Jyotisha, Hindu Astrology

How the Science of Light Can Help You in Daily Life

In the Hindu view, the planets are not mere celestial bodies circling the Sun. They are also divine beings - shown here as they were positioned on the first morning of the current millennium. Each is like a prism, conveying subtle energy from the far galaxies, thus impacting man’s affairs on Earth according to its unique nature and location in the sky. The ancient science of space and time that understands and maps this influence is called jyotisha (literally “science of light”) or Hindu astrology. We explore that system of knowledge in this Educational Insight.

It’s About Time


Believing nothing, the skeptic is blind; believing everything, the naif is lame. Somewhere between the two lies the lauded land of viveka, discrimination, which neither doubts every inexplicable phenomenon nor swallows every unexamined statement. In this issue we explore the uncanny Vedic technology of jyotisha, that hoary knowledge, derived from secondary Vedic texts, which embraces both astronomy and astrology. It’s about time.

President Ronald Reagan confounded the White House staff and embarrassed aides by having his itinerary and major meetings scheduled in consultation with his wife’s astrologer in California. Scoffing staffers counted it pure silliness; others thought it merely impolitic of him, maybe because of the implication that he wasn’t totally in charge or that a Christian would so publicly propound such things.

Mr. Reagan is not a lone heretic. Queen Elizabeth I, a Virgo, consulted the stars. Galileo, the Italian mathematician and astronomer, cast charts on the side, as did the German celestial scientist Johannes Kepler. Britain’s Princess Diane followed the stars, and many Hollywood stars do the same. Ditto with Carl Jung and American millionaire J.P. Morgan. A 2013 Harris Poll concluded that 29 percent of Americans (and nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds) believe in or follow astrology. By contrast, 92 percent of the Chinese public think horoscopes are nonsense.

Like so many other things, astrology in the West is about personal things—about me and mine, my spiritual progress, my love life and business success. These concerns are not absent in the East, but larger concerns dominate. Astrology in India is about auspiciousness, about connections, about sacred timing and being in a flow with the ebb and tide of divine forces.

Astrology is a part of Vedic self-understanding. We look to the stars to see ourselves better, to discover the mysteries that lie all about us and within us. In rita dharma, that heavenly cosmic orderliness, stars are more than massive conglomerates of molecules or fiery furnaces fleeting afar. They are entities, potent presences that affect us despite their distance. There are, of course, many Hindus today who pooh-pooh such notions. “Stuff and nonsense,” they will cry, “What thoughtful person can accept that stars, so remote, influence life on Earth?”

But what thoughtful person, asks the astrologer, would deny the powerful tides dragged across our planet by a faraway moon, or gainsay the not-so-subtle solar forces that are the very stuff of life here? “Ah, but go out another few thousand light years and tell us what petty influences persist,” our doubter might challenge. The jyotishi (Vedic astrologer), realizing the basic East/West difference in world views, attempts to help the skeptic understand the Hindu perspective. “In Eastern thought, particularly Hinduism, we conceive of all existence - including the stars and planets - not as being ‘out there,’ but rather ‘in here’ - within the consciousness of each one of us. In other words, consciousness encompasses all of creation. The ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ are mirror images, and the essential nature of the cosmos is not that of multitudinous distinctions but rather the many-faceted expression of a one unified Reality. Thus we do not follow the mechanistic, externalized approach typical of Western thought.”

The astrologer is something of a tribal shaman. Ideally, he or she is the one among us with special insight, with a wider vision that lifts awareness beyond our little world, connecting us to the canopy above, expanding perception beyond the narrow sliver of time in which we live by bringing past lives and actions into the now. You could say that astrologers tell time with a bigger watch.

The genuine astrologer is, in a sense, a time navigator. He teaches that time is not all colourless and neutral, the same in all directions. Time has its eddies, its waxing and waning, its preferential ways - and in that sense is much like the oceans. No ship’s captain worth his hardtack would consider the sea a uniform body of water, everywhere equal and indifferent to his passage. No, the sea is alive with idle doldrums and treacherous tempests, and, yes, dangers worthy of anticipation.

