The Philosophical Foundations of Jyotish
“God created the Law of Karma, and then retired”
The Ancient Vedic Civilization
Many thousands of years ago, in what is now northern India, there existed a very advanced civilization. Advanced not in a technological sense as ours today with its microchip supercomputers, space satellites and cell phones, but advanced in the sense of the extraordinary inner spiritual development of its “wise men.” These sages, who were referred to as rishis or “seers” didn’t explore outer space, but the inner realms of spirit and soul. From their enlightened states of consciousness, these seers produced a legacy of knowledge known as the Vedic tradition (from the Sanskrit word Veda, meaning “sacred knowledge).
The time period when the ancient Vedic civilization flourished is a matter of scholarly debate, ranging anywhere to 4,000 to 1500 B.C. Suffices to say that it is among the oldest civilizations of recorded history. From the standpoint of a set of spiritual beliefs, the modern form of this ancient tradition is commonly known in the world today as Hinduism, but the name by which it refers to itself is “Sanatana Dharma,” which means literally “eternal truth.”
The primary source material or “scriptures” of this tradition are the four Vedas. These are stotras or hymns, which according to the tradition were revealed to the ancient Vedic seers in enlightened or divine states of consciousness. They contain knowledge about all aspects of life, but particularly knowledge of man’s relationship to the Divine.
Volumes could be written about the spiritual perspective on life articulated in this ancient tradition but reduced to its essence it consists of three interrelated concepts or “eternal truths.”
- The Reality of the Higher Self
The first truth is that humankind in essence is pure spirit (purusha), and that this spirit is identical with the highest reality of life, which is God (Brahman). Everyone has within them this individual "spark of the divine," although most are in a state of ignorance (avidya), and totally unaware of this Higher Self (Atman).
- The Existence of the Soul
The second truth relates to the individualization of the universal spirit into " soul,” referred to in Vedic science as the jiva (literally - "living being"). The jiva itself is non-physical, but takes on physical form at birth. It has free will, meaning it acts according to its own volition, and is immortal, meaning it continues to exist even with the death of the physical body.
The essential point of truth about the soul according to Vedic wisdom is that it creates its own reality through its thoughts, words, and actions.
Being in essence a creative principle, and having free will, the soul creates effects and has experiences according to the law of action and reaction. The process through which the soul experiences the results of its own creation is known as the Law of Karma.
- The Law of Karma and Reincarnation
The third truth has to do with the law of karma, and its corollary concept, reincarnation. The word karma comes from the Sanskrit root kri meaning, "to do", from which our English word "create" is derived. It means literally "the effects of past actions." The law of karma is the law of action and reaction as it applies to the soul level of existence. It is the same universal law that is expressed in the Bible by the statement "As you sow, so shall you reap.” An individual's karmas are the accumulated effects of the soul's past thoughts, intentions, words, and actions. They are the seeds sown in the past that have "created" the present, and will condition future experience.
According to this view, the soul experiences these karmic effects in more than one lifetime. Propelled by the force of its desires, the soul reincarnates again and again in a continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). In the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the sacred texts of the Vedic tradition, the process of reincarnation is explained by way of an analogy:
“As a man casting off worn-out garments takes other new ones, so the dweller in the body casting off worn-out bodies takes others that are new.”
Four Primary Motivations
The innumerable desires that propel this cycle of birth, death and rebirth span the entire spectrum of all human hopes and fears, dreams and aspirations, yet are seen in the Vedic tradition as all being related to one of four primary motivations.
The first of these is kama (worldly enjoyment) or the desire for sensory pleasure of all varieties, though the word is oftentimes mistranslated to mean purely sexual pleasure. An individual living a life in which this motivation predominates is what we might call a sensualist or hedonist. Someone like Hugh Hefner, or at least the playboy image that he sought to personify, might exemplify a life where kama is the primary aim.
The second is called artha (wealth), which refers to the desire to acquire the things of this world and enjoy their comforts. Whereas on one level this can mean purely material wealth and all the things that can be purchased with it, on another level this also refers to the desire to have a mate and family, as well as other close human relationships like friends, business associates and the like. As we look around us, the vast majority of individuals appear to fall in this category in that they are predominately motivated by the desire to hold a position, have status within society and acquire wealth. In keeping with this is the concurrent wish to marry, have children, own property and live a comfortable life materially. All of this is subsumed under the notion of artha, which refers primary to the desire to acquire and possess.
