Vedic Astrological History
Story of the Zodiacs
By Sam Geppi
Vedic astrology is the most powerful, stable and scientific astrological system the world has ever seen. It has endured in its original form for thousands of years – just like Yoga and Ayurveda – two of India’s sister sciences.
Inseparable from that stability and timeless endurance is the sidereal zodiac, the mapping system used in Vedic astrology, which integrates 12 solar portions with 27 lunar portions, as they (according to Parashara and other Vedic scholars) “occupy the same space”.
A Quick History Lesson on Zodiacs
The earliest record of the 12, 30° signs is from the Babylonian Empire, from about the fifth century BC, written on their cuneiform tablets. The original zodiac was sidereal, connecting precise ecliptic coordinates to 30° portions. Later, these sidereal 30° portions found their way to Greece, then later to Egypt. At that time, all zodiacs were sidereal. The tropical zodiac did not exist until Claudius Ptolemy proposed to pin them to seasons, by declaring the 1st degree of Aries should be pinned to the vernal equinox around the first century CE.
As we now know, the distance between the original sidereal zodiac from Babylon (still used by the Indians) and the tropical zodiac from the Greeks, has now drifted by about 24°. This is because the seasons on earth (measured by the vernal equinox) have nothing to do with the precise, ecliptic coordinates used to measure objects circling the earth. These 2 zodiacs will continue to drift apart by about 1° every 70 years for eternity.
Indian Astrology Is Sidereal
By contrast the sidereal zodiac, which relies on precise degrees, is the same as it was thousands of years ago. This was a time when Magha was at 0° Leo, showing the “king on the throne” in the sign of Leo, rather than having drifted into Virgo as it has if we use a seasonal / tropical calculation. The Nakshatra of Pushya (the breasts) is still squarely in Cancer, the sign of motherhood, rather than having drifted into Leo, etc. By the way, the Greeks also were very interested in the stars in their ancient texts. Ptolemy has an entire chapter on fixed stars, placing them squarely in sidereal signs. But the stellar tradition in western astrology sadly has been abandoned, probably because their zodiac no longer aligns with the stars. Unlike in India, where the stars are an integral part of the zodiac.
In every Vedic astrology text proper, sidereal signs and Nakshatra’s are integrated. Varahamihira states Ashwini (Nakshtra), Aries (Rasi) and the Nakshatra padas are aligned, for example. Parashara declares that the rasis and Nakshtras “occupy the same space”. There are numerous structures in Vedic astrology, like gandantha (rasis and nakshtras both ending where water and fire signs intersect) that make it clear that India settled on the sidereal zodiac to erect astrology charts. No one disputes this, not even those few Vedic astrologers / students who are using the “tropical zodiac” in Vedic astrology in modern times.
When we look into some of the texts (after the Greeks pinned the seasons to the zodiac), references to what would become “the tropical zodiac” show up in “astronomy texts” and also in some of India’s secular/non-astrological writings. In these instances we see the equinoxes and solstices joined to “astrology signs”, rather than measured sidereally, as we would expect. This has confused some, for good reason. In fact it is so confusing that some have now decided that Vedic astrology should be practiced using the “tropical” zodiac and that the Indians made a mistake by using the Sidereal Zodiac. This is curious to say the least. To me it is like a remedy looking for a sickness that does not exist. What exactly is the problem with Vedic astrology again? What malady does the “tropical zodiac” fix?
Regardless, in these “Greek influenced” texts, the Sun is described in relationship to the seasons and other purely “earthbound” events, the length of the year, etc. But there are no astrological methods or techniques in those books. They are not astrology books. So, we should not make hard conclusions about how to “practice astrology” based on these writings, except to take notice that the influence of the Greeks made its way to India at that time.
We can see that, in spite of the references to tropical zodiac in astronomical and secular texts, the wise Indian astrologers never conflated the seasonal / tropical zodiac of the Greeks with the accurate sidereal zodiac. So again, the original zodiac of 12, 30° Signs was first seen in Babylon, then was exported to Greece, then migrated to Egypt, then was joined with the seasons (creating what we now call the Tropical zodiac), eventually making it to India, where it was rejected for erecting horoscopes.
