The Braha Sutras:
Insights from a lifetime of Vedic Astrology
Reviewed by Bruce Davis
“…Astrology is not just a craft. It’s an art and a science, and a humanistic one at that.”
James Braha (p. 29)
This is a comprehensive and wonderful book! Readers who spend time with the book, returning at intervals to learn more, to compare notes or to be challenged in their own practice of Vedic astrology, will be richly compensated again and again by the author’s wisdom, passion, proficiency and ceaseless pursuit of the truth.
In his latest book, The Braha Sutras: Insights from a lifetime of Vedic Astrology, James Braha offers us a glimpse at his astrology practice, based on the reading of more than 10,000 charts over the last forty years—certainly more than the 10,000 hours often touted as the requirement of mastery in any field. This book is more than a compendium of the astrological principles and procedures he has learned from teachers, authors and traditions during his life as an astrologer; rather it represents an exploration of the practices and professional conduct that have proved most valuable in his client readings. Braha likewise is not shy to bring to light those practices and modes of conduct, currently widespread in the Jyotish community, that he finds lack validity or usefulness. The upshot is a book that brings us the thoughtful voice of a learned peer and an invitation to join him in seeking the truth of our evolving Jyotish tradition together.
Braha’s extensive review of Jyotish practice rests upon the foundation of his own practice, including repeated experimentation with techniques purported to be of value. Some of these he commends for their consistent merit, while others he deprecates as lacking substance in his many years of experience.
Braha has chosen the Sutra form to share his rich experience with his readers, drawing from the Sutra form in Vedic literature. The 216 Sutras (twice the Vedic 108) are not intended to comprise the entirety of Jyotish knowledge but instead to present the key lessons he wishes to impart in a direct and succinct way. In the Sutra literature of India (Brahma Sutras, Yoga Sutras) the pithy Sutra is often followed by a clarifying commentary of one or another Vedic teacher. In the case of the Braha Sutras the commentary is provided by James Braha himself. In many cases the condensed meaning and wisdom of Braha’s Sutras is reminiscent of classical Sutras.
The choice of the Sutra form and the book’s ensuing title are appealing, and the reader senses Braha’s wit and humor in the title. Will The Braha Sutras resonate at some level with the great Brahma Sutras of sage Vyasa? Indeed the content of each brief title and the commentary that follows bring together technical expertise, wise counsel, and personal reflections in a way that is fully worthy of their designation as modern Sutras. It is very like the use of the Sutra form by another modern spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, in his book, Stillness Speaks, where the condensed aphorisms open into invaluable knowledge.
The Braha Sutras will undoubtedly interest several groups within the Vedic astrology community. This is a book for students and aspirants who are trying to make sense of the myriad techniques of Jyotish practice. Braha presents himself through the 216 Sutras as a teacher with high expectations for students, while at the same time encouraging them to develop their own insight and to trust their own experience. Braha has a devoted following of hundreds through his online presence on Facebook. Students are advised not to take each Sutra as gospel but to experiment on their own to determine what to include in their own Jyotish work.
This is also a book of great value for seasoned Vedic astrologers who seek to widen their practice and to expand their view of the field. Like some of the other more seasoned Vedic astrologers, Braha began his professional work as a Western astrologer, and he was one of the early Westerners to investigate Vedic astrology. From that basis he has a foundation of incorporating the procedures and understanding of the Western astrologer with the traditional practices of Jyotish. Exemplifying this merger of West and East, his application of planetary aspects draws from the precepts of Western astrology, and he attests to their value in his Vedic chart interpretations. He also draws upon the natal position and aspects of the outer planets, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, which are so much a part of Western chart interpretations.
Finally, The Braha Sutras is a book for anyone dedicated to the growth of truth and meaning in the field of Vedic astrology. Braha appears to be intent on expanding the astrological knowledge base by demonstrating which astrological tools in his forty-year experience are of marginal value or outright harmful in reading charts with clients. Likewise, he affirms the remarkable effectiveness of other tools and practices that may often be overlooked by other practicing astrologers.
