|India through its calendars|
"The calendar," argued Meghnad Saha, the distinguished scientist and the leader of calendar reform in India, "is an indispensable requisite of modern civilised life." He could have gone further than that. The need for a calendar has been strongly felt — and well understood — well before the modern age. The calendar, in one form or another, has been an indispensable requisite of civilised life for a very long time indeed. This explains why so many calendars are so very old, and also why most civilisations, historically, have given birth to one or more specific calendars of their own. The multiplicity of calendars within a country and within a culture (broadly defined) has tended to relate to the disparate preoccupations and concerns of different groups that co-exist in a country.
Calendars as clues to society and culture
The study of calendars and their history, usage and social associations can provide a fruitful understanding of important aspects of a country and its cultures. For example, since calendars often have religious roles, there is sometimes a clear connection between regional religions and domestic calendars. Indeed, even the global calendars of the world are often classified as ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Buddhist’, and so on. The connection between calendars and cultures, however, goes well beyond this elementary linkage. Since the construction of calendars requires the use of mathematics as well as astronomy, and since the functioning and utilisation of calendars involves cultural sophistication and urbanity, the history of calendrical progress can tell us a lot about the society in which these developments occur.
Furthermore, given the fact that local times vary with the exact location of each place within a country, the use of a shared time and a common calendar requires the fixing of a reference location (such as Greenwich for Britain) and a principal meridian (in the case of Britain, the one that runs through Greenwich, giving us the Greenwich Mean Time, the GMT). The determination of a reference location and a principal meridian is also, if only implicitly, a political decision, requiring an integrated view of the country. When the GMT was imposed as the national standard in late nineteenth century Britain (the clinching statute came in 1880), it was not an uncontroversial decision: those in opposition included the Astronomer Royal, and also self-confident institutions that valued their independence and the ‘accuracy’ of their respective local times. The great clock of Christ Church in Oxford continued, for a while, to show, through an extra hand, both the GMT and its local time — 5 minutes behind GMT — and the college tradition allowed the belief that "one is not late till five minutes past the appointed time, that is till one is late by Oxford mean solar time as well as Greenwich."1 When, in 1884, at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC, the meridian through Greenwich was given the status of being "the prime meridian for all nations" (by which GMT also acquired its official international position), Britain’s dominant standing in world affairs certainly played an important political part.
Because of these associations, the nature, form and usage of calendars in a particular society can teach us a great deal about its politics, culture and religion as well as its science and mathematics. This applies even to as diverse a country as India, and it is in this sense that there will be an attempt in this essay to try to understand India through its calendars.
Millennial occasions and Akbar’s concerns
In fact, this is a particularly apt moment to undertake an exercise of this kind. The second millennium in the Gregorian calendar, which is now extensively used in India as well, is at its end. In one system of counting, the Gregorian second millennium will end on December 31, 2000, but the glittering celebrations that have already occurred on December 31, 1999, indicate that the other view — according to which we are already in the third millennium — has its devoted supporters, at least among the fun-loving world population.
Even though the divisions of time that any particular calendar gives are quite arbitrary and dependent on pure convention, nevertheless a socially devised celebratory break point in time can be an appropriate occasion for reflection on the nature of the world in which we live. Indeed, this is a particularly good moment to re-examine the Indian calendars themselves to interpret the nature of this country, since this is a subject of a great deal of internal debating right at this time. Different ways of seeing India — from purely Hinduism-centred views to intensely secular interpretations — are competing with each other for attention.
It is worth recollecting in this context that a little over 400 years ago when the first millennium in the Muslim Hijri calendar was completed (the year 1000 of the Hijri era ran from 9 October 1591 to 27 September 1592), Emperor Akbar was engaged in a similar — but very much grander — exercise in the Muslim-dominated but deeply multi-religious India. Akbar’s championing of religious tolerance is, of course, very well-known, and is rightly seen as providing one of the major building blocks of Indian secularism. But in addition, Akbar’s actions and policies also related closely to his inquiries and interpretations of India, and in that investigation, the calendrical systems had an important place.
