3.5.4 Astrological
Astrology is as old as mankind. No intelligent man at any time in prehistory or history could have looked up at the night sky and failed to notice the countless shining bodies and wonder with awe and amazement at their meaning and purpose. Long before man built cities, developed agriculture and writing, he studied the heavenly bodies and tried to relate their movements to his daily life on earth. Though no written records survive, prehistoric megalithic monuments and stone observatories such as those at Stonehenge in Britain and Carnac in Brittany (France) are ample evidence to show that early man throughout the ancient world had a reasonable and accurate knowledge of the heavens.
In India also, the early origins of astrology lie buried in unrecorded prehistory. Traditional histories, the puranas, give only mythological origins of astrology. They say that astrology originated among the gods. Brahma, the cosmic creator, was the first to propagate astrology. He taught the 'science of the luminous bodies' (jyotisa sastra) to Surya, the sun god. From Surya, the knowledge was passed down, generation after generation, through a line of divine and semi-divine teachers, to Bhrgu (or Garga, according to the Visnu Purana) the first human being to learn astrology. From Bhrgu onwards, astrology became the common heritage of all mankind.
Bhrgu is said to have been a great sage, an accomplished scholar and seer. His knowledge of astrology as well as his psychic powers were so highly developed that he cast horoscopes for all mankind—past, present and future. His horoscopes were preserved in a cryptic text called the Bhrgtt Samhita, but his key to the text was lost. A work of this title still exists, but whether it is the original text of Bhrgu or not, and whether anyone has the correct key or not, is difficult to say.
The Indus Valley civilisation in north-west India was the first to reach a high degree of sophistication in culture and religion. This civilisation thrived in many small city-states from about 3000 B.C. to 1500 B.C. During this period, archaeologists tell us, the cities were ruled by a kind of religious oligarchy of priest-kings. Many elements of present-day Hinduism— especially Tantra and Yoga— were evolved by the people of the Indus Valley civilisation. And it would, therefore, be reasonable to assume that they also studied the stars and the planets and evolved a sophisticated system of astrology and astronomy. But unfortunately, no written records survive to tell us anything about the astrological knowledge of the Indus Valley people.
The earliest definite and written record of a systematic study of the heavens comes from the Vedas. They were compiled over many centuries, from about 1500 B.C. to 600 B.C., and give us a picture of the development of astrological/ astronomical ideas over a long period.
According to the Vedic hymns, the universe was divided into three realms: the earth (bhuh), the atmosphere (bhuvah) and the shining heavens (svah). The sun, the moon, the planets and the stars were in the shining heavens. The birds, the clouds and the demi-gods (gandharvas) lived and moved around in the realm of the atmosphere. Man, animals and plants lived on earth.
The sun was known to influence the seasons. There are frequent references in the Vedas to the solar year of 360 days, divided into 12 months of 30 days each, with five seasons.
Some say that the sun is the father of the universe. He has five feet (seasons) and 12 limbs (months). Some call him the maker of clouds full of rain. He lives in the region above the atmosphere, halfway to heaven; many others say that he is omniscient and that the whole universe is fixed on him like seven wheels (days) with six spokes (seasons). Each month of the year was given a name, but unlike the Hindu months in use today, which are named after lunar asterisms, the Vedic months were named after seasons. Madhu and Madhava (pleasant, March-April-May) were the months of spring. Sukra (violent, May-June) and Suci (clear, June-July) were the months of summer. Nabhas and Nabhasya (cloudy, July- August- September) made up the rainy season. The autumn months were called Isa (strong, September-October) and Urja (powerful, October-November). The winter months were Saha and Sahasya (tolerable, November- December- January). From the middle of January, the weather became warmer and so the late winter months were known as Tapas (warm, January-February) and Tapasya (warmer, February-March).
Besides the solar year, the Vedic scholars had correctly understood the importance of the phases of the moon in telling time. A lunar month was reckoned from one full moon to the next. At some stage they correlated the solar and lunar years. The lunar year was, however, much shorter than the 360-day solar year. To adjust this difference, they added intercalary months, and there are frequent references to this adjustment.
He, the upholder of the law (Varuna), knows the twelve months (of the year) as well as their offspring (fortnights and days), and he also knows that (intercalary month) which is born of them.
But exactly how this was done mathematically is not known.
The ecliptic—the apparent path of the sun—was divided into 27 lunar mansions. Each lunar mansion was based on a single or a group of stars. The annual passage of the sun and the monthly revolutions of the moon through the 27 lunar mansions (asterisms, naksatras) were used to calculate the times of important sacrifices and rituals.
The Vedic astronomers/astrologers had calculated the extreme positions of the sun at summer and winter solstices, the two equinoxes and the apparent movement of the sun in the northern and southern hemispheres. A Vedic hymn calls the northern passage of the sun the path of the gods (devayana), and the southern passage the path of the departed souls (pitryana):
Spring, summer and the rains are of the gods. Autumn, the cool season and winter are seasons of the manes. The fortnight of the waxing moon is of the gods; the fortnight of the waning moon is of the ancestors. The day is of the gods and the nights are of the manes. The first part of the day belongs to the deities and the second part to the spirits of the departed. When the sun turns north he is said to be protecting the gods, and when he turns south, he is with the manes to protect them.
Vedic astronomers/astrologers also studied the apparent movements of the sun and the stars that appear to rise and set with it. In this way they were able to determine the points of the compass. In short, the Vedic priests had acquired quite a lot of accurate knowledge of the heavens, and a study of astronomy was considered to be one of the aids (anga) to the understanding of the Vedic texts. And yet, they did not use their knowledge of the stars and planets to cast horoscopes. Their entire knowledge was used to construct a ritual calendar for the many fire sacrifices.
From late Vedic times (600 B.C.) right up to the beginning of the Christian era astrology was condemned, and astrologers who cast horoscopes and foretold the future were considered socially inferior. The Buddha denounced all systems of prediction, including astrology, as one of the 64 heresies to be shunned by the nobles (Aryas). And Kautilya grouped astrologers with such low caste employees of the king as bards and priests' servants.
At the beginning of the Christian era, many Indo-Greek colonies were established in north-west India, leading to a gradual absorption of Greek ideas into the Indian system. Out of this mixing, a new and more sophisticated system of astrology was born. And with the coming of new ideas into Indian astrology, came a new respect for the art of foretelling the future. Brahmin priests no longer regarded it as an impure art, nor was its study relegated to the lower castes in society; the Brahmin priests themselves became masters of astrology. The great astrologer Varahamihira (550 A.D.) quotes from the lost work of his predecessor Garga as saying:
'If even the Greeks and the barbarians are respected and honoured like sages for their well established system of astrology, then should not a Brahmin skilled in astrology be honoured even more?'
The entire credit of developing a unified system of astrology based on a thorough understanding of traditional Indian and Greek ideas goes to Varahamihira. He was born at Avanti (modern Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh) in the early years of the 6th century A.D. His father Adityasena belonged to a caste of sun-worshipping Maga Brahmins who traced their descent from the priestly Magi of ancient Persia. Under his father's guidance, Varahamihira became a distinguished astrologer, astronomer, mathematician and poet. In nine treatises he systematised and summarised all the available knowledge of astronomy, astrology and divination.