The third motivation is dharma, a word that does not translate easily, but which connotes the desire to do good deeds in the world, to be of benefit to others, and make the world a better place. These are the people who pursue humanitarian careers or pursuits not out of a desire for personal enjoyment or economic gain, but from a wish to serve mankind, and out of a sense that it is “the right thing to do.” Those individuals whose lives are predominately motivated by dharma or moral duty become the Jonus Salks, Albert Schwitzers and Mother Theresas of the world.
The last category is moksha, which means “spiritual liberation.” In the West, we would call this fourth motivation the desire to obtain “salvation” or “to get to heaven.” These are the rare individuals for whom the attractions of the world no longer hold any interest, and who seek a direct experience of a higher, more permanent reality. Historical figures such as St. Francis of Assisi, or The Buddha, both of whom renounced all worldly pursuits very early in life in order to pursue spiritual aims, are examples of individuals in whom the impulse towards moksha is predominating.
The idea here is not that someone is born and continuously expresses in their life just one of these motivations. This would be considered rather atypical. Most of mankind is motivated throughout life by all of these aims, to various degrees, and at different phases of their existence. St Augustine spent the first half of his life in the relentless pursuit of sensual indulgence, and the later half in seeking salvation.
However, according to the Vedic tradition there is also a point to all this striving, an end state to all the soul’s desires and longings, and this is referred to as a state of “God-realization.” The tradition holds that the only experience that will ever be completely fulfilling, that won’t leave the soul longing for more, is the direct experience of God. In fact, the whole dance of creation is seen as nothing but “God’s play,” a great cosmic game of hide and seek so that eventually “the Self might again behold the Self and realize that it is the Self.” This, proclaimed the enlightened sages of ancient India, is the ending point and culmination of an evolutionary path that the soul is traveling over many lifetimes. And they saw encrypted in the planetary patterns at birth a karmic code, revealing the soul’s present inclinations concerning kama, artha, dharma, and moskha.
The Three Kinds of Karma
The “chain of causation” according to the Vedic tradition is that desires give rise to actions, which result in experiences that leave impressions upon the mind (samskaras) that then gives rises to further desires. Every action also brings about a corresponding “reaction” or future “effect,” which, as we’ve seen, is what the word karma means.
Although the basic idea of karma is relatively simple—as you sow you reap—the concept is relatively complex and differentiated in the Vedic tradition. Four main “categories” are identified.
Sanchita Karma – Sanchita means, “heaped together” and is the term used to denote the total karma yet to be experienced—good or bad—that the soul has accumulated in all previous lives. This category therefore refers to the soul’s entire karmic “account.” It has to do with any effect that the soul has “sown” but not yet “reaped.” There is a saying in the Vedic tradition that “in the same way that a small calf unerringly finds his mother among a heard of cows, so too the soul’s karma will inevitably find it.”
Prarabdha Karma – is the term used to refer to that portion of the soul’s sanchit karma that is due to manifest in the present life. The notion here is that the soul does not experience the sum total of its past effects in any given lifetime, but just a small part. This smaller part or present allotment is what an individual’s astrological birth chart is said to reveal. Words in our language such as “destiny,” “fate,” “fortune,” and even “God’s will” all connote the same basic idea as prarabdha karma—experiences in life that a person is somehow “meant to have.” I once heard prarabdha karma described as “now-ready-to-be-experienced” karma.
Kriyamana Karma – is the term used to denote the effects of our present actions and is the “free will” part of the equation. Kriyamana karma has to do with the choices we make now and the actions we take in the present that can alter or modify the past and condition the future. No one, according to the Vedic view, is a helpless “victim” of past-life karma. There is always something that can be done to alter “fate” and to create something different in the future, and this is what kriyamana karma refers to.
To illustrate the distinction between sanchita, prarabdha, and kriyamana karma, let’s take an instance where an individual is born blind. This condition is not some cruel, random accident of “fate” according to the Vedic tradition. Somehow it became a part of that soul’s total karmic account, their sanchita karma. Now in this birth that karma “comes due” and they experience being born blind. Sanchita karma has now become prarabdha karma since what was sown in the past is now being reaped in the present life.
