The tremendous developments in mathematics and astronomical sciences in ancient India unfortunately remain an overlooked dimension of Indian history. Here as well, while Aryabhata’s seminal contributions towards Mathematics- particularly the introduction of the decimal system- are well acknowledged, other scientists are scarcely given much attention. If there are historians who argue that the Gupta rule constitutes a ‘Golden Age’ in Indian history, it owes primarily to the scientific temper of some legendary individuals in this period. One such mathematical stalwart was VARAHAMIHIRA.
From all accounts, Varahamihira may have lived during the age of Aryabhatta, and his works are largely dated to the closing years of the 5th century and early 6 century CE. Most of what we know about his life can be gleaned from his student Utpala’s accounts as well as his own writings. He was an inhabitant of Avanti (modern Ujjain), but called himself ‘Magadha-dvija’, therein suggesting that he may have had an association with Magadha at some stage in his life. His father was Adityadasa, and the name is enough to reflect his devotion for the sun god, i.e, Surya. All his works begin with prostrations to Lord Surya and this suggests that the Sun god could have been a family deity.[ref]
Varahamihira’s ouvre rests on his division of jyotisa-sastra into three parts- Tantra (mathematical astronomy), Hora (Horoscopy) and Samhita (Mundane astrology). He displayed mastery over all these subjects. In Mathematics, his magnum opus was the Panca-siddhanta which dealt with five (out of eighteen) Siddhantas comparatively. These are the Saura, Romaka, Paulisa, Vasishta and Pitamaha. The ‘Romaka’ and ‘Paulisa’ are clearly inspired by Roman and Greek astronomical sciences respectively. This familiarity with Hellenistic astronomical models is no mean accomplishment; the path would have been strewn with challenges, ranging from comprehension to remote accessibility. The fact that an ancient Indian scholar appreciated systems devised elsewhere speaks volumes about the intellectual rigour of those times.
Coming to horoscopy, the Brihat-jataka is the most authoritative in this regard. But the treatise that incorporates the whole gamut of Varahamihara’s experiences and knowledge is the Brihat-samhita. This is among his last works, and integrates a bewildering range of topics. Astronomical details are followed by discussions on topics like agriculture, geology, temple architecture, clothing and so on and so forth. Here there are details about trading activities and the way precious stones were part of maritime exchange. Intriguingly, a whole section is devoted to cosmetics and perfumes. This vast bandwidth of knowledge could have been acquired only after years of travelling and immersive reading. The Brihat-samhita continues to be an indispensable source for historians, as it provides rich details about the social and economic conditions that prevailed in the Gupta and post-Gupta period.
Varahamihira’s disciple Utpala in one of his commentaries hailed his guru as ‘samasoktipriya’ which implies ‘unwilling to harp on a topic at length’, or a preference for brief statements, which is a remarkable scholarly trait. [ref]