Young Indians Make a Beeline to Online Apps to Share Their Woes

Astrologers, tarot card readers, numerologists and palmists are among those offering services over livestreams

Young Indians Make a Beeline to Online Apps to Share Their Woes
An Indian mystic shows a deck of tarot cards. (Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images)

When 24-year-old Payal’s mother informed her about an upcoming visit from a prospective groom’s family, she rushed to her room fuming in anger and picked up her phone to speak to someone who would help her calm down. It wasn’t her therapist, friend or sibling. Rather it was a tarot card reader named Yojna. Payal had paid to be in a live video call with her, and the broadcast was being viewed by over 5,000 people. Annoyed at her family’s insistence on meeting strangers and not allowing her to marry the man she loved, Payal gave Yojna the lowdown on how stifled she felt in her home, where women didn’t have agency to make any decisions. The reader in turn told her to wait for a couple of weeks until the planets moved and things turned better for her.

Through the course of their conversation, it was clear that Yojna knew Payal well, along with her overall triggers, sun sign and birth chart, as they kept discussing subjects they had spoken about in the past. Yojna was serving multiple roles, including that of a life coach, psychologist, friend and astrologer, giving Payal the validation she sought. After venting and almost breaking down, Payal eventually regained her composure and asked, “So are things going to improve on the work front at least?”

“Let’s find out,” said Yojna, shuffling her deck.

In the past few years, there has been an uptick in the popularity of astrology-related apps in India, where astrologers, tarot card readers, numerologists, and palmists offer services over livestreams in broadcasts often viewed by thousands. In an astrology-obsessed nation, this space is emerging as a hot spot for young and middle-aged Indians who want to seek advice on their personal and professional challenges and are desperate to speak to someone who will let them vent without judgment.

“Most people who come on astrology platforms are not there looking for solutions. They just want to be heard and accepted,” said Sachi Bajaj, 46, who has been a registered astrologer on Astrotalk for over a year and also specializes in psychic healing. Other than that, uncertainty is another major factor that draws people to astrology. These apps reported that their revenue nearly doubled during the pandemic.

Astrotalk is currently the top-ranking astrology platform on Google PlayStore and claims to make a revenue of $85,000 per day through its 50,000 daily active users. It currently commands 80% of market share in the astrology tech space. While 25-to-34-year-olds are the majority customer base on Astrotalk, the 18-25 cohort is the fastest-growing audience on AstroYogi, one of the oldest online astrology platforms in India, said Meena Bahl Kapoor, its founder and chief executive. Other apps such as Astrosage, InstaAstro and Yodha, which offer similar services, are also gaining traction.

Astrologers and tarot card readers on these platforms often act like life coaches and oscillate between pep talk and positive affirmations with some personalized reading of the birth chart in the mix. But a large part has little to do with astrology. To build a regular clientele and stand out among thousands of astrologers, the key is to establish a personal connection, which is hard to do only through astrological advice. Hence, to increase business, they have to make conversations longer, as clients are billed on a per-minute basis.

Astrologers charge anywhere between 50 cents to $1 per minute, almost on par with what a psychologist in India charges for a session. When astrologers suggest religious rituals for prosperity, black magic removal or good health as solutions, they charge anywhere from $60 to $1,200 to execute them.

Vedic astrology, with its roots in Hinduism, has been part of the lifestyle of Indians for centuries. Families would consult priest-astrologers before making any major life decisions or to pick an auspicious date or time for events. It was largely limited to this till the ’90s. In the early 2000s, as horoscopes became a regular feature in newspapers and magazines, along with TV shows and astrology fairs, astrology was lumped in with cricket and Bollywood as primary entertainment in India. Some astrologers like Bejan Daruwalla, who was of Parsi heritage, gained celebrity status. He ran a popular column, “Ganesha Speaks,” for over two decades in leading newspapers.

In addition, birth charts were digitized and astrologers created personalized websites. Telecoms began offering astrology and horoscope services.

Now the new-age apps have opened a new door for young Indians.

“Many young people today don’t have a single genuine person to talk to,” said Bengaluru-based hypnotherapist Adarsh Basvaraj. Especially for those who have grown up with social media and are accustomed to instant gratification, pop astrology offers quick outward fixes and labels based on sun signs, making for a digestible pill for their deep-rooted psychological issues, he said.

Pop astrology gained traction in the past decade as it became part of wellness and self-care routines thanks to popular meme accounts, influencers and American apps like Co-Star and The Pattern. Discussing sun, moon and rising signs and checking compatibility based on them are part of everyday conversations, and fashion and beauty brands also joined the bandwagon by introducing celestial-theme accessories. In 2021, Spotify launched horoscope-based playlists.

