Friday, September 21, 2012

Ganesh Chaturthi, astrology, fate and free will

Lately, I have been reading a lot on astrology, particularly Western astrology. Coming from India,  the land of mysticism, spirituality and practices such as yoga, astrology is a subject that is not far removed from the important matters in life.

For example, September 19, 2012 was Ganesh Chaturthi, the birthday of the elephant-headed deity of Hindus, Ganesha or Ganpati as he is popularly known. Each year in Mumbai, there are ten day celebrations with gigantic idols being brought into various city neighborhoods amidst great pomp and street revelry. Massive 'mandaps' (temporary tent-like structures erected for ceremonies and festivities) are decorated with themes, sometimes featuring tableaus of Indian religious tales and even contemporary social issues.

I miss the festivities in India, being far away here in America. My memories of the various Ganesh festivals of my childhood and youth are not perfectly photographic, but the gist remains.
For ten days, the entire vicinity of the abode of the Ganesha idol would be agog with activity, music blaring from the speakers, local competitions and prizes and an air of gaiety that would last for typically ten days.
At the end of this festive period, all the idols would be taken for immersion to the nearest water body, be it a lake or the sea. Apart from the community festivities, individual families would have their own small Ganesha idols and take them for immersion on one of the following days: second, fifth, seventh or tenth.
Some people say that the bringing of the Ganesha idol into the community and then immersing it is symbolic of birth and death, finally our bodies merge into dust.

Indian festivals follow the lunar calendar. Therefore, Ganesh Chaturthi falls on the fourth day of the waxing phase of the moon in a particular month. The word 'Chaturthi' itself refers to the fourth day of the lunar fortnight (not sure about the origin, but the word 'char' pronounced in the same way as the first four letters in 'charcoal', means 'four').
The day of this festival, like all other festivals, corresponds to the moon being in a particular zodiac sign within certain degrees. This is called a 'nakshatra'. A 'nakshatra' also refers to a particular star or constellation. Please read the above-linked Wikipedia article or sources on Vedic astrology for more information. The 12 signs of the zodiac are further divided into 27 nakshatras. Ganesh Chaturthi falls under the 'nakshatra' of 'Svathi', with the moon in Libra.

In arranged marriages, where the parents seek matrimonial alliances for their children, compatible horoscopes are extremely important for the matter to even proceed into the phase of boy-meets-girl.

Note to non-Indian readers: Arranged marriages are not forced marriages. In many cases, particularly in urban areas, the prospective groom and bride are introduced by family members and typically at least communicate over the phone or Internet for several months before tying the knot.
In liberal families, they even go out and date. There are, of course, several other cases where people often marry the first person they are set up with because they have zero relationship experience and experience family pressure to settle down with the 'best' available match.

Surprisingly, on visiting certain Western astrology forums, many folks were comparing their charts to ex-boyfriends and husbands, crushes and current romantic partners, drawing up synastry points and karmic aspects, etc.

The difference, I think, is in the way people approach relationships in the West and places like India. I have never heard of anyone in the US or in European countries starting to date someone only after vetting their astrological compatibility. In India, at least in the case of many arranged marriages, that is precisely the approach.

I am starting to think of astrological charts being a sort of ancient personality analysis. I am not asserting that astrology is true or false, just the reflections that it has induced in me.
Sites such as eHarmony claim to match personalities and bring up profiles of suitable matches, an approach that is not dissimilar to filtering out astrologically incompatible matches.

Western and Indian astrology follow different zodiac systems, so your Sun and Moon signs may be different in each system. The interpretation of charts is different in each system, too.

I have personally noticed that many Western astrology sites, particularly those managed by individuals, tend to be encouraging and offer readings based on potential, not predicting destinies. There are some who merely list individual characteristics and relationship potential in a kind of inflexible manner.

On the other hand, many Indian (Vedic) astrology sites offer hard predictions related to fame, career, family, marriage, etc.

The cultures of the East and the West are seen reflected in the astrology readings and predictions, too.
An Indian site may offer advice to help solve marital issues whereas a Western site may ask you if you want to stay in or leave the relationship.

Even if one believes in astrology, I think one should check out an astrologer's views on marriage, relationships, etc. For example, if someone tells you that you are compatible with person X, what does that mean exactly? A relationship that is good on paper in the bedroom may still be lacking in emotional sensitivity and intellectual understanding. Over a period of time, the other incompatibilities may start eating into the good areas, too.

A person's individual personality, family background and education all influence his/her capacity to relate to other people. I wonder if synastry aspects alone would do any good if a person is not truly committed to marriage.

