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Vedic Astrology - Precession of the Equinoxes
By Jeffrey Armstrong
To understand Astrology it is necessary to have a basic grasp of Astronomy. The horoscope which an astrologer casts and uses to understand a person's destiny is actually a picture of the sky surrounding the Earth at the moment of birth. Horoscope means "view of the hour." In order to understand that view some basic Astronomy is necessary. As you will see, the horoscope is not just your Sun sign but includes other planets and the constellations or star groups as well. A proper understanding of Astronomy will also make it clear how Western or Tropical Astrology is using calculations that are inaccurate by almost 2000 years!
The first astronomical reality is that the Earth is traveling around the Sun in an elliptical orbit. This gives rise to our experience of the year cycle. The ancients, of course, did not always understand that it was the Earth which moved around the Sun since it appears that the Sun revolves around the Earth. The path of the Earth around the Sun is called the ecliptic. The equator, which divides the Earth in halves at the middle, would be the same as the ecliptic if the Earth's poles were at right angles to the ecliptic. Instead the Earth is tilted in space at an angle of 23 ½ degrees.
This tilt gives rise to the change of seasons, which is experienced at Northern and Southern latitudes. At the equator there are no seasons because the amount of sunlight does not vary throughout the year. Since the Earth is tilted in relation to the Sun, we receive varying amounts of sunlight throughout the year in the Northern and Southern latitudes, and we call this the change of the seasons. Because the light available to us is always changing we experience the four seasonal changes as: The longest night of the year - the Winter Solstice; the first day of Spring - the Vernal Equinox, where day and night are equal but day is growing longer; the longest day of the year - the Summer Solstice; and the first day of Fall, when day and night are equal - the Autumnal Equinox. We could have chosen any one of those four as the beginning of a new year cycle but since vegetation returns in Spring, it came to be the measuring point of a new year.
Think of the first day of spring, which is usually March 21st, as a point of focus for this discussion of our relationship on Earth to the Sun, Moon, planets and stars. The other thing to remember is that on Earth everything in space appears to be revolving around us. This means every day the Sun appears to rise and set, when in fact it is the Earth turning once on it's axis. Because the Earth is tilted 23 ½ degrees, that place in space where the upper pole of Earth points is experienced by us as North. In other words, we experience the directions North, South, East and West because the Earth stays in a particular angular relationship to the Sun and in the background, the fixed stars.
Again, our daily experience is that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. When the Sun sets we can then see the rising of the stars and whatever planets and the Moon, which are visible on that night. During the day the light of the Sun is too bright for us to see the stars and planets in the sky. It appears to us that everything is rising and setting on a path in the sky. They rise at a place in the East and set at a place in the West. That path is in fact the ecliptic, the Earth's path around the Sun, the line on which eclipses of the Sun and Moon take place. Certain groups of stars also appear to rise and set each day. If you imagine a belt of stars 8 degrees either side of that path, that circle of stars is called the Zodiac, which means "circle of animals."
Since the total circle is 360 degrees, the star groups were divided into twelve groups of approximately 30 degrees. These star groups were eventually named Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. These star groups or constellations rise and set each day over a period of 24 hours, which means each one is one the eastern horizon for a period of approximately 2 hours. When we are born, the time of birth, combined with the latitude and longitude of the place of birth, tells the astrologer which of the 12 star groups was rising in the East at that moment. That is called the rising constellation.
If there were no other motions of the Earth to consider, the same stars would rise at the same place and time every year. Take for example the first day of Spring, March 21st. Every year on that day, the day and night are equal. The Sun rises in the morning on that day and although its light is too bright for us to see them, the Sun is surrounded by a particular group of stars. "Surrounded by" means the stars are there in the background and the Sun appears in their midst. To make this easier to see, let's imagine that the Moon is full on that very day.
The Moon revolves around the Earth. "New Moon" is the time when the Moon appears in the same part of the sky as the Sun. You could think of New Moon as "no Moon" since because of it's proximity to the Sun it is not visible to us. In other words, it rises and sets with the Sun so we cannot see the Moon. "Full Moon" is the opposite time of the lunar cycle, when the Sun and Moon appear 180 degrees apart. It is always the case on Full Moon that the Sun sets and the Moon rises at the same moment because they are opposite each other.
So, imagine it is Full Moon on the first day of Spring. The Sun rises in a particular star group and at sunset the Moon rises in the opposite star group. The difference is we can now see the stars which surround the Moon. Both the Sun and the Moon appear in one of those star groups, they are in a constellation. In this case they are opposite each other so they are in opposite constellations. The question is: "What star group is the Sun in on March 21st and is it always in the same constellation or is it gradually changing?" If the Earth did not have any other regular motions, the Sun would always be in the same group of stars on March 21st. But there is one more motion which changes everything.