Ultimately, Braha indicates that astrologers at every level of practice must develop their own unique approaches, find their own ways forward and learn ultimately to trust themselves. He closes his final Sutra with these words: “Work hard. Do your best. Be honest. Question. Search. Contemplate. Don’t rationalize. Admit when you fail. Recognize when the magic fails and it’s not your fault. Above all, have faith in yourself and surrender.” (p. 478)
But the process of discovering one’s own favored approach and relying on one’s own experience cannot end there. The continuing evolution of a field like astrology requires dialog among its practitioners, wherein diverse viewpoints or observations may find synthesis in common understanding. In this sense a dialectic process may ensue, which can then expand what is known and how it is used. “Dialectic” in this sense is intended as it was described by the 19th-century German philosopher, Hegel, where each thesis provokes the formation of its antithesis, creating a tension that may find resolution in synthesis. This process requires the clear presentation of a point of view or observation, which another dedicated authority may counter with their own understanding, leading to the formulation of a synthetic view that may profit from both positions. Several of Braha's Sutras take positions that are distinctive compared to many traditional and modern practices, in a way that has the potential of engendering just such a dialog among experienced astrologers. We will look at a few of these shortly.
Braha presents his work as “predictive” astrology, and he goes deeply into techniques that have given him the greatest accuracy in client readings over the years. But for him prediction is not an absolute. In most circumstances he estimates that his own predictive accuracy is often about seven out of ten, with certain exceptions greater than that. Again, from Braha,
“If an astrological technique doesn’t produce accurate results 7 out of 10 times, stop using it…. Following the 7 in 10 rule is the most important advice for two reasons. First, life as an astrologer will be easier, more rewarding, and more fulfilling. Second, we improve the field of astrology for future generations.” (p. 35)
As a predictive astrologer Braha comes across in the book very much as a humanist, as well. His approach to clients appears to be attentive and compassionate, interested in benefiting them as much as possible in the course of the reading. Even in the communication of the reading to a client his intent is to offer what is most helpful, most inspiring, and most encouraging, while at the same time the most truthful.
At several points in the book Braha speaks of his own path over these forty years, including his experience of personal and spiritual transformation along the way. Some of this information is of extraordinary value to students and fellow astrologers who have not undertaken the self-study (svādhyāya) and growth work that Braha describes. He leads by example here, sharing with the reader elements of his personal journey in a transparent way. This authenticity of the author encourages the readers to explore ways of their own to utilize their own life challenges and vulnerabilities to initiate the kind of personal and spiritual growth that can ultimately develop into wisdom. Braha suggests that in many cases it is from this personal and spiritual work that he draws his tools as an astrological counselor. Braha speaks of the value he has gained from his own self-study, including personal involvement with meditation, group work, psychotherapy, and Advaita. In turn he encourages his clients to such growth practices as part of their readings.
In a real sense Braha is describing an approach to the astrology client close to that of Vedic counseling. Ultimately the concern is with the client as a person and as a spiritual being. The work of the counselor is to facilitate the client’s growth in unique and client-oriented ways. The range of personal and spiritual development tools available to the counselor correlate with the extent of that counselor’s own familiarity with such tools over their lifetime. Braha of course offers the traditional Jyotish remedies, and he has a section on the use of gems, Yagyas and other Upayas; but he is just as likely to refer a troubled client to a psychotherapist or a spiritual seeker to a meditation teacher.
Such is the humanism that comes through in this book, especially in this intention toward client-oriented practice, that one would be tempted to describe his astrological work as balancing both predictive and humanistic objectives.
Considering the Sutras themselves
The 216 Sutras in the book are presented in seven distinct sections, in accordance with their intent, and this organization of the book helps to focus the reader’s exploration of their content. A further tool the book offers is an index of the 216 Sutras themselves, lending the reader a guide to topics they may wish to peruse in greater detail.
The first section of the Braha Sutras carries the title, “The Being,” containing the first 67 Sutras and comprising roughly the first third of the book. It is presented under the Sanskrit heading, bhūtih. In this section we find a wealth of information based on Braha’s extensive experience on what it takes to be an effective astrologer. How does the power (another meaning of bhūtih) of the astrology reading manifest? What is the nature of the relationship between astrologer and client? How does astrology work? What does it take to read a chart well, and what is the astrologer’s intention in communicating that reading? How does the astrologer integrate intuition with practical common sense?