But let’s say that forty years later medical science has advanced to such a degree that through an operation their sight could be restored. As it happens, this person has better karma in the area of finances and can actually afford the best medical specialists and expensive surgical procedures. They choose to “take action” (kriyamana karma) and sight is restored. This scenario is exactly what may happen in the life of musical recording artist, Stevie Wonder, who has been blind since birth. It was announced recently that specialists now think they can operate and restore his sight, and that he may go ahead with the procedure.
But now take a contrasting situation. A baby girl is born into an incredibly wealthy family, a presumably positive type of prarabdha karma. Both parents pass away when she is a young adult, and she becomes the sole heir to millions. But she makes no effort (kriyamana karma) to become a wise steward of her financial fortune, but chooses instead to let her finances be handled by a series of wastrel husbands who squander her wealth and leave her broke. I know of just such a person.
Besides illustrating the difference between the three different categories of karma, I use these examples also to make the point that the Vedic tradition does not suggest that we are mere helpless recipients of our karma, good or bad. We can always “do” something about it, though how difficult it may be to change a karmic trend in our life is said to depend upon how fixed, firm, or flexible it is.
Three Degrees of Karma
Did you ever notice how some aspects of life always seem to “fall in place” very easily whereas others never seem to “come together” despite great efforts? I know a gentleman in his mid-40’s who has “the Midas touch.” All his business ventures “turn to gold.” Yet he can’t seem to have an enduring, fulfilling relationship with a woman to save his life.
If you examine his birth chart you’ll find dramatic and repeated indications of worldly success and wealth. You’ll also find equally dramatic and repeated indications of difficulty and turbulence in his relationship life. Because these two themes repeat from several different angles in his birth chart, they represent “fixed karma” and appear highly resistant to change, much like long-standing and deeply engrained habits. He would find it difficult not to be successful in business, yet fulfillment eludes him in relationship.
Does this mean then that he has no choice but to just “live with it?” No, not at all, says the Vedic tradition. There are spiritual practices that can overcome even these “fixed” karmas. They are referred to as upayes, or “remedial measures,” and are an all-important aspect of Jyotish. After all, why would anyone want to become aware of negative karmic patterns, if there wasn’t anything one could do about it?
Yet not all karma is so intransigent. President Teddy Roosevelt was congenitally weak and sickly as a child, but became fanatically determined at a young age to overcome this condition. By religiously adhering to a strenuous regimen of exercises and therapies, he developed into the hearty, robust outdoorsman of American history. His weak and sickly body in childhood can be seen as an example of what the Vedic tradition refers to as “firm” karma. This is a pattern in life that is rather “solid,” but which yields to determination and effort. The planetary patterns at his birth revealing his prarabdha karma show both weaknesses and strengths with respect to his physical constitution, and his efforts (kriyamana karma) in this area made the difference.
Lastly, there is the “flexible” category. This represents some aspect of life experience—not of your choosing initially—that you find relatively easy to change. Say, for example, you are born and raised in a very cold climate, like Minnesota. However, having grown up, you decide year-around roller skating is more your style than ice hockey, and you want to relocate to California. Your family even supports the idea, since now they have a warm place to come visit in the winter, and your company just happens to have a San Diego office that welcomes you with open arms. It all comes together very easily, and in such a case, the person’s birth chart would show very favorable, flexible patterns in this area of their life. Contrast this scenario to real-life friends of mine in Kansas City who have wanted to move for ten years, but one thing after another makes it hard for them to leave. Their planetary patterns in the area of “home” and “location” reveal a much less “flexible” quality of karma.
To summarize this part of our discussion then, the main premise underlying Vedic astrology is that we are not born a “clean slate,” or “empty vessel,” but come into this world destined to experience certain effects from our actions in previous lives. These “effects” can be fixed, firm or flexible.
Of course, the problem with concepts like karma and reincarnation for many people is that they cannot be verified according to the empirical methods of Western science. They are admittedly metaphysical assertions, and like all such assertions, very difficult, if not impossible to prove.
However, presuming that the soul exists, reincarnation happens, and the law of karma operates, what is the connection to astrology? How can it be that the planetary pattern at birth reveals an individual’s karma? To understand it, one has to appreciate another metaphysical truth, but one that is at least more empirically demonstrable.
