Astrology in the Universities: Sense, Nonsense and Science

Are we moving forward or backward in time? The recent proposal of the University Grants Commission to introduce courses on astrology, vastushastra and Hindu mathematics in science curricula, has been greeted with exclamations of disbelief and protest by the scientific community. The UGC proposes to set up full- fledged departments of vedic astrology with five teaching posts; these departments are to be called Jyotir Vigyan, and they are to be set up from the academic session 2001-2002. Interested universities are to send in their proposals by 15th March 2001. The HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi claims that it is for academics to decide whether to introduce these courses. But the truth is that the UGC, with the help of Joshi’s chosen ones, are offering cash incentives to cash-strapped universities to start these courses, obviously without any discussion within the academic community. We do not, unfortunately, need an astrologer to predict what will happen: several pliant academics, most of them without any standing or credibility in the sciences, will fall over themselves endorsing the UGC proposals.

The UGC circular states that “vedic astrology is not only one of the main subjects of our traditional and classical knowledge, but this is the discipline which lets us know the events happening in human life and in the universe on time scale” (sic). As if this were not absurd enough, the circular continues: “There is an urgent need to rejuvenate the science of vedic astrology in India to allow this scientific knowledge to reach the society at large and provide opportunities to get this important science even exported to the world.” We now need official pundits armed with university degrees to predict earthquakes for example, presumably to spread even greater panic than they did recently in Gujarat. Perhaps the UGC thinks houses collapsed in Ahmedabad and Bhuj because of the absence of vastushastra, not because of poor construction by rapacious contractors.

Vedic astrology traces its origin to Maharshi Parasara’s book Brihat Parasara Hora Sastra, a compilation of rules and guidelines with reference to marriage, children, illness, wealth and so on. There are also three Vedanga Jyotishas and eighteen Siddhaantas (Surya Siddhaanta being one of the most notable among them), all of which codify astronomical knowledge — primarily to facilitate astrological calculations and elaborate on the rules of worship written in the vedas. As early as 499 A.D. Aryabhata’s magnum opus Aryabhatika differentiated between this “real” and “false” knowledge. He describes true knowledge as a jewel he took “from the ocean of real and false knowledge… with his own intellectual power.” The line separating astrology and astronomy was not drawn in a day; it was the result of over fifteen centuries of painstaking study. But today, it is those who claim to be proud of our heritage that are erasing this line; decrying afresh Aryabhata’s distinction between true and false knowledge; between science and pseudo-science. Equally ironic, it is Murali Manohar Joshi, allegedly a professor of physics, who is leading the pseudo-science brigade in their demolition of Aryabhata’s edifice.

The old belief — that the heavens influence events on earth – is understandable. If seasons are governed by the movement of the stars, why not the fate of the kings and the common people? But over the centuries, as we have unravelled the mysteries of nature, such notions have lost their power to explain the world around us. Many people may still believe in astrology; but this is in the realm of belief, best left as part of personal faith. Acts of faith cannot be confused with the study and practice of science in the public sphere.

Historians of mathematics have studied the mathematics of the Vedas since the nineteenth century, and quite a few books have been written on it. In 1983, the Indian National Science Academy brought out an authoritative book on the Sulva Sutras (dated between 800 BC and 500 BC) in the Vedangas; these, besides containing a commentary on the sutras, contain the original sutras as well as their translation. The vedic mathematics of the BJP variety has little to do with such historical probings of the advances in mathematics made by Aryabhata, Varahamihira, Brahmagupta, Bhaskara and others. The “Hindu” or “vedic” mathematics introduced in school textbooks in UP and other BJP controlled states is synonymous to the mathematics of a book titled Vedic Mathematics written by Swami Shri Bharati Krishna Tirthaji Maharaja in 1965. In an article in Economic and Political Weekly (July 31, 1999), eminent mathematician S.G. Dani exposed this work as completely non-vedic in origin. It value, he concluded, was at best “recreational”. Dani’s conclusion comes with a warning: that “the pedagogical use (of this mathematics) has limited scope and it is important not to be carried away by motivated propaganda in this regard.”

The UGC circular nurtures ambition to “export to the world” this “knowledge.” Does knowledge now need state sanction or a visa or a nod from funding agencies to travel across borders? Intellectual achievements from all over the world, whether academic, artistic or cultural, have been “imported” and “exported” over the centuries without UGC approval. Just as we take whatever we find appropriate, the rest of the world also accepts whatever it finds useful in Indian thought without recourse to any “export” processing agency. And this has been happening for millennia — as illustrated by the acceptance of knowledge from Mesopotamian civilisation in the ancient Indian works, and the easy transition of mathematical knowledge among the Indian, Arabic and European schools.

In his Inaugural Address at the Indian History Congress this year Amartya Sen drew attention to the need for openness and heterodoxy in any scientific enterprise. If science is stripped of independence and weighed down with tradition, it grows sterile. State patronage and prescriptions of the Joshi variety will have precisely this effect on the Indian scientific enterprise. Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy in his book on science in Pakistan, (“Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality” Zed Books, 1991) has described the decline of science with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In such a situation, knowledge of the Koran is a more essential qualification for a teacher of science than scientific knowledge. Under the BJP dispensation, Prof. Hoodbhoy’s’s diagnosis of the Pakistan situation could well be what we will “import” next.

Leading Indian scientists have condemned the UGC proposal, calling it  “a giant leap backwards, undermining whatever scientific credibility our country may have so far achieved.” The same government that chants the mantra of globalisation of economic resources and markets regardless of real needs, refuses to see that the needs of the human mind have always been global. Science and mathematics are universal; what is science in Australia is also science in Zanzibar. The UGC directives extolling pseudo-scientific disciplines like astrology and vastushastra will take us back to the age of alchemists, witch doctors and seekers of the philosophers’ stone. From there, India will be just a step away from Taliban’s Afghanistan.