The cut-off date in the Mahābhārata debate

Astronomical evidence that squarely places the dating of the Mahabharata to the 2nd millennium BCE is being ignored by those who rely on it to place the epic even earlier.

The cut-off date in the Mahābhārata debate

Last January, Srimati Neera Mishra’s Draupadi Dream Trust organized a three-day zoom conference on the chronology of the historical battle at the heart of the much-expanded epic Mahābhārata. Specialists from different disciplines took part in the debate; we do not have the ambition for a tour d’horizon of the different positions. Let’s just summarize the contrast between the archaeologists’ option for the -2nd millennium and the (professional and self-taught) astronomers’ choice for the late -4th millennium. (It could have been even earlier, in the -6th millennium, but Nilesh Oak hadn’t been invited.)

Jijith Nadamuri Ravi, engineer and sanskritist, made a good overview, and in his account, the archaeologists made a convincing case why the archaeological evidence doesn’t allow for a date prior to the -2nd millennium. There wouldn’t be much of a debate over the date, and there wouldn’t be claims for the -4th millennium or earlier, if there hadn’t been traditionalists and others basing themselves solely on the astronomical data, impervious to any other evidence. Only, a second look at this astronomical evidence shows up one pointer, a central one, that sends the date of the battle to the -2nd millennium even on astronomical grounds. I’ve shown it before on various forums, but all those who want to deduce the Mahābhārata date from astronomy doggedly keep on ignoring it.

In the story of Bhīṣma’s self-chosen death, the asterism Māgha, centred around the major star Maghā/Regulus, is said to be on or past the solstice axis: the asterism/star itself is just past the Summer Solstice, so that the calendar asterism, situated in opposition where the sun is when the full moon is in the physical asterism, is past the Winter Solstice. Indeed, Bhishma elects to give up the ghost when the sun is “past the Winter Solstice/Uttarāyaṇa” and “in Māgha“. He dies when the moon is with Rohiṇī/Aldebaran, which is some 98° past this point, a distance covered by the moon in 7 1/2 days; hence it is said that Bhīṣma died on Māgha Śukla Āṣṭamī, the 8th day, therefore also called Bhīṣmāṣṭamī. This implies that he died 8 days past the Solstice/Uttarāyaṇa. (Or more, if the New Moon didn’t exactly coincide with the solstice axis anymore.)

Now, when did Maghā/Regulus pass the Solstice? The earth’s polar axis describes a precessional cycle of 25772 years, or ca. 71 years per degree of arc. In this cycle, Maghā is today 60° past the solstice axis. We calculate backwards: 60 x 71 years ago, i.e. 4260 years ago, i.e. ca. -2240. Moreover, we are already on the 8th day of the asterism defined by this star, and 8 days translate precessionally into 568 years, so the end result is ca. -1672. All this may have some imprecision about it, so we don’t commit ourselves to a specific year, but certainly to the 2nd millennium. We leave it to others to argue out -1478 vs. -1728 etc., but we do stick to this non-negotiable conclusion: it must have been well past -2240, the cut-off time when Maghā passed the solstice axis.

This makes it impossible for the Mahābhārata battle to have taken place in 3139 BCE, as “the tradition” (but not the Mahābhārata itself, only an “invented tradition” dating to much later, probably ca. +500) says, nor in 3067 BCE, nor 5561 BCE, nor any other year prior to -2240. If you at all must deny the king-lists and the archaeological evidence pointing to the -2nd millennium, and exclusively stick to the astronomical evidence, well alright, here is astronomical evidence. Unlike all the rest of it, this is not convoluted or contradictory, it is simple and straightforward. And it excludes the high chronologies.

About Author: Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

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