Navigating By The Stars
This article appeared in the Zento Magazine
Have you ever considered following a star? Many ancient cultures relied on the stars to chart their destinies. Polynesian navigators discovered the Hawai’ian Islands more than 1500 years ago by primarily following Arcturus or ‘Hokule’a’ – the star of happiness. They followed a ‘star map’ to accomplish the amazing feat of voyaging thousands of miles in small double-hulled canoes. Astrologers in India have used a different kind of ‘star map’ for more than 4000 years to navigate the less tangible terrain of one’s life journey. Their sophisticated system of astrology is renowned for its accuracy in charting planetary influences on time. The Polynesian system of star navigation, on the other hand, is renowned for its precision in charting influences on space. Whether navigating the turbulent seas or the complexities of our personal lives, these ancient traditions have much to teach us about living in harmony with life and staying on course with our purpose.
Let’s face it – our lives are a journey into the unknown. No matter how clear we are about our direction we often hit moments when we feel uncertain or perhaps blown out to sea altogether. It’s not easy to get our bearings amidst the chaos of our immediate environment. We often step outside and gaze up at the stars to gain perspective. They help us step back, way back, and get the broadest perspective possible. To the Polynesians the stars were the “eyes of heaven,” and knowing these celestial bodies gave them sight when it was otherwise difficult to see. They are steady and reliable reference points in a world of change. Because the wayfinders could see direction when others couldn’t, they were given royal status in the Polynesian culture and were trusted to safely guide their people. The same is true for the astrologers in ancient India who were originally consultants to the king and sages of the royal court.
To navigate uncertain times the Polynesians set a wise example – follow your inspiration or ‘bright star’ and don’t look back. In their cosmology bright stars were believed to have their zenith point in the sky over large islands much like the shepherd’s star hovered over Bethlehem. For instance, the star above Tahiti is A’a or Sirius, and above Samoa shines Hikianalia or Spica. The bright star “Hokule’a” or Acturus became their guiding light to Hawai’i, inspiring their voyage of over 2500 miles to the North. Consider the courage that this must have taken. For much of the journey they were more than 1000 miles from any landmass, vulnerable to storms and huge ocean swells. They left everything behind to venture into the unknown.
In our complicated modern lives with myriad distractions, it’s not always easy to know our ‘star of happiness.’ Astrology has been used as a tool for centuries to help us see the big picture of our lives. In the astrology of India, known as Vedic astrology, one’s bright star is called one’s dharma. Although sometimes translated as ‘duty,’ dharma more aptly means ‘doing what we were born to do.’ It is the inspiration that gives our life meaning, our unique life purpose. This is seen at the time of birth in one’s astrology chart, which is a snapshot of the planetary positions in the sky. The planets that influence certain key locations in the chart will reveal one’s dharma. In India, the family astrologer often reads the newborn’s natal horoscope to the parents so that they can raise their child according to his or her dharma. The astrology chart is laid out in time periods like chapters in a book, called ‘dashas,’ which are governed by different planetary influences. This shows the map of the soul’s journey. With this knowledge a person can make wise, informed decisions about any time period in his or her life.. The Indian sage Varahamira said nearly 1500 years ago:
There is no better boat than a horoscope to help a man cross over the troubled sea of life.
Hand drawn Vedic Astrology Horoscope
In 1992, while traveling in India, I decided to consult a Vedic astrologer in New Delhi, the late R. Santhanam. I was at a crossroads in my career as a schoolteacher and was uncertain about my next direction. Santhanam was renowned for having translated many of the ancient Sanskrit texts on Vedic astrology into English so I was very curious about what he would say. He calculated my chart, and after studying it for a few minutes, slowly began to reel off events that had happened in my life: parent’s divorce, achievements in athletics, interest in spirituality, etc. I was amazed because I had told him nothing about myself. He eventually said that my dharma was to be an astrologer and suggested that I get a masters degree in psychology, thereby combining both disciplines. This again amazed me because it confirmed what I had already intuitively felt. I later had two other readings with Vedic astrologers while traveling in India who suggested the same life direction.
