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."
Believers, in any case, seem far more numerous than doubters in India. Marriage ads typically ask potential spouses to submit horoscopes along with photographs and biographical information. Politicians make no secret of consulting astrologers on the most auspicious time to file nomination papers before elections.
Bollywood producers routinely seek counsel from "numerologists," who claim that numbers hold the key to destiny, before deciding on the titles of new films, sometimes adding extra vowels to ensure a favorable run at the box office.
Sudhir Kakkar, a psychoanalyst and author who has written widely about Indian mysticism, said his research had demonstrated that faith in astrology was not necessarily shaken when predictions failed to come true because believers "only remember the successes. There is a very strong alliance between the astrologer and astrologee. Both collaborate for the success of the astrologer."
When he isn't traveling in India or abroad, Somayaji makes his home Bangalore, where he runs a religious school for Hindu devotees. He has a wife and two young children and drives a Honda sedan that was given to him by a grateful follower.
A holy man's son with a flair for self-promotion, Somayaji is a minor celebrity in India, where his predictions on politics, international affairs and stock indexes sometimes turn up in the news columns of major newspapers. He agreed to let a reporter spend parts of two days sitting in on counseling sessions in his private office here, on condition that the names of his visitors not be disclosed without their consent.
Many come to him with personal problems. A father and his pretty, well-educated daughter, who works for an outsourcing firm, discussed their difficulties in finding her a suitable husband. Somayaji somberly studied the young woman's horoscope, checking her energy vibrations by taking her wrist in his hand, then shared his diagnosis with the father.
"The problem with the girl is she has set ideas," he said. "Specifications are too high." But he tells them not to worry: "There is a good marriage, successful marriage, by year 2005 beginning." Visibly relieved, the father touched Somayaji's feet in a gesture of respect, then handed him a wad of rupee notes, which the guru pocketed without comment.
Not everyone gets good news. To a middle-aged woman who was seeking help for her infertile son and daughter-in-law, who live in Spain, Somayaji said bluntly after studying their horoscopes that her son suffered from "low-quality seeds." The problem could not be corrected, he said, unless the couple traveled to India to see him. The woman left in tears.
Corporate clients, some of them regular visitors, also trickled in. Among them were Roopashri Gopalaswamy, 27, a business development manager and board member of Ninestars Information Technologies, a Bangalore firm that specializes in converting archived documents -- including back copies of The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers -- into digital databases. She said she met the guru two years ago, when a senior executive invited him to tour the company's facility in Chennai, a high-tech hub on India's southeastern coast where Ninestars does its digital conversion work.
"He walks into the office, goes around for five minutes and then he was able to give us a complete breakdown of the company," she recalled with a hint of awe, adding that one of his suggestions, since implemented, was to open sales offices in the United States. The company has also learned to trust his advice on important hiring decisions. "A couple of times we've gone against his advice, and we've paid the price," she said.
Special Correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report