The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 268, titled:
With Chris Brennan and guest Martin Gansten
Episode originally released on August 23, 2020
Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcribed by Andrea Johnson
Transcription released June 27, 2021
Copyright © 2021 TheAstrologyPodcast.com
CHRIS BRENNAN: Hi, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. In this episode, I’m going to be talking with Dr. Martin Gansten about Tājika astrology, which is medieval Arabic astrology translated into Sanskrit, and his new translation of a 17th century Sanskrit text on this topic. So hey, Martin, welcome to the show.
MARTIN GANSTEN: Hi, thanks for having me.
CB: Yeah, I’m glad to finally have you on. I’ve been meaning to for a number of years now, especially to talk about your earlier work. You’re the author of one of the most well-respected books on primary directions, but we’re doing this topic first as your first appearance on the show because you’ve actually spent I think a large part of the last 10 years focused on this topic, right?
MG: Yeah, you can say that.
CB: Okay. And just really quickly, the date is Thursday, August 20, 2020, starting at 8:06 AM in Denver, Colorado, and this should be the 268th episode of the show.
So you translated a book recently and it’s titled The Jewel of Annual Astrology: A Parallel Sanskrit-English Critical Edition of Balabhadra’s ‘Hāyanaratna’. Am I pronouncing that correctly?
MG: That’s fairly accurate, yeah.
CB: Close enough.
MG: Close enough.
CB: Let’s first–before we get to the book actually–talk about your background a little bit. So you have a doctorate and your background is in the history of religion, and you’re a Sanskrit scholar, but you tend to focus on astrological traditions, right?
MG: Yes, you could say that. I’ve got two main areas of research interest, which is Indic religions on the one hand–that is Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism–and then divinatory traditions, especially astrology. And I’m not just interested in Indian astrology; I’m interested in astrological traditions around the globe.
But since I am a Sanskritist, as you mentioned, and I also focus on Indic religions, I do have a sort of combined competence that few people have. Most historians of astrology are not Sanskritists and vice versa, which means that I have tended to work a lot on astrology in India or in South Asia simply because there aren’t that many people doing it.
CB: Yeah, one of the main people in the 20th century was David Pingree, because he was one of the few people that had all the language skills and knew Sanskrit and ancient Greek and Arabic and Persian and like 10 or 15 different languages. But that’s also something that you have a strong background in as well, ancient languages.
MG: Well, my primary classical language is Sanskrit. Apart from that I know a little bit of medieval Latin, a little bit of Koine Greek. I can read a bit of Pali if necessary, but there are no astrological texts in Pali, so that’s irrelevant. I don’t read Arabic or Persian, which you might think would be a problem working with the Indian reception of Perso-Arabic astrology. But the period I focused on in the 17th century, by that time Tājika astrology had been around in India for about 400 years, and they were already drawing exclusively on other Sanskrit sources.
Balabhadra wasn’t really reading Persian or Arabic texts, and it wasn’t even clear that Persian and Arabic were two different languages. They were just foreign tongues, or rather it was all Persian to him because he was living in a Persian-speaking milieu at the court. So I haven’t had to work with that sort of material.
CB: Sure. Well, let’s talk about that; let’s jump into the book. So the new book that you just published, it literally just came out this month, it’s titled The Jewel of Annual Astrology: A Parallel Sanskrit-English Critical Edition of Balabhadra’s ‘Hāyanaratna’. It was published by the academic publisher Brill.
But one of the things that was interesting is that they published it and released it first on August 3 as a free e-book that could be downloaded for free on their website as an Open Access publication, and then they also published a print book on August 6. So that was kind of unique and caught my eye right away because usually Brill books, some of them are very expensive and can be harder to get. But why was it released? Why did they publish this partially as a free, online PDF?
MG: Well, because I requested it.
CB: Oh, that’s all you have to do is just request it.
MG: No, they demand a fairly hefty fee to do that. And as I couldn’t pay it out of my own pocket, I went to the funding body that was funding my research in the first place. I was doing this as part of a three-year project with a colleague. The whole project was called–it’s a long title–The Hindu Reception of Perso-Arabic Traditions of Knowledge and the role of Jainism in Cultural Transmission, I think. So my colleague is a Jain studies specialist, so he was looking specifically at the role of the Jains in this context, and I was looking at the reception of Perso-Arabic astrology specifically.
So we were doing this at Lund University in Sweden, but it was actually funded by one of the two main funding bodies here in Sweden for researching the humanities. And when I had a contract with Brill, I approached them, the funding body, and said, “This is the way it is; it’s going to be published by Brill. It’s going to cost so much, roughly, unless you want to make it open access.” And they said, “Yes, we’re all for open access.” So there was a bit of a negotiation and finally they paid Brill a whacking, great sum of money. And Brill, first of all, made it open access, but also reduced the price of the hardback version quite substantially. If you look at other Brill books in the same series, they’re roughly 250 euros.
CB: Yeah, at least for a thousand-page book.
MG: Yeah. And this one is, if I remember correctly, 75 or 80 euros. Not sure. It’s something like that.
CB: Yeah, I just ordered it for $80 for the print version, which is really good, like you said, to comparable books, like Abu Ma’shar. That translation came out from Brill a year ago and that was $300 US or something in that area.
MG: And that’s Charles Burnett’s…
CB: Yeah, Charles Burnett’s translation. So this book came out. It’s a thousand-page book; it’s a critical edition where you have the Sanskrit text on the left and an English translation on the right, and the work you are translating was written in 1649. And what’s the official title?
MG: It’s called Hāyanaratna. So Hāyana, as a noun it means ‘a year’, as an adjective, it means ’yearly’ or ‘annual’, and astrology is sort of implied from the context. And the ratna means ’jewel’ or ‘treasure’. So ‘the jewel or the treasure of annual brackets (astrology brackets)’.
CB: Okay, brilliant. And I’ll put a link to it where people can go to the order page, either to order the print version or to download the PDF, in the description below this video or on the podcast website for people listening to the audio version.
So it was written in 1649. And one of the things that’s interesting that caught my eye about that date is that makes Balabhadra pretty much a contemporary with William Lilly who wrote Christian Astrology within a few years of that, right?
MG: I think it was published in 1647, the first edition of Christian Astrology, so very close in time.
CB: Yeah, so it’s interesting. You can sort of read Christian Astrology and realize you have one astrologer summarizing many centuries of astrology and trying to synthesize many centuries of astrology in London, where Lilly was in 1647, publishing that. And then on the other side of the world, in India, was Balabhadra doing something similar in trying to summarize several centuries of this type of astrology in India.
CB: So who was Balabhadra? He was actually a court astrologer, right?
MG: He was. We don’t know much about him, and that’s generally the case with Indian authors; they’re typically quite anonymous. We’re used to whenever someone publishes a book, they go on a podcast; they make sure the world knows their name and all sorts of snippets of information about them. By contrast, Indian astrologers tend to be very anonymous traditionally, Sanskrit authors. So they might add a few lines at the beginning or the end of the book saying something about their ancestry often, “My father’s name was such and his father’s name was such, and so on they belong to this lineage,” but not a whole lot more.
So we know just a little bit from Balabhadra’s own description. We know his brother’s name and his father’s name and his uncle’s names and his grandfather’s name, and that his grandfather was from a place in North India called Kanyakubja, which is called Kannauj today. He doesn’t say where he lived himself, Balabhadra, but it seems that he might have been born in Benares, that is, Varanasi.
And he wrote his book in a place called Rajmahal, which is a fairly small place today; it was a very important place in his time. It was the regional capital of what was then the Mughal province of Bengal in eastern India, so it was the seat of the governor. And as you say, Balabhadra was court astrologer to this governor who was also a prince. He was the second son of the then emperor of Mughal India, Shāh Jahān; the governor’s name was Shāh Shujā.
So that’s about what we know about Balabhadra. And we know the name of his teacher who was called Rāma Daivajña; and he was the younger brother of a very well-known astrologer and author whose name was Nīlakaṇṭhakaṇṭha. So Nīlakaṇṭhakaṇṭha Daivajña was also court astrologer, but to the emperor himself; not to Shāh Jahān, but a generation before that, to the Emperor Akbar.
CB: So this is a time period in India where astrologers are serving the rulers directly and playing a really important role sometimes in giving advice and helping to plan or make predictions about different things, and some of the reasons why these works survive then probably is because these were prominent people in the courts of some of these different empires.
MG: Some astrologers were. I’m sure that most astrologers were not that respected or well-placed in society. I’m sure there were more or less street astrologers in India as there are today. But there was such a thing as a court astrologer, an official position, not just someone you’d sneak in the back door as is done today.
CB: Yeah, it’s just funny because it’s not a position that we have a lot of today in any official capacity. I mean, we have the private, accidental instance of that I guess in the 1980s where Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States, had an astrologer it turned out. But this was back during a period where astrology was somewhat more well-respected, especially in India, and that could be an official title or official role that you are the astrologer that serves the ruler.
CB: Okay. Let’s see, so this provides a nice transition into talking about our main subject. And the main question most people probably have is, what is Tājika astrology, and how do we define that? It’s basically a tradition of astrology. And part of how you define it in the introduction of your book is by defining three different eras in the history of astrology in India essentially, right?
MG: Yes. Do you want me to talk about that?
CB: Yeah, what are those three? I guess the three are pre-horoscopic astrology in the indigenous astrology of India, especially focusing on the nakshatras, then horoscopic astrology which is when Greek astrology was transmitted from the Roman Empire to India and then synthesized with the indigenous Indian astrological traditions sometime in the first few centuries, and then finally we have this third tradition, Tājika, which is Persian or Arabic astrology that got transmitted from the West to India.
CB: Is that controversial? I mean, it’s a little controversial even making that statement to some extent, that there was some outside astrology that came into India.
MG: Well, controversial in some company and not in other contexts. I mean, in academic circles, it’s not at all controversial really.
CB: The idea that Tājika is a foreign type of astrology isn’t even that controversial though, is it?
MG: No. You actually get people like B.V. Raman who is one of the most important people in modernizing and revitalizing Indian astrology in the 20th century. He actually writes in one of his books, or possibly more, but I remember one place where he denies that Tājika is of non-Indian origin, and says something along the lines that it must have been Hindu to begin with or Indian to begin with. And then perhaps the Arabs borrowed it from India and they added some things or some Arabic terminology, and then it came back, but it was Indian to begin with.
That’s not a position that is taken seriously at all I think in academic circles because there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that–no evidence to suggest that that’s how it happened–but you have to see these things in the context of Indian nationalism, which begins in the 19th century as a direct reaction against colonial rule. So I can absolutely understand the impulses that prompted, and still prompt, some Indian scholars more or less to deny that anything in Indian culture was ever imported from outside India, but it that’s a sort of knee-jerk, nationalist reaction and those are seldom very helpful in academic contexts, so we have to try to be dispassionate about these things.
CB: Sure. So in the efforts to push back against colonialism and to shirk that off, there was maybe in some instances an overreaction of going too far and saying that all the astrology originated in India or what have you, which is kind of something different cultures do. In the Hellenistic tradition, you see references to this; in the Egyptian tradition and the Mesopotamian tradition. It seems like different cultures are always claiming that they were the ones that came up with astrology and everyone else just ripped it off from them, when in the ancient world, whenever you put two astrologers in the same room together, they begin to talk and trade information and techniques, and there’s always influence going back and forth.
MG: Yes, absolutely.
CB: So Tājika is one of the great instances where we can study this though because it’s one of the more obvious instances where I think you said, starting probably around the 13th century, there were texts on medieval Arabic astrology that were translated somehow into Sanskrit, and it created a new type of astrology that began being practiced in India and flourished for several centuries that we know today as Tājika.
MG: Yes, that’s correct. The texts were, I would say, not exactly translated verbatim. You can compare this to the transmission of Arabic language astrology to Latin Europe, where you get translations that are very literal. I mean, sometimes they’re so literal that they’re in rather strange Latin, because the Latin is sort of mimicking Arabic terms and phrases and so on. So you get very close Latin translations. Some of them were actually made originally into Old Spanish and then actually only after that were they translated into Latin.
But in India, no Arabic texts that I know of were translated like that; but rather they were epitomized or summarized. So what you get in Sanskrit is a very condensed version. They try to boil it down, so that the Sanskrit version will be much shorter and will be in verse, which is pretty much the standard for any learned discipline, any branch of knowledge in India. Any branch of knowledge you look at–mathematics, cooking, whatever, medicine–the texts are typically in verse or at least partly in verse.
