An extraordinary claim! Is it correct?

Mehta, Shailendra Mehta at
Mon Mar 24 15:11:30 UTC 1997


My colleague Alok Chaturvedi, recently pointed me to the following
source:Exploratory Papers - 2Scientific Knowledge in the Vedas. 1995by
Padmakar Vishu VartakPublished by the Dharam Hinduja International
Center of Indic Research, Delhi. Distributed by Nag Publishers.
Delhi.where Padmakar Vishnu Vartak writes (on page 96):Rig Veda
1-50-4taraNirvishwadarshato jyotishkridasi sUryya |vishwamAbhAsi rocanam
|| 4SayaNa's commentary on ittatha cha smaryate - yojanAnAm sahasre dve
dve shate dve ca yojane |ekena nimiSArdhena kramamANa namostute
||"SAyaNAcArya writes: 'It is remembered that the sunlight travels two
thousand twohundred and two Yojanas in half a Nimesha'."One Yojana is
equal to 9 miles, 110 yards = 9 1/6 miles = 9.0625 according to
onepublication of the Government of India. According to MahAbhArata,
SAnti Parva, 231,half a nimesha is 8/75 seconds. If calculated on this
data the velocity of light comesto 187084.1 miles per second. According
to Michelson it is 187372.5 miles per second.""Sir Monier Williams gives
one Yojana equal to 4 Krosha = 9 miles. Taking 1 Yojana = 9miles, the
velocity comes to 186413.22 miles per second. The well accepted
popularscientific figure is 186300 miles per second."Given that Kepler
and Decartes believed the traditional Greek view that the velocity
oflight was infinite, given that in the Western Hemisphere the first
ballpark figure (touse an Americanism) was only arrived at in the late
17th century by Ole Romer using thedata on the satellites of Jupiter in
conjunction with Cassini's estimate of the orbit ofthe earth, and given
that the first reasonably accurate velocity of light was estimatedby
James Bradley to be 189,000 miles per second and that too only in the
18thcentury, we have a true puzzle at hand. However, extraordinary
claims demand extraordinary proof, and so I checked with another one of
my distinguished colleagues to verify the various steps involved. I
couldthink of three and he concurred on each:1. Is the quotation from
SAyaNa authentic? It seems so.2. Is the translation reasonable? My
suspicion is yes. It is straight-forwardlyquantitative and so variant
readings are probably not possible.3. Are the units correct? A yojana is
taken to be several miles, and a nimesha is well,just a blink of an eye,
and a fifth of second is a reasonable estimate of that.So I am left with
one conclusion - the speed of light was known quite accurately
inmedieval India and perhaps even in ancient India. However, I still
have not been ableto digest this claim, since it is so extraordinary.
Obviously, we need to direct as much skeptical inquiry against it as we
possibly can.And what better place to begin than Indology? What do you
think?Shailendra Raj Mehtamehta at

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