The Astrologer’s Prediction : Stories from Indian art

Whether or not you believe in astrology, the section on ‘horoscopes’ in any newspaper or magazine does manage to draw one’s attention. This millenia-old human curiousity about the future is evidenced through art in museum collections and manuscripts found in libraries. Over time, different cultures around the world developed their own approach to studying the stars (astronomy); to astrology and fortune-telling. The fascination with stars, constellations, astrology and its symbols found its way into the arts, spurring a range of zodiac-embellished art and decorative objects. 

In India, astrology has influenced many cultural and historical moments  — from social celebrations (including weddings) and military campaigns to planning cities. Believe it or not, even India’s ‘midnight tryst with destiny’ was guided by the stars !!! 

We turn our attention to some of these stories (of astrological influence) documented in art. 

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The future of Prince Siddhartha is foretold by the astrologer, Rishi Asita in a Gandhara frieze

Prediction of Asita, 100-200 C.E / Indian Museum Kolkata / Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The story of how Prince Siddhartha Gautam became ‘Buddha’ is quite well known. What is interesting is, that shortly after his birth, his life’s journey was quite accurately predicted by astrologers! According to Pali sources, Asita, the hermit, enjoyed extensive powers that allowed him to foretell the future. In both the panel above and below, you see him holding the new-born Prince. He predicted Prince Siddhartha’s destiny , that without a doubt, he would become Buddha some day, spreading his teachings far and wide.

The prophecy of the seer Asita; Pakistan, Gandhara region, 3rd/4th century; slate  / Peshawar Museum

The Gandhara region, located in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, was a significant center of Buddhist art and culture. The art of this region was influenced by the Greco-Roman art traditions and incorporated narrative scenes depicting the life of the Buddha, similar to the way ancient Greek and Roman art portrayed mythological stories. These scenes often featured detailed storytelling through the use of relief panels like the ones above. 

The astrologers interpret Queen Trisala’s dreams in a Kalpasutra Manuscript

King Siddharta Listens to an Astrologer Forecast the Conception and Birth of His Son, the Jina Mahavira: Folio from a Kalpasutra Manuscript / late 14th century / Gujarat/ CC0 Met Museum

Kalpasutra manuscripts are adorned with intricate illustrations depicting scenes from the lives of Tirthankaras, the Jain cosmology, and significant events in the history of Jainism. These illustrations are a testament to the artistic and cultural richness of the Jain tradition.

The story goes that before the birth of Mahavira, his mother, Queen Trishala, experienced a series of 14 auspicious dreams. In the illustration on this manuscript, the King Siddhartha listens to the astrologers who have been summoned to interpret these dreams. The dreams included symbols such as an elephant, a lion, a goddess, a moon, each representing positive and divine attributes. The astrolgers decoded these symbols and predicted that their son (Mahavira) will either be a powerful ruler or a ‘Tirthankara’ (a great spiritual teacher). 

Nanda seeks the horoscope of Krishna in a painting (Bhagvata Purana)

Nanda sits with baby krishna on his lap, accompanied by three women; they request an astrologer for a horoscope. The painting has a yellow background and rich decorated toran on the upper half.
Nanda Requests a Horoscope for Krishna, Page from a Bhagavata Purana series, ca. 1725 / Public Domain / Brooklyn Museum

As is customary in many regions of India even today, the birth of a child is followed by the visit of an astrologer. This painting depicts an episode from the Hindu scripture, Bhagavata Purana in which the newborn Krishna’s horoscope is read by the astrologer (priest) for Nanda, Krishna’s foster-father. An inscription on the painting identifies the episode as “Sage Gargacharya presenting the birth chart of Krishna, son of Nanda and Yashoda”. 

The Bhagavata Purana has inspired numerous manuscript paintings in various styles over the centuries. A similar painting executed by the Pahari painter Pandit Seu is part of the collection at Himachal State Museum. 

The astrologer gives a go-ahead for Nala and Damyanti’s wedding in a Pahari-drawing

Bhima’s Consultation with the Astrologer: Scene from the Nala-Damayanti Drawings / 1785 / CC0, Cleveland Museum of Art 

In India, it has been a a time-honored tradition to compare and match horoscopes of prospective marriage partners. But do marriages always turn out as per the astrological predictions? This artwork features an episode from the story of Nala and Damayanti. The story is narrated by a Sage to Yudhisthir in the well-known epic Mahabharata. It serves as an exploration of the complexities of love, fate, and divine intervention in the context of a marriage narrative.

In this drawing, King Bhima, father of the beautiful Damayanti, receives favorable signs from his astrologers for the marriage of his daughter to her beloved, Nala. In the upper left corner, you can see him share the good news with his daughter;  in the upper right corner, the messengers inform Nala. 

Throughout history, many Kings and Rulers sought the guidance of astrologers to make decisions. 

watercolour painting showing an astrologer sitting cross-legged outside his dwelling, on a blue carpet. He is covered with a grey shawl, wears a turban, has marks on his forehead signifying his sectarian affiliations and wears a beaded neckpiece. He is surrounded by a red book, papers with scribbles and an ink-pot. He holds a horoscope in one hand.
An astrologer. Watercolour by an Indian artist, ca. 1825 / Public Domain / Wellcome Collection 

They go every morning and with ludicrous gravity announce to the princes, to the state elephants and to his idols, each in their turn all that is written in the almanac relating to that particular day. Should the prince wish to hunt, walk or receive visits from strangers, and the perspicacity of the purohita discovers in his infallible book that this in an unpropitious moment, the chase, the walk or the visit is postponed.

– Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies by Jean-Antoine Dubois, a French Catholic Missionary in India  (18-19th century). 

It was not uncommon to take military decisions based on astrological advice. Upon the Mughal King Humayun’s death, Adil Shah Suri ( of the Sur Dynasty), sought to reclaim Delhi. But before sending his troops to Delhi, he summoned the astrologer, asking him for an ‘honest report’. After a three-day study of the stars, the astrologer reported:

This I have learned from the revolutions of the heavens and the changes of day and night, — that after Humayun, his son, who is seated on the Imperial throne, will be entrusted with the entire government of Hind, and the rulers of all countries will place their foreheads in the dust before his throne, and no one will vanquish him. The land of Hindustan, from Kandahar to the sea of the south, and from Kambhayit (Cambay) to the sea of Bengal, will own his sway…

-Tārikh-i-Salātin-i-Afghāniyah, Ahmad Yadgar (a Mughal-era author) / The History Of India, As Told By Its Own Historians, Vol.5 by Dowson, John Ed.

Naturally, the prediction left Adil Shah Suri dispirited but his Commander-in-Chief, Hemu felt otherwise. He reasoned that Akbar was only a child, and the Mughal army, not very established. Hemu, after a few inital victories, was defeated at what we know as the ‘Second Battle of Panipat’. 

Hemu is captured by Akbar’s forces in 1556, from the History of Akbar (Akbarnama), by Abu’l-Fazl / Shankar, circa 1603–1605 , Agra / Chester Beatty, Dublin / Public Domain

Astrologers in the Mughal Court

The role of the astrologer continued to be important at the Mughal court.

“The Jotik Rāy (title conferred upon the foremost Hindu astrologer of the time) would travel with the emperor during military expeditions. It was the Jotik Rāy’s job to cast the birth chart of members of the royal family according to the jyotiṣa system, to answer questions according to praśna, the jyotiṣa version of catarchic astrology, in which a chart is cast for the moment that the question was asked, and to choose favorable moments to undertake activities, according to the jyotiṣa system of muhūrta.”

Christopher Minkowski,‘Religious Interactions in Mughal India’
Detail from Celebrations for the birth of Akbar’s son Salim in August 1569, (Akbarnama) showing astrologers casting the horoscope / Chester Beatty Collection, Dublin. 
Birth of a Prince from the Jahangirnama, Bishan Das, MFA Boston c.1610-15 / PD 

Astrological Treatises

Kings supported scholarship in various fields including astronomy and astrology. Several treatises and manuscripts were thus created on the subject. Many of these texts were also exclusively written for the Kings. In fact, Maharaja Anup Singh of Bikaner (r. 1669–1698), collected a distinguished library of 10,000 manuscripts on jyotiṣan and related areas of dharma!

India’s Independence & midnight tryst with destiny

An astrologer’s shop in the mill workers’ quarter of Parel. Bombay, Maharashtra, India • 1947. (Photo: Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos) More.

It turns out that Mountbatten’s spontaneous announcement of ’15th August’ as the date for the ‘transfer of power’ did not go down well with the astrologers. One wonders if an auspicious date would have really changed the nature of events that were to unfold.

The astrologers are being rather tiresome since both the 13th and the 15th have been declared inauspicious days, whereas the 14th is auspicious. I was not warned that I ought to consult the astrologers before fixing the day for the transfer of power, but luckily, this has been got over by the Constituent Assembly deciding to meet before midnight on the auspicious 14th and take over power as midnight strikes which is apparently still an auspicious moment.

Lord Mountbatten’s 16th personal report.

In an article for The Wire, Venkatesh Nayak, an RTI activist and history researcher writes:

” While Lord Mountbatten does not seem to have agonised over his abrupt announcement of the date, without consulting anybody, his reaction to the pressure mounted by astrologers to alter the timing of the ‘transfer of power’ is amusing, to say the very least. Ironically, the astrologers’ predictions also proved wrong. The heavenly bodies were mute witness to the massacre of an estimated one million innocent men, women and children on both sides of the newly carved out border and the displacement of between 15-20 million people on the subcontinent. Neither have the correct figures been determined, nor were the masterminds and perpetrators of Partition-related violence brought to book.”

Read the full article here

Speaking of the belief in Astrology, here’s a take by the Persian scholar, Nasir. 

Nasir al-Din Tusi was a celebrated Persian scholar, wrote an influential text, ‘Akhlaq-i Nasiri ‘ on ethics, domestic economy and politics. This text was one of Akbar’s favourites and was frequently read and discussed at his court. 

(detail) an astrologer with the tools that that he uses to predict the future: an astrolabe and a manuscript, perhaps a falnama, a book of omens. In front of him stretches a long line of women waiting to find out their fortunes.

Nasir was of the belief, that the nourishment of the spirit / soul is as important as that of the body. His suggestion, as a first step towards the removal of vices was to “avoid putting faith in false sciences such as divination and astrology.”

Well, he might as well have suggested a daily dose of art as a way to nourish the soul.


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