Excerpt from “Astronomy and the Antiquity of Vedic Civilization”

   Traditional Chinese stories tell of a monkey named Sun who goes through remarkable adventures. In one story, two “harpooners of death” capture him, claiming he has reached the limit of his destiny on earth and is due to be taken to the underworld. The story’s translator tells us that according to the Chinese the constellation Nan Teou, the Southern Dipper, decides everyone’s death, and the harpooners of death carry out the decision.1
   In the last chapter I compared Vedic ideas about time with similar ideas found in cultures around the world. We saw that many cultures share highly specific Vedic thoughts about how long ancient people lived and what happened in ancient human societies. This suggests that an ancient cultural tradition existed worldwide, hinted at today in many cultures through fragmentary and poorly understood memories but spoken of in detail in the Vedic writings.
   In this chapter we turn from time to space. And we find that ancient traditions about the layout of the universe bear similar traces of a common cultural background.
   Vedic literature divides the visible heavens into regions, which transmigrating souls are said to reach according to their karma. We can think of the constellations of stars as a road map for the soul’s travel after death. First I shall describe this map. Then I shall give some evidence that people in old cultures all over the world had a similar cosmic map, often agreeing with the Vedic map in many minute details.
   To describe this map I need to introduce some basic ideas from astronomy. In both Indian and Western astronomy, the lines of latitude and longitude on the earth are projected onto the sky and set into a daily spin about the polar axis, so that to an observer on earth they seem to rotate once a day with the stars. This gives us a celestial coordinate system in which each star has a latitude, called its declination, and a longitude, called its right ascension.
   We can think of the stars as points on a huge imaginary sphere, called the celestial sphere, surrounding the earth. Just as the earth has a northern and southern hemisphere separated by the equator, so does the celestial sphere. Each year, against the background of stars, the sun completes a circuit called the ecliptic, a great circle tilted 23° degrees from the celestial equator. Around the ecliptic in a broad band stretch the twelve constellations of the zodiac and twenty-eight constellations called nakshatras, or lunar mansions.
   Books of Vedic astronomy list the nakshatras and important stars. And more recent astronomers have identified the modern names of the constellations and stars to which these Vedic luminaries are thought to correspond. (The map above marks these correspondences, giving the ancient Sanskrit names and the modern locations.)
   According to the Vishnu Purana, north of the star Agastya and south of the three nakshatras Mula, Purvashadha, and Uttarashadha lies the road to the region of the Pitrs, Pitrloka.2 This is said in Vedic literature to be the headquarters of Yamaraja, the demigod who punishes sinful human beings. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.26.5) says that this region, along with the hellish planets, lies in the south of the universe, beneath Bhu-mandala, the earthly planetary system.
   The nakshatras mentioned here match parts of the southern constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, and Agastya is thought to be the star Canopus, which lies in the southern hemisphere. From the description in the Vishnu Purana therefore, we can locate Pitrloka in terms of familiar celestial landmarks.
   The Milky Way is seen in the sky as a great band of light, densely packed with stars, running roughly north and south, cutting the celestial equator at an angle of about 62 degrees. A very bright region of the Milky Way intersects the ecliptic in the constellation Sagittarius. This is close to the nakshatras Mula and Purvashadha, which form the beginning of the path of the Pitrs.
   Just as Pitrloka is south of the ecliptic, the higher planets are to its north. So the mystics who follow the path to these planets, the path of to a daily spin about the polar axis, so that to an observer on earth they seem to rotate once a day with the stars. This gives us a celestial coordinate system in which each star has a latitude, called its declination, and a longitude, called its right ascension. We can think of the stars as points on a huge imaginary sphere, called the celestial sphere, surrounding the earth. Just as the earth has a northern and southern hemisphere separated by the equator, so does the celestial sphere. Each year, against the background of stars, the sun completes a circuit called the ecliptic, a great circle tilted 23° degrees from the celestial equator. Around the ecliptic in a broad band stretch the twelve constellations of the zodiac and twenty-eight constellations called nakshatras, or lunar mansions. Books of Vedic astronomy list the nakshatras and important stars. And more recent astronomers have identified the modern names of the constellations and stars to which these Vedic luminaries are thought to correspond. (The map above marks these correspondences, giving the ancient Sanskrit names and the modern locations.) According to the Vishnu Purana, north of the star Agastya and south of the three naksatras Mula, Purvashadha, and Uttarashadha lies the road to the region of the Pitrs, Pitrloka.2 This is said in Vedic literature to be the headquarters of Yamaraja, the demigod who punishes sinful human beings. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.26.5) says that this region, along with the hellish planets, lies in the south of the universe, beneath Bhu-mandala, the earthly planetary system. The nakshatras mentioned here match parts of the southern constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, and Agastya is thought to be the star Canopus, which lies in the southern hemisphere. From the description in the Vishnu Purana, therefore, we can locate Pitrloka in terms of familiar celestial landmarks. The Milky Way is seen in the sky as a great band of light, densely packed with stars, running roughly north and south, cutting the celestial equator at an angle of about 62 degrees. A very bright region of the Milky Way intersects the ecliptic in the constellation Sagittarius. This is close to the nakshatras Mula and Purvañadha, which form the beginning of the path of the Pitrs. Just as Pitrloka is south of the ecliptic, the higher planets are to its north. So the mystics who follow the path to these planets, the path of to a daily spin about the polar axis, so that to an observer on earth they seem to rotate once a day with the stars. This gives us a celestial coordinate system in which each star has a latitude, called its declination, and a longitude, called its right ascension. We can think of the stars as points on a huge imaginary sphere, called the celestial sphere, surrounding the earth. Just as the earth has a northern and southern hemisphere separated by the equator, so does the celestial sphere. Each year, against the background of stars, the sun completes a circuit called the ecliptic, a great circle tilted 23° degrees from the celestial equator. Around the ecliptic in a broad band stretch the twelve constellations of the zodiac and twenty-eight constellations called nakshatras, or lunar mansions. Books of Vedic astronomy list the nakshatras and important stars. And more recent astronomers have identified the modern names of the constellations and stars to which these Vedic luminaries are thought to correspond. (The map above marks these correspondences, giving the ancient Sanskrit names and the modern locations.) According to the Vishnu Purana, north of the star Agastya and south of the three nakshatras Müla, Purvashadha, and Uttarashadha lies the road to the region of the Pitrs, Pitrloka.2 This is said in Vedic literature to be the headquarters of Yamaraja, the demigod who punishes sinful human beings. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.26.5) says that this region, along with the hellish planets, lies in the south of the universe, beneath Bhu-mandala, the earthly planetary system. The nakshatras mentioned here match parts of the southern constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, and Agastya is thought to be the star Canopus, which lies in the southern hemisphere. From the description in the Vishnu Purana, therefore, we can locate Pitrloka in terms of familiar celestial landmarks. The Milky Way is seen in the sky as a great band of light, densely packed with stars, running roughly north and south, cutting the celestial equator at an angle of about 62 degrees. A very bright region of the Milky Way intersects the ecliptic in the constellation Sagittarius. This is close to the naksatras Mula and Purvasadha, which form the beginning of the path of the Pitrs. Just as Pitrloka is south of the ecliptic, the higher planets are to its north. So the mystics who follow the path to these planets, the path of the demigods, also begin at Mula and Purvasadha, but they travel northward. Their journey is described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.2.24–25) and in the Vishnu Purana.
   Moving along the ecliptic, the mystics travel up to Revati. (This leg of their journey is called Vaishvanara.) From Revati they move through the nakshatras Asvini, Bharati, and Krittika and travel on to the planet of the fire-god, Agni. There they are purified of all contaminations.
   From Agni the mystics keep going north, through Brahmahridaya and Prajäpati, following the Milky Way, and as they reach the latitudes of the seven rishis they enter Vishnupäda, the path of Vishnu. This is the path they follow until they at last reach the polestar, Dhruvaloka, a spiritual planet within the material universe. In more familiar terms, Asvini, Bharati, and Krittika match parts of the constellations Aries and Taurus. The seven rishi (saptarishi) correspond to the constellation Ursa Major, commonly known as the Big Dipper. Opposite the point where the Milky Way meets the ecliptic in the southern hemisphere, it intersects the ecliptic in the north, at the boundary of Taurus and Gemini. It is here that we find the star Agni. Once we locate the paths of the Pitrs and the demigods on the celestial sphere, we can ask whether other cultural traditions offer similar accounts of the soul’s celestial travels. It turns out that many do. Here are some examples:

