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Jyotish Star of the Month
By Vachaspati Christina Collins
|Christina Collins: Congratulations Ronnie as the Jyotish Star’s 2016 Recipient of the Jyotish Vashista. As you know, this is given when a Jyotishi of high caliber accomplishes something that furthers their knowledge and expertise and increases their ability to assist their students and clients. |
You are quite the Renaissance woman with a BA in English and Theater Arts, numerous professional titles including being a Jyotish Vachaspati Vedic astrologer, (of which there are only 8 in the west), NCGR-PAA Level IV Certified as a consulting astrologer, and now the recipient of a recent Master of Arts in South Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University where you studied Sanskrit and Hindi.
I was with both undergraduate and graduate students, some of whom were closer to my age, but mostly they were the age of my nephews. In addition to integrating school into my life, and relearning how to write papers, making oral presentations, taking midterms and finals, and eventually writing my thesis, which was a culmination of so much of the work that I have done over many years, learning in the digital age was something totally different than what I remembered going to college in the 1970s was like. However I have to say that it is so wonderful being able to find research materials on the web, in places like JSTOR, and other databases that are exclusive to the academic community, and handing in papers and tests by email. Instead of going to the reserved reading room in the library and waiting for your turn to read books and articles that the teacher has flagged, they are all on the school website. And what was a long wait in the gymnasium during registration in order to make sure you could get a place in a class that had limited students, you just do all your registration online. That was the first major change, but one which I easily and happily adapted to.
Christina: How fortunate you are to live near a University where Sanskrit is taught! What inspired you to begin your training in formal Sanskrit?
Ronnie: Because many of us have learned Jyotisha orally through teachers either in India (as I did) or here in the west, and through translations of original scriptures, which were set down in Sanskrit, we have gotten the information second hand. One of my teachers in Benares India (where I learned) for instance, would recite the slokas (stanzas) of the classic text Phaladipika by Mantresvara to me in Sanskrit followed by his English translation.
While his Sanskrit and English were good, it was still his own interpretation. If you read translations of the same text, you will see for yourself that quite often there are discrepancies here and there, and if you get even one word wrong, you can change the meaning of the entire sloka.
I began learning Sanskrit and Jyotisha at the same time in India, but since both were two completely different languages (learning Jyotisha was like learning a foreign language) I decided to focus on Jyotisha. When I returned to the west I always wanted to study Sanskrit, and return to school for my MA, but it just never happened. I got busy building up my astrological practice, writing books, teaching, and having a personal life, getting married, etc. But it was always in the back of my mind.
Christina: What finally stimulated you to go ahead with the Sanskrit study?
The second thing that happened was that I was in a car accident in which I was a passenger in a taxi that collided with another car at an intersection. I came very close to having life-threatening injuries but I was lucky in that I walked away with needing physical therapy over the next six months and eventual knee surgery. Once that was over, I realized that we have to stop putting off doing the things that we are passionate about and that we want to do…if at all possible.
Christina: So sorry to hear you were injured in a car accident! And a Taxi, how scary, I hope he was insured and you didn’t have to cover your medical expenses.
Ronnie: New York State has no-fault accident insurance, and I was able to get a financial settlement that did not make me rich, but gave me a little extra money to use, along with student loans (that I am still paying back-- at my age), to go back to school. Once I decided to study Sanskrit I found a few pundits who were willing to teach me, but I thought that if I went to school, it would really force me to be disciplined enough to follow through. I was indeed lucky enough to have two universities within my reach where I could study, as there really are just a handful of schools in North America where you can learn. Each school, however, required a commute. The first was Rutgers University, which only offered two years of study, and the beginning course was offered early in the morning, which would have put me in the middle of rush hour traffic.
Columbia on the other hand, had a masters and a PhD. program in languages which meant there were all levels of instruction from the beginning and intermediate, through to the advanced at a graduate level. Columbia was far more expensive but I decided to do it since I could take public transportation there, and though it would take me a minimum of 90 minutes to get there, I had the option of taking public transport during rush hour, and taking the car on days when I had afternoon classes. Even though I have a BA, graduate courses in most languages begin at the third year level.
So I went through continuing education to take the first two years. That meant that I only took one course each semester since it was not matriculated. I must at this point shout out a great thank you to my dear friend and colleague Demetra George who gave me invaluable advice. Demetra also went back to school in her 50s to get a Masters Degree in Classics with a concentration in classical Greek. She also did this so that she could read and translate classic Hellenistic astrological texts. And she too had to first take the first two years before even thinking about applying to the graduate program, where the language began at the third year level.
