Our newspapers and periodicals regularly carry star forecasts and astrological columns that predict how our day will pass or how eventful the coming week or month of our life will be. Our electronic and print media carry glossy features on these so-called fortune tellers, or air interviews with them wherein they brag about having successfully predicted one event or another. Apart from astrologers there are, of course, others such as card readers, numerologists, palm readers–and even face readers–who are out to fleece the gullible. Not only do they make money from their chicanery, but they may also instill a sense of fear and subjugation in the the minds of their believers. Take the case of a typical star forecast in a daily newspaper. It runs about three or four lines, or roughly fifty odd words. Assuming that the world population of six billion people is equally divided among the twelve signs of the Zodiac, each sign gets half a billion souls under it. Further assuming that a fair percentage are believers, it could be fairly construed that a very large number of people will take those fifty words or so as their destiny for that particular day, week, or month–which is both amazing and ridiculous!
Although belief in astrology seems to prevail universally, cutting across all social and religious strata, a major difference between the astrological practices of other religions and Hinduism is that astrology gained religious sanctification in Hinduism whereas it has been either a parallel stream or a totally unconnected belief in other religions. And nowhere has reliance on astrology gone so deep as in Hindu society. Astrology has invaded and captured the psyche of the typical Hindu to such an extent that he does not dare to step out of his house without first finding an auspicious moment to take that step.
Hinduism forcefully defends astrology by linking religious ceremonies and rituals with certain planetary positions. For example, the twelve-year congregations (e.g., the Singhasta kumbha melas at places such as Nasik and Ujjain) are observed in conformity with certain planetary positions, thus making astrology synonymous with religion. It is simply impossible for a practicing Hindu to escape these charades. The sway of the priestly class is nowhere so complete as in making astrological forecasts in Hinduism. It is, of course, a different matter that the so-called forecasts don’t come true, and that no astrologer worth his salt has dared openly predict an unexpected event (e.g., an earthquake, a volcano, or the death of some eminent person) well before it actually happened.
How it all started
Early Vedic people were probably not well-versed in astrology, although some omens were believed to foretell bad events. In order to mitigate the harmful effects of the omens and please the gods, rituals were performed. It is believed that astrology in its present form came to India from Egypt and Greek. (The concept of the zodiac, literally the circle of animals, is Greek; casting of horoscopes, etc., came from Egypt.) Later on, the Hindus further developed and fine-tuned this art of deception to the extent of making predictions and foretelling events based on planetary positions in the sky. The caste system in Hinduism prevailing since Vedic times ensured that there was no arguing against what the priestly class had prophesied using the charade of astrology. It is worthwhile to mention here that the uppermost class (the Brahmin) was the sole keeper and propagator of education; none of the others was privy to the same knowledge. The others were left with no option but to accept and believe with reverence all the trash that the priestly class heaped on them in the name of destiny. In other words, the power of the priestly class among the Brahmins (although not all Brahmins took up the priestly duties, only the privileged and more cunning did) was awesome.
What astrology is all about
Hindus believe that everyone is born with a predetermined fate that is a permanent feature of one’s life, and that the position of heavenly bodies at the time of one’s birth can tell us about the course one’s life will take at a given point in time. Since the time of one’s birth could not be chosen, Hindus believe that a person having a particular destiny will be born at a time when the heavenly bodies lie in a position complimentary to that sort of fate. Casting of horoscope, matchmaking, and performance of the expiatory rites are the three major thrust areas of astrology for a Hindu believer.
The hub of astrology consists of the nine so-called planets: the Sun, Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Mars, and the imaginary Rahu and Ketu. In reality, of course, only five are planets, one is a star (the Sun), one a satellite (the moon), and the other two are mere nodes of lunar position. The other planets of our solar system (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto) are discoveries of a much latter a period, so they are excluded from the astrology of the gods.
Horoscope: This is a chart depicting the position of each of the aforesaid nine elements in the zodiac at the time of one’s birth. Once the respective positions of the elements is known, the wise astrologer will interpret and forecast the destiny of the individual, describing his color, height, body shape, intelligence, level of education, business or profession, income, spouse, number of children, comforts and discomforts in life–and all else under the Sun–even selecting an auspicious name for the individual. Each astrologer has his own set of rules and calculations. He can measure the ill effects or benefits of a particular planetary position, a combination of planets and of some other aspects, no matter how many light-years away the stars forming a constellation might be. For a Hindu, the significance of his horoscope is greater than that of his personal god or goddess.
Different types of charts are used in the western and the Indian systems of astrology. In making predictions, the western style relies more on the position of the Sun in assigning a zodiac sign while in the Indian system it is the position of the Moon that puts one under a particular sign. When predictions turn out to be wrong regardless of which system was followed, the priest washes his hands off by saying that he was not provided the exact time of birth.
Matchmaking: The second most important astrological application in one’s life comes at the time of seeking a life partner. Who wouldn’t like to have a married life full of happiness and conjugal bliss? And the astrologer is always there to ensure it. Based on the false premise that a specific male and female are destined for each other, the astrologer makes it happen with the help of the planets–and the believer’s wallet. However compatible and understanding a man and woman might otherwise be, they can’t become man and wife, of course, if the planets do not approve of the union.
