Jyotisha and Ayurveda

Life is action. All living beings act incessantly, ceasing activities only when prana departs from their bodies. The Sanskrit word for action is karma, and according to the Law of Karma, which expresses Newton’s Third Law of Motion in terms that apply to all dimensions of existence, every action engenders a reaction, often equal and opposite. Today’s conditions are the results of yesterday’s karmas, and today’s actions give birth to our tomorrows. The results of the actions of our ancestors are visited upon us as well, and in addition each of us is responsible for some portion of the mutual karmas that have been performed and are being performed by those with whom we share our neighborhoods, cities, and societies.

Each of us is born with a certain potential for good or ill health, a potential that influenced by what we’ve inherited from our forebears, the culture we are born into, and the actions we’ve taken in previous lives. While some health-related patterns are stronger and more ingrained than others, and hence more “fated” to be experienced, others are more malleable. We can work with these patterns by taking new actions to improve our circumstances – provided that we perform those new actions adroitly, at appropriate moments. This is when a map of our karmas — which the Indian science of divination known as Jyotisha aims to provide — can become a worthwhile addition to our healthcare toolkit.

Jyotisha emerged in India as a vedanga, the “limb” of the Vedic system that provided insights to sacrificers about the nature of the space above us, which they divided into lunar constellations known as nakshatras. By studying how the attributes of those divisions of space, and the movements of the sun and moon within those spaces, are reflected in terrestrial experiences, Vedic experts could profitably select particular times and spaces for their ritual ends.

In addition to nakshatras classical Jyotisha recognizes rashis (solar constellations) and bhavas (astrological houses), and considers carefully the positions of nine grahas. This group of “Nine Grabbers” (the word graha literally translates as “grasper” or “seizer”) consists of the five visible planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), the two luminaries (Sun and Moon), and Rahu and Ketu, the so-called north and south nodes of the moon (the points where the orbit of the earth around the sun intersects the orbit of the moon around the earth). Each graha is a devata (deity) who when activated grips us in its clutches and induces us to display some of its characteristics.

Each graha thus impacts us in its own unique way, for better or worse. Though some grahas are relatively more benevolent and others more malevolent, only two can be truly termed “benefic”: Jupiter and Venus. But even these great benefics can, when poorly placed in a birth chart, deliver undesirable results. Similarly, depending upon their placement the primary malefics Saturn, Mars, Rahu and Ketu can be relatively more or less negative for our health (for rarely are malefics positive or even benign in their physiological impact). Mercury can act as a benefic or malefic depending on other grahas it is associated with, and the Moon is benefic when it is bright (particularly while waxing), and malefic when dim (particularly while waning).

A natal horoscope is a map of an individual’s prarabdha, that portion of the native’s karmas that have led him or her to be born under the influence of a specific pattern of grahas in a particular location at a particular moment. A skilled jyotishi will examine both this natal chart and a horary chart, a map of where the grahas exist at the moment that that person is being assessed, in order to extract information that can offer meaningful perspectives on that individual’s condition.

Jyotishis commonly do their readings in terms of the Nine Grahas, of whom Saturn is often regarded as the most important. Saturn (in Sanskrit Shani, or Manda), the graha of anubhava (experience), symbolizes all those things in life that you would like to but cannot avoid, all those experiences that are fated to befall you: dissatisfaction, disillusionment, loss, illness, old age, death. While Saturn can indicate disease in general, he particularly signifies chronic maladies, especially those in which vata predominates.

The other strongly vata-promoting graha is Rahu, represented by the head of an asura whose tail is known as Ketu. Being a head with no body, Rahu is eternally hungry, for anything he eats (including especially the sun or moon at the time of an eclipse) exits from his neck without being digested. Rahu thus promotes instability, confusion, and an unquenchable thirst for anything and everything. Rahu is in some ways the poster child for modern existence, millions of people sitting immobile in front of their screens firmly in his grasp, sucking in images and sounds from the internet, eternally craving more, more, more.

Like the vaidya providing Ayurvedic treatment, the jyotishi can give recommendations for particular upayas, or remedies, that can be performed to ease troublesome graha (and therefore karmic) configurations. In fact, Ayurveda and Jyotisha (which are both shoots from the branch of Indian philosophy that is Sankhya) were historically been used together to help patients overcome ill health, until Jyotisha began to be perceived as “superstition” rather than as a not-limited-to-the-material-world model of reality and human experience. We hope that this conference will be a first step in the journey of returning Jyotisha to its proper place at Ayurveda’s side, for the benefit of all sentient beings. Tathastu!

This article appeared in the souvenir program for the 5th International Ayurveda Conference in 2015