“All Malayalees,” I once told my wife while she was poring through a horoscope, “go by the horoscopes for arranging their offsprings’ marriage. And Malayalees hold the record for the highest number of family suicides – killing the children and the wife, and then the husband hanging himself”,.
“If that is what happens after they consult the horoscope,” retorted my wife, “think what the suicide figures would be if they didn’t consult any.”
Her logic could be applied to any happening. Look what happened in Iraq even after Bush attacked it and ended Saddam’s reign. Imagine how more terrible it would be if he hadn’t done that social service to the world, never mind that the stupid United Nation had voted against it. The Pundits had carried out many homams and yagams for BJP win (in 2012 elections for seven Vidhan Sabhas). BJP lost, true, but if those sacred rituals were not performed imagine how the party could have been wiped out! Two years later the same party won elections for the centre – astrologists could always say that was what they meant when they predicted a victory.
Astrologers admit that they did not predict this years’ probable drought. Right into the middle of July, they still can’t predict that, The weatherman has been marginally more accurate in places, very precise in others. If weather forecasts can go wrong and yet you find them useful, why not life forecasts? If you think meteorology is a science, why would you not give that status to this ancient divining system of ours?
Astrologers did not predict the great tsunami of 2004. Many of them said they did, after it occurred. They didn’t predict Indira Gandhi’s or Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. They wrote to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in secret letters, some said. It was not their fault if the mother and son were not there to confirm that they did.
Tamil swamis are great astrologers, as are Pundits from (or allegedly from) Varanasi. They strut about with certificates issued by Chief Ministers, central ministers, judges and all those Very Insolent Persons (VIPs).
“I am convinced that the bearer of this letter, Shri Swamy So-and-so is a bonafide astrologer. He had predicted the most important events of my life. I will recommend him to anyone who is interested in his scientific predictions”, said a letter of certificate typed on a Chief Minister’s letterhead bearing the state logo. The South Indian Swamy in saffron clothes who brought it for me to see had his name preceded by “Thiruvadigal” printed on his calling card. Somewhat like Sri-Sri preceding another godman’s name, Tiruvadigal meant sacred body (stated in plural for additional respect). Who found his sweaty and slightly smelly body (despite the sandalwood paste on his forehead and throat and ashes smeared on his upper arms) sacred, I could not tell.
“Did you tell the Ex-CM who wrote this letter when he would die?”, I asked the sacred body after he sat down and folded his legs atop the seat of the visitor’s chair.
“Chi-chi,” said the soothsayer, holding his ears as if in penance for hearing those blasphemous words.
“His children and son-in-law have cheated him, and he is going through the house of Saturn, which has bad effects on him. But he will come out of the Saturn house by September next year, live a long life and be Chief Minister two more times. I even see the possiblility of his becoming the Prime Minister if only this Planet could move away from the house of that,” he said.
I asked him if he had a radio at home. He had a colour television, gifted by a grateful Deputy Inspector General of Police as a reward for predicting his promotion, he said.
“Then go home quickly and watch the news,” I told him. The ex-chief minister had died that morning of a heart attack.
A few charlatans do walk around and cheat people, you might say. Does that mean astrology is all wrong?
Of course not. Khushwant Singh the writer says he was such a charlatan himself who got away with accolades. When he was the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, he fired the regular weekly astrologer who was asking for more money presumably because of the many readers’ letters that praised his predictions. For the next several months, Khushwant Singh wrote the predictions himself, picking up astrological phrases from here and there. More letters poured in, congratulating the astrologer for his accurate predictions.
