Ancient Sanskrit Words for an Astrologer
The Amarakośa (5th century) lists eight names that were commonly used to refer to an astrologer at that time: sāṁvatsara, jyotiṣika, daivajña, gaṇaka, mauhūrtika, mauhūrta, jñāni, and kārtāntika. The Amarkośa is a collection of synonyms that were commonly used in literature during that time period. The number of names indicates that there were a good number of astrologers and literature about them. The names also reveal the various ways that society perceived astrologers and their function.
Sāṁvatsara is one who knows the saṁvatsara (a Vedic year or a jovian year depending on location in India). It is a name given to the astrologer since they are the calculators of the calendar; the ones who know the movement of the Sun and Moon, and can calculate when the months and years begin. We take this for granted and just look at a calendar that someone else has prepared, but in ancient times the keeping of a calendar was a process that required an understanding of observational astronomy and advanced mathematics.
Jyotiṣika is the one who practices Jyotiṣa. Jyoti means light, but in Sanskrit there are many words for light. For example, prabhā means light as that which is shining forth and illuminating. Dīpti means light, but generally refers to that made from the fire or from a lamp. Prakāśa means light, but is a very strong word that indicates that is bright (not soft like the morning or moonlight- prabhā). There are many more words for the various types of light. Jyoti is the light as the source of life (it has a heavenly-soul connotation). The plural of Jyoti refers to the light of the stars and the planets which are lights in the sky. Jyoti with śa suffix becomes cerebral ṣa because of the vowel i in jyoti, thereby becoming Jyotiṣa which means “that which pertains to the light, or that which pertains to the stars and planets”. The ka at the end means ‘doer’ or ‘one who is doing’, so the term literally means “one who is doing things pertaining to the stars”.
It is common to use the short term Jyotiṣī or Jyotiṣa for an astrologer. Also there is the term Jyotirvid, one who knows (vid) about the planets and stars. An early text, called Yukti-kalpa-taru, says that a Jyotiṣika is one who knows the body parts, is an expert speaker at the meetings, comes from a tradition (kulakrama), is pure (śuddha) and should be appointed by the king. This clearly indicates that there were lineages of astrology in ancient India, and that it was standard for astrologers to interact in politics.
Gaṇaka literally means a counter or one who reckons. It is a name for an arithmetician, as well as someone who calculates horoscopes. A gaṇaka has been defined as one who counts the subha and asubha graha phalam, or the one who calculates the good and bad results of the planets. Gaṇaka also has the meaning of a particular caste which is from a brahmin father and a vaiśya mother, who were a caste of astrologers (those who made their livelihood through the nakṣatra). They are often grouped with the vaidya caste, which was a caste of doctors. Some texts criticize these two castes as impure because the vaidya physically touches people and all their various parts and exudations, while the astrologer is consulted by all castes of people, thereby coming into contact with those considered impure by certain Brahmin belief systems. It is because of this that the Manu Smṛti says that vaidyas and gaṇakas are inauspicious.
Mauhūrtika literally means one who makes muhūrta (election charts), or one who knows the moments/ spaces of time and indicates them. Mauhūrta is the grammatical form of “one who does Muhūrta”. The Mahābhārata defines a Mauhūrtika as one who is daiva-chintaka; who thinks about or is familiar with fate/destiny (daiva). The Bhagavata Purāṇa (6.6.9), speaks about the Mauhūrtikas as a group of gods born from the goddess Muhūrtā and god Yamarāja. In this way, the 30 muhūrtas of the day were seen as children born from the goddess Muhūrtā the daughter of Dakṣa (representing the ‘hourly’ division of the day). Their job is indicated as delivering to living beings the results born at the proper time (svakāla). An astrologer was supposed to know the qualities of all 30 muhūrtas, their deities, and the positive and negative results related to each to be able to choose a proper time for an activity.
Mauhūrta relates to an electional astrologer and there was also a name for an astrologer related to horary astrology, vipraśnakā. It is defined as one who can see the answer, one who gives decisions, or an expert. Sometimes it is even translated as a fortune-teller.
Jñāni literally means the one who knows, but it is a word that refers to an astrologer or a fortune-teller, since they are the ones who know what has been, what is, and what will come to be. The practice of astrology (or seeing the past, present and future) is called jñānatva which literally means knowing-ness. An astrologer is also called a trikālajñā, or one who knows the three times. It also has the connotation of one who is omniscient, where it is also used as trikāladarśin (one who sees past, present and future). There are various practices (tāntric sādhanās) that are performed to gain the powers of seeing the past, present and future (trikālajñā siddhi) found in Indian spiritual literature.
Kārtāntika is the one who knows the time of your death. Antaka means ‘causing an end’, or death and is a name of Yama, the god of death. The one who can calculate the time of your death, who knows when Yama will come is called kārtāntika. This shows that calculating the longevity of an individual was an ancient practice done by astrologers, and one which was standard. This is why texts like the Jaimini Upadeśa Sūtras put so much emphasis on longevity calculations; an astrologer was expected to be able to calculate the longevity, so one could plan life accordingly.