CB: So it’s in the form of a poem.
MG: You could call it a poem; I mean, it’s not that poetic. Depending on the author, some authors really are poetic–they choose very mellifluous ways of framing things–but most of it is just verse. It’s not really poetry, but it’s verse. And that’s been a tradition for many, many centuries in India, and I think it’s partly partly to do with the strong oral tradition that India has. It’s much easier to memorize something in verse than just memorizing long prose passages.
CB: Because it has a rhyme to it, or it has a certain fixed sequence.
MG: Not rhyme, but a rhythm, and typically chanted.
CB: Okay. So one of the speculations that you’ve had, to go in line with what you were saying, is that there was a medieval compilation of Arabic texts that at some point was put together–so you have a bunch of different Arabic authors in one text and excerpts from it–and then you think that compilation was translated sometime around the 13th century. And there’s a specific early Tājika author who is often attributed to some of the earliest works on this type of astrology, on Tājika in Sanskrit, that you think is maybe one of the earliest translators or earliest authors of this type of astrology.
MG: Yes, Samarasiṃha, probably in the 13th century. He seems to have written the main work or works on Tājika that were then a sort of bottleneck that the whole tradition came through. And he quotes–or he doesn’t quote as I explained, but he summarizes different teachings that are recognizable enough that we can trace them–we can say this is from Sahl, this is from Umar, this is from whoever–but he never credits any of these people. He does credit one person; he says, “This is the work of Khindhi.”
So the question was of course, who’s this ‘Khindhi’? And Pingree’s idea was that it was somehow a version of the Persian or Arabic word ‘Hindi’ or ‘al-Hindi’, that is, ‘the Indian’, which for various reasons is not very likely. It’s not likely from a linguistic point of view because an Arabic ‘h’ doesn’t normally become ‘kh’ in Sanskrit. So it’s much more likely that it’s al-Kindi who becomes ‘Khindhi’ in Sanskrit. And also, it seems a bit far-fetched that it would be someone called ‘the Indian’ who is credited with these various non-Indian doctrines.
CB: Right. So you think that the early compilation of Arabic texts that was translated into Sanskrit, that it may have gotten attributed to al-Kindi somehow?
MG: That’s my idea, yeah. Samarasiṃha had this book that he thought was by someone called Khindhi, that is, al-Kindi, but was actually a compilation. So as I said, Sahl ibn Bishr is one of the most important sources for Tājika, and he’s never mentioned by name.
CB: Right. And one of the most interesting and coolest pieces of your research that you’ve done so far is identifying where a large chunk of Tājika astrology comes from. You’ve been able to demonstrate through just doing parallel translations that large parts of it come directly from the work of the 9th century astrologer Sahl ibn Bishr; and especially his Introduction to Astrology seems to have been one of the primary sources that these later Tājika authors ended up drawing on through this Arabic compilation that was translated into Sanskrit.
CB: Okay. And originally, did you first unveil that discovery in that paper in 2011? I think it was titled Sahl and the Tājika Yogas: Indian Transformations of Arabic Astrology.
MG: Yeah, that paper was the outcome of my good friend Ola and myself sitting together, talking about astrology, and as I recall, reading a bit of Nīlakaṇṭha’s Introduction to Tājika in Sanskrit and speculating on the origin of these strange-sounding, Sanskritized Arabic words. I mean, some of them are not really recognizable until you know where they come from, then you can sort of see how they were transmuted.
MG: But the fact that there was…
CB: Here, let me show some of the words, because in Indian, they’ll define different planetary combinations, and they’ll use these different words–which for the video version, I have over on the right the Tājika names–but they don’t really mean anything; they’re just technical terms in Sanskrit that don’t otherwise mean anything. But when you compare them to the terms that Sahl uses in Arabic, you realize that they’re just largely transliterations of the exact Arabic terms into Sanskrit.
CB: So what are some examples?
MG: Well, the ones we see here are iqbāl becoming ikkavāla. But now I’m giving it the classical Sanskrit pronunciation, including the ‘a’ at the end. By the time these terms were Sanskritized, Indian languages may already have begun to fall away, the way it’s done in modern North Indian languages like Hindi today, similar to French. In French, many words end with an ‘e’ that is never pronounced; it’s muted, so it’s like that. So even if the Sanskrit version says ikkavāla, it was probably pronounced something like ikvāl or ikbāl because ‘b’ and ‘v’ are very similar.
CB: Got it.
MG: So they probably sounded more similar than they look on the page.
CB: So the Arabic ittisāl, that’s an applying aspect, right?
CB: Okay. And then in Sanskrit, when they transliterated that, what did it become?
MG: It becomes itthasāla or itthasāl. So ittisāl-itthasāl, that’s close enough. But when you get to some of the more complicated names like daf al-quwwa, which becomes duphālikuttha, it’s changed to quite a degree. And we talked about the fact that there were 16 of these Tājika combinations or Tājika configurations.
Not that long ago, I had been rereading actually Ben Dykes’ translation of Sahl’s Introduction to Astrology–which he had from the Latin, which I think came out in 2008–and I remembered Sahl has a list of 16, so that’s when we started comparing them.
CB: And then you very quickly realized they were the same, and it was not just this linguistic connection, which itself shows pretty much indisputably that this represents a translation from Arabic into Sanskrit. But even when you started translating the concepts themselves, sometimes some of Sahl’s chart examples were also embedded in the Sanskrit texts.
CB: Okay. And Sahl ibn Bishr, I did an episode on him just last year with Benjamin Dykes when his new Arabic translation of the Introduction and other texts came out. So he was a 9th century astrologer who wrote in Arabic. He then becomes one of the primary sources for Tājika astrology because of many of his planetary combinations, which are not just application but other ones. ‘Transfer of light’ I think is one of them, right?
MG: Yes, yes, ‘return of light’; we have ‘committing strength’. I mean, there are various ways of translating these, and Ben himself I think has translated them slightly differently at different points in time.
But you have being ‘void-of-course’ for instance, ‘strength and weakness’ and ‘committing strength’ and…
CB: ‘Collection of light’.
MG: ‘Collection of light’, exactly. ‘Transfer or light’, ‘collection of light’, so you have these various things. You mentioned William Lilly. And anyone who’s read Lilly or early modern Western books on horary astrology will be familiar with many of these because they were very important in that kind of astrology.
CB: Right, and that’s partially because he’s also drawing on that tradition that goes back to Sahl. And Sahl is probably the first or second generation of astrologers writing in Arabic who are defining a lot of these concepts that are relatively new innovations that are getting used, especially in the context of horary, and to a lesser extent also in natal and electional. So those techniques basically then get transmitted to India and also start being used there in this branch of astrology.
One of the things that this branch focuses on especially and seems to specialize in or came to specialize in terms of Tājika astrology is ‘annual’ astrology or making yearly predictions, especially through the solar return chart. And that seems to be the main thing that sort of sets it apart or makes it unique in some ways or attractive in some ways in Indian astrology, right?
MG: Yes, that seems to be one of the main selling points. When you read Tājika authors writing about and introducing Tājika, very early several of them start telling you that this is the main thing; this is the great thing about Tājika. You can make annual predictions and very detailed, sort of fine-grained predictions as compared to what you might call mainstream or classical Indian astrology, which has these blocks of time called dashas, so planetary periods. And they can of course be subdivided, and theoretically you can subdivide them any number of times. So you can go into ‘sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-periods’, but it becomes very complicated and complex.
So as I said, it’s one of the main selling points of Tājika. And from some quotations that we find from Samarasiṃha–one of the earliest known, or one of the two earliest known Sanskrit authors on Tājika–he seems to have said the same things; they were probably all copying him.
CB: Okay. And so, part of the reason for this is that even though a large chunk of Hellenistic astrology got transmitted to India sometime in the first few centuries CE, and it merged with the indigenous Indian astrology surrounding the nakshatras–and whatever else existed there up to that point, which is a little ambiguous and created this new tradition of mainstream horoscopic astrology in India–it seems like one of the things that didn’t get transmitted was the idea of solar return charts, which are referenced, but very infrequently in Hellenistic astrology in passing; so I can kind of see why maybe that didn’t get transmitted. But also the time-lord technique known as ‘annual profections’ didn’t seem to show up in the Yavanajātaka, I don’t think–maybe it did. Did it show up in Parashara or other authors?
MG: Now the Parashara Hora, that’s a real can of worms dating that because there are wildly differing versions of that text. And it’s a layered text; some parts are obviously older than others. But there is a chapter, as I recall, towards the latter part, probably one of the later chapters–I mean, later in a historical sense of that text–that teaches a technique called the Sudarshana Chakra, which is basically annual profections.
First of all, it says you draw up a ‘rounded’ chart–that’s unusual in India–and it’s actually three concentric circles: one for the Ascendant, one for the Sun, and one for the Moon. And then you move all those three forward along the zodiac by one sign per year. So that’s annual profections, or at least a sort of rudimentary annual profection technique. But how old that is in India, I couldn’t say. It might have entered at a later time.
CB: Sure. But the main point I guess is just that solar return doctrine doesn’t show up in Indian astrology for the most part. However, solar returns became a major part of medieval Western astrology in some of these Arabic authors and that’s part of what got transmitted. And so, the prevalence or the popularity of Tājika probably partially derives from that it deals with this concept of solar return charts, and it tells you both how to calculate them and then how to interpret them, and that’s a large part of what this text that you translated deals with.
MG: Absolutely, it is. It starts off by giving a few chapters on basic technical concepts that are not part of pre-Islamic Indian astrology. So there’s one explaining the ‘dignities’–that is, those dignities that are different, that are not part of the older Indian tradition–and then one explaining the ‘yogas’–which is this list of 16 types of configurations that we already talked about–and there’s a chapter on the ‘lots’. But then it gets into annual astrology and the rest of the book is about that specifically.
CB: Okay, so it has solar returns and then they integrate annual profections into solar returns as well. And you also mentioned the lots. That was another concept that was interesting that didn’t really get transmitted for the most part in the Yavanajātaka or is mysteriously absent, but then the lots also are one of the major features that show up in Tājika astrology that was brought over from Arabic astrology.
MG: Yeah, there are a few things. I mean, it does seem likely that the original transmission of Hellenistic or Greek-language astrology to India was through one text; there was a sort of ‘bottleneck’ text in that case as well. So maybe it’s not that surprising that not every aspect of Greek-language astrology made it to India.
Not every text mentions every doctrine. The lots didn’t make it. Annual profections and annual revolutions didn’t make it. What we know as ‘primary directions’ didn’t make it. Ben Dykes likes to use the word ‘distributions’, and I think Schmidt liked to talk about ‘circumambulations’; it’s basically the same technique, but that didn’t make it either.
CB: What makes you think that it was one singular text in the first transmission? Is it due to things like the ‘exaltation degree’ issue?
MG: Yeah, exactly. That’s one of the things, yes.
CB: And then what’s that briefly? Just for people not familiar.
MG: Right. So the exaltations of the planets are not just signs but degrees, degrees within those signs, right?
MG: And the standard Indian list of exaltation degrees is pretty much the same as a standard Greek list, except for two planets–that is the Sun and Jupiter–and in both cases, the differences could be plausibly attributed to copying mistakes. Pingree made that argument. Sorry, you were saying?
CB: In the Hellenistic tradition, Jupiter’s exalted at 15 degrees of Cancer, but in the Indian tradition, it becomes 5 degrees of Cancer. So Pingree argued that this could have happened just through a single numeral dropping out in the textual transmission, so that ‘15’ becomes ‘5’. And the same thing happened with the Sun, where the Sun is exalted in the Hellenistic tradition at, what, 18-19 degrees?
MG: 19, yeah.
CB: 19 Aries. But in the Indian tradition, it becomes, what, 10?
MG: 10. Because in the Greek way of writing this number ‘19’, the letter, that also signifies the number ‘10’, and then you write the letter that also signifies the number ‘9’. So if the second letter falls off, you’re not left with a ‘1’, you’re left with a ‘10’.
CB: Okay. And you think that that’s plausible? From a textual, purely Sanskrit and translation standpoint, you think that’s a plausible argument?
