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Who Invented Astrology?

Published in Gochara, the BAVA Journal, March 2016

This article shows that there is a compelling reason why neither the Greeks nor the Chaldeans independently developed the core system of astrology that appeared in Chaldea about 400BCE. This article was written as a response to other articles by some Western scholars and astrologers. It takes the form of answers to a series of questions they pose. I hope readers find the answers enlightening.

Is Vedic Astrology Vedic?

The Vedas are important in the study of Jyotisha, which is considered both Vedanga in part and UpaVeda in part. Anyone who has studied the Maharishi Jaimini Krta Upadesha Sutras (MJKUS) understands how deeply encrypted Jyotish rules can be and, with that in mind, much about astrology can be deduced from various Vedic hymns. There are many places where the Nakshatras are described and worshipped including the Taittiriya Brahmana of the Krsna Yajurveda and the Shantikalpa Parishishta of the Atharva Veda. In the Rg Veda, itself, there are references to the Zodiac and the divisions of time from which astrology is derived. There are pointers to the planets as rulers of the days of the week exactly as is standard in the modern form of this knowledge.

Some Western astrologers say that, ‘Zodiac signs are completely unknown’ in the Rig Veda. What they mean is that there appears to be no names of the 12 signs given that they recognize. The reference to the 12 spokes (of the chariot of the Sun) is indisputably present (e.g. Rig Veda 1.164.11) along with multiple references to 12 months. Griffiths’ translation [1] of 1.164.11 states, ‘Formed with twelve spokes, by length of time, unweakened, rolls round the heaven this wheel of during Order. Herein established, joined in pairs together, seven hundred Sons and twenty stand, O Agni.‘ The meaning is rather plain, the Zodiac is to be divided into 12 and 720 (each degree is traditionally divided into two halves as in the D60 chart). The following as well as the preceding verses of 1.164 are replete with such insights. 1.164.1 shows how to derive the planetary lords of the days of the week from the order of velocity of the heavenly bodies. Verse 12 may suggest how the 12 signs are to be named. Pandit Sanjay Rath teaches the use of the 12 names of the Adityas for the signs, which may well follow from ‘dwAdashA krtim divA’.

It is interesting to note that MJKUS does not use the names of the signs at all but refers to them numerically.

Does Brhat Parashara Hora Shastra have any Extant Commentary?

It has been claimed that there are no commentaries on Brhat Parashara Hora Shastra (BPHS) but MJKUS is clearly such a commentary. It itself has several commentaries, the best known being that of Nilakantha. The only known complete text of BPHS is locked up in the Puri Shankaracharya Math or the Jagannatha Mandir in Puri and is inaccessible even to most local brahmins. Pandit Sanjay Rath’s guru had memorised all 108 chapters but he has passed. What exists in writing and available to us was collected by dictation from a few scholars who had also partially memorized the text. This was done fairly recently. Before that, this text was unknown to most astrologers in India. Jaimini’s work does allow us to identify a few apparent errors in the text that have appeared at some era or in some family’s transmission.

Is Vedic Astrology Mainly Derived from the Greeks?

It has been stated that Vedic Astrology ‘...has many elements which were not developed in India but in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece.’ To answer this, we need to see how astrology developed in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. The archeological and literary evidence is that astrology came from Chaldea (modern day Iraq) and the Chaldeans actively introduced it to the Greeks and others.

Our Western conception of the history of astrology based on the archeological record shows a series of horoscopes starting in 410 BCE in Babylon (Chaldea) [2]. Greek horoscopes appeared around the time that the record of Babylonian horoscopes died out in the 1st century BCE. According to Vitruvius' work de Architectura, a Chaldean astrologer Berossus, born during or before Alexander’s reign, relocated to the island of Kos and set up a school of astrology there. This was around the time of Alexander, Kiddinu and Sudines. The latter two were famous Chaldean astrologers. The Greek geographer Strabo of Amaseia, in Geography 16, 1-6 writes “In Babylon a settlement is set apart for the local philosophers, the Chaldeans, as they are called, who are mostly concerned with astronomy; but some of these, who are not approved of by the others, profess to be writers of horoscopes.”
The earliest horoscope is dated 29 April 410 BCE. The Chaldeans left a large number of astronomical tablets, 1800, compared with 16 astrological tablets. The Greeks, on the other hand, left some 20 astronomical records and some 10 times as many astrological ones. The earliest known Hellenistic horoscope is for the coronation of Pompey of Antiochus of Commagene in 62 BCE and about 180 exist running to the seventh century AD with the bulk during the first five centuries AD.

The Greeks, the Hebrews and the Romans all referred to astrologers as Chaldeans even in the AD period so even though the Greeks took up astrology with a passion and it was popular in the great city of Alexandria, the source of it in Chaldea was never forgotten. The most ancient Chaldean horoscope has extensive clues to prediction, refers to the 12 Zodiacal signs with which we are familiar and repeatedly refers to planets appearing or rising as also setting which are ancient terms for the Ascendant and Descendant. In Jyotisha Shastra the ascendant is called Udaya (rising) Lagna, the descendant is called Asta (setting) Lagna. It seems unreasonable to argue, as some scholars do, that the Chaldeans had no concept of an Ascendant and had thus not developed horoscopy as it is understood today.

The Greeks used the term Horoscopos for the ascendant. This appears to be the name of a device used in determining the rising point and may or may not be an original term. It has been argued that because of this, the Greeks invented astrology as we know it today. The earlier Chaldean tablets referred to the rising and setting of planets, showing a clear understanding of the importance of the horizons. It should be noted that if one compares modern Western Astrology and the simplest style of Vedic Astrology even as it is today, we see exactly the same difference where the Western astrologer uses the Ascendant as a key point dividing the first and 12th houses while in a basic Vedic chart, the rising sign is given importance and all of it taken as the first house.