Christina: Both of you are truly inspirational. How exactly did she mentor you?
Ronnie: She gave me great advice as to how to organize my time in order to study, and told me to make sure that after my class I went straight to the school library, and be able to spend a few hours there each day. Demetra also advised me as to realistically how many hours I needed to spend each week studying, which was above and beyond any homework or take home quizzes. I forget the formula, but it was a certain number of hours per hour of class time. I was lucky enough to also have a good friend whose apartment was an empty nest, so I was able to stay at her place one or two evenings a week, and eliminate some of the commuting since I had classes four days each week. For that one class, I not only readjusted my schedule, but had to remember what it was like to study for midterms, finals, and the feared weekly quiz every Monday.
Sanskrit is difficult to learn because you first have to learn the Devanagari script, which is completely different from our own alphabet. On the positive note, it is a completely phonetic language, so that once you know the sound of each consonants, vowel, diphthong, etc., you can just put each sound together. There are no surprises that you have to memorize, like silent letters, or letters that have varying sounds, which we have in the English language.
Christina: That sounds helpful, but isn’t learning Sanskrit verbally difficult?
Ronnie: Yes, complex -- you have to learn an entirely new script, and many of these sounds are made with different parts of your tongue and mouth, and so there is no real equivalent in English. In my class there were students at many different levels. Some of them knew Hindi, which uses the same nagari script, which meant that the professor went a little bit more quickly. The instruction at Columbia was topnotch, but I do wish I had more time to just spend a few weeks learning the script before advancing with grammar, and reading comprehension. However I did manage, and actually did well getting straight A’s those two years.
Christina: Well that is certainly more than impressive!
Ronnie: Once I completed the two years, I had to apply to a formal Master’s program, which meant I would be not only continuing to learn Sanskrit but I would be taking more courses each semester, most of which were about Indian culture, and Hindi, which I wanted to take since it also uses devanagari script, and has many of its roots in Sanskrit. However, this is not to say that the languages are similar. Not at all. It is comparable to the relationship between French and Latin let us say.
My Sanskrit professors gave me good recommendations, and when I had to write my essay as to why I wanted to get my Masters and what I wanted to study, I was lucky that my teachers already knew that my primary interest was astrology, and since Jyotisha is accepted in India, and practiced and utilized, it was not considered to be as far out as I thought it would be, especially since I wanted to translate works that were part and parcel of Indian culture.
I decided to study Hindi along with Sanskrit since Hindi poetry and literature are equally beautiful, and several teachers who do come to the United States every year, and who I often meet at Arsha Vidya Gurukulam in Saylorsburg PA for their annual Jyotisha conference, speak Hindi, and often do not have as good a handle on English as some others. Furthermore, I also discovered that there are indeed scriptures that have been translated into Hindi and not in English. This is true for V?ddhayavanajataka (the text I used for my thesis), which was translated into Hindi but not yet into English. This also meant that I could ask my Hindi speaking teachers and friends, who did not remember the Sanskrit they took as children, to help me with translations into English. So I was able to translate sometimes from the Hindi with assistance into English.
Christina: Have you studied or do you speak other languages as well?
Ronnie: I had never studied classical languages like Latin or Greek so the grammatical structure of Sanskrit, which involves different tenses and declensions that we do not have in English, was something I never encountered before. Sanskrit has Indo-European roots, so Demetra George and I would compare Greek and Sanskrit, which had many common elements to this grammatical structure. Hindi, on the other hand, is a vernacular tongue, and while many words come from the Sanskrit roots many do not, so it is not a given that if you know Hindi you will be able to easily learn Sanskrit and vice versa. The script is a commonality but the grammatical structure is different. In fact, because I lived in the Netherlands for many years, and I studied and spoke French, my knowledge of conversational French and Dutch helped me learn Hindi more easily, which is both conversational and literary. While each of these languages has different roots, I was used to learning and speaking other languages, which helped me learn Hindi.
Christina: Your really are a renaissance woman! What kind of a schedule were you on and what were your professors like and did they know about or have interest in Jyotish prior to meeting you?
