(Recent good wishes by world leders on the occasion of Diwali along with New Year greetings had many a Hindu scratching their heads on when exactly the Hindu New Year was. In this well-articulated and thoroughly researched and updated write-up originally published ten years back, the author traces the genesis and history of our seemingly complicated Hindu calendar. She explains its basics in simple language so as to have a better understanding of the subject. -- Editor)
As we move along in our journey into the new millennium of the Gregorian calendar, introduced and implemented in India by the British, we perhaps wonder, when the Hindu calendar began and what marked its beginning. The Panchang, as the Hindu calendar is popularly known, has always been the expression of time, astronomically speaking.
Discussions on any calendar, lead us invariably to dialogue about the beginning of time. Time for Hindus is cyclical and not unidirectional as in Western faiths-and herein lies one of the differences, though otherwise similarities abound.
To a Hindu, the universe exists in infinite cycles. It was created by the Supreme Power, is preserved by its grace and will be destroyed in the process of renovation, only to create another universe and so it goes. There is no absolute end. Western thought, on the other hand, believes that the universe was created on a certain day and will be destroyed forever on one final day.
As we know, Hinduism itself has no single founder. Its holiest scriptures, the Vedas, are revelations of Supreme Wisdom, experienced by ancient Indian sages, having evolved from the first sound or word ~”Aum”. Therefore the “beginning” of time, marks the actual beginning of the Hindu calendar.
Yet when time itself has always existed as the Supreme and as it’s many planetary creations, i.e. the sun that rises everyday and the moon amongst others, one tends to ponder further…….
Aren’t there different types of time that of the earth and that of outer space? Or shall we say “man’s time” and “God’s time”? How did the earth begin, and what about the sun, the moon, and the stars? How did the universe start? How far does the universe stretch? Are there other universes? What or who is there beyond what we can see, feel or decipher? While answers to some of these questions can be obtained from any middle school science text book-they are all based on a theory, popularly called The Big Bang Theory.
Theories when proven by science become facts. At this time in history, when many scientific theories are indeed beginning to prove to be facts, one tends to wonder… What is it, that ancient Indian astronomy has taught us all along? Were they mainly theories of our ancient rishis, or true messages from the highest source of all knowledge? How can we prove or disprove them? Can we check them out?
Birth of the Calendar
The sages have taught us that each cycle of time is divided into ages called Yugas. The four Yugas are the Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali. Each of these are hundreds of thousands of years old, all adding up mathematically to a lengthy, yet precise figure, to the last digit. Many are appalled by this perfect calculation including noted scientist Carl Sagan who quotes in his book ‘Billions and Billions’ ”The Hindus (were)…….almost right on the dot”. Surely then our sages were not working on a theory of their own!
Additionally, the creation of the universe is mentioned in the Rig Veda as starting with Hiranyagarbha or the ‘golden egg/womb of light’ from which all else spurt forth. Scriptures also talk of the primal seed of creation (Bindu) from which an explosion (Sphota) occurred, resulting in the sound (Nada) of creation (Om). All of creation (Kala) proceeded from this sound.
On a more earthly level of our transient existence, the sun and the moon do lead us from day to night and then to day again. Ocean tides, animal breeding and even our minds and bodies with its hormones follow certain solar and lunar rhythms. They react to disturbances with cyclical ups and downs. Additionally, the position of the earth, the sun and the moon, with respect to each other also assure us of certain predictable time estimations and divisions, and hence a calendar.
Basis of the Hindu Calendar (Panchang)
The solar calendar which counts the period of earth’s revolution around the sun as one year divides this period into 12 solar months (of 30 days each). The lunar calendar on the other hand, counts the period of moon’s revolution around the earth as one lunar month (27 and ½ days ), and names each day on the basis of the phases of the moon. Calendars used today are luni-solar, which looks at the daily movements of both the moon and the sun. Early mention of a luni-solar calendar with intercalated months can be traced to the hymns of the Rig Veda.
History of ancient astronomy records that the solar calendar came into use before the lunar one. In fact the celebration of the winter solstice (earth’s tilt in relation to the sun) marked by the festival of Lohri is based on the solar aspects of the calendar in parts of Punjab, Kerala, Assam and Tamil Nad. Though, much of India follows the predominantly lunar calendar, yet it is not uncommon for people to refer to both calendars, especially to doubly confirm auspicious timings for, say, starting a new business or fixing a wedding date!
