? All in all, when speaking about “historical vailidity” you got me pinned. Just like Carl Sagan having tea with Sri Aurobindo….two different worlds.
Namaste my friend.

To this I would have to say show me the references to horoscopic astrology in the Vedas, otherwise explain why they are not there if the system was revealed 5,000 years ago and it supposedly played just as integral a part of the religion then as it does today.

References to “Horoscopic Astrology?” Probably none. I was speaking about Astrology and its many limbs–Horary etc. Astrology is one of the 6 limbs of the Vedic canon. Just because they didnt have the horoscope they use today which was influenced so much by the Greeks, doesnt mean they still werent phenomenal Astrologers…? Anyways, I would love you to come on my Podcast “Exploring Astrology” to talk about this topic. You down?

Yeah, I’m down. We should meet up in person sometime though, since we both live in the same area. Do you ever go to ROMA meetings?

Thanks for this, it has helped a lot. I’m about to take a class in ‘Vedic Astrology’ and my history background in Greco-Roman history had me doubting some of the claims of unbroken 5,000 year-old continuity. I’m still learning Western astrology slowly, so this is going to be helpful. Thanks again.

The current Sakawadippi (spelling?) Brahmins would be a valuable resource … according to my understanding they came to India with Cyrus armies (Magi) and claim to have learned astrology from Zoroaster.

David Pingree came to India in 1956. Dr. P.V. Kane gave him copies of Yavanajataka obtained from Nepal. The Yavanas were ancient Indians, who dispersed from India and they are mentioned in ancient Indian texts. Some Yavanas went to the west and the others to the Eastern India (Pragjyotishpur). Pragjyotishpur means the city of the earliest astronomy and astrology But Pingree thought that Yavanajataka was written by Greeks, even though he could not get a single ancient Greek manuscript on astronomy and astrology combined, whereas he could prepare a bibliography of hundreds of Indian manuscript on the subject. Varaha Mihira was born in the 2nd century BCE and he mentioned the works of ancient Indian astronomy and astrology. Pingree stated that Varaha Mihira was born in the 6th century CE to prove his point and facilitate his thesis. Pingree is the worst literary swindler of the recent times. His PhD dissertation is nothing but a trash, as it is based on false premises. harvard if they wish to maintain their honest intact, they should nullify Pingree’s doctorate degree, even though posthumously.forthwith

“Pingree thought that Yavanajataka was written by Greeks, even though he could not get a single ancient Greek manuscript on astronomy and astrology combined…”

What do you mean by this statement?

Hi Chris

This article is really nice. Do you know the origin of “nadi jyotish”.
Is it belongs to Tamil or Sanskrit ?.