A More Reasonable and Complete History of Astrology and the Zodiac

 

1. Oldest Known Forms of Astrology

Siderealists assert that the earliest form of the zodiac was sidereal, and it later became tropical. The measure of any account of history is how well it accounts for all the available fact. The siderealist interpretation of history does not take into account all the historical facts we have at our disposal, particularly it ignores or overlooks the fact that  show that even the oldest known systems of astrology contain the seeds of both sidereal and tropical approaches.

[
Sidereal = “in reference to stars”;
Tropical = “in reference to the Sun’s four cardinal points”
]

We find the seeds of sidereal astrology in ancient records of predictions people made by interpreting what they saw when they looked up at the stars. They grouped the stars into constellations based on how the moon moved through them, or how they rose before the Sun, and they associated deities and symbolism with each. Thus we have ancient records of 28 Vedic and Chinese constellations, 36 Egyptian decans, and 18 Babylonian constellations.

We find the seeds of tropical astrology in the fact that all ancient cultures very carefully observed the Sun’s movement in reference to four key waypoints: 2 equinoxes and 2 solstices.

In Indian history, Aiteriya Brāhmaṇa (4.18) and Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (4.6.2) describe how carefully Vedic culture observed the equinoxes and solstices, and all the days in between. They described the Sun’s path as having “four angles” – the equinoxes and solstices. (These books are linguistically dated 500-1000 BCE, astrologically dated 1000-2000BCE conservatively.)

Vedāṅga Jyotiṣa, (700-1500BCE) also keeps careful track of the location of equinoxes.

In Babylonia, the very ancient Mul.Apin (1.3.1-12) describes the importance of the four cardinal points, and reveals how carefully the Babylonians observed the equinoxes and solstices. It shows that they divided the Sun’s 360-part orbit into 12 equal segments of 30-parts each, anchored to the equinoxes and solstices.

In fact, almost every ancient culture in the world divided the Sun’s orbit into 12 equal segments anchored to the equinoxes. Ancient structures like Stonehenge, the sphinx  and many mesoamerican pyramids stand as testaments to how important these measurements were in ancient cultures across the globe.

Conclusion:

The fact that we see the seeds of sidereal and tropical measurements side-by-side in all these major astrological cultures makes the claim that astrology was originally sidereal extremely doubtful. A conclusion more consistent with all the facts is that astrology has always been based on both sidereal and tropical consideration.

2. Evolution of Astrological Calculations

The oldest records of astrology are from a time (3 – 6,000 years ago) when we lacked the mathematical science to know where planets were when we couldn’t see them. At that time, astrologers relied entirely on interpreting what they could see in the sky.

The system of 12 divisions of the Sun’s orbit based on solstices and equinoxes (the seed-form of the tropical zodiac) was measured by the ebb and flow of sunlight. Sunlight prevents us from seeing the stars and planets, and since we didn’t know very well where the planets were when we couldn’t see them, we could not initially utilize this system very much in astrological predictions.

Much more emphasis was therefore placed on observing the starry night sky, and the planets visible in it. This is why most of the early astrological predictions were based on stellar observations. Which leads siderealists to jump to the conclusion that astrology was initially sidereal.

Mathematics evolved, and about 2,500 years ago we could know reasonably well where a planet was, even when we couldn’t see it. This suddenly allowed us to utilize the 12 equinox-based divisions, and radically revolutionized astrology.

The Babylonians seems to have been the first to do this, and they shifted so radically to this system that they reorganized their 18 ecliptic constellations into 12!

Very soon after this, Alexander the Great’s conquests put a huge swath of the earth under a common language (Greek), which facilitated rapid and extensive cultural mixing. It was at this time that the Egyptian and Babylonian forms of astrology mingled and became what we now call “Hellenistic Astrology” which crystalized for the first time the Planet / Sign / House system that, to this day 2,000 years later, is still the fundamental basis of all interpretive astrology.

