“Vedic” Astrology: A Strange and Lovely Art from Time Gone By, Rife with Tender Bullshit Today

“Vedic” Astrology: A Strange and Lovely Art from Time Gone By, Rife with Tender Bullshit Today

“Astrology developed into a strange discipline: a mixture of careful observation, mathematics and record-keeping, but rife with fuzzy thinking and pious fraud. Nevertheless: it survived and flourished. Why? Because it seems to lend a cosmic significance to the routine of our daily lives. It pretends to satisfy our longing to feel personally connected to the universe.” – Carl Sagan

The late Carl Sagan is spot-on here, but he left a few tasty ingredients out of the astrology stew. He left out poetry. Narrative acumen. The psychological intuition that comes out of watching people as carefully as one must watch the planets to predict their movements. He left out the burning desire to give consolation and express empathy through the correlation of cosmic and character patterns. And: the yearning for this consolation to come quickly, when research and science take so much effort. Sagan omitted the inscrutable moments of intimacy that can occur between two people as they consider the aspirations and anxieties of life, through a horoscope, darkly. His omissions are to be expected: he never practiced astrology. But I did.

And now I don’t, because astrology’s confluence of romance, intuition, nostalgic longing and archetype-driven poetry is so not worth the epistemological bullshit it costs. At best, it is a rich engine for psychic exploration. At worst, it capitalizes upon every cognitive bias we have to serve magical thinking and the power imbalances of unacknowledged projection and transference. Between these two extremes, it provides thin gruel for a burning world. If only climatology became the new astrology! We could all meditate on the correlations between polar ice melts and how capitalism incinerates the heart.

I’ll try to do two things in this article. First, to nail down the hard facts about astrology and how it confounds the intelligence of contemporary yoga — which seems to be the only global subculture at present that tolerates it as a kind of adjunct discipline — through magical thinking and perverted power dynamics. Then I’ll turn to my personal experience of this archaic art, to help illustrate its seduction, and why it’s dying so hard.

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Whether of the Western or the “Vedic” variety (jyotiṣa), astrology obviously doesn’t work in the way that either the most sincere or the most manipulative astrologers believe it does. It has exactly zero predictive power. No astrologer agrees with any other, and the various lineages are fiercely competitive and resistant to peer review, not to mention scientific method. But when skeptics do look closely, they find that astrology and astrologers fail every controlled experiment that tests predictive power and the attribution of personality traits that the stars are meant to bestow. No astrologer can explain the stark differences in the lives of twins (or whether the conjoined Hogan sisters are one person or two) or why eighty thousand citizens of Hiroshima, each with wildly differing natal charts, should perish all in the same flash. There is no mechanism either gravitational or magnetic – besides awe and wonder – that can causally link the movements of celestial bodies to human affairs. Wikipedia collates a good selection of controlled studies here.

Beyond this, the psychology of what happens in a cold reading has been exhaustively exposed. For a reading to even occur, the subject must be prepared by enthusiasm born of anecdote or cultural osmosis, their unawareness of predictive astrology’s status as a pseudoscience, or a willingness to suspend their critical faculties. With any combination of these three conditions firmly in place, the astrologer can begin with high-probability gambits – “You’re extroverted”, or “There’s something you’re afraid of” – and then read (consciously or subconsciously) the immediate verbal and body-language responses from his subjects to confirm the pathway forward. He transforms each inevitable factual mistake – “So you don’t have any children” or “So you’re not well-traveled” – into a fallback psychological deepity: “Well your work is your baby”, or “You travel in the mind”, narrowing in on any potential, however slight, for an emotional congruence that will establish an ersatz trust, while categories of knowledge become dangerously confused.

When the material claims of a reading fail, the metaphor that is offered in its place moves the goalposts of the meeting and maintains the authority of the astrologer by gaslighting the subject: “You thought you came to ask about a concrete detail in your life, but that’s not as important as this cosmic picture I have to offer you.” This is a form of epistemic violence that bait-switches a material claim that can be falsified for an immaterial claim that cannot, to expand the astrologer’s power at the precise moment in which it should be decreased.

On the client’s side, a spectrum of cognitive biases, logical fallacies, psychological yearnings for certainty and regressive drives can, in a cold reading context, enter into intimate tango with the practitioner’s own anxieties and presumptions. The client is encouraged to surrender to a triply-abstract authority comprised of the chart, the interpreter, and the stars themselves, in which each can peg responsibility upon another when they fail. When the interpretation fails, the chart remains, available to possibly better interpretations. When the chart fails, it might be the result of inaccurate timekeeping or human ignorance. As my teacher once said, without a shred of irony, “Do we really think that the symbols of nine planets passing through the symbols of twelve constellations can somehow describe everything that happens to a person? Look at what we’re trying to do here: grasp the complexity of someone’s life from a piece of paper!” It took me almost two years of close study and relationship with him to finally clue in: Is that what we’re actually trying to do? And why are we using such an absurd method? Who does it serve? What does it let us avoid?

