Date of Degree


Document Type

Master's thesis

Degree Name

MA (Master of Arts)


Religious Studies

First Advisor

Frederick M. Smith


The object of this study is an investigation of the connection between the Indian divinatory practice known as jyotish and Hindu devotion. By focusing on the connection between jyotish and devotion, I want to offer a new perspective on "the most prestigious and encompassing form of Hindu divination, permeating Indian society today as it has done for centuries: from its universities - where, as part of current Hindutva efforts and amidst much upheaval, astrology was recently introduced as an academic discipline - to the matrimonial columns of its daily papers."

Jyotish, literally meaning "light" of the heavenly bodies, is India's system of divination, which investigates how heavenly lights affect human life. Jyotish helps to achieve the four main goals of life: dharma (social and religious duty), artha (acquiring wealth), kama (love and worldly enjoyment), and moksha (liberation). Through the jyotish system of examination one can understand the karmic unfoldments in those four areas as well as learn the ways to improve them. Jyotish also can be described as a model of reality "which interprets the observed conditions of the cosmos at the time of an event in order to provide insight into the nature of that event."

Jyotish is sometimes referred to, especially outside India, as "Hindu astrology;" this term, however, is misleadingly sectarian, for jyotish is also practiced by Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims and Christians, in many countries other than India. At the same time, jyotish is Hindu astrology in the sense that it is an outgrowth of Hinduism, and is an intrinsic part of India's religious and cultural experience. Jyotish is still as integral to the lives of India's common people as are the prayers, rituals, pilgrimages, and other religious ceremonies that jyotish helps to time.

Considering the pervasiveness of jyotish in India, as well as its noticeable recent rise in popularity in the West, the scarcity of western scholarship on the subject is surprising. David Pingree was one of the few western scholars who examined and studied the history of jyotish. Studying primary texts, Pingree produced excellent work on the history, transmission, and development of jyotish. Pingree was mostly interested in the transmission and development of the exact sciences such as mathematics, astronomy and astrology. Even though today astrology is not considered a science, it was viewed as such in the past. In fact, astrology began to disappear from European universities as late as the 17th century. The discussion of what "science" is deserves much more attention and research that goes beyond the scope of the present thesis. However, one obvious point is that when we cross the boundaries of time and cultures the concept of "science" considerably changes. When western scholars approach an ancient eastern system, they largely focus on jyotish's "scientific" aspect, placing it among disciplines such as mathematics, medicine, and astronomy (modern day scientific classification). Martin Gansten, for instance claims that, "The pride of place thus given to astrology is presumably due at least in part to its scientific character, by which I mean not only because of its complexity and systematic nature, but above all its claims to objectivity." Jyotish's claim to objectivity derives from the fact that the planetary positions at a person's birth may be calculated any number of times by different astrologers, with, at least in theory, identical results. Thus, Gansten argues that a personal ability on the part of the astrologer to apply the various rules of interpretation is called forth, but this is predominantly an intellectual skill, rather than a mystical or magical one.

Another key factor that contributes to the scientific categorization of jyotish derives from the Hindu tradition itself. The Kalpa Sutra texts, composed between the eight and fourth centuries BCE, and concerned with ritual and law, place jyotish among the auxiliary sciences, known as the 'limbs of the Veda' (vedanga). Its placement among the Vedangas - which consist of the correct pronunciation of Vedic texts (siksa), the correct performance of ritual (kalpa), the study of grammar (vyakarana), etymology of Vedic words (nirukta), and prosody (chandas) - also an invites analytical perception of jyotish.

Jyotish's affiliation to science cannot be underestimated since the very base of it lies in the rigorous knowledge of spherical astronomy (gola) and astronomical calculations (ganita). There are different systems of horoscope calculations. For example, one of the major divisions in zodiacal measurement is the difference between the tropical zodiac (utilized by Western astrologers) and the sidereal zodiac (utilized by Eastern astrologers). Despite the differences in systems, however, the calculations of astronomical data are strictly objective. That objectivity allowed computerization of the complex astronomical and mathematical calculations that had to be done manually in antiquity. Today, anyone who has an access to a computer can obtain a basic astrological program, downloading it for free from the internet, or buying a more complex version from a specialized vendor. However, access to the calculations, no matter how accurate, does not provide one with the correct understanding of an astrological chart. The technical calculations are only a preliminary step that leads to the more complex aspect of jyotish astrology - interpretation.

Just as there are different systems of calculation, there are different styles of interpretation. The chief styles of jyotish are: Nadi jyotish, Parashari jyotish, Jaimini jyotish, Tantric jyotish, and Tajika jyotish; each style retains its distinctive character and capabilities, though they have repeatedly influenced each other over the centuries. The variety of approaches leads to differences and sometimes even to contradictions between chart interpretations. However, the intricacy and inconsistency of interpretations cannot be solely ascribed to the differences in astrological styles. It is not rare to encounter contradictory predictions made by astrologers from the same astrological school. The reason may be that as in any other branch of knowledge there are knowledgeable people and there are others who simply imitate expertise in order to gain a profit. The true reason, however, according to tradition, lies much deeper.

The source of interpretations' inconsistency is rooted in myth. As we should see further, myth plays a central role in Hindu culture, and many important phenomena such as cosmological data, archetypal material, cultural and social taboos, medical information, and spiritual and mystical matters were elucidated by it. According to one of the astrological myths, in ancient times the divine couple Siva and Parvati, inflamed great curiosity among people. Since their relationship was charged with volcanic passion, knowing its details was very entertaining. At that time, the all seeing eye of jyotish was so powerful that with its help, astrologers were able to perceive all the intimate details of the divine couple's daily life. For amusement, people would come to the astrologers to hear those details. When Siva discovered that astrologers had brazenly intruded into his personal life, he became furious and cursed all the astrologers. Since then, Siva's wrath has not permitted astrologers to interpret horoscopes identically and agree with each other on astrological interpretations. Their ability to obtain omniscience with the help of jyotish was lost forever.

With or without considering Siva's curse it is easy to see how astrological combinations may lead to contradictory interpretations and how different astrologers looking at the same chart may give polar opposite interpretations. For example, it is not unusual to find six planetary indications for prosperity and another six for poverty in the same chart. In this situation, the astrologer's ability to look beyond the mere calculations is called forth; intuition or divine insight is vital for the correct interpretation. Genuine astrologers have to use rational methods and intuitive powers to complement one another, and only those who become adept at both these approaches to divination can ever become fit receptacles for the Jyotir Vidya (the "Lore of Light"). An important practice that develops divine intuition is devotion. Therefore, it would be wrong to limit jyotish to a strictly scientific domain, ignoring an essential part of mastery in interpretation that, as we shall see, is very tightly connected to devotion.

Without denying the scientific aspect of jyotish astrology, I will illuminate another very important aspect of it - devotion. Like many other divinatory Hindu practices, jyotish astrology is immersed in religion, and by overlooking that fact, we fail to perceive the full picture of jyotish. By exploring the close links between jyotish astrology and Hindu religious practice, I argue that attending to those connections is a more holistic way to perceive jyotish astrology. This approach does not limit the jyotish system solely to an intellectual domain; it allows space for religious and mystical experiences. Examining philosophical and methodological aspects of this ancient divinatory practice, I will show that it is impossible to fully understand the jyotish astrological system without considering its connection to devotion.


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Copyright 2010 Natalija Plamadjala

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