3. Claims of Sidereal Origins

The claim that 12-sign zodiac is originally sidereal is based on the fact that the Babylonians adopted it with such zeal that they reorganized their 18 constellations into 12, to roughly match the 12-sign zodiac.

However, this claim ignores several absolutely essential facts:

  • The entire basis of 12 divisions in the first place is the Sun’s movement through it’s four cardinal points. Evidence for this is abundant in how the ancient cultures  measured the 12 months in relation to equinoxes and solstices.
  • (The second fact this claim has to ignore is that) each of the 12 divisions had its own symbolic character, derived from its planetary ruler, elemental triplicity, and modal quadruplicity. As I demonstrated in the previous installment (Part 6), all three of these derive entirely from the signs relationship to the four cardinal points established by the equinoxes and solstices.
  • (The third fact this claim has to ignore is that) no one, including the Babylonians, yet had any clue that there was such a things as “sidereal” in contrast to something called “tropical”. It would take a few centuries before someone discovered that. So, the claim that they used a sidereal, not a tropical zodiac is extremely misleading.

A far more reasonable understanding of the historical data is that Babylonians, not knowing of equinotical precession, drew equivalence between the 12 signs and specific stars because this would allow them occasions to visually verify and correct their calculation of planetary positions – which was very necessary at the time, since the mathematics of astronomy was still young and developing.

4. Discovering the Difference Between Sidereal and Tropical

The person commonly credited as being the first to notice that the stars drift from the equinox is Hipparchus, who lived in the 2nd Century BCE.

It is only after this that astrologers became aware that the stellar equivalence of the 12 divisions would gradually become out of sync with the equinoxes and solstices themselves.

It is only from this point that “sidereal” and “tropical” versions of the zodiac became a concept for consideration.

Upon learning of Hipparchus’ discovery, the majority of astronomers and astrologers decided adopted the version of the zodiac anchored to the equinoxes and solstices. This is extremely reasonable because, as I previously explained the equinoxes and solstices had been the foundation of the 12 divisions all along.

Ptolemy was the first surviving author to explicitly accept this view. [Correction from Video: Ptolemy was not a contemporary of Hipparchus. He lived a few centuries later than Hipparchus.]

Ptolemy introduced many new concepts, such as the untenable idea that planets have a direct causal influence on individual human life, and the concomitant idea that weather and seasons are a part of that chain of cause and effect, but any claim that Ptolemy invented the tropical zodiac, or changed the zodiac from sidereal to tropical, is highly suspect and reject-able in consideration of all the historical facts I have presented so far.

Eventually almost everyone accepted a tropical definition of the zodiac, but the early centuries of the common era were marked by some confusion and contention amongst important early astrologers (like Vettius Valens).

Within a few centuries non-tropical conception of the zodiac was extremely rare, then it died out almost entirely until the 20th century when it was revived for a minority by Cyril Fagan.

The exception to all of this, however, was India.

5. History of Astrology in India

Whenever we speak of Indian history we are drawn to its roots in the ancient culture founded on the body of knowledge known as Veda.

The Veda describes itself as a transmission of perfect knowledge from Viṣṇu to Brahmā, which is them disseminated to others by a teacher-student system known as Paramparā.

“Vedic knowledge is perfect. There is no need for improvement. The ancient sages perfectly understood everything entirety, and there is no chance of a flaw or mistake.”

True but Veda also says it is perfectly understood in 1st Age, partially understood in 2nd, misunderstood in 3rd, and incomprehensible in 4th (the current age). Only the elucidations of the Veda created by Vyāsa specifically for this age can be perfectly understood in modern times. These are Brahmā-Sūtra, Mahābharata, and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.

Nowhere in any of these, nor in any part of the surviving fragments of the Veda do we have any description of jātaka hora (natal horoscopic astrology). So natal horoscopic astrology is a part of pauruṣeya vidya (the evolving knowledge of humanity), it is not part of apauruṣeya vidya (the divine transmission of supra-experiential knowledge contained in the Veda).