I think I have an idea how astrology was born. Perhaps it happened 2500-odd years ago, or even 5000- you never can see that far nor trust the legend-makers of this Country. There was a Rishi – a professor or researcher or writer of those days were respectfully called Rishis or even Maharishis – who watched the progress of the celestial bodies night after night and took notes on dried strips of palm leaf. He kept noting the dates and time of the rising of the sun and its setting, watched the moon, noted over the years (or probably his son and grandson took up the observations in the decades that followed) the effects of the moon on tides, frequency at which certain comets would appear and disappear, heavenly events like Lunar and solar eclipses and so on with credible accuracy. The Rishi’s ability to forecast such celestial events were based on statistical data collected over years – perhaps generations – and meticulous, intelligent analysis. He had no reason to believe that the earth (or the heaven, or the heaven and the lowly Pathal ) was not the centre of the universe. He might have believed that or at least professed that Rahu devoured the moon on the day of the lunar eclipse and some other giant snake ate up the sun on the Solar eclipse days and that the snakes’ poison contaminated the air on earth. Such explanations are juicy like gossips and more acceptable for the public – who has time for uninteresting theories? In this Country, there are people who still say that there is “scientific proof” that the air is poisoned by the eclipse and that one shouldn’t go out in the open when it is on. Nonetheless, those ancients did predict the eclipses with reasonable precision.
I am rather certain that that’s how astrology originated in India. Those were the days Arabs were not planning to do away with those who joined partners with their one-and-only God. So they carried the concept, along with the mathematical figure zero and the concept of ten-based counting to their Country and later into Europe. On a clear Arabian night you got out of your tent and looked up – and couldn’t help feeling a bonding with the brightly lit sky – the heavens – with not a single pillar to support it. Europeans were rather primitive those days, but they had better ways of disseminating information even then. So astrology went far and wide. You would notice that the twelve star signs (zodiacs) of European astrology are hardly different from those of the Indian original. In a reverse osmosis, European interpretation of the star signs have taken over the Indian concepts with computerized predictions.
You have a statistical advantage if you make a prediction of nearly any kind – whether the child to be born would be boy or girl, whether the client would get a promotion or not, whether your election for the next term is assured. You stand a chance of being 50% right. If the prediction comes through, you’d be remembered and recommended.If not, what you said is soon forgotten. If you are looking for a white square on a chessboard, you only see the white squares.
Michel Nostradamus, the most famous of all European astrologers, mixed Biblical prophesies and the Asian astrology of Planets quite adeptly, a technique that carried conviction to the most devout Catholics who otherwise would have branded Nostradamus (a Jew by ancestry) as heretic and hanged him. Nostradamus’ admittedly obscure predictions for the ten centuries starting with the 16th are being interpreted by modern “experts” and have become subjects of hundreds of learned books. When Saddam attacked Kuwait, they said” “Ha, Nostradamus told you so.” Nostradamus told about Bush’s attack on Afghanistan (though Nostradamus did not know the existence of any country beyond Persia) and the murder of Saddam. Just hold the predictions at arm’s length and start interpreting it to suit the occasion. Never ask what good did his predictions do.
Going back to the Rishi or Rishis who charted the course of stars and planets 2500 or 5000 years ago, one of those many kings in India called for the sage who was making accurate predictions about solar and lunar eclipses and the flying in and flying out of comets.
“If you can predict the future of all those gods,” said the king, (for stars and planets were all gods or at least venerable rishis themselves – the Saptarshis and the venerable navagrahas who are still worshipped) “You can also predict about my future.”
I imagine that the Rishi was not so naive as to say that he could predict the movement of the stars, but not the future of the King. He would certainly be beheaded. So I suppose the sage sat down to draw a chart with 12 segments of thirty degrees each. He called them Lion (because the kings identify themselves with lion), Virgin (because that was the kings’ staple nocturnal diet), Balance (for king’s concept of justice), scorpion (there had to be a villain), Bow (His highness’ favourite weapon) and so on. The period in which the king was born, he said, was the period of the lion (what else). Then he connected the zodiacs with the nine “stars” that he had observed – which were not really stars, but planets plus the sun and the moon. His “calculations” arrived at the convenient result that the king would reign over the land for many, many years and that the crops would flourish, his harem would continue to grow and that he would win over all his enemies and capture their land wealth and women .