Ronnie: I attended the graduate program part time, which meant that I took three classes per semester for four semesters, and then in Fall 2012, after I finished my coursework, I worked solely on my thesis, which was the culmination of much of the work I had done over the four years in school. In my second semester for one of my courses I did an independent study with my first Sanskrit professor, who currently teaches in Kyoto Japan, where there is a very big interest in Jyotisha. I had already decided that my thesis was going to be a combination of my two passions, Jyotisha and women’s issues. And so we began to read and translate the five chapters of strijataka (women’s astrology) in a text called V?ddhayavanajataka by Minaraja, which was probably written in the 4th century CE.
Christina: So your “first” Professor, tell us what was the next professor like?
Ronnie: When that professor left my second year of graduate school I took classes with other very brilliant Sanskrit and Hindi professors. My thesis focused on translating and analyzing the five chapters on women’s astrology, and a brilliant and generous graduate student also helped with my translating Sanskrit, even though he knew very little about astrology. My advisor was not as interested in the jyotish material as he was in anything that related to the Sanskrit corpus. When I gave him the first draft of my thesis, he redlined it so much that I cried.
Christina: Oh no!
Ronnie: He told me that it was fine, and that he does that to all first drafts. After I reworked it with his suggestions and gave him the second draft, he gave it back to me with far fewer corrections. My third and final draft was then copied to two other professors, who formed my committee. I defended my thesis, answering all their questions about what I thought this meant for women in pre-modern India and for astrology and then received my MA.
That was quite harrowing because this all had to be done before my professor went to India in mid December, and for ten days in November I had no electricity due to Hurricane Sandy. I managed to find a laundromat near my house on Staten Island that had electricity for the entire time, and they let me bring my laptop there, where I could work, and charge my computer so that when I went home after they closed at 9pm, I could work with the battery for another few hours. I am not sure how I did it, but I managed to get it all done.
Christina: True dedication Ronnie, and I am so glad you can tell your story to help pave the way for others to study with you in the future! Tell us a little more about your graduation, did you get to go to the ceremony?
Ronnie: Yes, I was quite grateful that Columbia allowed me to participate in graduation ceremonies in spring 2012, even though I had not yet done my thesis, though I had completed all the coursework. I never attended my earlier college graduation, and my parents had always chided me for denying them the honor, so I was thrilled that my mother and father, 81 and 83 at the time, were able to see me graduate and accept my diploma. My husband, sisters and their families, and my best friend since high school also came to the ceremony. We went out to dinner, and really felt proud of myself.
Christina: As you should be. I was proud of you before, but hearing all these details makes me even prouder of you!
Ronnie: Sometimes you get an honor, or achieve something, but you do not necessarily feel that you gave it your all, but the four years that I went back to school was something that I really worked hard for. I spent many weeks not having a social life and my husband Ken Irving, an astrology editor and writer and researcher in his own right, supported me, drove me to the Staten Island ferry each morning, packed my lunch, and gave up time we would have spent together going out. So I do have to give him a shout out here since without his support I would not have been able to do it. My one regret is that I did not do this years earlier, since had I done that I probably would have continued with obtaining a Ph.D.
Christina: Could you tell us a little more about the content of your thesis?
Ronnie: I am most proud of my MA thesis. The title of my thesis Strijataka in Minaraja’s V?ddhayavanajataka combined my passion for Jyotisha and women’s issues. I realized that there is not much written about the genre of strijataka (Sanskrit for “women’s astrology”), which appears in the form of a chapter in each of the classical texts. It appears, however, for the first time that we know of in a Sanskrit astrological text called V?ddhayavanajataka (Sanskrit for “great or old Greek astrology”)—the earliest extant Sanskrit text solely on jataka (Indian horosopy)—probably written around the 4th century though these dates are currently being reevaluated, by Minaraja, an Indian of Greek descent. This text, V?ddhayavanajataka, (VYJ for short) had the most expansive section on women’s astrology—five chapters—and some of these chapters also had an equivalent for men. Minaraja’s strijataka consisted of five chapters (58-62 out of 71 chapters):
Women’s astrology has been published in many different formats in more modern languages like Hindi, and there are even English translations. But I had never seen these early five chapters analyzed from a philological point of view, which is what I decided to do for my thesis. While this is still an interest of mine, I am equally fascinated with VYJ, which is a huge text of 71 chapters, and has the basics of Jyotisha like Varahamihira’s B?hajjataka, Kalya?avarman’s Saravali, and Mantresvara’s Phaladipika. But since VYJ is earlier than these others, there are things here that were not always included in future texts.