Astronomy and divination is very ancient. The Old testament of the Bible/Torah, Genesis 14, states [3] ‘Let there be luminaries in the vault of the sky ...; let them give portents and be the measures of time...’. Various forms of astrology such as portents and calendrical development for agriculture and religious application were intensively developed going back at least 10,000 years [4] or even 25,000 years [5]. This appears to have occurred to some extent wherever mankind settled. Reference 4 shows that the division of the sky or the year into 12 was already in use in Scotland 10,000 years ago. A star chart of the Pleiades above the shoulder of a painting of a bull is found in the cave of Lascaux, France dating back 17,000 years. More recently, c 2,300 BCE, a Sumerian tablet lists the names of the 12 signs, which are largely recognizable to us. For example, Leo is ‘lion’, Pisces ‘fishes’ and the name for Virgo translates to ‘her father is sin’.

From the 7th Century BCE, we have Chaldean tablets showing lists of omens but only in 410 BCE does a fully formed astrology appear as we would consider it today, where planetary positions are interpreted. Modern Western writers assume that this is the product of some brilliant Chaldean scholar. They then use this to conclude that this system, after further development by the Greeks, was exported to India. However, it is also possible that the Chaldeans drew on knowledge derived from scholars from further East. Let us look at some relevant issues.

Let us be clear that both Northern and Southern India were in constant contact with the Middle East from a very early date. Alexander’s empire spread from Northern India to Greece. Before him the Persian empire extended into India due to the conquests of Darius I (522-486 BCE). Earlier, the Persians had absorbed the Median Empire that stretched into Afghanistan to the borders of India (modern Pakistan). The priests of the Medes were called Magi, which is believed to come from Sanskrit ‘Magha’. The Greeks considered the Magi synonymous with the Chaldeans. There is a clan of Brahmins in India today who consider themselves descendants of the Magi. The kingdom of Gandhara, an ancient kingdom dating back to Vedic times occupied regions of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. A Gandharan city in modern-day Afghanistan was the birthplace of the great Sanskrit grammarian Panini in the 4th century BCE.

There is both literary and archeological evidence of extensive trade between Ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley civilization. Several Indus valley seals have been found at Ur and other Mesopotamian sites. They were used to seal bundles of merchandise. Persian Gulf seals have been found in Gujarat, India. Trade documents evidence this trade going back to 2350 BCE.

It is obvious that the peoples of the Middle East and those of Northern India had constant cultural and trade ties. At this stage of the discussion, we can say that the appearance of multiple astrological concepts in Chaldea could have come from their contacts with peoples to the East. There is no evidence it came from the West or the North. The key question is whether there is any reason to attribute the origins of horoscopic astrology to Chaldea or India?

There is one critical consideration that has been widely overlooked. The signs of the Zodiac were assigned significations based on the seasons, as was pointed out by Ptolemy (100-168AD). The cardinal water sign is Cancer, which is followed by the fiery sign of Leo. Then comes the signs of the harvest and market, Virgo and Libra. Wherever this system was developed had rains or floods in June followed by strong heat followed by harvest. This is well-known to be the weather pattern of Northern India but what about Chaldea? Chaldea is the modern Iraq and paleo-climatologists have determined that the climate of ancient Iraq was very similar to that of today. The Winter was wet leading to the rivers flooding in Spring and then March to November was dry. The barley was sown in Autumn and harvested in Spring. This is not the climate of the Zodiacal signs so it is not possible that the significations of the signs were the invention of the Chaldeans or any other people living in the land of Sumer, Ur and Babylon. Whoever developed these significations on which a great deal of astrology depends, it is most likely that they resided in the North Indian plains.

Why do Jyotisha Texts sometimes use ‘Greek’ Names?

Due to the exchange of knowledge between the East and West, the Indians were familiar with the terms used by the Greeks. Authors such as Varaha Mihira (505-587 AD) listed the Greek terms along with those used by the Indians. Just as modern English speakers use terms like ‘Bangle’, ‘Shampoo’, ‘Loot’,  and ‘Pyjamas’ which are Indian, so the Indians may have become habituated to using a few of the terms from the Greeks or that sound more Greek. What happens today surely happened 2000 years ago. However, these are very few compared to the corpus of Sanskrit Vedic Astrological terms.

It is important to remember that Brhat Parashara Hora Shastra states at the beginning that the knowledge of the Nakshatras, being well-known, is not being taught. It is thus generally acknowledged that greater importance was given to the Nakshatras prior to Parashara. The majority of the subsequent texts elaborate on Parashara’s teachings and dwell little on the Nakshatras.

A 27 lunar mansion system was also known to the Chinese and the Celts but is essentially ignored in Western astrology. My experience, after much research, is that one must refer to the Nakshatras as a factor in making accurate prognostications. Some important keys for how to do this are contained in my book, Yoga of the Planets, in the printed edition.

In conclusion, the intersection of the significations of the signs and the North Indian climate provide compelling evidence for the development of the core concepts of astrology in India. Scholars in Chaldea clearly took a deep interest in the ideas of their colleagues in India. Whatever they learned and developed formed the basis for the work of Greek, Roman and Hebrew scholars in the Classical world.

[1] Hymns of the Rig Veda. Ralph Griffith, 1889.
[2] Astrology: What’s really in the Stars. Joseph V. Stewart
[3] Catholic Bible translated by M. Knox.

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