An Asian Perspective: Religion and Astrology

Cave carving of Buddha, Elora, India

Before I forget, I would like to take a look at the night sky from places in Asia, for it is with the Indian subcontinent, then China and Japan, that we derive so much of our wisdom about the heavens, and about astrology.

The philosophy and religious principles we espouse when we claim that the astrological chart represents one’s karma, for example, stems from Hinduism, which informed Buddhism, its contentious off-shoot.

Now, I can guarantee you that you are a better human being because of the Indians, the Chinese, and even the Japanese. Yes; it’s true. Except for the 10th century warrior monks of Japan and assorted others who became hysterical once they found religion, most Hindi, Buddhists, followers of Tao, and Confucianism, have been peaceful souls seeking serenity, quiet, and ‘virtue,’ defined differently depending on who’s doing the defining.

Although we have inherited an extremely garbled idea of what constitutes the tenets of these religions, we are nonetheless more conscious, I believe, because we attempt to practice bits and pieces of Asian religious tradition. (For more on these bits and pieces, check out this comprehensive site regarding the transmission of Buddhism through the centuries).

Indian astrologers made their way to Alexandrian Egypt, influencing the Ptolemies (cf. Ashoka’s 13th rock edict, 3rd century B.C., the earliest written evidence of Buddhism). The Emperor refers to his contact with Ptolemy II of Egypt (285-246 B. C) in connection with the expansion of Dharma (Buddhism) into Egypt and its neighboring lands).

At this point, history blurs into a bit of a muddle, for Indian Buddhism influenced Egyptian mysticism, which influenced the Greeks, who influenced everyone else. Later, this melange informed astrologers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In case it slipped your notice, by the way, I glossed over thousands of years of detail just there, for which I am somewhat remorseful, but this isn’t really a history lesson. If it were, you would have fallen asleep long ago, probably during the Dark Ages, when Not Much Happened.

Anyway, back to Asia, where their combined religious and political clout raised astrologers to a social level rivaling that of the Egyptians. As I will discuss in detail at some later date, religion is intimately tied to astrological belief, something I think we might forget most of the time. For example, Hinduism, a henotheistic religious tradition, underlies the meaning of the Vedas of India, which provide the underlying ethos to Vedic, or more traditionally, Hindu, astrology.

I understand if, like me, you are a little squeamish when it comes to aligning religious principles with astrology. Somewhere in the muddle that astrology has become, it seems clear we came to believe that astrology was somehow separate from its religious roots.

However, one good thing that comes from religious principles, in my opinion, is that the Vedas, for example, are based on a desire to find truth and knowledge (‘veda’ translates to “knowledge,” or “wisdom”). The philosophical goal is an understanding of the absolute, the soul, the self.

I think you can see how astrology might tie in here, because once you combine this quest for knowledge about the self with astronomical observation, you begin to form the idea that the self is knowable through the workings of the heavens.

Therefore, the Vedic system represents some of the earliest attempts to put astronomical and astrological knowledge together to try to understand the inner workings of the individual. Once you tie the philosophical precept of the Vedanta into a reading of a birth chart, you begin to see how the message of transcendence of self, and self-interest, becomes part of the overall concern a Hindu astrologer would have had for his client.

All reality is a single principle
All reality is a single principle

Vedic astrology, therefore, is informed by these, and other, philosophical and religious principles. The fundamental connection that ties Hinduism with astrology is fairly straightforward: the belief that the microcosm represents the macrocosm. 

This one underlying belief informs most astrological theory the world over, of course; “as above, so below.” What I like about Hinduism and Buddhism, however, is that the focus of these belief-systems lies with self-knowledge and self-awareness, and how that awareness ties into a relationship with the Absolute (or, for those more traditionally-minded, The Divine).

Next time, let’s look at China, and the way the Chinese thought about astrology. It’s very interesting, and different, from the Indian perspective.