Indian Astronomers in Sui-Tang China

Virgo - South India
As of late I have been immersed in my research on the Buddhist appropriation and implementation of astrology, which requires knowledge of relevant 'Hindu' literature given that many Buddhists in India initially rejected astrology, especially from the early centuries of the Common Era when native Indian astrology based on the nakṣatra-s – which possibly originated in the Indus Valley Civilization – was being increasingly augmented with Hellenistic astrology and later mathematical astronomical science. Nevertheless, the Mahāyāna movement came to feel differently and in the Avataṃsaka-sūtra astrology is a subject a bodhisattva might master for the benefit of beings. Later from around the sixth century, astrologers held a prominent place in Indian society, so much that Varāhamihira could write, “As the night without a light, as the sky without the sun, so is a king without an astrologer, like a blind man he erreth on the road.” Buddhist Mantrayāna came to require observance of an astrological schedule (i.e., hemerology) for the purposes of timing the drawing of a maṇḍala. This blended both Indian and Hellenistic elements: the twelve zodiacal signs, twenty-eight (or twenty-seven) nakṣatra-s, the seven day week and so on.

The Xiuyao jing 宿曜經 compiled by Amoghavajra 不空 (705–774) in 759 and revised in 764 was produced a few decades after the first introduction of true Mantrayāna into China under Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 (637–735) who was responsible for translating the Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經 in 724 and introducing the lineage accompanying its maṇḍala. Amoghavajra was fulfilling a need since the text and its commentary only briefly touch on which days are 'auspicious days'. The Xiuyao jing is an astrology manual which goes into fine detail in determining the most auspicious days, however it is actually not a Buddhist text. It is attributed to Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva, but the actual contents are largely non-Buddhist and some of the prescribed activities therein are antithetical to more conventional Buddhist ethics such as the manufacture of arms and alcohol. Nevertheless, the text was successfully implemented and then carried over to Japan in 806 by Kūkai 空海 (774–835), the founder of Shingon.

There were however other earlier works on foreign astrology translated into Chinese, but these were ignored or dismissed by Chinese Buddhists.

The Sui shu 隋書 is a history of the short-lived Sui dynasty (581–617) compiled in 636. It includes a a lengthy catalog of texts, many of which are no longer extant though the titles themselves can prove interesting. There is one work in fascicle 34 that caught my attention recently:


Astronomical Teachings of Brahmin Sage *Garga – 30 fascicles

So far as I know, the work is not extant, but it again appears in the Tong zhi 通志 catalog compiled in 1161 by Zheng Qiao 鄭樵 (1104–1162), indicating it survived until at least that period.

In the title, Jiejia 竭伽 is most certainly a transliteration of Garga or Gārgya, which Kawai and Kōzen identify.1 However, so far as I know, nobody has suggested that this could have been the Gārgīya-jyotiṣa (*Garga-saṃhitā), of which the Yuga-purāṇa is a component.

30 fascicles is quite long for a work in Chinese. To put that into perspective, the Dīrghāgama 長阿含經 in Chinese is 22 fascicles while the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya 摩訶僧祇律 is 40 fascicles. According to Mitchiner's study, the extant Gārgīya-jyotiṣa has around 64 aṅga-s (divisions) and around 255 folios.2 The length between this and the Chinese text in question seems comparable.

The aforementioned Sui history also lists another related work:


Book on Brahmin Astronomy – 21 fascicles, taught by Brahmin Sage *She

A Buddhist sūtra catalog from 597 lists an almost identical work (婆羅門天文) in 20 fascicles with a comment that it was produced between 566–572 by a śramaṇa from Magadha named Dharmaruci 達摩流支. However, another major catalog by monk Zhisheng 智昇 in 730 states with respect to the work, “Now it is not retained [in the catalog] because it is not a teaching of the Tripiṭaka.”3 Clearly it was not a Buddhist work and thus there was less interest in retaining it in a catalog of Buddhist literature.

In the Sui period between 585 and 592 there was actually a state sponsored program to translate 'Brahmanical' or 'Sanskrit' classics 梵古書 and astronomical works 乾文, which finally amounted altogether to more than 200 fascicles. The titles are not provided, but nevertheless they certainly translated something related to Jyotiṣa (the Indian subject which encompasses mathematics, astrology and astronomy).

There were later a number of formal astronomers either from India or of Indian ancestry operating in China from the seventh century until the late eighth, the most prominent of which was Gautama Siddhārtha 瞿曇悉達 who worked at the court in Chang'an and by imperial decree translated the *Navagraha-karaṇa 九執曆 in 718.4 

This work is extant and it is mainly based on the Pañcasiddhāntikā, though the tabulated latitude value of 35 is for Chang'an, not India, hence it was modified to some degree for localization purposes. It is not a comprehensive siddhānta text, but rather a karaṇa text providing methods for calculation. It details siddhānta algorithms, a dot for zero, a table of sine functions and methods for eclipse prediction superior to those developed in China. A number of terms were adopted directly from Sanskrit into Chinese. However, the work's ultimate influence seems to have been limited, which might have been because Chinese astronomers did not fully understood the advanced mathematics of the text, especially in translation. There is still mention later on in the Buddhist literary record of 'Indian calendrical methods' which could possibly have this work among others in mind.

