After being interviewed for Outlook's report on astrology, Chennai's Nambungal Narayanan, who claims innumerable correct predictions, asked me with childlike enthusiasm, "When will your magazine feature this?" "You must tell me that," I told him, who had predicted a John Kerry victory. He replied with sudden confidence, "In two-three weeks." As I was leaving, he again dropped his guard: "Please call me when the issue comes out."
Despite such unwitting lack of confidence, how and why is it that in India future-telling has emerged as a far more powerful industry than in the Christian West or Islamic world? Debunked as pseudoscience, astrology in the West does not have the formal sanction of religion.
However, in India, astrology has been a part of religion. In most Brahminic south Indian temples, there's a navagraha shrine for the nine planets (which includes the sun and moon, but excludes the earth!). There are temples dedicated to specific planets—for instance, the Saturn temple Saneeswaran Koil in Thirunallar, Tamil Nadu. The very word Saturn—saniyan—is used in Tamil as a curse. Says Meera Nanda, author of Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism, "Hinduism has a holistic worldview where objects in nature and human subjects are not separate entities but different manifestations of the same universal consciousness." Hence the anachronistic persistence with a geocentric universe, and belief in planetary influences on humans.
This has led to astrologers emerging as the new priestly class. "Since there's lots of money to be made in remedial astrology," says G. Vijayam, executive director of Vijayawada-based Atheist Centre, "astrologers today are like the greedy Brahmins of the Vedic period who barter other-worldly sacrifices for this-worldly goodies. Astrology, numerology, gemology and such like are the diseases of affluence. The poor have no use for them." Vijayam says the root is in karma theory which encourages a fatalistic attitude. "In India, it's one way of making money without working. It perpetuates ignorance, makes people docile and robs them of initiative."
Astrology also helps perpetuate the caste system with its emphasis on match-making. "Astrology comes in handy to prevent inter-caste marriages by projecting a scenario of horrific failure," says K. Nandan, whose marriage outside caste was scuttled by his lover's astrology-besotted family. For the millions seeking solace in astrology, the appeal is clearly not to reason. It's about belief, and is part of the Hindu way of life. Esoteric vedanta for the classes, populist jyotish for the masses.