Vedic astrology and all that

Print edition : May 12, 2001

Astrology has no academic standing of any worth; there is no evidence that it has any empirical basis. The campaign to introduce it as a subject in universities is part of a fundamentalist political project.

AMONG the many pseudo-sciences that have a considerable hold over significant sections of the public, astrology has something of a special place. Perhaps no other pseudo-science has such a universal presence. Astrology is part of the ancient tradition of every society in one form or the other. It continues to have a following across the world, sometimes numbering amongst its adherents celebrities or political leaders in positions of power and influence. The popular media continues to give it ample time and space across the world, suggesting that astrology columns, telecasts and shows help at least a little in making cash registers ring. In terms of universal appeal, astrology probably still leads its many rivals of more recent origin, that range from the 'we-are-almost-science' genre, of which the television serial 'X-Files' is the best known, to wilder variants like UFO abduction and alien landings on the earth.

But despite this popular appeal, astrology has no academic standing of any worth anywhere. No respectable university with any kind of reputation in the engineering or natural sciences has any course of study that leads to a degree in astrology. Belief in astrology amongst scientists is so rare that most working scientists have never met a colleague (India and some other Third World countries may perhaps be exceptions to this) who believe astrology to be true or believes that it could in any way be considered a science. This rejection of astrology as a science or as a subject fit for serious study of any kind (except perhaps in the context of cultural anthropology or the history of science) has been true now for several centuries.

Murli Manohar Joshi, Union Minister for Human Resource Development.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Given this background, the current high-profile and pro-active campaign by Union Minister for Human Resource Development Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi and the Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), Prof. Hari Gautam, for the introduction of Vedic astrology as a 'scientific discipline' to be pursued as a subject of study in universities in India, with the award of suitable degrees and so on, came as a complete surprise to most people.

There are two obvious questions in the context of this campaign. The first is to ask whether there is any kind of evidence to support the introduction of astrology as a 'scientific discipline' of study. Is there something that Dr. Joshi knows that others do not?

The second question is with regard to the origins of this campaign. Does this emerge from a genuine public demand for the introduction of astrology, or are there other motivations behind it?

The basic tenet of all astrology is that the relative positions of the sun, the moon and the planets and particular constellations in the sky affect human beings in terms of their environment as well as their behaviour. Knowing these positions in the sky, as described by a horoscope, at the time of birth of an individual, it is claimed, will enable the prediction of the basic character and personality traits of the individual as well as significant events in that person's life. With other variants of astrology there is also the claim that some particular relative positions of these celestial objects are significantly correlated to major cataclysmic events on the earth, both natural and political (the latter is a great favourite at times of political crises), and that such events can actually be predicted.

Unfortunately for astrology and its practitioners, there is not an iota of evidence that astrology has any empirical basis for its validity. The first problem is that there is a wide variety of astrologies, developed at various times in history. Many of them differ significantly. Some of them, for instance, contain planets that others ignore; the planet Pluto, for instance, is an integral part of current Western astrology but clearly Vedic astrology has no room for Pluto, considering that the planet was not found until several centuries after others were. Chinese astrology pays much attention to the Pole Star while Western astrology ignores it. As several critics of astrology have noted (for instance the article titled 'Astrology and Science: An Examination of the Evidence' by Ivan W. Kelly, Roger Culver and Peter J. Lopston in Cosmic Perspectives: Essays Dedicated to the Memory of M.K.V. Bappu edited by Biswas, Mallik and Vishweshwara; 1989) variants of astrology differ significantly in a variety of essential tenets of their practice. If after a few millennia all these forms of astrology have not converged, the claim of astrology to be a science seems rather suspect.

But more important, any serious attempt to verify whether any form of astrology could have some validity by attempting to obtain correlations between cataclysmic events and the positions of celestial bodies or by testing correlations between personality traits and characteristics and zodiacal data have in general come a cropper. There has been no evidence of any correlation beyond what could be expected by sheer statistical accident or by the fact that those who knew what their horoscopes were, attributed characteristics to themselves that fit their astrological 'data'. There has been to date only one study, as the paper by Kelly, Culver and Lopston points out, that seems to suggest any link between personality characteristics and some fragments of astrological data (not the entire horoscope), but even the conclusions of this study do not support most of the claims of astrology.