To the astrologer, time is like that sea, with moods and forces, some propelling us swiftly forward, others opposing our well-plotted progress. How foolhardy the seaman who keeps his canvas unfurled in a storm or stows his sails when the good winds blow. Time is a kind of moral wind, blowing now this way, now that. As a ship’s captain heeds the chart reckoned by his navigator as to course, winds and tides, so our life’s journey benefits from periodically examining another chart, our astrologer’s appraisal of protean time’s patterned flow.

Those who still doubt are members of a hoary club. Yogaswami of Jaffna had the perfect prescription for them, one that sets aside all of the good versus bad, will versus fate kerfuffle: “All times are auspicious for the pure Siva bhaktar.”

Working with Our Karmic Code

Philosophically, Hindu astrology reflects the law of karma, which includes both free will and an aspect of predetermination, or fate. Predetermination means our present condition is the result of our past actions from previous lives; free will means we shape our future by our present actions - how we respond to the challenges. The birth chart represents a person’s karmic code, the samskaras with which he or she is born, imprinted on the subtle or astral body. This code is analogous to the genetic code that outlines the main potentials of the physical body. The birth chart indicates the main potentials of our entire life.

From an astrologer’s point of view, the birth chart is the most important document we have in life. Yet, like the genetic code, it is written in a mathematical language that requires decoding by a trained expert, and it calls for careful examination over time to unfold its dynamic secrets. K.N. Rao observed, “A horoscope reflects the allotment of karmas of previous lives. We are all getting the results of our karma, but not all of our karma.”

According to the Vedas, when a soul takes birth, it descends through the heavens and the atmosphere before reaching Earth, taking on heavier sheaths of material density. It can only take birth in the physical plane at a time karmically in accord with its nature and destiny. The birth chart represents the seed pattern of its life; how it develops depends upon environment as well.

Sam Geppi offers: “This karmic energy points to the lessons that need to be learned in that lifetime. For example, a person who needs to work through anger problems in this lifetime will inherit a body, mind and upbringing that will challenge them to confront their anger and hopefully transcend it. In the case of anger, the element of fire will likely predominate. An astrological chart reveals this. It is a portrait of the soul’s karma and the pattern of illusion in which we may become trapped.…This is maya, the illusion that we are merely an acting, mind/body experience.”

Chakrapani D. Ullal, widely honoured as the father of Vedic astrology in the West, observed, “Astrology is a science of indications only, it is not fatalistic. Therefore, people should have the idea that they have the power, if they want to, to bring amendments and changes, to modify the influence by their effort and their willingness. When I give a reading, I say, ‘By using the willpower, by gaining the grace of God or guru, we can change everything.’

Otherwise, people misunderstand astrology by thinking ‘Oh, it is in the stars.’ It is in the stars only for those people who do not want to take responsibility for their life. Jyotisha is a science of self-revelation. Through jyotisha, one begins to understand one’s own nature; and one of the fundamental rules of spirituality is self-acceptance. Jyotisha tells you what you really are, and that understanding enables a person to accept. That moment of acceptance is the beginning of spirituality. As long as we don’t accept the outer nature, we cannot transcend to the inner nature.”

Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami advised: “When unfavourable times arise which have to be lived through (as they all too frequently do), we do not carp or cringe, but look at these as most excellent periods for meditation and sadhana rather than worldly activities. Just the reverse for the positive periods. Spiritual progress can be made during both periods. Both negative and positive times are, in fact, positive when used wisely. A competent jyotisha shastri is of help in forecasting the future as to when times will come along when advancements can be made. A positive mental attitude should be held during all the ups and downs that are predicated to happen. Be as the traveller in a 747 jet, flying high over the cities, rather than a pedestrian wandering the streets below.”

Cosmic Consciousness

Astrology is the science of fathoming the influence of the sun, moon, planets and stars upon living creatures. In Sanskrit it is called jyotisha, which means the “science of light” -specifically, “Vedanga Jyotisha,” the astrological limb of the Vedas, said to be the very eye of the Vedas.

