In India, Meshing the Modern and the Mystical
Factory Orders Dropping? Astrologer Is Go-to Guru for Struggling Corporate Executives
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page A17
BANGALORE, India -- Amid a haze of sandalwood incense, K.N. Somayaji leans back in his swivel chair and fields yet another call from the bank of telephones at his side, this one from the Indian subsidiary of a U.S. auto-parts manufacturer.
"All of them are happy at the plant?" he asks in precise accented English. "The U.S. headquarters, what happened? . . . And how is the Indian plant? . . . Improving? . . . Good. . . . From the last two months I think you are booking a profit."
It sounds like the kind of business conversation repeated thousands of times a day in this thriving south Indian city that is the subcontinent's answer to Silicon Valley. But Somayaji, a balding, round-faced man with a salt-and-pepper beard and three stripes of ash smeared on his forehead as a reminder of life's transience, is neither banker nor businessman nor high-tech entrepreneur. He is a guru.
"The divine force of God appears before me on a daily basis in the form of troubled and needy people, and I am here to guide them," said Somayaji. "When they come to me I don't consider them powerful and successful, but in the outside world, yes."
Somayaji represents himself as both an astrologer and a specialist in vaastu, which is similar to the Chinese tradition of feng-shui in that it seeks to ensure good fortune by means of structural and interior design.
Those who seek Somayaji's counsel include corporate executives, stars in Bollywood, as India's film industry is known, politicians and, in this case, the Indian managers of the auto-parts firm, who turned to the holy man for help after orders from their new factory fell far short of expectations. After determining that the plant owed its troubles to poor vaastu, Somayaji dispatched a team of Hindu priests to the site, where they recently wrapped up 48 days of prayers aimed at correcting the problem.
"U.S. people are not believing I could turn it around," he said proudly after hanging up the phone. "In May they made a small profit."
For thousands of years, Indians of all castes and income levels have sought the guidance of mystics such as astrologers, who claim to forecast the future by studying the positions of planets and stars. But astrology also plays a role in the rapidly modernizing India of outsourcing, high-tech industry and globalization. Though it is not the kind of phenomenon that lends itself to accurate surveys, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that many well-educated and successful Indian businessmen routinely, if discreetly, consult astrologers and other mystics not just on personal issues but also on corporate matters such as expansion plans or hiring decisions.
Somayaji, 45, is a corporate astrologer, as comfortable in the language of IPOs and mergers as he is with the astral implications of Mars in the seventh house. Although he declines to identify his clients, citing privacy issues, those who have come to him for advice include executives from several of India's largest industrial conglomerates. According to associates, officials from several of the companies and reports in the Indian business press, his clients include a senior manager for the Intercontinental hotel chain; managers of a troubled state-run power plant; and a fast-growing Bangalore high-tech firm that specializes in converting newspaper archives into searchable digital databases.
The other day, laying on Somayaji's desk was a set of blueprints from a leading Bombay investment banker who wanted Somayaji to ensure that planned modifications to the banker's swimming pool were consistent with good vaastu. "It's a science of vibrations," said Somayaji. He said he didn't charge set fees, but acknowledged that he lived comfortably on the donations of well-heeled followers, many of whom live abroad and pay for his frequent first-class trips to the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Astrology has its skeptics in India. Three years ago, several prominent academics mounted a court challenge against a government decision to permit Indian universities to award degrees in astrology. "Science is committed to the truth, and astrology is not a science," said Pushpa Bhargava, a biologist who was among the plaintiffs in the case. "Government must not support irrational systems in any way."
But in May, India's Supreme Court upheld the government's decision, ruling that "since astrology is partly based upon movement of the sun, earth, planets and other celestial bodies, it is a study of science at least to some extent."
Astrologers hailed the ruling as a major victory for their discipline, which is also known as jyotisha, based on the Sanskrit word for light.
"Astrology is associated with all kinds of things with which it is not really connected -- mumbo jumbo, magic, crystal gazing, none of which has anything to do with jyotisha," said Gayatri Devi Vasudev, the editor of Astrological Magazine, a Bangalore-based monthly that was founded by her great-grandfather in 1896. "It is a science which sheds light on areas to which you do not have access otherwise."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company