Few people will be watching this week’s presidential election in Sri Lanka with more pointed interest than a balding, prosperous-looking man wearing a gold amulet under his shirt, who claims the title of “royal astrologer.”
For decades, the astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, has stood beside the longtime politician and current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, occupying a role that, in this part of the world, combines the functions of spiritual adviser, political consultant and life coach. On television, it is not uncommon to see panels of astrologers debating the fortunes of political leaders, in a format something like that of “The McLaughlin Group.”
These days, Mr. Abeygunawardena’s main work is identifying auspicious timing for the president’s political acts — “10:48 a.m. was a strong time, the bird becomes king,” was one recent recommendation. But he also weighs in on such details as whether to submit nomination papers to the election commissioner’s right or left side and performs rituals in an ornate shrine in his attic, which is bracketed by six curving elephant tusks.
Many of Mr. Rajapaksa’s advisers must be on tenterhooks this week as he heads into one of the biggest gambles of his political career. When the president opted to hold elections this January, two years ahead of schedule, he could not have anticipated the challenge that has leapt up before him: Maithripala Sirisena, the former health minister and general secretary of Mr. Rajapaksa’s own party, mounted a surprise challenge, accusing the president of turning Sri Lanka into a “soft dictatorship” led by his sprawling extended family.
His defection, along with those of other longtime presidential aides, has turned the re-election campaign into a white-knuckle affair. Mr. Abeygunawardena has publicly maintained that the day of the vote, Thursday, will be an “immensely fortunate” date for the president, though he says he had no role in selecting it.
Identifying auspicious times, he said, is “very dangerous work, very risky work,” and, for astrologers working at his level, potentially career-ending.
“Even if there is a slight defect, it can result in something bad,” he said. If an astrologer errs, “the whole thing goes wrong,” he said, noting, “Sometimes their houses are demolished.”
“I have never received any admonitions,” he hastened to add, “because I have never given any wrong advice.”
Mr. Rajapaksa is certainly not the first Sri Lankan leader to engage the services of an astrologer. Most of his opponents do, too, and some stories floating around Colombo, the capital, about past spiritual practices make his sound relatively temperate. A high-ranking minister in the former United National Front government was said to have climbed into a burlap sack full of spices in an effort to ward off the evil eye. And a previous president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, for a time altered the spelling of the country’s name to Shri Lanka because he had been advised it was more auspicious.
Mr. Rajapaksa, who was first elected in 2005, has shown a rapt interest in what astrologers are saying about him. In 2009, an astrologer named Chandrasiri Bandara, who wrote a column for a pro-opposition weekly, was arrested and questioned by the Criminal Investigations Department after he predicted that Mr. Rajapaksa might be ousted. Mr. Bandara was released shortly afterward, and he continues to comment on politics, but with considerably more caution.
State television recently showed clips in which Mr. Bandara offered the opinion that recent torrential rains had been unleashed by Mr. Sirisena’s betrayal. In an interview, he smilingly declined to say which candidate, Mr. Rajapaksa or Mr. Sirisena, had submitted his nomination papers at a more auspicious time.
“If I saw which one is better,” he said, “I’ll have to go again in a white van.”
Astrology is part of daily life all over South Asia, where many people believe they are influenced by the movement of the planets starting at the moment of their birth. H. L. Seneviratne, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Virginia, recalled a friend in Sri Lanka who made a distinguished career in the law, but never once left home except at the “magically correct time.” Like the population, nearly all the country’s leaders have been ardent believers, he said, with a few standouts, like Mr. Premadasa, who seemed especially desperate for protection.
“There is a theory that the fishermen who go fishing in the lagoons do not use magic, but the fishermen who go fishing in the sea, they are full of magic,” Mr. Seneviratne said. “There is so much anxiety, and to cope with it, there is magic.”
Mr. Abeygunawardena’s office is decorated with life-size photographs of himself with the president and a giant framed copy of his own Wikipedia entry. One celebrity pictured is Mr. Sirisena, who denounced the president in November and is running against him. Asked about the defection, Mr. Abeygunawardena gave a small grimace of regret: He said he was close with Mr. Sirisena until he mysteriously stopped visiting a few months ago.
“I didn’t expect it and didn’t predict it,” he said of the defection, adding that Mr. Sirisena’s horoscope was not strong. “The planet Saturn is in his house, and it’s a bad time for him. A very bad time,” he said. “His house is clearly spoiled irreparably.”
Mr. Abeygunawardena forged his relationship with Mr. Rajapaksa in the 1980s, when he approached the politician with a prophecy. Mr. Abeygunawardena told him he was the long-awaited Prince Diyasena, the hero who, according to Sinhala Buddhist legend, was destined to save Sri Lanka from anarchy and then rule for around 24 years. These days, he said, he and the president speak almost daily, usually between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., “even if he is at the gym, or doing yoga.”
“The president, he has such auspicious time and so much power in his planetary position that he cannot be defeated in an election,” he said confidently. “If he gives someone else the position, or steps down, or retires, that’s the only way.”
As he left the interview, he fished out his amulet — a heavy lump of gold inlaid with a large gemstone for each of the planets.
“One request,” he said. “Don’t put in any words that are against the Rajapaksas.” (New York Times)