Jyotisha is a system of understanding how our lives and our karmas relate to the movements of the cosmos, which is cognized as a single greater organism. Under jyotisha is included astronomy, meteorology and forms of divination, including palmistry, the reading of omens, svara (reading the breath) and various oracles.

Like yoga, jyotisha is a super science that links us with the cosmic intelligence behind nature. Its first message is that we are one with the Universal Being. New discoveries in quantum physics demonstrate the interrelatedness of the universe, showing subtle levels of immediate interaction even at great distances of time and space. Jyotisha is an integral aspect of the traditional Vedic sciences, along with ayurveda, vastu and yoga, all of which are usually used together.

How can the stars and planets influence events on Earth? Obviously the Sun is the basis of all life. According to the Vedas, it also projects a force of intelligence and spirituality. The Moon is important to all creatures and governs the fertility cycles of animals. In the Vedic system it rules the emotional nature. It is well known that the large magnetic and gravitational fields of the planets affect the Earth physically. That they would have subtler influences as well is not illogical.

Astrology is common in one form or another in all cultures, though in India it has had the widest and freest development, from the most ancient period to the present day. Ancient Greece and Rome used astrology extensively, as did Europe to the eighteenth century, even though it was often banned by the church. We could say that the type of astrology used by a culture reflects its understanding of the universe, particularly the subtle and spiritual influences guiding our lives. Curiously, modern cultures continue to employ astrology even when its validity is questioned by the scientific community. The ever-popular sun signs in newspapers reveal this undying interest.

A yantra of the Mahamrityunjaya mantra

Jyotisha remains an important facet of Hindu spiritual, religious and social practice, not only in India but worldwide, throughout the Hindu diaspora. It is widely used by Hindus, from common villagers to the sophisticated urban elite. It is an important component of temple worship, pilgrimages and yoga practices. It is avidly used for guiding family life, business and career, physical health and psychological well being. Jyotisha is famously employed by politicians to aid them in winning elections.

Hindus follow a special sacred yearly astrological calendar, called panchangam, for the right timing of all actions. India has many notable astrological and planetary temples, and new ones are coming up as astrology grows once more in popularity. Astrological icons are found in Hindu temples of all types. In South Indian temples, an altar of astrological Deities, called the navagrahas (“nine planets”), is placed in the corner of the central courtyard. After doing the clockwise perambulation around the Deity sanctum, devotees perform a second walk around the planetary Deities’ shrine.

Many yogis and sages have been astrologers or written on astrology. This includes modern figures like Sri Aurobindo, Ganapati Muni, Paramahamsa Yogananda and his guru Sri Yukteswar, Sivananda Murty, Swami Dayananda (Arsha Vidya Gurukulam) and historic figures like Madhva, Bhishma, Vashishta, Parashara, Bhrigu and others.

Newborns are traditionally named based on their jyotisha charts which provide optional syllables, based on the nakshatra, to begin the child’s name. Astrological concepts are pervasive in the organization of the calendar and holidays, as well as in areas of life such as the timing of marriage, opening a new business or moving into a new home. Hindu priests and teachers are routinely trained in astrology, among other Vedic disciplines. Introduced as an elective study at the university level in India in 2003, Vedic astrology manages to retain a position among the sciences in modern India. There is a movement in progress to establish a national Vedic university to teach astrology together with the study of tantra, mantra and yoga. All this despite complaints by some scientists.

From Kerala in the South to the Himalayas in the North, there is an astounding variety of profound astrological approaches, systems and techniques, including different ways of designing the birth chart.

Remedial Measures

Jyotisha does not leave us helpless before the onslaughts of karma. It provides practical ways of dealing with them. Sadhana invariably helps neutralize the effects of a “bad chart.” Ultimately, in fact, there is no such thing. A chart that does not portend worldly benefits, such as wealth or marriage, is likely to be good spiritually. “Afflictions” to home, family, marriage and money are often necessary for a person to renounce the world and devote himself to spiritual practices. Afflictions in the area of health can benefit from spiritual practices like mantra japa. While one career may not be favorable for success, another may be. Many remedial measures can help with karmic obstacles, including penance, pilgrimage, bhakti, praying for divine intervention, mantras and yantras, performing rituals, seva and charity. Planetary effects can be softened through special disciplines such as feeding crows (Saturn) or planting trees (Jupiter). Remedial measures are routinely recommended in Vedic, yogic, tantric and ayurvedic texts.