BUT the issue of this one study brings us to the second major strike against astrology. Science is not merely a listing of conjunctions, accidental or otherwise, among different phenomena. There must also be some kind of coherent mechanism of interaction that explains why and how these conjunctions are produced. Without such a mechanism or even the slightest indication of the possibility of such a mechanism, astrology can have no hope of correcting or improving itself like all genuine science routinely does, by either filtering out wrong data or correcting the mechanism itself to explain various discrepancies. Astrology traditionally has had no such mechanisms or explanations for the influences that it claims. In more modern times some explanations have been attempted based on the achievements of modern science, none of which, it must be noted, originated in any way from astrology.

Unfortunately for such attempts, no explanation that is based on the forces that science has discovered and understood even partially has the remotest possibility of offering any succour to astrology. For instance, planetary influences cannot be due to gravity. After all, as one can easily calculate, the gravitational effect of the obstetrician handling the baby is greater than the effect of the moon on the newborn. The gravitational effect of a reasonably sized modern building could easily overwhelm the effect of the moon. And astrology never seems to account for the obstetrician, her or his assistants, the equipment or the building.

The fact that the moon affects the tides does not imply that the effect of the moon on the fluids in the body is the same. The gravitational effect on body fluids is so small as to be almost vanishing. The effect of the other planets is even less. One cannot claim here in support of astrology that the current understanding that we have of the theory of gravity be abandoned, without making complete nonsense of the enormous body of data in support of it. This we could hardly do considering that our ability to put all satellites and other spacecraft into the right orbit, which we manage rather successfully, depend crucially on the scientific understanding of gravity.

If we were to press the point, even electromagnetic forces, the only other long-range force, could not do the job. Any local radio transmitter could easily overwhelm the electromagnetic effects due to any of the planets. Is there room for an explanation based on an as yet undiscovered force? The answer, from tests that scientists have conducted to detect a possible fifth force that acts over long distances, is that there is nothing here that offers even a distant ray of hope to astrology. There is no way that astrology can claim that there exists the possibility of a mechanism within the framework of science that supports its ideas. It is this fact that leads scientists to dismiss astrology as a science even without the detailed examination of all the minute details of the several variants of this pseudo-science. The only recourse for the more aggressive exponents of astrology, as is very familiar, is to attack science hysterically for its blindness and scientists for their lack of an "open mind" or to claim that there was indeed such knowledge in ancient times that can be recovered only by a 'deep' study of ancient texts.

THE crudity of the basic tenets of astrology that is so profoundly demeaning to the human spirit and the capabilities of human beings in general, was found distasteful by many even in older times. Centuries ago, when scientists themselves had not entirely dismissed astrology, there were thinkers who found astrology to be unconvincing. Astrology found no takers among men such as Gautama Buddha, Shakespeare, or Thomas Aquinas. In the Indian tradition, the defence of the quasi-religious myths associated with eclipses seen in the writings of some ancient scholars appear to have had more to do with the sociological compulsions of those times and less to do with any belief in religious myths or other related mumbo-jumbo. Even Brahmagupta, who, as Al-Beruni, the 11th century traveller to India notes in his writings, was craven in his submission to religious orthodoxy, attacks the writings on the eclipse of the earlier astronomers Varahamihira and Aryabhata not on the grounds of any scientific error but only because they openly reject the version of the orthodoxy. Brahmagupta's concern is that if generally accepted by the people at large, such attitudes would lead to defiance of religious authority. Despite this criticism, Brahmagupta goes on to a detailed calculation of the eclipses based on the method of Varahamihira and Aryabhata, leading Al-Beruni to suggest that what underlay Brahmagupta's criticisms was more lack of courage than any conviction in mythology.

