A judicial blow

Print edition : June 09, 2001

The Andhra Pradesh High Court's dismissal of a writ petition against the UGC's move to introduce the study of astrology in the universities calls attention to the slippery position science and scientific temper hold in Indian society.

DESPITE widespread protests from the scientific community in India and Indian scientists working abroad, despite condemnation by more than three hundred social scientists representing a broad cross-section of the field, despite sharp disapproval in newspaper editorials and opinion pieces, the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Human Resource Development of the Government of India show no signs of withdrawing their decision to introduce "Jyotir Vigyan" or 'Vedic astrology' as a discipline of study in Indian universities.

There has been no move by the so-called 'moderate' leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, to announce any dialogue with the Indian scientific community on the astrology issue or to announce any re-consideration of the decision of the UGC. The Chairman of the University Grants Commission, Professor Hari Gautam, has been left free to propagate his absurd views on the subject. Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi intones that the whole idea is justified because several universities in India have responded positively to the UGC proposal. In the meantime, nobody knows who were the benighted experts who recommended to the UGC that such courses in astrology be introduced. As long as the names are not public, one is inclined to suspect strongly that it was a packed committee made up entirely of pro-astrology elements with no representatives from among leading scientists, for instance, office-bearers of the Indian science academies. One's suspicions are heightened when one notices stray tit-bits of information such as the official bio-data of Maharaj Krishen Kaw, the current Secretary, Department of Education, available on the department's web-site.

It proclaims that "Shri Kaw is deeply interested in the occult and has completed the 2-year Jyotish Acharya course from the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, New Delhi." The astrology-as-science proposal by the UGC has clearly turned out to be of more significance than just a hare-brained scheme hatched by a group of pro-astrology enthusiasts who have accidentally got their hands on the reins of higher education in India. It has become among the most serious and significant attacks on science, the scientific temper and rationality that have been witnessed in several decades.

It is in this context that the decision of the Andhra Pradesh High Court dismissing a writ petition filed on the astrology issue is cause for deep concern. Dismissing the petition filed by Dr. P.M. Bhargava, noted molecular biologist, and two others, praying for a writ of mandamus declaring the UGC's proposal to be illegal and unconstitutional, the court observed, among other things, that "in the opinion of the experts, astrology is a subject which requires pursuit of further studies." Further, the court observed that "A statutory body, having regard to the difference in opinion, may consider the necessity to develop the spirit of enquiry which would also come within the purview of research activities." While the other legal issues referred to by the court in arriving at its decision are matters for legal experts to debate and perhaps to challenge elsewhere, the observations of the court on the status of astrology as a legitimate subject of study and instruction, to be promoted by a statutory body in the spirit of scientific enquiry, are matters that should deeply concern every scientist.

Indeed, one of the strange features of the judgment is the manner in which the court concludes that the status of astrology as a science is an open question. The judgment first quotes the Webster's Dictionary definition of astrology that states clearly that astrology was "formerly often used as equivalent to astronomy, but now restricted in meaning to the pseudo-science that claims to foretell the future..." So far so good. The judgment however now quotes the Encyclopedia Brittanica (2nd edition) to illustrate that the issue is in dispute. The quotation reads: "Defined as either a science or a pseudo-science, astrology - forecasting of earthly and human events by means of observing and interpreting the fixed stars, the Sun, the Moon and the planets - has exerted a sometimes extensive and a sometimes peripheral influence in many civilizations, both ancient and modern. As a science, astrology has been utilized to predict or affect the destinies of individuals, groups or nations by means of what is believed to be a correct understanding of the influence of the planets and stars on earthly affairs. As a pseudo-science, astrology is considered to be diametrically opposed to the findings and theories of modern Western science." The judgment goes on to conclude that thus "in the opinion of the experts, astrology is a subject which requires pursuit of further studies."

Several points are worth noting here. It is a matter of some wonder that the Andhra Pradesh High Court had available with it a copy of the 2nd edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. This appeared some time in the first half of the 19th century! Surely a scientific subject would call for a more recent reference. It is interesting to read what more recent editions of the Brittanica carry on the subject of astrology.

The Internet version of the Brittanica, available free online, turns up a somewhat different version of the entry for astrology. The summary version (identical to the entry in the 15th print edition in its 1997 printing) begins by describing astrology as " a type of divination" and goes on to say: " At times regarded as a science, astrology has exerted an extensive or a peripheral influence in many civilizations, both ancient and modern. Astrology has also been defined as a pseudo-science and considered to be diametrically opposed to the theories and findings of modern science." The last paragraph, while acknowledging the hold of astrology as a popular pastime or superstition, points out that the "Copernican revolution of the 16th century dealt the geocentric worldview of astrology its shattering blow."

The longer article entry on astrology also describes astrology as a type of divination. It has two sentences beginning with the words " As a science...", which are identical to the quotation in the judgment. But it is clear from the reading of the rest of the article that these lines are an introduction to the description of astrology and its development in a historical context. The key point, with regard to a value judgment about astrology, emerges in the last section on "Astrology in modern times." Here the article debunks astrology as "the practice of what now degenerated into a pseudo-science (and) became increasingly the province of the fraudulent fortune teller." Following a brief description of the recent rise of interest in astrology, and the inability of astrology to measure up to any serious questioning or tests, the article concludes: "In short, modern Western astrology, though of great interest sociologically and popularly, generally is regarded as devoid of any intellectual value."