The main remedies are ritual and mantra. Propitiating the planets is an integral part of all Hindu rites. Many temples, particularly in the South of India, have a shrine with murtis of all nine planets (navagraha). You can worship them and even employ temple priests to perform special planetary pujas for you.

Each planet also has a name mantra (e.g., Om Sum Suryaya Namah for the Sun) and a set of special names, 108 or 1,008, that are chanted to propitiate it. Each planet has a Vedic verse and a Puranic verse used in its worship. Chants to the planets can be done singly or in combination (depending upon the recommendation of one’s teacher) while meditating on a yantra and an image of the Deity or related Deities. Scriptural verses to the Deities can also be recited. For example, Vaishnavas prescribe the Santana Gopala Stotra, to Krishna, for couples whose charts are unfavorable for bearing children. The Mahamrityunjaya Mantra, to Lord Siva, is used to counter the influences of Mars and Saturn.

Hindus commonly wear gemstones to balance negative and promote positive influences. Some but not all astrologers prescribe gemstones. Mantras and rituals are preferable but require more time on the part of the person. Each planet has a particular gemstone: ruby for the Sun, pearl for the Moon, red coral for Mars, emerald for Mercury, etc. High quality gemstones can be expensive. Less costly substitutes, though less effective, are allowed. Gemstones should be chosen with care and preferably with a good astrologer’s approval. They should be properly energized with mantras and rituals to function in the best possible manner.

Having said all that, sometimes it is better to try to learn from difficult karmas rather than trying to avoid or change them through remedial measures. We cannot buy off the planets or our karma merely by putting on expensive gems or paying someone else to take care of our life. Humility and devotion should be the basis of all remedial measures, along with a willingness to work on ourselves. Some things just can’t be changed or avoided.

A Mystical Science

How did the ancient Hindu rishis and yogis arrive at the knowledge of astrology? By the same means that all the other Vedic and yogic systems of knowledge arose, and by which they are studied today. Those methods include meditation and samadhi, starting with dharana or samyama, on the Sun, Moon, planets and stars. Another means is communion with planetary Deities, who can speak to us and disclose their nature and influences. Another is reason-based thinking in which we draw connections between phenomena at cosmic and individual levels. Finally, centuries of experience, study and communication among astrologers have helped turn intuition into science.

Intuition continues to play a key role. Chakrapani explained, “A dedicated Vedic astrologer will naturally develop a powerful sense of intuition and be able to connect with divine sources of guidance, including devas, gurus and advanced souls. This is one of the fruits of an astrological practice rooted in meditation and devotion, going far beyond what can be discovered through mere astrological techniques and calculations. As the astrologer develops vak shakti, the power of speech, his statements can become infallible.”

Eighteen traditional systems (siddhantas) are mentioned in Vedic astrology, some bearing the names of the greatest sages of Hinduism. Unfortunately, none of their texts has survived intact. Five of the eighteen were, however, summarized by Varaha Mihira - perhaps the greatest astrologer of classical India - in his Pancha Siddhantika, namely, Pitamaha (or Bhishma), Vashishta, Paulisha, Romaka and Surya. Of these, only the Surya Siddhanta has survived, and that in a later form. In addition, we have the work of Rishi Parashara, which has endured in expanded form as the Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra. That is the main text of Vedic astrology used today, containing all the essential features of the system. Many South Indian astrologers, however, use the Brihat Jataka and Brihat Samhita of Varaha Mihira, which are similar to Parashara’s overall indications.


