History and Mythology

Yesterday, on yet another reasonably routine visit to the Shankara MaTha in Shankarpuram (where else?), I happened to notice this series of illustrations which sought to tell the story of Adi Shankaracharya’s life. The story starts out with Hinduism being in trouble in the 8th and 9th century AD, which leads to a bunch of Gods and Angels to lead a delegation to Shiva asking him to “do something” about it.

Since I was in the rather calm precincts of the temple, I prevented myself from laughing loudly, but this whole idea of mixing mythology with history intrigued me. The story got even more interesting later, since there was a panel that depicted Shankaracharya getting lessons from Veda Vyasa (the author of the Mahabharata, for the uninitiated). “Was he still alive in the 9th century”, the wife thought aloud politely. I made some random comments about not remembering if he was one of the Chiranjeevis.

A long time back, maybe when I was in school, my grandmother had wanted to see this movie on Shirdi Sai Baba (*ing Shashikumar). There again, there was a mixture of history and mythology, with one of the Gods (Shiva, I think) planting himself in some mango lady’s womb (not sure of the accuracy of this, close to 20 years since I watched it). In that case, however, it being a part of a popular movie, I thought there was enough poetic license to do that. But as part of the panels inside a temple, which is supposed to give out the authentic story? I’m not sure providing entertainment is a stated objective of that temple.

Now I begin to wonder how devout some of the devout could be, if they could actually believe that in the 9th century AD, there was a delegation of Gods who appealed to Shiva to rescue the religion! There are also other implications of this. One, that the Gods closely watch over what was happening on earth (well, I guess the omniscient model of God does permit this). Two, the admission that there might be religions apart from the Sanatana Dharma – which is something that is not made in any of our ancient texts. The Vedas, Upanishads and other texts were all written in India so long ago that no other organized religion existed back then. If you look at the myths, you will observe that all characters are religious, and they all worship parts or the whole of the Hindu pantheon.

My guess is that the series of illustrations in the Shankara MaTha and the associated commentary are the results of the efforts of some particularly over-zealous “devotee”, and the rest of the managing committee hasn’t had the heart or mind to call out this absurdity and get rid of the ambiguous illustrations. Or maybe the entire maTha has lost it, and actually believes that there was a delegation of gods only 1100 years back.

Horoscopes and Caesarean Births

The fundamental question is about what needs to be considered as a zero point in a person’s life – conception or delivery. I don’t want to start a debate on abortion here, but just wonder what Indian astrology considers to be the zero point of a person’s life. The answer to this question can determine the effectiveness of Indian astrology, even assuming that it is ok that it hasn’t been recalibrated for a few millenia.

Now my argument here is about the numerous instances in Indian mythology where the child’s future is written down by an astrologer even when it is in its mother’s womb. If an astrologer can tell a child’s future when it is in its mother’s womb, isn’t it an indicator that it is the position of stars at conception that matters more than the position of stars at the time of delivery?

The thing is that no one really knows when a child was conceived. Hence, the time of the child’s delivery is usually used as some sort of a proxy to determine when it was conceived. So basically astrology in its current form has a formula to calculate time of conception based on time of delivery, and so effectively what we have as astrology now is a product of two vectors – one that transposes time of birth to time of conception, and another that translates time of conception to position of stars at conception which then gives rise to the horoscope.

I suppose you can understand that there is obviously one source of error in this – regarding the determination of time of conception at the time of birth – basically no two kids born at the same moment would have been conceived at the same moment, right? So this introduces a fundamental error into Indian astrology.

And as if it were not enough, technology has (as usual) stepped in to hinder religion. The concept of Caesarean section has ended up playing complete havoc with the time-tested formulae of determining time of conception based on time of birth. The concept of Caesarean section has ensured that children need not remain in their mothers’ wombs for a “fixed quota” of time, and there is a very good chance they get released early.

So my argument is that Indian astrology as it stands now is inappropriate for people who were born through Caesarean section, since the error in determination of time of conception is extremely high. Also considering how discontinous things are – there are cases where a half an hour’s change in birth time can completely change a person’s horoscope – the impact of this error is too large to be ignored.

The most common use of astrology in recent times is that horoscope-match is considered by some as a necessary condition for matchmaking. Thinking about it, it is bad (and inaccurate) enough if one of the two parties has been born by Caesarean section. I wonder if it has any impact at all if both parties have been born by Caesarean section!

PS: Back when I was in the arranged scissors market, and my mother was around, this is the argument she would give to people who would demand to see my horoscope in the course of matchmaking. That it didn’t make sense given I was born through Caesarean section.