Urban India uses astrology to fight off modern pressures

A nervous Rohit Kohli (30) listens in rapt attention as his mentor guides him on how to channel positive energy.

He has been advised to make weekly donations and pray to the Hindu monkey god Lord Hanuman to fight off the malevolent factors in his planetary charts, which are apparently blocking his career at the stockbroking firm where he works.

“For me, it’s a matter of faith. I have full faith in astrology, and I am sure it works,” Kohli says after the consultation is over.

Kohli is one of the thousands of people who are flocking to a five-day fair called Nakshatra (Constellation), which began on Saturday, bringing together about 100 astrologers, palmists, numerologists, face readers and alternative healers in the Indian capital, New Delhi.

“We have had such fairs earlier also, but none that was exclusively focused on astrology,” says one of the organisers, Asha Bansal, who has been in the business for 25 years, selling computer software for astrology and providing astrology services.

“There is a huge demand for these services, based on ancient Indian sciences,” she says.

Millions of Indians have for long relied on the ancient astrology, which is mentioned in Hindu religious texts, before taking important decisions.

Leading politicians are known to plan their political campaigns based on astrological predictions and film stars have often been ridiculed for changing the spellings of their names according to numerological advice to revive sinking fortunes.

Some of the top Bollywood film directors always use film titles beginning with the same letter.

Rationalists argue against the practice and have run campaigns to debunk fortune-tellers, but at the fair, there was little indication that the popularity of fortune-telling was fading.

If anything, in urban India, the roadside Hindi-speaking astrologer is increasingly making way for English-speaking, computer-savvy consultants, who employ articulate marketing professionals to sell their services.

In 2004, the Supreme Court approved university instruction in astrology, dismissing a petition asking it to strike down a government decision to start graduate, postgraduate and research courses in the subject.

Bansal says the decision was a boost for the organisers of the fair, where people lined up eagerly for their turn to get their horoscopes compiled, palms examined, handwriting analysed and tarot cards read to know if they would travel abroad, get married, have children, succeed in business, or live long.

“I came here to find out how I will fare in my board exams. I got some good advice,” Madina-a-Wakili, a 17-year-old Afghan studying at a swish international school in New Delhi, says in an American accent.

Astrologers say they are increasingly attracting young and educated customers, a trend that reflects changes in Indian society that allow the young to be more in charge of their lives.

“Earlier, I used to get more elderly and middle-aged people, since they were the ones calling the shots in the family.
Now, young people come to us as they have more responsibilities,” says consultant Ravi Puri.

Puri, who retired as a senior marketing official five years ago, is now in the business full-time, giving advice on astrology, the Japanese healing practice reiki, the Indian vaastu tradition of space planning, and pendulum healing.

He uses his pendulum, which he says has harmonised energy, to field questions. If the pendulum swings horizontally, the answer is yes, and if it moves vertically, the answer is no.

Though the fair is mainly about astrology, there are several stalls on ancient practices such as reiki, Chinese feng shui, the Indian ayurveda and acupressure, which are increasingly becoming popular in big cities.

With so many traditions and therapies to choose from, there is cynicism too among the customers.

“I came here for face reading. I have been facing problems in my business. But it’s so difficult to make out whether they are genuine or fake,” says businessman Nirmal Kumar, as he waits in line for his turn with the facereader.

For most people, however, it is a question of faith.

“We come from a culture where we have been told from childhood to go to temples, to go to astrology,” said stockbroking-firm employee Kohli.

Like millions of Indians, Kohli says he will not marry unless his horoscope matches that of his prospective bride.

Some astrologers themselves sound a note of caution for the customers.

“We are not magic people. We act with humility,” said Puri. “I cannot change someone’s destiny, but I can help people deal better with their stress, which everyone goes through.”—AFP

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