MG: I mean, it’s not really a Sanskrit argument, it’s a Greek philological argument, and I think it’s very plausible. And of course, if all Indian tradition has the same exaltation degrees, then it stands to reason that it’s plausible that they all got it not just from the same text, but from the same copy–one original copy that contained both these copying mistakes–and was then copied and re-copied of course probably into a number of…
CB: So both of these then represent two different transmissions of astrology from the West to India and then the subsequent reception of that, the first transmission being Greek astrology into India–and how that was received and adapted and changed in some ways in the first few centuries CE to create horoscopic astrology and the practice of studying nativities or birth charts in India–and then we get another transmission of that with Tājika and Arabic astrology being translated into Sanskrit about a thousand years later, sometime around the 13th century. So to me, both of these are really interesting just in terms of studying it, even from a purely historical standpoint, to see how astrologers from different backgrounds and cultures receive astrological systems that are different or foreign from what they’re used to and how they adapt them.
And you made an interesting point in the introduction that the reception of Tājika is different because there were already several centuries of established astrological tradition in India up to that point. And so, they viewed medieval Arabic astrology through the lens of the established astrological tradition up to the 13th century, and that sometimes altered how they interpreted and sometimes misinterpreted different things when they were trying to understand what these Arabic authors were trying to say. I think you said it was like a ‘distorting lens’ in some instances when they were trying to conceptualize certain doctrines.
MG: Yes, I think that’s fair to say. I think many of us know from experience that when you try to master a new subject sometimes it’s an advantage to have knowledge of similar subjects, but sometimes they get in the way. And we can see that for instance in modern astrologers who try to learn pre-modern astrology, and there are some things that you just need to unlearn.
MG: You need to ‘deprogram’ yourself and that’s easier said than done.
CB: Because sometimes you’re taking for granted things that you don’t realize that you’re taking for granted.
MG: Exactly, exactly.
CB: Or for example, sometimes astrologers go into the academic study of astrology; sometimes that’s an advantage that they know things and they approach it differently than how an academic that doesn’t have any background or doesn’t think that astrology’s legitimate phenomenon. Sometimes being into astrology as an astrologer can be an asset in that context, but other times it can also shape and distort their perspective in studying the history of astrology and being objective about it.
MG: Yes. And of course, I’m a historian of religion, I see that sort of thing all the time, both people being adherents or proponents of a religious tradition or people being very opposed to it. A devout Christian studying Gnostic traditions for instance will maybe form a different opinion than someone who is more sympathetically-disposed.
MG: There was something I wanted to say–just some point you made. Yes, I just wanted briefly to comment on this because you used the word ‘Western’ a few times.
MG: I try to be careful with that because obviously these traditions that came into India came from places to the west of India, but they weren’t necessarily ‘Western’ from our cultural point of view. I mean, they came from Persia or the areas that we usually don’t think about as ‘the West’ or as representing Western cultures; they were western with respect to India.
MG: But I’d actually like to make a threefold distinction. This is a bit of a hobby-horse, but I’d like to speak not just of Eastern and Western astrology but of ‘Middle’ astrology or ‘Central’ astrology. Byzantine and Persian and Arabic-language astrology is not Eastern in the sense of being Indian, but it’s not really Western either. So I think it’s useful to have it somewhat more nuanced.
And also, it might help a bit with this topic that we touched on at the beginning about people being very sensitive to nationalist feelings, especially in a postcolonial world. Some Indians really don’t want to hear, quite understandably, that everything came from ‘the West’. It might be a good point to make that we’re not talking about the West as a single, monolithic entity.
CB: Yeah, it’s more just geographically.
MG: Yes, yes.
CB: I’m looking for a map really quickly to pull up. But you have basically modern-day Iran and the Persian area, and then you have the Arabic-speaking areas just to the left of that or to the west of that. And then you have the continent of India just to the east of Persia, and Persia acting as this middle-ground and this intermediary, where for thousands of years astrology would travel back and forth…
CB: …either from east-to-west or from west-to-east and carry different doctrines, especially through the merchants and through the merchant class. It seemed like a few of the authors that you mentioned were part of a merchant class and that may have been how they had access to some of these techniques and doctrines.
MG: Yes. The part of India where Tājika seems to have begun is in present-day Gujarat, which is a western state of India, and it’s more specifically it’s the peninsula that is called Saurashtra which sort of juts out into the–sorry. You’re pulling up a map?
CB: Yeah, so here’s a map with just modern-day Gujarat, which is over on the western coast of India, and it’s sort of on the border of Pakistan, so it’s right in that area. Because we have to remember that after the 7th and 8th centuries, we have this explosion of the Islamic Empire out of the Middle East that conquered lands all the way into parts of southern Europe, in Spain and Portugal, as far west as there, and then as far east as the northernmost portions of India.
MG: Yes, and eventually of course quite a bit to the south of India as well. I mean, the Mughal Empire really was most of India. It was just a few kingdoms, mostly in the south, that were not part of Mughal India at its height. So the bit that juts out on the northwestern part of India, that was a very important center for trade. So all the way back to the 7th or 8th century, there were trade connections. And of course Persia had been conquered by the Muslims in 651, so already at that time Islam was being transmitted as well to some extent and with it Arabic-language learning.
And the merchants, the Indian merchants, some of them were Hindus, some of them were Jains, but they would interact with these people who were ethnically probably mostly Persians, but who brought with them, as I said, Arabic-language learning. And these Jains and these merchant caste Hindus acted as a sort of middleman between the Muslims on the one hand and the Brahmins on the other hand, because the Brahmins in India were the intellectual majority you might say. The majority of people writing learned works in Sanskrit were Brahmins, but Brahmins did not like to interact with people who were ritually impure, defiling.
So it seems that it went from the Muslims to the Jains and lower caste Hindus, and then from those Indian people to the Brahmin class, another fact that was forgotten by Balabhadra’s time, because Balabhadra actually says that Samarasiṃha, the earliest Indian author on Tājika, or one of the earliest, was a Brahmin. But Samarasiṃha himself describes his caste status; he says he was a Prāgvāṭa, and that was a non-Brahmin group. So Balabhadra was simply wrong, but he probably believed it because he just took it for granted that anyone writing on astrology in Sanskrit is necessarily a Brahmin. And mostly that’s the case, but not always.
CB: Okay. And also, a quick aside that’s relevant here as we’re talking about Persia. Tājika, I think you said in the introduction actually means ‘Persian’, although it’s from a Persian word that means ‘Arab’.
MG: Yeah, that’s a bit ironic. So there was this Arabic tribe that was called something like ‘Ṭayyi’ and that became ‘Tājik’ in Persian, which was a word meaning ‘Arab’ to them, but then when the Indians took it over, they used it to mean Persians and Arabs indiscriminately. To the Indians, they were all Persians, so Tājika came to mean ‘Persian’. There is also the word ‘Parasi/Parsi’, which means ‘Persian’. So the word ‘Persian’ does exist in India, but Tājika is just another word for the same thing.
CB: Okay, so we have this early text that’s written on Tājika in the 13th century, but then the most popular Tājika text was actually written a few centuries later in 1587 by Nīlakaṇṭha, right?
MG: That’s right. It’s the most popular text today and has been for several centuries.
CB: So anytime somebody says ‘Tājika’, the main name that everybody thinks of is the Nīlakaṇṭha text.
MG: Yes. If you go into any bookshop in India that specializes in astrology or any bookshop that specializes in Sanskrit texts and you say, “Do you have any books on Tājika?” typically they will give you three or four different editions of Nīlakaṇṭha’s Tājikanīlakaṇṭhi, which is his introduction to the subject. So that’s the main text; it’s still the main textbook.
CB: Okay. But you decided not to try to translate that text, but instead to translate this text by Balabhadra who actually has an interesting connection; he’s about a generation or two later. Balabhadra has an interesting connection to Nīlakaṇṭha, which is that Balabhadra studied under Nīlakaṇṭha’s younger brother.
MG: Yes, that’s right. I mean, the thing about this book and this genre that Balabhadra writes in, he writes in what is known as a nibhanda, which is a sort of meta-commentary. It tries to summarize all of Tājika and iron out any differences between authors and establish the definitive Tājika teachings on various topics, and in the process of doing that, he quotes lots and lots of passages from earlier authors. And that’s one of the reasons I chose to work on this text because you get so many different authors from a period of more than 400 years: authors from the 13th,14th,15th, 16th, and 17th centuries all quoted.
So you can see although Balabhadra is mostly viewing this synchronically–he’s not making any historical differences or saying this is how Tājika developed–but he’s sort of taking it for granted that this is how it is and it hasn’t changed. There is one Tājika teaching and this is it. But as a historian, you can look at it and see here’s a 13th century author, he says this, but then this 15th century author says that, and this is obviously how things changed over time. And you get quite a lot of Nīlakaṇṭha, especially from Balabadra’s book. I think he quotes several hundred verses from Nīlakaṇṭha, so no need to translate Nīlakaṇṭha separately.
CB: Sure. And I think you said that Balabhadra quotes from something like 40 earlier works…
MG: Something like that, yeah.
CB: …and he’s constantly quoting and sometimes comparing different authors and sometimes disagreeing with certain authors when they’re contrasting how certain doctrines in Tājika should be done.
MG: Yes, that’s right.
CB: Okay, so it’s a comprehensive text. It ended up being a thousand pages, the book itself; or the book itself is a thousand-pages long. And you actually have the date of completion on the afternoon of Wednesday, the 14th of April 1649.
MG: That’s right, yeah. Most of the time, an author will just write, if they date it at all, they will just say, well, it was completed on such-and-such a day, in such-a-such a month and year. But Balabhadra wants to show off, so he makes a riddle out of it, a mathematical riddle, and takes the various components of the Indian calendar and describes how they relate to each other: this is the square root of that and this is that divided by such-and-such, and you work it out.
And then someone did work it out and put it in explanatory numerals next to the verse; unfortunately, they got it wrong. And Pingree didn’t try that. That particular verse that gives the riddle is very badly preserved in the manuscript tradition. You really have to take a number of different manuscripts and compare them, and you have to make certain amendations. And Pingree obviously didn’t do that, but he just took the year as given at face value and that translates into 1629 CE, but there are various reasons why that’s not possible. And so, when you actually look at it, it has to be 1649, so 20 years later.
CB: Okay. Yeah, I like that he put the date at the end in the form of a riddle, in a mathematical problem. Because you have to remember that these astrologers from centuries ago were not just astrologers, but they were also people that had to be skilled in astronomy and in mathematics in order to do all these complex calculations, in order to get the charts that they were working with themselves.
MG: Very much so, yes. I’m trying to find a place here. Just give me a half-a-second and I’ll see if I can find this amusing place where he praises his own mathematical abilities. “Thus, persons such as myself who have received their knowledge from the illustrious Rāma Daivajña, sovereign of all mathematicians, can devise numerous particular methods.” So that’s in the context of explaining different ways of deriving the time of the annual revolution, calculating the precise time for which to cast the chart.
So he’s very proud of his mathematical knowledge and of being the student of this famous Rāma Daivajña, and he’s not afraid of showing it. In a way, it’s half-endearing/half-annoying this boasting tendency that you tend to find in many of these earlier authors, both Indian and European authors. These were times when people were very proud of their superior knowledge, their superior learning and not afraid of saying so.
CB: Yeah, well, it’s part of his lineage. He’s telling you his lineage and the good fortune he had to study with the teachers that he did. And in this case actually that’s somewhat called for, being in the lineage of Nīlakaṇṭha and knowing that this guy is one generation removed from that. Even from our perspective, if you’re approaching Tājika, everyone says Nīlakaṇṭha is the main guy for Tājika. And if you say, “Well, who’s Balabhadra?” they’ll say, “Well, Balabhadra studied under the brother of Nīlakaṇṭha.” So that does give him a sort of elevation in the eyes of an astrologer in some ways.
So in terms of the content of the text, first, I wanted to show–for people watching the video version–an image you sent me. So this is an actual image of one of the pages or one of the manuscripts in Sanskrit, right?
MG: That’s right. This is one of the more legible ones.
CB: More eligible? Okay, because it’s all written by hand.
MG: Yes, this is someone with good handwriting. They’re not all like this.
CB: So one of your skills is not just learning to read Sanskrit, but you also have to learn how to read different handwriting styles and sort of decipher them.
MG: And that’s very much learning by doing.
CB: And in this one, it has a diagram over on the right that’s written in red ink.
CB: Is that how the diagrams would normally be displayed?
