that have Survived through Time

In this article I am addressing a very delicate issue which many contemporary jyotishis may be extremely sensitive to. This pertains to what many of us treat as Gospel, namely, the classic texts in jyotish that have survived through time. Some of the fairly standard texts in the field of natal jyotish principles (jaataka siddhantas) include: Brihat Parashar Hora Shastra [BPHS], Laghu and Madhya Parashari, Brihat Jataka, Upadesha Sutras (Jaimini), Phaladeepika, Saravali, Hora Ratnam, Hora Sara, Uttara Kalamrita, Nashta Jataka, Deva Keralam (Chandra Kala Nadi), Bhrigu Nadi, Satya Jatakam, etc. Some of these and many other texts, were written in relatively recent times (last few hundred years). Uttarakalamrita and Daivagna Vallabh would serve as examples of such more recent texts. 

Almost by consensus, Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra is accepted as the gold standard where jyotish principles are concerned. This is a huge compilation of hundreds of shlokas (Sanskrit verses) which touch upon many aspects of Vedic astrology or jyotish. It is presented as a transcript of the discourses between Sage Parashara and his student Maitraya on all aspects of astrology (including what is known as Jaimini system because of some of its unique differences from the mainstream Parashari principles) and wanders briefly in places into Ayurveda, philosophy and religion. No student of jyotish can escape this huge tome and indeed his education will remain incomplete without studying it.

The heartburn arises when we realize that there exist at least a few ‘original’ versions of Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra!. Two of the popular English translations, one by R. Santhanam (Ranjan Publications) and the other by Girish Chand Sharma (Sagar Publications) have significant differences in the distribution of chapters, etc. and at places less than optimal clarity creeps in as to what is the pure translation and what constitutes the notes and personal observations of the translators. While gratefully acknowledging the significance of their attempt at translating these huge bodies of Sanskrit treatises, it is true that not all contemporary translators are equally proficient in Sanskrit, and this only adds to the problem of a faithful translation becoming possible. Overall, though, there is a wealth of knowledge trapped between the covers of these tomes, and some minefields. 

It is accepted by consensus that most of the earlier texts (including Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra) were part of the oral tradition which still continues in jyotish. Information and knowledge was transmitted from teacher to student and preserved through meticulous attention to details and a razor sharp memory, the contents of which were duly transmitted to the next in line before the ravages of time dulled ones memory. According to some, unique keys were incorporated to serve as “checksums” for detecting errors (similar to what is done for digital information in computer applications). It is also a popular belief that jyotishi is a revealed knowledge. That it was revealed to sages of yore (18 of whom have been named by KN Saraswati and her father in their translation of Brihajjataka) from divine sources and then transmitted from generation to generation through the oral tradition. 

At this distant point in time, we do not have any evidence if some or all of these were ever written down until much later. What we see today, as the different versions, could presumably be the result of notes taken by different individuals possibly at some point afterwards during the generations of sojourn of jyotish principles from mind to mind, and can explain at least some of the discrepancies. If one thinks about it, the ability to write and take notes must have led to (triggered by?) the dulling of ones memory, since with the faintest mark of ‘ink’ being stronger than the strongest memory, there was less necessity to remember! Less exercising of memory was necessary, in other words. 

Comparing this with a modern observation would be the reducing capability of performing mental mathematical operations by the different generations. Baby boomers who did not have calculators can add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers more easily in their head than the subsequent generations with their handy calculators. The mental math muscles have atrophied from disuse! It is not inconceivable that the same could have happened to man’s memory capabilities as we switched towards becoming a writing, note-taking, documenting type of creatures. 

A more serious matter, than missed facts or details during translations and scribing, is embellishment and inserting of material into the original body. This should not immediately strike one with horror because of the nefarious and less than ethical finger-pointing that the statement implies. It is quite conceivable that because of so many individuals involved in the process of preserving the classics, as well as other influences such as invasions, temporal decay and degeneration of material, natural disasters (they did have floods, earthquakes and pestilence back then!) there could have been damage incurred to the original followed by well-intentioned attempts at restoring what was damaged. This underlies the discrepancies noted by contemporary translators when they comment that a certain passage or word does not make sense in the context in which it appears. 

Regardless of the original motives, these ‘restorations’ have not been consistently annotated by the later scribes and one wonders about the authenticity of everything that we dote upon in the classics and which some are loathe to question, almost as if that would be a sacrilege. In all fairness, there are many others who conservatively and probably rightly caution that what we think of as having been modified if not tampered might not be so, and it is wise not to throw the baby with the bathwater. In some situations, this is good advice but does not make our task any easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. 

Jyotish has survived through centuries (some would prefer to say millennia) and it is not inconceivable that we have lost many important interpretive keys. It is also possible that many of these keys are available today to only a select few because of the age old tradition of playing cards close to the chest and a paranoid fear that astrology can be readily misused by some. These could be legitimate and real concerns but unfortunately also limit the reach of jyotish to wider masses leaving fewer to figure out how best to run the shop. 

There is a likelihood that most if not all of jyotish texts that we have today were scribed around the time of Lord Buddha (few centuries before Christian Era began). It must be emphasized that this is when things were written down and represent neither the date of the original creation of jyotish on earth nor of its transmission from the Divine, if such were the case! If one peruses Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra, one notes that when describing the planetary representation of the avatars such as Rama, Narasimha, etc., Lord Buddha is also mentioned as the avatar indicated by the planet mercury (budh graha in sanskrit) [BPHS, Sharma, Chapter II, Athawataarakathanadhyaaya, page 10, shloka 5, 1995 reprint]. 