Naming of Various Hindu Calendars
The luni-solar calendar, believed to be the most ancient recorded calendar, was in use 5108 years ago (at the time of the Mahabharata war). The Sapt-Rishi Samvat, which is still followed in northern India, particularly Kashmir, began 5085 years ago.
While the Gregorian calendar used in the modern world marks the time elapsed since the birth of Jesus, 2009 years ago, it was generally the commencement of the rule of a new king that marked the start of a particular new calendar in India.
The Vikram Samvat calendar follows the beginning of the rule of King Vikramaditya 2066 years ago. The Shalivahana Saka calendar follows the beginning of the rule of Ujjain’s King Shalivahana (Vikramaditya’s grandson), who defeated the Sakas 1931 years ago. Additionally the Gupta Era started 1689 years ago, the Harsha Era 1403 years ago and the Kollam era (Kolamba Varsha) 1185 yrs ago!
Interestingly, even though the Vikram Samvat Panchang is used by a larger number of people, (when India is taken as a whole), the official calendar for India follows the Shalivan Shakha Panchang adopted by the Calendar Reforms Committee and superimposed onto the internationally used modern day Gregorian calendar.
The founding of the new eras in the name of kings, perhaps, signified the importance attributed to the tradition of guarding the country’s freedom and sovereignty. Since in the past, India was actually ruled by several kingdoms, it is not at all surprising that we still have more than one calendar in use. Notwithstanding the controversies generated by diverse cultures and regions, most, if not all the calendars, agree on major holy days and festivals, with minor local variations.
Indian astronomy underwent a reform about 1800 years ago as advances in Babylonian and Greek astronomy became known. This is documented in astronomical literature of this period known as Siddhantas. The Surya Siddhanta, which originated about 1600 years ago was updated during the following centuries and influenced Indian calendars even after India’s popular Calendar Reform of 1957, which surveyed about 30 calendars in use for setting festivals of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs taking into account astronomical practices of those making calendars and the prevailing local traditions and customs. Some of these were even used for national events.
Astronomical New Year
Irrespective of the year or the type of calendar followed i.e. solar, lunar or luni-solar, the dates and timings of important astronomical movements of stars and planets such as the full Moon and the new Moon remains the same and heralds a new season or a New Year. In this context, the astronomical new year is specifically marked by the spring equinox (position of the sun when it crosses the equator and heads north)!
While most calendars start the new year in March/April (the lunar month of Chaitra), some begin the new year on April 13/14 (the solar month of Mesha/Medham) and a few others begin in September/October or November.
Reading a Hindu Calendar
Below is a brief introduction to the basic facts and figures of a Luni-Solar Hindu Calendar, especially for beginners:
Lunar days of a fortnight
Lunar Constellations (Nakshatra) of a lunar month
These constellations are universal and are pronounced differently in various parts of India, for eg: Purva Phalguni is also called Pubba or Puram . In the western world they are referred by totally different names, for eg: Ardra is termed Betelgeuse!
For further reading and reference :
-Manual of Hindu Astrology by B.V Raman
-Hindu Astrology and the West by B. V Raman
- The Astrology of the Seers by Pandit Vamadeva Shastri (David Frawley)
-Beneath a Vedic Sky by William R Levacy
-Astrology in Predicting Weather and Earthquakes by B. V Raman
-Vijyeshwar Panchang of Kashmir by Omkar Nath Shastri
-Mathrubhoomi Panchangam of Kerala by V.P.K. Poduval
-Bhaskar Panchang North American Edition by Pandit Som Nath Rattan
A critical thinker, writer and an introspective spiritualist, with particular interest in the religious education of children and youth, Nandita Shankar has been quite active in furthering the cause of Hinduism. Her greatest contribution to the history of Hinduism in the west is the conception and founding of the official Annual Hindu Heritage Month (HHM) in February, which has now completed ten years.
Well read and well rooted in several systems, including Kashmir Shaivism, her articles have appeared in various journals like Koshur Samachar, Kasheer, Sanatana Sandesh, Anjali, etc. Her main area of interest is removing misconceptions about Hinduism, and guiding teachers and parents, in this regard.
A practicing neurologist, she lives in Florida, with her husband and college going children, and spends her spare time writing/editing articles on spirituality, conducting local satsangs/study groups, interfaith dialogues and discussions on Neuro-theology.