Star-spangled AI

Algorithm, Android, and the internet are driving Indian astrology’s DIY avatar

Artificial intelligence could be the next milestone in reading the stars among modern Indians
Algorithm, Android, and the internet are driving Indian astrology’s DIY avatar
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Archana Patchirajan and Niravta Mathur met at a spiritual retreat in India in the early 2010s and quickly realised they shared an interest in astrology.

Astrology was where Patchirajan, a US-based engineer, found solace following a personal tragedy. She believes, it is as much of a tool of self-discovery as it is a fortune-telling practice. On the other hand, UK-based Mathur had previously worked in fashion for over two decades and wanted to do something more meaningful now.

The alignment of their convictions led to the launch of their joint venture, Cosmic Insights, in December 2016. The app includes all the features needed for an Indian astrology software and offers free services like chat forums and basic chart interpretations. But to unlock its true potential, it costs around $50 for a year and four times more for a lifetime membership.

Eventually, they added another one to their kitty: Align27. This one guides users in “personalized self-care and time management” based on astrology. It includes a feature that classifies a user’s days into three categories—green day (good for initiatives, job interviews, and the like), amber day (neutral), and red day (absolute no-no)—based on the individual’s birth chart.

The duo now plans to roll out Align27 as a wellness tool for corporates, to manage employees more efficiently according to their days.

Cosmic Insights and Align27 are among a bunch of apps, YouTube channels, and software that have helped astrology, especially Indian jyotish, navigate a rapidly modernising world and keep believers hooked and perhaps cultivate new ones. The global astrology market is now pegged at $23 billion, with half of it based in the Asia Pacific and a third dominated by millennials.

Patchirajan, who wrote the code for both Cosmic Insights and Align27—Mathur handles their marketing—thinks things are set to go a notch higher.

“I think artificial intelligence is the future of astrology,” she said. “One doesn’t need daily advice from an astrologer and an app can easily do the job instead.”

This is a stark departure from how astrology has been practised in India for centuries. Traditionally, a priest known to the family or a local astrologer was the one providing paid consultations. The emphasis was on matching horoscopes for marriage or determining the auspicious time for important milestones like a housewarming ceremony or the inauguration of a business venture.

With increasing commercialisation, people began consulting astrologers on finding jobs abroad, improving one’s financial prospects, and solutions to “love marriage” issues. Today, however, things may be turning a full circle, as prosperous and educated Indians are increasingly looking up to the stars for their spiritual anchoring and psychological self-awareness.

And since these changes are often driven by the internet, a more DIY version of astrology has gained currency.

The popularity of the KRSChannel-Learn Astrology on YouTube, with half a million subscribers, is a testament to this trend.

Kapiel Raaj Srivastava, the man behind the channel, is a full-time astrologer and filmmaker based in the US. His approach is decidedly unconventional for an Indian astrologer. He films his videos in his customised studio, showcasing his channel’s merchandise. Since 2009, he has uploaded at least a couple of videos every week.

Srivastava speaks in accented English, at times smoking cigars on screen. While traditionalists may frown upon his approach, he is a favourite among astrology enthusiasts around the world for his interpretations that often reflect the aspirations of globetrotting and savvy modern consumers.

He also teaches astrology through his online school, charging between $100 and $300 and offers consultations via email.

Many others follow a similar template, delivering readings through recorded audio files, private YouTube videos, or a scheduled Skype or Zoom session. Such readings cost upwards of $100 and the process can take anything between a few weeks to a couple of months to be completed.

However, this tech-heavy avatar has a downside, too, as it makes it easier than ever to set up shop. Indian astrology’s experience seems to have sufficiently shown that the internet may have made the misuse of astrology all the more prevalent.

A self-proclaimed astrologer can set up a website, a YouTube channel, and social media handles—all for free—and yet charge customers anywhere in the world.

Take the case of free-to-use astrology software Jagannath Hora, developed by the US-based engineer and astrologer PVR Narasimha Rao and launched in 2003.

Jagannath Hora provides all the features that an astrologer might need. It can be used to create countless birth charts, have relevant texts uploaded for ready reference, includes detailed databases of astrological placements of famous individuals, and the latest astrological transits, as also the traditional Indian astrological calendar panchang.

Where, earlier, one had to be good at mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, in addition to being spiritually inclined, in order to divine the future, today one can begin with much less and earn a lot more.

But unlike before, informed consumers can also do their due diligence now, educating themselves on the topic and researching astrologers before paying for their services. In a country like India, hooked to astrology often for worse than better, this alone might be the most important change in how Indians now read their stars.

Garima Garg is the author of Heavens and Earth: Story of Astrology Through Ages and Cultures, published by Penguin Random House India