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“Would you like to see how the sky looked at the beginning of the war? The war he is referring to is the one that famously lasted for 18 days, the greatest of all wars.
He switches on his laptop, clicks on , a planetarium software that simulates the sky in 3D, feeds in some data, and soon we are staring at a configuration on the screen which looks like the night sky with stars glittering on it.
This is the sky just before the Battle of Kurukshetra, according to Bhatnagar, an astronomer who has spent the years since his retirement— as additional director general from the Positional Astronomy Centre of the Indian Meteorological Department—extracting astronomical references from the Mahabharata.
He then looked for eclipses within that period, and one by one, he says, it all fell into place.
“According to my research, the war would have started on 14 October 1792 [1793 BCE].” A balding middle-aged man with the benign manner of one who spends a large part of his time behind mounds of data, Bhatnagar now works as the technical director of the Delhi chapter of I-Serve (Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas, an NGO).
His paper on the war’s dating will be part of a book of research on the Mahabharata that I-Serve plans to bring out later this year.
In support of his hypothesis, he cites research by veteran geologist KS Valdiya, author of , on paleoseismic activity in the lower Himalayas to trace the approximate time of the Mahabharata.
There exists a long tradition of astronomical dating of Indian epics (done by studying celestial events like eclipses, comets, and planetary positions mentioned in texts), some by scholars, and now with easily available software packages, increasingly by amateurs.
A quick search on the internet would have you believe that astronomy has already proved the veracity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, with countless websites carrying contradictory data. Take the case of the discrepant dating that astronomy throws up for the Mahabharata.
Bhatnagar’s dates are close to those of RN Iyengar, one of India’s best known civil engineers and a scholar on the history of science, who has pegged the Mahabharata at 1493-1443 BCE.
Another veteran researcher in the field, Narhari Achar, a professor of Physics at the University of Memphis, backs the more popularly accepted date, 3067 BCE.
Says Professor Achar on email, ‘Different scholars have strong opinions and believe their own results are correct.