Well, the truth is that the term “Vedic Astrology” was invented in the early 1980s, amidst the popularity of ’70s India-movements like ISKCON (“Hare Krishna”) and TM (“Transcendental Meditation”) and their love for using the word Vedic in an alluring, attractive manner – referring loosely to just about anything that could be written in Sanskrit or Bengali.
Of course, such a definition of “Vedic” is not entirely wrong – regardless of how modern scholarship tries to cripple the term. By it’s very design, Vedic culture is not a static thing that happened at some point in time and is now dead. It is something that lives, grows, and thrives through time. So the fact that the term “Vedic Astrology” was coined in the ’80s, likely by an American, does not in itself prove any illegitimacy.
People a bit more in-the-know might want to use the term “Jyotisha” since it is at least a legitimate Sanskrit word. Whichever term you use – “Vedic Astrology” or “Jyotisha” – you get the distinct impression that you are dealing with something very ancient, or at least very Indian in origin. Yet the hard and cold fact of the mater is that Vedic Astrology / Jyotisha as we now practice it is neither very ancient nor very Indian (at least not by a scholars yardstick, often useless as they may be).
By now you might get the wrong impression that I am trying to strip India of her rightful glory in developing a really impressive system of astrology. Nothing could be further from the truth! The truest glory of India is unique ability to balance multiplicity, plurality and inclusiveness with traditional preservation. Just look at “Hinduism” – a harmonious coexistence of dozens of very ancient different religious beliefs and spiritual practices, that today remain at least as interesting and relevant and alive as any new philosophical novelties. India has always been extremely forward thinking and plural when it comes to maters of knowledge and philosophy. Thus it has always been an extremely open country, trading thought and techniques with its neighbors for as long as we have historical records. That is something to be proud of. What would be really stupid is for us to adopt a psuedo-aryan (get the pun?) mentality and think that only “pure” Indian or “pure” Vedic is good. “Indian” and “Vedic” by definition are inclusive and evolutionary.
Anyway, shy of it or proud of it, the truth is that Indian Astrology is a conglomerate composite of classical global astrological culture mixed with its ancient original roots. No doubt, ancient Indian astrology was very highly developed, but again there is no doubt that it was quite unlike the sign-and-house based system Vedic astrologers and Jyotishis use so heavily today.
What was Ancient Vedic Astrology like? This is my opinion. I am no scholar, but I have deeply studied Vedic culture and practice for more than half my life.
- It was not primarily “jataka” or “natal” – it was primarily spiritual / religious and political.
- It’s did have signs and houses perhaps, but by far its main points of reference were the Moon, Sun, and probably the 5 other planets in the 27 fixed stars (Nakshatra) – as well as the manner in which the Moon in these stars combined to form “yogas” with various combinations of Sunrise Lords and Lunar Phases.
Consider for example this description of the astrological conditions at Krishna’s birth, from the late Vedic classic, Srimad Bhagavatam (10th division, 3rd chapter, 1st and 2nd text):
कालह्̣ परम-शोभनह्̣ यर्ह्य् एवाजन-जन्मर्क्स्̣अम्́
शान्तर्क्स्̣अ-ग्रह-तारकम् दिशह्̣ प्रसेदुर् गगनम्́
kālaḥ parama-śobhanaḥ yarhy evājana-janmarkṣaḿ
śāntarkṣa-graha-tārakam diśaḥ prasedur gaganaḿ
“Fate reached its paramount beauty in the birth-star of the unborn. All the constellations were peaceful, as were the planets and even the outer stars. Every direction of the sky was peaceful, and all the spotless stars had risen.”
Notice that you hear nothing about a house or a sign? But of course when we want to look at Krsna’s horoscope we want to know what his rising sign was and so forth – that is fine – but that’s not how the ancient Indian Astrologers looked at it.
We hear that the star of the unborn was a focal point. This refers to the star / nakshatra we have come to systematically name Rohini, whose deity is the unborn, Brahma. We hear that the planets and stars were “peaceful” which is most likely a shorthand way of saying that there were no inauspicious placements in any of the calculations, but we don’t know what the calculations were, that information is not given. There is reference to “directions of the sky” which is a hint that there might have been some type of house system in use. And there is a reference to rising, a hint that attention may have been paid to the ascendant. We certainly don’t hear that “Jupiter was in the 11th house, Pisces” and that sort of familiar sounding thing.