If the king actually died the same day or next year, to the joy of prince who ascended the throne, the astrologer could explain that he knew all along that the old boy’s death was going to happen, and that he was actually waiting for this day when the new glorious young prince would ascend the throne. A clever astrologer was always rewarded and seldom beheaded. That was also the case with the great European astrologer called Nostradamus – King Henry appointed him the Court diviner.
Though Nostradamus neither knew of India nor ever included it in his predictions, his groveling letter to King Henry II of France is a fine reflection of ancient Indian literature and obscure predictions. None of his predictions in that letter appears to have come true; like most Europeans of those days and Americans of today, Nostradamus knew no Countries east of Persia. A reputed physician who healed many afflicted with plague, he couldn’t foresee the death of his wife and beloved daughter with the same disease. Nonetheless, he is said to have predicted the death of King Henry thus: .
The young lion will overcome the older one,
On the field of combat in a single battle;
He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage,
Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death.
(Century 1, Quatrain 35)
How was the king to know that this was the prophesy of his own death? He knew it many years later when he lay in bed, grievously wounded and partially blinded from a duel with a younger Montgomery. Obscure words of prophesy come to sound true when you relate them to a random event that takes place later. You might also relate something that happened in your life to a vague description of things (which you could attribute to the guy next in line as well) and voluntarily accept that the statement sounds true. Either way, the astrologer wins and takes the cash.
Man – every man whether the Pope or the parishioner, the preacher or the atheist, capitalist or socialist – is ever in need to know what lay in store for him or her the next moment, the next day, the next many years. Somewhat like the pilot wanting to know the weather ahead. An hour before my writing this (in 21012), Pinarayi Vijayan, a controversial State Secretary of the Communist Party (and an avowed non-believer), was asked by the journalists what was going to happen to him after the Central committee meeting that would decide his fate in the party.
“It was raining hard when I came in”, said Vijayan. “And that is a good omen.” Aren’t we all looking for good omens all the time? Incidentally the omen proved to be good for Vijayan while for his rival, the Chief Minister who walked in in the same rain, it turned out to be ominous.
If you believe (as most believed then and believe still) that there is a predictable pattern for the flow of events in life, there had to be variables that determined that pattern. The ancient astrologer of the 6th Century AD – Aryabhata – आर्यभटा (not Aryabhatta) the mathematician-or Varahamihira his contemporary – is believed to have known that the earth rotated around its axis and that the planetary luminescence was mere reflections of sun’s light. Based on that knowledge he devised formulae to work out the yearly almanacs. As Einstein pointed out, whether you believed the earth stood still and the sun went around, or thought it was the other way, you arrived at the same resulted.
Aryabhata is even said to have calculated the circumference of the earth in “Yojanas” that is said to correspond to the correct value in kilometers today. These original avatars of Einstein produced empirical treatises that were not juicy enough to sustain them. Nor were such non-religious and sacrilegous findings fit to publish until the relatively secular (pro-Galileo) men from the West found them. But the precision of their predictions about celestial events carried conviction. To earn their sustenance, they had to add something that were seemingly more useful to the public, and more importantly to the kings. If you can predict the stars, so can you predict one’s life. So the mathematician-astronomers also wrote treatises on astrology.
Look at Shakuntala Devi (1929-2013) of our recent times. Her superb writings on the magic of arithmetical figures didn’t sell. Her amazing performances competing with computers and calculators drew lesser and lesser crowds. However she made money by ‘calculating’ clients’; future. Her well-researched book (the first of its kind at that time) went unnoticed. Her abject loss in the 1980 election against Indira Gandhi in Medak constituency could easily be predicted by anyone except herself. She advertised accurate astrological predictions, and there was a flow of future-seekers to her house. Google honoured her 84th (post demise) birthday in honour of her mathematical genius, not astrological predictions.
Einstein would not have had to travel by public bus to his teaching assignment if only he followed his theories of Relativity with a more widely readable “Electrodynamics of Human Horoscope and theory of Astral Futuristics” or something that sounded just as sweet.