MG: Yes. There are some regional differences in how to draw horoscopes in India. And students of medieval and early modern Western astrology will recognize this diamond-shaped chart. The only difference is that in Western sources, the first house is the big diamond on the left, because the idea is that you’re looking towards the south, so you get the Ascendant on the left.
Here, the Ascendant is actually the big diamond at the top, because Indian maps–exactly that one–are drawn as if you were looking towards the east, so that’s the 1st house, and then they go counterclockwise. And you can see there are numbers.
CB: 1, 2, 3.
MG: Exactly. These are Indian numerals. Of course, we call our numerals, Arabic numerals because we got them from the Arabs. But the Arabs got them from the Indians, so they’re actually Indian numerals. So some of these are quite recognizable. ‘2’ and ‘3’ are very similar, for instance.
But these are not actually the numbers of the houses, they’re the numbers of the signs. And in this case, they coincide because this is a chart with Aries rising, so the first sign is also in the 1st house.
CB: Right. Because one of the big differences here is even though the mainstream Indian astrology that came from the Hellenistic tradition used whole sign houses, when they imported medieval Arabic astrology through Tājika, one of the things that they brought in was quadrant houses. And Balabhadra spends a chapter explaining how to calculate quadrant houses at one point, right?
MG: He does. But it wasn’t actually brought in with Tājika; it existed prior to that in India. And even today, if you go to an Indian astrologer, many of them will use whole sign houses; but most of them, or at least quite a few of them–I can’t say most of them because I haven’t done a statistical survey.
But in my experience, many of them will, if they want more accuracy, cast quadrant houses as well, because in India, especially in the south, the difference is generally quite small. I mean, I was born in southern Sweden; that’s already quite a high degree of distortion; it’s 55 degrees north. My wife who is from the north of Sweden was born at 64 degrees north, so that’s slightly below the polar circle.
CB: Right. So the houses start getting very distorted.
MG: Very distorted, yes.
MG: But in India, and especially in South India, where you are perhaps at 10 degrees north, it’s no big deal this distortion of houses. So similarly I expect in Balabhadra’s time many people would, for a rough overview, just use the signs as houses, but they also did know how to calculate quadrant houses, and typically, they used what we know as Porphyry cusps.
CB: Yeah, it seemed like he was just dividing the quadrants proportionally, which would be basically Porphyry houses.
MG: Yes. But in India, they’re called Sripathi—Sripathi Bhava, Sripathi ‘houses’–after an 11th century author whose name was Sripati, who describes them in his work on natal astrology. He was basically an astronomer; I think more of an astronomer than an astrologer really. So he’s very focused on calculations and things like that, and he wrote purely astronomical works as well.
But just because Sripati is typically cited as the source, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t there before that. They may have been even earlier, but they’re typically associated with him. I mean, it’s the same of course in the Western tradition. We say Porphyry houses, but they didn’t come from Porphyry, did they?
CB: Right. They’re already described in Vettius Valens.
MG: Exactly, who ascribes them to Orion.
CB: Yeah, some author named Orion who doesn’t survive outside of Valens.
CB: But if Valens is living in the 2nd century, then Orion must have lived at least in the 1st century, so that’s very early.
MG: Exactly. And another interesting point is that the way they use it in India, both Balabhadra who’s writing about Tājika and people who use pre-Islamic Indian astrology, they tend to use the cusps not as the beginning of house, but as the midpoint of the house. And that is a very special sort of approach that, as far as I understand, is also reported to have been used by a Hellenistic astrologer named Pancarius.
CB: What do you mean by ‘midpoint’, or could you describe that a little more?
MG: Yeah. So you calculate the 12 house cusps. The Ascendant–yeah, please.
CB: The degree of the quadrant house cusp.
MG: Yes, the degree of the quadrant house cusp. And then you calculate the distance between the 12th cusp and the Ascendant. So that the point exactly in between those two cusps, that’s the beginning of the 1st house, and the point exactly midway between the Ascendant and the 2nd house cusp is the beginning of the 2nd house. So the cusp will be the middle of the house, not the beginning of the house.
MG: And that’s a very odd way of doing it. I mean, it’s odd in the sense of unusual. But apparently, I think it was Hephaistio–this may not be correct because I’m citing from memory. But I think it is Hephaistio who mentions this method by another astrologer whose name was Pancarius.
CB: Okay. Yeah, Hephaistio is the main source for Pancarius’ stuff. Although I do know in Olympiodorus there’s something almost like that, where it gives a 15-degree range around cusps or around the Ascendant or something, citing some other earlier author; I thought that was interesting. So where does that come from, or where is that used?
MG: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I mean, where does it come from? The Indians did it and Pancarius did it.
CB: Do you think that’s general practice in India?
MG: The Indians astrologers who do quadrant houses do it like that.
CB: Okay, that’s really interesting. And the other thing is it seemed like Balabhadra was almost using the cusps as areas of power. If they’re not the starting points, they’re focal points for certain houses.
MG: The closer a planet is to the cusp, the more it will affect that house, so that’s his idea. And then it may be before the cusp or after the cusp, it will be proportionately weaker in influence.
CB: And what term is being used for ‘cusp’? It’s not kantaka is it?
MG: No, it’s not; that would have been interesting. Kantaka means ‘a thorn’ or something sharp. It may or may not be etymologically-related to kentron in Greek, which was then also borrowed into Sanskrit as kendra.
But no, the word used is typically either sphuṭa or spashta, both of which are properly adjectives meaning ‘precise’ or ‘exact’ or ‘clear’. So it’s the precise point of the house.
MG: We’ll use it as a noun.
MG: Pinpoint, yeah.
CB: All right, so, let’s see, backing up, I wanted to talk a little bit about just the chapter breakdown of the book because that actually gives you a good overview of how Tājika is usually presented, or at least how it’s presented in this book on annual astrology. So just looking at the PDF here really quickly, here’s the title and the table of contents.
So it starts with the fundamentals of astrology and the annual revolution, and he does some defending of different things, like the study of Tājika. But one of the things that’s interesting is just a long discussion about calculating the time of the annual revolution, which is the solar return chart, and it’s just very basic stuff and some intro stuff about the signs of the zodiac and the planets.
CB: Then it goes into aspects and dignities and different schemes for ‘friendship’ and ‘enmity’ between the planets, as well as the ‘five dignities’ systems and other concepts. So here we get into some of the discussions where, on the one hand, it’s similar and it’s receiving certain concepts relatively faithfully from the medieval Arabic tradition, but in other instances there were some issues and some translation misunderstandings, such as with the concept of ‘dexter’ and ‘sinister’ aspects, which is right- and left-sided aspects. The doctrine was there, but there was some sort of issue when they received it that you talk about in the introduction.
MG: That’s right.
CB: So what happened with that?
MG: Right, so the misinterpreted or interpreted or reinterpreted this difference as having to do with above or below the horizon, which again may be to do with the fact that the Indian chart shape, or at least the North Indian chart shape, which is this diamond-shape that we looked at previously, has the 1st house at the top; which means that the right-hand side of the chart will basically be the houses that are above the horizon and the left-hand side of the chart will be the houses below the horizon. So I think that’s how the misunderstanding or the conflation of these two ideas came about.
CB: Got it. So in medieval Arabic astrology, if you’re looking at a planet then any aspect it sends forward in zodiacal order is an aspect on the left, and any aspect it sends backwards in the order of the signs is an aspect on the right, but when they received this doctrine in Sanskrit, there was some sort of issue.
And the way it’s presented in this text from Balabhadra in the 17th century is that if a planet is below the horizon, and it casts an aspect to a planet above the horizon, that’s referred to as a right-sided aspect, right?
MG: To be honest, I’ve forgotten. It’s been some time since I translated that. But yeah, basically, the misunderstanding is that it has to do with different directions forwards or backwards along the zodiac, but they took it to mean above or below the horizon.
CB: Right, and like you were explaining, I can see how that could happen because sometimes astrologers will use an example to try to demonstrate that concept, but in attempting to teach it to students, it’s always one of the things that trips people up the most. So I’m almost not surprised at all that there could be a misinterpretation of this because it’s very easy to miss. But where maybe some astrologer tried to describe it by putting a planet on the Ascendant and then talking about aspects downwards versus upwards, maybe something like that was misinterpreted.
MG: Exactly, yeah. And other things they misunderstood were to do with the ‘five dignities’. They really had a problem understanding triplicities.
CB: So they had domicile and exaltation, and those are largely the same.
MG: Yes, domiciles, exaltations, and decans were already part of Indian astrology, but even in the original reception of Greek-language astrology, I think decans were misunderstood. Because the rulership scheme for the decans in Indian astrology actually has to do with the triplicities, with signs that are in a ‘trinal’ relationship, 120-degree relationship with each other.
CB: So there was a conflation between triplicities and decans.
MG: I think so. And then it got even more confused in the transmission of Tājika, and they ended up by, again, conflating decans and triplicities, leaving one slot empty, so to speak, in the ‘five dignities system’, where they immediately put the navamsas, the ‘ninth part’, which are such an important part of traditional Indian astrology.
And even some of the Arabic-language authors who were sources of Tājika astrology do mention the ‘ninth part’, such as Abu Ma’shar. He mentions ‘ninth parts’, not as part of the ‘five dignities’, but he mentions them. So it’s an easy thing I suppose to misunderstand; they tried with the Arabic-language ‘five dignities’ scheme, but it wasn’t quite a faithful representation.
CB: Sure. In Tājika, they got the ‘terms’ or the ‘bounds’, and except for a couple of differences that are relatively minor, it is the Egyptian ‘terms’ or the Egyptian ‘bounds’ that were used as the main set in Hellenistic and medieval astrology.
MG: Yes, there are two sets of differences, as you say, in Gemini and Sagittarius, I think. The ‘terms’ of Saturn and Mars are reversed or something like that; I don’t recall it exactly, but it’s a fairly small discrepancy. And apart from that it’s the Egyptian ‘terms’, yes.
CB: So one last thing that makes this whole section really interesting and important when we’re talking about the aspects is in earlier Indian astrology, after the transmission of horoscopic astrology to India, one of the things that was different right away is they had the special aspects of the planets and the aspect doctrine was just completely different in Indian astrology from the 1st century onward compared to Western astrology. But here in the Tājika tradition, they did start using and received the standard Western aspect doctrine which is the conjunction, sextile, square, trine, and opposition with the same signs and the same degrees associated with those aspects.
MG: They did, yeah.
MG: How the standard Indian idea of aspects came about, I really have no idea.
CB: Okay, I was going to ask you if you knew. Nobody has an answer for that. I’ve been wanting to find out the answer for that for many years, but so far nobody has…
MG: I mean, there’s nothing on which to base an answer. I think it’s fairly clear that the whole concept of aspect is the same; the idea that planets in certain sign relationships to each other can see each other.
CB: Right. What’s the Sanskrit term? It’s drishti?
MG: Yeah, the Sanskrit term is drishti. Actually there are several words for ‘seeing’ that are used, but drishti is the most common one, and it just means ‘glance’ or ‘a look’.
MG: So the idea as such was taken over from Greek-language astrology, I don’t think there can be any doubt, but somehow something was understood–oh, sorry, was misunderstood, gravely misunderstood, but exactly how that came about we don’t know. If there was one original–as I suspect, obviously, I don’t know–but if there was one, original Greek-language text through which horoscope astrology was transmitted to India, we would need to have that text in order to see how the aspect doctrine was formulated and what might have been misunderstood. But as far as I know that text doesn’t exist; we don’t know what text it was or where it was written or by whom. We can just deduce that there must have been a Greek-language text.
CB: Do you not think that the Yavanajātaka was that text, or do you think that the Yavanajātaka was a later generation of that that was removed rather than being the original?
MG: The Yavanajātaka is a Sanskrit text, of course. This paper of mine, a very short paper of mine, that is just in the pipeline right now, will probably be out in a couple of weeks, in the History of Science and–sorry, History of Science in South Asia, which is an Open Access journal; so anyone can read it online once it’s published.
This paper of mine will deal especially with the doctrine of exaltations, but it discusses why I think there was a ‘bottleneck’ text in Greek. The Yavanajātaka, obviously is not in Greek, it’s in Sanskrit, so it’s not the bottleneck. And personally, I think the Vridha Yavanajātaka by Minaraja is probably older than the Yavanajātaka by Sphujidhvaja, which Pingree thought was the oldest one.