The same points apply to career, too. Your parents determine your genes while your education and exposure to opportunities determine your native and developed mental faculties and talents.
Your own efforts, desires, focus and attitude determine how far you can actually go in life. There is an unknown factor though and that is luck/the hand of God/fate/karma. Does astrology point to this unknown? I don't know.

Why do some people become more famous and beloved than others, even if their peers are hardworking and talented, too? Why do some people seem contented with perfectly ordinary lives? Even siblings raised in the same environment are not similar in this respect.

Do addiction, criminal behavior and psychological disorders have a fatalistic component?

Society has always struggled to balance the viewpoints of individual free will against preordained destiny. Books on success in pretty much anything, be it relationships to career and life in general, focus on individual effort. Work hard for your dreams, your marriage, ... fill in the blanks and you shall have it.

This is, of course, a very inspiring message and absolutely necessary. If I treat my partner with indifference, how well will that relationship be? If I don't study hard for my exams, how can I hope to score highly? If I don't work productively and aspire to something, I may fritter away precious years in my career.

However, there is no guarantee of satisfaction or happiness by merely toiling away. Relationships have aspects such as chemistry, long term compatibility and individual viewpoints and desires gradually diverging over time due to factors that are beyond one person's control.
Likewise, some people seem to catch all the right opportunities and get noticed, helping them reach the very top of their field, whereas some of their peers fade into the unknown, even if they worked really hard.

I look at astrology charts for introspection and finding out what my interests and desires may be. It is good to derive inspiration from the positive aspects in it, for example, if my chart points to a great imagination and I find it to be true in my past, I should try to capitalize on it.
Sometimes, chart reading may point me to latent talents that I never explored.

Scientists routinely dismiss astrology as weird superstition. However, I wonder if there is something more to it than we know. I admit there is a heavy element of fatalism in many astrological profiles and forecasts.
What if the position of the stars is more indicative of events rather than the cause of them? I mean -maybe a certain planetary configuration is not going to get you fired from your job or wreck your married life, but is merely an external indicator of things that you already know such as a crappy job or relationship.

I have often wondered how ancient astrologers were able to study concepts such as houses, which constellation the moon is in, how some planets move slower than the others, what constellation is just above the horizon, which planet is going to enter a particular constellation years from now, which constellation an eclipse is going to fall in and when, etc. There is quite a bit of mathematics involved. This was all done in an age where there were no fancy telescopes, satellites, space shuttles or computers.

Astrology, in its benign form, is mathematics mixed with mysticism, star gazing combined with psyche gazing.

However, like any other field, it is not free from dogma. For example, a statement that person X born under sun sign or moon sign Y has certain characteristics and may or may not be famous/successful, should be subjected to scrutiny. People should be asking - who defined the characteristics for each zodiac sign? How many scientific studies done in today's day and age can validate these points?

This brings us to the question of free will.

There is a temple in the southern state of India, Tamil Nadu, that houses manuscripts based on an ancient form of fortune-telling in India, called 'naadi jyosiyam'; the word 'jyosiyam' means 'astrology'. Check out this fascinating article on Wikipedia about 'nadi astrology'.

These are ancient documents that apparently have the details of each person ever born on this planet, with their destinies, too. A couple of people in my circle of friends and acquaintances have visited this place and were blown away by the details that the person reading their charts, was able to tell them just by knowing very few things about them such as their full name. They were even told things about their future that eventually manifested.

Legend has it that the 'rishi' (sage), Agastya, wrote down these predictions thousands of years ago.

Elsewhere in Europe in the 16th century, Nostradamus is reputed to have predicted cataclysmic events.
In far recent times, there was a famous psychic in the United States called Edgar Cayce, who was able to make starting predictions about both individuals and world events.

People still consult psychics to gain insights about themselves, their relationships and the future.

Personally, I don't think I would want to know my future because the uncertainty and opportunity that life presents are what makes it fun. I also feel that I may get biased and change my behavior subconsciously to match these predictions, thus making them self-fulfilling prophecies.
And, last but not the least, it seems extremely unfair that the game has been fixed before it has even begun.

If my memory serves me right, I once had a mild argument with one of my school teachers. She said that God already knows your destiny. I questioned that because I felt that this line of thought completely negates everything about free will and individual responsibility. Why then should criminals be punished? What then is the point of sin, punishment and karma?

The Universe is full of mysteries. We should do everything we can to rise to our best but have the humility to accept that we don't know everything.

There is a famous prayer that comes to mind:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can and
Wisdom to know the difference."

Whether one believes in God or not, the last line seems to be as hard as or even harder than the first two - wisdom.