As I said, I am willing to assume that the ancient writers of astrology based their predictions on careful observations of cause and effect. They went around calculating the position of planets when they heard that a child was born, and then carefully recorded the child’s mental and material progress. If you do that for a hundred, or thousand children, and if you truly believe that the variables (position and relative angles of planets etc. as you see them two-dimensionally from the Earth) are somehow linked to the pattern of a person’s growth, and if you are one of those high-level prodigies like Aryabhata or Varahamihira, then you could sincerely, and without any doubt in your own mind, chalk out the pattern that emerges for the future generations of astrologers to base their predictions on. Quite a few modern-day astrologers who base their work on such learned treatises are not charlatans – they believe in what they do. If they really arrived at their prediction charts from statistical observations by derived formulae (as scientists and engineers do), you must admit that that kind of astrology is science.
How can you blame them? Modern day medical scientists might pick 28 men (or women) and give them apricots for breakfast. They would then pick up another 28 and give them orange for breakfast. After six months (or two years, if you will) they would conduct a survey with the first 28 apricot eaters of whom 7 stated that yes, apricot had a positive effect on their sex lives. .22 of the orange eaters stated that no, they found no change. Only three of them affirmed positive effect and the rest were neutral. Findings? Apricots are 34.75 % more effective in sexual performance than orange. You might say that there is no reason for you to believe that apricots of oranges might be aphrodisiacs; the so-called researchers simply invented a non-existent relation for the sake of their PhD. Don’t split hairs, the sexologists who read the findings in the medical journal start advising their losers-in-bed patients to eat more apricots and less oranges. The “findings” of the ancients and their formulae and charts are just as related to ‘science’ and patterns of life.
Let us admit there are many things about the universe that we do not know. I cannot deny the possibility that the cosmic bodies have some effect on each of us human being. There might even be difference in their effect on an individual body depending on the colour and thickness of one’s skin, race, perhaps blood type, physical strength and so on. I could even admit there is a chance that these effects might determine the length of one’s life (subject to other closer variables like your nicotine addition and the D-company finding out your earning figures), but I can’t understand how that would decide on your wedding date and compatibility in marriage. In any case, horoscope writers of Kerala have got it all wrong – unless their very intention was to prepare men and women for collective suicides.
The image alongside is one of television astrologer Radhakrishnan. Interestingly, the Malayalam channel Asianet that publishes his predictions for phone-in customers disowns any responsibility for the predictions. Malayalis are great believers in astrology regardless of their religion – Hindu, Christian or Muslim. Malayalam movies often eulogize the accuracy of astrological predictions; dates of wedding, entering a new house, launching a new movie or a book are all determined by the nearest available astrologer.
Today we know, thanks to a man called Newton (or no thanks to someone else would have come in his place some day and discovered it anyway) that all bodies with mass possess a gravitational force. The earth’s gravitational force is very obvious because you stand on it, and the moon’s is seen when you watch the tides. Then there is the sun, a nuclear fission bomb 332,900 times heavier in mass, but too distant to have visible gravitational pull on our small masses, but big enough to keep the earth by an invisible yo-yo string in its orbit. We can easily predict the future of a child who is born in a sunless world – she wouldn’t live. So the sun assures you of a future life. If there was no moon in our orbit, our earth would have found its equilibrium in another orbit and that might not have been good enough for the living beings of the current kind occupying this planet. What about the other planets, the distant stars, the constellations and all other celestial bodies? We don’t know. Perhaps they have some effects too, on us – a little like they say El Nino has an effect on rains in the Indian subcontinent. But the effect of the sun or the moon does not look at the day time and place in which you were born to scald or soothe your skin. In other words, the position of the planets might have a cumulative, but minimal effect on a particular patch of the earth and the lives living on that part for a particular time, but there is no reason for us to believe that this effect could be discriminatory among different individuals based on their birth charts.
