NEW DELHI — Poring over star charts and mathematical equations, Vijay Kumar says he can peer months into the future, answer troubling questions about a marriage or career, and guide anyone to a successful and fulfilling life.
The future for Kumar's centuries-old craft itself seems even brighter since the national government announced this summer that astrological studies would join the curriculum at Indian universities.
The decision touched off a furor among academics, and only some schools are offering astrology courses.
Critics see university-level courses in star study as just the latest attempt by the Hindu nationalists who dominate the government to advance its own cultural agenda. Other moves have included replacing Eurocentric history courses with more Hindu-focused studies and mandating the study of Vedic mathematics, based on 5,000-year-old texts and written in Sanskrit.
Top scientists and many of India's technology and medical pioneers worry that lending academic credence to astrology might harm the country's image.
"How can we be taking steps to legitimize astrology?" asked astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar. "This will take us back to medieval times."
The government says it is simply expanding educational options for students.
"Many of my friends said, 'How can you be studying this? It's such rubbish,' " said Shipra Singh, a 29-year-old student at the National Institute of Astrology. "But I've grown up around it and I've always been intrigued by it."
It is hard to overestimate the importance of astrology for many of India's 1 billion people. Astrology, politics, religion and daily life are closely intertwined.
Hinduism, the majority religion, includes a strong belief that cosmic events can heavily influence life on Earth. People from all faiths visit astrologers and roadside palm readers.
At a cardboard table set up among women painting skin designs and traders hawking marigold garlands in New Delhi's crowded Old City, astrologer Babu Manoj Kumar Dubey said dozens of people ask him each day about money and family problems and what the future holds.
"I don't tell them what they want to hear; I tell them what I see. And it's the truth," he said, insisting astrology deserves scientific respect.
Most Indians consult astrologers for every major decision: what to name a child or what's the best time to wed, open a business, form a government, plant a crop.
Parents usually require astrological charts when seeking mates for their children. If the stars don't match, there is no wedding.
"For the average man struggling with so many problems--whether they be medical, financial or emotional--some kind of guidance is needed," said B.R. Saini, director of the Institute of Astrology in New Delhi.
With so many types of advisors around, from palm readers to palm leaf readers, he says academic training is necessary.
One needs "correct guidance from a qualified person trained in astrology, not just some quack who one day said, 'I'm going be read the stars,' " Saini said.
It's a $4-billion-a-year business, he added.
The teaching of astrology--which claims a person's character and fate are dictated by the position of the sun, moon and planets at the time of birth--has its followers in the West too. The Astrological Institute in Phoenix has won federal accreditation for classes on a range of astrological studies, including how to chart a horoscope.
Celebrity astrologer Laxmandas Madan said his readings and visions are constantly sought by some of India's leading politicians.
"I'm always available for a reading," he said. "I'll even give a reading over the phone. Because everyone is interested in knowing his future."