Pressure Mounts in India to Discard Astrology as Another Anti-Progressive Superstition, Like Caste

In the west, where most of us snicker when asked “What’s your sign?” and the Reagans were mocked for their secret White House astrologer,  it’s almost impossible to grasp astrology’s place in India.  Astrology is simultaneously considered by many in the mainstream as both science and religion,  as closely intertwined with Hinduism as caste belief — just more acceptable. The perception of astrology as science can be seen  in a May Times of India report of former Chief Justice MN Venkatachalaiah inaugurating a university astrology program.  In a tragicomically ironic speech:

He complimented the university on granting academic status to astrology, which he termed a ‘speculative science’, and lamented the declining standards in education at the university level. “Teaching science no longer brings excitement. Decaying standards in universities is symbolic of decaying civilization.”

Astrology as religion is apparent in a cleric’s commentary published in a July New Indian Express, Hinduism is not a religion, but one’s way of life:

The word ‘Hinduism’ is not the original name for the religion. It is a name acquired in later historic times, while the religion has been in existence since timeless beginning… It was not a founded religion, it was based on  revelations directly from god himself… It is not only yoga and Vedanta that have universal value, so does the foundation of Hindu dharma on all levels.  This includes… Vedic Sciences like ayurveda, veda astrology and vaastu…

But for many, it finally became too much when international headlines derided two high-ranking officials for allowing astrologers to guide decisionmaking that affects all Indians.  Last week The Hindu published a lead op-ed by a New Delhi professor of developing societies, describing the scientific failure of astrology and calling on scientists to enter the debate.  He points out the hypocrisy of astrology-pushing leaders who talk of leading India into the scientific age:

In early November, the Prime Minister announced that an important initiative to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru was the “promotion of scientific temper among children”. Endorsing this view, a few days later, the Home Minister… lauded Nehru’s leadership role in promoting scientific temper and in establishing the institutions of science in the country… The message from the two leaders is clear: India needs to invest in “scientific temper” especially among the young if we wish, as a nation, to be a proud participating member of the world of scientific knowledge…

Some weeks later, the Union Cabinet Minister … in charge of schools, colleges, universities, the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research…  and the Indian Institutes of Technology, and thus with the responsibility for the “promotion of scientific temper among children”, was reported, by the media, to have spent four hours with an astrologer in Rajasthan…

Is astrology a science or is it superstition?…India, following the Prime Minister’s call, will need to debate them. The urgency of the debate was emphasised when the former Chief Minister of Uttarakhand stated, in no less a place than Parliament, that astrology is superior to science… is a science to make calculations hundreds of thousands of years in advance and that all other sciences are dwarfed in front of astrology…

Perhaps it is useful to go back a little and see what [Nehru’s] attitude was to astrology. In a letter… dated July 16, 1959, the Prime Minister wrote [to an author of an astrology book]: “… You have referred in this letter to my lack of belief in Astrology. This is largely true…   I do not think it will be at all suitable for this book to be dedicated to me…”  The message from [Nehru] was clear. Astrology cannot cohabit with a scientific temper.

The fact that astrology is not a science was most dramatically established by Padma Vibhushan Jayant Narlikar, India’s most eminent astrophysicist, who, along with Narendra Dabholkar, Sudhakar Kunte and Prakash Ghatpande, conducted a statistical test on astrological claims. In an article titled “An Indian Test of Indian Astrology…”   Here are the conclusions. “Our experiment with twenty-seven Indian astrologers judging forty horoscopes each, and a team of astrologers judging 200 horoscopes, showed that none were able to tell bright children from mentally handicapped children better than chance. Our results contradict the claims of Indian astrologers… [O]ur results are firmly against Indian astrology being considered as a science.” … [Indian astrologers claim that they are able to tell intelligence from a person’s horoscope.]

We must rally behind the Prime Minister’s call to spread scientific temper… Scientists must enter the debate…

But a tipping point was reached in late November, as described in Rape Horoscopes: India TV News’ Latest Ratings Ploy,  when rape horoscopes for each zodiac sign by a popular TV news astrologer went viral, provoking international disgust and condemnation.  A small snippet:

For Capricorn, between the age of 8 and 12, there is…a possibility of being raped by parents…  Take turmeric and Vibhuthi [sacred ash] and apply on the rapist. He will collapse or will run away scared.”

Poet and documentary filmmaker Prathibha Nandakumar wrote a Bangalore Mirror column describing these rape horoscopes as an “absolutely inhuman act:”

A programme like this gets telecast and no responsible person in power opens his mouth to say a thing! Is this our culture? …Neither the channel nor the fraud astrologer has any idea of the extremely dangerous repercussions of such programmes…  Why are they silent?” …[S]uch astrology programmes are not designed by the channels but are paid commercial slots purchased at very high price by the astrologers… . The channels never bother to find out the credibility of the so-called astrologers or their predictions.