The focus of my thesis was translating these five chapters, and seeing what information I could glean from these translations. For instance, fire and air ascendants for women were negative, and earth and water ascendants were positive. The Moon in all the signs were fairly positive, and the position of the Moon often indicated the woman’s property and finances, which she could bring into the marriage. The chapter on Raja yogas showed which combinations meant a likelihood of marrying wealthy. And I discovered how ayurvedic classifications were also used in the early writings to describe women, so that a difficult placement might be described as the woman being kapha, or pitta, or eating too much meat. So basically in order to write about difficulties, women were kapha, or they ate too much meat, etc.
Christina: You are obviously mentally brilliant, both as an astrologer and a student, but what is your opinion on embarking on a graduate program that is so acutely challenging at a later age – did you notice a big difference as say compared to your earlier degrees?
Ronnie: People often ask me if I feel that my age was a hindrance in terms of the ability to concentrate, to remember and retain, and simply the ability to learn, and while I may have thought so before I began, what I learned was that my brain was as open as it ever was. Since my Sun, lord of my Leo ascendant, is in my ninth house along with a non combust Mercury in Aries, I feel that learning and teaching defines a lot of who I am. If someone would pay me to continue to take courses, I probably would continue to do so.
After getting adjusted to studying and renewing old habits, I think the hardest part is integrating it into an adult lifestyle that is far busier than when we were college students and graduate students in our late teens and early twenties. At that time, there was nothing else to do but be a student. Some of us may have had to work while going to school, while others had it paid by parents or government in the form of grants or loans, but life was still much simpler. When you go back to school as a grown up, you have work and family obligations that can be set to the side somewhat but not entirely, unless you are fortunate to have enough money to go to school and not worry about income. I did try to move a lot of readings to holidays and summers, and just parcel them out so that they would not interfere with midterm and finals time. I was happy though to find that my intelligence and curiosity and ability to research and write papers, was not marginalized at all, and I think I enjoyed it this time more than the first time around, because I wanted to do it that badly, and did my best to put the time and effort into doing it.
Christina: We understand that you also studied Jyotish both privately and at Sampurnanand Sanskrit University in Benares. What skill set(s) do you think someone needs to have before they begin the study of Sanskrit?
Ronnie: I think that you have to have a feel for learning languages. I find that some people have a harder time than others, but to be honest, I think the desire to learn and the ability to put in the time to do that is what is most important. If you cannot do this a few hours a day while you are learning then it is probably not a good idea to attempt to do so. I also think that it is necessary to do a little reading every day, since in the beginning stages of learning a classical language, you need to have reinforcement each day. I also do not advise anyone to do this on their own. If you do not have an actual university nearby, or you would rather learn at your own pace, you may want to see if there is an Indian community nearby and if there is a scholar or pundit who can privately tutor you. Then there is always the American Sanskrit Institute, which has a wonderful syllabus, tutors, and holds seminars in various cities, some of which may be easy to travel to. You will still have to do a lot of home studying regardless of how you do it, but I would not attempt to do it completely on your own, just as I would never advise someone studying Jyotisha or even western tropical astrology to be completely self-taught, since you are bound to make mistakes, and if there is nobody who can correct your mistakes, then you can continue with errors.
Christina: A very good point Ronnie, I know how much more I learned from my grandfather and how much easier that was, than in later years when I studied mainly from books! Speaking of good books, what do you recommend?
Ronnie: There are some good beginning Sanskrit text books that are do it yourself type manuals, and workbooks, and there are flash cards, and on the web there are some basic lessons, with pronunciations that you can download, so that you can hear the way the sounds should be made. But if you do find something online, always make sure it has been created by someone reputable, preferably someone who has had experience teaching. But I would always recommend that you find a teacher or tutor alongside any self-study. It is also the same reason why if you write a book, you should have someone edit and proofread it. I am a professional editor and it is almost impossible to edit my own writing and to remain objective.
Christina: What is the most important advice for learning you can give?
Ronnie: Most important is to continue to study since I do not think you can master a language like this in a short period of time. Even though I began my study in order to read Jyotisha texts, I have also loved reading parts of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Carakasa?hita (ayurvedic classical text), the plays and poetry of Kalidasa and so on. However I have limited most of my reading to the astrology texts. Now when I teach Jyotisha, I always go first to the sections on the subjects I am teaching and read the Sanskrit as well as the translations. I can finally come to my own conclusions about whether or not the translator has gotten it completely correct, or if I might say it differently. Because astrology sutras are very succinct, it is most important to be able to read the commentary (the commentarial tradition is imperative when studying Sanskrit) which is often written centuries later and explains in greater detail what he thought the astrologer really meant. I still have such a long way to go and as I did when I went to school, I still have to fit it in alongside my personal and professional life.
