Research in Astrology: Pondering Upon Some Issues

There definitely has been a significant change in the types of articles and books that are being published recently and the kind of exploratory work that is being done in astrology. With a larger number of individuals demanding more streamlined reports and with automated tools for calculating and presenting the astrological data and information as well as for writing reports becoming increasingly available, a new degree of approach towards astrology is emerging. It is also notable that people from many disciplines, including the sciences are being increasingly drawn towards astrology, though some of these are arguably individuals that have recently started coming out of their closets, as society continues to open its collective mind wider.

Jyotish, the Indian system of astrology, has experienced this renaissance somewhat more vigorously in recent times than its western counterpart and this is noticeable through the type of material that is currently pouring forth from pens across the globe, with a larger variety of techniques being tested and utilized and presented than was the case earlier. Research is not a dirty word any longer! As one browses through material that is available, one might encounter voices that are raised against any change with fundamentalist opinions unwilling to accept anything new without seeking confirmation for it in ancient and to a large extent fragmentary texts (which is somewhat oxymoronic!). 

Some of these voices that were confusing validity of a tenet with its ability to survive through times (in hiding or overtly) are increasingly growing marasmic and despite their ominous finger-shaking eventually are going to fade due to the influx of new blood into the current scene. However, a cautious and conservative note must continue to be sounded that not all that is new and glittering is necessarily of a higher quality. Prudence and discretion in ones acceptance of novel or traditional material remains essential in astrology.

Typically, traditional texts in jyotish (Vedic astrology, Hindu astrology) represent collections of Sanskrit (and sometimes even vernacular) verses, which define astrological tenets or planetary combinations and describe their effects. These tomes of inherited knowledge are nearly devoid of any illustrative material, in the form of actual horoscopes or charts. Often considered to be extremely concise, precise and highly organized enough to be able to express very complex thoughts into language, these giants of yore who penned the available texts have left no specific trace of their times and estimates vary considerably regarding the historical periods during which these words were written in. 

Further complicating the issue is the fact that most of these astrological gems were probably originally transmitted through oral tradition (teacher to disciple, father to son) for generations before they were written down. It perplexes me considerably to think that a people who were so advanced as is evident from the complexity of their thought processes and literature and who had the ability to scribe and record thoughts on media that has survived centuries did not leave behind any trace of the horoscopes that they utilized as jyotish evolved, was practiced and taught to students. Where are these horoscopes, these workbooks and examples of the yogasthat are outlined in the texts most of us learn jyotish from? The only horoscopes that we see are the ones that form the small branch of jyotish known as nadis; in many ways quite remote from the mainstream traditional jyotish. The principles of nadiastrology are obscure for the most part but the horoscopes are there. On the other hand, the principles of the mainstream astrology, the Parashari or Jaimini traditions are recorded in impeccable details but the horoscopes are missing almost entirely. This creates a rather intriguing enigma for the contemporary learner.

The stage is therefore set in the discipline of jyotish for research in the true literal sense of the term. Testing of principles that obviously have survived the ravages of time in a country and culture that had been repeatedly overcome and plundered by centuries of alien rule is a no brainer. This coupled with a general absence of significant indigenous efforts or resources to preserve what has survived through times, all for well-justified reasons and circumstances, does not make matters any better. This situation raises the urgency that all citizens of this world who feel drawn towards jyotish and who think that jyotish is a noble cause to be preserved must approach this body of knowledge in the spirit of scientific curiosity and cautiously proceed to test the tenets. Cautiously, because many of the rules and links between islands of knowledge have become somewhat loose or even are now lost, making it likely for a hasty and superficial researcher to be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And, there are a lot of babies and a lot of bathwater there!

Much of the research conducted in jyotish, to date, has been less than rigorous, or perhaps more truly, is characterized by varying degrees of rigor. Claims, sometimes rather strong ones exist and without questioning their validity one must acknowledge that most of these have not been subject to peer review or public scrutiny. This has been for a variety of reasons, including, territoriality and turf-related issues, fear of plagiarism, lack of resources, lack of adequate knowledge of research techniques and tools or of relevant background, scholarship or experience and in many cases also a near-total absence of pooling of resources and sharing of information between individual researchers or groups of researchers. Obviously many a wheel had been reinvented and some in more ways than one. 

The fundamental differences existing in some of the basic parameters used in jyotish, namely, the precessional corrections (ayanamshas), different ways of calculating the divisional charts, use of house divisions, etc. do not make things simpler. Furthermore, while individual elements and tools that are in use in much of jyotish seem to be quite specific and surgically-discrete, the end-product, namely the reading and predictive output emerge from a synthetic process that involves a certain amount of art or at least is not entirely well-understood, even by the jyotishis that generate some of these brilliant readings. The gap or inadequately understood link that exists between the logical and paralogical domains in the jyotish process is intriguing but essential.

Research has almost become the siren-song in jyotish these days and comprises a range that includes weekend explorers who love to test existing tenets coming down the line of tradition against contemporary real charts, as well as the rare pioneers who are out there to discover new grounds or to find a new application for something that already exists in the body of jyotish. Neither of these is superior to another, it must be emphasized, as there is plenty of territory that needs to be cultivated and some that could use a bit of judicious debridement, as well.