Man is a Microcosm
This notion is expressed in the ancient astrological proverb - "As above, so below." The statement refers to the idea that the relationship of man to the universe is that of a microcosm to a macrocosm. In astrology, the macrocosm portion of the equation means primarily our immediate solar system, and in particular, that portion of it that is visible to the human eye. This includes the "ancient seven,”—the Sun, Moon, and the five planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
These are all readily observable and apparent to anyone who looks into the sky. What is not so apparent is that the celestial bodies that make up the "cosmos" of our solar system correspond to energy centers (chakras) within the energy field (aura) of human beings. The old astrological dictum "As above, so below” refers quite literally to the fact that the components and structure of the solar system mirror the components and structure of the human soul.
To someone with no immediate experience of this, such a statement may seem preposterous. This is where the insights of Vedic science and the whole eastern tradition of knowledge come in. For it is here that the macrocosm/microcosm idea is fully articulated. By presenting a very profound and detailed understanding of the various aspects and levels of human existence, Vedic science makes the idea of man as a microcosm explicit.
Vedic science holds that man in his essence is pure spirit (purusha), but that this spirit is enveloped in three types of bodies (sariras). These three bodies, in turn, are said to be composed of five sheaths (koshas). The three bodies and their different sheath are as follows:
1) The physical body (sthula-sarira) consisting of the "food" or anatomical sheath (annamaya kosha).
2) The subtle body (suksma-sarira) consisting of the energy sheath (pranamaya kosha), the mental/emotional sheath (manomaya kosha), and the intellectual sheath (jnanamaya kosha)
3) The casual body (karana-sarira) consisting of the bliss sheath (anandamaya kosha)
The first body, made up of flesh and bones and sustained by food, is the one with which we are all familiar. It can be perceived through normal sensory experience, and is the outward, physical aspect of the individual that ages and eventually dies.
What is not normally perceived is the "subtle body," so called because it is said to be made of “fine” or more “subtle” substance, more like energy than matter as we know it. As indicated above, it consists of three sheaths.
The first of these, the prana, or life force sheath, relates to the physiological processes such as respiration, circulation digestion etc. Still subtler is the manas or mental/emotional sheath that relates to the functions of perception, cognition, feeling, and motivation. The third relates to the intellectual processes of reasoning, discrimination, and judgment and is therefore known as the jnana or knowledge sheath.
According to Vedic science these three sheaths make up what we experience as our inner world of thoughts, feelings, desires, and judgments, though we would not normally relate to these as having form, substance and comprising a “body”. It is important to note here that this subtle body has an alternate name. In Vedic science and other esoteric traditions, it is also referred to as the “astral body.” The reason for this will become clear later in the discussion.
Still less perceptible is the “causal body,” so called because it is the “cause” of the other two, without which the others could not exist. This is the purely spirit level of the individual that is connected with the Divine. It is made up of the ananda or bliss sheath. This body is the inner most aspect of the individual, and, according to Vedic science, does not die.
Western scientists do not yet recognize these non-physical “bodies”. However, reference to them can be found in almost every esoteric tradition. More importantly, they can be directly experienced in the higher states of consciousness developed through the meditative practices of Yoga. When seen in these states of awareness, they appear as a luminous energy field that surround an individual and inter-penetrate each other in succession. Each succeeding sheath is composed of finer substances. This energy field is known in common parlance as the “aura.”
Cosmic Energy, Energy Centers, and Channels
We know that the physical body is made up of flesh, blood, bone, nerves and so on, but what of the other invisible, non-physical bodies? Vedic science’s answer to this question is that they consist of different forms of energy (prana), energy centers (chakras), and energy channels (nadis).
The Sanskrit word prana is often translated “breath”, but actually means “life” or “life-force.” Though connected to the breath in the physical body, it is not identical with it. Rather, it refers to a more subtle energy or animating principle that permeates all things. It has its corollary in the Chinese concept of ch'i upon which their system of medicine is based.
On the subject of this life-force (prana), a present day Yoga master comments:
"It is as difficult to explain Prana as it is to explain God. Prana is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual and cosmic energy. All vibrating energies are prana. All physical energies such as heat, light, gravity, magnetism and electricity are also prana. It is the hidden or potential energy in all beings. It is the prime mover of all activity. Prana is the principle of life and consciousness. It is equated with the real Self (Atman) of the individual which is one and the same with God (Brahman)."
This connection that is made in Vedic science between the breath, the life-force, and spirit in man can be found in other traditions of knowledge as well, and is deeply embedded in our own language. The English word "spirit" is from the Latin spiritus, which means literally “breath.” When a person dies we say they “expired,” meaning literally, they are “out of breath, or spirit.”