If you are an astrologer, or a tarot reader, or numerologist, or Feng Shui specialist, you have a great advantage. The probability of your being right is always 50%. Suppose, a-la-Nostradamus you make a slightly ambiguous and conditional prediction like : “I see five children being born for you. But if you go in for family planning– well, that is different, I see two kids”. (That was what an astrologer in Delhi told my wife who was duly amazed) You improve the probability to 98% – for definitely not more than 2% will be infertile or stay unmarried. If you talk to a rich or middle class Hindu or Sikh or Christian (one reason why the astrologer would ask the guy’s ‘gotra’ unless he can guess it from his or her name), he could safely predict two children and be right by up to, say, 80%. If the fortune-seeker is a Muslim, or a peasant from the UP-Bihar belt, the astrologer might need to be more careful. Careful to check on his affluence, the clothes he wears, if he wears a beard without mustache or mustache without a beard, and so on. before making the two-child prediction. If I were asked by a poor young and illiterate farmer, I would predict five children for him and hit the nail on the head more than 60% times. Now you know why face readers are more accurate than horoscope interpreters.
My wife has got the horoscopes of my children written by the most famous soothsayers of that time. Because this planet is in the lap of the sun, the child would be a genius. At 17 years of age, Saturn would be in the house of the moon (or vice-versa, I am not sure), he would be average in studies but good at sports. Jupiter having gone to another house he would be unintelligent, unstable of the mind. With Neptune in the realm of Jupiter, He would turn out to be a genius. Now whatever happens, the horoscope is right. Vagueness is the key to predictions.
A year after my son went back to the world of bliss and peace, my wife found an obscure passage that could be interpreted to be a prediction of a ‘calamity’ in his life. I argue that death is no calamity to those who are gone; only to those who stay back. Just before the election results, if you had told Shivraj Patil : “Election results are not important. Whether you win or not, I see career advancement in your future.” and he is called up to be the governor of some unlucky state or put in charge of a commission for the next five years, he would be willing to send you a letter of recommendation. Nonetheless, many BJP candidates who were assured of victory in the 2012 elections bit the dust. I do not think that these people stopped believing in astrological predictions; they simply changed their astrologers to those who predicted congress win. Most of those from the Hindu BJP party who lost election in 2008 won it back i 2014 – so the astrologer could always claim “I told you so”
Think of that great predictor and godman, Chandraswamy. Many years ago, he is said to have told Jimmy Carter’s mother that her son would become the President. And he did, which made Chandraswamy a globe-trotting soothsayer for the rich and famous. We would never know how many other American women were told the same thing. Only the predictions that came true are remembered, and the rest are forgotten. However, the same godman could not predict what was going to happen to him after his benefactor-prime minister demitted office : prison sentence in Tihar, albeit for a short while. He couldn’t predict Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, but he got implicated in it. When porous statues of Ganpati were found drinking milk all over India (mine still does, but I have little milk to offer), they said it was Chandraswamy’s miracle. This same divine soothsayer predicted (February 27, 2007, Ranchi) that Rahul Gandhi would become the Prime Minister in 2009. Now, that was a clear-cut prediction. But wait a minute, he also made another prediction: “The result of UP elections would be astonishing”. So if you are a true believer, you could quote the second prediction. It was astonishing for Congress because they made unexpected gains; It was astonishing for Mayawati because she could still retain her majority. Heads I win, tail you lose. What about his earlier prediction that “burning issues like terrorism would be sorted out in 2001”?. Be vague, Chandraswamy, your stars would rise again.
In ancient Europe, as in India, astrologers and diviners of all kinds were called soothsayers. The soothsayers, being cleverer than the common folk, knew that sooth-saying all the time would be taken for boot-licking. So they also predicted bad tidings without defining time or space. Some of them predicted the end of the world and those predictions resulted in mass suicides. (The next prediction for world’s end and Anti-christ’s coming is set for May 21, 2011, supposedly taken right out of the Holy Bible. Pope Benedict watch out). Others said, “In a decade of prosperity, when the Saturn goes visiting Venus’s house there will be untold calamity in the Country.” Show me a Country to which this prediction cannot be attributed. If you are not fond of Pakistan you can safely predict the assassination of anyone in power or out of it (take care to to be particularly vague about the wily Musharraf) and come out right.
