By Reya Mehrotra
When the lockdown was imposed in March last year, Puneet Gupta’s astrology business saw a sudden decline. “We had been consistently growing since we started our platform in 2017. But when the lockdown was imposed, the business went down,” says Noida-based Gupta, CEO and founder, AstroTalk, an online astrology portal.
The slump, however, was shortlived as, within two weeks, people started reaching out to them again. The triggers were Covid anxiety, layoffs, shrinking business, questions about the pandemic and a desperate need for hope. So much so that business surpassed even pre-Covid levels. “By the first week of April, we had recovered and were doing business worth Rs 25 lakh a day as compared to Rs 10 lakh a day before Covid,” shares Gupta.
AstroTalk is not alone in witnessing a sharp boom in business post-Covid. With uncertainty prevailing about the pandemic, scores of people flocked to astrology services to allay their fears and seek ‘answers’. In the process, the sector hit a jackpot, with many astro ventures coming up to fulfill demand. In India, apps like Ganesha Speaks and Guruji saw a significant upsurge. While AstroYogi saw more than 20% surge in users, AstroSage, with more than 40 million app downloads, noticed a 100% increase in the first quarter of 2020.
Interestingly, this phenomenon isn’t just restricted to India. Globally, too, psychic and mystical services saw an upswing. Take, for instance, New York-headquartered Sanctuary, which provides on-demand astrology readings. The app witnessed “real growth in paid offerings, surge in new users and deep engagement in 2020,” said CEO Ross Clark. Other apps like Co-Star, The Daily Horoscope, TimePassages, iHoroscope, AstroMatrix also became popular. San Francisco-based Sensor Tower, which provides market intelligence and insights for the global app economy, estimated that the US spent $39.7 million on the top 10 astrology apps in 2019, a 64.7% increase from 2018. The psychic services industry in the US, which comprises palm reading, astrology, aura readings, cartomancy, etc, grew at an annualised rate of 1.6% from 2014 making it a $2.2-billion industry by the end of 2019, as per market research company IBIS World. Experts say this growth will continue in the next five years.
In pre-Covid times, people’s interest in astrology was the direct result of the uncertain times and, today, the pandemic has increased that anxiety manyfold, leading to a significant push for the industry across the world. According to a survey conducted by AstroTalk—which currently has 1,200 astrologers and 300 tarot readers on onboard and whose app has more than one million downloads—American users prefer psychic and tarot readings, while Indians prefer astrology. AstroTalk has hired astrologers and readers across languages as people are more comfortable talking to someone who speaks the same language. “We also have a good NRI base and so we are hiring people from America and Canada,” says Gupta, adding that after India, most of their users are from America, Canada and UAE.
Delhi-based Gunjan Sharma, a communications professional during the week and tarot reader and reiki healer on weekends, says she did more readings in the past year than the previous two years combined through phone calls, WhatsApp and her social media page Tarot with Gunjan. The peak period, says Sharma, was between April and June last year.
Roshan Sylvia, a France-based Indian tarot reader, spiritual healer and palmist, took a break from her YouTube channel, which has more than two lakh subscribers, in 2020 as she found the year’s energies overwhelming. And yet she witnessed an increase in views on previous videos, as well as her number of subscribers. “I had thousands of requests for personal consultations during the lockdown,” says Sylvia, who has been in the profession for five years. According to her, the questions that people asked most in 2020 ranged from health to relationship issues, jobs and finances. Sylvia, who has a good number of followers not just in India, but other countries too, says people seek astrology more in desperate times. “Astrology and divination have always been a refuge in times of uncertainty, as one needs assurance.”
Another astrologer for whom work pressure has quadrupled since the pandemic is Lucknow-based Mridul Misra. “There are a lot of questions related to careers and opportunities to travel abroad as people are anxious about their jobs and finances. Some even ask when work from home will end and when new jobs will come up. There are questions about marriages too,” says Misra, who has been in the business for 20 years.
