Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Recovery of Early Greek Astronomy from India

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Recovery of Early Greek Astronomy from India

Article excerpt

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The recent publication by O. Neugebauer of his monumental A history of ancient mathematical astronomy1 provides us with penetrating analyses of the remnants of Greek astronomy. Those remains are dominated by "the Greatest", Ptolemy's ZiïvTaÇiç fiadruiariK-f),2 which appears to have been so enormously successful that his principal successors-Pappus,3 Theon,4 and Stephanus6- limited their activities to the writing of commentaries on it and on the Handy tables8 that are largely based on it. And of his predecessors' works virtually all that survive intact are the elementary treatises on spherics by Euclid, Autolycus, and Theodosius,7 that were incorporated in the early Byzantine period into a collection used for instruction in the schools. To supplement Ptolemy's accounts of the work of Apollonius,8 Hipparchus,9 and other early Greek astronomers, historians have had to rely on disparate and often desperate sources: on the handbooks written by Geminus10 in about 50 ad and by Cleomedes11 in about 370 ad; on the encyclopedias of Pliny1* and of Martianus Capella;13 on the philosophical treatise of Adrastus pillaged by Theon of Smyrna and Chalcidius; on the summaries and commentaries of Proclus and of Simplicius; on the astrological compendia of Vettius Valens, pseudoRhetorius, and pseudo-Heliodorus; and on fragmentary inscriptions and papyri.

However, one of those civilizations that were profoundly influenced by Greek culture has preserved a number of texts (composed in the second through seventh centuries ad) that represent non-Ptolemaic Greek astronomy. This civilization is that of India, and the texts are in Sanskrit.14 It is certain that Greek astronomical texts were translated into Syriac and into Pahlavi, as well as into Sanskrit, but of the former we still have but little, and of the latter almost nothing; and in both cases we must rely for much of our knowledge on late accounts in Arabic.16 The Sanskrit texts, however, though often either incorrectly or not at all understood by those who have transmitted them to us, formed the basis of a scientific tradition that only in this century has been destroyed under the impact of Western astronomy. The object of this paper is to characterize the Greek astronomy transmitted to India and to determine the times and the places in which this transmission was effected, in so far as that is possible.

The transmission was certainly very complex. It involved many levels and periods of Greek astronomy: adaptations of Babylonian lunar and planetary theories; the year-length of Hipparchus, an adaptation of his coordinate-system for the fixed stars, and his theories of precession and trepidation; tables of chords transformed into tables of sines; Peripatetic planetary models employing double epicycles and concentres with equants; non-Ptolemaic planetary models combining an eccentre with an epicycle; the solution of problems in spherical astronomy by means of gnomons and analemmata; the computation and, probably, the projection of eclipses; the essential data for computing planetary parameters; models for determining planetary latitudes; and the basic theory used in determining planetary distances. And this transmission extended over several centuries; it apparently began in the second century of our era, and continued till the late fourth or early fifth century. The locations of the recipient Indians indicate Western India as the point of entry of these various Greek theories; there exists literary, epigraphic, archaeological, and numismatic evidence for a massive Greek influence on this area in precisely the period of this transmission.16

Since none of the original translations of Greek texts into Sanskrit survives, we must try to disentangle the transmitted material from the adaptations of later authors. Often we have not sufficient evidence to be very confident about particular details in the historical process that led to the creation of the astronomy of the siddhântas, though the general trend of events is now quite clear. …

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