Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Subversion at Work: Astrology Discredited in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Ayodhyākāṇḍa

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

An advertisement published in the Times of India (Kolkata edition) on December 10, 2014 entered by Nakshatra Diamond Jewellery (certified by Gemological Science International, International Gemological Institute, Independent Gemological Laboratories and others) contained a half-page picture of a bejewelled Bollywood film-star. The advertisement was entitled ‘This Pushya Nakshatra / Buy from the amazing collection at Nakshatra & usher in blessings, luck & success in your life.’

The day the moon enters Puṣya, the eighth of the twenty seven lunar mansions/constellations (nakṣatra). Indian astrologers consider this day to be auspicious, particularly for the coronation of kings (puṣyābhiṣeka). Puṣya in a general sense stands, among other things, for ‘nourishment’. In fact the whole month of Pauṣa in the Hindu calendar is supposed to be lucky or propitious for all activities, such as marriage, house warming (gṛhapraveśa), etc.1

Painting: Raja Ravi Varma

Puṣya was known in the early Vedic times (Ṛgveda 1.191.12, also Atharva-veda 5.4.4). It was also known as Tiṣya (Ṛgveda 5.54.13, 10.64.8). Pāṇini mentions it along with a synonym, Siddha/Sidhya2 in the Aṣṭādhyāyī 3.1.116 (‘púṣ-ya- and sídh-ya- are introduced to denote asterisms (nákṣatre),’ puṣya-siddhau nakṣatre).3 Puṣya literally means ‘increased wealth’ as Sidhya stands for ‘achieves success in this’ (Katre p. 212). A detailed description of the benefits accruing from a bath on the day the moon enters Puṣya is found in the Kālikā-Purāṇa, chapter 86. The king should take the bath, for it would ensure good fortune, welfare and wipe out the possibility of famine and epidemic of death.4

Varāhamihira also waxes eloquent on the power of Puṣya:
There are no portents whose evil effects are irremediable by Pushya Snāna and there are no ceremonies calculated to do a king as much good as the ceremony of Pushya Homa [ritual].
The king that desires an increase in power and the king that desires sons will be benefited by Pushya Snāna [bath at the time of Pushya].

Thus have been stated by Bṛhaspati to Indra the rules relating the ceremony of Pushya Snāna – for longevity, increase of progeny/subjects and of fortune. (Bṛhatsaṃhitā 48.84-87. Translation amended)
Pushya is mentioned in several lexicons and other sources (see Böhtlingk-Roth, s.v.). More interesting, however, is the fact that the Rāmāyaṇa Book 2 (Ayodhyā-kāṇḍa, the Book of Ayodhyā), refers to Puṣya, not once or twice, but several times in all in connection with the coronation of Rāma, but with quite an opposite effect.


Daśaratha convened the chief men of the land from the various cities and provinces from the fourcorners, ‘aryan and barbarian, and others who lived in the forest and mountain regions in which they lived’ (mlecchāś cāryāś ca ye cānye vanaśailāntavāsinaḥ 2.3.9ab). and told them:
My body has grown old in the shade of the white parasol. I have lived a life of many, countless, years, and now I crave repose for this aged body of mine…

to invest Rāma, champion of righteousness and bull among men, with the office of prince regent, a union as propitious as the moon’s with the constellation Puṣya. (crit. ed. 2.2.10, p.41)5

Then he called Rāma to the assembly and told him:
And since by your virtues you have won the loyalty of these my subjects, you shall become prince regent on the day of Puṣya’s conjunction. (2.3.24, p.51)
The course of events that followed refers to Puṣya again and again:
After the townsmen had gone, the king held further consultation with his counsellors. When he learned what they had determined the lord [Daśaratha] declared with determination: “Tomorrow is Puṣya, so tomorrow my son Rāma, his eyes as coppery as lotuses, shall be consecrated as prince regent.” (2.4.1-2, p.51)
When the assembled chiefs and counsellors were gone Daśarath again called Rāma and told him:
Rāma, I have had dreams lately, inauspicious, ominous dreams. Great meteors and lightning bolts out of a clear sky have been falling nearby with a terrible crash. The astrologers also inform me, Rāma, that my birth star is obstructed by hostile planets, Angāraka, Rāhu and the sun. When such portents as these appear it usually means a king is about to die or meet with some dreadful misfortune. You must therefore have yourself consecrated, Rāghava, before my resolve fails me. For the minds of men are changeable. Today the moon has reached Punarvasu, just to the east of Puṣya; tomorrow, the astrologers predict, its conjunction with Puṣya is certain. On this very Puṣya day you must therefore have yourself consecrated, Rāghava, before my resolve fails me. On this very Puṣya day you must have yourself consecrated – I feel a sense of great urgency. Tomorrow, slayer of enemies, I will consecrate you as prince regent. (2.4.12-22, p.55)
Some may very well think of this passage as an act of subversion. The royal astrologers could foretell about Daśaratha’s death but could not foresee that Rama was not destined to be made the prince regent. The counsellors of Daśaratha too proved to be no better, although they were sages of repute. They too did not foresee that all attempts to consecrate Rāma would prove to be futile: Daśaratha was not destined to see his eldest son enthroned.

