Ancient Sanskrit Literature and historical dating –
credibility and  historicity of celestial observations found in the Mahabharata

 By Prof. R Narayana Iyengar, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

Note: This is a drastically abridged version of the painstaking investigation undertaken by Prof. R N Iyengar.  The research findings have been made simplistic to address a cosmopolitan student community.

The ancient intellectual tradition of India holds that the epic Mahabharata reports part of its national history.  But claims of historicity of literature and literary characters must be based on physical evidences. 

Though little is available in the form of archaeological finds, the historicity of the Mahabharata can be proved on the basis of the astronomical references it contains, particularly to eclipses and planetary positions.  Modern planetary software such as PVIS (Planet Visibility Software) for searching eclipses dating back to 3000BC and EZC (Easy Cosmos)  for analysing planetary positions using sky charts can be used to scientifically date the celestial observations made in the epic. Planetarium software are powerful tools for computer-based searching of thousands of possibilities and for sifting through obscure texts on celestial events.

The celestial events mentioned in the Mahabharata can be believed to be historical if:

¨         the unique astronomical references in the epic are credible and compatible with the data generated using modern planetary software, and

¨         the celestial events referred to remain consistent internally, and across various literature dealing with the same period (such as, in this case, the Mahabharata, Harivamsa, Bhagavata, Vishnu Purana, Skanda Purana, etc.)

Evolution of the Mahabharata

Mahabharata which today contains a hundred thousand verses, is believed to have originated as a poem, Jaya, which had only 8,800 verses.  It grew first into a smaller epic containing 24,000 verses, called Bharata, before taking form as Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata. All these versions tell, essentially, the same story relating to an ancient period.  Therefore, it may be taken that though obscurities, exaggerations and contradictions pertaining to religious, cultural and sociological themes could have crept into the later text, descriptions of natural phenomena, planetary positions, eclipses and other celestial phenomena would not have been distorted intentionally.  Eclipses mentioned in the Mahabharata

It is interesting to note that eclipses are described, at least in one place in the epic, as a physical phenomenon rather than a mystical or mythological occurrence, as was the usual practice among the ancients of all civilizations. 

Sanjaya, in the chapter Bhishma Parvan, just before the commencement of the Kurukshetra war, mentions that Rahu ‘covers’ the sun and moon at intervals by virtue of his longer diameter, and hence, bigger circumference.  A reading of these verses also reveals, surprisingly, that our ancients apparently knew to calculate the circumference of a circle given the value of its diameter, though they gave a value of 3 and not 3.14 to the irrational number ‘pi’ (Õ)

Sanjaya, proposing a rudimentary theory of eclipses in the Bhishma Parvan, says that the diameter of Rahu is 12,000 yojanas, whereas the respective diameters of the sun and the moon are 10,000 and 11,000 yojanas.  The corresponding circumference of the three celestial bodies are mentioned as being 36,000, 30,000 and 33,000 yojanas!

Eight solar eclipses are mentioned at various times, in various chapters of the epic.  They are always regarded with foreboding and always associated with Rahu, the mahagraha, who is said to have ‘caught’ or ‘covered’ the sun.  Some of the eclipses that find mention in the epic are given below: 

Says Dhritarashtra in the last chapter of Sabha Parvan,

“Meteorites are falling in daytime, and Rahu covered the Sun on an odd day, causing great fear among the people.”

Some time before the epic battle too, an eclipse is said to have occurred:

“The mahagraha portends a frightful catastrophe for both armies” (Bhishma parvan) 

A few verses later, in the same chapter, there is mention of a double eclipse: 

 Candra-suryavubhau grastau ekamase trayodsim (Bhshma parvan)

Meaning: Moon and Sun were eclipsed in the same month at thirteen days’ interval.

The eighth and final solar eclipse that finds mention in the epic is observed at Dwaraka and is mentioned in the Mausala parvan of the Mahabharata.  It is the 36th year after the Kurukshetra war, and Krishna understands that his demise is near:

“The fourteenth day has been made into the fifteenth day again by Rahu.  Krishna understood that the 36th year had arrived.” 

The context referred to here is Gandhari’s curse at the end of the Kurukshetra war, wherein she had told Krishna that he and his Vrishni clan would perish, just as her sons had, in the 36th year hence. On the last day of the war, among several bad omens that had preceded the duel between Bhima and Duryodhana, an eclipse was one:

“Rahu caught the Sun at an odd time; the earth quaked, shaking the trees and forests” (Salya Parvan)

Solar eclipses occur in 18-year cycles (It appears that our ancients had worked out this as well), and Krishna apparently recognised that two 18-year cycles had elapsed since the solar eclipse that oversaw the annihilation of the Kauravas in the epic battle at Kurukshetra.  

This eighth, and last reference to solar eclipse in the Mahabharata is a very valuable reference for establishing the consistency of the celestial events across contemporary literature of the time, for this event also finds prominent mention in the Prabhasa Khanda of Skanda Purana, while describing the last days of Krishna.