Now you might ask : if the world is ending in 2011 how can there be a World War in 2012? Depends on whom you vote for : The Holy Bible (as interpreted by some guy) or the equally popular Nostradamus as interpreted by another guy. Vastru Shastra and Fengshui take diametrically opposite sides when it comes to which direction your front door should be, and where the kitchen better be. Yet you would find interior decorators who swear by both – you take what you like.
Let us forget about the stars. You have celebrity tarot card readers who find all about your future in a pack of cards, Numerolgists who tell you to add a K to the name of your movies and serials and an Exrtra J to your name, and you will find success. If you did find success, you could attribute it to the marvelous advice, otherwise don’t talk about it. Not a single movie that became a block buster had an additional alphabet to its name – nor did the great producers name their movies with the same lucky alphabet. Predictions and prayers are placebos – when things turn out for the better, you praise them. When they don’t, you forget them.
Astrology depends on predictable variables (like the position of Saturn the day after tomorrow afternoon with relation to some other planet and as seen from a particular location) but have no logical relation to the events that it is called upon to predict. Other forecasts depend on related variables – some predictable and some not-so-predictable (like Lehman Brothers going under and George Bush not lending a hand). Some others, like the weather forecasters, are not sure whether they have all the variables that determine the rainfall on Thursday, and not exactly on which town and over how many square kilometres the southerly wind would position a pregnant cloud, but send out a forecast any way. The effect of El Nino was discovered (if indeed it has any relation to the Indian monsoon at all) and was spoken about only a few years ago. Somehow, this year when they reported that El Nino is getting stronger, the weather department also found that the monsoon is recovering. As more and more variables are taken into the equation, weather forecasts are becoming more and more accurate. For astrologers, the variables that they take into ‘calculation’ just don’t seem to have any relationship to the equation.
Indian astrology not only predicts personal calamities (who doesn’t get a death in the family in a decade?) but also tells you the way to forestall them. K. Karunakaran, formerly a Congress chief and now an unwanted prodigal returned to the fold, never does anything in ‘Rahukalam’ ( a one-and-a-half hour period at different times of the day in a week). He failed miserably as a chief minister four times; the only halo he carries is one he puts on himself. In the meanwhile, his favourite son, an ambitious but clueless politician for whom Karunakaran put his reputation at stake, wanders in the political wilderness. Former actress Jayalalitha (who manipulates the spellings of her name according to numerologist persuasions), went by astrological counsel and presented an elephant to the Guruvayoor temple with much fanfare before the state elections. Jayalalita lost, and an avowed atheist, M. Karunanithi got the chief ministerial chair. In Karunakaran’s state, another atheist, V.S. Achuthandan got the same seat. (Not that all self-proclaimed communists are atheists. Many of them, like Achuthanandan’s home minister Balakrishnan, are known to conduct secret poojas for personal success or for the annihilation of their enemies.). The positive prediction of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s gang of astrologers and pooja-pundits couldn’t get him back to the Railway Minister’s chair. Nor could Chandaswamy persuade Rahul Gandhi to accept Prime Ministership.
Will Jayalalitha stop donating elephants to temple? Will Karunakaran step out of his house during a Rahu-kalam of one-and-a half hours? No. This painfully assembled blog is a waste. I couldn’t persuade my own dear family to stop listening to astrological predictions. Perhaps I am gradually turning into a believer myself.
So I safely predict that there will be at least two secret Satis, 2700 bride burnings, 4900 child marriages, 10280 acid-throws on pretty girls and 41370 rapes and unaccounted sodomies of juvenile boys in the Country this year. If those counts don’t turn out to be accurate, that would be because the police didn’t give out all the figures or the media were exaggerating. In any case, I am being just as specific as Chandraswamy and not as obscure as Nostradamus. If you prove my figures totally off the mark, I will check back on the stars.
PostScript: My predictions for India turned out to be understatements. I must practise more.