Ever wondered how the ‘Ursa Major’ constellation, also called the ‘Great Bear’ got its name. Here is a look:

In ancient Indian texts ‘Ursa Major’ or the ‘Great Bear’ constellation is known as the ‘Sapta Rishi’ (सप्त-ऋषि, सप्तर्षि) or the ‘Seven Sages’. ‘Sapta (सप्त) is of course the root word of ‘septa’ which means ‘seven’. The Persian ‘hafta’ which means ‘seven’ or ‘a week’ also derives from the Sanskrit ‘sapta’. ‘Rishi’ (ऋषि) means a ‘sage’, but it also means ‘a ray of light’ or ‘a hymn’. So ‘Sapta Rishi’ means the ‘Seven Sages’ or the more appropriate ‘Seven Rays of Light’ corresponding to the seven major stars in the Sapta Rishi* constellation.

The popular term ‘Sapta Rishi’ itself is an everyday term, derived for the original and more scientific ‘Sapta-Riksha’ (सप्त ऋक्ष). The most common meaning of the word ‘Riksa’ (ऋक्ष) in Sanskrit is ‘Bear’. Which brings us back to the terms ‘Great Bear’ and ‘Ursa Major’. If one were to check any dictionary, such as www. dictionary.com or www.etymonline.com for the etymology of terms ‘Ursa’ or ‘Bear, both ‘Ursa’ and ‘Bear’ are linked to te Sanskrit ‘Riksa’ (ऋक्ष) which means ‘bear’. (Of course the dictionaries say that  ‘riksa’ is Proto-Indo-European, but it is the exact same word as the Sanskrit ‘riksa’). The ‘rs’ sound in ‘Ursa’ also comes from ‘riksha’. ‘Ursa Major’ also translates as the ‘Great Bear’ from Latin.

But ‘bear’ is only one of the meanings of ‘riksh’ in Sanskrit. Its scientific  meaning is  ‘star’, ‘lunar mansion’, and ‘a segment of the lunar ecliptic’. It is from this ‘Riksha’ that the Sanskrit ‘antariksha’ (अन्तरिक्ष), literally ‘the space between the stars’, its actual meaning being ‘space or atmosphere’, is derived from.

The word ‘Riksh’ appears in many other Sanskrit combination words including ‘Rikshesh’ ( ऋक्षेश ) which means ‘moon’, Rikshraj (ऋक्षराज्) which means ‘lord of the stars’, ‘Rikshamantra (ऋक्षमन्त्र) which refers to ‘mantras addressed to the moon’.

The Western scholars, either by design or by error, selected ‘bear’, the more common translation of the word ‘rksha’ (ऋक्ष) over ‘star’. And the Seven Stars’ constellation became the ‘Great Bear’.

* The seven major stars within ‘Sapta-Rishi’ are named hence:

1. Visvamitra or Alpha Ursæ Majoris
2. Jamadagni or Beta Ursæ Majoris
3. Bharadvaja or Gamma Ursæ Majoris
4. Gautama or Delta Ursæ Majoris
5. Atri or Epsilon Ursæ Majoris
6. Vasistha or Zeta Ursæ Majoris
7. Kasyapa or Eta Ursæ Majoris


Suggested Links:
Glimpses of Indian Heritage by Raman Varadara


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