MG: Okay, that’s good enough. So let’s see, going back to aspects–yeah, that’s a whole can of worms, but it’s just interesting that the Western aspect doctrine shows up relatively faithfully here in Tājika and that’s one of the things then that sets it apart from mainstream Indian astrology, but then one of the things that makes it perhaps different or unique in some way.
Let’s see, elsewhere, in the third chapter, it goes into the ‘16 configurations’ and starts talking about the different orbs for planetary aspects and the periods in which the planets come into orb of being in an aspect with each other and move out of it; and then it goes into the ‘16 different configurations’. And these are the ones we were talking about earlier that are all basically translated from Sahl, and in most instances relatively faithfully; although in some instances there were some…
MG: There were a few that were misunderstood, especially what is known in Arabic as qabūl, that is, ‘reception’; kabbūla in Sanskrit. And it was probably along the lines that you were mentioning before, someone gives an example. Because Sahl, in explaining reception, he has these examples using the Moon, and he says, “as if the Moon were,” I don’t remember now, but “in Aries together with Mars, then Mars would receive the Moon,” so like that. And from this, the Tājika authors deduce that what they call the kambhula is a sort of three-planet configuration that involves two planets and the Moon. So the Moon is involved in all that; they really misunderstood the ‘reception’ doctrine.
CB: Yeah. Because one of my motivations and interests in looking into Tājika and my excitement in reading this translation of yours over the past couple of weeks has always been wanting to see if by studying the transmission of Arabic astrology into Sanskrit, if that could help us to clarify some major debates that sometimes happen over little points of doctrine in medieval astrology and sometimes Hellenistic astrology.
But one of those was actually in the area of reception, where sometimes there’s debates about reception and what is reception versus what is not in the Arabic tradition and textual debates that astrologers are having today as we recover some of those definitions. But I was a little disappointed that reception was one of the ones where it’s just way completely different from the medieval Arabic tradition, where there was some kind of misinterpretation that happened.
MG: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that they botched that one.
CB: What are the ones that are just exactly the same in terms of these ‘16 configurations’? I think one of the first ones was itthasāla, which is just an applying aspect, right?
MG: Yeah, ‘application’ and ‘separation’ I think they got pretty much right. And let me just see if I can bring up the list here. As you said, it’s a long text.
MG: What page are you looking at?
CB: Well, the table of contents.
MG: Oh, I thought you might be looking at the actual–let’s just look at the table of contents.
MG: Let’s make it easy. All right, so going from memory, the ‘application’ and ‘separation’, ‘translation of light’ they got right, or ‘transfer or light’.
CB: Which one is that in–the Sanskrit?
CB: Nakta, okay.
MG: Yeah, which is naql in Arabic. But they slightly misunderstood what they call the yamayā, that is, the ‘collection of light’; they didn’t understand about ‘collection of light’. Properly speaking, that is, in the Arabic-language texts, when two planets both apply to a third planet that is slower than both of them. But in the Tājika texts, it’s treated as similar to the ‘transfer of light’ in the sense that the slowest planet is supposed to be the middle one. So it’s like you have Venus at 8 degrees, Jupiter at 12 degrees, and Mars at 16 degrees, for instance, so they got that wrong.
CB: And with ‘transfer of light’, you said that was exactly the same in the Arabic and the Tājika tradition?
MG: Yes, that one they got right.
CB: A faster-moving planet like the Moon. You have two planets that are your primary significators, but they’re, let’s say, not aspecting each other–they’re in aversion–but then you have a third, faster-moving planet that separates from one and then applies to another, so it transfers or connects the light between the two.
CB: And that’s the same in Tājika?
MG: Yeah, it is.
MG: So just briefly, I think they got the ‘void-of-course’, that is, khallāsara, right, and I think also, more or less, the ‘return of light’.
CB: What is that? That’s actually an interesting one with the void-of-course. So how did they conceptualize that? Because that is actually a modern debate where there’s two different…
MG: Yeah, when I say they got it right, I mean what they say is found in at least some of the texts; the texts do define it slightly differently.
CB: Okay. I don’t want to get you in trouble, but how does Balabhadra, if you recall, define it?
MG: I don’t actually recall it verbatim, but I can look it up.
CB: Okay. Yeah, I’m looking really quickly. So what is the Sanskrit name for that again? Khallāsara?
MG: Khallāsara, yeah.
CB: So this would be a good example for how the text goes. Because he usually opens and he has an introduction, but then immediately he starts quoting earlier authors, earlier Tājika authors, in order to define the concept.
CB: So he says next to the column–or maybe you want to read it because you’re going to pronounce it better than I can.
MG: I can do that. It’s just as we were talking, I forgot which page I was looking for. So 3-3-1, right?
CB: Yeah, page 331.
MG: Let’s see. There it is, yeah. So next, the khallāsara, and Yādava states the definition of that configuration. He says: “If the moon, traversing a path of no aspect with either of the two [planets],”–that is, the two other significators–“makes neither a mutthaśila,”–that’s another Sanskritized Arabic word, muthasil; that is, ‘application’–“makes neither a mutthaśila nor a joining, then a khallāsara comes to be, destroying the matter sought.”
Now this is interesting because he makes a distinction here between the word for ‘application’, for which he uses this Arabic word, Sanskritized Arabic, and something which he calls ‘a joining’, saṃyuti, for which he uses a proper Sanskrit word. So he’s making some sort of distinction, but it doesn’t say exactly what that distinction consists of. And I have a footnote about that, I can only speculate, but it’s the Moon being on an empty path, as they say; having no aspect with either planet concerned, so that’s how he defines it.
MG: I think it’s fairly correct.
CB: Yeah. I mean, there’s a debate about people interpreting Lilly and whether the sign boundary matters or not and things like that. That’s still ongoing with some of the Western astrologers where one group says that a void-of-course Moon is, let’s say just for sake of argument, when the Moon completes its last aspect and doesn’t complete another applying aspect while it’s still in the same sign that it’s currently traversing, so it usually only happens towards the end of the signs. Whereas some modern interpretations of Lilly have said that the way that he’s actually defining void-of-course is that the Moon is not in the orb of an aspect anywhere in whatever the agreed orb of the Moon is, regardless of the sign boundary.
MG: Right. Well, we don’t get that sort of detail here, but it’s to do with the Moon not forming an aspect. So that’s the basic idea of course, however you define it exactly; at least they get the basic idea right, and it’s the same with the ‘return of light’. And the two last configurations are ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’, which are basically just lists, taken from Sahl, of factors that will make a planet ‘strong’ and factors that will make a planet ‘weak’. And those are more or less correctly given as well. Actually they reproduce some things correctly from Sahl, but Sahl himself was mistaken or confused.
CB: And sometimes those mistakes from Sahl still then find their way into the Tājika tradition?
CB: Okay, so here’s one, and this is what you were talking about. So he quotes an earlier author, and it says: “[If a planet is heliacally set, retrograde, conjunct or aspected by malefics, occupying the 8th, 12th, or 6th house, placed in the 7th [sign] from its domicile, forming an itthasāla with a fallen planet [or] in the mouth or tail of Rahu, [that configuration] is called duruḥpha.”
MG: Yeah, which is ḍuʿf in Arabic; so ‘weakness’.
CB: Weakness, okay. And I just did an episode with Ben Dykes about the origins of the concept of detriment, and here we can see Sahl’s definition starting to use the concept or integrate the concept of detriment gradually into the tradition, finding its way in as well when it says “placed in the 7th sign from its domicile” as being a problematic factor.
Because one of the things that’s often noted is that in the early Hellenistic tradition, they’ll say domicile, exaltation, fall, and then they don’t usually mention detriment. And it’s not until later, until you get to Rhetorius, that suddenly we see it elevated so that detriment is mentioned more frequently. And similarly, in the earlier Indian tradition, it seems like they don’t usually define detriment as well, right?
MG: It’s never mentioned as far as I know. It’s given here, but it’s not given in the early chapters defining the dignities and things like that.
MG: In the chapter on dignities, he gives the exaltations, and then he also gives the science of ‘fall’ as the corollary of that, but he doesn’t do the same for the domiciles. He doesn’t say these are the domiciles and then the signs opposite would be the detriment; he doesn’t mention that at all. What we know is ‘detriment’ only occurs here in this list.
I listened to part of that podcast, I haven’t heard the whole thing, but I remember Ben saying it was not symmetrical, and I would say it’s the same in Tājika texts. It’s there but it’s not symmetrical like ‘exaltation’ and ‘fall’.
CB: Right, so as part of that continuing lineage of Sahl’s text and its influences, not just in the Western tradition through later authors like Bonatti or Lilly, but now here in the Indian tradition, passing on some of the same doctrines.
Okay, so going back to the chapter–so that’s Chapter 3 on the ‘16 configurations’. Chapter 4 is on the sahamas, which are the ‘lots’, or the so-called ‘Arabic Parts’.
MG: Yes. So again it’s an Arabic word sahm, which just means ‘lot’.
CB: Okay. And you have a funny subtitle somewhere early in here that I laughed at. This is your subtitle, but it says, “Calculating the Sahama (the Lot) of Fortune: Conflicting Opinions,” which is one of the, in the Western tradition, long-standing disputes and arguments occasionally as well. But what was the conflicting opinion? It seems like there were some questions because it seemed like sect was one of the doctrines. There was a lack of clarity about that in the Tājika tradition and that may have affected some of the calculations for the lots as well–or was it a different issue?
MG: I mean, sect is obviously a large part of how lots are calculated because many of them are reversed at night. The standard definition that you give is the diurnal one and then you say the reverse at night, and that’s part of many of the lots given in Tājika texts as well. And sect also comes up implicitly in some other considerations, such as the discussion of the ‘joys of the planets’ and things like that, but it’s never explicitly defined.
They don’t have a word for it. They don’t say, “Oh, and there is the concept of sect,” that never comes up. And when discussing the planets, they never say this planet is diurnal, this planet is nocturnal. So it seems that they didn’t really understand that this was a sort of basic principle that runs through the whole of both Greek- and Arabic-language astrology, but it pops up now and then in various contexts.
But the main problem when it comes to calculating lots, it gets a bit technical, basically there are two ways given in what is probably one of the two oldest surviving Tājika texts in Sanskrit. Two different ways of calculating the lot, any lot, are described, and1 I think they’re just meant to be two variants giving the same result. But it would get too technical just describing it here; people can read about it.
CB: Are they using the same Lot of Fortune in the Tājika tradition in terms of the end result as an Arabic medieval astrologer would be using?
MG: Yes, yes.
MG: If you do it the way I think and some Tājika authors also explicitly think that the original Sanskrit sources should be understood, then you get exactly the same result as a medieval Western astrologer would. But owing to the fact of there being two different calculation models, some people, including Balabhadra, have concluded that there are two different ways of calculation that are meant to result in two different positions, and it’s to do with whether the Ascendant degree is in a sign that falls somewhere between the two planets concerned or not, taking the shortest distance between the two.
And so, basically, in some cases, not in all cases, but in some cases, calculating the lots the way Balabhadra wants to do it will give a point that is exactly one sign away from what a medieval Western astrologer would get.
CB: Okay, so with the calculation of the lots there were some debates, in receiving the tradition, about how exactly it was supposed to be done.
MG: Yes, there is. And the interesting thing is Balabhadra gets quite ‘shirty’ about people who don’t agree with him. He doesn’t name names, but he says that some people introduce ‘invented readings’ of this fundamental text. And ‘some people’ here probably means someone called Viśvanātha who was a generation or so earlier than Balabhadra.
And this Viśvanātha himself, interestingly, in the place where he discusses this, he says this idea about adding an extra sign in some cases; he says that “There’s no statement in support of this notion found anywhere, nor in the school of the Yavanas.” And the interesting question here is what does he mean by ‘in the school of the Yavanas’?
He doesn’t mean the Greeks because there are no Greek-language texts mentioning the lots that are known in India. And Yavanas by this time–Viśvanātha was writing in the early 17th century–it meant ‘Muslims’.
CB: Right. So Yavana, it just means ‘foreigner’, but it’s context-specific based on the time period. Is that accurate?
MG: Actually etymologically it means ‘Greek’. It means ‘Ionian’. It’s the same word as ‘Ionian’; Íōn-Íōnes.
CB: So in the Yavanatājika, when they’re using that term, it means ‘Greek’.
