What Is The Zodiac? What Is Astrology Measuring?
One of the difficulties I’ve had with astrology is the varied theories astrologers have about the nature of the zodiac. The zodiac and the planets are the prime components of an astrological chart. To witness diverse opinions about one of the two fundamental pillars of astrology has and still does make me suspect of the veracity of astrology as an empirical method, which I would like to see it become, if possible. Most people in our modern culture do not see astrology as a science, and I think this is one of the main reasons. Would anyone consider chemistry a science if there were multiple schools of said science all holding differing beliefs about what a chemical actually is? I doubt it.
As astrologers, it is our duty to deeply contemplate and consider the reality of the zodiac so that we understand the basis for our science. A comparison of the rational behind the use of the sidereal signs, the sidereal constellations or the tropical signs can help us come to our own conclusions about the true foundation of astrology as verifiable science.
To be clear, there are varied ideas in astrology about what the signs in our horoscopes are related to. Some say it is the actual constellations. This means that when you look up in the sky you see a planet IN that constellation. Some say it is a space of 30 degrees, of which there are 12. This cannot be constellationally based, because it is impossible to fit the zodiacal constellations (star patterns) into 30 degrees. And it is necessary to do this, because the wheel of our horoscope gives 30 degrees per sign. Whether you use the tropical zodiac or the sidereal, to do horoscopic astrology your signs CANNOT be matched up with the constellations (star patterns) in any relevant way, although it MAY happen sidereally coincidentally. (If you don’t believe me, keep reading for examples and astronomical reasons). I do not think it is possible to realistically even attempt research into astrology until astrologers can agree on the fundamental principles of the science to be tested.
It is important for me to state at this point that there is evidence for the use of fixed stars in giving assistance in chart interpretation. However, I’ve never seen this mentioned in any serious way from a Vedic Astrologer. There is a focus on Nakshatras, which to my estimation are to be calculated sidereally, but that is again a topic for another time, Bernadette Brady has a wonderful book on how to use the mythology and power behind the fixed stars, but in this article we will be focusing on the 12 signs used in Horoscopic Astrology.
To help us in our analysis of understanding the zodiac we need to consider what astrology is actually studying and measuring. Astrology is the ultimately the science of time. In many ancient cultures the study of the planets, particularly the Moon relative to the Earth was used to demarcate excellent times for spiritual worship, times to begin a project to provide the greatest possible success, and times to avoid misfortune. Astrology was a method to find harmony between the inner cosmos of our inspirations and the outer cosmos of our environment. This was all time based. It required a profound understanding of the timing of celestial bodies relative to our own earthly bodies.
Consider modern astrology, with its emphasis on prediction and even personality assessments. As a Vedic Astrologer, even this is dependent on an understanding of time. Obviously, predictions occur at some time in the future. That is no stretch to understand how this is time based. And what are predictions based upon, but the momentum from our past actions and states of consciousness. This is one reason the birth chart is so important in our attempts at prediction. Future transits can powerfully affect us, ONLY IF there is a corresponding karmic tendency to be triggered by that transit within our birth chart. That karmic tendency will only be there if it was supported and sustained through the momentum of past activity.
Consider how a personality develops. It develops through repetition of behaviors and consistency in the choices one makes. From an esoteric perspective I could say our astrological horoscope is the result of the choices we’ve made in our past, the habits we’ve allowed to persist, and the actions we have consistently made. This essentially is our karma, and what is karma but the collection of choices and sustained states of consciousness through time. Our present is only the maturation of the seeds of our past. Our future is influenced by a combination of our past actions that have not yet matured and our present seeds of possibility we are planting. The moment we are born reflects the current accumulation of time based tendencies. From birth onward, we have the chart as a foundation, but then we can begin implementing new actions unrelated to the chart. It’s not easy for most people, but it is possible.
