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What is vastu shastra? And how can it improve your home?

Sunlight streams into the kitchen and dining room in the home of Arathi and Ashish Cowlagi in Shrewsbury. The home features an open floor plan with few cut corners and walls.
Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe
Sunlight streams into the kitchen and dining room in the home of Arathi and Ashish Cowlagi in Shrewsbury. The home features an open floor plan with few cut corners and walls.

When Arathi and Ashish Cowlagi embarked on remodeling their Shrewsbury home two years ago, their wish list included the usual items — more space, a two-car garage — and one thing a bit out of the ordinary: vastu shastra.

Matthew Healey for the boston globe
Ashish (left) and Arathi Cowlagi.

“We wanted our ‘new house’ ... to have that same feeling of coming home,’’ Arathi Cowlagi said of the remodel and addition. “We didn’t want to walk into a new house in terms of energy. I think we went back to vastu because that’s what we thought would give us the tools to have that flow, that vibe.”

Loosely translated, “vastu shastra” means the “science of architecture.”

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Vastu is based on ancient Vedic texts that describe principles of design for everything from entire communities to temples to individual homes. (“Vastu” is the Sanskrit word for dwelling or building; “shastra” is a teaching.) The idea is to integrate and align the home with nature to improve the life of its occupants. Some Hindus and other vastu adherents believe this will bring health, happiness, harmony, and prosperity.

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Arathi and Ashish had grown up with vastu in India but are not strict followers.

“In some sense, it was always part of our life — simple things like you go to someone’s home and they’ll tell you to sleep with your head on this side of the bed because it’s considered to be the right side for vastu,’’ said Ashish Cowlagi, a health care executive. “I grew up in Bombay, which is like New York City, but more crowded. You grew up with the realization that you can’t have everything that vastu says. I grew up in a decidedly middle-class family, and we didn’t really have the luxury of saying we’re going to do stuff in a particular direction.”

This very idea — that vastu wasn’t being practiced exactly as described in the Vedic texts — led the late spiritual leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to work with families in different parts of India and with the ancient texts to piece together vastu principles that were fully Vedic and therefore fully effective, said Jon Lipman, chief architect and director of MaharishiVastu.org, an Iowa-based organization that builds and consults on structures around the world, including a home in MetroWest and one in Orleans.

“I’m a Westerner, so I always couch this in terms of ‘This is my understanding [of vastu]’ … that we are working with real laws of nature that influence how our environments, especially our built environments, influence brain functioning and mental health and our physical health,’’ Lipman said. “The most powerful influence of natural law on the surface of the earth is the sun, and so, not surprisingly, four of the major aspects of the rules that we follow have to do with taking advantage of particular qualities and influences of the sun’s energy on the surface of the earth.”

The Hindu deity Ganesha looks on the main entrance as a remover of osbstacles.
Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe
The Hindu deity Ganesha looks on the main entrance as a remover of osbstacles.
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These rules include designing studies and bedrooms so that furniture (desks, for example, or the pillow end of a bed ) faces east; having the building itself face east and its walls align due north, south, east, and west; having as many east-facing windows as possible; and the “principal of right placement,” so that rooms are positioned to take advantage of different qualities of light at different times of the day.

“All of the energy in the universe outside of planet Earth comes at us from the east because we’re moving toward the east,” Lipman said. “There really is something primal about the direction east.”

Of all the vastu rules, the idea of a home facing east — that is, the direction you’re facing when you step out the front door — seems to be one of the most commonly followed.

Since 2011, the MLS Property Information Network has included an optional “Facing Direction” field on listing sheets. It was added to serve brokers “who were getting this request from specific buyers due to culture or faith,’’ Melissa Lindberg, director of marketing, communication & outreach, said in an e-mail. “This was also a part of our ‘Green Field’ initiative; facing direction can be beneficial to energy conservation.”

Some brokers get the “facing” question all the time, particularly in Shrewsbury and Westborough, two towns with some of the highest Indian-American populations in the state.

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“If a house comes on the market in an established neighborhood in Shrewsbury ... I will guarantee you within the first three phone calls, somebody’s going to ask what direction the home faces,’’ said Maribeth Lynch, a broker and owner of Thrive Real Estate in Shrewsbury.

Arathi, who recently started working as a real estate agent, also has received many requests for homes facing east from those clients who adhere to vastu shastra — and that’s surprising to her and her husband, but for different reasons.

“In Hinduism, if there is something that doesn’t work or that’s missing, many people believe that you can do a prayer to bring that good energy into the house,’’ she said, referring to a traditional housewarming ceremony known as Griha Pravesh. Additionally, some Hindus install a drawing or metal representation of vastu purush to harmonize the energy. “Which is why sometimes it surprises me when people ask for very specific-facing houses,’’ she said. “Because when you go back to Hinduism, there is a belief that the vastu shanti ritual neutralizes or balances everything.”

The Cowlagis’ own home does not face east, but when a master vastu consultant analyzed the house during their remodeling project, he found several aspects of the house “complied quite nicely with vastu,’’ Ashish said. “He walked in and said: ‘You know what? When I park in your driveway and I walk up to your house, I’m actually walking east-northeast.’ ”

“Just striking a house off your list because it doesn’t face the right direction seems like a very superficial way of looking at a science and a study which have gone through thousands of years of really nuanced thinking,” Ashish said. “People are being a lot more superficial than is right.”

For many Hindus, the principles of vastu are religious. Others dismiss them as superstition.

“This is a question that you can apply to really any aspect of Indian life, particularly Hindu life, where what is religion, what are culturally accepted norms or practices, and what is science are just very inextricably woven together,’’ Ashish said. “I do believe many things about vastu are rooted in laws of physics. We know that the sun travels from the east to the west [or appears to], we know that the earth has a magnetic energy field that goes from the north to the south, and we know scientifically our own bodies have electromagnetic fields and we use those fields to study things like brain function. Is it a big leap of faith to assume that there are certain interactions between your body, your mind, and these larger macroelectromagnetic energy forces? I think not. There’s also, though, an element of spirituality that transcends the physics.”

A solar tube (top) allows natural light to fill the kitchen of the Cowlagis.
Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe
A solar tube (top) allows natural light to fill the kitchen of the Cowlagis.

Meena Krishnaswamy, a pharmaceutical quality professional who lives in Shrewsbury, is less a believer.

“I have heard of people who have moved out of homes because calamities fell upon them,’’ she said. “They felt that any hardship that came to them was because of the direction of the house, because of the vibrations of the house. There have been challenges in my life, but I don’t believe it is because of vastu.”

The idea of facing east, toward the sun god, though, is a tough one to shake.

“I don’t remember anyone telling me, but I just imbibed it growing up … anything you did in the house, you would face the east. When we bow to our elders — it’s a cultural thing — you face the east. It was a very, very common practice,’’ said Krishnaswamy, who was raised in Bombay. “It’s like taking a brush and brushing your hair. At work, I always parked my car facing a particular direction. I would always be moved to park there, and then I realized this is the east.”

The folks at Maharishi Vastu don’t consider the Vedic texts, which predate Hinduism, to be religious. Rather, the texts are considered “the direct cognition of the vibrations of nature’s intelligence,” Lipman said. “It has nothing to do with a religion or a culture or a time or a place. Just as if you think of gravity and holding a pencil in your hand and letting go of it, that pencil is going to fall, independent of your culture and your mind-set and where you are on earth.”

Vanessa Parks is a writer in Central Massachusetts. Send comments to Address@globe.com.