Just as the physical body has its nervous system over which electrical-like impulses flow, the subtle and causal bodies are said to contain complex networks of “nadis” (“conduits”) through which vital energy (prana) circulates. Some 72,000 of these are identified, but the three most important are called the susumna, ida, and pingala, and run along the axis of the spine.
The subtle and casual bodies also contain energy centers (chakras), which are also located along the vertical axis of the spine. Chakra means, “wheel,” and its use in this context refer to the fact that when seen in expanded states of awareness, these centers look like spinning wheels or vortexes. Vedic science identifies seven major ones, and they are given here in descending order, along with their location along the spine.
|Energy Centers (Chakras)||Location on Spinal Axis|
|1. Sahasara-chakra||Crown of the head|
|2. Ajna-chakra||Area between the eyebrows|
|4. Anahata- chakra||Heart|
|5. Manipuraka-chakra||Navel or Solar Plexus|
|7. Muladhara chakra||Coccyx|
When Vedic science speaks of the location of the energy centers along the spinal axis, it should be clearly understand that they are not a part of the physical spinal cord. They exist solely in the subtle body.
This means that just as there is a Sun in the heavens, so also is there a “Sun center” within each of us. In Vedic science this is the Anja chakra located at the point between the eyebrows, and understood to be the center of spiritual illumination, the so-called "third eye" of occultism. It is represented as having two petals because it is paired with the Soma-chakra, or Moon center in the middle of the brain. These together form a unit that reflect the basic masculine and feminine polarity in the psyche, which manifest in such dualities as logic and feeling.
Mercury in the solar system corresponds to an energy center in the subtle body, known in Vedic science as the Vishudda-chakra. It is identified with the throat area, the center of speech. Note that in ancient mythology, Mercury was known as “the messenger of the gods” and was said to rule over communication.
Just as there is a Venus in the solar system, known in mythology as the “goddess of love,” so too there is a “Venus center” in the psyche. This center is referred to as the anahata chakra, and is located in the area of the heart, traditionally recognized at the seat of the affections.
Martial artists are taught to locate and tap into a powerful energy emanating in the area of the navel, and in every day language we speak of person having a lot of “guts” or “intestinal fortitude.” Vedic science refers to the area of the navel as the manipuracka chakra, and in the macrocosm of our solar system, it corresponds to the fiery red planet, Mars, the “god of courage and war” in mythology.
Planets are to the cosmos of the solar system what the energy centers (chakras) are to the cosmos of the human psyche. Just as every normal human body has a heart, eyes, liver, sexual organs etc., yet is unique, so too does every human psyche contain Mars, Mercury, Venus etc., though these energies express themselves in a unique way within each individual.
The importance of this concept for understanding astrology cannot be overemphasized. It is the original insight which gave birth to astrology, and makes the statement “As above, so below” come alive. It is from this basic awareness that the whole edifice of astrological knowledge is built. It is the key to understanding why and how Astrology “works.”
The External and Internal Zodiac
However, one might ask at this point, “What about the constellations or “signs” of the Zodiac?” “Where do they fit in with this macrocosm/microcosm idea?” Before going into this important question, a brief explanation of the Zodiac is in order.
The word “Zodiac” originated in the ancient Greek civilization, though the concept is much older. In the more ancient Vedic civilization it was referred to as the Kaal Chakra or Wheel of Time. “Zodiac” is the abbreviated version of “Zoidiakos Kyklos,” a Greek phrase meaning, “Circle of Living Beings, or Animals.” The “Circle” here refers to that area of the celestial sphere in which the Sun, Moon, and planets move. This pathway has the ecliptic, the apparent path of the Sun, as its centerline, and is divided into twelve thirty-degree sections, each of which is associated with particular groups of stars. “Animals” refers to the fact that eight out of the twelve symbols of the Zodiac are animals. The Zodiac is one of the primary frames of reference used in astrology to locate where the planets are at the moment of an individual's birth.
It is not the figment of someone’s imagination, but a scientific reality. The orbits of the planets around the Sun all lie relatively along the same plane, such that if you could look at the solar system from the side it would resemble a disc. This being so, when we observe the movements of the planets from our vantage point on Earth, they all appear to move along the same “highway” in the sky. This highway is what has anciently been referred to as the Zodiac. When related to the movement of the Sun (which we really know to be the movement of the Earth around the Sun), the Zodiac represents the cycle of the year. The Sun's position through this cycle is the basis of the "Sun Sign" astrology of the newspapers.