Gautama Siddhārtha had a fourth son named Gautama Zhuan 瞿曇譔 (712–776). He had a colorful career and was even active during the great An Lushan Rebellion (755–763), which nearly ended the Tang dynasty. His letter to the court in which he connects the occurrence of a solar eclipse with the demise of the rebel commander Shi Siming 史思明 in Henan province is quoted in part in the Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書 (fasc. 36), the history of the Tang dynasty compiled in 945. Here he cites the Yisi zhan 乙巳占, a Chinese divination manual by Li Chunfeng 李淳風 (602–670), which indicates his familiarity with native Chinese sources.

Thus although he had an Indian name, his family was essentially Sino-Indian. There were many such families in the Tang: families of Sogdian, Persian and Silla (Korean) descent which had lived in China proper for numerous generations. In 1977 the tomb of Gautama Zhuan was unearthed in Chang'an, which provides rich information on him and his family.5 The Gautamas were one of three families of Indian ancestry working for the Tang court as astronomers in the eighth century, the other two being the Kumāras 拘摩羅 and Kāśyapas 迦葉.

Nestorian Stele of Chang'an
After Gautama Zhuan died in 776, it seems the bureau of astronomy employed a Persian as their 'foreign' specialist. In 1980 in Xi'an his tombstone was discovered. The inscriptions on it detail the lives of a Persian Li Su 李素 (743–817) and his wife Bei Shi 卑失.6 It seems he was an East-Syrian or 'Nestorian' (Jingjiao 景教) Christian from the community of Persians resident in Guangzhou. Sometime between 766–779 he was summoned to the court to work in the bureau of astronomy. Later his 'courtesy name' of Wen Zhen 文貞 alongside the corresponding name 'Luka' in Syriac appears on the list of Christian clergymen on the 'Nestorian Stele' (大秦景教流行中國碑) erected in Chang'an in 781.7 Thus it seems he was a bilingual and married Sino-Persian East-Syrian Christian clergyman proficient in foreign (Greek) astronomy and astrology working directly for the Chinese emperor in the capital, having replaced his Sino-Indian predecessor. This point really does highlight how cosmopolitan the Tang empire was.

It noteworthy that there is no indication that the professional astronomers working for the Tang court were ever self-identifying Buddhists or really associated with the Buddhist community. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Buddhists never participated in the development of Jyotiṣa in India, which is something Bronkhorst notes in his study as well. He states that it “may have been inseparably connected with mundane matters, in that those who practised it may often have had to make their living through explaining omens and predicting the future with its help. Such practices were however frowned upon in the buddhist tradition from an early date onward.”8

Buddhist Mantrayāna, however, fully adopted astrology for their own purposes – in particular hemerology or the art of selecting auspicious days – but this was arguably an appropriation of an existing art which had been long formulated over past centuries from Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian, Vedic and perhaps even Harappan elements (the 28 nakṣatra-s might ultimately originate in the Indus Valley Civilization).

The ultimate influence of these astronomers and Buddhist astrology in East Asian civilization is another topic worth discussing in a future post. It is rather complicated because some elements were in fact retained but their original history forgotten. For instance, Daoists venerated the twelve zodiacal signs as deities without citing their origins. I have evidence that at least some Chan monks in the Song dynasty were practicing occidental astrology. Also a calendar (the Futian li 符天曆) based on Indian methods originally drawn up by Cao Shiwei 曹士蒍 between 780–783 was still studied under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). We'll take a look at these points in the future.


1 Kawai Kōzō 川合康三 and Kōzen Hiroshi 興膳宏, Zui sho keisekishi shōkō 隋書經籍志詳攷 (Tokyo: Kyuko shoin, 1995), 603–604.

2 John E. Mitchiner, The Yuga Purāṇa (Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1986), 105–112.

「今以非三藏教故不存之」(CBETA, T55, no. 2154, p. 544, c29)

4 For an annotated translation into English see Yabuuchi, Kiyoshi 藪內清, Zōtei Zuitō rekihō shi no kenkyū 增訂隋唐曆法史の硏究 (Kyoto: Rinsen Shoten, 1989).

5 Chao Huashan 晁華山, “Tangdai tianwenxuejia Judan Zhuan mu de faxian” 唐代天文學家瞿曇譔墓的發現, Wenwu 文物 10 (1978): 49-53.

6 Chen Guoying 陳國英, “Xi'an Dongjiao Sanzuo Tang mu qingli ji” 西安東郊三座唐墓清理記, Kaogu yu wenwu 考古與文物 (1981-2): 25–31.

7 Rong Xinjiang 榮新江, “Yi ge shi Tangchao de Bosi Jingjiao jiazu” 一個仕唐朝的波斯景教家族, in Zhonggu Zhongguo yu wailai wenming 中古中國與外來文明 (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2001), 255–257.

8 Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 120.