In this first section of the book the reader is presented with the art of being an astrological counselor, which Braha has spent forty years developing. Repeatedly he indicates that each student and practitioner must find their own way, but the value of a mentor who is willing to describe his work this transparently and intimately is greatly beneficial. Seeing into the inner process of Braha’s work, readers are encouraged to ask themselves, who must I be and how must I be with my client to bring them the most helpful reading I can?
The second section of the book is, “The Doing.” This section is presented under the Sanskrit heading, kṛtih, which refers to the “work or task” of doing astrology. This section accounts for approximately half of the book’s content. In it the reader is presented 95 Sutras that reveal Braha’s understanding and use of essential tools and practices of astrology. Again, the reader is invited to their own best approach in their client readings, but the detailed information in this section allows them to learn from Braha’s wide experience.
The remaining five sections of the book include a discussion of “The Nodes” (part 3, under the Sanskrit title Rāhuketu), “Upayas—Gems, Mantras, and Yagyas” (part 4, using the Sanskrit upāyas as its title), “The Predictions: Dasas, Bhuktis, Transits” (part 5, under the Sanskrit title anāgata kathanam, “telling future time”), “The Clients” (part 6, under the Sanskrit title āśrita), and a short section of “Odds and Ends” (part 7, under the Sanskrit title, kaṇa).
In addition to the organizational divisions of the book, Braha engaged a Sanskrit collaborator to provide Sanskrit companion phrases for about thirty of the Sutras, intending to “give the feeling or ‘flavor’ of a Vedic text, and to highlight Sutras I consider particularly important.” (31) He further suggests that the Sanskrit phrases reflect his own deep love of Hindu culture. The core intention of each of these comes with Braha’s English version of the Sutra, and the Sanskrit expresses the general message of the Sutra. As an example, we read the title of Sutra 6 as “For counseling to succeed, the client needs to trust the astrologer,” associated with the Sanskrit, “śrotuh viśvāsah āvaśyakah, ‘Of the listener, faith is needed.’” (p. 31)
Given the depth, breadth and sheer number of the Sutras presented, the reader will find countless opportunities to delve into them. For many the Braha Sutras will function primarily as a reference text, returning to the aphorisms again and again. It is not in the scope of this review to reflect extensively on the Sutras themselves. Instead, we will consider here just a limited number of examples from the 216 Sutras, and readers of this review are invited to a more comprehensive perusal of the book itself, guided by their own interests.
Sutra 3: Define the purpose of an astrology reading (p.38)
This Sutra reveals James Braha’s development as an astrologer—from discovery of what he terms “Hindu/Vedic astrology” through four decades of professional work as an astrologer, both Western and Vedic. This is an important Sutra, especially for those newer to the field, because it inspires readers to consider their own goals.
Giving the most objective and accurate description of a person’s natal chart and future probabilities was insufficient…. The best way to help was to explain how to best use the talents, abilities, resources, challenges, and conditions revealed in the horoscope for their highest good. And to explain all this without lying, ignoring, or disregarding the negatives. (p. 38)
My intention when giving a chart interpretation is to give the client a concrete picture, a solid feel, of what life would look like when functioning at its highest capacity and potential. By this I mean a life where the person uses his or her greatest talents while also achieving as much happiness, contentment, meaning, and purpose. (p. 39)
There is nothing more profound for a client than to experience a session where the astrologer has grasped the essence and overall meaning of his or her life and then hear it described in a clear, understandable way. …Without such a guiding principle, astrology readings are nothing more than a mass of different facts and insights lacking context. (p. 39)
Part of Braha’s insight in this Sutra is that there is great power for the good of the client in doing the work to synthesize the diverse symbols and patterns of the chart into a wholeness that simply and profoundly reflects who the client is and what the arc of their life as a whole may be.
