Origins of Astrology in India
The paper that I will be discussing today is On the Philosophical and Cosmological Foundations of Indian Astrology, by Audrius Beinorius. I’ve always been fascinated with Astrology, and am glad that I got the time and opportunity to study it. This article is not paywalled.
The Bible says that God created man in his image. You might not be surprised to learn that this is not a belief that is original to the Bible, but has been influencing the development of humanity for thousands of years. This belief was called sādarśya in Ancient India, although perhaps a human-like God could be replaced by the heavens in the Indian context. I will be discussing this, and more below.
The study of Astrology is called Jyotiśāstra, or the study of lights, which I think is an amazing name for the study of anything. However, was it really mentioned in the ancient Hindu texts, or was it a later invention that was falsely attributed to ancient Hindu texts (like Vedic Maths)? Jyotiśāstra formed an integral part of the Rig Veda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. Jyotisa Vedanga was known as one of the six auxiliary sciences (āngas) of the Vedas. Hence, astrology was one of the most integral parts of science and society in Ancient India.
Although attributed to the Indian sage Lagadha around 400 BC, the Jyotisa Vedanga are claimed to have been revealed by Brahma (prathama minu) himself to eighteen mythological sages. According to the Mātsyapurana, the authority of a Rishi or a seer is based solely on his understanding of celestial movements, and that some of them become stars themselves when they die, according to their Karma. The main purpose that the Jyotisa Vedanga served was to inform people about the correct time of sacrifice, and not necessarily to predict the future.
The Vedas arose for the purpose of use in sacrifices; sacrifices are enjoined according to the order of times; therefore, he who knows Jyotiṣa knows sacrifices. Just as a tuft of hair stands on the head of peacocks or a jewel in the heads of cobras, so astro- nomical calculations (gaṇita) stand at the head of all the sciences that are spoken of as vedāṅga–Ṛgveda Jyotiṣa, 35 Yajurveda Jyotiṣa
According to the sage Panini, the science of the movements of heavenly bodies formed “the eye of the Vedas”. Hence, Astrology and Astronomy formed perhaps the most important sciences according to ancient Indian texts.
Space and Time
The ancients asked the same questions that high powered Physicists are still asking: what is time, and how is it created? The Bhagvata Purana, one of the holiest Indian texts that is read on a regular basis in many Indian households, says that time is the same as God, and is the primary catalyst that causes the cosmos to unfold “with its infinite potential for permutation”. In other words, time causes stars and planets to move in their eternal orbits.
On the other hand, ancient Indian astronomers thought that it was the motion of planets that “created” time, and not the other way round.
Further- more, the knowers of time regard time as the motion of the sun, planets, and constellations, distinguished by their different revolutions.–Vākyapadīya
The time that the motion of planets created was continuous and regular, and humans artificially divided time into seconds, hours and days. Moreover, time was not just an instrument of measurement in Ancient India. It possessed a certain moral characteristic. Your karma from your previous incarnations required you to perform your dharma in your current lifetime in order to atone for your sins. But how do you know what was the right time and opportunity to perform your dharma? By studying the movements of planets. If you understood Astrology well enough, the positions of planets in certain constellations would tell you what you should do and when. The eternal motions of planets not only symbolize eternal order or sanatana dharma, but also individual order or svadharma, so that humans would know what to do in order to maintain the eternal harmony of the universe.
In the image of the heavens
But what about people who are not astrologers, and cannot study the heavens? Are they not affected by planetary motion? They indeed are, because a human was thought to be the embodiment of the whole cosmos.
A belief that permeated the whole of the ancient world (and Europe until the 16th century) was that things that resembled each other in shape, were of the “same kind”. Hence, when Sphujidhvaja asserted in 270 AD that “mutual interactions (yoga) of the planets as they pass through the various signs of the Zodiac are said to be formed in the likeness of shapes”, it was concluded that objects that resembled those same shapes would now be affected by the motion of the planets. Convenient.
The early Taittīriya brāhmaṇa (commentary on the Vedas in the 6th century BC) already had suggested: “The constellations are images of the world”
Because the world and constellations are imaged of each other, whatever happened in the world would also happen in the heavens (and vice-vera). However, the world was too complicated to understand, with lots of humans swarming around killing, looting and the like. Hence, people could look up to the heavens to understand what was happening, or going to happen in the world. As a lot of constellations resemble human shapes (the Hunter, for instance), the stars clearly mirror human activities. But astrologers took things one step further:
The Bṛhatsaṃhitā (14.1-5) then speaks of the nakṣatra-puruṣa (“man of the constella- tions”), whose body is formed from the twenty-seven lunar mansions. The Bṛhajjātaka of Varāhamihira (1.4) describes the kālapuruṣa (“man of time”), whose body is composed of the twelve zodiacal signs, beginning with Aries and ending with Pisces, his head and feet, respectively.
So it was not just that stars could tell man’s future. Man was a microcosm of the whole universe, with all the constellations contained inside him. Hence, when planets passed through certain constellations, one may imagine miniature planets passing through the same constellation inside the human body, mirroring the motion of the planets in the skies. This affected the good or evil inside of him, and also his fate. This can be taken as an example of taking an analogy, and pushing it to its logical extreme. It wasn’t that we could just understand our fate by looking at the skies, because we were the created in the their image. We could understand our fates by looking at the skies because we contain the skies within us.
While researching for this piece, I read some parts of another paper by David Pingree, which stated that Indian Astronomers originally stated that there were 28 constellations. However, under Babylonian influence around 500 BC, it corrected that to 12. Along parallel lines, Indian astrology originally concerned itself only with knowing the right time for animal (and other) sacrifices. It was only later, with the advent of the horoscopic kind of astronomy with its 12 constellations, that Indian astrology concerned itself with predicting the future. This probably gave a lot of clout to seers and sages in the courts of kings.
Both the author of the paper and I had similar feelings while reading up on this topic: although it’s easy to dismiss Astrology as pseudo-science, it forms a window with which to view the ancient world. In fact, things like divination are almost axiomatic. If you observe A, then you conclude B. If I see that mercury is in Aries and Jupiter is in Taurus, I have to conclude that something good is going to happen. The only fallacy perhaps is to conclude that the motions of planets have anything to do with human fate. However, we can hardly fault the ancients for a bit of imagination, seeing as the motion of some heavenly bodies like the Sun and the moon did actively determine their lives and fates.
- On the Philosophical and Cosmological Foundations of Indian Astrology, by Audrius Beinorius
- Astronomy and Astrology in India and Iran, by David Pingree