One example is the malefic positioning of the planet Mars in either of the horoscopes. This Mars effect is dealt with differently in different parts of India. While the north Indian astrologer is very strict with its interpretation, his south Indian counterpart is rather liberal. But both systems agree on one thing: that the ill effect could be done away with, that there certainly are ways to deal with it. Hindus are often so superstitious and blind to reason in the matters of matchmaking, however, that they are unwilling to take any risk at all. A young man or woman may be made to suffer all his or her life just because of this astrological matchmaking. A very intelligent and highly capable girl may, for example, be forced to waste her life with some useless fellow if she is declared a mangalik (under the bad spell of the planet Mars, in the astrological parlance), or else she may be condemned to remain single all her life as no one else would be willing to risk his life by marrying her. With the blessings of the astrologer, however, matchmaking based on a fabricated horoscope is often conducted–depending upon the dire needs of the parties involved.
Performance of expiatory rites: The false notion that the Earth is constantly under the influence of the mighty nine, and that the natives here can’t escape what is bundled out for them, forces the believing Hindu to go to the astrologer for “solutions.” Haunted by the earlier Vedic belief in omens, the believer is continuously under mental pressure to do things only at appropriate and auspicious times. Since there are good as well as bad times in a day, however, it is thought to be beneficial to consult the all-powerful astrologer. If he finds a good moment for you (courtesy of your birth chart) then fine, go ahead–else he has to find a way to tackle the problem. For the believer there is always a way around a problem if the astrologer is “learned enough.” Here the practice of appeasing the so-called gods comes into play. The expiatory rituals are held to please the planets which are responsible for the hurdles in one’s path. Remember, a Hindu priest who is well-versed in astrology can ward off all evil and neutralize the ill effect of a malefic heavenly body by charging an appropriate fee.
In fact the role (and power) of money in Hinduism is so overwhelmingly widespread that from the time of birth of a Hindu to many years after his death money or some other form of wealth (e.g., precious metals, particularly gold) has to be given to the priest. In this way, a wealthy Hindu, it is believed, can literally change his destiny by making appropriate offerings to the gods. Never mind that this contradicts the basic Hindu law of karma which states that the nature of one’s present life is a consequence of the actions one has performed in a previous life and the effects of karma cannot be changed or undone even by the creator himself.
Penetration and effects on society
The influence of astrology begins at birth with the casting of the horoscope. The astrologer opens before the parents the whole life of the infant as it will unfold over the years to come. Then will follow a list of “do’s and don’ts.”
In the matchmaking exercise, especially, the astrologer has great latitude to maneuver the situation and create confusion. Fear of the unknown is so adeptly instilled in the minds of believers that it becomes almost impossible for them to reason or think rationally. Worse, that fear of the unknown has penetrated so deep into the psyche of the typical Hindu that Hindu society is characterized by its weaklings. This exploitation of fear has done such extensive damage that even those who have taken the bold step of shunning Hinduism in order to embrace a different religion nevertheless often find that they are unable to unshackle their subconscious minds of this dreaded malaise.
It is not uncommon to find people, even those who earn their livelihood in the field of science, thronging to astrologers and soothsayers. Some engineers, for example, wait to lay the foundation stones of new projects at a propitious hour. Skilled surgeons will often want to schedule surgeries only after consulting these charlatans. Those who teach physics and chemistry will sport a variety of rings on their fingers in appeasement of the gods–under prescription from the astrologer, of course. Politicians, usually the bane of a civil and just society, are the favorites of these charlatans as political patronage gives them still larger clout among the masses. In recent times we have even seen efforts by some politicians to get university recognition for astrology and the setting up of separate chair for the purpose.
For a typical Hindu everything from a mild headache to the failure of his child in some school exam is an act of destiny, and he has no option but to submit to it. That belief tends to cripple his mental faculties so as to compromise all chance of rational thinking. This ultimate submission to dogma has made the typical Hindu a coward who rarely rises to face the challenges posed by a changing and scientific world order. He tends to be psychologically weak by comparison to the strong-minded person, who would not normally accept such beliefs without first reasoning about them. Perhaps, therefore, it is time to shun this lie called “astrology.” Don’t we owe it to posterity?
How to get rid of it
Apart from the State, which is supposed to be secular in real terms and which has a responsibility to its citizens to establish an education system based on science and reason, three other elements of Hindu society–journalists, scientists, and educators–can contribute immensely to bring about the eradication of this obscurantism.
In this age where information is power, it sometimes happens that disinformation gets passed on as if it were truth. Therefore, the media has to be very careful, for the good of society, in sifting information. A good start would be to refuse to carry the astrological column, using the precious space for some worthwhile purpose. Articles by eminent astronomers and scientists, for example, could explain the truth viz. a viz. the myths. The scientist should be concerned, after all, not only with scientific study and investigation, but also with increasing the understanding of science on the part of society. And lastly, it is the educator who has the ultimate responsibility of shaping the mind so that nothing is believed without first questioning it. If a teacher spreads the canard that a child is predestined to have a particular mental caliber then society as a whole is certainly doomed.