The 14th edition, in its 1973 printing, for instance, took an even stronger line on the subject. The entry on astrology begins as follows: "Astrology is the art or science that claims to predict events on earth by observation of the fixed stars and the sun, moon and planets." After a further brief description of the history of astrology the first sub-section on "Astrology in the West" ends with the following unambiguous statement: "As a popular pastime or superstition, however, astrology still engages the attention of millions of civilized people.... But, as a serious and sytematic world view claiming the allegiance of many of the best intellects in every rank of society, astrology is dead." A little later, the entry says: "The predictions of the astrologers do not survive the test of the experimental method. Scholarship, in its concern with the history of ideas, shows how easily genuine elements of knowledge can combine with illusory notions to form grandiose systems of thought in which the mind is content to dwell for a time."

Let me make the point that the Encyclopaedia Brittanica is not the ultimate authority on all matters. This is especially so on matters of science. But if the Hon'ble judges of the Andhra High Court cite Brittanica as the justification, along with the decisions of the so-called expert committee of the UGC, for arguing that the validity of astrology as a science was an open question, and that the writ petition was so lacking in merit that it could be dismissed at the admission stage itself, the Court clearly had to ensure that it took note of the entire entry in the Encyclopaedia and not just a few lines at the beginning.

It is noteworthy that in the judgment the entire burden of proof, that astrology is not a science, appears to lie, morally speaking, on the petitioners. To most laypersons, the first question would have been why the UGC was introducing Vedic astrology as a subject only now. If indeed 'jyotir vigyan' was a science, and the UGC has had a long record of having distinguished scientists as chairmen or members, the UGC should have introduced such courses much earlier. The Hon'ble Judges do not seem to have asked themselves this question. It would have instantly focussed attention on whether the UGC's proposals made any sense. The recommendations of the so-called experts would have been immediately suspect.

The Hon'ble Judges could have also examined, fruitfully, the consequences of allowing astrology, if indeed its status as a science is an open question, to intervene in the field of law itself. What, for instance, will become of the theory of evidence in criminal law? Will the fact that the horoscope of an accused person is of a particular nature be allowed as evidence of his propensity to do wrong? Will a person's star-signs indicate there is a greater probability that he is a murderer? Will that kind of astrological determination be admissible in a trial as expert testimony? Or will the combination of zodiacal indications be proffered as an excuse by the accused? Will he argue, contra Shakespeare, that the fault lies in the stars and not in himself? Indeed if astrology is a science, why does it have no place at all in the field of jurisprudence and law?

The answer to that question, as the Hon'ble Judges could easily have determined, is that astrology is not allowed a say for good reasons. It can pass no empirical test of any kind. It belongs firmly to the realm of occult practices and superstition. The practice of law and the administration of justice in its many forms rest firmly on the foundations of empirical evidence and not suppositions, propensities, divinations or other assorted mumbo-jumbo. By what logic then is it acceptable that astrology be regarded as an arguable science with respect to other aspects of human affairs, but not when it comes to jurisprudence and the law?

A fine example of how courts and the judiciary anywhere in the world may deal with questions of science versus pseudo-science is provided by the example of Judge William R. Overton's decision in 1982 overturning the decision of the State of Arkansas in the United States to offer balanced treatment in the state's school curriculum to evolutionary theory and creationism. (The judgment is reproduced in full for instance in Science and Creationism, ed. Ashley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1984.) In a detailed judgment he ruled that the teaching of creationist theories of the origins of life amounted essentially to the teaching of religious belief. He held that creationist theories do not constitute science. The Overton judgment includes a fine description of what the essential characteristics of science are and how creationist theories fail to possess these characteristics. The teaching of creationist theories thus violates the separation of religion from state as well as the settled constitutional principle that the state may not foist religious beliefs on its citizens.

By the criteria for science formulated in the Overton decision, it is absolutely clear that astrology must be declared a pseudo-science. But there is perhaps more to learn from the similarities in the creationism case in Arkansas and cases challenging the teaching of astrology in Indian universities. As several scientists in India have argued, the teaching of astrology is equivalent to the teaching of a particular belief system, since astrology is not a science at all. As Justice Alladi Kuppuswami, former Chief Justice of the Andhra High Court, points out in a learned article alongside, this will be in violation of Article 28(1) of the Chapter on Fundamental Rights. The Article forbids provision of religious instruction in any institution wholly maintained out of state funds.

One would have thought that basic knowledge and clarity on issues such as why astrology is not a science was an integral part of our intellectual culture, if not our popular culture. The unfortunate decision of the Andhra High Court informs us that such assumptions are not entirely justified. It calls attention to the tenuous and slippery position science and the scientific temper hold in Indian society.

Dr. T. Jayaraman is a theoretical physicist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

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