Let us look at the following passages that go on hammering on the auspiciousness of Pusya, credulously repeated by other characters of the epic:
At that moment Kauśalyā stood with her eyes closed, while Sumitrā, Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa were seated behind her. From the moment she received word that her son was to be consecrated as prince regent on Pushya day, she had been controlling her breathing and meditating on the Primal Being, Janārdana. (2.4.30-33, p.57)
Now, Kaikeyīs family servant, who had lived with her from the time of her birth, had happened to ascend to the rooftop terrace that shone like the moon. From the terrace Mantharā could see all Ayodhyā – the king’s way newly sprinkled, the lotuses and water lilies strewn about, the costly ornamental pennants and banners, the sprinkling of sandalwood water and the crowds of freshly bathed people. Seeing a nursemaid standing nearby, Mantharā asked:
Why is Rāma’s mother so delighted and giving away money
to people, when she has always been so miserly? Tell me,
why are the people displaying such boundless delight? Has
something happened to delight the lord of earth? What is he
planning to do?”
Bursting with delight and out of sheer gladness the nursemaid told the hunchback Mantharā about the greater majesty in store for Rāghava:
Tomorrow on Puya day King Daśaratha is going to consecrate Rāma Rāghava as prince regent, the blameless prince who has mastered his anger.” (2.7.5-8ab, p.71)
Mantharā then proceeded to visit Kaikeyī. She found her quite happy with the news of Rāma’s coronation. The queen even presented her with a lovely piece of jewellery.
But Mantharā was beside herself with rage and sorrow. She threw the jewellery away and said spitefully: 
“You foolish woman, how can you be delighted at such a moment? Are you not aware that you stand in the midst of a sea of grief? It is Kauśalyā who is fortunate; it is her son the eminent brahmans will consecrate as the powerful prince regent tomorrow, on Puṣya day. Once Kauśalyā secures this great object of joy, she will cheerfully eliminate her enemies. (2.8.1-3, p.75)
In the mean time, the work of consecration has begun.
The ministers, the leaders of the army and the leading merchants joyfully convened for Rāghava’s consecration. When the bright sun had risen and Pushya day had come, the chief Brahmans made the preparations for Rāma’s consecration. (2.13.1-3, p.107)
When Rāma went back to meet his spouse, his demeneour betrayed his misgivings:
Sītā started up and began to tremble as she looked at her husband consumed with grief, his senses numb with anxious care. When she saw how his face was drained of color, how he sweated and chafed, she was consumed with sorrow. “What is the meaning of this, my lord?” she asked. Today was surely the day for which the learned brahmans had forecast the conjunction of Puṣya, the majestic constellation ruled by Bṛhaspati. Why are you so sad, Rāghava? The hundred-ribbed parasol with its hue of white-capped water is not throwing its shade upon your handsome face. (2.23.5-8, p.161)
Thus, contrary to all expectations, instead of being crowned as the sovereign of Kośala, Rāma was forced to go to exile for fourteen years. The prediction of the astrologers and the endeavours of his father’s counsellors came to naught. So much for the alleged beneficial effect of Puṣya.6 The astrologers and cunsellors did not warn Daśaratha of the consequences if he tried to empower Rāma as the King of Kośala.


