At first glance, India's thriving astrology business may seem similar to theDial-a-Psychic phenomenon in America. But astrology traditions have ties toreligious practice among Hindus, and visiting a practitioner is often anintegral part of any major decision-making process. Most Hindus, evennonreligious ones, consult astrologers at some point in their lives, especiallybefore life-changing events like weddings. For devout believers, astrologyoffers reassurance and a grip on the unknown.
While there are those who dismiss astrology as superstition, some Hindus point to its scriptural roots. Pandit Shastri, an astrologer based in Benaras, notes: "Religious sub-texts"--secondary texts that are not as canonical as the Rig Veda or Yajur Veda--"are to be studied with the Vedas. One of these texts is Vyakarana Jyotisha [astrology]."
In practice, if not in theory, religious traditions and astrology often mix. Many Hindu temples in India and the United States include the Navagraha, or statues of the nine planetary gods. Devotees can regularly be seen circumambulating the Navagraha while engaging in prayer, attesting to the significance of astral powers in everyday life.
Those who make use of astrologers' services want more than just broadpredictions; they're looking for definite answers. "Will I get married?" "Will my daughter survive her cancer?" "Will the business break even?" "Will I get a job?"
Although there is no end to the ways in which practitioners may customize their services, most Indian astrologers set up shop with very little: an almanac, a couple of jantras (talismans), and a selection of precious stones. A handmade astrological chart and an idol of the family deity complete the décor in most astrological chambers. They may chart horoscopes, prescribe "gem therapy," or use other means to help clients see into the future or improve their lives.
Who makes use of astrologers? Just about anyone looking for certainty. As H.A. Safwi, a senior officer with the Indian Police Service (IPS), notes, "All IPS officers visit astrologers because of the nature of our job and the high element of unpredictability in our transfers." For most clients, uncertainty about personal problems is often more tortuous than explicit outcome scenarios--even bad ones. Often, devout believers who receive bad news will immediately take steps (such as performing pujas or wearing talismans) to counteract their prescribed fate.
After seven years of married life, Srila Sen, a Calcutta-based housewife, knew herrelationship with her husband was unraveling fast. "I spoke to my jyotishi[astrologer], who asked me to wear emeralds set in gold," explained Sen. "Thering was ugly, as all these rings are because of the exact specifications theyare made to. Six months later it has made a difference. I won't say that thingshave changed miraculously, but there is now an element of understanding thatjust hadn't been there in our relationship for such a long time."
Gem therapy is only one aspect of astrology. Believing in the planetary powers of different stones, astrologers prescribe gems to ward off evil or correct certain problems. Women or men hoping to marry wear coral, unhappily married women get yellow sapphire or emeralds, terminal disease sufferers or those afflicted with undiagnosed ailments wear pearl. The stones are set in gold or silver depending on what the wearer can afford. The most expensive can cost upward of 15,000 rupees ($300).
More common than gem therapies are personalized horoscopes, which cost anywhere from 100 to 500 rupees ($2 to $11), depending on the level of detail demanded in the predictions. Most astrologers do insist on the exact date and time of the client's birth.
"Predictions based on Hindu astrology require accuracy of date and time ofbirth," says Calcutta's A.B. Chowdhury, an authority on the subject. It is, saysChowdhury, rather like locating a place on the globe with the help of itslatitude and longitude. "Developments in a man's life have much to do with theseuniversal calculations," he maintains.
Acharya Siddhartha--an astrologer whose flowing white beard is strangely at oddswith his unlined face--works in both Calcutta and NewDelhi for a week every alternate month. Charging 500 rupees ($11)for a session, Acharya Siddhartha promises to answer "any question that troublesyou." He uses black slates and chalk to help in his calculations, working outeach person's problems on a separate slate.
Waiting your turn outside the Acharya's hotel room-cum-office is an interesting experience. Depending on what they have been told inside, clients emerge looking elated, pensive, or devastated. Can the Acharya ever go wrong? Obviously no one here thinks so.