R. Santhanam and Vaughn Paul, December 1992
Although finding our inspiration can be a defining moment in our lives, the challenge then becomes to maintain our focus and actualize it. Eventually we could hit storms that threaten to throw us off course, become distracted by stray island paradises, experience times of cloud cover when we’ve lost inspiration and can’t see our navigational stars, or enter the doldrums near the equator that take the wind out of our sails. The Polynesian journey is our journey. The Polynesians had to learn to navigate under any conditions in order to survive and stay on course. When there was cloud cover they read the currents, waves, swells, wind, clouds, migratory birds, and any available signs from their environs. They used their sails to collect drinking water and fished for food. Evidence of their extraordinary skill lies in the fact that they had discovered most of the 10,000 islands in Polynesia, including Hawai’i, hundreds of years before the European explorers reached the South Seas with modern navigational equipment. When Captain James Cook arrived in the 1770’s he was openly astonished. He found similar people, language, and customs spread out across many thousands of miles of ocean in what he called, “the most extensive nation on earth.”
It took two hundred years to be proven scientifically that the Polynesians actually used star navigation to accomplish such a feat. In 1976 the Polynesian Voyaging Society, based in Hawai’i, sailed a traditional double-hulled canoe from Hawai’i to Tahiti without the use of any modern navigational equipment. The canoe was aptly named “Hokule’a,” and its construction sparked an immediate renaissance of interest in the ancient system of star navigation. The voyage was covered by National Geographic and later made into a 90 minute TV documentary.
The most challenging part of preparing for this historic journey was finding a skilled wayfinder who knew the traditional methods of star navigation.
Eventually they found one such master navigator, Mau Piailug, on a small island in Micronesia called Satawal. Crew members on the 1976 Holule’a voyage told stories about Mau’s extraordinary navigation skills. For instance, during a 7-day period of cloud cover, Mau was able to determine their location with one small opening in the sky that lasted less than two minutes! He was able do this because he had a detailed star map memorized in his head that consisted of over 200 stars and their rising and setting points. Mau had also memorized about 15 different swell patterns. One time he jumped up from his sleep and said that the canoe was off course, which he could tell just by the subtle difference in the way the swells felt while he was sleeping!
Mau has since passed on his valuable knowledge to Hawaiian born Nainoa Thompson who has navigated Hokule’a on many subsequent voyages throughout Polynesia and other parts of the world.
Recently I interviewed Maka’ala Yates, a respected teacher of Hawai’ian healing, who was a crewmember on board the historic 1976 voyage. He said that the most significant moments of the trip were when he felt a close relationship with everything in the environment. “Nowadays we’ve lost that connection,” he said. “For me I knew in my heart that I had to be on that canoe and connect with the ways of my people and their relationship to all living things.”
When we re-connect to the pulse of life, we no longer wander aimlessly.
On the return journey to Hawai’i there were several examples of how nature responds to us when we’re in harmony with that pulse.
As the Hokule’a was leaving Tahitii, they were escorted by a large pod of pilot whales. “In that moment when I saw the whales swimming around us and under us I knew that I was connected and the trip would be successful,” Maka’ala said. However, his most amazing experience was when they were 300 miles off the coast of Hawai’i. “Out of nowhere came a huge pod of Nai’a (dolphins). It was like a big welcoming committee that stretched as far as the eye could see,” he exclaimed. “One moment the water was calm and then it became so thick with dolphins it was like white water.”
As we face the complexities of our modern lives, we can benefit by the wisdom of these ancient traditions. We can use astrology as a tool to help us stay on course with our life purpose as well as navigate the inevitable challenges of our journey. Navigating by the stars is for today and not just a lost art. It’s choosing to live from a broader perspective, connected with spirit, and in harmony life. The Polynesian journey is a metaphor for our lives. We always have the choice to stay on safe, familiar shores or to venture into the unknown, to follow our bright star and not look back. We journey because we feel called. It’s a choice that often requires courage and leads to radical shifts in our lives. The form it takes is entirely a personal matter that may or may not relate to our source of income. The value we find lies in knowing we’re connected and that our lives have meaning. Ultimately, life itself responds and may even surround us with dolphins as we align with Hokule’a – our star of happiness.