Why should the author of this Book, or more specifically, of this section (added, according to Brockington p.329, at the second stage of redaction), repeatedly disparage the royal astrologers and counsellors by pointing out, not once or twice, but several times, the alleged beneficial effect of a day (when the moon enters Puṣya) and the opposite result that followed? The Rāmāyaṇa itself is in all respects a pro-Establishment work, basically male-dominated and conservative in approach concerning all social and political questions. The debunking of astrologers stands out as a significant piece of dissidence not expected in a Brahmanical work. In the Indian tradition the Rāmāyaṇa is not considered to be a secular epic (mahākāvya). On the other hand, it is the first work composed by the ‘first poet’ (ādikavi). Vālmīki was so regarded even in the first century ce, as evidenced in Life of the Buddha (Buddhacarita) by the Buddhist poet, Aśvaghoṣa. He writes: ‘And Vālmīki was the first to create the verse’ (vālmīkirādau ca sasarja padyaṃ, 1.43). The discrediting of astrology, or at least of royal astrologers, is an unexpected radical trait in the received text of the Rāmāyaṇa in all its recensions and versions. It is strange that neither P.L. Vaidya, the editor of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa in the crit. ed., nor any scholar, Indian or foreign, writing on the Rāmāyaṇa pays the least attention to the irony inherent in the repeated reference to Puṣya and the failure of the astrologers in determining the fate awaiting Rāma. Vaidya commenting on 2.4.19-20, writes:
The reason for immediate coronation of Rāma as indicated here is that stars do not seem to be favourable to Daśaratha, and even suggest calamities like death or change of mind. The good and auspicious idea in the mind of Daśaratha, therefore, requires to be put into action immediately (p.695).
This is to miss the mark. Vaidya does not say a word about astrology and its failure. He is concerned solely with the ethical questions arising out of the situation. Nor does Sheldon Pollock, in his otherwise admirable translation, spend a single word to point out the irony of the circumstances. 

All this automatically raises the obvious question: how could such an anti-Establishment view find place and continue to hold it in a ‘sacred text’ like the Rāmāyaṇa?

The only tentative answer I can offer is that, even among the redactors of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa of the Rāmāyaṇa there must have been one who had some grudge against astrology, perhaps because he himself had been a victim of deception of false prophecy. Or he might have a freethinker (rarely met with, but not altogether non-existent in any phase of Indian history), not believing in astrological predictions. There is no gainsaying that the irony of the situation is enhanced by the welfare expected of Puṣya and the disaster that fell on Rāma’s life. There is an oral tradition which says that the adherents of the Nyāya philosophy used to scoff at the astrologers by saying, ‘Astrology is (rendered) fruitless by the banishment of Rāma from his kingdom’ (viphalaṃ jyotiṣaṃ śāstraṃ rāme rājyavivāsite).7 This was in response to a maxim vaunted by the astrologers, ‘Astrology is productive (lit. fruitful) where the sun and the moon are (its) witnesses’ (saphalaṃ jyotiṣaṃ śāstram candrārkau yatra sākṣiṇau).

The redactor of this section of the Rāmāyaṇa Book 2 must have been an ancestor of the Naiyāyikas who ridiculed astrology by citing the case of Rāma’s banishment.

Appendix A

Sanskrit passages from the Rāmāyaṇa (critical edition)

taṃ candram iva puṣyeṇa yuktaṃ dharmabhṛtāṃ varam |
yauvarājyena yoktāsmi prītaḥ puruṣapuṃgavam
|| (crit. ed. 2.2.10)

tvayā yataḥ prajāś cemāḥ svaguṇair anurañjitāḥ |
tasmāt tvaṃ puṣyayogena yauvarājyam avāpnuhi
|| (2.3.24)

gateṣv atha nṛpo bhūyaḥ paureṣu saha mantribhiḥ |
mantrayitvā tataś cakre niścayajñaḥ sa niścayam
śva eva puṣyo bhavitā śvo 'bhiṣecyeta me sutaḥ
rāmo rājīvatāmrākṣo yauvarājya iti prabhuḥ
|| (2.4.1-2)