In Vasistha Samhita we read, “Time itself is God and God is Time. The knower of God can only be the knower of Time. Even the saints on Earth have not known Time completely. For the welfare of all humanity, Lord Brahma, who is seated on the lotus, has created gross spans like days, months, years, Yugas, etc., through the movement of the zodiac and the heavenly bodies.” As we can see, the study of the zodiac and the movement of the heavenly bodies is focused on Time. This is why it is often said, Jyotish, (or astrology) is the eye of the Veda. Through it we know Time. Through knowing Time we know God. Kala, the Sanskrit word indicating the Force of Time, according to the Surya Siddhanta, “…has for its nature to bring what is to pass.” As astrologers, our studies deal with time, not space. Time conceptualized takes shape in the Zodiac. For it is through the agency of the sign qualities that Time can give expression to experience, not otherwise.
Let us consider three most commonly held conceptions of what constitutes the zodiac. These three zodiacs are:
- The Tropical Zodiac
- The Constellational Sign Zodiac
- The Sidereal Sign Zodiac
We can happily state first off, that there is one thing that all astrologers agree on, and that is that the zodiac is related to the ecliptic. This is the path that the Sun takes through the sky relative to Earth. This is the commonality all astrologers share about the nature of the zodiac. From there it diverges. But at least we have this starting point.
Some say the 12 sign zodiac is based on the relationship of the movements of the Sun to the Earth. This is considered to be the seasonal or Tropical Zodiac. Some say the zodiac is constellationally observational. This means that if you look up in the sky and see Jupiter in the constellation Leo, the horoscope should reflect that visual reality. Jupiter will be in the star pattern we call Leo. This we will call the Constellational Sign Zodiac. We need to be clear that the tropical zodiac is also observational, as we can observe the movement of the Earth relative to the Sun by the length of days and the perceived Northerly and Southerly course of the Sun in the Sky. The third zodiac to consider at this point is the Sidereal Sign Zodiac. This uses a sidereal calculation, yet divides the sky up into 12 equal divisions of 30 degrees for the signs. It is NOT related to the constellations within the sky. This means that if you use the Sidereal Sign Zodiac it is possible you will see a correlation between the actual constellations and what a chart may say, but it is not always certain. You will see why in the example given below.
Many people, astrologers included confuse the Constellational Sign Zodiac with the Sidereal Sign Zodiac. This is easily done, because both are sidereal and these two zodiacs overlap, generally speaking. For now, remember the Constellational Sign Zodiac looks to the actual star patterns in the sky to define the signs of the zodiac. When an astrologer using the Constellational Sign Zodiac says, “Mercury is in Virgo”, they mean they can see Mercury in the sky somewhere between one and 44 degrees of the span of the constellation Virgo.
The Sidereal Sign Zodiac, much like the Tropical Zodiac, uses the idea that the Zodiac is divided into 12 parts, each with 30 equal degrees. In a few older texts I have read, the astrological signs were not referred to as we commonly do with the names like Aries, or Capricorn or Makara. They were referred to by numbers. And in actuality it seems to me more appropriate, to speak of the 1st sign rising or the 9th sign rising, especially for those using a Tropical or Sidereal Sign Zodiac. This is because it is not related to actual constellations, but 30 degree sections of the Sun’s apparent path through the sky. This can also give us great numerological insights.
The stars are not fixed solidly in place on the ecliptic and are moving backwards along the ecliptic at the rate of an average one degree every 72 years. This is called precession. The Constellational Sign Zodiac is moving backwards in this way since it is defined by star patterns. The Sidereal Sign Zodiac is not based on star patterns (i.e. constellations), but it is said to begin with a certain star. For example, the beginning of the sign Aries is said to rise at the same time the star Spica sets. Since Spica is a star, and all stars precess on average one degree every 72 years, this Sidereal Sign Zodiac will generally follow the movement of the Constellational Sign Zodiac. They will precess together. Now how do these two zodiacs differ?
Both the Constellational Sign Zodiac and the Sidereal Sign Zodiac are defined by stars, which move backwards through precession. They are different in that they do not actually match up observationally. This is an important point, because too often sidereal astrologers use an argument that the zodiac is observational, meaning that when you see a planet in a constellation it should match up with your horoscope. Now the question arises, why do they not match up observationally?
