Speed of Light in Ancient India

Speed of Light in Ancient India

In this article I will discuss about how Hindu scientist-philosophers had accurately posited the speed of light in Ancient India, at least 300 years before the first known successful measurement of the speed of light.

Science in Ancient Hindustan
Ancient Hindus had always been a progressive lot till around 1200 AD when Arab and Turkish invaders completely ruined the study of science in India.

Bakhtiyar Khilji single-handedly drove eastern India and Bihar to dark ages by destroying Nalanda University.
Speed of Light in Ancient India - Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed Nalanda
Bakhtiyar Khiji, founder of Bangladesh on his way to destroy Nalanda University, Buddhism, Science and Reason
Traditionally it is believed that Ole Rømer (1644 - 1710), a Danish astronomer, was the first person to quantitatively measure the speed of light.
Speed of Light in Ancient India - Ole Romer
Ole Romer
Sayana Bhashya on Rig Veda (~1350)

However, the earliest known reference to the speed of light in India is in Sayana's commentary on the Rig Veda.

Sayana's Statement
Sayana (died 1387) was an important commentator on the Vedas. He flourished under King Bukka Raya I and his successor Harihara II, in the Vijayanagara Empire of South India. Sayana's major work is his Vedartha Prakasha, or commentary on the Vedas. His commentary on the Rigveda was edited by Max Müller, 1823-1900.

Speed of Light in Ancient India - Sayana Rig Veda

Sayana’s statement was printed in 1890 in the famous edition of Rigveda edited by Max Muller, the German Sanskritist. He claimed to have used several three or four hundred year old manuscripts of Sayana’s commentary, written much before the time of Roemer. (1)

Speed of Light in Ancient India - Max Muller - Sayana Commentary Rig Veda

Regarding the speed of light, here is what Sayana says (2):

तरणिर्विश्वदर्शतो ज्योतिष्कृदसि सूर्य । विश्वमाभासि रोचनम् ।
तथा च स्मर्यत योजनानां सहस्रम् द्वे द्वे शते द्वे च योजने । एकेन निमिषार्धेन क्रममाण नमोऽस्तु ते ॥

taraNirvishvadarshato jyotiShkRRidasi sUrya | vishvamAbhAsi rochanam |
tathA cha smaryata yojanAnAM sahasram dve dve shate dve cha yojane | ekena nimiShArdhena kramamANa namo.astu te ||

Oh Sun! (You) overwhelm all in speed, visible to all, source of light. (You) shine pervading the Universe.
It is remembered, [O Sun] bow to you, you who traverse 2,202 yojanas in half a nimesha.

Addressing the Skeptic or Purva Paksha Khandana
Please note that here sunlight and not sun is implied. Some skeptics would ask, "How can you say that when the Shloka says sun?" They want to be exact and will argue.

To use an analogy, when I tell someone, I ate a mango, what I mean is I ate the fleshy part of the mango, not the seed or cover. If a skeptic accuses me of lying, "You said you ate a mango, but you did not eat the seed or the cover" - he the skeptic is being moronic.

Or when I say, get me some water, and someone brings a glass of water, it does not make sense to ask, why did you bring the glass and not the water alone.

Rig Veda is essentially a social text and Sayana's commentary is a social commentary where he also refers to existing scientific knowledge. It is understood, that he means light and not sun.

Calculating Velocity of Light as per Sayana's Tardition
Let us now calculate this number. As per the Mahabharata,
- 1 nimesha to be equal to 16/75.3 seconds (Ref: Arthashastra (c. 300 BC) defines 1 nimesha as 1/360,000th of a day and night)
- 1 yojana is about 9 miles (Ref: Monier-Williams)

Substituting in Sayana’s statement we get 186,536 miles per second. Actual measured speed of light is 186,282.
In SI units, Sayana's calculation would give 300,201 km per second, whereas the scientific value is 299,792 km per second so it's pretty close.

We must remember, Sayana's commentary is still 300 years older than the first known successful measurement of the speed of light.

And keep in mind, Sayana says, "it is remembered" - which implies that Hindu scientists of an even earlier age had discovered the velocity of light.

Which is remarkable, but maybe not. Hindus tanis were always a progressive lot.

Jakkana in Vikramarka Charitra

Peram Raju Jakkana is a famous Telugu poet in the early 15th century(1450). He was born to Akkamamba and Annayamathyulu in a Niyogi Brahmin family. He served as a poet in the court of Provda devarayalu.
Speed of Light in Ancient India - Jakkana Telugu Poet

His famous work is Vikramarka Charithramu, which he dedicated to Vennelakanti Sidhanamatya, the minister of treasury in the court of Provda devarayalu.

In that he also mentions this value of 2200 yojanas in half nimesha.

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(1) Speed of Light discovery by Vedic Scholar Sayana
(2) https://ramanan50.wordpress.com/2014/03/29/rig-veda-speed-of-precise-than-modern-science/
(3) http://mohapatrabibhuprasad.blogspot.in/2013/07/sayanacharya-and-speed-of-light-in-rig.html
Featured Image: http://m.flikie.com/33562143/light-of-the-universeii.html?skey=ray

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  1. Great post! Its indeed true that Hindustanis wee always a progressive lot. its sad that the intelligence of our ancient rishis was overshadowed and destroyed by various invasions.

  2. Enlightening post. Incredible and interesting to know that the Speed of Light is mentioned in the Sayana's commentary on Rig Veda and in the work of author Peram Raju Jakkana.

  3. Very interesting post and kudos to you Subhodeep for enlightening me..


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