Indeed, Akbar tried to understand the different calendars known and used in India, along with trying to study the different religions practised in the country. He went on, in the last decade of the millennium (in fact, in 992 Hijri, corresponding to 1584 AD), to propose a synthetic calendar for the country as a whole, the "Tarikh-Ilahi," just as he also proposed an amalgamated religion, the "Din-Ilahi," drawing on the different religions that existed in India. Neither of these two innovations survived, but the motivations behind the two moves — inter-related as they are — have received attention over the centuries and remain very relevant today. The present millennial occasion may well be an appropriate moment to return to some of Akbar’s questions and concerns, presented at the end of a different millennium.
To this, I shall return at the end of the paper. But, first, I must examine the principal calendars that have governed the lives of Indians, and try to use that information for whatever understanding of India it offers. This perspective can provide clues to many different aspects of science and society of India as well as its cultures and practices.
The Indian calendars
India provides an astonishing variety of calendrical systems, with respective histories that stretch over several thousand years. The official Calendar Reform Committee, appointed in 1952 (shortly after Indian independence), which was chaired by Meghnad Saha himself, identified more than thirty well-developed calendars in systematic use in the country.2 These distinct calendars relate to the diverse but interrelated histories of the communities, localities, traditions and religions that have co-existed in India. If one wanted confirmation of the pervasive pluralism of India, the calendars of India would provide fine evidence in that direction.
The authoritative Whitaker’s Almanac reduces this long list to seven principal "Indian eras." It also gives the translation of the Gregorian year 2000 into these selected major calendars. Since, however, the beginning of the year in different calendars occur at different times and in different seasons (for example, the Saka era, the most widely used indigenous calendar in India, begins in spring, in the middle of April), these translations have to be seen in terms of substantial overlap rather than full congruence. The Gregorian year 2000 AD corresponds, Whitaker’s Almanac reports, respectively with:
Year 6001 in the Kaliyuga calendar;
Year 2544 in the Buddha Nirvana calendar;
Year 2057 in the Vikram Samvat calendar;
Year 1922 in the Saka calendar;
Year 1921 (shown in terms of 5-yearly cycles) of the Vedanga Jyotisa calendar;
Year 1407 in the Bengali San calendar;
Year 1176 in the Kollam calendar.
To this list, we can of course add other major calendars in extensive use in India, including the old Mahavira Nirvana calendar associated with Jainism (in use for about the same length of time as the Buddha Nirvana calendar), and later additions, such as the Islamic Hijri, the Parsee calendar, and various versions of Christian date systems (and also the Judaic calendar, in local use in Kerala, since the arrival of Jews in India, shortly after the fall of Jerusalem).
Ancient India and its calendars
It is clear from the table of Indian calendars in Whitaker’s Almanac that the Kaliyuga calendar is apparently much older than — and quite out of line with — the other surviving old calendars. It also has a somewhat special standing because of its linkage with the religious account of the history of the world, described with mathematical — if mind-boggling — precision. (It is the last and the shortest of the four yugas, meant to last for 432,000 years, and has been preceded respectively by three other yugas, which were in length — going backwards — two, three and four times as long as the Kaliyuga, making up a total of 4,320,000 years altogether.) It is, of course, true that the Vikram Samvat and the Saka calendar are also sometimes called "Hindu calendars," and they are almost invariably listed under that heading, for example in The Oxford Companion to the Year. But they are mainly secular calendrical systems that were devised and used — for all purposes including inter alia religious ones — by people who happened to be Hindus.
In contrast, Kaliyuga is given an orthodox and primordial religious status. Furthermore, as the ancientness of Hinduism is not in doubt, and since ancient India is often seen as primarily Hindu India, the temporal seniority of the Kaliyuga has also acquired a political significance of its own, which has a bearing in the interpretation of India as a country and as a civilisation.
Interesting enough, according to Whitaker’s Almanac, Kaliyuga too, like the Gregorian, is at the end of a millennium — its sixth. This "double millennium" seems to offer cause for some jollity (such coincidences do not occur that often), not to mention the opportunity of inexpensive chauvinism for Indians to celebrate the completion of a sixth millennium at about the same time that the upstart Europeans enjoy the end of their modest second millennium.
How authentic is this dating of Kaliyuga in Whitaker’s Almanac? The Almanac is quite right to report what is clearly the official date of Kaliyuga calendar. Indeed, that dating is quite widely used, and even the Calendar Reform Committee reported the same convention (noting that year 1954 AD was year 5055 in Kaliyuga, which does correspond exactly to 2000 AD being 6001 Kaliyuga). However, this numbering convention raises two distinct questions, which deserve scrutiny. First, does the official Kaliyuga date correspond to the "zero point" of the analytical system of the Kaliyuga calendar? Second, does the zero point of the Kaliyuga calendar reflect its actual historical age?