The Sidereal Sign Zodiac divides the ecliptic (the path of the Sun) into 12 equal parts of 30 degrees. Each sign is 30 degrees. In your horoscope, the chart is divided this way. Planets will be shown to be somewhere between 0-29 degrees of a sign. This makes sense based on the definitions of the Indian Astrology texts of which most are familiar. I’m not a Western Astrologer, but from what I can tell, even Western Astrological charts only have 30 degrees per sign.
Our currently accepted version of Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra states in Chapter 3 Verse 4-6:
“The said zodiac comprises 27 Nakshatras commencing from Ashwini. The same area is divided into 12 parts equal to 12 Rasis (or signs) commencing from Aries.”
It should be considered, that this text says THE zodiac is actually the 27 Nakshatras (which are definitely sidereal), and that the area of those 27 are then divided into 12 equal parts. But that matter can be taken up at a later time.
When speaking of the divisions of the signs Chapter 1 Verse 37 of Yavana Jataka states:
“There are sixty solar portions (sauras) in each sign which are similar (to their signs) in what their involvement signifies.”
Saura is related to the Sun, hence the reference to 60 solar portions. These are related to the Shastiamsas, of which there are 60 in a sign, because there are two Shastiamsas per degree. This relates to 30 days. It takes the Sun one day to travel one degree of the zodiac. This indicates that a sign is 30 degrees and that it is based on the Sun’s motion. 30 degrees multiplied by 12 signs gives 360 degrees, the circumference of a circle, which the zodiac is.
In multiple instances in the commentary of Brihat Jataka of Varahamihira published by Sagar Publications it is related that, “These are the Rasi (sign) in which the ecliptic is divided into 12 equal parts of 30 degrees each.”
I know it looks like I am belaboring this point of a sign being 30 equal degrees. Yet to have it show up so often and consistently throughout the available literature, it leads me to think that the 12 fold division of the zodiac is not based on constellations in the sky. The constellations are spacial. The constellations cannot be divided into 12 equal segments of 30 degrees. Yet, the movement of the Sun, which is based on time can. Remember, from the beginning we discussed that astrology is a science of time. There are other sciences related to space, but that is not the topic of our concern for now.
Also, we need to remember that our ancient astrologers did not have computers. They probably did not sit in a dark room all day staring at a computer screen of symbols placed on a square chart, detached from the reality of the sky. They actually looked up at the sky and compared to their calculations. They followed the progress of the Sun and the Moon and their placement through Time. I’m certain they would’ve noticed the constellation sizes, IF they were really using the constellational signs to calculate their charts. Have you ever considered that? Keep reading and you will understand why I make this point.
Consider the following diagram.
If we take the observational Constellational Sign Zodiac, which is based on space, not time we cannot get 30 equal degrees of the Sun moving through a sign. Note the extreme differences in the sizes of the constellations in the image above.
Here is the time it takes for the Sun to pass through each constellation observationally.
Aries – 25 days – Equal to 25 degrees of a sign.
Taurus – 38 days – Equal to 38 degrees of a sign.
Gemini – 30 days – Equal to 30 degrees of a sign.
Cancer – 21 days – Equal to 21 degrees of a sign.
Leo – 37 days – Equal to 37 degrees of a sign.
Virgo – 44 days – Equal to 44 degrees of a sign.
Libra – 23 days – Equal to 23 degrees of a sign.
Scorpius – 7 days – Equal to 7 degrees of a sign.
Ophiuchus – 18 days – Equal to 18 degrees of a sign.
(Ophiuchus was included simply because the statement above is astronomically observable. If we exclude the actual transit of the Sun through that constellation and give the portion back to Scorpius, we see it would take the Sun 25 days, equivalent to 25 degrees of a sign, to pass through astrological Scorpio from the Constellational Sign Zodiac perspective.)
Sagitarius – 31 days – Equal to 31 degrees of a sign.
Capricornus – 28 days – Equal to 28 degrees of a sign.
Aquarius – 24 days – Equal to 24 degrees of a sign.
Pisces – 38 days – Equal to 38 degrees of a sign.