The division of the Zodiac into 12 sections is not arbitrary either, though the reasons for it are less obvious. Within the cycle of the year there are four “transition” points, the spring and fall equinoxes, and the summer and winter solstices. These mark the beginning of the four seasons. The division into 12 comes about when each of these seasons is further subdivided into three, an early, middle, and late period. However, this is all on the external level. To truly understand the division of the Zodiac into 12, it is necessary to appreciate the internal Zodiac.
Internal Zodiac? Earlier, when discussing the anatomy of the subtle body, the three main channels (nadis) along the spinal axis through which the life force (prana) circulates were enumerated. (Think of electricity flowing over a wire.) Vedic science identifies the middle one of these as the susumna-nadi, which means, “the current that is most gracious.” It is also called the Brahma-nadi, or the God channel, because when the life force (prana) flows up this center channel to the psychic center at the top of the head (sahasara-chakra), one has a direct experience of God (Brahman).
Left of this center channel is the ida-nadi, or “pale channel.” This reference is difficult to understand until it is noted that it is also called chandra-nadi, or “moon channel.” “Pale” in this context refers to the pale, soft light of the moon, and connotes the cool, yin, feminine, negative electrical-like energy that this channel conducts.
Right of the center channel is the pingala-nadi or “reddish channel.” Again, the name seems obscure until you see that this nadi is alternately called surya-nadi, or “sun channel,” connoting the hot, yang, masculine, positive electrical-like quality of the life force (prana) when flowing along this nadi.
The susumna-nadi originates in the psychic energy center at the base of the spine (muladhara-chakra), runs directly up the spinal axis, pierces each of the intervening chakras, and culminates in the crown center, or “thousand-petaled lotus” at the top of the head (sahasara-chakra).
The ida and pingala also originate in the base center, but rather than moving straight upward, they wind in serpentine fashion around the susumna, crisscrossing at each of the six lower centers, terminating at the right and left nostrils. Taken together, they form a complete “circuit” through which psychic energy normally circulates in the lower six centers.
This “circuit” is the internal Zodiac.
It is the path along which the internal Sun, the life force (prana), moves in connection with the cycle of the breath.
A clairvoyant describes this energy flow in the following way:
“There is a vertical flow of energy along the spinal axis that pulsates up and down the aura. It extends out beyond the physical body above the head and below the coccyx. I call this the main vertical power current.”
But where then are the 12 different segments of this internal Zodiac? In every introductory text on astrology we find the information that the constellations each have “gender.” If they are numbered from one to twelve starting with the constellation Aries, the odd constellations are “masculine,” while the even constellations are “feminine.”
Another fundamental principle of astrology is that each constellation is “ruled” by one of the planets. This scheme is given as follows:
Gemini and Virgo
Libra and Taurus
Aries and Scorpio
Aquarius and Capricorn
You will notice that the Sun and the Moon each have rulership over one constellation, and that the five remaining planets “rule” over two. When you take into account the subtle body and its relationship to the solar system the reason for these designations becomes clear. Within man, the microcosm, the 12 constellations of the Zodiac are the feminine and masculine aspects (ida and pingala) of the lower six energy centers (chakras).
In other words, each of the lower six psychic centers expresses their energy in both a masculine and feminine, or “solar” and “lunar” polarity.
Consider this statement from the beginning of the Bible, Genesis; verse 27:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him: male and female created he them.”
More esoteric interpreters of this creation myth would say that the verse doesn’t refer to the external creation of the male and female species, but to the internal masculine and feminine aspects of the soul. These “male and “female” halves are the two sides of the psychic energy centers, each of which are associated with a planet.
For example, the zodiacal signs Gemini and Virgo represent the “masculine” and “feminine” aspect of the energy center at the throat, corresponding as we have seen with the planet Mercury. This is why in astrology, Mercury it is said to “rule” these two signs. This relationship of the zodiacal signs to the psychic energy centers (chakras) represented by the planets is as follows:
Forehead - Sun/Moon
Throat - Mercury
Navel - Mars
Sacrum - Jupiter
Coccyx - Saturn
From an esoteric standpoint, this is how the division of the zodiac into 12 comes into being. This is how the signs get their gender, and this explains why certain planets “rule” certain signs.
