The name Ṛkṣa continues to interest, for why it was named so

Lets understand Dhruva-Polestar & Sapta-Ṛṣis-Big Bear connection

Indian Star atlas and Jyotiṣam is amazing when you start understanding its core elements. Once you start looking at the sky some strange shapes start appearing onto your mind and one such, which looks like a “question mark” in the northern/ northeastern/northwestern sky, season wise, amazes you due to its resemblance to every day use.

Pic. 1, Image courtesy Big Dipper pointing to Polaris, our time’s pole star.

This is called Sapta-Ṛṣis in Indian Jyotiṣam and Big Bear or Dipper in the Western Constellation Chart.

Pic 2, Ursa Major — Big dipper — Ṛkṣas — Sapta-Ṛṣis

It is a worldwide phenomena that after sighting the Big Bear one intend to locate the Pole Star. The best way to find your way to Pole Star i.e., Polaris is to use the so-called “Pointer” stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper, Dubhe and Merak. One can draw a line between these two stars and extend it out about 5 times, and you eventually will locate Polaris. Its not that this art is discovered by todays astronomers. We find such instances of sighting Big Dipper with Pole Star, i.e., Dhruva, in our Upaniṣads, Gṛhya, Śrauta sūtras as well as in Vedic texts*. Infact we were more precise in observing the Sapta-Ṛṣis as well as a faint star in the big dipper constellation. And interestingly it served a purpose which I have discussed under Arundhatī Darśana nyāya (See here).

ध्रुवमरुन्धतीं सप्तऋषीनिति दृष्ट्वा वाचं विसृजेत जीवपत्नीं प्रजां विन्देयेति २२,

When she sees the polar-star, the star Arundhatī, and the seven Ṛṣis (ursa major), let her break the silence (and say), ‘May my husband live and I get offspring.’ — Āśvalāyana Gṛhya Sūtra

Sankhayana Gṛhya sūtras says similar for polar star.

2. Let them sit silent, when the sun has set, until the polar-star appears.

3. He shows her the polar-star with the words, ‘Firm be thou, thriving with me!’

4. Let her say, ‘I see the polar-star; may I obtain offspring.’

Maitrāyaṇī Upaniṣad, which mentions Ṛkṣas** also mentions the movement of the Dhruva (dhruvasya pracalanam). Indians were seriously noting the axial precession.

The evolution of Ṛkṣas to Sapta-Ṛṣis

The evoluton from Ṛkṣas to Sapta-Ṛṣis didn’t happen in a second nor in 100, 1000, 2000, 5000 or 7000 years. The concept “Sapta-Ṛṣis” may have taken thousands of years to develop from the word Ṛkṣas. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa remembers that Ṛkṣa was the former name of Sapta-Ṛṣis***

On the other hand (it is argued) why he should not set up the fires under the Kṛttikās. Originally, namely, the latter were the wives of the Bears (ṛkṣa); for the seven Ṛṣis were in former times called the Ṛkṣas (bears). They were, however, precluded from intercourse (with their husbands), for the latter, the seven Ṛṣis, rise in the north, and they (the Kṛttikās) in the east. Now it is a misfortune for one to be precluded from intercourse (with his wife): he should therefore not set up his fires under the Kṛttikās, lest he should thereby be precluded from intercourse. — Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa

Why Ṛkṣas-Bear; the psychology behind this imagery for the former Sapta Ṛṣis in the sky?

If you see the image above you will be reminded of tales of bear, how it sights, stares at beehive and climbs to it, and finally gets it and climb down. Now lets closely intercept this phenomena in astronomy.

If you see the north direction sky after dusk you will see a star appearing on true north at the height of your latitude, i.e., if you are at 23º N latitude the star will appear at 23º up from the horizon and that is your North Star-Polaris of todays time. Your fist makes a 10º. This way you can locate Polaris. Every latitude will have different Dhruvaka — Pole Height****. Once you find the Pole Star, you have to keep in mind that due to Axial Precession the axis of earth will move to come back on same pole star in 26000 years. It works like a spinning of a top.

So, the earth while rotating on its own axis revolve around sun and its axis points to a pole point. We are lucky to have a pole star but all the 26000 years are not lucky to have a pole star at pole point. You can read as to how axis pointing at pole star/point changes with time here.

Now, let me show you how Ṛkṣa comes closer to the Pole Points or Pole Stars while earth is spinning like a top and shifting its axis, how it gets away and again come closer in all 26000 years of Axial Precession.

Isn’t that interesting…

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  • *Āśvalāyana Gṛhya Sūtra, i. 7, 22; Sāṅkhāyana Gṛhya Sūtra, i. 17, 2 et seq.; Lāṭyāyana Śrauta Sūtra, iii. 3, 6, ; Pāraskara I, 8, 19.
  • ** Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā, iii. 14, 17; Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, xxiv. 36; Jai-
    minīya Brāhmaṇa, i. 184.
  • *** Rv. i. 24, 10; Satapatha Brāhmaṇa. ii. 1, 2, 4; Taittirīya Āraṇyaka, i. 11, 2
  • ****Sire Monier-Williams Sanskrit English Dictionary states that Sanskrit kamala (is) a particular dhruvaka. Since Sanskrit dhruva means pole star, dhruva-ka betyder means belonging to the pole star. The basic meaning of Sanskrit dhruvaka ≈ pole height meter / post iron meter.



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Rupa Bhaty

Rupa Bhaty

Architect and Adjunct Assistant Professor at School of Indic studies, Institute of Advanced Sciences, MA, USA