As we can see illustrated, the Constellational Sign Zodiac cannot be accurately related to a horoscope, as the horoscope is divided into 12 equal parts of 30 degrees. This first came to mind one night when I was looking up at the sky and noticed that the Moon was right in the middle of the constellation Virgo. I scratched my head in wonder. I had just looked at the transits on my computer a few days ago, and according to standard sidereal calculations used by the majority of modern Jyotish Astrologers, the Moon should surely be at the very end of Virgo. Here is what I saw in the horoscope for the transits. Notice the chart says the Moon should be at the very end of Virgo, as a sign is only 30 degrees in a chart:
Here is what I actually saw in the sky that night:
As you can see, the Moon is most certainly nowhere close to the end of Virgo, and certainly not at 28 degrees, or beginning of Virgo. The Moon looks to be right in the middle of Virgo. (The astute observer will also notice, that according to the horoscope for that night, Saturn is said to be at 10:49 of Libra. You will see that Saturn isn’t even out of the constellation of Virgo yet at that time.) This made me more curious…
Two things become apparent here. First, Virgo is nearly twice the size of Libra. Refer to the information above, and you will see that it takes the Sun 44 days to go through the constellation of Virgo (which would require Virgo to be at least 44 degrees in length in your chart) and 23 days to move through the constellation of Libra (which would require Libra to be only 23 degrees in your chart). I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a planet at 39 degrees of Leo in any chart, and I have quite a few charts with planets above 23 degrees of Libra.
Second, we can see that if we use argument of observation to secure a constellational zodiac as being aligned with the sidereal zodiac in Jyotish, this is not accurate. I tried to make this point clearly, because I have often been told from prominent Jyotishis that the reason we use the sidereal zodiac is because it correlates with what we actually see in the sky. Now we can put to rest that believed “fact”. This example is not a rare occurrence, due to the large variance in observational sign length.
Now returning to the Sidereal Sign Zodiac, we can accept it as a possibility. It does actually divide the zodiac into 12 equal segments of 30 which corroborates with statements from well celebrated astrological texts. It also correlates to how horoscopes are actually constructed for an astrologer’s analysis. I say this because, remember, if we were using the observational constellations, a horoscope would have the option for a planet to be at 42 degrees of Virgo, or it would make Aquarius only 24 degrees, which it does not. The signs in any horoscope I’ve ever seen are always only 30 degrees.
The difficulty that arises with the Sidereal Sign Zodiac is knowing where it actually starts. Remember, the sidereal based zodiacs are determined on the placement of stars which precess along the ecliptic. That means we need to choose a star or beginning point to follow its precession to know exactly where the zodiac starts. This precession is based on what is called an Ayanamsha in Jyotish. At this moment, I am aware of at least 10 different Ayanamshas available. That means within the “science” of Vedic Astrology, it is possible that 10 different astrologers will calculate the most important aspects of your chart differently.
(This is also why its pointless for you to get a little astrological knowledge, then go to an astrologer and argue about differing calculations. If you had thoroughly thought through how a chart is to be calculated, you would probably be a good enough astrologer you wouldn’t need an astrologer! This happens a lot. Either let the astrologer do their work, and see how it plays out through time, or make sure you find an astrologer that shares your exact understanding of how you feel the chart should be calculated. Then you can argue over interpretation if you want, but that begs the point, why did you go to an astrologer in the first place if you already knew what your chart meant?)
Back to the point…
The Indian Government has chosen the Lahiri Ayanamsha as the official Ayanamsha. This is the Ayanamsha most sidereal Jyotishis follow. We must remember what inspires governments to function. Governments like to see orderliness among their people. This Lahiri Ayanamsha was chosen in the early to mid 20th Century. This is not an ancient decree from the hoary sages of old as most seem to think, but a political decision made to make sure business and government employees take their holidays on the same day! Before this decree, there was no standard Ayanamsha. You could move from state to state in India, and the Ayanamsha would change by geography.
The Lahiri Ayanamsha is actually the Chitra-pakshiya Ayanamsha invented by the Ketkar brothers. In 1954-55 it was stated that this Ayanamsha was:
- based on no authoritative source
- was adopted to avoid public opposition
- that the proper Ayanamsha should indicate a precession of 20 degrees instead of 23 as is currently accepted
Here are exact quotes from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayanamsa.