Evidence indicates that jyotisha goes back to ancient times. The Kali Yuga calendar, which begins in 3100bce, is well known. Greeks in the fourth century bce wrote of an Indian calendar relative to ancient king lists with a beginning date of 6700bce (mentioned by Megasthenes in his Indika). The nakshatras (asterisms) are mentioned in the Rig Veda and other Vedic texts, with a nakshatra Sukta noted in the Taittiriya Brahmana (I.1.2). Nakshatra positions relative to equinox and solstice points aid in the dating of Vedic texts. The Atharva Veda (XIX.7) contains a full listing of the nakshatras, starting with Krittika as the point of the vernal equinox and the solstice in Magha nakshatra, or early Leo, providing a date of around 2000bce. There are references of equinoxes in Rohini (late Taurus, ca. 3000bce), Mrigashira (Orion/Gemini ca. 4000bce), and yet earlier.

The Rig Veda (I.164.48) refers to a twelvefold wheel of heaven with 360 spokes, showing that a zodiac of 360 degrees was well known in Vedic times. In verse I.155.6, Lord Vishnu is said to have four times ninety, or 360, names, suggesting a divine name for each degree of the zodiac. The Satapatha Brahmana (X.5.4.5) refers to a 720-fold zodiac divided by upa-nakshatras, or sub-asterisms, showing a detailed mathematical observation of the heavens.

Rahu and Ketu, the lunar nodes that foreshadow eclipses, are also mentioned in Vedic texts. The planets are mentioned by group or individually. For example, in Aitareya Brahmana XIII.10, we find reference to the birth of Venus (Bhrigu) and Jupiter (Brihaspati), and their relation to the two main rishi families, the Bhrigus and Angirasas, showing a planetary connection with the sages.

A Comparison with Western Astrology

Like its Western (or Hellenistic) counterpart, jyotisha employs a system of planets, signs, houses and aspects. However, it relies on the sidereal zodiac for its calculations, which differs from the tropical zodiac used in Western astrology, in that an ayanamsa adjustment is made for the gradual precession of the vernal equinox. This puts Hindu astrological calculations in line with the fixed stars and removes it from the criticism of modern astronomy that astrological signs are no longer astronomically accurate. The main ayanamsa currently used is around 24 degrees less than positions in the tropical zodiac, causing most planetary positions to go back one sign from the Western to the Hindu chart. This naturally results in a very different reading. It can be confusing for those accustomed to their Western chart, particularly for the Sun sign, so emphasized in Western astrology. An Aries in Western astrology might be a Pisces according to jyotisha.

India’s star gazers: See pictures of the 18th-century Jantar Mantar Observatory in Jaipur.  

Choosing & Working with a Jyotisha Shastri

Go to astrologers known to have good reputations for their interpretations, predictions and spiritual insight, and who are recommended by people you know and respect, particularly in the Hindu and yoga communities. An astrologer should follow a strict ethical regimen in the pursuit of dharma. He should begin and end his work with mantra, meditation or worship and live and work in a sanctified environment. He must maintain a good sense of humor and humility and give counselling that is beneficial, not harmful to the client, and not fatalistic in nature.

Beware of those who claim to give quick, fantastic and infallible predictions, particularly without any detailed examination of your chart, or who declare that they can magically solve your problems through mantras done by them, gems they sell to you or rituals they perform for you, particularly if these are expensive and are done at a distance.

It is best to look upon an astrologer like a counselor, doctor or therapist. We don’t expect one session to be enough. An astrologer may need an hour or more to examine the birth chart before even seeing a client. Initial readings with the individual may take over an hour and require several follow-up sessions. Focusing on particular time periods or specific issues may require additional research and analysis. It is best to choose an astrologer you can interact with on a regular basis.

The competent astrologer is not a psychic with a crystal ball. Time, effort and examination of a number of factors are needed to reach conclusions as to what is likely to happen to you or what you should do in any given area. Astrological counseling must have an element of spirituality and should direct us to higher goals in life, not simply encourage or direct the fulfilment of worldly desires.

Once you have found a good astrologer, it is best to maintain an ongoing relationship with him, like a close friend or advisor. Like a loving mother, father, guru or wise friend, a good astrologer can help navigate life’s challenges. The right use of jyotisha alleviates what is perhaps the greatest fear for human beings—uncertainty and anxiety about the future. It helps us confidently navigate through the confusing waves of prarabdha karma, remaining aware of our outer destiny and our timeless inner Self as well.

