At first glance, India's thriving astrology business may seem similar to the Dial-a-Psychic phenomenon in America. But astrology traditions have ties to religious practice among Hindus, and visiting a practitioner is often an integral part of any major decision-making process. Most Hindus, even nonreligious ones, consult astrologers at some point in their lives, especially before life-changing events like weddings. For devout believers, astrology offers 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 broad predictions; 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 her relationship with her husband was unraveling fast. "I spoke to my jyotishi [astrologer], who asked me to wear emeralds set in gold," explained Sen. "The ring was ugly, as all these rings are because of the exact specifications they are made to. Six months later it has made a difference. I won't say that things have changed miraculously, but there is now an element of understanding that just 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 of birth," says Calcutta's A.B. Chowdhury, an authority on the subject. It is, says Chowdhury, rather like locating a place on the globe with the help of its latitude and longitude. "Developments in a man's life have much to do with these universal calculations," he maintains.
Acharya Siddhartha--an astrologer whose flowing white beard is strangely at odds with his unlined face--works in both Calcutta and New Delhi for a week every alternate month. Charging 500 rupees ($11) for a session, Acharya Siddhartha promises to answer "any question that troubles you." He uses black slates and chalk to help in his calculations, working out each 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.
When all else fails, there is tantra. Essentially an intense form of meditation, tantra has become one of the most misunderstood and misused forms of Hindu astrology. Negative tantric imagery, including the skull and bones and human sacrifice, has only served to perpetuate this misunderstanding. Despite this, many tantric astrologers still use their science to peer into tomorrow.
Hidden in one of Calcutta's suburban lanes is Baba Tantrik--a blind astrologer who "reads" palms with an inner sight honed by years of intense meditation. His one-room consultation chamber, which doubles as his residence, smells of yesterday. It is damp and stacked high with molding books and papers, quaint-looking medicine bottles and a fridge that must be at least half a century old.
Baba is very choosy about his clients. He does not advertise his services, depending strictly on word-of-mouth. He charges 390 rupees per visit ($9) that can last as long as an hour--as Baba pores over the outstretched palm, stroking it with his shell-hard and callused thumb and forefinger. Many say the Baba's predictions have been dangerously off the mark, but that has not stopped his fame from spreading.
Does astrology "work"? It's impossible to say. Obviously, it has great meaning for those who seek it. Clients emerge from astrology readings with the knowledge that good or bad, the future is, at the very least, clearly charted.
Of course, any astrologer worth his salt will vouch for the accuracy
of his trade. But the better ones clearly know their limitations.
Shivaji Moulik runs a computerized horoscope clinic in central Calcutta.
we cannot turn a beggar into a king," the astrologer smiles, "we can at
make him a happy beggar."