Why Did the Indians Resist?
So, why did the Indians resist using what we now call the “tropical” zodiac? Well, we may never know exactly, but it seems pretty simple. The Indians never used the tropical zodiac. It did not exist until the Greeks and why would it? The Indians already had an extremely precise, sidereal mapping system that had been in place for thousands of years by the time the tropical zodiac showed up.
In the ancient (Rig and Yajur) Vedanga Jyotisha, we see the ancient Indians were great astronomers, having calculated the year very precisely, and even measuring out 30° portions of the year (Sidereally). They also measured “five-year cycles”, which were meant to compensate for a sort of “leap year”. Like all ancient cultures of that time, the first “zodiac” is more of a calendar, not used erecting horoscopes or for practicing astrology. That would come later, as the zodiac signs and Nakshatra indicators would eventually be formalized into a chart reading system. This system would revolve around the sidereal portions of sky they were already using.
Every calculation in the Vedanga Jyotisha was sidereal. Solstices were measured with Nakshatra’s, which are sidereal. The length of their five-year cycle was measured in Nakshatra’s, 135 Nakshatra’s to be precise. Seasons were measured to be 4.5 Nakshatra’s. There are no zodiac signs mentioned and no evidence whatsoever that the Indians used what would be considered a “tropical zodiac”. Every historian and researcher for thousands of years has come to these same conclusions. There is no mystery here.
Tropical Zodiac a Mistake?
The tropical zodiac did not exist until after the 1st century AD. To many throughout history, the tropical zodiac itself is considered to be an irrational juxtaposition of things that should never have been put together. Here’s why.
An “astrological Zodiac”, used for erecting astrology charts, is a structure that allows us to find a planet in a precise location with exact degrees and micro-degrees. These precise coordinates map the celestial movements of planets as they (apparently) circle the earth. Exact degrees matter with the zodiac. But how are those degrees being calculated?
- Are they being calculated based on precise, ecliptic coordinates, that are virtually unmoving over time (Sidereally)?
- Or are they being calculated by taking our place on earth (which is moving slightly over time) and projecting THAT into space to find precise coordinates for a circling heavenly body (Tropical)?
Personally, I do not think the tropical zodiac was a “mistake” for erecting astrology charts. But I see how it very misunderstood thousands of years later.
The earth going around the sun / equinoxes / solstices inherently have nothing to do with the band of celestial coordinates that we use to measure planets moving through the sky. The tropical zodiac connects these two things that are not at all connected to each other.
Just think about it. If you are trying to find the exact coordinates of a planet circling the earth, what is the most reliable way to find it? By taking your place on earth, which is slightly moving over centuries, and projecting that into space (Tropical) – or by measuring it against a precise coordinate that is fixed and unmoving (Sidereal).
This is why the Egyptologist and Western astrologer Cyril Fagan, in the 1940s, completely rejected “tropical” Western astrology, after he realized the nature of the tropical zodiac. Fagan thought it was not a legitimate way to erect horoscopes. This tradition continues today, with thousands of sidereal Western astrologers who have returned to the original zodiac. This original zodiac also connects to the sky as it was when the original western astrology texts were written!
Union of the Sun and Moon in One Connected Zodiac
Indeed, this rigorous sidereal zodiac system of Rasi and Nakshatra, that underpins Vedic astrology, is the envy of astrological systems the world over. The Indians always used the exact, sidereal coordinates from the Vedanga Jyotisha with Nakshatra’s, then later (and currently) interlaced them with the sidereal zodiac sign portions.
With remarkable precision (and probably a sharing of sciences and culture), the 12, 30° divisions of the original Babylonian sidereal zodiac overlaid almost perfectly with the 27 sidereal, Indian portions. Thus, after the Greeks converted the sidereal zodiac to the moving, tropical zodiac by pinning the 1st° of Aries to the vernal equinox, the Indians resisted.
This is not an opinion. This is the story. And again, what was the result?