It’s been many decades since I went for an astrology reading, but I can say, sadly, that I have never had a profound or truly satisfying session. Not even close. I have had readings where I received some good news and felt happy. I have had readings that included some very accurate predictions. And yet, I would trade all of those experiences for one that described a context for my life and purpose, and revealed how my positive and negative periods might fit some overall design. (p. 40)
Coming to such a central theme in the reading is further mentioned by Braha in Sutra 95, where he speaks of an overriding feature of the client’s chart that becomes the context for everything else.
Quite often a horoscope will have one feature that is so intense it dominates the entire horoscope. It could be a planet, a house, a planetary conjunction or opposition that occurs within one degree or even within minutes, and so on. When one facet outshines everything else, it is called a “signature,” and it has an oversized effect on the person’s entire life. This is particularly the case if most other features of the chart are average. (p. 215)
Again in Sutra 5 we see this principle reiterated, in a way that further suggests the balance of predictive and humanistic factors in Braha’s work with clients.
If your intention is to make a difference in the client’s life, then your job isn’t just to make predictions. It is to paint a picture, as objective a view as possible, of the person’s life. In this case, you must counsel and give insights that enable your client to lead the most successful, happy and meaningful life possible. (44)
Sutra 4: Look especially for the positive elements of the horoscope (p. 41)
Braha is all about telling the truth to the client. Yet, as noted above, he is just as committed to offering information and counsel that will lead to growth. Without offering hope, remediation and auspicious potentials, astrology is at risk of providing information that discourages the client and diminishes the likelihood of an effective counseling outcome.
Make the session as joyous and uplifting as possible, without lying and without ignoring the negative. (p. 41)
…This doesn’t mean ignoring the troubles that are visible. Challenges must be explained and acknowledged, or the reading is incomplete and leaves the client in the dark. However, if for example, 75% of the birth chart indications are difficult while 25% look good, it is infinitely better for the client to leave the session thinking about the more positive features. If all the person is left with is how challenged he or she is, why bother with astrology? More importantly, if there is greater emphasis on the person’s positive features, there is now something to live for and a better sense of purpose. (p. 42)
From the “Introduction” (prior to the Sutras themselves):
Think critically and for yourself… and above all to ceaselessly search for truth (p. 19)
If there is a “signature” theme or context in Braha’s book it may be this: thoroughly study and deeply learn the techniques and practices of Vedic astrology, but when it comes to putting your knowledge to work, develop your own approach to clients using your own experience, relying on your own results with clients, and depending on yourself as the professional. The corollary of this is to keep working, keep testing your techniques, keep monitoring your results, and as necessary let the truth you are discerning in your practice evolve as you are also evolving.
So, do not accept my teachings blindly. Test them. If they work for you, then let the good times roll. If not, ignore them. (p. 28)
Students must learn and memorize all they can, with as much accuracy and precision as possible, but ultimately, they must find their own way. (p. 20)
Ceaselessly search for truth… think critically… continually question… most important is your own thought process and willingness to train your mind to dwell on the meanings of symbols and patterns so you can discover for yourself… believe in your own ability to find answers and draw conclusions… be honest… Speak only what you know… Admit when you don’t know something… be confident and humble… admit your mistakes… make a commitment here and now to believe in your own power to think, reason and find answers. (p. 24, 25)
Sutra 71: You must use the bhava chart (p. 164)
In many of the Sutras Braha’s emphasis is on techniques of astrological practice that have served him and his clients best throughout his long career. This is one of the important benefits of the book, exploring in detail those practices he finds most valuable. As an example, in Sutra 71 Braha strongly supports use of the Bhava chart in addition to the more commonly used method of using the Rashi chart. In the Bhava house system the Ascendant is read as the center of the first house, rather than the first house being by degrees equivalent to the rising sign in the Rashi chart that uses a whole house system.
As such, if the ascendant degree is 25 degrees Leo, then any planet from 10 degrees Leo to 10 degrees Virgo will reside in the first house (and the ascendant ruler will be the Sun, ruler of the sign Leo). (p. 164)
The simple reason for Braha’s use of the Bhava chart along with the Rashi chart is that, used together, they consistently give him and his clients the best and most accurate results.