Delhi-based astrologer and vaastu consultant Jai Madaan also observed a 30% growth in business. “When times are tough, people need guidance, direction and answers and so they gravitate towards things that feel natural to them. Initially during the pandemic, there were no answers in science, so they turned towards us to see if the cosmic world had an answer,” says Madaan, who has been a motivational speaker, astrologer, life coach, corporate trainer, relationship counsellor, spiritual healer, graphologist and face reader for 12 years now. Talking about the appeal, she says, “It is just a sugar pill, but one that can fix ailments because that mindset is there. People were insecure as they lost jobs and loved ones. They were also worried about their relationships since a lot of people were distanced from their partners. Many individuals over 40 also had concerns about the health of their parents and children.”
Launched in 2018, Astrobuddy is another astrology services app that is benefitting from the new wave of those seeking answers from the stars. Founded by astrologer Bhupesh Sharma, the app struck gold with the arrival of the pandemic and reached its peak in 2020—there was a 150% jump in the number of calls and text chats versus the base figure a year ago. Elaborating on the most common questions people wanted answers for, Sharma says, “Earlier, 60% of the questions revolved around relationships and marriages and 40% around financial issues and jobs. But now, after the pandemic, 60% questions are about jobs, finances, alliances and careers, and 40% around relationships. People are also asking questions like when will Covid end.”
Sharma says the competition in the industry has become more intense now. “Initially, there was not much competition, but now, many astrology portals have come up, as internet speeds have gone up.”
Talking about the challenges of developing an astrology portal in a country where almost every household knows an astrologer, Gupta of AstroTalk says, “Establishing an online astrology portal in such a place was challenging at first, but we noticed that once a user had a free session, they came back for a paid one. It is easy to acquire a customer here. People already know about astrology.”
The pandemic has seen cases of stress, anxiety and depression go up across the world and many astrologers say they found themselves donning the counsellor’s robe as well to help people. “We maintained that it’s a difficult time but will pass. Every person has been impacted because of the pandemic in some way or the other—some have come out easily while others have been hit hard… while talking to people, we realised that they needed more of a counsellor’s help,” says Bhupesh Sharma of Astrobuddy.
This is how Serefe, a counselling and therapy platform, was born. The brainchild of Delhi-based Seema Gandhi (who holds a doctorate in micro-finance), Serefe, which started in August 2020, offers counselling services in areas like mental health and career, hypnotherapy, dance and movement therapy, past life regression, spiritual and crystal healing, etc. It has counsellors (online and offline) across the country and has tied up with hospitals to come up with clinics in cities like Gurugram, Mumbai, Lucknow and Jammu. The idea, says Gandhi, originated when they found that a number of Astrobuddy users were depressed or anxious—Gandhi and her husband are Astrobuddy’s silent partners/investors.
The response so far, she says, has been quite positive. “At least 10 corporates across the country have come forward to seek counselling packages for their employees. Our clinic in Jammu has done especially well because there aren’t many mental health counselling services there. We also conducted research that showed that Jammu had a number of mental health patients as the place has gone through a lot,” she adds.
Gupta of AstroTalk says he was surprised to notice certain trends among people last year that reflected the need for a counsellor. “We noticed that people were asking the same questions again and again and were talking for as long as 15-20 minutes when a five- to six-minute session can answer a question. That’s when we realised that what they actually needed was counselling,” he says. “People in India don’t realise that they are treating astrology as counselling as it gives them hope. There have been researches aplenty that suggest that after every pandemic, astrology businesses boom,” says Gupta, who has introduced a number of new features like free birth charts, live sessions and astrology lessons on his platform.
When an astrologer gives advice to seekers, it gives them positivity, believes astrologer Mridul Misra. “If the planetary positions are bad for a person, we tell them the truth, but we also give them certain solutions like donating to the poor or feeding animals that will help motivate them and earn them good karma,” he says.
Delhi-based Gunjan Sharma, however, cautions that astrology can’t be the ultimate refuge and can’t replace the need for a psychologist. “People need to understand that a psychiatrist or therapist is the way to go when you need help with mental health. With tarot and oracle card readings, we tend to speak a lot about the message of hope, positive thinking and law of attraction/universe, but all these will work temporarily for those who really need help from a therapist.” As an oracle reader, she says that even if the cards turn out to be negative, the readings end with a guidance message to motivate the seeker.