To be clearer, the project of jyotiṣa is not just to ascertain the past and future facts of a person’s life, but to fit those facts into a spiritual narrative that will allegedly track their karmic progress towards final liberation, while offering nudges in the most auspicious directions. These nudges, called upāya, consist of community service, rituals, offerings, and mantra recitations, all virtually indistinguishable from any other type of religious sādhanā, although the caveat is usually offered that astrological sādhanā belongs to a “mundane” category of practice that advanced yogis would renounce. In sum, “Vedic” astrology is a spiritual path steeped in Hindu lore and invested with the usual metaphysical commitments. I haven’t researched it, but I imagine that this interweave has insulated it much more powerfully from the kind of scrutiny that has withered Western astrology ever since key figures like Saint Augustine in the early Christian church, followed by medieval and renaissance theologians, rejected it as a means of knowledge (while arguing for the ascendency of their own brand of irrationality). My jyotiṣa teacher, when asked about the legality of practicing jyotiṣa as a professional counseling technique, said that the best response to any challenge would be to say: “I am practicing my religion.” It would seem that the power dynamics of Christianity (leaving contemporary Intelligent Designers aside) have never easily tolerated proto- and now pseudosciences, while in India, at least some branches of religious orthodoxy have doubled down on them. (To be clear, I’m focusing here on natal astrology, and not the seasonal astrology used to provide timeframes from community ritual. The latter to me has some naturalistic gravitas.)

In accord with the spiritual narrative, errors in readings are also attributed to the astrologer’s lack of virtue – evidence for which can be found in their own degraded sādhanā, or even their charts – or in their earnest failure to understand and follow the perfect instructions of their lineages. But in a further tautological twist, reading-fails can also be blamed on the opacity of the client’s own chart, i.e.: it is the client’s karma that their karma should be illegible in the stars.

As purported spiritual paths for the management and eventual eradication of karma, current East Indian astrological lineages often claim legitimacy back to the saptarṣi (“Seven Sages”) of mythic lore – even though there is little evidence for natal horoscopy in the Vedas themselves, or prior to Indo-Greek cultural exchange. There are some indications (see especially footnotes 4-6) that East Indian astrology acquired the moniker “Vedic” as little as thirty years ago, which has since allowed it to resonate with other discourses of reification in modern Hindutva politics. Here, the Hindutva encounter the same paradox they face in positing Ayurveda as a “Vedic science”. Not only is Ayurveda neither exclusively Vedic nor scientific in methodology, its Hindutva glorification is fueled by the conflicting desires for it to be both globally recognized and nationally/ethnically trademarked. Indian practitioners and their Indophile students will enthusiastically point out how inept non-Indian practitioners are, lacking any true lineage or “heart-connection” to what they also claim can be scientifically shared. The global spread of “Vedic science” therefore becomes both a sign of its legitimacy and its degeneration or inability to affect a debased modernity. When horoscopes for Western clients do not work, for example, a default explanation is that Western/hospital birth records are consistently inaccurate, because the ignorance of “allopathic” medicine – you know, that system that eradicated polio? – doesn’t understand the crucial health implications of recording exact birth times. The refrain “It’s impossible to practice these holy vidyas in such a degenerate age” is met with head-nodding both pious and forlorn.

(The self-defeating, liberal-guilty psychology of Indophile practitioners who simultaneously love the ancient arts they study and resign themselves happy-sadly to the belief that that will always be deficient or even fraudulent in their understanding is endlessly fascinating to me. Perhaps the subject for another post.)

Apologiae for astrological fails go beyond excusing the shortcomings of the astrologer and the flaws in the technique. Beneath both lies the belief, shared to differing degrees by the astrologer and client, that the stars can be depended upon to be saying something, even if it is only: You are so stupid. So if the interpreter is following the sacred procedure and the chart is correct, the stars themselves can then be blamed for confounding things. I.e.: it is not yet time for fate to reveal itself. Knowledge comes at the right time. It will reveal itself when the subject is ready. So adept at hedging its bets is the East Indian system that it even contains its own default confounders – Rahu and Ketu, the northern and southern nodes of the moon – the chaotic “shadow planets” that influence through the paradox of their non-existence, and whose ways astrologers admit can never be wholly discerned. In the cosmic court they are outliers: a raver and a mystic. How can anyone be sure as to how they will pull upon us? The irony is that, as any scientist will tell you, the universe is continually telling us how stupid we are. This is properly an opportunity for humility, while in jyotiṣa it can throw another tantalizing veil over the faces of power.

But surely we can say something will cause something! Regardless of obvious failures, the jyotiṣ’ presumption of access to an always-obscure causality becomes synonymous with spiritual virtue. The stars are in the end a proxy for an omniscient God, who not only knows all things but can choose to either conceal or disclose them at the perfect time. This means that it doesn’t matter to the jyotiṣ or his subject what is actually known or what can be known. The one inviolable law of the meeting is that something can be known by someone, not through the clinical boredom of research, hypothesizing, controlling for variables, testing, analyzing, and surrendering to the fire of peer review, but through an immediate and visceral intuition that feels very much like parental love, which is  often so difficult to distinguish from parental coercion.

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Because the material claims of both Western and Eastern astrology have been thoroughly demolished, anyone who practices them today in a material sense – assessing stable/genetic personality essences, predicting personal, cultural, or environmental events, evaluating medical issues, giving advice on relationships, or when to have children – is bullshitting. Again, I use this term not as an ad hominem, but in the strict philosophical sense proposed by Harry Frankfurt, which doesn’t accuse the bullshitter of willful deception, but suggests he is more concerned with making an impression than about evidenced truth. The astrological bullshitter commits epistemic violence upon his subjects by sustaining a false pretense of knowledge. He is promoting faith, which in Peter Boghossian’s framework, is “pretending to know what he does not know.” In so pretending, he cannot avoid disempowering the person he claims to serve. If he is aware of his cognitive fallacies and biases and the research that has absolutely delegitimized the art’s pretension to science, this is a much graver situation, potentially involving outright manipulation and abuse. I find it hard to believe that there are any top-level astrologers who depend upon their art for their livelihoods who have failed to come across the debunking research. You can’t even Google “astrology” or “jyotiṣa” today without words like “scam” and “charade” appearing within the first few pages. Professional astrologers must either ignore this or dispute it. The former is unethical, and the latter will not hold.