MG: Yes. At that time, in the early centuries of the common era, it would mean a Greek-speaking person. In later eras, it still meant someone coming from that region, up in the northwest, only by Balabhadra’s time, the people up in the northwest didn’t speak Greek anymore; they spoke Persian or Arabic. So Yavana in Indian texts, from this early modern period, typically means ‘Muslim’.
And the interesting thing is that this Viśvanātha whom Balabhadra criticizes–or I think that’s who he criticizes–he refers to this ‘school of the Yavanas’, which, I’m not sure, but it might mean that he actually was in contact with practicing Muslim astrologers. He knew what they were doing because he says it’s not anywhere in the Tājika texts, nor is it mentioned in the school of the Yavanas, so he makes a distinction there.
And there were of course practicing Muslim astrologers in India at the time. So if he could easily overcome his Brahmin scruples, he could easily associate with these people and discuss astrology with them, and I think that might have been what he was doing.
CB: Okay, so that’s a really interesting point then. So for Balabhadra sometimes these are textual issues. Because he’s going through 40 different sources, and he’s sometimes seeing disagreements, and he’s trying to reconcile different sources and stuff for things where there’s issues, like calculating the Lot of Fortune and conflicting calculations. But in some instances, it’s like I don’t know if he could have necessarily, but some astrologers, in terms of Tājika, could have ironed out some of these issues by interacting with Arabic-speaking astrologers during the same time period.
MG: Yes. It’s a bit speculative, but I think there’s a fair likelihood that some of them did, yes.
CB: Okay. So in terms of the lots though, besides the Lot of Fortune, that was interesting about the calculation. Because in the Western tradition, historically, there’s different arguments in the Greek tradition and some of the later traditions about how to calculate it, and Ptolemy says that you shouldn’t reverse it for day and night charts and Dorotheus reverses it for day and night charts and different debates like that. Eventually, Balabhadra presents 50 lots, or there were 50 core lots. Do you know what the source of those lots were?
MG: No. I did write an article on Samarasiṃha, this late 13th century author, and what he wrote on natal astrology; and he has a chapter on the lots, and he gives 32, I think. And I actually had the assistance of Levente László in tracing the origins of many of those, and it seems that at least some of them came from Abu Ma’shar, but they seem to have been culled from different sources.
Now there are an additional number of lots here. We get 50 and then he gives another 25 a little later in the same chapter. So they must have come from other Arabic-language sources, and I don’t know which ones.
CB: Okay. If the core Tājika text was written as late as the 13th century, then that’s already well after al-Biruni’s famous 11th century statement that the number of lots increased daily, so they could have literally come from anywhere at that point.
CB: Okay, so that’s one chapter, and then at that point we’re still getting through basic stuff, the lots. But then eventually in Chapter 5, it gets to timing techniques, and it starts talking about the concept of the ‘ruler of the year’, and it introduces the concept of annual profections basically, right?
MG: Yes, though it’s much more circumscribed in the Tājika context. They don’t use profections as a predictive technique except simply to identify the ‘ruler of the year’. Well, they use the ‘ruler of the ‘profected ‘Ascendant, whether they consider it the final ‘ruler of the year’ or not. They have a more complex system of defining the final ‘ruler of the year’, but it’s not as versatile a concept as it is in the Greek-language or Arabic-language tradition.
MG: I just want to ask you, it’s getting a bit dark here today; it’s very cloudy. What if I turn on a light? Would that be better or worse?
CB: Yeah, that’s fine.
MG: That’s fine? Okay.
CB: That looks good. Good idea. Yeah, sorry, we’re going a little long because there’s so much to discuss.
MG: It is a big book.
CB: It is a big book, a lot of concepts, and we’re summarizing an entire astrological tradition that lasted for almost a thousand years or at least 700 years now.
CB: So they do the profections. It’s not necessarily the domicile lord of the sign that it comes to, right? It seems like they have another system for determining, based on the profection, what planets you should pay attention to.
MG: Yeah, that’s something that I’ve been hoping. All the time I’ve been working with this, I’ve been hoping that I would eventually come across some explanation where they got this. Because the process they give, it’s actually somewhat similar to the process of determining the hyleg or determining the ‘ruler of the nativity’. You have these different candidates and you have to decide, based on different criteria, which is the strongest one.
CB: Right. It’s almost like the almuten or something like that?
MG: Yeah, something like that; that sort of process. And the criteria they use are very much a Perso-Arabic type criteria. So they use ‘triplicity rulers’ and the difference between day and night, that is, sect, and so on. So it’s not that they suddenly started introducing pre-Islamic Indian astrological ideas, but it seems that they got this from somewhere; probably some Persian or Arabic source. Whether they understood it correctly or not, there must be some sort of basis for this, but I haven’t found it in any of the Arabic-language authors we know.
Of course, I don’t read Arabic sources first hand; I can read Latin translations. And of course, nowadays, we have quite a few of them translated, thanks to Ben Dykes, into English, so they’re much more accessible than they used to be. It used to be quite a drag having to try to read it in Latin.
But I haven’t found anyone who gives a more complex system of finding the ‘ruler of the year’. They all just say, well, it’s the domicile ruler of the profected Ascendant, end of story–except for Valens of course.
CB: Yeah, he gets a little complicated with his profections method and spends like a book doing that. But at least the basic concept here of how you calculate initially the profected sign is relatively straightforward and the same and recognizable from Western astrology.
CB: So he quotes that 13th century source for it initially, and it just says: “Dividing the total years elapsed from the nativity by twelve, taking the remainder and counting from the ascendant, [the sign] where it finds rest will be the [munthā] munthahā, which is the profected sign basically.
MG: Yeah. That’s again an Arabic word muntahā, which is the ‘ending place’ or the ‘resting place’ or something like that; so the ‘place of completion’.
CB: The ‘point of termination’.
MG: ‘Point of termination’, exactly. Which I think is quite recognizably an Arabic rendering of the phrase that you find in the Tetrabiblos, when Ptolemy uses sunteleioumenou zoidiou; so the ‘sign being reached in completion’ or something like that.
CB: Okay, so what we end up with is the profected sign and then they end up focusing on that a lot. They also seem to focus a lot in this chapter on doing the solar return chart and looking at what the rising sign is in the solar return chart and sometimes what the ruler of that sign is and what it’s doing.
CB: So they’re turning to Valens’ profections and solar return charts as two of their main annual techniques basically.
MG: Yes. And it seems that Abu Ma’shar is perhaps the major source for how to read the solar return chart, the annual revolution chart.
CB: Okay, so it’s very similar then? We’re seeing a lot of relatively close similarities between…
MG: Yes, yes, quite a few. I haven’t written as much about that as I might have if Ben Dykes’ translation of Abu Ma’shar’s huge work on this had been published a couple of years earlier, but it only came out after I submitted the drafts to the publisher or something like that.
CB: Yeah, it was just a year ago I interviewed him about that. Yeah, so it takes a while to sometimes publish some of these academic publications; it’s like a long process.
MG: It is. First of all, there’s what a friend told me about the ‘90/90’ rule which is applied to programming; it also applies I can tell you to philology. That is, the first 90% of the work takes 90% of the time, and the last 10% of the work also takes 90% of the time.
CB: Okay, I like that.
MG: So first of all, you’re way after the deadline, and then once you submit it, it has to go out to a reviewer, some external reviewer who will read it through and give it his or her stamp of approval, say, yes, this is a sound, scholarly translation edition.
And of course in my case, the problem was it took them a number of months. I still don’t know, at least I don’t know officially, I have a pretty good guess. But I don’t know officially who the reviewer was, but I know that it took them I think four or five months to find someone who had the requisite knowledge of both Sanskrit and astrological tradition actually to review this sort of manuscript, so that’s part of the problem. Pingree’s dead, and there aren’t that many people around who can do this.
CB: To check your work and to give them the okay that it’s okay to publish, or to give you feedback on things that you need to fix or correct.
MG: Exactly. And then by the time you get it back, because your life doesn’t just press ‘pause’, things continue to happen and you have other commitments. And every time you open the damn thing, you find new errors; not necessarily things that the reviewer found, but just things that jump out at you. You’ve been reading this 20-30 times before submitting it, and you never saw it. But now, after submitting it, suddenly it jumps out at you and you have to correct it. And I’m not doing that anymore. Now it’s published, I’m not going to read it.
MG: I don’t want to sit here swearing.
CB: Let me just briefly then force you to read just a couple of excerpts as we finish up the table of contents. So after the ‘ruler of the year’ and the solar return chart, there’s a whole chapter on judging the 12 houses. And this was really interesting to me because it goes through the significations of the houses which are in the earlier Vedic tradition.
After the transmission of Hellenistic astrology, there’s a lot of similarities with the significations of the houses from Greek astrology, but also there’s a number of changes already in the Indian tradition. But here, for the most part, we see significations in the houses that are much more familiar from medieval Arabic astrology, with some changes. I mean, do you agree with that, or is that accurate?
MG: I’d be interested to hear which, because, to me, most of them seem quite similar to classical Indian astrology. But which significations were you thinking of, especially that are different in mainstream Indian astrology?
CB: Are you talking about the Yavanajātaka significations? Which ones are different?
MG: Okay. Well, Yavanajātaka, I didn’t actually make an in-depth study of, so I haven’t memorized that. But yeah, I’m thinking of Bṛhajjātaka or that sort of standard Indian work.
CB: Well, one of the things that was just different, one of the conceptual structures they have that I know isn’t in Hellenistic is the idea of the upachaya houses.
MG: Oh, yeah, that’s right, the upachaya/apachaya houses, that definitely is unique to Indian astrology as far as I know.
CB: Right, so that introduces some changes. And the other thing that’s a little different is in the earlier tradition out of the Yavanajātaka and subsequent authors, it seems like they have half of the ‘planetary joys’, where they associate some houses with the same planets–I want to say Jupiter with the 11th or Saturn with the 12th–but then there’s other houses where there’s different assignments that are not the same as in Hellenistic astrology.
MG: Okay. I don’t recall that offhand, but maybe it’s something that is peculiar to the Yavanajātaka. But anyway, the main signification, such as body for the 1st house, and wealth for the 2nd house, and siblings for the 3rd house, I think that’s pretty consistent across Greek-language and Sanskrit-language and Arabic-language astrology as far as I recall, with just a few differences, some of which I’ve noted. Friends, for instance, falling in the 4th house in Indian astrology, I think that’s a translation issue actually.
CB: Right. So Balabhadra quotes Samarasiṃha for significations of the houses, and it says: “ Body,” and then it just goes through the 12 houses. So “ wealth,  siblings,  friends,  children,  enemies,  wife,  death,  piety,  action,  gain, and  loss.” So those are very similar from the medieval Western tradition, especially in the Hellenistic tradition to some extent, except for the 4th house friends. You have a really interesting footnote where you point out how this could be a translation issue.
MG: Exactly. Yeah, the word here, the operative word is bandhu. Now bandhu is etymologically-related to English words like ‘to bind’ and ‘bond’; so it’s someone you have a bond with. Now the usual meaning of that is ‘a kinsman’, ‘a relative’; someone you’re related to by blood or by marriage or whatever, but in a secondary sense, it can mean ‘friend’.
So I think that the 4th had been originally associated with parents and ancestors and was somehow widened. I don’t know whether that was done deliberately or as a sort of misunderstanding just to include any kind of relative.
CB: Yeah, I could see how kinsmen could become friends either deliberately or not deliberately, as an accident.
MG: So I think it went parents and ancestors, kinsmen, friends.
CB: That makes sense. So the rest of this just has a lot of delineations, especially this chapter is a lot of delineations for when the houses are activated in different contexts in the course of some of these techniques, either through the solar return chart or through the profections, it seems like to some extent. Is that right?
MG: Yeah, the results of the houses relative to the profected Ascendant, that is, when the profected Ascendant falls in different houses, I don’t recall if that’s in the sixth chapter, which, generally speaking, has results, or if it’s in the fifth chapter, which is, generally speaking, on the profected Ascendant, but it’s there somewhere.
MG: Yeah, it gets quite repetitive, all these house delineations.
CB: Yeah, but some of it’s pretty straightforward from Western astrology as well. So he’s quoting an earlier author, saying: “Whatever house a planet rules in the nativity, if it has authority in this year and is strong, it makes [the native] attain [the significations of] that house; or if, in the year, it aspects the house that it rules in the nativity,” so that’s pretty good.
