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Astrology and the history of religion

Much of my research, though far from all, concerns the history of astrology. While a majority of it is based on Sanskrit materials, my interests are broad and the topics of my published papers range from Hellenistic Egypt to 19th-century Britain. Over the past decade I have been primarily engaged in exploring the Hindu and Jain reception of astral knowledge systems from the Islamic world, especially as documented in The Jewel of Annual Astrology (Hāyanaratna) – an encyclopaedic work authored in 1649 by Balabhadra Daivajña, who was court astrologer to the Mughal prince Shāh Shujāʿ, the governor of Bengal and second son of emperor Shāh Jahān.

Although my work has generally been well received, a few fellow historians of religion, mostly belonging to a slightly earlier generation than myself, have told me in so many words that astrology is nothing to do with religion. In a similar vein, historians of science venturing into this field are sometimes informed by their own colleagues that astrology is nothing to do with science. So where exactly does the history of astrology belong?

Science or religion?

For more than fifteen centuries, horoscopic astrology played an immensely influential part in the intellectual life of both European and Asian civilizations. Originally formulated in Hellenistic Egypt around the 2nd century BCE, drawing on older Mesopotamian traditions, horoscopy migrated eastwards as far as India, first in the early centuries CE along routes opened up by the conquests of Alexander the Great and then again after the 9th century with the spread of Islam. The westward trans­mission into Latin Europe likewise occurred in two major waves: via al-Andalus from the 12th century and then from the Greek East following the fall of Constantinople, with sub­sequent Euro­pean developments continuing up to the 17th century followed by a revival in the 19th.

In every culture where it took root, astrology extended into domains of thought that today are variously designated as religious, philosophical, or proto-scientific (including physics and medicine). It has often been called a science – mathēma, scientia, śāstra, ʿilm – in the various languages of those cultures; however, it was a religious science. From its beginnings in the astral divination of ancient Mesopotamia, where the will of the gods was expressed in the ‘heavenly writing’, through mystical Hermetic teachings, Manichaean conceptions of destiny, and Hindu worship of planetary deities, astrology has always retained a religious dimension.

In my opinion, astrology still 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. In this sense, astro­logy is inher­ently a religious phenomenon. 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 centres 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.

The state of the art

Despite its vital importance for our under­standing of global intellectual history, the historical study of astrology  was margin­alized for much of the 20th century. This was largely the result of academics anachronistically projecting the sharp modern distinction between religion and science on to earlier eras, a process that turned phenomena such as astrology into a no man’s land fraught with ideological tension and consequently avoided by mainstream scholarship.

Since the early 2000s, a greater amount of scholarship in the field has begun to emerge: cultural histories as well as more specialized studies along with editions and trans­lations of astro­logical texts from Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew. Among the most promising recent developments is the inauguration of the interdisciplinary Astra project, hosted by the CIUHCT, University of Lisbon, in cooperation with the Warburg Institute, University of London.

With my own work I hope to make two main contributions to the historiography of astrology. The first is to refute the mistaken dichotomy which still persists between the astrology of South Asia and so-called western astrology – a term used counter-intuitively to include ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, and the Arabic-speaking world – and which left the vast body of relevant Sanskrit literature almost entirely unexamined during the last century, the major exception being the work done by the late David Pingree. The second is to increase awareness of the importance of technical procedures for interpreting the often tacit religio-philosophical presuppositions inherent in astrology. Owing to their mathematical and conceptual complexity, such procedures are often neglected in social or cultural histories of astrology, creating the impres­sion that techniques are peri­pheral to inter­pretation. However, while horoscopic astrology has adapted to varying religious and philo­sophical frameworks within the cultural areas to which it was transmitted, certain modes of discourse and con­ceptions of reality are in fact embedded in its techniques, and these need to be carefully analysed if we want properly to understand the role of astrology in intellectual history.

The elephant in the room

A question that I find more often implied than asked outright, at least in polite conversation, amounts to this: ‘Can someone who practises astrology really study its history objectively? Isn’t astrology a pseudo-science that scholars are duty-bound to denounce?’ Intriguingly, academic theologians who are also ordained Christian ministers or priests tend not to be asked this sort of question, nor scholars of, say, Buddhist or Asian Studies who are openly practising Buddhists. Yet core concepts of those traditions – such as redemption through vicarious suffering, or continual rebirths conditioned by karma – do not sit well with the prevalent academic creed of materialist scientism either. What is it about astrology in particular that prompts this knee-jerk reaction?

While the social and financial impact of mainstream religious institutions goes some way towards explaining the difference, perhaps an equally important factor is the ambiguous status of astrology mentioned above. As  explored by Mary Douglas in her seminal Purity and Danger, the phenomena deemed impure and therefore dangerous in a given culture are those that do not fit into the categories it employs to make sense of the world. In post-Enlightenment western culture, with its (seemingly) sharp dividing line between science and religion, a system of thought that cannot be neatly placed in either category is perceived as anomalous and threatening. Religion can be ignored, and therefore tolerated, as long as it confines itself to intangibles; but it must not cross the border into the physical. A thoughtful and partly disturbing discussion of this situation is found in Garry Phillipson’s article ‘Astrology as heresy in contemporary belief’.

Personally, I would agree that astrology, being predicated on the concept of non-causal correspondences, can have no plausibility within a contemporary materialist ontology: it seems to require an idealist and/or theistic view of reality. Indeed, in an idealist one, it might be said to follow almost naturally: as Plotinus tells us, Everything is full of signs, and the one who understands one thing on the basis of another is a wise man of sorts (Enneads II 3,7, transl. Gerson et al.). But the belief that a commitment to ontological materialism makes for better scholarship is itself an article of faith rather than fact. There is no monopoly on intellectual integrity.

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