Martin Gansten - Traditional astrologer

‘Western’ versus ‘Vedic’

Interest in traditional (roughly, pre-1700) western astrology became noticeable in the western world in the 1980s, around the same time as interest in Indian astrology (often mislabelled ‘Vedic’). The reasons in both cases were much the same: the older traditions offered more concrete, systematic, and coherent alternatives to the simplified neo-astrology – steeped in the metaphysical mélange of theosophy and popular psychology – prevalent in the twentieth-century west. Both brought astrology back from the wholly subjective realm (‘this feels like a Neptune energy to me’) into everyday reality with its tangible distinctions and contrasts, where it is possible to say that a chart has been rightly or wrongly read.

As a result of these parallel developments, a number of people are now studying Indian and traditional western astrology side by side. However, purists have also emerged within both camps, warning students against ‘mixing systems’. The objection is understandable. But are there really two pure and separate systems of astrology?

Persian Illuminated Horoscope
Persian illuminated horoscope

Although some forms of astral divination were present in India in pre-Hellenistic times and are mentioned in the Veda, the horoscopic astrology practised in India today is not indigenous, and certainly not Vedic. (The phrase ‘Vedic astrology’ was not used prior to the 1980s, when it was invented in North America.) Rather, astrology entered the subcontinent from the Greek-speaking world in late classical times – carrying with it a vocabulary of technical terms for most of which no Sanskrit equivalents were ever coined, and which are used by Indian astrologers to the present day: kendra (kentron, angle), paṇaphara (epanaphora, succedent), āpoklima (apoklima, cadent), trikoṇa (trigōnon, trine), meṣūraṇa (mesouranēma, midheaven), etc. Despite this living evidence of its ancestry, the new knowledge was so well adapted to the Indian cultural framework that its foreign origins were soon forgotten and replaced with a mythologized history.

Greek astrological manuscript

But if ‘Vedic astrology’ is a misnomer, ‘western astrology’ is scarcely less so. Horoscopic astrology – that is, astrology involving the use of the ascendant or hōroskopos – was conceived in Hellenistic Egypt, although most of its elements derived from Mesopotamia in the east. This Hellenized form of the art was then carried eastward again, to Persia and India, where it developed in somewhat different directions over the following millennium. Some of its branches, such as horary questions (praśna in Sanskrit) and military astrology, may have originated in India and spread west. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the city of Baghdad – founded at an astrologically elected time – housed a number of Indian astrologers; and some time after the 9th century, a style of Sanskritized Perso-Arabic astrology, known as Tājika and centred around the use of annual revolutions, emerged in India.

Hayanarata manuscript page
Manuscript page of the Hāyanaratna
by Balabhadra (17th century), a Tājika text in Sanskrit

The westward spread of Greek astrology into Europe, on the other hand, had been effectively checked by the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the 5th century; and when astrology eventually re-entered the Latin west in the late Middle Ages, it was a discipline wholly dependent on Persian, Arabic, and even Indian authors. Historically speaking, therefore, horoscopic astrology at least up to the time of the Renaissance is very much an Asian tradition; and the varying philosophical and religious world-views with which it has combined in different cultures – polytheism or monotheism, Aristotelian causality or karma theory – has made remarkably little difference in practice.