Why is this an issue for yoga culture? Because virtually every institution of higher learning in contemporary global yoga endorses or promotes this archaic art form without the rational transparency that could maybe, possibly transform it into a secular technique for the therapeutic discussion of archetypes and narratives. I don’t need to call out particular practitioners – naming the organizations will do. The Chopra Center leads the pack in terms of market share and visibility. But then there are the more austere and less pecunious institutions: Sivananda Yoga International, Ashtanga Yoga, Siddha Yoga (through Swami Muktananda, whose personal astrologer, Chakrapani, has been a key Westernizer of the art), the Kripalu Institute, the Himalayan Institute, the Mount Madonna Institute, Swami Dayananda’s Arsha Vidya Gurukulum, the Ayurvedic Institute, California College of Ayurveda, American Institute of Vedic Studies, Kerala Academy of Ayurveda, every enterprise associated with Maharishi Mahesh, the Temple of Kriya Yoga, the American Viniyoga Institute, and the unaccredited Hindu University of America. In perhaps the most acute example of the elision between religious devotion and pseudoscience, alleged tax-evader and physical abuser Mata Amritanandamayi brings an astrologer (and gemstone saleswoman) on tour with her. I imagine she fields many questions about how subjects may best devote their lives and savings to the “hugging saint.”

This means that anybody in global yoga culture at this point in time who wishes to pursue English language education beyond the standard 200/500/1000-hour training models must subject themselves to organizations that either hold or tolerate pseudoscientific views. Of course, if these same organizations are teaching Ayurveda or yoga therapy as “sciences” rather than very old phenomenological methods of artful self-inquiry that are always subject to revision according to evidence, astrology just adds to the pile of confusion about what works and how. But it adds confusion in a particularly noxious way, insofar as it is often presented as the “highest” of pursuits, in accordance with an oft-referenced list from Manusmriti (I don’t doubt it’s there, but I haven’t found it to cite it) that names astrology the noblest of professions. And, as my teacher was fond of saying, “The ability to help shift a person’s karma is the most intelligent and compassionate service.” To my teacher and his teachers, karma, destiny, and the will of God were inextricable, and to see into the future suggests that one was in yoga with all of time. The furthest horizons of yoga education are lit by the stars where karma is said to weave its web. The outlier practitioners who spend their days gazing at the sky (or software simulations of it these days) are as few and as eccentric as one supposes the rarest authentic yogis to be.

To the extent that astrology sits at the horizon of mainstream yoga pedagogy means that metaphysical commitments to what could be a wholly secular, humanist, or even atheist practice constitute a glass ceiling for advancement. You can’t really rise in yoga education, in other words, without pretending to know something you don’t know, or without deferring to those who professionally pretend to know something they don’t know. It doesn’t need to be like this. With so many intelligent and empathetic forays emerging into the neuroscience, kinesiology, phenomenology, philology, history, postcolonial theory, and intersubjectivity of yoga’s heritage, I don’t know why anyone should be stuck in a pre-rational classroom, pretending to believe something their entire training as a modern person must reject.

Unless that person, overwhelmed with modern malaise and depressingly unsure of his direction, wants to escape into a pre-rational cave, a camera obscura into which the light of the outside world is reduced to mystical forms on a dark wall, a room where older ways of knowing seem to emerge from the space between meditation and dreams. I understand such a desire, because for about three years, that person was me.

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My first encounter with jyotiṣa came through a reading given by the teacher who I immediately demanded to study with. It was that good. Or I was that low.

The reading came at the bottom of a very long downward curve in my self-perception and personal direction. I felt that I’d squandered a rudderless decade, failing time and again to mobilize whatever talents I had by rejecting every conventional means of development available to me, while investing my heart in not one but two (!) cults formed around charismatic spiritual leaders. After thirteen years of wandering the globe I came back to my hometown with teaching certificates in asana and yoga therapy, an assortment of oddball skills in life and the contemplative arts that I’d picked up in ashrams, and a heart so broken that I knew that whatever I did with myself going forward, it would have to start with some kind of self-acceptance. And that I had to learn from peers.

The astrologer was my age, and previous to his current medical school studies had followed a similar path to my own, although with a level of consistency that had allowed him to stick it out with one particular lineage for that same decade in which I magpied from Buddhism to New-Age Christianity to yoga. He affected a kind of rational piety that attracted me – he was earnestly enamored with the dignity of his lineage, and his medical studies gave him an empirical air. He seemed to be comfortable living within two paradigms simultaneously, in which he was as happy looking at cell cultures under a microscope as he was interpolating ancient mythology into the daily weather.

He looked at my chart silently, and then up at me. He paused for a very long time. I remember there was a skylight above us, and the sun was hot in the still afternoon. He said “I don’t normally do this, but I want to show you your chart.” He turned the page towards me and pointed at the very crowded upper centermost square, which I would later learn depicted the first house, containing the celestial activity visible upon the eastern horizon at the moment of my birth.

