Thursday, January 11, 2007

A case for astrology

A long long while ago, two men were sitting under a tree. One of them said, "I must go to Nalanda to visit my son." (yes, that long ago). The other looked at the firmament through narrowed eyes and said, "Three stripes of red and blue; travels should be few." The traveler shook his head and said, "No travel is all cool winds and warm sunshine."

In spite of people as mature as our traveler, the meteorological department came into prominence, although not many trust it. I remember watching a movie starring Rajesh Khanna (RK) and someone whose name I don't recall. The heroine's father was a great astrologer and RK was a non-believer. Once RK goes to meet his lover and overhears her father telling someone, "Don't do ----- as it will rain today at 5:00 p.m." A conversation follows between RK and his love about the foolishness of these practices and it starts raining. Time: 5:00 p.m.

Astrology and/or other forms of divination exist in each and every culture and society. Wonder why? I think there are two things that one must notice. One, astrology is not a need based practice (I will not call it a science). Two, human beings will always be anxious/concerned/frightened of what lies in store for them in the coming days. This anxiety creates a need in each soul to fortify their future in the best way possible. As they take care of the financial and corporeal insurance, information about the future is also considered vital and is hence, sought out. Some of this information is in the form of concrete plans and the rest is known as speculation. Speculation about financial trends, technological trends, political trends are all considered the best butter at your breakfast table or the finest cigar in the smoke room. But astrology is always considered a sissy matter. I wonder why.

Let me present what I have gotten to know/learn about astrology over several years before I gave it all up (not because my belief in astrology waned).

Astrology is a fine art of predicting about the future based on the movement of planets relative to their positions as it was at the commencement of an activity (e.g. planets at the time of the birth of a person, at the start of a business, at the time when a country gained independence). Astrology branches into a few streams; natal, horary, muhurtha or electional. They serve different purposes and are employed at different times. Prasna, as widely practised in Kerala, is a form of horary astrology.

Planetary positions were quite accurately determined by our ancestors (SuryaSiddhantha is a wonderful reference for that). They didn't possess telescopes or other finely graded instruments. Yet, they could accurately determine the number of planets as well as their details like orbits, velocity (real and relative) and positions in the zodiac. The Indian system of astrology has been sidereal (Nirayana) unlike the western system. I shall restrict this presentation to the Nirayana system (because it makes a lot more sense to me).

So, person A is born. At that very instance, the planets occupy specific positions in space. A snapshot of the heavens is cast as this boy's horoscope. The horoscope is not just one chart consisting of 12 houses/rasi. There are divisional charts which are constructed from the main chart and based on rules. Each such divisional chart is consulted for fine tuning predictions pertaining to specific issues (like the navamsa for dharma kaarya including marriages) but the main chart is vital (as it is the real position of the planets while the rest are derived charts). Here is a sample of a chart as cast at this very minute.

Rasi and navamsa
[Legend: As=Ascendant/Lagna, planets within () are retrograde. Interesting thing to note is the position of the planets when this post was being composed. Totally unplanned.]

Based on several rules, aspects, relationships between planets, ruling periods (or dashas) and various other parameters, an able astrologer will make predictions.

Here arise several issues. The typical complaints against astrology have fallen into the following brackets:

1. Predictions don't always fructify
2. What is the scientific basis for this? How can planets affect us?
3. If this is the prediction then how can gems and mantras alter the course?

This is how we need to understand the ways of astrology and an astrologer. An astrologer is an interpreter. His input is not clear-cut sentences but patterns and cryptic hints and clues. An astrologer is ruled by his horoscope as well. An able astrologer would do one of the following:

1. Mark times in his life when he would not have his tongue aligned with the ways of the Divine and avoid consulting at those times. It is vital that he does this during the good phases of his life!
2. Fortify himself by performing austere penance as specified in the shastras.

Both approaches have their issues (a wonderful case in point is the story of Thalakulathur Bhattathiri of Kerala) and as every astrologer knows, nothing can be placed as final.

Allow me to present my understanding of this subject and why I find the treatment meted out to astrology as unfair. I shall consider one bracket at a time.

