Most educated and progressive Indians loathe to entertain the notion that there could be more to astrology than superstition but what if that were indeed true? Astrology, unbeknownst to many Indians, is not a specifically Hindu phenomenon and neither it is as shallow as it often sounds. Before the advent of tools such as calendars and telescopes to measure time and space, there was a plenty of time to look up at the space — the movement of stars, sun, moon, and the planets was intriguing to the lonely dwellers of Earth.
The Sun as the primary source of light was an obvious life-giving force, and so it was worshipped above all. The Aztecs would perform an elaborate ritual to pay their respects to the solar deity. This involved a prisoner of war, chosen to impersonate Tezcatlipoca, god of the night sky. As the living embodiment of a god, he was treated as such and lived in luxury for a year. For 20 days before his eventual sacrifice, the doomed man was allowed to take four women as his wives to represent Aztec goddesses. Then on the final day, this man-god was taken to the temple and his beating heart was ripped out of his chest to be offered to the sun god. For Hindus, he was and is the Surya, the one who rides a chariot driven by seven horses. In some texts, he also appears in the form of twelve Adityas, each one prominent during a different month of the year.
Because it had such life-sustaining properties, human societies have always organised their activities according to its movements. So, when the sun moves into the constellation of Capricorn from Sagittarius in late December, it is celebrated universally as Winter Solstice. After this, the days start becoming longer again after the darkness of long cold winter night. This was a time of renewal and rejuvenation as it put normal human life back into motion—agriculture, trade, and commerce. Celebrated in the form of many pagan festivals, it morphed into what is now Christmas across the Western world. In India, this celebration takes place in January and is known as Makar Sankranti where Makar refers to Capricorn and Sankranti refers to the movement of sun—also called Uttarayan, the sun’s journey northwards. Across the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, this takes form of festivals like Lohri, Pongal, Songkran and more. Like the 12 Adityas, there are 12 Sankrantis in a year with some of them lining up next to important regional festivals.
The Moon was similarly made into a deity too. Egyptians called it Thoth and Hindus gave it the name of Chandra, one with 27 wives which refer to the cluster of stars that are the Nakshatras. The Moon’s movements, particularly around the months of February and March have often marked the start of new year in many cultures around the world.
When winter finally leaves and the warm glow of spring is in the air, the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Tibetans, and Vietnamese people celebrate their version of the Lunar New Year. The festivities include gathering around with families, eating delicacies, and spending the time at home. In India, it’s time for harvest festivals as well as the colourful and fun Holi. The dates of the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah, which takes place around September according to the Gregorian calendar, are also calculated on the basis of the moon’s movements.
In Roman, Norse, and Hindu mythologies, all days bear similar associations. Sunday, then, is the day of the Sun or Ravi. Monday is the day of the Moon or Soma. Tuesday belongs to the warrior that is Mars, deriving its name from Tiw who is the pagan god of war and in Hindi, Mangala. Wednesday—Woden’s day—is the day of Mercury, i.e., Buddh. Thursday became the day that honoured the mighty Thor or Brihaspati known as the Guru of the Gods. Friday is the day of goddess Freya or Shukra, the planet of Venus. Finally, Saturday gets the furthest observable planet of all which is Saturn or Shani. Each of these planets has a signification that is unique to them which remains consistent across different cultures.
As the civilisations evolved, their analyses of the sky evolved too. It seemed to the ancient stargazers that there was a repetitive rhythm between the movements up above and their life down here. Some days seemed more conducive to celebrations like marriages, housewarmings, and royal functions, whereas the rest seemed cursed no matter what. No one knew what was exactly going on and so in order to deal with the unknown chance variable of their lives, they made gods and goddesses out of the heavenly bodies.
In this way, from cosmology and ancient religions, took birth the phenomenon of astrology. It was, at once, their way to dialogue with the unfathomable skies. It was how the ancients made our world a little less terrifying and a little more exciting by storifying the movements of what they saw up above in the night sky and connecting it to what they saw around themselves down here. Astrology was not just about the future—it was about the stories of existence, religion, astronomy, culture, psychology, and self-discovery.
In order to make use of their observed and intuitive connections between the macrocosm of the sky and the microcosm of our lives, the ancients began codifying their findings in what are now known as astrological texts of Ptolemy, Abu Ma’shar, sage Parashara and Varahamihira to name a few. Jyotish in India was first mentioned in the Vedanga Jyotish, one of the six main limbs of the Vedas. Which means, that without understanding Jyotish, a scholar of Vedas cannot understand the texts in entirety. However, at the time, Jyotish was about calculating Muhurtas, or the auspicious time to perform any given activity.
But then, how did astrology become the toxic superstitious phenomenon that it is in India now? What was previously the domain of the scholar-priest slowly became a business, especially in the 90s after India opened up its economy. It ushered in cultural changes that the sages of ancient India could never have foreseen. Within a few years, there were jobs that no one had heard of before. Large-scale vehicle ownership and air travel were becoming increasingly common. More women started working full-time, sustaining both their jobs and the household at the same time. Many households had a computer now and more children were growing up in nuclear families as opposed to joint families. The metro cities would soon become so advanced that parts of it would feel like a foreign world to someone from a Tier-2 city a few 100 kilometres away. But even though many Indians continued to consult astrologers, the common astrologer himself hadn’t revised his or her interpretations in centuries. In fact, most of these astrologers still mechanically parrot generations-old interpretations, like above.
Today, not only can we find an astrologer’s shop at every nook and cranny in India but they have gone online too—there are scores of websites, apps, YouTube channels, and more, where self-proclaimed fortune tellers have set up their shop. The ancient Jyotishi had to be well-versed in Samkhya philosophy, advanced mathematics, astronomy, and religious texts, in addition to leading a Satvik or purely spiritual lifestyle. But the modern Jyotishi lets a free computer software do his or her calculations and borrows outdated and orthodox interpretations from at least a few generations before, all the while pocketing hefty amounts from a scared and insecure customer who knows absolutely nothing about Jyotish. Where the former was a spiritual discipline that was hard to seek for both the astrologer and the enquirer, the latter is the junk-food equivalent of it.
Most believers of Jyotish not only don’t understand this crucial distinction, they also do not understand anything about the practice itself which makes it all the more unfathomable as to why should they lend the agency of their lives into the hands of a self-proclaimed reader of the future. They also seem to betray a lack of understanding when it comes to the apparent ineluctability of Fate and Karma itself if they think they can bribe the skies with mantras, rituals, and gemstones. Both the average astrologer and the enquirer, then, are forever locked in a toxic relationship that perpetually feeds into many superstitions. But perhaps, that too is written in the stars.
The writer is the author of an upcoming book, Heavens and Earth: Story of Astrology Through Ages and Cultures, to be published by Penguin Random House India in August 2022. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.