India has a long history of spiritual healing, with an endless and ever-increasing number of spiritual gurus. Many have found followers abroad as well. Mystic Rajneesh, better known as Osho, for instance, enjoyed a strong follower base in all parts of the world. From celebrities flocking to them for healing to the common man turning to them as part of their faith, many families today have a spiritual guru whom they swear by. Recently, actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness and lifestyle brand Goop also released a list of popular spiritual and energy healers offering remote sessions. These included the likes of Dana Childs, Frank Butterfield, Diane Goldner, Sonja Grace, etc.
Likening astrologers and tarot readers to spiritual healers, Roshan Sylvia says they don’t just help people on the psychological level, but also on the spiritual level. “It’s a combination of the mind, the body and the soul. I have to find the right balance between giving them the truth of the situation and keeping them positively hopeful,” she says.
Delhi-based Madaan, however, disagrees, saying there’s a difference between seeking a healer’s help and taking guidance from an astrologer. “A spiritual healer uses a simplistic way of managing things through healing a person mentally, physically and emotionally. Healing revolves around cleaning of auric, energy and magnetic fields around a person. On the other hand, an astrologer is an expert in understanding outer space changes and how they affect our minds and positions in life. Healing, thus, is more rooted in divinity, while astrology is more calculative. Outer space changes affect our mind position in life,” says Madaan, adding that Indians are generally more spiritual than people in other parts of the world as our mythologies, religions and scriptures all talk about past life and rebirth. “So when you talk about the past, present and future in a healing and therapeutic way, it relaxes people and makes them happy,” she adds.
Indore-based healer Krishna Mishra, popularly called Krishna Guruji by his followers, received an overwhelming number of calls last year. Mishra, who has been invited to several countries like the US, Bulgaria, Malaysia, Thailand, Dubai, Romania and several states in India for healing through prayers, says he healed many around the world last year through video calls and phone calls. “I call it ‘divine astro’ healing. Usually, three types of people come to me—those who are worried about jobs and finances, those worried about relationships, and those worried about health. I mostly heal only those who want healing for their health because I have healed myself healthwise too,” says Mishra, who was operated in 1982 for a brain tumour, which left the right part of his body paralysed. He then started training to write with his left hand and gradually healed himself and even got himself a job. “Now, I am independent and want to heal others as well,” he says.
Since the lockdown was imposed, Mishra says he has been praying for the world to heal. “Whenever people call me for healing, I listen to them and then say a prayer for them. That is the only process. I believe collective prayers can do wonders,” says Mishra, who has been healing people for 10 years now.
Since the pace of life slowed down during the lockdown, people were able to tap into their spiritual side, feels Mumbai-based Tamanna C, a psychic, spiritual therapist, columnist and author, who identifies herself as a clairvoyant. Tamanna, too, noticed an increase in the numbers of clients as the uncertain times brought in people an “urge to transform”. During the lockdown, Tamanna says, people were okay with the slow pace of life, but were concerned about relationships. Usually, the end and beginning of a year are the busiest times for her as people want to know how the coming days will unfold. The most frequently asked questions, she says, remain about love, marriage, career and finances.
Quote 1: Initially, there was not much competition, but now, many astrology portals have come up
— Bhupesh Sharma, astrologer & founder, Astrobuddy, an astrology services app
Quote 2: By the first week of April 2020, we were doing business worth `25 lakh a day as compared to `10 lakh a day before Covid-19
—Puneet Gupta, CEO & founder, AstroTalk, an online astrology portal
Quote 3: It is just a sugar pill, but one that can fix ailments because that mindset is there
— Jai Madaan, a Delhi-based astrologer and vaastu consultant
Quotes 4: People need to understand that a psychiatrist or therapist is the way to go when you need help with mental health
—Gunjan Sharma, communications professional, tarot reader & reiki healer