rāma vṛddho 'smi dīrghāyur bhuktā bhogā mayepsitāḥ |
annavadbhiḥ kratuśatais tatheṣṭaṃ bhūridakṣiṇaiḥ
jātam iṣṭam apatyaṃ me tvam adyānupamaṃ bhuvi
dattam iṣṭam adhītaṃ ca mayā puruṣasattama
anubhūtāni ceṣṭāni mayā vīra sukhāni ca
devarṣi pitṛviprāṇām anṛṇo 'smi tathātmanaḥ
na kiṃ cin mama kartavyaṃ tavānyatrābhiṣecanāt
ato yat tvām ahaṃ brūyāṃ tan me tvaṃ kartum arhasi
adya prakṛtayaḥ sarvās tvām icchanti narādhipam
atas tvāṃ yuvarājānam abhiṣekṣyāmi putraka
api cādyāśubhān rāma svapnān paśyāmi dāruṇān
sanirghātā maholkāś ca patantīha mahāsvanāḥ
avaṣṭabdhaṃ ca me rāma nakṣatraṃ dāruṇair grahaiḥ
āvedayanti daivajñāḥ sūryāṅgārakarāhubhiḥ
prāyeṇa hi nimittānām īdṛśānāṃ samudbhave
rājā vā mṛtyum āpnoti ghorāṃ vāpadam ṛcchati
tad yāvad eva me ceto na vimuhyati rāghava
tāvad evābhiṣiñcasva calā hi prāṇināṃ matiḥ
adya candro 'bhyupagataḥ puṣyāt pūrvaṃ punar vasum
śvaḥ puṣya yogaṃ niyataṃ vakṣyante daivacintakāḥ
tatra puṣye 'bhiṣiñcasva manas tvarayatīva mām
śvas tvāham abhiṣekṣyāmi yauvarājye paraṃtapa
|| (2.4.12-22)

tatra tāṃ pravaṇām eva mātaraṃ kṣaumavāsinīm |
vāgyatāṃ devatāgāre dadarśa yācatīṃ śriyam
prāg eva cāgatā tatra sumitrā lakṣmaṇas tathā
sītā cānāyitā śrutvā priyaṃ rāmābhiṣecanam
tasmin kāle hi kausalyā tasthāv āmīlitekṣaṇā
sumitrayānvāsyamānā sītayā lakṣmaṇena ca
śrutvā puṣyeṇa putrasya yauvarājyābhiṣecanam
prāṇāyāmena puruṣaṃ dhyāyamānā janārdanam
|| (2.4.30-33)

rāmamātā dhanaṃ kiṃ nu janebhyaḥ saṃprayacchati |
atimātraṃ praharṣo 'yaṃ kiṃ janasya ca śaṃsa me
kārayiṣyati kiṃ vāpi saṃprahṛṣṭo mahīpatiḥ
vidīryamāṇā harṣeṇa dhātrī paramayā mudā
ācacakṣe 'tha kubjāyai bhūyasīṃ rāghave śriyam
śvaḥ puṣyeṇa jitakrodhaṃ yauvarājyena rāghavam
rājā daśaratho rāmam abhiṣecayitānagham
| (2.7.5-8ab)

mantharā tv abhyasūyyainām utsṛjyābharaṇaṃ ca tat |
uvācedaṃ tato vākyaṃ kopaduḥkhasamanvitā
harṣaṃ kim idam asthāne kṛtavaty asi bāliśe
śokasāgaramadhyastham ātmānaṃ nāvabudhyase
subhagā khalu kausalyā yasyāḥ putro 'bhiṣekṣyate
yauvarājyena mahatā śvaḥ puṣyeṇa dvijottamaiḥ
|| (2.8.1-3)

te tu tāṃ rajanīm uṣya brāhmaṇā vedapāragāḥ |
upatasthur upasthānaṃ saharājapurohitāḥ
amātyā balamukhyāś ca mukhyā ye nigamasya ca
rāghavasyābhiṣekārthe prīyamāṇās tu saṃgatāḥ
udite vimale sūrye puṣye cābhyāgate 'hani |
abhiṣekāya rāmasya dvijendrair upakalpitam
|| (2.13.1-3)

praviveśātha rāmas tu svaveśma suvibhūṣitam |prahṛṣṭajanasaṃpūrṇaṃ hriyā kiṃ cid avāṅmukhaḥ ||atha sītā samutpatya vepamānā ca taṃ patim |apaśyac chokasaṃtaptaṃ cintāvyākulilendriyam ||vivarṇavadanaṃ dṛṣṭvā taṃ prasvinnam amarṣaṇam |āha duḥkhābhisaṃtaptā kim idānīm idaṃ prabho ||adya bārhaspataḥ śrīmān yuktaḥ puṣyo na rāghava |procyate brāhmaṇaiḥ prājñaiḥ kena tvam asi durmanāḥ || (2.23.5-8)

Puṣya occurs in the following verses in the vulgate: 2.12ab, 3.41ab, 4.2ab, 4.22ab, 4.33ab, 7.11ab, 8.9cd, 15.3ab, and 26.8 ab.

