Glory of Bharath  »  Scientists of Bharath - I
505 - 587 CE
Varahamihira, also called Varaha, or Mihira was an Indian astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer born in Ujjain. He is considered to be one of the nine jewels (Navaratnas) of the court of legendary king Vikramaditya (thought to be the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II Vikramaditya). Local tradition reveals that Kaytha village in Ujjain district was the birth place of Varahamihira. There is a nalah near the village known as Varaha nalah.

As is the case of many Sanskrit writers of ancient India, we know very little about the personal life of Varahamihira, also known as Varaha and Mihira. According to his own statement in the penultimate verse of his Brhajjataka, "he was a native of Avanti (Western Malawa), the son of Adityadasa and instructed by him, having obtained the blessings of the Sun-god, at Kapitthaka. He also describes himself as Avantyaka, and his commentator Bhajjataka Utpala styles him svantikacarya.

As for Kapitthaka, manuscripts give different variants. According to Utpala, Kapittha was a village where there was a Sun-temple. It is usually identified with modern Kayatha, a small village about 20 kms from Ujjain on the Ujjain-Maski Road. Recent excavation has shown that the site is an ancient one. From all this it is evident that he lived and taught at the famous city of Ujjayini.

There is no doubt that Varaha belonged to a family of Sun-worshippers. His father's name was Adityadasa (servant of the Sun); his own name, Mihira, is derived from Mithra, the Iranian Sun-god. Not only does he pay homage to the Sun in almost all his works, but he himself was regarded as an incarnation of the Sun-god. His son Prthuyasas, also an astronomer, invokes the Sun-god in the opening verse of his Satpancasika.

His Works
Young contemporary of the senior Aryabhata (born in 476 AD), Varahamihira is perhaps the most well-known exponent of Indian astronomy. Though not an originator in astronomy or mathematics, he was a prolific writer and produced several works, big and small, which had a tremendous impact on later astronomers, particularly astrologers. They not only made earlier astronomical works obsolete, several of them remained in use throughout the last fifteen hundred years, and are still used by the flourishing community of astrologers. Some of his works, particularly the Brhajjataka and its abridged version the Laghujataka, can often be seen even with a city pavement astrologer.

Varahamihira's brief "autobiography" - But this is only one aspect of Varaha's lasting contribution. His Pancasiddhantika is the only available source-book for reconstructing the history of pre-Varaha Indian astronomy. His magnum opus, the Brhat-samhita, though basically an astrological work, is a mine of information for contemporary India's geography, flora and fauna, social and economic life, architecture and fine arts, religion and polity, learning and literature, astronomical and meteorological knowledge, history of science, and a lot about superstitious beliefs and customs. This work, like the Arthasastra of Kautilya, is a valuable asset for the historian of Indian culture, which still remains to be properly reconstructed because of the great paucity of historical literary sources in the country.

The traditional Indian Jyotisasastra, treating both astronomy and astrology, is divided into three branches (skandhas): (1) Tantra or Siddhanta or mathematical astronomy, (2) Hora or horoscopy for weddings (vivaha) and nuptials (jataka) and prognostics (sakuna), for journeys (yatra), and (3) Samhita or mundane astrology. That Varaha composed works in all the three branches is evident from his own statement at the end of his Bahajjataka: "I have composed this Jyotisasangraha in three branches for the benefit of astronomers and astrologers.

Varaha's only known work belonging to the first branch is the Pancasiddhantika, which contains the salient features of earlier five siddhantas known to him. The second branch is covered by his three works: the Brhajjataka, the Brhadvivahapatala and the Brhadyatra. He also composed abridged versions of these works, which usually carry the prefix laghu (small), e.g. Laghujataka and Laghuvivahapatala. The abridged version of Brhadyatra (also Yogayatra) is known as Šikanikayatra. Varaha's last and greatest work, the Brhat-samhita, also known as Varahisamhita, comes under the third branch. Its abridged version is known as Samasa-samhita. Several other works have been attributed to him, but their authenticity is doubtful.

Varahamihira's main work is the book Pa˝casiddhantika (or Pancha-Siddhantika, "[Treatise] on the Five [Astronomical] Canons) dated ca. 575 CE gives us information about older Indian texts which are now lost. The work is a treatise on mathematical astronomy and it summarises five earlier astronomical treatises, namely the Surya Siddhanta, Romaka Siddhanta, Paulisa Siddhanta, Vasishtha Siddhanta and Paitamaha Siddhantas. It is a compendium of Vedanga Jyotisha (native Indian) as well as Hellenistic astronomy (including Greek, Egyptian and Roman elements).

The 11th century Arabian scholar Alberuni also described the details of "The Five Astronomical Canons":

"They [the Indians] have 5 Siddhantas:
  • Surya-Siddhanta, ie. the Siddhanta of the Sun, composed by Lata,
  • Vasishtha-siddhanta, so called from one of the stars of the Great Bear, composed by Vishnucandra,
  • Pulisa-siddhanta, so called from Paulisa, the Greek, from the city of Saintra, which I suppose to be Alexandria, composed by Pulisa.
  • Romaka-siddhanta, so called from the Rum, ie. the subjects of the Roman Empire, composed by Srishena.
  • Brahma-siddhanta, so called from Brahman, composed by Brahmagupta, the son of Jishnu, from the town of Bhillamala between Multan and Anhilwara, 16 yojanas from the latter place."

Varahamihira's other most important contribution is the encyclopedic Brihat-Samhita. Varahamihira also made important contributions to mathematics. He was also an astrologer. He wrote on all the three main branches of Jyotisha astrology:
  • Brihat Jataka - is considered as one the five main treatises on Hindu astrology on horoscopy.
  • Daivaigya Vallabha
  • Laghu Jataka
  • Yoga Yatra
  • Vivaha Patal
  • His son Prithuyasas also contributed in the Hindu astrology; his book "Hora Saara" is a famous book on horoscopy.

Western influences
The Romaka Siddhanta ("Doctrine of the Romans") and the Paulisa Siddhanta ("Doctrine of Paul") were two works of Western origin which influenced Varahamihira's thought. A comment in the Brihat-Samhita by Varahamihira says: "The Greeks, though mleccha, must be honored since they were trained in sciences and therein, excelled others....." ("mleccha hi yavanah tesu samyak shastram kdamsthitam/ rsivat te 'pi pujyante kim punar daivavid dvijah").

Some important trigonometric results attributed to Varahamihira

sin2 x + cos2 x = 1
sin x = cos(p/2 - x),
{1 - cos 2x}/{2} = sin2x

He not only presented his own observations, but embellished them in attractive poetic and metrical styles. The usage of a large variety of meters is especially evident in his Brihat Jataka and Brihat-Samhita.

The Brihat Samhita is a 6th century Sanskrit encyclopedia by Varahamihira of wide ranging subjects of human interest, including astrology, planetary movements, eclipses, rainfall, clouds, architecture, growth of crops, manufacture of perfume, matrimony, domestic relations, gems, pearls, and rituals. The volume expounds on gemstone evaluation criterion found in the Garuda Purana, and elaborates on the sacred Nine Pearls from the same text. It contains 106 chapters and is known as the "great compilation".

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