Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Al-Birunis Knowledge of Sanskrit Astronomical Texts

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Al-Birunis Knowledge of Sanskrit Astronomical Texts

Article excerpt

Al-Biruni's Knowledge of Sanskrit Astronomical Texts

The Moslem interpreter of Indian culture best known to the West, Abu 'I-Rayhän Muhammad al-Bfrunl, was carried off to Grazna by Sultan Mahmud in 1018 A.D.1 During the course of the following years he gained access to the Sanskrit literature current in northwestern India at the time, and made much of it available in Arabic by means of a series of books that he published in the late 20s and in the 30s of the eleventh century. In this paper I intend to consider the means by which he studied several Sanskrit texts on astronomy which were among the most important sources for his knowledge of Indian science, and to examine the question of the reliability of his reporting of Indian astronomical and physical theories.

Al-BîrünT was neither the first nor the last Moslem to study Indian astronomy. There were three paksas (that is, schools of astronomy) whose systems-and, in particular, whose parameters and computational techniques-had been partially familiar to Arabic-reading scholars since the eighth century A.D.2 The brâhmapaksa was initiated by the Paitämahasiddhänta of the Visnudharmottarapuräna3 in the early fifth century, and its influence was already felt in Sasanian Iran when the first ZIk i Shahriyärän was composed in about 450.4 But the brahmapak$a's most prominent representative was the Brähmasphutasiddhänta composed by Brahmagupta at Bhillamala in southern Rajasthan in 628.5 Based mainly upon this text, though including some elements from the äryapaksa, was a work, apparently entitled Mahäsiddhänta (al-Sindhind al-kablr), of which a copy was carried to Baghdad in 771 or 773 by a member of a delegation from Sind. This Mahäsiddhänta was used by al-Fazarl and of Yacqüb ibn Târiq7 in their several zijes composed between about 775 and 790, though they also derived some material from the Ptolemaic tradition and from the Zik i Shahriyârân of Yazdijird HI. The works of al-Fazârl and of Yacqüb are the bases of the Sindhind tradition of Islamic astronomy,8 which al-Birünï had studied thoroughly and through which he had learned something of Indian astronomy long before his sojourn in the Panjab.

The second Indian paksa of which elements reached Islam was the ärdharätrika or midnight-system, initiated by Aryabhata in about 500.9 This was apparently the foundation of the version of the PahlavîZïk i Shahriyârân that was published under Khusraw Anughirwan in 556;10much of this zik was, naturally, repeated in the similar zik issued under Yazdijird III, probably in the 630s, which was translated into Arabic as the Zlj al-Shâh by al-Tamîmî toward the end of the eighth century.11 The ärdharätrikapaksa was also followed by Brahmagupta in his Khandakhâdyaka12 written in 665, which, with its commentaries, was often cited by al-Bîrünî in the works that he wrote in the years immediately on either side of 1030,13 but whose elements also reached him through the Arabic version made in Sind in 735 and published under the title Zfj al-Arkand.14

Finally, the third of the Sanskrit paksas that we must consider is the âryapaksa, also initiated by Aryabhata, in the Aryabhatjya, whose epoch is 499. Elements of this paksa, as we have noted above, were included in the Mahäsiddhänta utilized by al-Fazâri and by Yacqûb ibn Tariq. There was also a metrical Arabic version of at least a part of the Aryabhatjya, published as the Zlj al-Harqän in 742,1S and a fuller translation, the Zlj al-Arjabhar, was made, apparently toward the end of the eighth century, and was used by one Abu T-Hasan al-AhwazT.16

Al-Bírüní was familiar with many of the parameters and procedures of the brähmapaksa and of both of Aryabhata's paksas through the medium of at least some of these early Arabic translations before he went to India; in fact, most of our knowledge of these lost zijes is derived from al-BTrûnï himself. But the Indian systems were not presented in these texts with any integrity; their authors generally conflated material from various zijes without naming their sources, and thereby offered an extremely distorted and inaccurate picture of Indian astronomy. …

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