Thus there is no valid grounds for an elitist attitude to creep into Indian astrology, and no grounds for the idea that it is not subject to evolution, flaw, and improvement.

Some may say that the Veda includes Vedāṅga Jyotiṣa, but that manual too contains absolutely no horoscopic or natal astrology. It introduces itself very clearly as being meant to calculate the proper time to perform various rites and rituals.

The oldest Indian text about horoscopic astrology (2nd Century CE), is called Yavana-jātaka, which literally means “The Natal-Divination System of the Ionians [Greeks].” This strongly suggests that natal horoscopic astrology came to India from the Greeks. In fact much of the key terminology still used today in Vedic astrology is entirely greek, not sanskrit (“kendra” & “kona” for example).

When we bring up this point, many Indian people become upset and accuse us of supporting an ethnocentric aryan-invasion point of view. This is an over-reaction.

Indian’s should not feel insulted about the likelihood that they did not invent horoscopic astrology. Horoscopic astrology is a trifle compared to what they truly, undoubtedly did accomplish through their truly Vedic culture: understanding the nature of reality, its source, and the individual’s direct participation with that source.

Astrology is nothing in comparison to this. In fact, astrology attains the height of its usefulness only when enriched by the philosophical framework of presented by the Vedas.

6. The Indian Zodiac

As in the West, the Indian tradition clearly, explicitly, and unequivocally define the zodiac in tropical terms, anchored to the solstices and equinoxes. This is right there in black and white, in the Purāṇas and Sūrya Siddhānta, as well as in the work of the great 5th-6th Century Indian mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata (see Aryabhatiya 4.1)

Also as in the West, the Indian tradition seems to have gone through some amount of contention and confusion between accepting the tropical and sidereal definitions in the early centuries of the CE.  The texts written during those early centuries give evidence of this.

For example, In the 6th Century CE the great Indian mathematician and astrologer Varāha Mihira wrote (Bṛhatsaṁhita 3.1-3) that the northern solstice used to be in Āśleṣā, so we have to note the current locations of solstices and equinoxes to know where Cancer and Capricorn begin.

In Pañcasiddhāntikā (3.21 & 32) he explained that the equinoxes and solstices gradually move through the nakshatras, making the correlation between them require constant correction. But, he said, astrologers were not doing this, they were just following tradition.

The difference between India and the rest of the world in this regard is that the rest of world resolved to accept the tropical zodiac, while India resolved to accept the sidereal zodiac.

7. Why Did India go Sidereal?

It is obvious that the Indians knew about the difference between the sidereal and tropical, caused by equinotical precession. The Purāṇas definitely acknowledge axial precession, and even utilize it to measure the passing centuries. (ex ŚB 12.2.27-28). And the concept of Ayanāṁśa and utilization of the tropical zodiac in calculating the lagna and some aspects of Ṣaḍ-bāla all doubtlessly show that the Indians were aware of equinotical precession and could calculate it accurately.

So why did they chose the sidereal zodiac?

One reason may be the essential nature of Indian culture itself. Having its roots in a flawless body of knowledge to be protected and passed on by paramparā, India became the world’s foremost preserver of culture, by placing strong emphasis on tradition. Varāha Mihira pointed towards this as the reason for Indian astrologers not accepting that the rāśi constantly change their orientation to the nakshatra. They wanted to keep things the way their teachers and forefathers had kept them. If their forefathers and teachers placed Aśvinī at the beginning of Aries, they did not want to change this, thus they wound up with a sidereal zodiac.

Another reason may be that they had integrated the 12-fold zodiac with their sidereal nakshatra system so tightly and compellingly, that they refused to break that integration by allowing the nakshatra to drift in relation to the rāśi.

