The real Uttarayana

The Hindu calendar is in need of a major rectification to ensure that Makara Sankranti is celebrated on the appropriate day.

The real Uttarayana

As the Winter Solstice approaches, this year on 10h 03m Greenwich Mean Time, or 14h 33m Indian Standard Time, we find in our inbox, like in preceding years, a passionate plea by AK Kaul for a return to celebrating Uttarayana on that day:

“Why should we celebrate Makar Sankranti on December 21, 2020, 15:34 IST”. Alright, our data yield one minute of difference; but otherwise, the present article is entirely in support of this Hindu plea for a major rectification of the Hindu calendar.

Uttarāyana, “northward course”, is the moment the sun stops its southward course (with ever-shortening days in the northern hemisphere) and turns northwards. It is an exact translation of “the half-year period starting with Winter Solstice”, or simply “Winter Solstice”. However, modern Hindus celebrate this moment on a different date, 14 or 15 January, which they call Makara Sankranti. What has gone wrong?

The Sankrantis (cusps) are the starting moments of the 12 periods of the Zodiac, with Makara being Capricorn. The problem is that there are two Zodiacs, presently more than 24° apart, or technically: with an āyana (“journey, distance traversed”) of 24°+. The one is called the Tropical Zodiac or Sāyana Rāśicakra, determined by the Tropics (from Greek trepō, “turn”, hence “turning-points”), i.e. the Winter and Summer Solstice, i.e. the seasons; the other the Sidereal Zodiac or Nirāyana Rāśicakra, determined by the constellations. For the Tropical Zodiac, the stars play no role at all: you could define it if only the sun and the earth made up the universe; and while the exist, the stars can fall in any Zodiacal period. For the Sidereal Zodiac, the seasons play no role at all: its twelve signs can fall in any season of the year. So, which of the two Zodiacs is it?

Both have a valid reason for existing. The dichotomy follows from the heavenly movement of the precession: the slow movement of the stars through the Tropical Zodiac, or conversely, of the Tropical cusps through the Sidereal Zodiac, at the rate of one cycle in 25,772 years, or 1° in nearly 71 years. So, since the moment ca. 300 CE when the two Zodiacs coincided (and Makar Sankranti, the entry in Capricorn, did indeed coincide with Uttarayana), the point marking the start of winter and of the northward course in the seasonal Zodiac has moved up 24° in the stellar Zodiac. After waiting for another ten thousand years or so, the constellations presently marking the winter months will mark the summer.

This movement is too slow to be perceived in a single lifetime, and had to wait till the availability of long-term observation tables to be discovered. It was 127 BCE when Hipparchos of Alexandria first realized the precessional motion. Until then, the Babylonian astronomers who had started the 12-part Zodiac followed the Sidereal Zodiac thinking it was Tropical. Siderealists sometimes argue that the original Zodiac was sidereal, which is true, but it was intended as Tropical. Significantly, already in the 5th century BCE, well before the discovery of the precession, Euktemōn had introduced the Zodiac in Athens as a non-lunar calendar system of 12 equal months, with Capricorn on Winter Solstice and Aries on Spring Equinox, purely seasonal-Tropical.

This primacy of the Tropical as against the Sidereal Zodiac can be seen from the symbolism of the Zodiacal signs, which is not linked to the constellations (as a comparative study of the constellation contours and names in different cultures shows, you can see all kinds of things in the shapes of star groupings), but to the seasons. Thus, in the contrast between the voluminous Taurus and the reduced Scorpio, it is obvious which one signifies the fullness of spring and which the reduction to the seed form. Virgo symbolizes the harvest, Pisces the thaw, mountainous Capricorn the coldness of sunny winter days, hospitable Aquarius the relative cosiness of snowy winter days, Sagittarius the hunting season, etc.

While purists could still dismiss these associations as dependent on the climate zone (e.g. some countries having more than one harvest season), more fundamental are the links with the mathematical structure of the Zodiac. The dynamic Aries signifies the pioneering starting-point, so its opposite is the middle of the Zodiac, aptly symbolized by Libra. At Summer Solstice, the solar arc, or visible motion of the sun during the daytime, is larger than half a circle, and has the shape of pincers, Cancer; at Winter Solstice, it it much less than half, and is shaped like a mountain in the distance, Capricorn. The sectors of the Zodiac rise in the morning at different speed: slowest for the sign around Autumn Equinox, viz. Virgo, the sign of analysis and patience, and Libra, the sign of equilibrium achieved with effort; fastest for the Spring Equinox signs, viz. Pisces, the sign of flight, fast and even faster, and for Aries, the sign of speeding forward, also of the falling object at its moment of greatest speed, viz. upon impact.