Christina: Very wise advice. What has been the most rewarding part of this journey for you?
Ronnie: What has been most gratifying is how many people are interested in the information that I have been able to gather by immersing myself in the world of academic journals, research articles, books, anthologies, and appreciate the work of so many scholars of not only Sanskrit but Indian culture in general. At UAC 2012 Dr. Nicholas Campion asked me to present the material of my thesis on the history track. Although the topic of Women’s astrology in India, did not get near the number of people as my lecture on Venus and Eclipses, the audience who came was truly interested and I was happy to present my preliminary findings since I had not yet completed my thesis. Dr. Campion has been extremely supportive of my work, and for the past three years, I have been guest lecturer on Hinduism and Indian Cosmology as part of the Astral Religion module for the M.A. Distance Learning Program in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. He also invited me to co-author a chapter in an anthology that was published in April 2015. That chapter authored by Dr. Nicholas Campion and myself, was entitled “Indian Astrology” and appeared in the anthology Religious Transformation in Modern Asia edited by David W. Kim, and published by Brill, a very prestigious academic publisher.
Christina: Incredible! I had no idea. I am certainly convinced that you are the perfect recipient for this year’s Jyotish Vashista! Tell us, do you plan to offer Sanskrit classes to your local and international students? In person or in webinars or both?
Ronnie: I have always wanted to teach Sanskrit for Astrologers, and am hoping to do something this spring, and would love for anyone interested to contact me. I would start with teaching some Sanskrit but rather than focus on learning the language, which requires a course in itself, I would rather focus on the terminology that we use, and that with knowing the language explains things in much great detail. When you know the etymology of some of the expressions, it opens up more depth and explains more about how the sages actually viewed the planets, signs, houses, etc.
For instance, when we speak about the last degree of a sign being sandhi, we are using a very common grammatical technique in Sanskrit, and a word that means “juncture,” which blends the last consonant or vowel of a word with the first consonant or vowel of the next word. For instance the word Vargottama, which is when a planet is in the same sign in both the birth chart and navamsa, is made up of two words Varga and uttama. The blending of “a” and “u” always becomes an “o,” thus the two words varga (division) and uttama (most elevated) become vargottama, which then literally means the division that is most elevated. Going back to the last degree of a sign, Sandhi in itself does not mean “weak” or “last,” but the idea that the last degree is really blending into the first degree of the next sign, so you can say that it is a weak degree, or you can look at it as losing some of the qualities of the sign it is in, but taking on the qualities of the next sign. So that a 29 Leo would really be part Leo, part Virgo. At least that is how I now look at it.
Christina: And, how I look at it as a sandhi lagna myself. What else would you teach?
Ronnie: I would like to teach people all the names of the planets, since each planet, especially the Moon and Sun, have so many different epithets, many based on mythology and the deities they represent, but which also expand the meaning and symbolism of the planets. Once I do decide on the format, I will definitely offer this.
At the moment I am doing my classes in person and simultaneously as a webinar. I used to do one in person and one webinar, but then I realized that since the presentation that I was projecting on the screen was the same that people attending the webinar were seeing, then I could do it together. I just have to pay attention to when people are asking questions on the computer. It can sometimes be a bit sticky, but mostly it works out well, especially for me since I can expand who I teach to and do it once rather than twice.
Christina: Logical, and smart. We know you teach live webinars on a myriad of topics. When is your next one, and what will you be presenting?
Christina: Great, and your bio at the end of this interview will tell everyone how to contact you so that they can take advantage of attending your webinar. Ronnie, you have written many books on Jyotish. Do you have more coming in the near future?
For those who would like to keep up with my presentations, readings, and research you can sign up for me on twitter and face book, or sign up for my monthly newsletter on my website www.ronniedreyer.com .
Christina: Thank you Ronnie for taking out time from you obviously very busy schedule to chat with me today! I am sure all readers will learn new things, and enjoy it!
Ronnie: And thank you Christina, for your generosity, knowledge, selflessness, and service to the astrological community by publishing Jyotish Star. You and your staff should be commended for the wonderful and valuable work you are doing to introduce people to the art and science of Jyotisha.