Ashtamangala Deva Prashna
Copyright © 1996-2013
This is a popular article and has been published several times. It first appeared in an anthology of Astrology called Lessons in Hindu Astrology (1997). It then appeared in Diamond Fire Journal (1997) and again appeared in the Indian Vedic Astrology monthly magazine Express Star Teller (May 1999).
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On the morning of July 23, 1982 I found myself outside a Durga temple on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, South India. I was gathered with six of the most learned astrologers of the area, including my teacher Krishnan Potti, an author (in Malayalam) of over a dozen books on astrology, to do Ashtamangala Deva Prashna.
The setting was lush with many fruit-bearing coconut and banana trees as well as the heady and intoxicating aroma of Champaka and Jasmine flowers. Incense wafted in the breeze outside as everyone in attendance: the temple managers, brahmanas (priest caste), pujaris (temple priests), and local congregation waited for the astrologers to begin the Ashtamangala Deva Prashna (hence forth ADP), a specialty of what could be called the Kerala school of astrology.
Ashtamangala refers to two things: first of all it refers to a method of numerology which will be referred to later on; secondly it refers to eight (ashtha) auspicious (mangala) items that are used in this type of divination. These items are: ghee lamps (brass lamps with a wick in clarified butter), mirror, gold, milk, yogurt, fruits, book, and white cloth.
Deva Prashna is a special kind of Prashna (Prashna--question, horary astrology) specifically dealing with temple matters. Both are explained in that encyclopedic treatise Prashna Marga "the path of horary astrology." However, as I was soon to discover, successful ADP required more than knowledge of these two subjects. Success depended on a thorough knowledge of all the principles of Prashna Marga, plus a high degree of intelligence, great powers of observation, and keen intuition stemming from spiritual practices and an austere, pure godly lifestyle. Because the subject of Prashna was a temple and the presiding devata (deity), only the very best astrologers were called upon to conduct the Prashna. By having several scholarly astrologers present it was expected that mistakes would be minimized, and that what one astrologer might miss another would pick up on.
Studies in India
This was not my first ADP. On my previous stay of 18 months, in 1977-78, I had begun my study of astrology in Hyderabad and was then asked to take it up as my full-time service to my Guru. I had first began to study Prasna in this, my second, sojourn in India (1980-83). I had been studying Jataka (natal astrology) in Calcutta with Harihar Majumder, a leading, elderly, scholar and the author of Hindu Science of the Future (as well as many books in Bengali). I strongly desired to become a well rounded astrologer and I knew from my studies that there were six limbs to astrology, not just Jataka, but unfortunately I had found no astrologers in North India who knew Prashna. I knew, from my reading, that Prasna and other branches of astrology were well preserved in South India. Thus after I finished my studies with my teacher and gave him his dakshina (donation for teaching me) I headed south to Bangalore in May of 1981 armed with a letter of introduction from Y. Keshava Menon (president of the Calcutta astrological association and regular contributor to The Astrological Magazine) to Dr. B.V. Raman.
I had just read Dr. Raman's translation of Prashna Marga and I hoped that he would be able to guide me to a good teacher of this art. Dr. Raman kindly consented to see me but threw a wet blanket on my dreams by telling me that it would be practically impossible for me to find a good teacher of Prashna. "Good scholars of astrology are rare," he said, "of these, those that could teach were rarer still; and of these, those who had time to teach a neophyte like me were even more rare. And out of all of these astrologers one who could speak English was the rarest of them all."
I was undaunted and determined to prove him wrong but I soon found that he had not spoken lightly. Eventually, after many months of tireless searching and meeting countless astrologers I finally found two sources for in-depth knowledge of Prashna - a family of Jain astrologers in Bangalore headed by the late B.G. Sasikantha Jain, who practiced Bhrgu Prasna (though Jain in name they had all converted to Vaisnavism). And the late Krishnan Potti the scholar of Prashna Marga. Convincing Sasikantha Jain to teach me took me over 10 months, but that's another story. And while Krishnan Potti readily agreed to teach me there was a little problem, actually two-he lived in a very beautiful, but rather remote, hilly area, outside of Thiruvananthapuram with no access by bus or taxi; and he didn't speak English.
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The first problem I solved by learning to drive a motor-cycle. A simple feat you may think but considering that there are practically no enforceable traffic laws in India and that road obstacles include, but are not limited to: chickens, hogs, dogs, camels, asses, goats, cows, buffaloes and the occasional elephant (and their dung, chicken dung is no problem but I once ran into a soccer-ball sized lump of elephant dung, at twilight, at about 30 mph, it was like hitting a big lump of grease, I'm lucky to be alive), what to speak of throngs of people, buses, lorries (big trucks), cars, plus terrible road conditions, etc. Going for my astrology lessons meant to take my life in my own hands and I would fervently pray to Lord Nrsimhadeva (half-man, half-lion avatara of Lord Krsna) for protection.
The second problem was a bit more tricky. Krishnan Potti didn't speak English and I didn't know Malayalam, the language of Kerala. However, though no Sanskrit scholar, I had a rather large Sanskrit vocabulary from studying Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam and other Vedic literatures; ayurveda, and of course my in-depth study of astrology in India. I found that as long as we spoke in Sanskrit about astrology I could readily follow what was being said and thus I passed more than a year studying with Krishnan Potti.
Though he lived in a remote area away from the city he had a steady stream of people who would show up for his advice. I wasn't his only student, he had several including a policeman, but I was special because I was a foreigner who had come so far, had taken up the Vedic lifestyle and was struggling so hard to learn astrology. We handled all kinds of Prashnas but ADPs were special because these Prasnas necessitated that several scholarly astrologers gather at a venue away from their normal place of practice. Aside from this, ADPs required the use of nimitta (omens) and other special procedures that we shall presently describe. Because the ADPs involved many persons aside from my astrology guru the discussions were all in Malayalam, thus I arranged for a translator to accompany me for this day long affair, for I knew it would take up the whole morning and most of the afternoon with a break for lunch.
Countless experiences like this destroyed in my mind the mechanistic world view of modern science and permanently established the Vedic, God-centered, world view of Krsna Consciousness.
What follows is directly from my notes of that day (I urge all students of Prashna to keep notes and records of all Prasnas they do, I still keep notes). It would be impossible for me to include everything that was said and done in the (approximately) seven hour period necessary to conduct the Ashtamangala Deva Prashna, however we hope that the reader will be able to appreciate the mystical nature of the experience which, even for many students of Vedic astrology, will seem to border on magical. Countless experiences like this destroyed in my mind the mechanistic world view of modern science and permanently established the Vedic, God-centered, world view of Krsna Consciousness. As astrologers we are sometimes bound up in thinking that everything revolves around symbols drawn on a piece of paper. Or that the planets somehow act on an individual. This limiting paradigm is shattered when we realize that everything in existence is a message from Sri Krsna if we only knew how to read them. The grahas (specific planets used in divination) are only part of a larger language. An astrologer must always keep his eyes and ears open and be prepared to read everything that is happening during a crucial moment such as a Prashna.