Garga-samhita (there are two books with this name, making it more confusing) gives some additional definition of the astrology of Krishna’s birth. He gives the var, the paksha, tithi, maasa, and yoga. In English these terms mean: weekday, waxing/waning, lunar phase, month, and the combination resulting from day, phase, and nakshatra. I believe Garga also gives the time as “just coming to midnight.” Krishna was born on the half waning moon of the lunar month of Bhadrapada, and the yoga formed was “Harsha” – meaning “Eager to Enjoy.”
Now if you know a lot about the really old stuff in Vedic astrology, you can assemble a significant astrological reading from this data alone. But most “Vedic astrologers” and “Jyotishis” have forgotten what any of it means in the context of natal interpretation.
Later books (Kha Manikya, for example) venture a more modern description of Krishna’s horoscope as “Taurus Rising with the Moon and Ketu, Sun in Leo, Venus and Saturn in Libra, Mercury in Virgo, Mars in Capricorn, and Jupiter in Pisces.” A few centuries ago the great spiritualist Vishvananth Cakravarti ratified this presentation more or less, by quoting it in his commentary on the Srimad Bhagavatam verse we quoted above regarding Krishna’s birth. In very modern times, various speculators – probably unaware of this ratified opinion – have ventured forth their own ideas of the houses and signs of Krishna’s horoscope.
The point here is that none of it is what the ancient astrologers record about Krishna. The point is that really indigenous and ancient “Vedic” stuff is almost entirely about the 27 fixed stars and their relationship to the Sun, Moon, and Earth. The dependence on modern houses and signs, etc. came into India as a result of her incorporating the knowledge and practices of other cultures. For better or for worse most of what we have today is what Indian astrologers polished after taking what they thought best from the Egyptians and Greeks mainly received through her frequent and thorough exchanges with the Persians.
You may not want to believe me about this, but it is very, very hard to deny. For example: much of the terminology of “Indian” astrology is just an Indian spelling of words from other cultures. Kendra comes from Greek kentron.Trikona comes from Greek trigonon. Almost all the words having anything to do with solar returns are Sanskrit spellings of Persian words.
Some people think that there is such a thing as “Vedic astrological scriptures.” And in a sense, maybe there is. But you have to be aware that these were written in the late-classical historical period, or in an early-modern period – well after Indian astrology and mid-eastern astrology had thoroughly blended. You shouldn’t let the connotation of “Vedic scripture” lead you to wrongly assume that a book is thousands of years old.
Some people think that the amshas (subdivisions of signs) and dasas (astrological time phases) are unique to “Vedic Astrology” but, again, that is not the case. These systems are universal – its just that outside of India they were largely forgotten.
What is really glorious about India is that she managed to preserve and keep thriving the global astrological culture better than any other culture in the world. Thus the astrology we have in India today is far, far closer to true “western astrology” than western astrology itself is (with, in my opinion, the notable glitch of their sidereal conception of the 12 signs).
It’s worth mentioning that if “Vedic astrology” is guilty of being a misleading term, so is “Western astrology” – which was almost entirely developed in the middle east.
If the signs and lords don’t feel especially Indian or Vedic to you, and sound more like universal metaphysics, that’s because you are perceptive. They are universal metaphysics. If, for whatever reason, you really want to dive into the “Vedic” roots of “Vedic Astrology” you should dive into understanding the symbolic mythology of the 27 stars. That alone will take you on a grand tour of the Puranas (a huge portion of “Vedic” literature). And you must also explore the interpretive effects of tithi and tithi-var-nakshatra yogas.
India’s blessing is her ability to preserve and probably improve these things where all other cultures lost or blurred their own systems. If you want to embrace “Vedic Astrology” more or less as it is today, you should do so confident that it will give you a starting point closer to the true ancient and classical global astrological system than you can get anywhere else.
- Vic DiCara