“Do you see these three symbols? They represent Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus. They’re all sitting at eighteen degrees of Scorpio. They’re literally on top of one another. If you’d been able to see them from your cradle they would have looked like a cluster of overlapping grapes. In this system, they are considered to be waging a three-way planetary war.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“Traditionally it would be said that the impulses of artistry, philosophy, and devotion are in perpetual conflict within you, and that this would seriously impact your capacity to settle on a career or sense of purpose.”

I think I started to cry right then. He didn’t blink. He watched me carefully, smiled gently and continued quietly.

“Venus is the artist, epicurean, secularist. Very inimical with Jupiter, the priest and devotee. They hate each other, even though they generally share positive motivations. Venus hangs out with gourmands, poets, and prostitutes. Jupiter is happiest surrounded by Brahmins and scholars. Mercury is the puer aeternus with a sharp wit that oscillates between skepticism and wonder.

“They are enraged and bloody. Their war is being fought in a constellation of passion and shadows. Yours is an unorthodox path. If you’d like I can look into things a little further and try to determine which planet wins the war.”

“How would that help me?” I was definitely crying.

“You might find that it gives insight into which impulse to strengthen and which to relax.”

“What if I’m meant to be at war forever?” I felt terror, but also joy.

He shrugged. “You’re free to be at war. There might be health implications to that kind of continued stress.” He was frowning at my fallen sun, a predictor of poor health and ravaged self-esteem.

The rest of what he said didn’t matter to me at the time, although important details would come back to me later. For that day at least, he had me. I rode my bike home, weeping with recognition. Because someone had finally seen me, I could begin to see myself, to forgive these ancient tensions within me, to regard them as exquisite strengths and vulnerabilities that no-one else possessed. And there was something about his studied frankness. My teacher astonished me without any ceremony or grandiosity, with a method that seemed at the time as transparent as reading a book. He seemed to hide nothing from me, and although I couldn’t interpret the signs he shared with me, it felt clear that the interpretation was obvious, and totally available to me if I would try to learn the method. Accordingly, he also said:

“In your navamṣa [a divisional chart said to expresse the potential a person might choose to develop] you have Jupiter and Ketu conjoined in the first house, again in Scorpio. This can predict a talent for jyotiṣa.”

So the chart was saying that I should start studying charts. This isn’t dissimilar from the Bible telling its reader that he should study the Bible, as when 2 Timothy 3:16 says “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

I didn’t even blink through my tears. “When’s your next class?”

My teacher’s cold reading was good enough to change my life. I showed up on a Wednesday afternoon, joined the tiny class of other refugees from science and modernity, and plunged into a bicameral world of chanting, memorizing the qualities and average daily motions of each planet, learning hand calculations of divisional charts. And mantra. Tens of thousands of mantras. Each one of the planets could only be “empowered” (in terms of one’s ability to grasp its meanings) by reciting its particular mantra a numerologically significant number of times. The sun: 40K repititions. Mars: 27K. om gurave namaha, to Jupiter: 18K repetitions. (I’m probably getting these numbers wrong these years later, but it was a lot.) I was so overwhelmed by the power of that first reading I committed myself zealously to this new study, which in the beginning wasn’t about analyzing people or situations at all. It was about absorbing an entire mythological paradigm, and trying to find its archetypal energies within oneself, to see who’s speaking loudest, who is wounded, who is oppressed, who is quivering in fear. It was a like a grad-level course in ancient literature and Jungian theory.

Every morning for a year I spent an hour in mantra recitation, meditating on a planet or luminary, or an asterism, rolling their stories around in my heart, moistened by sound. I loved it. Then came an hour of casting the daily charts by hand – one for each of the twelve rising signs – and memorizing where the sun would be at the junctures of the day that heralded the energies of kapha, pitta, and vata. Then another half-hour of studying the moon’s position, the qualities of its mansion of the day and the ancient deity it was conversing with there.

As I chanted and meditated, I felt myself connect with the ranks of generations of Indian star-watchers, who in earlier times would lie out all night in the deserts of Rajasthan or in the Himalayan plateaus, gazing up at squares of sky framed by meticulously sewn  windows in their silk tents. What’s crucial to remember about early astrology is that it emerged from the dream-time of early astronomical studies, and the precise records that people could only hope to keep by peering through that silk square, night after night, hourglasses or water-clocks beside them to keep time, and so much silence. Watching the sky move through your little silk window takes enormous patience and concentration. Who wouldn’t weave stories into the long hours? It’s what we do. Imagine: what wouldn’t a teacher and his student discuss as they lay on their backs in the sand, gazing up at the summer night? Astrology emerges from the gap between our waking awe at the world and how that awe unlocks internal wonders at the edge of sleep.

What skeptics should also understand about this kind of study is that its fundamental premise is quickly buried under an avalanche of baroque detail in which intricate mathematics were correlated with psychic quantities. For most of my obsession I simply forgot that if I carried through with my studies I would have people coming to my home asking me what they should do with their lives. I think this is why most young and sincere astrologers will express real astonishment at the charge of pseudoscience. For them the central claim of being able to discern the future doesn’t feel central at all, but rather an off-gas bubbling into public view from a very private meditative process, which, as I’ve explored above, is primarily framed as spiritual in nature. I was practicing my new religion.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine that a training in psychotherapy demanded that students memorize every single one of Shakespeare’s plays as a foundational step, and be able to recite them, verbatim, at will. Imagine that to deepen their understanding, students were then asked to recite each major monologue before dawn hundreds of times, so that they could unarguably feel the mind of the character within them, and identify with them so deeply that imagining the character’s actions in a novel situation would come without a thought. This is exactly what Hamlet would do if he met Bloody Mary, Queen of the Scots. You spend so much time in your reverie upon the monologues that the plays enact themselves in your dreams, and your private semi-conscious speech begins to lope along in iambic pentameter. You have become a channel for Shakespeare.

