The ancient practice continues to play a large role in the lives of many South Asians.
In June 2021, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in New Delhi, launched a postgraduate degree course in astrology.
Yeah, you read that right — astrology.
IGNOU isn’t some woo-woo university that tricks unsuspecting people into paying thousands for useless degrees. It is one of India’s most respected universities with three million students. A fifth of all Indian higher education students attend this well-regarded institution.
A closer look tells us astrology is not a strange study option, but a legitimate curriculum. About 20 Indian universities offer astrology courses in astrology, which requires a working knowledge of mathematics and astronomy—much like for anyone who wishes to work for NASA. One can even obtain a PhD in it.
Of course, astrology courses are not without their detractors in modern India. When IGNOU launched its astrology course, pre-eminent Indian scientists came together to demand its withdrawal, calling it a pseudoscience. Journalists too accused astrologers of “exploiting the vulnerability of the human mind.” But recently, the High Court of Bombay maintained that astrology is a valid science.
Astrology in India has an unbroken lineage of over two thousand years and can be traced back to the second millennia. Originally known as jyotishastra (the science of the stars), this branch of learning included mathematics, astronomy, divination and astrology. As each branch became more developed with time, astrology became a branch of its own that continued to use mathematics and astronomy.
The 12 Houses in Vedic Astrology. Source: Astrotalk
Historically, astrologers were a mainstay of royal courts and no king would make important decisions without consulting one. The Brhatsamhita, a 6th century treatise by court astrologer Varahamira, distinguishes between a knowledgeable astrologer whose foundations lay in mathematics and astronomy and charlatans hawking prophecies for profit. This more “scientific” astrology has a long and distinguished history in India, with practitioners who are proud of their tradition.
Greek influences on Indian Astrology
The earliest astrology can be traced back to the Vedas, and probably even further back. But it was through contact with Mesopotamia and Greek Hellenistic traditions in the early first millennium BC that brought us astrology as we know it today. A published academic paper referred to Vedic horoscopic astrology as a “synthesis of ideas and practices borrowed from Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt and Greece”. Indian astrology mixed Greek astrology—which lacked any metaphysics—with their own Vedantic teachings and existing astrological practices.
In fact, the earliest extant Sanskrit text on astrology is the Yavanajātaka, translated literally as“Greek horoscopy.” It was probably written in Alexandria around 120 CE and then translated into Sanskrit around 150 CE.
This confluence of civilisations gave birth to astrology as it is practised now by South Asians all over the world.
Astrology in modern times
Modern South Asians are familiar with two main astrology forms: jataka (horoscope) and muhurtasasta (finding the right moment), most commonly used when looking for a wedding date. Every year, tens of thousands of new parents seek aid from an astrologer to name their child and continue to see one for guidance on everything from which car to buy to what school to attend.
Astrology continues to direct our lives today. But this is not a phenomenon limited to South Asians. Chinese astrology has a long history as well. In Singapore, which has a large Chinese population, many Singaporean Indians lean on a mixture of Chinese and Indian astrology. My mother herself does not like the number 4 (she refused to let me buy a house with that number) because it is associated with death in Chinese culture even though South Asian culture holds no such meaning. Chinese Singaporeans on their part, turn to Indian parrot astrologers for all their betting needs. Even Indigenous Australians have Dreamtime astrology, with each year devoted to an animal unique to this land such as the bandicoot or the koala in a way reminiscent of the Chinese zodiac.
Chani Nicholas, a Canadian transexual white woman, remains one of the most famous and sought after astrologers of all time. Her astrology is a mix of radical compassion and social justice with planets and horoscopes. With over 400k Instagram followers, her acclaim tells us there is something about astrology that appeals to many of us across race, gender, and spiritual boundaries. If astrology was only for the old and ignorant, this cannot explain why hundreds of thousands of young people believe in Nicholas’ proclamations, take her courses, and organise their lives by her teachings.
South Asian astrology
Some South Asians consider our astrology to be “regressive”, while western astrology is often seen as cool and accessible. Perhaps it is not astrology per se, but the type of astrology that is the problem. Many modern South Asians would rather read Nicholas, with her focus on how to live in an unjust and unequal world, than ask a priest about when they are getting married.
Vedic Astrology used in Hinduism can also be seen as casteist. Some scholars have argued that “caste ideology and astrology have a common vocabulary and logic,” and refer to how intertwined the two systems can be. Part of astrology is giving clues to human destiny, and in South Asian societies, caste and destiny are indivisible. Furthermore, the most common use of horoscopy is for marriage, which in South Asian communities is tied up with caste and class. Marriage is often endogamous and astrology is used to maintain and perpetuate caste within that larger structure. It is no surprise many South Asians have turned away from a system perceived as being mired in caste oppression.
But for every South Asian who scoffs at their parents’ belief in astrology, there is another who continues the tradition.
Sagun Sharma is a modern working wife and mother in Australia. She is a science teacher who used to be the head of her school’s science department when she lived in India - not exactly the person you would think of as being interested in vague proclamations about the future. However, during the long lockdown in Melbourne, she actually started on a course in astrology.
Her family is religious, and her father was a doctor who was deeply interested in the many aspects of Vedic astrology. Her father became so well-versed in it that he actually match-made Sharma with her husband. For Sharma, astrology is deeply linked to spirituality. She started on the study because she wanted to explore where she came from in terms of her past life and what she is meant to do here in her current one.
“Despite what people think, astrology teaches you to live life. (It tells you) what actions to take.” She is not interested in using astrology to learn if she will be wealthy. Instead, she says, “Used with the right intentions, astrology can give you a purpose in life.”
Just like her, many modern, educated Indians are still using astrologers because astrology has caught up with the times. You can get your horoscope online now, to guide your busy lifestyle. Astrology has always been used for marriage, but it has become commercialised for the wedding industry. A website has produced different marriage related products such as a Vedic Horoscope Matchmaking, even going so far as to offer a 100% money-back guarantee for their services.
Find the love of your life or get your money back? Now, that doesn’t seem too bad a proposition.
Astrology shifts and changes with time, taking and assimilating different ideas and traditions, just as Vedic astrology did with the Greeks. Modern life is grounded in uncertainty and astrology allows us to find some order in the chaos, some way to categorise and make sense of our lives.
And perhaps this explains astrology’s enduring popularity. It’s that extra bit of help, some direction from a system trusted by our parents and their parents. A method giving us options, showing us another possible pathway ahead when our best-laid plans go awry.
When we seem to have so little control over our lives, astrology can be another bit of information that we can use to make decisions in our lives, the way we would the results of a google search or the advice of a good friend. Science and astrology exist together in the Indian mind. It has been a mainstay of South Asian societies for a millennia. When something has lasted this long and continues to hold a special place in the lives of many, perhaps it is not that easy to cast aside.
Sangeetha Thanapal is a writer, activist and anti-racism trainer. Her high school teacher told her mother to stop her from reading so much; it didn’t work. The reading turned into writing, which then turned into her whole life.
Her fiction and non-fiction work has been published in Djed Press, Fireside Fiction, Eureka Street, Wear Your Voice and many more. She is presently working on her first novel, We, The South, an epic fantasy adventure set in medieval India. You can find her everywhere as @kaliandkalki.