8. Attempts to Change this Decision

This decision has to be described as a mistake, because it contradicts how the Purāṇas and Sūrya Siddhānta define the zodiac, and how the 12-fold divisions of the Sun’s orbit had been originally conceived in Vedic India. So, people have periodically attempted to bring Indian astrology to a tropical conception of the 12 signs, independent of their doubtlessly sidereal nakṣatra.

Early astrologers such as Varāha Mihira and Aryabhata spoke in favor a tropical zodiac.

In recent times, an increasing number of voices have also spoken in favor of adopting the tropical zodiac more fully in the context of Indian astrology. I will mention those I know of.

In the late 19th century, S.B. Dikshita, in his book, History of Indian Astronomy, Part II, concluded that the Indian clandar should be based on tropical zodiac signs, not sidereal – because of the importance of the solstices and equinoxes in Vedic religion. Dikshita recognized the unlikeliness of conservative Indian culture adopting such a radical change, and suggested that a partial reform would be to standardize a singular sidereal zodiac on the citrapakṣa ayanāṁśa.

The official Calendar Reform Committee, led by N.C. Lahiri and commissioned by the Indian Government in 1950,  exactly echoed Dikshita’s recommendations. The first and second resolution in the committee’s official report was that tropical reckoning should be used, and the start of the year (and thus the zodiac) should be the northerly equinox. But they conceded that an ayanamsha can be applied “for religious purposes… as a concession to the prevailing customs.”

Again on page 7 of the report, when elaborating on standardization of the religious calendar, the committee wrote, “This recommendation [citrapakṣa ayanaṁśa] is to be regarded only as a measure of compromise, so that we avoid a violent break with the established custom. But it does not make our present seasons in the various months as they were in the days of Varahamihira or Kalidasa. It is hoped that at not a distant date, further reforms for locating the lunar and solar festivals in the seasons in which they were originally observed will be adopted.”

It is clear that the seven extremely highly-esteemed scientists and scholars commissioned in this committee agreed that the tropical zodiac was correct, but a sidereal zodiac would be required to accommodate the prevailing customs. Thus, they viewed the sidereal zodiac as a compromise with tradition.

In 1930 G.V. Krishnaswami published a paper entitled, Reform of the Indian Calendars, in which he says, “The method of placing the ayanas and the months on a sidereal basis in the Indian calendars is defective and hence there is a difference of about 23 days in the calculations.”

In more modern times, at least three scholars – Krishen Kaul, M.K.A. Patrakam, and T.V. Sivaraman speak very openly against the sidereal zodiac.

Sri Swarupananda Saraswathi Maharaj of Dwaraka Mutt stands behind them, adding that the Dwaraka Mutt has  promoted the very same idea for 120 years.

Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal of Kanchi Mutt also supports them, saying that, “the time has come” for this reform.

Sri Gangadharendra Saraswathi Swamiji of Shri Sonda Swarnavalli Mutt also supports them, saying all must “fall in line with the sayana [tropical] system.”

Tropical reform in Indian astrology is therefore not at all a Western imposition on Indian culture, as opponents to it claim. However, westerners have indeed supported this reform, particularly as it applies to interpretive natal horoscopic astrology.

The first westerner recognized for doing so is Ernst Wilhelm, who published his first paper on the subject in 2006. Ryan Kurzack adopted his system a few years later and often explains it. In 2012 I adopted tropical rāśi with standard citrapakṣa nakṣatra (slightly different from Ernst and Ryan), and have been vocal in explaining it, especially during 2017, as a response to this system coming under criticism as it gains much more significant traction, support and momentum amongst a wider group of practicing astrologers.

Other Reading…

This is part 7 in a series of 9 refutations of arguments against the tropical zodiac, especially as used in Vedic Astrology with sidereal nakshatra. It you would like to see all the series, here is a playlist that contains them:

I consider Parts 7 (History), 6 (Logic of the Zodiac Symbolism), 8 (Indian Foundational Texts), and 3 (Constellational, Sidereal, and Tropical Zodiacs) to be the most important. Please try to watch at least those four.

Thank you