Dust into Gold

Today is Appa’s birthday, his solar birthday. My teacher, Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy was born on March 11th, 1936, we think. I say, “think,” because there was no name or date on his birth certificate, just “baby boy” and the names of his parents. Appa wasn’t sure about the precise day and Brahmins of his era took the traditional stance, waiting the prescribed ten days before naming a child— time enough for the traumas of birth to pass and for the appropriate gathering of friends and family. The namakarana or “naming ceremony” is largely a deshacara, that is, a matter of custom because the orthodox texts (called Grhyasutra) actually don’t specify the ritual. (There’s a fine, short piece about namakarana here, if you are curious: http://www.subhakariam.com/samskara/namakarana.htm). Appa was born under the Pushyam nakshatra, said to be the most auspicious of the lunar mansions and it is the nakshatra that determines the date for one’s traditional birthday celebration among orthodox Hindus.

Each of the twenty-seven nakshatra divide the sun’s eliptic. Simply put, the sun appears to trace an eastward path spherically around the earth as the year passes and with the orbit of the moon taking 27.3 days, it takes about one day for the moon to pass through each nakshatra or “lunar mansion.” (There’s more about the elipitic here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecliptic.) Where the moon is in the celestial sphere at the moment of one’s birth decides one’s nakshatraand defines the auspicious moment of birth, a determination so complex to calculate that Appa used to say jokingly that it was yet another way for the Brahmins to keep themselves employed. Nowadays there are nakshatra calculators on the Internet and any number of explanations of their astrological significance. I’m not in the business of contending others’ amusements but as far as I can tell almost any endeavor of learning will surpass what might be gained from pursuing these astrological matters, except perhaps as a way of understanding better Indian culture and history.

While he would not have made much mention of his opinions publicly, Appa never much cared for jyotisha, astrology, nor did he invest much importance in its claims. But he also would not have liked to offend others’ interests and in his culture astrology, like the Iron Chef’s cuisine, reigns supreme. (I’m constantly reminded in my everyday life that Appa was a better person than I am. Growing up in Jersey as a boy we were perfectly willing to offend a sensibility if it was in the service of something more sensible. You talkin’ to me? You gotta’ be kiddin’ me.) Appa maintained that astrological determinations played upon our human desire to know without offering enough information of real value in return; he much preferred our ability to cultivate the mind, speak authentically from the heart, and allow the cosmos do what it does with a greater reliance upon more proximate and important sources of influence upon our human experience. But he was also deeply respectful of his culture and there’s no underestimating the degree to which astrological calculation plays its role in the organization of Hindu social and religious identity. When performing even ordinary rites in a Hindu temple, the priest will invariably ask for your nakshatra as part of the process by which the god recognizes who, where, and when you appeared within the greater divine matrix. Don’t leave home without it.