Then, imagine that someone comes to you and asks how you think Shakespeare would say that they should live their lives. You stammer a bit, try to discern which narrative best fits their age and station in life, and then reach into the vault of monologues for something that corresponds. At that level, it’s a form of poetry therapy, really. And if it didn’t involve the premise that actionable advice can emerge from poetry (Rage, rage, against the dying of the light notwithstanding), and if we weren’t so incredibly gullible to power and cognitive bias, it might be harmless.

There’s something beautiful about it, no doubt. And it stayed beautiful to me for about six months after I received my teacher’s blessing to go ahead and analyze charts for people who started to seek me out. By following the rules I’d learned, and staying humble in the mantra-songs of the archetypes, I seemed to be good at it, especially in the most broad strokes. Over two years I had learned from my teacher to do as he had done with me in that first meeting: focus on key, obvious themes to begin. Draw them out of the chart in relation to what you intuit from the person’s mood. (Literally anything can be drawn out of a chart.) If the resonance is clear, ride it out with questions.

The paradox is that the opening gambits of cold reading (which I had unconsciously learned to do, albeit with the utmost sincerity) are not only vague, but that their vagueness appeals to very recognizable existential themes. You can deconstruct the value of an opening line such as “Do you feel isolated?” (a question that can be generated from countless readings of the travels of the First House Lord, which is the first detail the jyotiṣ is taught to evaluate) in a thousand different ways, but on some level the question is universal, and it can be a very good place to start an empathetic conversation. The problem is that the astrologer will have little to zero training in how to facilitate that conversation in a psychodynamic and intersubjective way, once begun. And it’s likely, if the astrologer is using jyotiṣa, the counseling will track towards spiritual solutions that require particular faith commitments. The isolation you feel is a dream. God is everywhere. This may be temporarily consoling for some, but it’s unlikely to empower a person to truly come to grips with their uncertainty.

People came, and I discussed their charts with them, and many seemed pleased, and they told their friends, and I became increasingly uneasy with the whole thing. The real problems started with the follow-ups. After feeling a connection with me through a generalized conversation derived from a cold reading, the client might ask to return to explore a baffling fork in the road of their future, or a particular question about the timing of events. My teacher presented the skill as a service that shouldn’t be denied, so I would generally agree to try, while disclaiming my skill at every turn. I would sometimes hazard a best-possible guess – and be transparent that I was doing exactly that – through what seemed to stand out to me in the chart. But most of the time I would say: I don’t have the training for that level of analysis.

As I repeated this through the months, I began to feel something quite different: I don’t believe that level of analysis is possible. Second- and third-time clients left my office a little deflated, and I was strangely relieved. I was only really happy whenever the initial guess led to the frank discussion we could have had under any circumstance, and quite unhappy when the client wanted me to return to the planets and dates. I wanted to stick with the fruitful conversation about anxiety or poor boundaries, or the meaning of intense ambition, but too often my clients wanted me to continue to play upon and expand the power differential between us. What I really wanted to do was psychotherapy, while many of my clients wanted magic.

I tried to mitigate the strange situation by becoming even more transparent. I not only never claimed causal knowledge, but I declared it impossible. I continually undermined my authority. As my teacher had done with me in that first reading, I showed every client their chart, and turned every reading into a lesson about the art form and its limitations. I used subjunctive and optative moods in my speech while deflecting “interpretation” to the faceless tradition itself, as in: Well the old books might say that this combination in your twelfth house indicates extended periods of long-distance travel, or: I think a traditionalist would interpret this chart as saying that your digestive fire is chronically vulnerable, and needs long-term attention. Nonetheless, many clients still gave me power, instead of taking it for themselves. I was doing everything I could to limit the feeling that I was bullshitting, but the very premise of the form itself – that I held access to some kind of external insight – was intractable.

I don’t care how sensitive you are as a chart-reader. The process cannot help but to distort reality through the prism of an unequal power dynamic. In fact, sensitivity to all of these problems as a reader is probably even more harmful than brute ignorance, insofar as the structural pretense of knowledge will be covered over with what can only be a pretense of humility, if the reader continues to engage the authority of the chart. So: the smarter I got about astrology, the more intolerable it became, even as my practice of it became more and more empathetic.

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Seven interrelated things ended my brief but storied career in jyotiṣa. One for each chakra. Or something like that.

Firstly, within a single month, three female clients came to me in early stages of pregnancy to ask me whether they should carry their fetuses or terminate. This astonished and terrified me. I instinctively refused to help them by looking at their charts. From the bottom of my heart I said to each of them: No-one but you can make that decision, and if you’d like me to sit with you and bear witness to that process, maybe I can be of assistance that way.

Secondly, I found the blog You Are Not So Smart, in which journalist David McRaney investigates dozens of cognitive biases and logical fallacies that pepper our daily lives. I inhaled all sixty-odd articles on his site within about a week. I was astonished at how not-smart I am. He has a book out now that I think should be required reading on every YTT list in the world. He pays particular attention to those pervasive flaws in thinking by which we aggrandize our self-perception – a not-uncommon pastime in yoga culture.