He quotes another author saying: “If the ruler of the Ascendant is joined to the ruler of any house in that house, it always causes that house to prosper; [but] joined to the ruler of the eighth house in any house, it always [causes] the destruction of that [house].” So various rules like that and various delineations for the different houses are given in this chapter.
Eventually, in Chapter 7, it goes into planetary periods. And I was curious–do these planetary periods have any parallel with the ones that Western astrologers are familiar with?
MG: Well, I’d say they generally fall into two main categories. Some of them are garbled versions of procedures that are taken from Arabic-language authors, including Umar al-Tabari and also Abu Ma’shar. So these are things like what I think Umar calls the ‘greater and lesser conditions’–or that’s how you can translate it anyway–which are different kinds of profection, continuous profections. The ‘greater condition’ is a sort of ‘continuous profection’ based on the natal chart, and the ‘lesser condition’ is a sort of profection based on the revolution chart, and there are various techniques like that.
If you know these techniques to begin with, then you can guess that that’s where they’re coming from, but they have been sort of scrambled in transmission. And I think one major reason for that is–actually I’ve been meaning for some time to write a paper specifically on these various time-lord periods, as you might call them in Tājika and tracing their antecedents.
I think one major point here is, as we were speaking about distorting lenses and the trouble of unlearning things, Indian astrology has these blocks of time, these dashas, but what it doesn’t have is the sort of prognostic technique that you find all the time in Greek-language astrology and Arabic-language astrology, which is based on a sort of motion, either a natural motion or a completely symbolic motion. But still, you have the idea that you take a point and you sort of let it loose to roam around the chart, and it will hit other points and form aspects and whatever.
CB: So different directing or progression techniques.
MG: Yes, directions, profections, and so on. And that idea of motion just isn’t that. I mean, Indian astrology does have transits, but apart from that, these more or less symbolic motions don’t seem to be there; and therefore, they seem to have misunderstood some of these annual predictive techniques that are in the Arabic-language sources.
So that’s one category of Tājika, dashas, or Tājika timing systems. And the other category is systems that are just taken from classical Indian astrology and simply adapted for annual use. So the one that any student of Indian astrology today will know is the Vimshottari dasha, which is used to predict life events in Indian astrology, and is a 120-year cycle, so they adapt that. So instead of 120 years, it completes in 360 days.
CB: Okay. So they adapt it to an annual framework.
MG: Yes. Basically, you just multiply the length of any dasha by 3; so you get 360 instead of 120, and they are days instead of years.
CB: Got it.
MG: So there are a couple of systems like that which you might call ‘miniature’ Indian dashas, which I think they started introducing because they couldn’t really make sense of the Arabic-language systems.
CB: So in that way, Tājika is much more of a mixing together of a more indigenous Indian astrology up to that point and medieval Arabic astrology.
MG: Well, specifically in the area of planetary periods within a year. That’s where they really start1 introducing indigenous or pre-Islamic ideas; that’s the main area I’d say.
CB: And the Vimshottari dasha, in Chapter 7, it goes through and gives lots of delineations. I think most of this text actually ends up being delineations of different placements, different planetary placements. But when it gives sub-periods for different planets, like Mercury and Jupiter, is it giving them within the context of that ‘miniaturized’ version of the Vimshottari dasha system?
MG: Yes, some of them relate to that. Funnily, they call it by an Arabic term; they call it mudda, mudda dasha. Mudda just means ‘period’ in Arabic; so mudda dasha means ‘period-period’. You’ve got one Arabic word for ‘period’ and one Sanskrit word for ‘period’. Yeah, so there are some delineations relating to that.
CB: Okay. And then finally the last chapter is on monthly and daily revolutions. And this is an approach to casting a monthly solar return and a daily solar return chart, essentially?
MG: Yes, exactly. And again, to a large extent, based on Abu Mashar’s techniques and ideas. Abu Ma’shar has this chapter where he discusses monthly revolutions and different models of that, and he rejects some models and he comes down in favor of a purely solar month, where the monthly revolution is cast for the exact moment when the Sun enters the degree, minute, and second that it had at the nativity, but in each of the 12 signs; so you get 12 solar months like that. And that is also the kind of solar revolution that you find in Balabhadra’s work and in other Tājika texts. So I think that it’s fairly clear they got that from Abu Ma’shar.
And they have the daily revolutions, which I don’t recall if Abu Ma’shar has, but it might be that he does; which again is the Sun entering the same minute and second of arc that it had at birth, but in each of the 360 degrees of the zodiac. So it’s not really daily; There are 360 of them in a 365-day year, but it’s almost a daily one.
CB: Okay, interesting, so that becomes the final chapter. So Tājika becomes really specialized, especially for making annual or yearly predictions. But then it can also get applied to horary astrology, as well as electional astrology, right?
MG: Electional, I’m not sure. Horary and annual predictions are the two main areas where it’s used and has been used as far as I know for many centuries.
CB: And solar return charts, is the common word that’s used for that varṣaphala or something like that?
MG: Yes. With the classical Sanskrit pronunciation varṣaphala; varṣa meaning ‘a year’ and phala meaning ‘fruit’. In modern, North Indian pronunciation, it would be varṣaphal. But it’s ‘year-fruit’, the ‘fruit of the year’; that is, the ‘result of the year’.
CB: Okay. And so, that pretty much then summarizes, at least in those chapters, this large, 17th century work on Tājika astrology and this approach to astrology. So it really started probably around the 13th century and flourished for the next few centuries in India.
And during that time, from what I understand, sometimes you would have two astrologers in the court, where there’s like one astrologer that’s doing Tājika and one that’s doing more mainstream, standardized Indian astrology. Is that true, or have you heard of situations like that?
MG: I’ve read of that. I’m not sure if it would be two Indian, that is, Brahmin astrologers, or if it would be one Indian Brahmin astrology doing Indian astrology and then one Muslim astrologer doing Arabic-language astrology, I couldn’t say.
MG: Balabhadra obviously mastered both kinds of astrology because he wrote one huge work on each.
CB: Right. So he wrote one on Tājika, but then like a decade later, he wrote one on mainstream, natal Indian astrology.
MG: Five years later, yeah.
CB: Five years, okay. And we were talking about before whether there is a partial translation of that. But it’s not a full translation?
MG: No, that’s right.
CB: Okay, great. So then you said in the 17th century afterwards, maybe there was some pushback against Tājika due to nationalism or something like that, so that maybe it was less permissible. What’s the status of Tājika today?
MG: Well, today it’s fairly integrated. Sorry, I’ll have to give a slightly long answer to that, but I’ll try to compress it. But the early Tājika authors seem not to have felt the need of defending writing on Tājika. They just said, “Here’s an interesting thing. It’s called Tājika.” But then we can see that as the centuries progress, the Tājika authors seem to feel the need to actually defend themselves, and Balabhadra does the same: Is it permissible for a Brahmin to study this? I mean, it’s Muslim science. Is it okay? If it is okay, why is it okay?
And so, he has a section on apologetics and that is probably because the Muslim rule was expanding. The Mughal Empire was expanding and people were feeling that this is sort of an alien power to some extent, and they needed to, as you say, push back and sort of defend their own sciences and their own intellectual culture, so that was the case when Balabhadra was writing.
But today, since the turn of the last century–that is, late 19th/early 20th century–astrology in India has gone through quite radical changes. It was very much a tradition on the decline under the British Raj, before the Theosophical Society set up their headquarters in South India, in Chennai, Madras, as you recall. And they were very interested in astrology, and they were interested in learning about Indian astrology and sort of picking out the good bits and implementing those, as they did with Indian religion and philosophy generally, so they got some pandits to translate some of the texts.
Before that, astrology in India tended to be practiced by specialized families. An astrologer was the son–because there were all those men–of another astrologer. So it ran in families, and these families preserved the knowledge and they preserved the texts. It was their intellectual property and it was only accessible to people who either belong to these families or were students of members of that family and who also knew Sanskrit.
But as a result of these texts being translated into English, they were translated and they were published, and they were suddenly accessible not just to westerners, Europeans and Americans, but also to educated, middle class Indians who could read English, but who maybe didn’t know Sanskrit.
So these three things, the interest of the Theosophical Society in having these texts translated, and the printing press being introduced in the 19th century, and then the expansion of the railway in India–which meant that railroads were being built which meant that books and magazines could be transported across the country–these three things together created a sort of revolution similar to the Internet revolution really. It was new technological advances that led to a new intellectual climate. So suddenly anyone could be an astrologer–just buy the books.
CB: So there was an explosion in not just the popularity of astrology, but in terms of the accessibility of it. I don’t know where the caste system plays into this, but in the earlier traditions, it’s only being practiced and preserved by the higher castes.
MG: Yes, by Brahmins.
CB: But then all of a sudden with the publication of some of these books, it’s accessible to anybody.
MG: Yes–well, anybody who knows English. So of course those would still often be upper-caste people who had an English education. But eventually it grew and people of different castes, and not just the men but women as well could read these books and magazines and learn about astrology. So it was a sort of democratization process, and all democratization processes have flip-sides.
So what happened was that just as with Internet publication, we spoke just now about the process of getting an academic work into print and someone having to give his or her stamp of approval; on the Internet, you can just publish anything. Anyone can publish anything, on any subject, and it could be right or it could be wrong, and you just have to try to sift it for yourself.
And similarly, of course with books on astrology, anyone can write a book on astrology who’s going to stand–what is the phrase in English?
MG: Yes. Anyway, I dropped the particular expression I wanted, but who’s going to ensure the quality of what you’re writing?
MG: So it’s a sort of caveat emptor, buyer beware.
CB: Sure. And still an emphasis on student-teacher relationships and lineages and things like that.
MG: That’s still a selling point. If someone says, “Look, I have this family connection, my ancestors were astrologists,” yeah, that gives them a few credibility points, certainly.
CB: Sure. And then even in terms of accessibility, you wrote–at one point in the introduction, in terms of the number of manuscripts that you had access to, to compile the critical edition for this text–that access to certain manuscripts in Indian libraries is sometimes restricted, especially for foreigners or people that are trying to just read it from outside of India.
MG: Yes, that’s not just astrological manuscripts, that’s any kind of manuscript; that can be a problem. I mean, it varies hugely. It can be a problem especially in some states of India where the government-run libraries. On the other hand, one of the most incredible experiences I had in India with regard to manuscripts was visiting a small place, almost out in the jungle, out in the countryside, anyway; I don’t remember, perhaps an hour or so outside of Ahmedabad.
Ahmedabad is the capital of Gujarat; this western state of India that we’ve talked about. It used to be very much an industrial city. But not so far outside, but in the countryside, as I said, is a small place called Koba. And Koba is primarily known for having this institute that was set up by a Jain monk who wanted to collect as many manuscripts as possible of traditional Indian learning: collect them and preserve them and digitize them.
So out in the jungle, we visited this library, which seems to be the largest collection of manuscripts anywhere in the world. I think it’s three or four times the collection of manuscripts in the Vatican Library.
MG: It’s huge. I mean, it’s out there in the country. And I went through that catalog, they did have a digital catalog, and I found some manuscripts that I needed. And I said I’d very much like this and this and that, and they made a note of it. And I think two or three days later, the PDFs just appeared in my mailbox, along with a very, very modest bill for the scanning charges, and I think I paid them three or four times what they asked; it was still a very modest demand.
So they were incredibly helpful, incredibly nice and friendly and really efficient, and very high quality scans, so you get places like that. And then, on the other hand, you get people who are extremely obstructive and librarians who seem to feel that it’s their main duty in life to keep anyone from actually seeing the texts.
MG: That and drinking tea. So there’s a whole continuum of experiences between those two poles. Yeah, so there can be a problem of accessing texts, that’s right.
CB: Okay, so just some final things. I know we’re going way over time here. But one of the things we’ve touched on a lot is the reception of Persian/Arabic medieval astrology in India, in Sanskrit, and some of the ways in which the techniques successfully made it through and are virtually the same—like with the concept of the aspects or the idea of ‘transfer of light’ or other concepts like that–but we we’ve focused a lot on areas where there may have been misinterpretations or they misunderstood a concept and it appears differently in the Indian tradition.