To understand this other motion of the Earth, picture a top in space orbiting around the Sun once in a year. Picture it revolving or turning on it's own axis once in a day. Now imagine that the North pole of the top has a very slow wobble. If there was a pencil sticking out of the North pole of the top, for every wobble, the pencil would draw a circle in the sky above the top. In the case of our Earth, one wobble takes about 25,870 years. This means that the Earth actually shifts in relation to the stars. There are two visible results from this shift. The first is a gradual change in the pole star. Our current pole star, Polaris, is less than 1 degree from the North Pole. In the year 150 BC it was 12 degrees 24 minutes from it. It was not until the fifteenth century that Polaris could be used for navigation as an indicator of North. As a result of this wobble, Polaris is ceasing to be our pole star. In fact, in 13,000 years a star 47 degrees from Polaris will be our new pole star!
The other result of this wobble is called the "Precession of the Equinoxes." The Earth is changing its relation to the fixed stars. So, instead of the same group of stars being with the Sun on the First day of Spring, it changes slowly over time. That slow motion causes the first day of Spring to precede backwards through the Zodiac, meaning the Vernal Equinox occurs in one Constellation for about 2,160 years, a period of time referred to as an "age." Right now we are in the Age of Pisces. That means on the first day of Spring, March 21st, the Sun rises in the constellation Pisces at around six degrees. Approximately every 72 years the Earth's wobble causes the next degree to cross the Vernal Equinox, on March 21st.
The movement is backward through the signs of the Zodiac, a sort of backward cosmic countdown. We started the Age of Pisces around 1750 years ago when on the first day of Spring the Sun occurred in 30 degrees of the constellation Pisces. Over the years it became 29, 28, 27, 26, 25 all the way down to today where on the Vernal Equinox the Sun is in 6 degrees of Pisces. Over the next few hundred years the countdown will continue 5, 4, 3, 2, 1(degrees) until on March 21st the Sun is no longer in Pisces but is in 30 degrees of Aquarius. On that day, several hundred years from now we will enter the Age of Aquarius.
Yes I know, the song was done and the mugs and T-shirts are ready and it's the Millennium and all that, but the real Age of Aquarius is an astronomical event that will not be happening for some time yet. While we are on the subject, it is not really the year 2000 either. No one knows the actual year of Christ's birth, 2000 AD (after his death) is purely a made up number. In case you are worried about the year 2000, the only problems related to our year 2000 are the ones we create out of fear or the bills coming due from previous years actions!
Returning to our discussion about the Precession of the Equinoxes, right now we are in the Age of Pisces. The previous age was the Age of Aries (2160 years) and before that the Age of Taurus (2160 years). In the Age of Taurus, whoever was born on March 21st had Sun in Taurus. In the Age of Aries anyone born on March 21st had the Sun in Aries. And right now in the Age of Pisces, anyone born on March 21st has Sun in Pisces.
So, why is it that the newspaper/Western Astrology says that someone born on March 21st is an Aries, when that has not been true for 1750 years? (Western Astrologers are also called "Tropical" Astrologers, which is how I will refer to them from now on. Those who follow the Precession of Equinoxes and use the Stars are referred to as "Sidereal" Astrologers.)
Imagine you have a wine bottle which had a wine in it called "Aries" 1750 years ago, but now it has a wine called "Pisces." Would you call the new wine Aries since the bottle used to hold that wine? Similarly, the first day of Spring used to be in Taurus, then in Aries, but neither of those wines are in the bottle now. The bottle is March 21st and this year the wine in the bottle is Pisces, which means on March 21st 1998 the person born has a Sun in Pisces. They are not an Aries and will not be for another 25,000 years. When the Aquarius Age begins, on March 21st the person born will be not a Taurus, not an Aries, not a Pisces, but a Sun in Aquarius. To put it very simply, Tropical Astrologers are currently thinking that the Aries wine is still in the bottle and it is not and has not been for 1750 years.
How could such a huge mistake have been made? Good question, we'll take a look at that in the next article!
More than just an interesting essay on history and ancient culture, this is an introduction to an important discussion on the meaning and definition of what true Astrology is. In this debate there are distinct and opposing views on the correct practice of Astrology. The outcome of this for the reader is that you are probably not the Astrological sign you have been told, or read in the newspaper, you are - all because of a 23 degree mistake which has been incorporated into Western Astrology. To put it simply, you may not be the sign you think you are.
Jeffrey Armstrong is an Ayurvedic Astrologer
who has spent the last 30 years studying Vedanta, Yoga, Tantra and Mantra practices.
He has degrees in Literature, Psychology and Comparative Religions and has studied
Martial Arts, Chinese Medicine, and Ayurveda, combining the knowledge of India,
Tibet and China into a complete system of practice which includes spiritual,
healing and practical benefits useful for modern living.