Now I understand that readers may find all of this very difficult to relate to since most of us have no direct experience of “subtle bodies,” “energy centers,” or “energy channels” crisscrossed in a helix formation along a central axis. However, an image of this is actually much more familiar than you may realize.
Think of the medical insignia, which we have all seen many times, consisting of a staff with two entwined snakes and two wings on top. This is the caduceus, from a Greek word meaning “the symbolic staff of a herald.” In our society it symbolizes the physician. To understand the origin of this peculiar image and its association with the medical profession, it’s necessary to take a short excursion to ancient Greece.
The western medical tradition has its roots, like most western science and culture, in the ancient Greek civilization. In the medical history books for example, we find the Greek physician; Hippocrates (as in Hippocratic oath) regarded as the “Father of Medicine.” The representation of the medical profession by the caduceus dates back to this time. In the pantheon of gods and goddess of that civilization, Asclepius, the god of healing, and Hermes (known in the Roman mythology as Mercury) are both pictured holding the caduceus. However, any information about why the caduceus is associated with these gods, what the image represents, and what it has to do with healing, is difficult to find. While it seems only logical that the “messenger of the gods” be pictured holding a “herald's staff”, why the god of healing?
The connection becomes less obtuse when it is understood that the image of the caduceus represents the flow of psychic energy (prana) through the main channels (nadis) of the subtle body, and that the balanced flow of this energy was seen as being the basis of good health.
"Of the Stars"
When describing the subtle body earlier, I made mention that it is also sometimes referred to as the astral body. The word astral literally means “of the stars.” Why this alternative name? The reason for it is that the ancient sages perceived that it is this aspect of our being that attunes with the position and movements of the celestial bodies. In other words, it is the electromagnetic energy field enveloping the body that is responsive to cosmic radiation, in much the same way as a radio is responsive to radio waves.
That all of this happens on a subconscious level, outside of our everyday awareness, doesn't make it any less real. The human eye cannot detect ultraviolet or infrared radiation, but these kinds of radiation exist, and they have their effect regardless of our being able to see them.
However, in recognizing these microcosm/macrocosm relationships, neither astrology nor Vedic science is implying that in some way we are puppets on planetary strings.
"Supposed Influence of the Stars"
The biggest misconception about astrology—and one of the reasons people find it so objectionable—is that it is seen as a completely deterministic view of life. If you look astrology up in the dictionary you will see it described as a medieval pseudo-science dealing with the “supposed influence of the stars.” If a man's fate is written in his stars at birth, where is the free will in that? This idea is particularly repugnant to the western cultural viewpoint with its strong emphasis on self-determination and personal autonomy. Those raised in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, particularly Catholicism like myself, were indoctrinated at a young age in the idea of the soul, but a soul with free will. If there was any influence coming from the heavens, it was from God and his grace, not the planets!
I have always found a certain irony in this objection since—rather than denying the principle of free will—astrology, if correctly understood, actually affirms it. Look at astrology superficially, and it does seem to deny free will. Understand its spiritual basis, and quite the opposite picture emerges.
As we saw from the first part of the discussion, true astrological understanding is based on the concepts of reincarnation, and the law of action and reaction (karma). An appreciation of these ideas in relation to astrology reveals a great secret of life. Expressed in the words of a modern-day yoga master, this secret is that:
"A child is born on that day at that hour when the celestial rays are in mathematical harmony with his individual karma. His horoscope is a challenging portrait, revealing his unalterable past and its probable future results. The chart, therefore, shows our mind pattern, our past conditioning, the mental impressions and patterns referred to as samskaras. The chart shows what we are now because of what we have thought and done in the past.”
Chapter 16, pg. 188 Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda
The above statement refers to the fact that the unique pattern made by the celestial bodies at the moment of an individual's birth in some way resonates with the energy pattern that makes up the subtle body. This energy pattern, in turn, reflects that soul's individual karma—the effect of its past thoughts and actions.
Why the moment of birth? Why not the moment of conception? Actually, the Vedic astrological tradition acknowledges the primacy of conception. However, the time of birth, more precisely, the moment of the first independent breath, is the astrologically significant one for the following reason.
