In Sri Lanka's rural society in particular, astrology is believed capable
of providing the auspicious timing of personal and public events. Therefore most Sri Lankans have horoscopes cast at birth, which are consulted by an astrologer at important junctures in life such as marriage. So astrology governs when things happen, and when they don't.
Words Richard Boyle
Many cultures throughout human history believed that there is a connection between celestial bodies and personal destiny. The method of reading the heavens, astrology, practiced by civilizations such as the Mayans, Chinese, Greeks, and Egyptians, remains a crucial aspect of life in Sri Lanka: nothing important is carried out before consulting an astrologer. There are even weekly newspapers devoted to the subject.
This adherence is due to tradition. King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC) considered astrology to be of such significance to his subjects that he provided "a doctor, an astrologer, and a priest for each group of 16 villages throughout the kingdom". Even as late as the 19th Century, medical knowledge in the Island was interwoven with the accepted wisdom of astrology. John Davy, in "An Account of the Interior of Ceylon" (1821), states that for a Ceylonese to be a "scientific physician, he should also be an astrologer, that he might know what concern the stars had in producing the disease".
Although astrology lost some of its global influence with the emergence of modern astronomy in the 17th Century, a revival occurred in the 20th Century with the rise of spiritualism and similar beliefs. Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, developed theories that supported astrology such as that of the archetype, the collective unconscious and synchronicity, and stated, "Astrology is assured of recognition from psychology, without further restrictions, because astrology represents the summation of all the psychological knowledge of antiquity."
The Sinhala name for astrology is jyotishaya, meaning "science of the light", while an astrologer is called a nekatiya - nekat refers to the auspicious and inauspicious moments in life predicted through the position of celestial bodies. There are many occasions when an astrologer's predictions impact on a family. After the birth of a child the father makes a special visit to the astrologer to convey the date, place, and precise time of the birth - normally considered to be the first breath or cry - for two purposes: to obtain a set of Sinhala letters from which a name can be chosen, and to cast a horoscope, kendare, for the child.
A child is named in accordance with certain astrological parameters. On the basis of the precise time of birth the astrologer gives three sets of letters from which one letter has to be chosen as the first of the child's name. Of the three sets, the first is determined by the nekat under which the child is born, the second by the lagna or sign of the zodiac (an aspect familiar to Westerners), and the third by the day of the week of the birth. Once these letters are known, the parents choose a name suitable in terms of sound and meaning.
The horoscope cast at a child's birth serves as a stylised map of the heavens at a specific location at a particular moment in time. In the past it was invariably written on an ola-leaf, known as a puskola, but nowadays ordinary paper is often used. It is a work of art in itself, an arcane combination of symbols, signs, writing and linear design.
Parents seek advice from an astrologer regarding certain steps on their children's long path to adulthood - for example, when about seven months old, the auspicious time for indul kata ganava (the initial feeding of solids) has to be determined. Similarly, a consultation must be made to ascertain when a child should start to learn the alphabet (athpoth thiyanava). So it is with the first haircut, the first ear-boring, and much else besides.
The most critical task an astrologer has to perform with regard to children is at the time arranged matrimony is considered. According to Sri Lankan culture a man and woman become partners in life, because they were destined to do so by the influence of the Buddhist concept of karma, or actions in their previous lives. This karmic information is embedded in a horoscope, so it is necessary to carefully scrutinise the horoscopes of both prospective marriage partners to judge whether they match, a method known as porondam.
karmic information is embedded in a horoscope, so it is necessary to carefully scrutinise the horoscopes
Best described in English as "feasibility", porondam compares eight, ten, or 20 separate aspects. If most of these aspects tally, a successful marriage is envisaged. But if they don't a marriage is deemed likely to fail. Thus the matrimonial columns that appear in the newspapers invariably contain the phrase "apply with horoscope". If the prospective partners' horoscopes do match, the two families are likely to approve a marriage, and an astrologer will determine the auspicious times for the entire marriage ceremony. This includes the time to exchange the wedding ring and the time to enter and leave the wedding location.
The use of astrology extends to the plans and actions of older members of the family. If a house is built, the architect will only lay the foundation, the owners will only move in, and a house-warming will only be held at auspicious times decided upon by an astrologer. Other examples include the commencement of a new business or employment, and even the digging of a well.
At times of crisis - illness for instance, unemployment, family discord, or a couple's inability to bear children - an astrologer is always consulted. Remedies will be recommended, most of a ritualistic nature such as the bodhi pooja, in which offerings are made at the bo-tree in a Buddhist temple, and dane, the offering of food to animals, particularly crows and dogs.
In April, Sri Lanka's New Year, or Aluth Avurudda, is a demanding time for the astrologer, for most individuals naturally want to discover what fate has in store for them during the next 12 months. There are several astrological predictions connected with the festival, such as the auspicious time for lighting the hearth, eating the first meal, bathing, and commencing work. A peculiarity is that New Year does not begin at midnight on the designated day because the precise timings are decided upon astrologically. Thus, New Year commences not when the old one ends, but some hours later. The interval is called nona gathe, or "neutral period", when all but religious activity ceases.
There is another astrological concept whereby each day has a different inauspicious time, rahu kala, during which it is believed that any actions undertaken have no value. This compels the delay of activities until the right moment arrives, often causing inconvenience to day-to-day affairs. But then timing is everything as far as Sri Lanka's astrology is concerned.