Most Vedic astrologers, particularly in the West, charge for their work, which is the basis of their livelihood, and they deserve comparable compensation as for any professional consultant. Take care to compensate the astrologer appropriately. Without the proper dakshina or offering, advice given may not prove effective.

An additional 27-fold division of the zodiac by nakshatras is used in jyotisha. Personality traits are read more through the nakshatra of the Moon (birth star) than by the Sun sign. The birth star is used for naming a person, for determining optimum timing of rituals, and for astrological forecasting. Nakshatra positions of planets are examined in the birth chart as well.

Jyotisha rests upon a complex system of calculations that takes into consideration a massive amount of data about planetary and stellar influences, including the mathematical and geometrical relationships between heavenly bodies. A jyotishi must be able to produce the rationale behind his determinations; he cannot rely on speculation or intuition alone.

Traditional Hindu astrology does not usually use the newly discovered outer planets (Uranus and Neptune) or Pluto; but it affords special importance to Rahu and Ketu, the lunar nodes, which reflect subtle influences.

Jyotisha includes nuanced sub-systems of interpretation and prediction, including numerous divisional charts, several systems of dashas, or planetary periods, and other factors like ashtakavarga and muhurta. It determines signs, houses and planetary aspects differently than Western astrology and has a sophisticated system of yogas, or planetary combinations.

The Indian system is well known for its understanding of longer cosmic cycles, or yugas. It begins with sixty-year cycles reflecting the movements of Jupiter and Saturn, extends to 3,600-year cycles, and ultimately dates the universe at billions of billions of years. As there are several levels of these cycles, there is still some debate on exactly where we stand in all of these presently.

Vedic Astrology Today

With the availability of computers to streamline calculations and the many new books coming out, jyotisha is enjoying a renaissance and expansion that is likely to continue for decades. Dr. BV Raman was the main architect of the revival of jyotisha in modern India in the twentieth century, bringing the ancient science into a modern English medium. He was instrumental in its development in the West as well, taking several important trips to the US and inspiring a new generation of jyotishis there. Dr. Raman was the founder of The Astrological Magazine and the Indian Council of Astrological Sciences. His son and daughter, Niranjan Bapu and Gayatri Vasudev, continue in his work.

India has many important astrological organizations. The Indian Council of Astrological Sciences (ICAS) holds regular classes in major cities throughout the country. The Institute of Astrology, founded by K.N. Rao at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in New Delhi, offers a sophisticated course to train competent astrologers. Vaughn Paul Manley, who studied there, writes: “Astrology may still have a ways to go in order to become recognized as a valid science and academic subject. But, without a doubt, K.N. Rao and the faculty and students of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan are making a significant contribution towards this end. Arguably his school has produced the finest replicable, scientific research on astrology today. It is setting an example for other institutions by teaching astrology with a high degree of academic excellence. ”

In recent decades Vedic astrology has gone global, along with yoga, Vedanta, vastu and ayurveda. Many non-Hindus and Western Hindus are taking up the science and using it in a regular manner to improve their lives. Hindu-based groups that have promoted it include the TM movement, the Krishna movement (ISKCON), Sivananda, Self Realization Fellowship (SRF), Arsha Vidya Gurukulam and many others. Jyotisha services are now common in yoga centers and ashrams. Various Hindu/Vedic astrology organizations have arisen, including the Council of Vedic Astrology (CVA), the American College of Vedic Astrology (ACVA) and the British Association of Vedic Astrology (BAVA). Jyotisha is highly popular in Russia, perhaps even more so than in the US. Many ayurvedic groups include it in their curriculum.

Most traditional jyotisha texts were composed in a medieval Hindu society. Vocations and other aspects of life have evolved radically since that time. For dealing with modern society, planetary influences must be reinterpreted accordingly. Hindu astrologers today are looking at how modern inclinations and professions can be viewed through the chart.

Chakrapani observed, “Western Vedic astrologers have done a lot for the advancement of Vedic astrology in recent years, through books, trainings, consultations and conferences. They have put Vedic astrology into an understandable, contemporary English idiom. They have made Vedic astrology in the West a respected practice and branch of knowledge. The science has gained more respect in India.”

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