She boldly dismisses astrology altogether, noting the scientific studies that find that:

…astrologers did not even agree with one another’s predictions, let alone make accurate predictions, even though they were using the same methods and systems to arrive at their conclusions.

Tahmina Laskar with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, calls astrology on news programs a “cancerous growth“:

It is indeed something extremely disturbing to see “news” channels broadcasting and promoting something like astrology… [I]t is not at all befitting for any channel which caters news to promote superstition. The recent case being an astrologer predicting rape horoscopes for women in a full-fledged programme on news channel is indeed a disturbing trend and disgusts a rational human being to no end…

This however is not an aberration as some popular Hindi and English channels having wide viewership also get away with broadcasting such content… The current degradation is cancerous and needs immediate attention.

A Facebook community in India started up as a response, Kickout Astrologers, to protest TV news channels and newspapers running as serious news the forecasts of what they dub the “astrological Mafia.”  It already has 2500 likes since its Nov. 27th debut.  Indian Sceptics and Karnataka Rationalists Association were interviewed for their reaction.

Bhaskar Prasad, who first posted the rape quotes, could not be a more appropriate leader of this budding anti-astrology movement, as  president of the nonprofit group Dalit Sangharsh Samiti that fights another dreadful superstition: caste discrimination.  In true Uri Geller style, the astrologer tried unsuccessfully to press charges against Prasad, accusing him of making up the quotes despite posted screencaps by multiple viewers of the subtitled program. A rather delightful headline in the Deccan Chronicle resulted:


misogynist astrologer deccan chronicleThe astrologer still works for the TV station, so could certainly arrange to post at least the contested clips or transcript.  But he oddly prefers to accuse others of lying without supporting his claim.  Yet he defends the thinking:

“Astrology deals with all aspects of your life and I discuss these aspects. Even if I had talked about this issue I would have discussed hundreds of combinations from which one may be able to find out the possibility of assault on them…The show was for safety of women from astrological point of view.”

News headlines spread across India (Sensationalist claim by astrologer? Predicts likelihood of rape of women, by whom and where).  Given India’s struggle with a horrifying rape problem, Indian women were dismayed: (Feminia: Anti-rape advice we don’t need), and mockery went global (Reuters:  Short skirts, bad stars, chow mein: Why men in India rape women).  Is this unfair, though?  Is it just the one nut?  No — a subsequent look around finds that rape forecasts are a staple of many professional astrologers in India, the U.S., and around the world (). The furor prompted India’s chief minister to respond, and it’s a good sign:

People turning to superstitions is against the ideology of 12th century social reformer Basaveshwara, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has said… [At a conference of writers and poets, he said] that television news channels were telecasting programmes spreading superstitions.  “You switch on TV news channels every morning, you will see only programmes which are propagating superstitions in the names of astrology,” he said. Mr. Siddaramaiah said one of the fundamental thoughts of Basaveshwara and other [mystics] who came after him was to rid the society of social evils and superstitions, and create a caste-less society. But considering the belief of people in superstitions, it seemed that they were going against the very ideology of [those mystics], he said.

An NGO this month went to court to try to get these shows off the air, but was unfortunately turned away, and sent back to the regulatory agencies.  If you think American astrology is merely harmless, think again.  Look not only at the ubiquity of American rape horoscopes, but at the Indian court’s sad-funny defense of astrology: the popularity of the author of that sacred text of ancient wisdom, Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, which most American teenage girls have been sucked into reading at some point: On a bright note, the newspaper illustrated the story with a cartoon mocking astrologers:

The existing laws and regulation have proved totally inadequate to check all these superstitions, such as astrology, claims a public interet litigation filed in Delhi High Court. Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi The Delhi High Court has refused to prohibit astrology-based shows on television while saying it was not in its domain to prescribe what the programming code should be… “In fact the most popular international publication on ‘forecast’ is of a foreign author named Linda Goodman… “As far as the programmes based on astrology are concerned, the Legislature/ government having laid down the Programme Code and the Advertising Code, it is not in the domain of this court to prescribe as to what the code should be,” the bench added… The petition… had alleged that “in this process of making money, many channels have compromised with ethics, and are also acting in breach of rules and law…”

The Coalition of People for Free & Fair Media, in Bangalore, has posted a petition to request TV networks to start enforcing their existing regulations against astrologers in news programs; the networks have until now found them too lucrative to turn away. Even the former chair of India’s version of NASA has now joined the outcry:

Former Chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation, Dr. U.R. Rao said that blind faith is bad for the society and must be eradicated… Coming down heavily on electronic media for telecasting astrology-related programs, Dr. Rao said that “half the time television channels show astrology-related programs which instill superstitious beliefs among people and misguide them”. He said people must give importance to science and evaluate each thing on the basis of science.  Television being a powerful media, should educate the people especially the rural masses, but that is not happening to the extent it should…

Let it snow(ball)!

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