1. Predictions don't always fructify

What astrology provides is a probability graph of incidents in the life of the native. Astrology never claims that it is the final word. A popular verse in reference to astrology is:

Phalaani grahachaaren soochayinthi maneeshinaha
Ko vaktha tharathamasya tham ekam vedasam vina.

which means, the results of planetary transits can be inferred by human beings, but who can speak of them with certainty other than the Lord Brahma (Vedasam).
This is not a caveat/disclaimer but the truth and the humility with which astrologers approach their practice.
So this point is vital to understand. It is nothing more than a probability matrix/graph.

Consider popular scientific fields in vogue. Nearly all of them rely to some extent on prediction and predictability. Half-life, weather forecasts, DNA mapping to diseases, stock markets, tectonic movements, chemotherapy (they give you a probability of the effectiveness), etc. all hinge on the predictability inherent in their fields. None of these have ever been condemned in public and failure abounds in these fields. Cholesterol levels have been a popular indicator for cardiac ailments. A village in Italy (or southern Europe) houses people with cholesterol levels more than 4 times the safe limit and they have not had any cardiac problems (major pharma companies are working with the residents in identifying the diet patterns and how to capitalise on this! They spotted something in the fish they eat). I needn't enumerate instances when scientific methods have also gone kaput with their theories and predictions (look at the whole set of assumptions and discussions surrounding the Big Bang theory). Any prediction is bound to be subject to parameters. In an F1 rally, if there was only one car driving around, we might all be certain that it would be the winner, but that is assuming that it doesn't blow up as soon as it shoots off the start line. Think about it, predictions cannot be 100% certain and allowing astrology that, is not doing it a favour. Next time, try asking your homoeopathy (or any -pathy) doctor to give it to you in writing that the tablets/pills they prescribe will certainly cure you of your ailment.

A vital point is the need to distinguish between astrology and astrologers. An astrologer can be bad (like the many hundreds I have known) but astrology need not be at fault. That is why I like the concept of the AshtaMangalaDevaPrasna; several astrologers get together to divine about the query thereby eliminating chances of someone missing a vital omen or pattern. A few astrologers had once tried this out while analysing a particular chart (of a peon who was having some problems). I enjoyed that experience and noted how so many things came out of it which each one of us one our own might have missed. Hence, astrology and an astrologer are not alike as much as medicine and a doctor/quack aren't. How many people stop considering diets although thousands of reports come out about the inefficacy of those practices?

2. Scientific Basis

This is the most common one and especially amongst the younger generation (boy! I feel old after having said that!!). I find it stupid that we seek scientific basis for everything. The world is not science stretched between the North and South poles. Life is not science. Science has its purpose and should be restricted to that. Belief systems and non-scientific practices will be that. If you don't wish to follow them, don't. Don't demand a scientific explanation for that (as much as you wouldn't demand a scientific explanation for why your boyfriend dumped you). What is the scientific explanation for your broker's advice on what scrips to buy? Why do all the scientific explanations for the weather forecast reports go for a toss and then excused in the "light of recent developments off the coast of Bay of Bengal"?
If you are interested in scientific explanations, have you ever bothered to investigate on those lines? Several centuries ago, people laughed at the spherical earth theory until someone proved it. Science still cannot explain a million things on earth ("How do placeboes work?"). Complicated principles and theories are formulated for things that were always difficult to explain (good ol' Heisenberg). Has anyone seen an electron? Or a photon? But don't we already believe in them and in the infinite theories hinging on them? Nuclear physics abounds in examples which defy a "scientific explanation". Has anyone measured 0? What about complex numbers and the square root of -1 which is undefined? Why do we accept these? Because they come in text books and find patrons amongst the people we admire/respect/fear?
So let's find a scientific basis for astrology. Are you willing to conduct experiments with Jupiter's exaltation in a person's chart? What about the analysis of the Kala Sarpa Yoga/Dosha? If you aren't willing as you are unwilling to experiment with photosynthesis or zygotes, then let's denounce all things unexperimented (including the internal combustion engine and hence all your vehicular transport systems) and accept and adopt only those things that have a scientific explanation that you have personally verified. Game for this?
Does this mean that we blindly accept anything argued on these grounds? Well, you decide. I believe in a simple rule: If it works for you, that's your elixir.
I have known several people who have benefited from an astrological advice and I think if something has helped even 10% of the world, then it is worth a shot. Has it caused wars, death, disease or turmoil in 10% of the world? If it hasn't, then it is worth a shot. "Scientific basis" is a silly argument if you aren't willing to investigate. Where will you search for a scientific explanation when doctors unhesitatingly advice the patient's family to TIG; trust in god.
With scientists condemning astrology I would like to open a challenge to any scientist and/or body of scientists to come up with their own methodology to predict the future. Till they succeed, I think they would do well not to condemn something they haven't even studied.

