Monday, April 25, 2016

French Astronomer Le Gentil's admiration for Brahmins

The French astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil[1] came to Pondicherry in 1768 to observe Venus’s transit across the sun due for the following year. A mischievous cloud in an otherwise clear sky prevented his observation. However, Le Gentil’s observation of Indian customs, people and astronomy, left precious testimonies.

In the below passages,[2][3] Le Gentil is full of praise for Brahmin astronomers. Please note that Brahmana is the same as Brahmin.

"Brahmanas make their astronomical calculations with a singular speed and ease, without pen or pencil; they use instead cowries (kinds of shells) which they align on a board, as we do with our counters, or often on the ground.

This method of calculation seems to be advantageous in that it is swifter and more expeditious than ours, but at the same time it has a big drawback: there is no way to go back on one’s calculations, still less of saving them, since one has to erase them as one proceeds. If by ill-luck one gets the result wrong, one has to start all over again.

But they very rarely make mistakes. They work in a singularly composed, untroubled and calm manner, which we Europeans are incapable of, and which protects them from the errors we would be unable to avoid in their place. It does seem that they and we must keep to our respective methods, and that theirs has been uniquely designed for them.

Their rules of astronomical calculations involve enigmatic verses which they know by heart; in that way, they have no need of tables of rules. By means of those verses which they can be seen repeating as they go along (as we repeat our formulas) and of those cowries, they calculate eclipses of the sun and of the moon with the greatest speed.

... Their tables for the sun and the moon are written on palm leaves cleanly cut to the same size. They assemble them in kinds of booklets which they consult when they want to calculate an eclipse. They use a small stylet or awl to trace on those leaves whatever signs they wish. This stylet traces a slight but visible line by tearing the thin film that covers the leaf.

What I was able to learn of the Brahmanas’ astronomy boils down to five chief points: the use of the gnomon, the length of the year, the precession of equinoxes, the division of the zodiac into twenty-seven constellations, and the calculations of eclipses of the sun and the moon. ..."

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillaume_Le_Gentil
  2. "Dissertation on India, Particularly on a Few Points of the Tamil Gentiles’ Astronomy", Histoire de l'Académie Royale des  Sciences, 1772, 2nd part, pp. 174–75 (tr. Michel Danino)
  3. Knowledge Traditions and Practices of India - Textbook for Class XI

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