Thirdly, I realized that the contemplative richness I felt in studying a natal chart was not a new feeling for me. It invoked a quiet, baffled darkness inside my head. I felt a kind of torpor, the melancholy of time passing, glimpsing a pattern emerging from ether, the attempt to grasp at it, having it run like water from my hand, turning again to the blank page, feeling so alone, so secretive. It was the exact same feeling I had when writing poetry. Astrology provided the pleasure of a creative act. That pleasure evaporated as the creativity was marshaled into power over others.

Fourth, I learned that my teacher’s pretensions to predictive power were utterly unwarranted. He continued batting about .500 in his broad-stroke guesses, and he was always dignified and compassionate. But in numerous follow-up readings he gave to myself and others in the class, he failed to have insight into accidents, sicknesses, deaths in families, and changes in relationship or career. You know, the big stuff. My marriage was disintegrating: he hadn’t a clue (or at least didn’t mention anything) until I disclosed my concern. Then he frowned over some transits for a while, looked somberly at me, and suggested that I chant the mantra of Saturn.

Fifth, I found a psychotherapist. In our first meeting he said: “Every time we see each other, I will refuse to let you give me your power.” Over a few months, my marital situation became clearer and clearer. All my therapist did was to hold up a mirror.

Sixth: my teacher and I had a falling-out over a skeptical piece I published – not about astrology, but about the performative semiotics of sainthood in modern yoga. I had teased out the implications of the obviously staged photographs of Sri Yukteshwar and Yogananda. I reported on the well-known fact that Sri Chimnoy hired his photographer to air-brush pictures of his feats of strength so that it would appear that he actually was lifting a Volkswagon clear off the ground. My teacher was outraged at my impiety. Our relationship ended in exhilarating fashion, with us screaming at each other in the street. And then he expelled me from the class.

Seventh: unforeseen by astrology, my life utterly changed. My marriage collapsed. I met a new partner, somebody with whom I took a few more steps towards becoming an adult. A dear friend was killed in cycling accident. A community organization I had helped to build folded. My yoga studio went up for sale. My house went on the market. People asked me to do readings for them. I avoided their emails at first, and then said it outright: “I don’t do that anymore.”

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Unforeseen by astrology, I divorced myself from speculation upon the stars, and felt more full in my personhood, more settled. For me, the system, its charts, its mathematics, its incredibly rich mythology and psychic richness, its hours of contemplation, its songs running through my head, its love for these nine troublesome archetypes, these twenty-seven strange and volatile deities in the constellations and in my heart: this all constituted my last guru. I bowed before this practice. It was impersonal, so it couldn’t bully me. I learned it from a peer, and so no one lorded it over me. But in its sly way, it would ask me to hold power over others.

But I wasn’t brought up that way. Above all, I am student of literature, with which we do not predict the future, but try rather to feel more deeply into the present. I have a hundred books on jyotiṣa in my study, and I look at them on my shelves, and they are like old novels to me now. I cannot give them to charity, because I’m unwilling to cloud anyone else’s reason, even by chance. I’ll have to burn them one day. I do not want to die suddenly, and have my son find them and read them without my being there to tell this strange story.

Occasionally I still consider my own natal chart, alongside other artifacts of my self-identity. I was a Catholic. I was a Buddhist. I was a jyotiṣ. I think ironically but fondly of those three planets, frozen into combat at the moment of my birth, still at war on the page, and, I suppose, within my heart. I think of my teacher, how I loved him, how I miss him, how I mourn for everyone lost in the cracks between paradigms. I think of the people I sat with, hoping that they hold the charts that provoked our conversations as lightly as I do now. (All tools are best held lightly.) I think of my partner, and how I fell in love with her as her chart sat between us in an Ayurveda meeting, and how the chart disappeared when we began to speak, and how I learned about her and I both by leaving all charts behind. It is fitting that it takes Petrarch, a poet, to leave us with this:  Astra non mentiuntur, sed astrologi bene mentiuntur de astris. “Astrologers always lie about the stars, but the stars themselves hold the truth.”

About my son. It’s a funny thing. In that first reading, my teacher told me that it was “mathematically impossible” for me to become a biological father.

Today I watch my chubby mathematical impossibility scampering around the kitchen, wrestling with the cat, and working his way into language. He knows da-da, and ma-ma, and uh-oh, and ball. And when he opens Goodnight Moon he points at the bright crescent in the dark sky and says moo, moo, moooo…n.

 

______

Thanks to Julian Marc Walker and Rene Tschannen of the Rational Spirituality page for some research help.

 
 

14 Comments

  1. chrisamesChris Ames

    Thanks for this Matthew.

  2. Matthew, I was wondering if you were familiar with what Wilber termed the “pre-trans fallacy,” and of integral approaches to “structures” of consciousness such as the magical (prerational/magico-religious), as I have heard you quote Julian Jaynes. In particular, your affinities to these more modern approaches bespeaks of an emphasis on the rational (levels)… Is it a personal disenchantment from the power structures you perceive as inherent in these domains, or do you feel we have evolved beyond these “tools.” To you, is there any beneficial application of such things as ritual, and “pre-rational” sciences and arts, that are operative with certain constructions of the self, or is it more important to reevaluate the whole edifice, canon or tradition?

    thanks

    • Thanks James. I am familiar with Wilber’s PTF, but I generally stay away from him on account of his egregiously bad charlatan radar. I would never root my disenchantment in the power structures of the prerational per se, but in how they are manipulated, consciously or not, in a post-whatever world. I definitely think we have evolved beyond jyotisha as a tool for empiricism. But we haven’t evolved beyond it as a tool for self-narration. When those two purposes are unconsciously or consciously intermingled, there are problems. I have no criticism of ritual here. It’s essential for beneficial priming. We just need to be really thoughtful about what we would like to prime.