“Actually the current orthodox panchangas (the Chaitra Panchangas) or Panjikas show April 13 or April 14 as the beginning of the sidereal Nirayana year. Due to the accumulated error of about 3 ½ degrees in the motion of the Sun, i.e. 3 ½ days in the calendar date; but if we are to correct the position, the Nirayana sidereal year should begin on April 10 or 11 i.e. a concession of 20 degrees should be given instead of 23 degrees.” – S. K. Kar – 1954
“The Calendar Reform Committee has proposed the adoption of 23d 15m 0s as Ayanamsa in order to avoid opposition from the public. The Chaitra school too has come into being in order to avoid public opposition. Neither of these, however, is in conformity with the truth.” – S. K. Kar – 1955
“Sri Lahiri and Professor Vaidya pointed out that if any change is introduced in the ayanamsa at this stage, the calendar for four years so far calculated will require a thorough revision involving a great amount of labour and time. It was, however, agreed that if the difference be small such as one or two minutes of arc, the labour involved in the revision would not be much.” -Author unknown
Maybe you agree with the assumption that the small discrepancy is of little concern. Please consider that a person’s general horoscopic indications may not change much with this. However, as Parashara, Varamahira and other astrological masters have shared in their detailed works, that specific degrees are most important in the calculation of the planetary time periods and the vargas. The varga divisions are key to determining how an astrological chart is actually going to play out through time. Change a few minutes, or even sometimes a few seconds, within the chart and your finer divisional charts will change. This is one reason, why twins, born so near each other in time may have radically different lives.
Do modern scientists in any other field wave a way such discrepancies or are they interested in finding the most precise methods of understanding the universe around them? If you were having the proper dosage of anesthesia measured out for your body type, would you prefer going to a doctor whose anesthesiologist used as precise of a method as possible for your safety during surgery? Or would choose the doctor whose anesthesiologist couldn’t really be bothered to work hard to calculate the proper dosage for your surgery because the labor and time involved was too great?
Now I admit there is a big difference on the effect of your life between anesthesia and astrology. The point is made to encourage deeper thought on this matter for those inclined. If astrology is simply just a matter of entertainment for you, then this is of little consequence. But if it is a serious study, then please consider thinking as seriously and precisely as you are capable.
The Sidereal Sign Zodiac does stay true to the astrological study of things manifesting through time. It does fulfill the requirement of providing a zodiac that matches with a horoscope (i.e. 30 degrees per sign, 12 equal segments of a zodiac). Yet there is the trouble of all these other variables which have not been addressed in any conclusive way, namely that lack of consensus and logical realization of an Ayanamsha. On average, it would still appear rather unscientific. Imagine if Aeronautic Engineers could not agree on the constant for gravity. How often would you fly home to visit family then?
The Sidereal Sign Zodiac has promise for many reasons, and many use it quite well. However, to actually do studies with it, many variables and inconsistencies would need to be addressed.
In our next section we will review the Tropical Zodiac.
Remember, any thoughtful questions or comments you may have, I’d love to hear.
Now we can move on to the other topics in this series. Our future topics yet to come include:
- Previous Section – Introduction and Personal Story Part 1 (click here).
- Previous Section – Introduction and Personal Story Part 2 (click here).
- What are the Zodiacs (This Section)
- What is the Tropical Zodiac?
- What is Tropical Vedic Astrology
- Arguments against Tropical Vedic Astrology put forth to date
- Arguments for the use of the tropical zodiac with Eastern Techniques
- The subjective difficulties in coming to an irrefutable conclusion
- What is “Vedic” Astrology?
- Are there really different kinds of astrology, like there are different kinds of chemistry or physics?
- How do the Yugas influence our understanding of Science?
- Can the Yugas be proven?
- How is a science defined? Do scientific understandings change over time?
- How is it possible for adherents of both systems to claim real life validity? They both can’t be correct, right? Or can they?
- What kind of research is needed to accurately explore zodiacal claims of greater accuracy?