When obtaining Jyotish readings in India, it‘s typical to find astrologers using either of the two house systems…. My second teacher, P.M. Padia, told me that for the accurate results, both systems must always be used. His reasoning wasn’t philosophical, but practical. He always used what worked best and produced the most accuracy. (p. 164)
Sutra 197: Some clients must get therapy or they will suffer endlessly (p. 441)
Braha appears to be very aware of many astrology clients’ psychological challenges. In cases where the client is simply needing support with life issues, Braha’s knowledge of “self-improvement regimes and spiritual practices” (p. 442) gives him tools to help remediate the challenges and open opportunities for client growth. Yet Braha sees the limitations of astrology readings to resolve more deep-seated behavioral issues, and he encourages his readers to guide their patients to appropriate professionals for care.
As astrologers, we occasionally encounter clients who were either born with mental challenges… or who have simply been damaged by a terrible childhood, horrible parenting, or sexual abuse. It sometimes becomes clear during a reading that the person’s attention is consumed by inner turbulence or turmoil…. In these cases, there’s a kind of deadening silence on the other end of the phone. The more I talk about the horoscope, the more obvious it becomes that nothing I say matters. (p. 441)
…If you’re explaining a client’s horoscope and there’s a deadening silence in front of you or on the other end of the phone, nothing astrological will solve the problem. Advising the client to seek professional help might work, or it might not. That depends on whether the person is ready to confront his or her problem. However, if you’ve explained what needs to be done, you have not only done your job, you’ve done it well. (p. 443)
Braha further emphasizes this theme in Sutra 206, where he says, “People who need psychological help can’t fix their own problems. They need outside help, whether they know this or not.” (p. 456)
Sutra 150: The magnificence of Hindu and Western astrology; may the two join hands (p. 294)
In this and other sections of his book Braha asserts the great value of bringing both the Vedic and the Western astrology practices to bear on client readings.
There is nothing greater any astrologer can do to improve his or her ability toward predictive accuracy and the ability to help others than to learn both astrological systems, East and West. I’ve said this since I began practicing in 1983, thirty-nine years ago. I say it now. (p. 294)
…If I have done anything in my career to advance the field of astrology, if anything in this book impacts you, dear astrologer, in ways different from other texts, it is a direct result of my knowledge of both Eastern and Western astrology. (p. 295)
In the following Sutra 151 Braha says that it is a mistake for a student to believe that they can’t approach a second astrological system before mastering the first. And in Sutra 152 he states, “If you ignore Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, you miss easy and critical information.”
Hindu/Vedic astrologers miss so much marvelous and insightful information about a person’s behavior, psychology, and experience of life that are easily seen in the squares, trines, sextiles and quincunxes—all simple features of Western astrology. If these were complex or difficult to understand, I wouldn’t mention them. They’re quite easy. (p. 299)
Sutras that invite continuing dialog and reflection
There are several Sutras in Braha’s book where the author’s own experience of certain astrology practices differs from traditional or currently popular techniques. Braha’s purpose in confronting certain practices appears to be a committed search for what is most true and most useful in the myriad procedures and techniques that comprise modern Vedic astrology. His measure is simple: what works and what does not work, based on his experience after repeated testing over time. The following Sutras are offered in this section of the review as potential opportunities for dialog among members of the Vedic astrology community, with an eye to enhancing the overall efficacy of the practice of astrology for our clients.
Sutra 162: The current nakshatra myth (p. 343)
In the current practice of Vedic astrology the Nakshatras are used for a number of different purposes in client readings. Once a student learns the basics of the Nakshatras, there is a risk that they may be used inappropriately in chart reading. Many now-popular uses of the twenty-seven lunar mansions, according to Braha, do not reflect their true value and importance.
The new trend of nakshatra usage, particularly of the last 20 or 30 years… misses the point of their actual value. Nakshatras are archetypes, they are representations of events, and circumstances of individual lives. They do not…describe the karma, events and circumstances of individual lives. (p. 324)
What value does Braha see in the Nakshatras in the work of the Vedic astrologer?