To turn to the second question that was raised here earlier, where then did this campaign to introduce astrology as a subject of study in universities originate? Significantly, prior to the efforts of Dr. Joshi as Minister for Human Resource Development, no observer of the public mood has spoken of a popular groundswell of opinion in favour of the introduction of the teaching of astrology as a science in India.

The absence of a public demand to make astrology a part of the regular educational system points in part to a certain ambivalent attitude towards the subject that is commonly seen the world over. Astrology columns may be eagerly read but not always taken seriously. Astrology may assume greater significance for individuals in times of deep personal crisis, but at other times it is taken rather more lightly, though not rejected. This has often been the case in India too, though compared to the West astrology here does have a rather more pervasive role in the personal and social lives of individuals. While there have been some astrologers who have pro-actively and aggressively championed the cause of astrology, demanding that it be given the status of a science, the main tendency in India has been to keep science and practices like astrology in separate domains. Astrology continues to have a prominent role in various individual and social practices, typically including marriage ceremonies, the inauguration of new buildings, the choice of the moment for finalising important business deals and so on. But even so, even the most avid practitioners of such rituals - and there are many such in India - rarely, if ever, have been seen to argue for a position of respect for astrology in academia.

IT is significant that the campaign to introduce astrology has picked up momentum only owing to the efforts of Dr. Joshi and his camp-followers. It is his presence as the head of the Human Resource Development Ministry after the coming to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies that has brought this campaign to the forefront. Dr. Joshi is clearly one of the leading lights of a fundamentalist political project, responsible for extraordinary interventions in the fields of education, culture and other intellectual activities. The appellation of 'Vedic' applied to the astrology courses being promoted suggests that those who oppose this project are likely to have the labels of 'pseudo-secularism' or 'Western-oriented' or 'unpatriotic' tagged on to them. It is a campaign manufactured by the same fundamentalist industry that conjured up a popular demand where none existed earlier for the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the building of a Ram Mandir on its ruins. It is no accident that the announcement of the introduction of astrology courses was followed closely, almost in the same breath, by the announcement of courses for teaching 'Purohitya' that would churn out Hindu priests for employment on dollar salaries by our non-resident Indian (NRI) brethren.

This is a pattern that can be seen elsewhere in the world. Despite the persistence of pseudo-science in sections of the public, the demand to have it made an integral part of the education system rarely surfaces unless there are political forces of a conservative, fundamentalist or obscurantist character that make it their business to ensure that this happens. This is true, in some sense, of the demand for the teaching of creationism in schools in the United States as it is of the demand for the teaching of astrology in India in the university system.

Scientists all over India, as well as Indian scientists working outside, have reacted sharply and angrily to these obscurantist moves. But it is noteworthy that most of the statements, appeals and denunciations that have appeared in the media have declined to make the link between the promotion of astrology and the presence of religious fundamentalists of the Sangh Parivar in key positions in the current dispensation at the Centre, functioning under the benign patronage of those whose commitment to secularism or the spirit of scientific enqiry is lacking in their practice as often as it is reiterated in their speeches. It is clear that science and science education would be under attack under any dispensation that gave such room to obscurantists of various shades as the BJP has done and continues to do.

One hopes that the present efforts of the scientific community to stall the astrology project of the UGC will be successful, but there is little guarantee that such projects will not emerge again as long as there are powerful fundamentalist forces in our polity. The value systems that they support have little do with the value systems that underlie any kind of commitment to science. Whether it is adherence to the truth, enforced as much by individual honesty as by the demand for objective verification of individual claims, whether it is the spirit of critical enquiry free from the shackles of dogma, or whether it is the commitment to learning freely and openly from the rest of the world, the value systems that are implicitly necessary for the pursuit of science stand diametrically opposed to those that are an integral part of fundamentalism and obscurantism. Clear opposition to religious fundamentalism and obscurantism in all the forms that is presented by the Sangh Parivar will be an essential part of the commitment that the scientific community in India has to make if it has to be able to rise to the challenge of defending science and scientific temper in Indian society in the long term.

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

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