I fear I have to be the kill-joy who brings a doubly drab message. First, the zero point of Kaliyuga is not 6001 but 5101 years ago (corresponding to 3101-3102 BC). Second, this zero point (5101 years ago) is most unlikely to have been the actual date of origin of this calendar.
The first point is not in any kind of dispute, and the defenders of the pre-eminence of the Kaliyuga calendar rarely deny that the zero point is 3102 BC. The zero point can be easily worked out from a statement of Aryabhata, the great Indian mathematician and astronomer born in the fifth century, who had done some foundational work in astronomy and mathematics, particularly trigonometry, and had also proposed the diurnal motion of the earth (with a corresponding theory of gravity — later expounded by Brahmagupta in the sixth century — to explain why objects are not thrown out as the earth churns). He noted that 3600 years of the Kaliyuga calendar were just completed when he turned 23 (the year in which this precocious genius wrote his definitive mathematical treatise, known as Aryabhatiya).3 That was the year 421 in the Saka calendar, which overlapped with 499 AD. From this it can be readily worked out that 2000 AD corresponds to year 5101 in the Kaliyuga calendar. This tallies also with what the Indian Calendar Reform Committee accepted, on the basis of all the evidence it had. This robs us of the opportunity of celebrating a double millennial occasion — the Gregorian second and the Kaliyuga sixth — but it still leaves the seniority of the Kaliyuga over the Gregorian quite unaffected, since 5101 years is quite long enough (at least for chauvinistic purposes).
It is, however, important to take note of the often-overlooked distinction between (1) a calendar’s historical origin, and (2) its zero-point as a scaling device. To illustrate the distinction, it may be pointed out that the zero point in the Christian calendar was, obviously, fixed later, not when Jesus Christ was born. The zero point of the Kaliyuga calendar is clear enough, but in itself it does not tell us when that calendrical system, including its zero point, was adopted.
It has been claimed that the origin (or year zero) in Kaliyuga was fixed by actual astronomical observation in India in 3102 BC. This has not only been stated by Indian traditionalists, it also received endorsement and support in the eighteenth century from no less an authority than the distinguished French astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly, who computed the orbit for Halley’s comet. But as the great scientist and mathematician Laplace showed, this hypothesis is not likely to be correct. There is a clear discrepancy between the alleged astronomical observations (as reported for the zero year) and what would have been seen in the sky in 3102 BC. Laplace had the benefit of contemporary astronomy to do this calculation quite precisely. This old calendar, ancient as it undoubtedly is, must not be taken, Laplace argued, as commemorating some actual astronomical observation.
The Indian Tables indicate a much more refined astronomy, but everything shows that it is not of an extremely remote antiquity....The Indian Tables have two principal epochs, which go back, one to the year 3102, the other to the year 1491, before the Christian era... Notwithstanding all the arguments brought forward with the interest he [Jean-Sylvain Bailly] so well knew how to bestow on subjects the most difficult, I am still of the opinion that this period [from 3102 BC to 1491 BC] was invented for the purpose of giving a common origin to all the motions of the heavenly bodies in the zodiac.4
Let me pause a little here to note two points of some general interest. First, Laplace is disputing here the astronomical claims — often made — as to what was actually observed in 3102 BC, and the critique is, thus, both of history (of the Kaliyuga calendar) and of applied astronomy (regarding what was observed and when). Second, Laplace does not treat the dating of 3102 BC as purely arbitrary. Rather, he gives it an analytical or mathematical status, as distinct from its astronomical standing. Backward extrapolation may be a bad way of doing history, but it is an exercise of some analytical interest of its own.
Indeed, Laplace can be interpreted as adding force to the view, which can receive support from other evidence as well, that it is mathematics rather than observational science to which ancient Indian intellectuals were inclined to give their best attention. From the arithmetic conundrums of the Atharvaveda and the numerical fascination of the epics to the grammatical tables of Panini and the numbering of sexual positions by Vatsayana, there is a remarkable obsession in ancient India with enumeration and calculation. The plethora of Indian calendars and the analytical construction of their imagined history fit well into this reading of the Indian intellectual tradition.
Amartya Sen is Master, Trinity College, Cambridge, UK. He was awarded
the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998