The moon stars, or lunar mansions… are definitely helpful in certain ways. They are used for muhurtas (electional astrology), planning daily events and religious rituals, and for marriage compatibility…. They don’t reveal anyone’s life choices, career success, monetary riches, health issues, number of children, luck with siblings, and so on. (p. 324)
Might it be that the re-emergence of the use of Nakshatras is an exploration into an earlier field of Jyotish understanding and practice? Braha thinks not.
Is it possible we are witnessing a sudden rediscovery of an entire branch of ancient Jyotish knowledge? Not from what I see. It’s not simply that I’m skeptical. It’s that I’ve examined and experimented and contemplated the findings, and worse than being thoroughly unconvinced, I’m dismayed and disheartened. (p. 325)
This appears to be a topic that is ripe for a dialog, with the potential for divergent experience to inform a synthetic view for our evolving field.
Sutra 54: Traditional techniques I have found useless (p. 137)
There are further examples where Braha indicates that his experience differs from certain traditional ways and practices. Sutra 54 through Sutra 65 cite numerous examples. We will look at a few of these to get a sense of them. Sutra 54 itself considers the usefulness of Vargottama.
Vargottama occurs when a planet occupies the same sign in both the natal chart and the navamsa and is supposed to mean that the planet involved will act as beneficially as if it is svakṣhetra (in its own sign). I have never found anything special, powerful, or remarkable when a planet is vargottama. I stopped using it about 3 or 4 years into my practice because I hated making wrong predictions. I still find the distinction worthless. (p. 137)
Sutra 55: Varshophal, the yearly chart, also known as the Solar Return chart (p. 138)
This popular astrological approach is used by some Western and Vedic practitioners, especially to share a look at the year ahead—a sort of “birthday chart” to envisage the potential of the client’s new year. For Braha it definitively hasn’t produced favorable results in his practice.
In spite of so many Western astrologers swearing by Solar Return charts, when I used them in the 1970’s, they never worked…. Beyond a doubt, Solar Return charts are one of the most “fun” techniques in all of astrology…. However, I’ve tried them many times… over forty years with nothing more than occasional coincidental success. (p. 138)
Sutra 65: The intractable Sade Sati superstition (p. 151)
In this Sutra Braha points to the frequency and the duration of Saturn’s transit over the Moon, indicating that it is over-rated as a time of challenge.
Sade Sati is a transit of Saturn that occurs for 7 ½ out of every approximately 29 years, and scares people more than seeing a rattlesnake…. The idea that the entire 7 ½ year period of this Saturn transit is devastating, painful, and should be feared, though, makes no sense. Again, Sade Sati comprises 1/4th of our lives. Let that sink in. (p. 151)
Braha is committed to addressing what he calls the Sade Sati superstition in modern Jyotish practice, and he enlists the help of his reader.
How do I know that the Sade Sati is the most tenacious superstition of all? Because I’ve been talking and writing about it for over three decades and haven’t made a dent in the widespread fear of this transit. (p. 151)
So, please consider this issue carefully. Take your time. And, as an added bonus, consider that if you can process this information and help dispel what is arguably the biggest astrological superstition of all, you will have made a major contribution to astrology. I can’t do it alone. (p. 152)
The Braha Sutras appears to reflect its author as a person. The book is not one thing only, as the author is not one thing only. The book is encouraging, hopeful, and truth-seeking as the author is all of these. The book confronts certain practices that the author has found valueless while commending other practices that have been passed over by others. The diversity of Braha’s 40 years of acquiring mastery shows itself in the wide range of sources, practices and experiences that he presents in the book.
Part of the attractiveness of the book, to this reader, is that it’s complexity and its depth appear to mirror the complexity and the depth of the person who wrote it. May the last words of this review, as the first, be the author’s own.
My practice is a result of my lifetime: My experiences, my learning, my preferences, the teachers who guided me, the priorities I emphasize or downplay, my preferred healing methods, how I approach clients, and on and on and on. These are all specific to me. Astrological practice must vary wildly among different astrologers. Could it be any other way? (p. 22, 23)