  3. ” a tool for self-narration” – it is useful to see jyotisha as a tool for narrative, self-construct. Astrology has held a relationship with traditional medicine and yoga, in some instances it was successful stripped from the pragmatic discourse, and perhaps woefully disregarded in areas where its relevance seemed to apply the most.

    Ritual as primer… gets to the heart of the question. There were developments in the history of yoga that integrated mythic structures (prerational) and emerged after modern developments, which reintegrated ritual, reinterpreted mythology and challenged similar dualistic and prerational assumptions, while to me stepping beyond the chad sm of what some consider a postmodern disenchantment and barren distrust. Is there an experiential thrust one can contact that might revivify these “archaic” and premodern forms, that doesn’t send the whole body of tradition off the cliff of rationalism and empiricism.

    It would seem to imply that yoga, Ayurveda and even jyotish couldn’t operate in a contemporary dialogue unless they were disavowed from the epistemological references and framework they largely communicate within. At the same time, it might be difficult to maintain that historically pre-modern philosophical traditions such as Samkhya and Vaisheshika are wholly pre-rational and outdated, simply because of their “explanatory power.”

    LOL I’m not sure what the charlatan radar refers to, but some of the latest threads in psycho-history, although may not be able to pass the “BS rubric” you introduced recently, tend to point to these paradigmatic changes that seem to be on the cusp, following developments in the late medieval era into the twentieth century. These integral developments or insights find no real opposition with empiricism, but are just not dominated by it.

    • It refers to Wilber’s unfortunate habit of declaring one sociopathic charismatic after another to be fully enlightened every few years: Adi Da, Andrew Cohen, etc. We all make mistakes, but Wilber really goes for gold.

      Disenchantment is such a delicate thing. It feels harsh, and then buoyant. One can’t communicate it without causing the former feeling, I find. But when it sinks, and we get over the adolescent spasm, I think we can realize that it is its own experiential thrust. I always remember that one possible etymology for moksha is “the end of infatuation”. That’s how good disenchantment feels to me. Naked by a cold pond.

      I’m also not arguing for any of these arts to be driven off a cliff, except when they break their own epistemes, claiming to scientific and such. It’s only the pretence to rationality that I would drive off the cliff of rationality. The poetry will remain intact, and it will fly, I think. We just have to stop bullshitting about how it means what it means.

  4. Something I really appreciate in this articulation is precisely the personal narrative and how it highlights certain issues, and the ruptures and breaks from tradition that have to do with critical reflection. We learn from personal answers and resolutions, even if they are not the same as our own.

    Its a trend to work with the myths and mythic/magical structures of yoga’s hoary past. I myself spent a decade acquainting, and for periods, adopting a literal stance to them. I attended a lecture by a prominent scholar who lashed out on non-literal interpretations of the puranas, whose own commentarial traditional allows for it, when accessing symbolic content. The same insistence was there for YS metaphysical propositions. Nowadays, many teachers are drawing from the mythic bedrock to teach on asana, perhaps not recognizing the lot of unconscious assumptions being adopted in the meaning-making processes underlying their appropriation.

    The response to Doniger as of late: some traditionalists, or others with a certain agenda feel abhorred, others find her work fascinating, but all these discussions seem to highlight a false tension – that of East and West; the bulk of populations taking up yoga all live from modern constructs of experience. Yet, how we make sense of the cultural embededness of yoga and its subsidiary traditions is perhaps paramount. I agree that we can’t remain in the dark about what it is that speaks to us from these tools and traditions of practices – the how is a slippery slope. Efficacy is something to ponder. People dip into “other people’s myths,” attend pre-rational rituals or practice “yoga” and feel changed or beneffited, but the why and how (beyond placebo) is a question worth considering.

    I do feel that your use of the word “tool” is relevant. I believe one can work from a certain experiential base and still utilize or access relevancy and efficacy amidst an age-old tool (kit), and orient in a way that makes beneficial use of mythic structures (without being a literalist/fundamentalist), and access power beyond what rational structures would deem magical, without pretending to be an aboriginal. And at the same time, without it being contested it is more likely that people will fall back upon unconscious and romantic appropriations.

    I hope a traditionalist might not be afraid to read, perhaps, White’s forthcoming review of YS history, because the challenge that text-historical critique offers could in fact sharpen one’s wise reading and refine one’s stance in faith.

  5. Gregory

    Well, as I learned a long time ago: there is no bad astrology, only bad astrologers. The reason astrology is a pseudo-science is because it relies on the skill of the reader and the extent to which the client has or can exercise his/her freewill. It takes about 20 years to become a good astrologer so for those who have not reached this milestone, they can help people only imperfectly. I don’t know how many years Carl Sagan studied astrology but it seems to me that so-called scientific thinkers often dismiss facts with theory, that is, they can think of no way of how it works and so they dismiss it outright, like religion, even though it has helped many people. Of course, amateurs jump into doing readings after only a week, month, or couple years of study and think they can help people but when it comes to making difficult decisions for someone, they are suddenly full of doubt because they haven’t mastered the subject and they don’t want the responsibility of telling someone what to do.