Now, I submit before you the following to ponder upon:

  1. was this reference made in the original verbal discourse between Parashara and Maitraya presumably ‘thousands’ of years ago which amounts to Parashara essentially predicting Gautama Buddha’s birth in future, or 
  2. did the discourse occur after the birth of Buddha, or 
  3. the reference was inserted subsequently to account for Buddha and to make it complete?

BPHS is a remarkably well-compiled book with a great degree of contextual organization and the order of presentation of information. Yet when it comes to the lunar nodes, there seems to be a departure. Parashara mentions that rahu and ketu are nodes, shadowy planets (this distinction that he made from other planets is remarkable since the lunar nodes are really two mathematical points created by the nodes of intersection of the path of the earth around the sun {apparent path of sun around the earth!} and the path of the moon around the earth). Parashara does not attribute any sign rulership to the nodes when he describes the rulership of signs of other planets [BPHS, Sharma, Chapter IV, Atharashiswaaroopadhyaaya, pages 54-57, shlokas 6-24, 1995 reprint] but clearly indicates that these nodes give the results of the house whose lord they are conjoined with or the house they occupy [BPHS, Sharma, Chapter XXXVI, Athayogakarakadhyaaya, page 479, shloka 16, 1995 reprint]. In an earlier chapter [BPHS, Sharma, Chapter III, Athagrihagunaswaroopadhyaayaha, planetary characteristics and description, pages 36-37, shlokas 49-54, 1995 reprint], no mention is made of rahu or ketu attributing any special signs (exaltation, debilitation or moolatrikona} as had been done for all other planets used in jyotish. However, later on in [BPHS, Sharma, Chapter XXXXIX, Athadashaphaladdhyaaya, page 123, shlokas 35-36, 1995 reprint], the text suddenly goes into great details and mentions the exaltation, debilitation, moolatrikona and own signs of rahu and ketu! 

One immediately wonders as to why the original author was keeping this unsaid until so late in the book. And, in stating this is almost contradicting his own statements from an earlier chapter. If one browses around a bit more in chapter 49 one would see that the basic framework of the chapter includes the describing of planetary effects, during vimshottari dasha periods, based upon the rulership and dignities of the planets in a given chart (exaltation, moolatrikona, etc.). Obviously, rahu and ketu would not fit in this context and so ‘had’ to be provided with the relevant ‘attributes’. I do not think I am being cynical if I do not see in this a case of oversight on the part of “Parashara” in not describing the places of dignity for rahu and ketu in Chapter 4 and making up for it in Chapter 49 when he was up again a wall while describing rahu and ketu’s dasha effects. Instead, what is in Chapter 49 represents an insertion, an embellishment that was perhaps not in the original. It also makes one wonder if some of these later chapters were: (a) in the original discourse, or (b) did BPHS gradually evolved as a compilation over many years after having originally seeded from the discourse that took place between Parashara and his disciple. 

In a text that is so ancient, it is not surprising that discrepancies exist, but the beginner in jyotish should be watchful about these and should approach what is stated in these books with an open and questioning mind. Much of astrology is definable in terms of clear logical threads, although there is a lot where logic is not apparent. One must not hesitate to question if such situations represent missing logic, missing keys or are simply inaccurate. In this context, it bothers me quite a bit to notice the near absence of example horoscopes right across the board in jyotish classics. 

Most of the authorities, such as Parashara, Jaimini, Varahamihira, Satyacharya, and the later day doyens, Mukunda Daivagnya, Dhundiraja, Kalidasa, in books after books after books have not left any illustrations of the principles propounded by them (or in some case with Divine guidance) or a companion workbook which contained horoscopes from their times that would: (a) illustrate from a practical point of view at least some of the thousands of principles and combinations so prolifically produced by them, and (b) would have allowed us to ‘time’ their period of existence with greater accuracy and certainty. The only significant body of horoscopes and real data that has been bequeathed to us modern jyotishis exists in the form of yet another jealously guarded collection that constitute the nadis of Bhrigu and many others. Even those are questionably detailed in terms of birth data, etc. It is extremely strange and disturbing – this absence of examples to complement the principles that abound in jyotish classics aplenty. 

To me, jyotish is not a religion or something where faith needs to reign supreme. Jyotish texts, are a legacy that we are grateful for – how else could we have learned astrology without having to reinvent the wheel? However, these must not be considered immune to further examination and given the time that has passed since their creation and today, these must not be accepted as gospel or as above or beyond examination. Particularly in their current state of incompleteness glaringly exemplified by the near total absence of illustrative material, horoscope examples, etc. The jyotishi, of eastern or western roots, must not forget that the primary purpose of jyotish is to address the needs of the worldly individual, the stereotypical householder. Those who have renounced the world and are on a lofty path of detached self-realization have no need for astrology. They are beyond the grasp of the grahas! 

If jyotish must be practiced as a pragmatic, living and breathing craft and if we really want to understand it as a predictable, logic-based, scientifically-testable set of principles, then we have to come out of the ‘religious’ mode that many insist to incarcerate jyotish in. Unless we are willing to do that and unless we are prepared to question all that we have received over time and attempt to examine its relevance and applicability, we shall not be able to release jyotish from the dark crypts of secrecy, confusion, sensationalism and mysticism where it has been lying in a wasteful state of isolation for a long time. Otherwise, it shall continue to remain in the minds of the majority of the human population -- a curiosity at best and a superstition at the worst. 

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Views: 3799      Comments: 1

Comment Dear Rohini

The article was good and gave nice insight into the BPHS subject.

Can we have a wiki site made up exclusive for BPHS and everyone can contribution to correct document. After all this is a subject that is so vast that it can not be complied by single person, all learned people can contribute to the Ancient History of our land.


Arvind GK
30-Nov-2013 12:38 PM