1 Since the month of Pauṣa comes after the harvesting season, cultivators and traders are in a relatively prosperous state, and have some money to spare. There is a Bangla proverb, kāro pauṣmās kāro sarvanāś (To one the month to prosper ( Pauṣa), to another, disaster). A festival is also held in every Bengali Hindu household at the last day of Pauṣa. Several types of cocoanut confectionaries are prepared and people are invited to partake of them.
2 The other two synonyms are Tiṣya and Puṣyā.
3 Commenting on Aṣṭ 2.3.45 (nakṣatre ca lupi), Katre provides an example: ‘One should drink a milkshake when the asterism Puṣya is in conjunction with the moon,’ puṣyena/puṣye pāyasaṃ aśnīyāt (p.148)
4 pauṣe puṣyar kṣage candre puṣyasnānaṃ nṛpaś caret |
saubhāgye-kalyāṇakaraṃ durbhikṣa-maraṇākahaṃ || (Kālikā-Purāṇa 86.2, p. 879). 
This verse is quoted in the Śabda-kalpa-druma, a Sanskrit-Sanskrit dictionary, from which it is re-quoted in Böhtlingk-Roth’s Sanskrit-Wörterbuch.
5 For the critically edited constituted text of the original Sanskrit passages, see Appendix A below. A vulgate text with an English translation is to be found in <http://www.valmikiramayan.net/utf8/ayodhya/sarga2/ayodhya_2_frame.htm>
6 It may be mentioned in this connection that there are several floating verses (udbhaṭa-śokas) of unknown authorship satirizing astrologers. Some of them have been collected in the anthology, Subhāṣita-ratna-bhāṇḍāgāra under the head, ‘Censure of Evil Astrologers’ (kugaṇaka-nindā).
7 These two maxims have been cited by S. Thakur in 1982/1988 p. 22. To the best of my knowledge they had never been recorded before. Enquiries with Nyāya specialists such as Professor M.K. Gangopadhyaya and Professor Prabal Kumar Sen too confirmed this conclusion. Thakur in his short note, however, discusses Daśaratha’s speeches alone; he does not mention those of others.

Works Cited

Aśvaghoṣa. The Buddhacarita. Ed. and trans. E. H. Johnston. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978 (first pub. 1936).
Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini. Ed. and trans. S. M. Katre. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989.
Böhtlingk, Otto and Rudolf Roth. Sanskrit-Wörterbuch. Delhi: Motilal Banrsidass, 1990 (reprint).
Brockington, J. L. Righteous Rāma: the Evolution of an Epic. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Kālikāpurāṇa. Ed. Panchanana Tarkaratna, revised by Srijiva Nyayatirtha. Kalikata: Nababharata Publishers, 1384 Bangla Sal.
Katre, S. M. See Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini.
Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki. Vol. 2. Ed. Shastri Shrinivas Katti Mudholkara. Delhi: Parimal Publications, 1983. (vulgate)
Rāmāyaṇa, Book 2, Ayodhyā by Valmīki. Trans. Sheldon Pollock.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Śabdakalpadruma (1822-58). Compiled by the Pundits appointed by Radhakanta Deva. Delhi: MLBD, 1961 reprint.
    Subhāṣita-ratna-bhāṇḍāgāra. Narayan Ram Acharya (ed.). Bombay: Nirnay Sagar Press, 1952, newly edited by Kashinath Pandurang Parab. Śrīsubhāṣitaratnabhāṇḍāgāraṃ. Revised by Wasudev Laxman Panashikar. Delhi: Eastern Book Links, 1991.
Thakur, Srikrishnaciatanya. Jyotiṣīder bhāgya gaṇanā upahāsa karechen Vālmīki (Vālmīki ridicules the astrologers’ calulation). Utsa Mānush, October-November 1982, reprinted in Vijñāna Jyotiṣa Samāja. Kolkata: Utsa Mānush, 1988 (first published 1983), 22-24.
Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa,The. Critically edited by G.H. Bhatt and others. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1960-75.
Varāhamihira. Bṛhatsaṃhitā with [saṃhitā-]Vivṛti by Utpalabhaṭṭa. Ed. Avadha Vihari Tripathi. Varanasi: Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishvavidyalaya, 1968.
Varāha Mihira. Brihat Samhitā. Trans. N. Chidambaram Iyer. Madras, 1884.
Viśvakoṣa. Compiled and published by Nagendranath Vasu. Vol. 12. Kalikata, 1308 Bangla Sal (1901ce).

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Sourav Basak, and Sunish Kumar Deb. The usual disclaimers apply.

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of PAVLOV Institute, Kolkata.


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