When I was starting out on my jyotish path a few decades ago, even the relatively simple task of calculating charts could prove to be a major speed bump. In the 60s and early 70s, all I had were ephemeris and tables of proportional logarithms as well as a table of ascendants. Even a calculator would have been appreciated while I juggled time between a study of astrology and other pursuits that would eventually keep me fed and sheltered. The scene is very different now for the beginner in jyotish, with many choices available in terms of programs that can calculate in the batting of an eyelid what used to take almost an entire day of hard work. All persnickety griping about inaccuracies and variations between the software aside, one would have to be extremely ungrateful not to recognize the wonderful boost of life injected into astrology by the fine software that we take for granted now and some even rally against!

Some of the available jyotish software have made available 'research' options, all of which depend on "pattern recognition". This is essentially the basis of the types of searches that are possible in Parashara's Light, Astrodatabank Astrosignatures, and other similar software. All of these generally lack essential research tools to permit statistical testing and even fail to provide a robust interface between the software and a spreadsheet or an independent statistical package. Perhaps as more statistically- and research-oriented astrologers/programmers enter the scene, appropriate products would emerge. Development costs are also a problem that might be holding back those who are already in the field and quite capable of developing these products from the point of view of expertise. I am certain that the future holds a lot of promise in this area.

While recognizing patterns and frequencies of parameters such as planets in a given sign, house, or star and combinations, associations, aspects between astro-variables are all very good first steps; however, much of the jyotish delineative process deals with looking at complex combinations and connections between different planets in a horoscope. A planet can have a variety of roles assigned to it in the same horoscope, for instance by virtue of its rulership over a house, or by its being an intrinsic significator of an area in life or an individual in life, as well as it being a temporary or chart-specific significator. Putting together all of these different 'roles' together, quite an intricate interpretive skein can emerge from the limited number of houses and astrofactors that an astrologer has access to in an individual's horoscope. The most useful way in which astrological data-providers and programmers can serve the need for research is to make available not only the above mentioned processing tools, but also by allowing significant flexibility and open-endedness in their search engines, as opposed to imposing their somewhat limited paradigms and parameters on the research user. 

To cite a specific example, Parashara's Light from Geovision, a fairly hefty package in its own right allows one to create search strings from a list of possibilities that can then be applied to a collection of charts to discern similar patterns existing in the set. For doing this, it uses a coding system that is used by the program elsewhere to identify classical yogas or combinations in a single chart. How difficult could it be for the program to allow the user to define a search string using these very codes to customize a search that can be a lot more comprehensive than the keywords provided by the program in the multi-chart search mode and to create a search strategy that is more sophisticated than the two level search allowed now. 

A case of a potentially powerful but hobbled software, in so far as research is concerned. Other jyotish software has similar and other additional problems and all suffer from an inability to output data in a more useful or user-friendly way. It is unfortunate that less resources and energy are devoted to the research area when developing astrological software because the consumer base rarely uses it and so it is not a high priority area for the programmer during updates. Moreover, there is only so many resources available in the relatively limited area of astrological (even more so in the case of jyotish) software. The Astrodatabank software (Vedic version) from what I have heard holds a lot of promise, although quite frankly its cost (not value!) is going to reduce its accessibility for many research astrologers. Development costs of such programs tend to be quite high so the authors cannot be really blamed for charging enough to at least break even. Many astrologers have their own personal collection of data and charts, often in thousands. If an efficient search engine could become available to them, it would help research quite a bit. Using existing database managers is an option, although a lot of extra effort would be required in setting up these. Importing data from existing horoscope formats could be a minor challenge too since different programs use different formats and these may change over versions as well.

Talking of research, it is premature to even worry over whether astrology represents a science, soft, quasi- or otherwise. In order for it to be considered a science, techniques of astrology would have to pass the tests of validity, consistent and measurable reproducibility and technical rigor; the inter-astrologer variability would need to be tested and quantified. It is simply not adequate to point at a successful predictor and use them as proof of astrology being scientific, unless these astrologers are scrutinized as to how they derive their astro-deductive bottom lines in readings. 

The difficulty lies in two areas: firstly, in discerning clearly how much of the process is conscious (and rational or logical) and what fraction of the 'reading' process is para-conscious and sub-conscious; secondly, it must be kept in mind that the process of generating a reading is itself susceptible to be interfered with by the process of observation, in a Heisenbergian manner (that being observed is subject to change from its natural path as a consequence of being observed). This is accepted by many astrologers as being true in their experience and causes problems in the process of validating astrological process as being scientific in nature. 

There is also the issue of the scope of a reading. Most astrologers tend to use certain basic techniques and have a certain way of approaching a chart or the areas in the individual's life during a reading. However, the stream or flow of the reading can vary quite a bit from one nativity to another, and the rigid protocols and paths often preferred in scientific reporting may actually adversely influence the usefulness of the astrological reading during the 'test' situation. These are relatively significant problems and require consciously directed approaches while justifying and testing the scientific rigor of astrology (and astrologers). Little wonder, then, that many astrologers in order to remain effective pay little attention to these scientific factors, which is fine as long as they do not fall prey to the need of claiming what they do as being scientific (without testing) or of astrology as being a science (without being tested so). Endeavors such as the "Hamilton Project" or other repeated public blind testing paradigms would need to be carefully employed and the resources or the will and energy for doing so on a wide and long scale seem to be missing, at present. There is always something remaining for future exploration, of course.

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