And one of the reasons that this is interesting for me–and I hope I didn’t put too much of a negative slant on it–is because it’s instructive to me as an astrologer and as an almost historian of astrology to some extent to see how other astrologers have received astrological traditions in the past and some of the ways that they did a good job or some of the areas where there were pitfalls; because I guarantee that astrologers in our time that are trying to recover older or ancient forms of astrology are making similar mistakes and similar misinterpretations as they genuinely try to struggle with reading some of these ancient texts and try to understand and receive the doctrines that are contained in them.
And I think studying Tājika is useful for that reason partially as a Western astrologer because it might give you a heads up about things that you might want to be careful about when you take for granted your own astrological tradition and when you try to learn another tradition and how you can sometimes maybe misunderstand things just by taking certain things for granted.
MG: Absolutely, yeah. And those kinds of misunderstandings typically show up after a generation or two and are not always immediately identifiable even to your colleagues because you tend to share the same preconceived notions; so that’s always the trouble, just as you say. If you know that you have certain ideas about things, then you can try to balance that. It’s the things that you’re not aware of consciously, the things that are so completely obvious to you that you don’t consider that they might be wrong or might be context-specific, those are the things that will trip you up.
CB: Right, the thing that you’re just completely taking for granted.
CB: Yeah, those are the hardest blind spots. Because there are certainly areas where I know there’s different passages that modern astrologers, contemporary astrologers like myself are coming to different conclusions on, especially like the definition of ‘maltreatment’ or ‘affliction’ in Antiochus and Porphyry. And Schmidt and I had a different interpretation of the text that just says when a planet is in an adherence with the malefic, it is ‘maltreated’. And then there was a question of, well, does that mean the planet has to apply to the malefic, or the malefic applies to the planet, and he came to one conclusion and I came to another conclusion, or Demetra.
The last clause of the ‘maltreatment’ definition says if a planet is ruled by a poorly-placed malefic that’s in one of the bad houses–the 6th or the 12th–then it is ‘maltreated’. And there was a question about whether that clause of being in the 6th or 12th applied to the entire preceding paragraph or whether it was just part of the last clause. And Demetra came to one interpretation of that in her book; and if you read my book, there was a different interpretation of it. So already in our time, we’re having different traditions that are splitting off based on different interpretations of texts, and we can see a very similar process here in the Tājika tradition with the reception of Arabic astrology.
So yeah, well, thank you for doing that work and making this text available. I’m still shocked that this is freely available and that you can go online onto the Brill website and just pull it up. I’ll put a link to it in the description below this episode, and you can download the PDF or order the hardback version, which I think should be sent out soon; I ordered mine and I’m waiting for it. But this seems like a great contribution both to understanding the history of ‘Western’ astrology as well as the history of Indian astrology.
You seem like you’re only the second, major, Western scholar that’s done major work on the Tājika tradition following in the footsteps of David Pingree, but also correcting some of the things that he maybe mistook.
MG: Yeah, Pingree didn’t write very much at all on Tājika. I mean, he did a lot of the hard groundwork of going through hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts in all sorts of libraries, both in India and in the West, and making catalogs and so on, but he only actually published I think a total of 15 pages on Tājika. And before him, there was Albrecht Weber in 1853 or so who published a fairly long paper on the Hāyanaratna actually and that was it. There was one paper in 1853 and then 15 pages by Pingree and then nothing until I started writing on it, so not a lot of work has been done.
CB: Already pretty quickly, you were able to correct some things where Pingree assumed that the ‘16 configurations’ were derived from Abu Ma’shar; but then you were able to show that it was directly from the text of Sahl and other works like that.
CB: All right, so if somebody wanted to follow in similar footsteps in terms of the academic study of the history of astrology in the way that you have, what would you tell them? What would you recommend?
MG: Don’t do it!
CB: Don’t do it? There’s the more, let’s say, optimistic recommendation versus the more realistic.
MG: Of course if you want to do it, do it. I mean, it’s a huge field. It’s got far too few people in it. There’s a lot of virgin territory here; you can pick and choose. There’s so much work to be done, so many texts in so many languages.
CB: Sanskrit especially is the biggest area where there’s a need for translations and critical editions, whereas Greek is being done pretty well both in critical editions as well as in translations, Latin. Ben Dykes did a huge chunk of that and now he’s working on the Arabic; but Sanskrit, there’s not as many people it seems doing the work.
MG: Sanskrit is the one with almost no one doing any work. But still, if you wanted to do Greek texts or Latin texts or Arabic texts–especially I think Arabic texts, even Ben Dykes only has 24 hours in a day–there’s plenty to go around, so any of those languages would be fine.
CB: You did it through the history of religion, as religious studies. That was your angle for it, right?
MG: Yes, it was, and it is, but really the historical study of astrology really covers so many things. It’s part history of religion, part history of science, and actually many people who are in it come from the point of view of aerial studies or classical studies or Arabic studies. Some are Arabists, some are classicists, some are historians of science or philosophy, and some are historians of religion.
In Indology, if you want to work with Sanskrit materials, especially on astrology, then as we said, there’s a huge number of texts waiting for you, but not many people around who have done that sort of work. So don’t expect to have hordes of experts to guide you; it’s pretty much learning by doing.
CB: Yeah, you’re basically the academic version of ‘Indiana Jones’ at this point or something like that, but it can be perhaps justified in context. And one of the interesting things about your introduction was you justified what you’re doing within the context of not just history of science, which is usually the standpoint that most scholars approach the study of history of astrology from, but from the history of religion standpoint because of the overlap between religion and science that astrology uniquely represents.
MG: Yeah. Not sure about uniquely, but certainly what astrology represents. And I’d say in a sense it’s wrong even to call it an overlap. Really the distinction that we have in our society–in our Western culture especially, but we might say world culture as well. Because of the cultural imperialism of the Western world, we make this distinction, a very hard distinction between religion and science. There’s not just a line dividing them; there’s a chasm dividing them, and there’s a chasm in most people’s minds as well.
If you’re a religious person at least you have a sort of religious part of your mind, and you have a science part of your mind, and you don’t want to let the two parts interact too much because there will be a huge internal conflict of worldviews. But this is actually a modern phenomenon; it’s a post-Enlightenment era phenomenon. So what we’re doing here is we’re taking a very culturally-specific distinction and projecting it backwards in history onto eras where there was no such distinction, and I mentioned this briefly in the introduction to the book.
I think this is part of what makes people so uncomfortable, especially in academia about astrology, that you can’t put it neatly in one box. It’s not science, it’s not religion, so it’s pseudoscience and we don’t want to touch it. That’s the state of things generally.
CB: Yeah. And if you’ll allow me–you wrote it just really beautifully in the introduction–I just want to read this really quick excerpt because I love the way you articulated it. You say: “It is my contention that astrology belongs in our modern category of ‘religion’–the boundaries of which are more easily intuited than defined–first and foremost because of its preoccupation with themes long since abandoned by science, and to some extent even by philosophy: life as a meaningful narrative, fate and free will, man’s place in the cosmos. Astrology may have been a science–máthēma [in Greek], scientia [in Latin], śāstra [in Sanskrit],ʿilm [in Arabic]–as that concept was understood in the cultures where it took root, but it was a ‘religious’ science. Its history is thus an integral part of the history of religion; and if our preconceived notions of religion are challenged by a religious practice that centers more around calculation than supplication, then I believe we should welcome that challenge, allowing it to inform and refine our understanding of the breadth of human religious activity and experience.”
Sorry that was a long paragraph, but I just thought that was really brilliant.
MG: Thank you.
CB: I love the way that you articulated that and sort of defended what you were doing here. And I think that gives other people who may have similar interests or inclinations for study a good path to follow in terms of maybe seeking out and following a similar path as you have; if not in the exact same way in sort of a similar area in the future. So yeah, thanks for articulating that.
All right, so what’s next for you, now that you’ve just finished translating a thousand-page book? Do you have any other, maybe shorter books that you’re working on?
MG: Exactly, something shorter for a lot more money I think it’s the standard answer to that one. I do have an idea, but I’m looking for funding for it. So I’m trying to find a good funding body to put up the money for me to do that for three years or so.
I want to do something that is not just on India, but that actually touches on precisely this overlap between the history of science and the history of religion. I want to do something about the prognostication of ‘length-of-life’, which as you know of course–and I’m sure many of your viewers and listeners know–but for those who might not know used to be, prior to the 19th century or so, a very central part of astrology, of natal astrology, and it still is.
For instance, in India, if you go to an Indian astrologer, and you don’t want him to tell you when you’re going to die, you really, really have to tell him right at the beginning, “Please don’t tell me when I’m going to die. I don’t want to know.” Generally speaking, that is, in India, still one of the first things they will do. They will calculate the length of your life correctly or incorrectly, but they will do it because it’s part of the standard practice.
And of course Ptolemy says, quoting Petosiris, that it is the first thing you should do because if you don’t know how long a person is going to live, you can’t make any predictions.
CB: Right. There’s no sense in predicting great things for a person in their 60th year who isn’t going to live to see 60.
MG: Exactly. And this is echoed again and again and again throughout astrological tradition in all of the different areas–Indian authors and Arabic authors and so on–and of course that overlaps to a large extent with things like medicine. And we still have prediction models for the ‘length-of-life’ today. I mean, insurance companies have them, but they’re not astrological, they’re based on statistics.
But still, it is an interesting question to me, this idea or rather complex of ideas of, is it the case that a human being’s length of life is predetermined or can be predicted in some way? And if so, how can we predict it, and why in that particular way or in those particular ways?
So I’d like to look at that based partly on the oldest existing Greek-language sources, and then I’d like to look at the two easternmost and westernmost areas of transmission–that is, India on the one hand, and the Latin West on the other hand, with of course the Arabic tradition being in between all of those–to see how ideas around this have changed and developed and to what extent they have remained the same; because I think there are elements there that have remained the same.
So that would be a comparative study. It wouldn’t be of a single text, but it would be of many texts, but some of them pretty short ones, or shorter chapters or sections of texts in Greek, in Sanskrit, and in Latin. So that’s what I’d like to do.
CB: Yeah, that would be really brilliant. I’ve held off doing an episode which I’ve been meaning to do with you on ‘primary directions’ for many years, partially because of wanting to put off and not fully wanting to get into the main application of that technique, which was the ‘length-of-life’ treatment, which has been something I want to do at some point, but I wanted to do it very carefully and very deliberately.
But maybe at some point we could get together and talk about that if you do launch that formal study because I would like to discuss how that was used in the history of astrology and what role that played at some point. So maybe I can have you back again once you’re working on that to talk about that topic.
MG: Yeah, let’s hope that it comes off.
CB: Yeah, well, let’s see how it goes, but keep me posted. In the meantime, people can find out more information about your work on your website which is MartinGansten.com, right?
MG: Yes, due for a reincarnation very soon. It’s been more or less the same for about a decade, and sadly neglected for the past five years or so because I’ve been too busy doing, well, this book among other things. But I’m now working on a revamped version. The plan is to have two sections, one academic and one astrological, so people can choose whether they want to read about one or the other or both.
CB: Brilliant. Well, I think spending most of the past decade working on translating a 400-year-old Sanskrit text is a reasonable excuse for not having kept your website up to date with all the latest and greatest things, like mobile accessibility and everything else. Yeah, so people should check that out. They should check out your book on ‘primary directions’ as well, which we’ll talk about again at some point. And they should definitely check out this book, The Jewel of Annual Astrology: A Parallel Sanskrit-English Critical Edition of Balabhadra’s ‘Hāyanaratna’. Thanks a lot. Oh, go ahead.
MG: Well, I was just thinking now that you’re planning things, I do have a second book that is actually coming out more or less well very soon, which is not an academic work, but is for students of astrology; it is sort of a spin-off of this work, which is called Annual Predictive Techniques of the Greek, Arabic, and Indian Astrologers. So it will be out sometime this year and is published by Wessex Astrologer.
CB: Yeah, that’s an extremely good thing to know. You have a practical astrological textbook from Wessex–which is one of the foremost publishers on astrological texts based in the UK right now–and it’s going to be on annual techniques in the Western and ‘Eastern’ tradition?
MG: Yeah. I can’t give you a date, but it’s sometime this year, definitely.
CB: Okay, awesome. Well, yeah, that’s exciting. I’ll put a link to that whenever it comes out in the description for this episode as well, and maybe have you back to talk about that and get into more practical details about annual astrology.
CB: Great. All right, well, thanks for joining me today. Thanks everybody for listening to this episode of The Astrology Podcast, and thanks to all the patrons that support our work here, and we’ll see you again next time.
MG: Thank you.
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