3. Altering predictions

Personally I have never done this. I have offered mantras for ensuring peace of mind through a phase of turmoil but never to undo something. I don't think able astrologers do that. Quacks might. There is a course of action that can be advised like a diet plan or a strategic plan. This course might include gems and mantras to the presiding deity. A close relative of mine wasn't able to conceive and she had approached me (although I had given up astrology by then). I knew her chart by heart and hence couldn't help helping her. Mars was affecting her 5th house (progeny) and I had advised her a course of action which involved prayer as well as wearing a coral. Had Mars or any other planet been positioned to deny her a child, then the approach would have been otherwise. Well within the specified time of the penance (and not all penances are done under the Bodhi tree or in forests!!) she conceived. Would I attribute it to the gem? Nope. Would I attribute it to the mantra? Nope. It was the right course of action. Another story attributed to Thalakulathur Bhattathiri of Kerala is the one in which he countered the prediction made by his son regarding the sex of a child (of the native who had consulted the son). Thalakulathur Bhattathiri realised that his son had been hasty in predicting the sex within the first 3 months of conception and treated the lady with Ayurvedic medicines (oh! btw, an astrologer is supposed to be learned in a million things. There is a strict code of conduct specified in the shastras. By those standards, there is no living astrologer on earth today, to the best of my knowledge.) and the sex of the child was altered. I though this was a good fable until I read medical journals where it is said that sex organs do start forming around the 12th week and sex determination can be reliably done around the 16th-20th week. Well, how on earth did the astrologers of the then era know without scientific basis!?

Closing Notes

1. Anything done in order to cheat someone or take unethical advantage of someone's weakness is unacceptable and is open to critical action (at times legal). So be it with astrology. But there are honest and well meaning practitioners and hence, astrology and astrologers cannot be covered by a single blanket.
2. If it suits you and has worked for you, feel free to consult an astrologer. If it hasn't worked for you, then avoid it but there is no point in condemning others.
3. Without studying astrology condemning it is foolish.
4. The way of the Divine is over and above all this and astrology and the Gods are but means to realise the way of the Divine. If you are spiritually clear and are focused on the Divine, then astrology or any divination technique has no relevance to you. But being half-baked is never palatable.


  1. Parvati10:08 PM

    Comprehensive. Intelligent.
    # What you say is true - it is a poor and lazy mind that writes off anything at all of this world or its myriad sciences or
    not-so-sciences without due consideration or study.

  2. Hmm..I wonder how come Science for us starts and ends at wht the western countries perscribe as science..I mean what is so sacrosant about the definition of Western Science that we tend to take that as the universal definition? What is Science afterall- Isn't it a hypothesis proven to explain what had already happened..or what is currently happening..No Science can predict with 100% accuracy what is about to happen..had that been the case, astrology too is science..isn't it?

  3. Dear P,
    Glad you found it so. :-)

    Dear K,
    Quite true, but I think the adoration for Western sanctions is just the tip of the iceberg. The Western thought process clings to science for reasons more than mere need for rationality. That is what, to me, appears to be the issue. What is known and determinable is more reassuring than that which needs the spirit to evolve and the senses to be alert. It seems to be a matter of finding the easiest and quickest way out of something (though not entirely that).

  4. Hmm...It has much to do with the doctor than the medicine, when it comes to astrology. I firmly believe that a true astrologer has to strive for spiritual progress, maintaining a sattvic mode of living as much as possible..Perhaps its not a very objective thing, but I trust intuition.