Meanwhile in India, while conventional therapy is becoming popular among young Indians, it still has a stigma attached and is considered a Western concept. Tarot reading and astrology are socially more accepted. Moreover, therapy requires people to look inward and work on themselves.

“It’s easier to outsource the job to stars and healing crystals to fix our problems,” Basvaraj said.

Hence, these new-age astrologers bank on this feel-good element. “When something unexplainable or magical explains people’s problems, they feel more attracted to those schools of thought, as they don’t need to understand anything further,” explained counseling psychologist Divija Bhasin, who runs The Friendly Couch, an organization that provides online therapy sessions. “It can just be explained by an external force which has nothing to do with their personal attributes.”

Users of these platforms echo the sentiment. Swati Khanna, a Delhi-based software engineer, is aware that not every astrologer on these platforms is a scholar. While doubting the authenticity of astrology as a practice, “sometimes you need a pick-me-up,” she said.

“It’s a cheaper and easier alternative to psychotherapy, which honestly might not solve all your problems,” she said. “When I talk to an astrologer or tarot reader, they look at my cards or birth chart and tell me the fault is in my stars. And stars move places. So not only are they offering me a tiny bit of hope, they are also telling me that it’s not my fault.”

Similarly, Aarav (name changed), 33, was skeptical about claims made on these astrology platforms for the longest time. “If you spend enough time on these platforms, you’d know that most astrologers are either offering flattery or consolation,” he said. “But when I met the right healer, she pulled me out of some very deep shit.” He further claimed that some mysterious bruises on his legs and discomfort in his chest, which could not be medically diagnosed, were healed through the screen by a psychic he found on Astrotalk, who also gave him mental strength to deal and fight with some other issues.

“You are free to disbelieve my story,” he quickly added, aware that it could sound totally made up.

But stories like these that draw from mystical powers of priests, sages and astrologers are common folklore in India, which is why people often end up giving them the benefit of the doubt.

For instance, psychic healer Bajaj, who lives in Yamunanagar, Haryana, about 100 miles from Delhi, had no qualms in sharing how she helped a young man transport in spirit to the time and place where his father was killed or how she possesses the ability to move into people’s bodies. She also claimed that from the time she was 20, people would swarm her living room and wait for their turn to hold her hands, hoping she would heal their troubles and illnesses away with her “positive energy.” Now she helps “lost and depressed souls” through the screen after, she says, her deceased spiritual guru’s spirit guided her to do so. Bajaj charges people about 50 cents per minute for a call and has clocked in 133,000 minutes on Astrotalk, and her popularity is evident from the number of people who queue up to be on a live session with her.

Live sessions on the platforms feel like being inside a psychotherapist’s room. A young woman wants to know how to control her temper while interacting with manipulative parents. A 24-year old whose wife has cheated on him six months into marriage is contemplating a divorce. A 19-year old wants to understand the feelings of a young man in her class and whether she can do anything to change them. Among young people, Mumbai-based tarot reader Harita Mamtora has noticed a growing sense of loneliness, lack of safe spaces to open up and rising divorce rates.

“A conversation with an astrologer or tarot reader is devoid of any kind of judgment. We don’t give them opinions or lectures on their choices or priorities,” she said. “We are doing everything a therapist would do but without a psychology degree.”

“Unlike psychotherapy, relationships are a two-people job,” said Aatmajyoti Aarya, 33, a writer based in Bhubaneshwar. While psychologists might help you with your own battles, astrologers help identify your partner’s feelings as well, she said, as they can look at both of their birth charts and offer suggestions more aligned to their stars. Moreover, a partner could be reluctant to join you on the therapist’s couch but would be open to an astrologer’s suggestion, she said.

However, choosing astrological advice in lieu of psychological treatment comes with a fair share of risks. Bhasin said that astrology takes away the agency from individuals and makes them dependent on a system out of their control. It can also be fatal and severely disruptive in some cases, especially if the person has clinical disorders, she said.

“Astrology is simply a placebo and does not actually work to improve a person’s life,” Bhasin said. “The only thing that can improve a person’s life in spite of their life conditions is the person themselves.”

Commercialization and competition in the market has resulted in platforms adding more and more astrologers without thorough vetting. There are tarot readers, palmists and face readers on platforms who are as young as 18.

“There are people misusing the space unfortunately, which gives the practice a bad name,” Kapoor said.

Mamtora acknowledges that knowledge isn’t the primary skill required to be a good astrologer or seer today. What’s more important is how long you can hold a conversation, since the platforms incentivize that. When astrologers unwittingly or intentionally assure people of the goodness in them by stating positive personality traits, it helps sugarcoat the hard-to-swallow self-improvement pill.

“A lot of people who come on these platforms are looking for affirmations,” she said. “They want you to say what they want to hear.”

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