1. We return to the story of the Chinese monkey, Sun, mentioned in the beginning of this column. The Chinese Southern Dipper consists of six stars in Sagittarius. It is interesting to note that this constellation shares stars with two of the nakshatras marking the beginning of the path of the Pitrs. So the start of the route to Yamaraja corresponds in this Chinese tradition to the place in the heavens where the fate of the dead is decided. The Chinese tradition also has messengers of death similar to the Vedic Yamadutas.

2. The German scholar Franz Boll has analyzed ancient Greek traditions regarding Hades, the River Styx, and the ferryman of the underworld. We tend to think of Hades as lying beneath our feet, within the earth. Boll, however, cites texts placing this region in the heavens around the southern crossroads of the Milky Way and the ecliptic.3. . .

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References

1. Ngen, Wou Tch’eng, 1957, Si Yeou ki, ou le Voyage en Occident, L. Avenol, trans. Paris, Vol. 1, p. iii.; Schlegel, G., 1875, L’Uranigraphie Chinoise, Leiden, pp. 172ff.
2. Wilson, H. H., 1865, The Vishnu Purana, Vol. 2, London: Trubner & Co., pp. 263–268.
3. Boll, F., 1903, Sphaera: Neue Griechische Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Sternbilder, Leipzig, pp. 246–51.

Copyright © 2004 by Richard L. Thompson