Daivajña is one who knows the destiny (daiva). The word daiva can have many connotations and is beautiful to understand deeply. The most literal translation of daiva is ‘belonging to the gods (devas)’, or ‘coming from the gods (devas)’. That which comes from the devas is divine will, or destiny. All the various gods and goddesses exist among the planets and stars. A debilitated Jupiter manifests as the goddess Tārā, Jupiter-Venus conjunction manifests as Lakṣmī-Nārāyaṇa, Saturn-Venus conjunction manifests as nature spirits (Yakṣas). All archetypes that manifest as gods are found among the primal archetypes of reality which are the planets (interacting with the stars). That which is coming from the planets and stars is the map of our life, which is translated into the western concept of ‘destiny’. We know that the will of the planets is the creation (or reflection) of our own actions (karma), which the word destiny denotes but is not culturally understood. The word destiny comes from the Latin destinare, which means to determine, appoint, and make firm. It means to completely (de-) become stationed (stinare), as a destination- the firm place where you are going. The birth chart is the map of where we are going- destiny.
The position of the planets, which unfolds reality, is that which is coming from the devas (our planetary positions). In the Vedic paradigm, god is not someone or something that is out there different then ourselves. God is in us, we are made of god-goddess which is in everything everywhere as the very fabric of reality. Daiva is the will of the gods, the indications of the planets that a person will receive in life. In this way, the daivajña knows the results of your birth chart, what has been destined (determined) to happen. The daivajña knows the desires of the gods, knows which gods each planet is manifesting as. The daivajña knows what those devas want and how to appease them. This is a very high name for an astrologer and that is why Jyotiṣa is the shining eye (nirmala-cakṣu) of the Vedas.
Daiva-lekhaka is another name for an astrologer. Lekhana means to write, and a lekhaka is a writer (scribe). In this way, Daivalekhaka is one who writes the horoscopes, and writes about one’s past and future (daiva). It is still found in many parts of India, where people have little books that were prepared at the time they were born, containing their birth charts, divisional charts, and predictions about their life. Lekha means a written document and it is also a classical name for devas. In Upaniṣad times, the devas names were written (yantras) and worshipped; therefore gods became synonymous with the written name/yantra. The letters were also considered mātrikās (mother-goddesses) who manifested sounds and meaning and therefore conveyed reality and shared consciousness between people. In this way, the astrologer was able to communicate the will of the devas (destiny) to people.
Old school Western scholars sometimes say that Jyotiṣa as a limb of the Vedas was done only to calculate when to do rituals (yajña). This is because the oldest astrological text, Vedāṅga Jyotiṣam, that has survived to the present is a text that states it is specifically for calendrical calculations (kālavidhāna śāstra) so that ritual may be done at the proper time. It only teaches about the calendar and how to calculate it, that was its direct purpose. You don’t write about the practical use of physics calculations if you are trying to make a short calculus text book that is easy to memorize. The Vedāṅga Jyotiṣam was written so poetically you can chant it like a morning prayer, and it is not too long, this is what allowed it to survive so long.
In the Vedāṅga Jyotiṣam, there is a section on the Javādi Nakṣatra arrangement. The stars are arranged out of order and have only one syllable to denote them. Āsvayuja (Āsvini) is called jau (last syllable), while Chitrā is called Chi (first syllable). This strange system was used to denote when a fortnight began which part of the nakṣatra the Moon would be in. And the order was based upon the irregular motion during a five year period. This is an extremely advanced notation to give something that was only the name of a month.
David Pingree, a scholar, believes that astrology as we know it was introduced into India around 190 A.D. through a single book called the Yavanajātaka. It is illogical to believe that one book in the 3rd century, with no printing presses, would have created enough astrologers for the Amarakośa to give eight names commonly used in Sanskrit literature in the 5th century, with the meanings that they have. This doesn’t mean that there was not external influence, but the terminology indicates there was planetary astrology hundreds of years previous to the Yavanajātaka and other texts.
If there were no astrological meaning ascribed to the time periods in the Vedāṅga Jyotiṣam then why should there be rituals done, and for what purpose? In the Vedic culture, the Sun had deep meaning, the image of a wheel had metaphorical meaning, and even the spoon for offering had spiritual meaning. To think that huge expanses of the sky, advanced calculations of their moving lights, and their respective time periods only developed some meaning thousands of years later would be quite unlikely.
The stars had meaning from the beginning, and the science of calculations wrapped itself around this. Yajña was done according to the astrological indications that affected the person, their life and the whole community. When we look at the definition of a Mauhūrtika as one who is daiva-chintaka then it is clear that ancient astrologers did more than just pick an auspicious moment. Jyotiṣa was a branch of the Vedas used for finding auspicious times as well as the entire range of predictions we are aware of today.
Originally Published in the Appendix of Science of Light Volume 2.