We saw earlier that the movement of the breath is seen in Vedic science as connected with the more subtle flow of energy in the main channels up and down the spine. During the period in the womb, the developing fetus does not breath but receives its “life force” supply from the mother via the umbilical cord. It is only at birth that the infant takes its first independent breath, thus establishing its own unique energy pattern. It is this unique pattern that is mirrored in the structure of the cosmos at birth. It is a pattern that has its origin in the past incarnations of the soul.
Completely opposite then to what is popularly believed, astrology is based on the view that the soul is free—free that is within the law of action and reaction. Like Vedic science, astrology affirms the view that the soul creates its own reality. Current reality, both internal and external, is viewed as a function of the past, with the future being determined by present actions. Eastern spiritual traditions refer to this cycle as samsara, or the wheel of birth death and rebirth, which is seen as being linked together by the chain of cause and effect.
Planets as Agents Not Causes
It should be clear from the above discussion that astrology does not hold that the planets are the direct cause of anything in our life. They are rather “agents,” a cosmic mechanism through which the law of cause and effect is played out on the level of the soul. One of the most ancient and authoritative texts on Vedic astrology, the Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra, expresses this idea directly in the opening chapters.
“The Unborn lord has many forms. He has incarnated as the planets to bestow on living beings the results due to their karmas.”
A simple example might serve to illustrate this point. If I wanted to send a loved one flowers, I could purchase a bouquet and directly hand them to her. More likely, I would call up a florist, place an order with my credit card, and the flowers would be delivered to her.
In the language of formal logic, my order is the efficient cause of her receiving the flowers. The florist and the delivery person from whom she actually receives the flowers are merely the agents of cause. So it is with the planets and our karma. We, as souls, reap the fruit of the seeds we have sown. These fruits come to us via the agency of the different cosmic energies that the planets represent.
Consider, for example, the planetary force Mars. It symbolizes the force of dynamism in the soul. It is the “soul energy” of pure desire, the will toward action, and the impulse to assert oneself and take initiative. On the most primitive level it has to do with the aggressive and sexual impulses. A positive Mars in a birth chart expresses itself as an appropriate, healthy aggression and self-assertion. It is “will power” consciously directed towards constructive aims and actions. It suggests a balanced, constructive use of this energy by the soul in the past. Negative Mars manifests as impatience, excessive willfulness, destructiveness, violence, and the wrong use of force. It suggests an unbalanced use of this energy in the past that is the karmic antecedent for negative occurrences of this kind experienced in the present.
Freud, Jung and the other early psychoanalytic investigators demonstrated that much of human behavior was unconsciously determined, that early life experiences, the memories of which are lost or repressed, continue to hold powerful sway over our behavior. Early parental and family relationships were shown to be of particular formative importance. Vedic psychology takes this idea one step further and recognizes that the circumstances of our birth, as well as the parents, to which we are born, are themselves karmic effects.
The net result of this understanding is the inescapable conclusion that we must ultimately take responsibility for everything that happens to us—good or bad.
However, it is vitally important to understand that we are not our charts anymore than a gardener is their garden. What we truly are in essence according to the Vedas is pure creative intelligence, or spirit. The chart and the karmic potential reflected in it, is only what we, as spirits with free will, have created in the past. So astrology shouldn’t make anyone a fatalist. Instead, the real implication is that we are the architects of your own destiny and in time can create anything that we want. The chart merely shows where you are at the moment.
Inherent in all of us is the capacity for self-transformation. In the Vedic tradition there is the wonderful saying, “Over and above karma is dharma.” This means that over and above the law of cause and effect, there is the law of the evolution of the soul. We can all grow into the greater light and love of the Spirit if we open ourselves to it. I heard a great teacher say once that karma is nothing next to God’s grace. And how do we grow in God’s grace? His answer was “Love people, serve people, feed people.”
A “Proofs-based” Science
Having outlined this Vedic viewpoint of reality, please understand that I am not suggesting that you now accept it has “the Truth.” I simply wanted to present the philosophical foundation upon which Jyotisha rests. Accepting anything on “faith” is actually against the spirit of the Vedic tradition, which considers itself a “proofs-based” science. In the case of Jyotisha, the student is asked to learn some interpretive principles and then put them “to the test” using accurate birth data. If Jyotisha “works,” it lends credence to the concepts of karma and reincarnation, at least inferentially.
However, I fully appreciate that the question of whether Jyotisha “works” is something about which everyone is going to want to decide for him or herself. After completing a course of study you will be able to examine the charts of people well known to you and decide for yourself.