“People are having fewer babies today, so they want the very best for their children,”
– Ms. Saxena.
“Indians are very competitive.”
MUMBAI- Ruchira Varmaa’s marriage was already in trouble when she found out she was pregnant. She didn’t know what to do, so, as with most life decisions, she consulted her astrologer. Ruchira Varmaa had her daughter Shyla via C-section after consulting astrologer Geetanjali Saxena about the most auspicious time to give birth.
Ms. Varmaa and her child would be fine, the astrologer said, as long as the baby was born on one of three mahurats, or auspicious days, near her due date. She then did what doctors say an increasing number of middle-class Indians are doing these days: She scheduled a caesarean section in order to nail that good-luck date.
The perfectly timed birth not only gave her a wonderful daughter, Ms. Varmaa says, but also got her own life back on track. Her career and health have improved and her brief, arranged marriage has ended in an amicable divorce. “I didn’t want my bad luck to affect the child,” says Ms. Varmaa, 34 years old, a director for a clothing exporter in Mumbai. “If the position of the sun and moon are right, then the baby has a good life and even the mother’s life improves.”
Indians have been asking astrologers for the perfect time to conceive for centuries.
Indians have always consulted their gurus—who usually look to the stars—for the best times for marriage ceremonies, business deals or even when to step on the train for a long trip. Astrological timing is so important that when the stars align, India sees an explosion of weddings, with tens of thousands of ceremonies taking place on the same day in cities like Mumbai or New Delhi.
Indians have been asking astrologers for the perfect time to conceive for centuries. Now, with rising incomes and improved access to health care, many take their gurus’ advice to their gynecologists to decide birth times as well.
“In the last three years, it has become rampant. Almost everyone prefers to choose timing,” says Rishma Dhillon Pai, a Mumbai-based gynecologist. “It’s strange, because you would think that as we grow more modern, this kind of thing would happen less.”
While there are no data on how often C-section timings are decided by astrology, the number of caesarean deliveries has surged in India. In the early 1990s, around 5% of births in urban hospitals were caesarean. Today more than 20% are, doctors say, in part because of higher incomes and wider access to health care.
Mumbai astrologist Geetanjali Saxena
In the U.S., the frequency of caesarean sections has risen to more than 30% of births, from around 21% in 1998. The rise has been driven by increases in the number of middle-age mothers and overweight mothers, according to doctors, as well as malpractice concerns.
While the vast majority of Indians still prefer natural birth, doctors say the number of caesarean sections where cosmic timing is a factor has jumped from perhaps one-in-10 a decade ago to as many as one-in-two today. Usually, the timing is chosen only after a C-section has been deemed necessary. But doctors say a growing number of women are opting for the procedure when there is no medical need.
Moving a birth up by even one week can lead to complications such as breathing problems in babies whose lungs have not fully developed. Mothers face increased risk of infection, blood loss and even death from the procedure, which delivers the baby through a surgical incision.
Most Indian doctors say they refuse requests for unnecessary caesareans. But they say it’s still relatively easy to find doctors who will agree to do them if the mother-to-be says she has a low pain threshold.
“We are not terribly happy with the trend of patients giving birth to babies according to an auspicious time and day, but we go with the flow,” says Sanjay Gupte, president of the Federation of Obstetric and Gynecological Societies of India. “What can we do? It’s the parent’s belief, after all.”
This has put extra pressure on doctors and hospitals. Mumbai gynecologist Ms. Pai said she was asked to do a C-section at 3:30 a.m. because the hour was deemed auspicious.
She initially refused, but got so many calls from powerful friends of the parents that she agreed to do it.
Ms. Pai says she will only do the procedure if necessary. However, she allows patients to pick the time as long as they give her a few options and as big a window as possible. One wealthy Mumbai family insisted that their baby be delivered between 11:00 and 11:15 a.m., says Ms. Pai. She blocked extra time in the operating room, but when an earlier operation went long, she had to rush and barely met the deadline.
“The pressure was tremendous,” she says. “That is not a situation I want to be in.”
Gurus say they have also seen a surge in requests to choose the best birth dates. They say adjusting the time of birth is not necessarily tampering with fate because being born at a time when you can choose a birth date is also part of fate.
In Indian astrology, even the minute of birth is important. Matrimonial ads and websites where Indian families search for suitable mates for their children usually mention the exact time of birth to check cosmic compatibility. As the good and bad planets are always waxing and waning, creating both wonderful and awful combinations each day, a few minutes here or there could theoretically make or break a person.
Mahurat mothers say the large potential benefits of having a child blessed by the stars outweigh concern about potential complications from a caesarean.
Sonali Kanwar, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mother, followed the advice of her astrologer and moved her son’s birth date up by a week to catch a sweet spot on the calendar. While she doesn’t believe the claims of some gurus that the right timing can ensure you have a boy who will grow up to be rich and tall, she says, she wanted to give her baby any help she could.
“My son was underweight when he was born. But 16 months on he is now thriving and perfectly sized,” she says. “It gives me peace of mind and happiness to know that my son came into the world on a good day.”
Astrologers say the right timing can do everything from create a more beautiful child to one that is quiet or obedient or even a good actor. Most parents aren’t that specific, though, says Geetanjali Saxena, a Mumbai astrologer. They ask for the best timing for their child to have it all.
“People are having fewer babies today, so they want the very best for their children,” says Ms. Saxena. “Indians are very competitive.”
—Arlene Chang contributed to this article.