The result is the most stable, scientific astrological system the world has ever seen. In fact, it is so stable and solid that even the discovery of new planets and other emergent celestial bodies are not necessary to improve it. Indeed, the Indians obviously knew exactly what they were doing. They were following the accuracy of already established traditions.
This is not surprising, as the Indians developed many spiritual sciences that work hand-in-hand with each other. Vedic astrology, and especially its connection to the Cosmology of the sky and usage of the sidereal zodiac, are even further proof of their timeless genius. They were wise enough to resist the conflation of the Greeks, who connected the seasons with the sidereal portions of sky. In resisting this, the Indians preserved the Sun and Moon portions as one integrated system.
Is Tropical Zodiac Wrong For Practicing Astrology?
The tropical zodiac was conceived at the same time that both the Vedic and Western astrology systems were being developed. Thus, both systems can work for erecting horoscopes. Especially for Western astrologers and that tradition, tropical zodiac works very well. You can see it in their methods, which have changed and developed with the discovery of new planets, asteroids, fluid sign rulership, etc.
But even if you are a Vedic astrologer who resonates more with the Tropical Zodiac, and you use it in your practice, I personally will champion your choice and right to do so. This is because each “zodiac” is the organizing principle around which all “methods” work. So, if Vedic astrologers use the tropical zodiac or Western astrologers use the sidereal zodiac or astrologers use the zodiac of their tradition, I am for it all.
Our heart and nervous system must first connect with a zodiac, either sidereal or tropical before any astrology practice can take hold. This is why people get so passionate about their zodiac. After our heart connects to one zodiac we gravitate to practices and methodologies (usually with in the tradition of the system itself) in order to go deeper and interpret astrology charts correctly.
I think all of that is beautiful and I would never attack a person’s system. As I said, both systems developed at the same time that the tropical zodiac was conceived in Egypt. This led to tropical western astrology and the Vedic astrology practice that was galvanized around the sidereal zodiac and the precise scientific astrology of India.
Quick Zodiac Timeline
~ Pre 10th Century BC – 12, 30° solar portions are referred to in Vedanga Jyotisha in India – All celestial portions and events are measured Sidereally. (with nakshatras).
~ 10th Century BC – Babylonians create the Mul.Apin – with several ways to measure the sky, ALL Sidereal
~ 5th Century BC – 12, Equal 30° Sidereal signs (named Aries, Taurus, etc. in their current from) appear from the Babylonian Empire.
~ 2nd Century BC – These sidereal 30° portions find their way to Greece, where Greek astronomer Hipparchus begun mapping stars and eventually discovers the precession of the equinoxes formally.
~ 1st Century CE – Claudius Ptolemy publishes Tetra Biblos which pins the existent Sidereal Zodiacs of Greece and Egypt to the Vernal equinox. This creates the “Tropical Zodiac”, which no longer measures astronomical movements based on precise, Sidereal coordinates, but instead projects the seasonal zodiac into space in order to calculate planetary positions.
~ 2nd Century – 5th Century CE – This newly found “Tropical Zodiac” finds its way into Indian texts, mostly non astrological in nature. The most notable is the Surya Siddhanta which describes the zodiac Tropically (measured by “Signs” not Nakshatras as previously done) in reference to the Solstices.
~ Tropical / Sidereal in Vedic Astrology Texts – In spite of seeing the Tropical zodiac entering India after the Greeks pinned the Sidereal portions to the seasons, the Indians did not adapt this new tropical zodiac to their astrological practice. This is clear and not confusing at all, considering the Indians always used sidereal coordinates AND the original Babylonian sidereal signs fit almost perfectly with their 27 fold lunar zodiac. Many, if not most scholars theorize that the sidereal zodiac was “co-developed” between the Babylonians and Indians due to the obvious sharing of technologies between the 2 cultures. It was also (obviously) the right move, as the Indians created the most stable and powerful astrological system the world has ever seen.
Tropical and Sidereal Zodiacs Today – As we now know, the distance between the original, precise sidereal zodiac from Babylon and used by the Indians to this day, and the extrapolated tropical zodiac from the Greeks, that pinned the vernal equinox to the first degree of Aries, has now drifted by about 24°. It will continue to drift about 1° every 70 years for eternity.