Indian author R.K. Narayan’s “An Astrologer’s Day” tells the story of a fraudulent astrologer who makes his living by selling cosmic insights to gullible villagers. Although he has no knowledge of the cosmos or actual spiritual insight, the astrologer exploits his customers’ search for meaning and reassurance, robing his lies in the vagaries of mystery and religion. Narayan’s portrayal of astrology and holy men does not eviscerate or prosecute religion, but certainly prods at it. The astrologer is presented as a mere man, full of greed and fear and suffering from the woes of marriage, money, and tangled relationships much like any other human being. He possesses no cosmic insight of his own, and so must borrow and fabricate it. At the same time, the author recognizes that such religious mysticism, whether real or fantasy, offers an architecture of meaning for common people suffering common problems, but fearing insignificance and a lack of control above all else.
The astrologer’s appearance, produced by his garb and equipment, are all designed to create an air of mysticism and power. In the opening lines of the story, as the astrologer’s character is being established, he lays out his “professional equipment,” which is nothing more than a number of cowrie shells, a cloth chart that is too obscure to be understood but looks sufficiently mystical, and a bundle of ancient writings and scrolls. These props help him sell the illusion that he is a holy man; he never actually uses the items. The astrologer has also painted his forehead with sacred ash and wrapped himself in a saffron turban—saffron ironically being symbolic in Hinduism of purity and the quest for light.
The astrologer seats himself beneath a large tamarind tree, drawing upon the classical image of holy men instructing their disciples beneath a grand tree, like Buddha attaining enlightenment or icons of Jesus Christ teaching his followers. By associating himself with a grand piece of nature, he further reinforces the notion that he is a man connected with and harmonizing with the world and the cosmos. Yet even as his eyes, settled between the striking colors of his headwear and his black beard, take on a sharp, otherworldly quality that evokes powerful wisdom, the astrologer is fully aware that in such garb, “even a half-wit’s eyes would sparkle.” In fact, the narrator notes, “half the enchantment of the place had to do with the fact that it did not have the benefit of municipal lighting”—that is, marketplace itself only seems mystical, essentially, because it lacks adequate lighting provided by the government. Such details comically undercut any notion of the astrologer as a true mystic, and reject outward trappings of mysticism as shallow and meaningless.
The astrologer’s keen insight and religious vocabulary thus mask the fact that he has no cosmic wisdom. The astrologer admits to himself that he had never intended to become an astrologer and does not understand the stars or planets nor their astrological implication better than any other peasant. His position as a fraudulent holy man, which is a risky endeavor in a highly religious community, is only the result of unfortunate circumstances that forced him to flee his home years earlier after (supposedly) killing another villager, Guru Nayak. Even so, the astrologer has sharpened his perception and formed a broad analysis of human problems, being that they almost always center around marriage, money, or tangled relationships. With this insight and a good listening ear, he is able to give vague advice and positive affirmation dressed in astrological language. He has learned what people want to hear, though they do not know that they want to hear it. They are comforted by what he has to say and thus happy to pay him his fee.
The astrologer’s guise, then, however elaborate, is dependent upon the fact that people are searching for meaning and immediately inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Interestingly, the narrator calls the astrologer’s work as honest as any man’s labor and believes he deserves his wages. Indeed, the astrologer acts as a sort of therapist for the community—not a particularly good one, but one who does make his patients feel encouraged and affirmed in their struggles. His customers crave some level of cosmic significance in their life, and he offers it; there is a symbiosis to their relationship. However, the imbalance between their mundane problems and his astrological explanations is often absurd, such as when he connects a poor temperament to the position of Saturn.
The fact that the astrologer himself uses his disguise to evade punishment for his past crime presents the story’s ultimate hypocrisy. In the late hours of the evening, the astrologer has an encounter with a skeptical stranger whom he recognizes as Guru Nayak, the man he had attempted to murder years before. Guru Nayak has not recognized him in return, and, knowing that he will be killed if his identity is discovered, the astrologer uses his guise as a religious man to convince the skeptic that his would-be murderer was killed months ago, ending Guru Nayak’s hunt for his assailant.
Narayan, himself a member of the religious and powerful Brahmin caste, would have seen examples of holy men hiding behind their masks first-hand, and is taking the opportunity to satirize it. At the same time, the story lays some culpability for this sort of cosmic fraud on those who too quickly seek mystical solutions to their worldly problems. The readiness of people to believe that men like the astrologer have all the answers suggests an innate human desire to imbue one’s life with meaning and control. Men like the astrologer, then, are simply giving customers what they want.
Mysticism and Religious Hypocrisy ThemeTracker
Mysticism and Religious Hypocrisy Quotes in An Astrologer’s Day
His forehead was resplendent with sacred ash and vermillion, and his eyes sparkled with a sharp abnormal gleam which was really an outcome of a continual searching look for customers, but which his simple clients took to be a prophetic light and felt comforted. The power of his eyes was considerably enhanced by their position—placed as they were between the painted forehead and dark whiskers which streamed down his cheeks: even a half-wit’s eyes would sparkle in such a setting.
To crown the effect he wrapped a saffron-colored turban around his head. This color scheme never failed. People were attracted to him as bees are attracted to cosmos or dahlia stalks. He sat under the boughs of a spreading tamarind tree which flanked a path running through the Town Hall Park.
Half the enchantment of the place was due to the fact that it did not have the benefit of municipal lighting. The place was lit up by shop lights. One or two had hissing gaslights, some had naked flares stuck on poles, some were lit up by old cycle lamps, and one or two, like the astrologer’s, managed without lights of their own. It was a bewildering crisscross of light rays and moving shadows.
He had not in the least intended to be an astrologer when he began life; and he knew no more of what was going to happen to others than he knew of what was going to happen to himself next minute. He was as much a stranger to the stars as were his innocent customers. Yet he said things which pleased and astonished everyone: that was more a matter of study, practice, and shrewd guesswork. All the same, it was as much an honest man’s labor as any other, and he deserved the wages he carried home at the end of a day.
He had a working analysis of mankind’s troubles: marriage, money, and the tangle of human ties. Long practice had sharpened his perception. Within five minutes he understood what was wrong. He charged three pies per question, never opened his mouth till the other had spoken for at least ten minutes, which provided him enough stuff for a dozen answers and advices. When he told a person before him gazing at his palm, “In many ways you are not getting the fullest results of for your efforts,” nine out of ten were disposed to agree with him […] Or he gave an analysis of character: “Most of your troubles are due to your nature. How can you be otherwise with Saturn where he is? You have an impetuous nature and a rough exterior.” This endeared him to their hearts immediately, for even the mildest of us loves to think he has a forbidding exterior.
“Stop,” said the other. “I don’t want all that. Shall I succeed in my present search or not? Answer this and go. Otherwise I will not let you go till you disgorge all your coins.” The astrologer muttered a few incantations and replied: “All right. I will speak… You were left for dead. Am I right?”
“Ah, tell me more.”
“A knife passed through you once?” said the astrologer.
“Good fellow!” He bared his chest to show the scar. “What else?”
“And then you were pushed into a well nearby in the field. You were left for dead.”
“I should have been dead if some passer-by had not chanced to peep into the well,” exclaimed the other, overwhelmed by enthusiasm. “When shall I get at him?” he asked, clenching his fist.
“In the next world,” answered the astrologer. “He died four months ago in a far-off town. You will never see any more of him.”