At the same time, the stars and constellations have their own importance. They exist, and the Hindu Ahimsa view is that all entities have a valid reason for existing. Rather than the cosy earth-centred and sun-centred view, we can also focus on the long distance, where seasons are no longer important. But just as life at home is primary and distant journeys presuppose a grooming period at home, the Tropical Zodiac is primary and the Sidereal Zodiac a derivative.

Alright, so both Zodiacs are in their own way legitimate, but which one is being celebrated? Which one should determine the Uttarayana festival? AK Kaul clearly opts for the Tropical Zodiac, yielding 21 December, but the traditionalists opt for the Sidereal Zodiac and for 14 January, present date of the Makara Sankranti festival. In the many debates or slanging matches we have witnessed on a Hindu calendar list, the Hindu traditionalists (who control the calendar) always object that Kaul’s proposal goes against “Vedic” (meaning scriptural) tradition. About this, we can afford to be brief: this is not true at all.

While Kaul himself has argued this point with numerous examples (see for starters his article – When should Pongal/Makar Samkranti be celebrated and why?), we will make do with just two. The Srimad Bhagavata 5/21/3-6:

“Placed at the centre of the sky, the glorious sun, the lord of the luminaries, warms by its heat and illuminates by its light the three worlds (heaven, atmosphere, earth).  Coursing by slow, swift and regulated marches known by the names of Uttarayana (the northerly march from the Winter Solstice), Dakshinayana (the southerly march from the Summer Solstice) and the Vaishuvata (Equinox) and rising higher, going down and taking a mean position whenever  and wherever such positions are inevitable, the sun, while passing the Zodiac, from Makara (Capricornus) onwards, lengthens the days while shortening the nights and vice verse and brings their duration on a par.”

So the central concern is the Solstices and Equinoxes, markers of the year cycle with the seasons, like in most Pagan cultures and the emerging neo-Pagan practices worldwide. Additionally, the constellations are linked with them, so that Makara/Capricorn starts the northward course, which is on 21 December. No word is whispered about a constellation, Makara denotes a time, viz. the beginning of the sun’s northward course. It focuses on the immediately available seasonal cycle rather than on the distant constellations.

The Vishnu Purana 2/8/28-31 is even more explicit:

“In the beginning of Uttarayana (northward course), the sun enters Makara Rashi (Capricorn), from there going to Kumbha (Aquarius) and then Mina (Pisces). After having passed through these three signs, it just gains Vishuvati (equinoctial) speed resulting in the day and night being equal on Mesha (Aries).(…) Then when the sun is in the end of Mithuna Rashi (Gemini), i.e. when it is just at the verge of entering Karkata (Cancer), the day is the longest then, as Dakshinayana (southward course) starts on that date”.

So, as per scripture, Makar Sankranti is nothing but a synonym of Uttarayana, already celebrated in the Vedas, Mesha Sankranti of Vedic Vishuva, Karkata Sankranti of Vedic Dakshinayana, and Tula (Libra) Sankranti of Vedic Śārada Sampāda (autumnal confluence). As Kaul sums up:

“What is material is that they are related to the seasons — exactly as is done by the Vedas and the Puranas and Siddhantas.”

So, while most cultures focus on the seasonal cycle and celebrate its great moments or its derivatives (e.g. Chinese New Year being the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice, or Easter being the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after Spring Equinox), Hindu culture likewise focuses on this earthly phenomenon. Additionally, it also reckons, more than others, with the constellations, but these should not displace the primary seasonal cycle. So, we should celebrate Winter Solstice, not the entry in the Capricorn constellation which in its precessional motion happened to coincide with it some 17 centuries ago.

So, we support Kaul’s practical conclusion:

“God helps those who help themselves: We should not wait for Pujya dharmacharyas (reverend religion teachers) to streamline the derailed Vedic calendar.”

Shubh Uttarayana, Merry Winter Solstice!

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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