Is Astrology a pseudo-science? (The Indian Astrology Series)

Today, when we think astrology or any other type of fortune telling, many of us tend to rubbish it off as a pseudo-science that makes a false claim to do the impossible by claiming to predict the future.

But is fortune telling really a pseudo-science that tries to exploit human vulnerability and play on our fear psychosis? Is it all about doomsday prophecies, or making rosy promises?

While the answers to the questions may not be simple or straight, it’d definitely help to know that fortune-telling evolved for a different purpose other than what we know it for, today.

When I say fortune-telling, I’m referring to astrology here. Of course, there are many other methods used to foretell the future, which we shall look at, maybe in one of the following videos. Right now, we’ll stick to astrology.

Let’s now go back a few thousand years to ancient India. The ancient man, who was still trying to figure out the laws of the complex world he lived in, probably found comfort in certain repetitive happenings and interesting patterns that he observed up in the sky.

Looking up at the sky, he noted that the celestial bodies followed a certain fixed path. For example, the sun always rose in a particular direction and set in the opposite direction. The phases of the moon followed a similar repetitive pattern in its journey across the sky from no moon to new moon.

And he observed that nature also followed a set pattern where the sun blazed away in a particular season, the rains fell in another, and the flowers bloomed at a particular time and so on. He soon realised that these patterns were cyclical and were related to the back and forth movement of the sun across the sky, as seen from the earth. He called it the natural cosmic order, Rta.

Similarly, he observed that the phases of the moon followed a 30-day cycle from new moon to new moon. So, he referred to the moon as Masakrit or the maker of months. The movement of the moon and the sun thus enabled Vedic man to arrive at the concept of months and year and create a calendar for time-keeping.

As I have already mentioned in my previous videos, the calendar system followed initially was primarily lunar, based on the movement of the moon across the star constellations called nakshatras. This may have been because the moon’s journey across the sky is far more noticeable in the night than the sun’s path during the day.  So, it’s only around the few centuries before the start of the Christian era that the rashi system based on the movement of the Sun was adopted and our calendars became luni-solar.

The initial development of astrology was based entirely on observation of the luminary bodies which explains why the subject is called Jyotisha, which is derived from the word Jyoti that means light in Sanskrit. The most ancient knowledge on this subject is found in the Vedas, where it’s included as an auxillary subject and is referred to as Vedanga.

But from where did man’s need for astrology arise? Why did he find the need to make predictions?

The need for astrology among Vedic Indians rose from their need to perform sacrificial rituals or Yagnas at appropriate and auspicious times. Yagnas or sacrifices, as you’d know, was Vedic man’s way of communicating with the gods in heavens, to seek their blessings. And these sacrifices were effective only if they were carried out strictly as per specifications laid down in the Vedic texts. 

So the ancient field of Jyotisha only dealt with time-keeping in order to ascertain the auspicious day and time as required for the Vedic rituals. In fact, a Vedic ritual called Gavaamayana was specifically dedicated to observing the daily movement of the Sun during the day and the disappearance of the moon in the night.

So, making prophesies about the future, as done today were not part of the early Jyotisha.

However, over time, man realised that what happened in the sky had a bearing on the life on earth too. For example, a particular hot summer caused by a harsh Sun or the failure of rains created distress for livings beings on the earth. An understanding of this inter-linkage and the cyclicality that he observed in the cosmic events led man to predict happenings on the earth based on certain happenings in the sky.

And this understanding led to the development of predictive astrology although the prophesies were made for the community at large and not for individuals. Our epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are replete with references to astronomical references and in the context of the Mahabharata war, we find a detailed account of the planetary and stellar configurations that fortell an impending war of epic proportions.

Indian astrology is firmly rooted in the basic philosophy or world view of ancient Indians.

For Indians, cosmic order is cyclical. The time from creation to preservation to eventual destruction follows a cyclical order. This cyclicality forms the basis for the idea of rebirth. A man is born, he lives and then he dies, only to be born again. In such a worldview, events tend to repeat. These repetitive events thus become predictable.

But again, as people lived in small and closed groups and shared  a combined fortune, prophesies were made for societies and communities as a whole. It’s only in more recent years, that the concept of casting an individual’s horoscopes and predicting his or her fortune came into practice. This again is based on yet another philosophical idea integral to Indian culture.

In Indic religions that include Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, man’s life in this world is believed to follow a pattern that is determined by his actions, what is called Karma. So his own actions decide what happens to him either in this birth or the next, thus enabling predictions based on his current conduct or behaviour. The development of this idea led to the evolution of fortune-telling for individuals.

And there is one compelling logic that binds all these ideas, and that idea is called Brahman. Ancient Indians perceived themselves as an integral part of the larger Universe. The ancient man saw himself as the microcosm that was part of the larger macrocosm.

This idea of underlying oneness in the Universe was defined as Brahman. Based on this understanding, what happened in the distant heavens, such as the changes in the movements of distant planets was believed to have a bearing on life on earth.

To use a loose analogy, this idea is a bit like the idea of modern-day chaos theory, where a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking, China is believed to impact the weather systems in distant New York. This inter-connectedness of the Universe is deep and has not yet been fully understood by mankind.

Having said that, we must remember, ancient Vedic seers were among the first men to perceive this oneness and harness this knowledge to bring a little more order to our lives!

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