Planetary references in the Mahabharata

There are a number of descriptions of planetary positions in the epic, with reference to their nearness to fixed stars.  These events can be reliably dated using modern computer software and can be used for attesting the internal compatibility of various statements in the epic pertaining to other celestial events such as eclipses.

The reigning star or nakshatra citations in the Mahabharata have been explicitly associated with the position of the moon.  It follows that, for the planetary positions also the same observational approach should have been used with the help of the night sky.  Though all the textual planetary positions cannot be taken on their face value, some, on which all editions of the Mahabharata agree, can be considered reliable.

Some of these statements are: 

  1. Saturn is near star Rohini.  Mars is approaching Anuradha from Jyestha.  There is a planet near Citra (Udyoga   parvan)
  2. Saturn is staying near Rohini (Bhishma parvan)
  3. A white planet resides, having crossed Citra (Bhishma parvan).

Establishing the internal consistency of eclipses and planetary positions Indian date was found using the panchanga software of Yano

The epic contains several observations of eclipses and planet positions.  Some of these may be approximate and difficult to interpret today.  If, using modern planetarium software, one or more dates can be found, which are compatible with all, or at least a majority of the textual statements regarding the eclipses and planetary positions, the Mahabharata can be scientifically placed within a time frame. 

The period of the search was restricted to the interval 501BC-3000BC.  The lower limit has been selected as all traditions accept that Krishna preceded Gautama Buddha, whose date is historically accepted as being 563-483 BC.  The upper limit has been dictated by the limitation of the software used for dating the celestial events. 

There is a clear reference in the text to a double eclipse, that is a lunar and a solar eclipse, in either order, within the period of a fortnight (See section on ‘Eclipses mentioned in the Mahabharata’, above). Note that the section also refers to the eclipse that occurred after the disastrous game of dice (at the end of Sabha parvan) and to another that preceded Krishna’s demise, 36 years after the Kurukshetra war.

Eclipse search

Step 1: Initially, all solar eclipses that could have occurred at Kurukshetra between 501-3000BC were determined.  It was found that 891 solar eclipses were possible in that time interval. 

Step 2: This was followed by a search for lunar eclipses only in the years with solar eclipses.  It was found that 247 double eclipses were possible in the period under consideration, with a solar eclipse succeeding or preceding a lunar eclipse at a fortnight’s interval.

Step 3: Since it is clearly mentioned in more than one place in the text of the epic that Saturn was near Rohini in the war year (See section on ‘Planetary References in the Mahabharata’, above), this restriction was applied to the 247 double eclipses.  It was then found that only 31 double eclipses could have been observable in the time period 501-3000BC in the Rohini series.

Step 4: Then, the constraint that there was a solar eclipse observed at Dwaraka in the 36th year after the war, was applied.  This exercise led to the elimination of all but 13 possibilities.

Step 5: Then, invoking the statement that Mars was between the stars Jyestha and Anuradha on a kartika-krishna-ashtami night before the war (See section on planetary references in the Mahabharata, above), it was found that 1478 BC is the only year that is compatible with all these celestial references in the epic, and is hence the most likely year in which the Kurukshetra war took place.  The Julian date corresponding to the Indian date was found using the panchanga software of Yano (http://kyoto-u.ac.jp/pub/doc/sanskrit/pancanga).


A long period of 3000BC-500BC was searched with the help of modern planetarium and eclipse software to prepare a candidate list of possible years for the Kurukshetra war.

Dates compatible with the occurrence of a double eclipse at Kurukshetra and at Dwaraka in the 36th year reckoned from the Great War were identified.

All the findings were further matched with the most reliable planetary positions found in the text.

The exercise in archaeo-astronomy led us to establish the historicity of the Mahabharata by providing a likely year, 1478 BC, for the Kurukshetra war.

An obvious limitation of this investigation is the time period studied, which is 501-3000BC.  It would be interesting to find whether the eclipse sequences and other textual statements can still be satisfactorily explained for years prior to 3000 BC.   

Assuming 1478 to be a fairly accurate year for the epic battle, considering its scientific validation using modern, powerful software tools, it would also be interesting to prepare a reasonable calendar of events, tracing the course of the story of the Mahabharata based on the precise references to natural phenomena available in the text of the epic.  This would include comet observations, statements about the double stars (Vasishta and Arundhati) and the Pole star, Dhruva, besides other references to eclipses, nakshatras and planetary positions, as well as references to earthquakes, meteorite impacts, floods and famines - all of which find mention in the encyclopaedic Mahabharata.   

Another interesting exercise would be to verify the concordance of the results obtained here with other ancient literature concerning Krishna, including Harivamsa, which is traditionally considered an appendix to the Mahabharata and Purana literature. 

Having objectively established the historicity of the natural phenomena in the epic, it would be of historical and scientific interest to verify the veracity of still more ancient natural events such as the drying up of river Saraswati.  

Dr. R N Iyengar is Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560 012.  This article is based on his lecture, delivered on August 22, 2004 at the invitation of Sri Tirunarayana Trust, and his paper, published in the Indian Journal of History of Science (2003), pp. 77-115.