Science History
Yavanesvara

Yavanesvara


Born: about 120 in Western India
Died: about 180 in India


Indian astrology was originally known as Jyotisha, which means "science of the stars". Until around the first century AD no real distinction was made between astrology and astronomy and in fact most astronomical theories were propounded to support the theory that the positions of the heavenly bodies directly influenced human events.

The Indian methods of computing horoscopes all date back to the translation of a Greek astrology text into Sanskrit prose by Yavanesvara in 149 AD. Yavanesvara (or Yavanaraja) literally means "Lord of the Greeks" and it was a name given to many officials in western India during the period 130 AD - 390 AD. During this period the Ksatrapas ruled Gujarat (or Madhya Pradesh) and these "Lord of the Greeks" officials acted for the Greek merchants living in the area.

The particular "Lord of the Greeks" official Yavanesvara who we are interested in here worked under Rudradaman. Rudradaman became ruler of the Ksatrapas in around 130 AD and it was during the period of his rule that Yavanesvara worked as an official and made his translation. We know of Rudradaman because information is recorded in a lengthy Sanskrit inscription at Junagadh written around 150 AD.

The Greek astrology text in question was written in Alexandria some time round about 120 BC. Yavanesvara did far more than just translate the Greek text for such a translation would have had little relevance to the Indians. He therefore not only translated the language but he translated the context too. Instead of the Greek gods who appear in the original, Yavanesvara used Hindu images. Again he worked the Indian caste system into the work and made the work one which would fit well with the Indian thought.

The work was written with the aim of letting Indians became astrologers so it had to present astronomy in a form in which it could be used for astrology. In order to do this Yavanesvara put into his work an explanation of the Greek version of the Babylonian theory of the motions of the planets. All this he wrote in Sanskrit prose but sadly the original has not survived. We do have, however, a version written in Sanskrit verse 120 years after Yavanesvara's work appeared.

Yavanesvara had an important influence on the whole of astrology in India for centuries after he made his popular translation. Although the influence was more than on astrology, as the science of astronomy split from astrology, the influence of Yavanesvara's work reached into astronomy too.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

November 2000
MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Yavanesvara.html]
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