    Anyhow, I know we are westerners all hoping for perfection, empirical answers and quick solutions, but how does one describe music through words? It can’t be done and yet people continue to try. But as my teacher once said to me: there is strength in believing; there is no strength in not believing. The mind is a powerful, mysterious thing.

    • Thanks for the note Gregory — it’s been a long time! So many thoughts here.

      Sounds like you would agree that astrology is a pseudo-science, not because of its method (“there is no bad astrology”) but because of the fallibility of the meeting. But isn’t the meeting based on the method? Aren’t people using something that must be assessed? How would it be assessed? Anecdotes are fine, but they can only ever support a god-of-the-gaps argument, and that just doesn’t satisfy me any more. Because it’s not enough to say “the mind is a powerful, mysterious thing”. We all know that. Neuroscientists most of all, perhaps. And the reductions of metaphysical language don’t move the argument forward.

      Do you really think the “responsibility of telling someone what to do” is something that any one person should possibly have? The thing about the scientific method is that such responsibility gets crowd-sourced and fact-checked. It’s different. It’s not paternalistic.

      I’m glad for your music analogy. I think jyotisa is very much like music. It inspires and soothes. It is beautiful to the senses precisely to the extent that it doesn’t tell someone what to do. My teacher, who is also a student of your teacher, started every term by saying that jyotisa was a form of entertainment. But then he proceeded to complicate that statement with pretensions of being able to tell others what they should do.

      I don’t know your teacher very well, but enough to know that he is as fond of elliptical phrases as you are: “there is no strength in not believing.” I love how that sounds, but I am also aware that when you scratch the surface, the opposite is also true. There is intense strength in not believing that a man with a piece of paper inscribed with ancient symbols can tell you when you will die. So I’m left with the question: how do we manage the extraordinary claims that we hear?

  6. allise

    I found the honesty here empowering. Thank you for sharing Matthew.

    I recall the my own struggle to understand what I was ‘getting involved with’ as I entered my yoga studies and became a yoga teacher.
    It was –not possible– to come to an understanding of what the heck and where did this get vetted?

    As I became the teacher, I too became uncomfortable with funky power dynamics. I quit teaching after a friend of mine substituted for me –teaching my students for me. My friend was steeped in her journey of giving her power away. In no small part by her submission to every chart reader she ever came across. She is/was a lost soul: BUT a lost soul who loved To Have Power Over Others.
    This funny quality of ‘my substitute’. The ‘lost one’ who needs to control others, —was compelling –and ultimately utterly shocking.

    It was the power-dynamic-thing that led me to STOP teaching that week.
    To see such a lost person weaving that level of control over others.

    That mirror held up for me was devastatingly the ‘coldest reading’ I could ever have ‘obtained’.

  7. I love many things about this article. The bravery, sincerity, compassion, methodologies (phenomenology etc). And wit. We are all “refugees” of something, probably in ongoing ways. Really relevant points re power dynamics in therapeutic work…yes!! I’ve never been much into astrology but experientially I know the moon affects me and there has been recent research about people’s sleep patterns etc… But archetypes are enough, in fact, plenty for me to work with anyway. Bravo and thank you Matthew, Sue

  8. Kc

    I once had a dream that appeared to be giving me insight about a psychological/spiritual approach that I am involved in these days. In the dream I am wandering around the hallowed hallways (not unlike Harry Potters school) with hundreds of other ‘followers’ trying to find out where I’m supposed to go, who I’m supposed to listen to and which door I’m supposed to enter. Of course my anxiety has me moving quickly in every direction, inside the buildings, the hallways, the dining halls, the grounds between buildings, meeting people from my past. At each meeting I’m thinking, wow, you are on this path too? I never would have imagined that…how random. I occasionally run into the ‘teachers’ and ask them which way do I go, will I be late? Help me! Every time they look at me sincerely, with such compassion and say nothing, not revealing any information that would put me on the ‘correct’ path. After awhile I start slowing down, find hidden passageways, enter through a myriad of doors and find nothing but myself in these rooms vs the enlightened sage surrounded by an aura of golden light. In the dream I was not lonely or disillusioned, but incredibly relieved. Perhaps because the realization that the teacher, the guidance was coming from a deeper place within myself. Every door brought me to the same place. Each teacher, by not directing, allowed me to lead myself in some way. I like this path.

    I hope you continue to share your compassionate gaze, friendly skepticism and yummy soup recipes upon those who seek you out for comfort. I find it incredibly helpful.

  9. Peter L

    Hi Matthew,

    Reading this piece and some of the above comments and replies felt like a much needed ‘re-booting’ of the mind-stuff. Some of my personal experience over the last few years, both in teaching and practicing yoga, as well as some experiences I had in a trip to India this past fall, had left a murky legacy. This has helped clear some of the murk, which is a precious gift! Thank you for sharing openly.
    Perhaps next time someone asks for a ‘grounding’ pose in a post-class talk, I’ll send them to this article. :)

  10. Marlene Bauer

    Matthew Please do not burn your Astroligy books over a failed bromance. I’ll take them as I’m already lost in clouded reason and right now it seems to be in a crack between paradigms
    Burning books is soo yesterday.

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