Vedic Astrology
An Open Letter to the Chairman, UGC

Satya Deva
EPW Commentary

Dear Sir,

It has been reported that the UGC is considering the starting of a course in ‘Vedic astrology’ in universities with its support. This raises some important questions relating to the following: (i) The status of astrology and, in particular, Vedic astrology; (ii) The nature of rituals associated with it, and (iii) The social impact of such education. It is hoped that answers or clarifications will be forthcoming.

(i) It is often claimed that astrology is a science. However, a science must have a theoretical framework consisting of testable hypotheses, and evidence that these hypotheses are supported by systematically collected facts, either through induction or non-falsification. Astrology has no such hypotheses. It is made up of religious and magical beliefs, for example, that Saturn (now known to consist of rings of frozen gases) is a demon who can harm us, and that the power of demons can be kept in check through practices like ‘yajnas’. Those who seek to legitimise astrology by calling it a science forget that a science, being falsifiable by definition, is subject to change, while the glory of religious beliefs lies precisely in their changelessness. Beliefs which constitute astrology admit of no change. Also, while a science is commonly accepted, astrology is not acceptable to followers of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and reformist Hindu sects like the Arya Samaj. Swami Dayanand and his followers also maintain that astrology is non-Vedic, for it finds no mention in the Vedas: starting a course on ‘Vedic astrology’ would only be an attempt to establish its Vedic basis through mere labelling.

Beliefs related to astrology, for example, that solar and lunar eclipses happen when the sun and the moon are engulfed by the demon Rahu, one is absolved of sins by bathing in the Ganga at a certain astronomically determined time, and marrying a girl born under the influence of Mars can lead to the husband’s death, are now being given up by many Hindus also. How far is it justified for the UGC to legitimise and revive them through a university course? Is the UGC entitled to the role of a prophet?

(ii) One of the objectives of the proposed course is to impart training in conducting occult practices like yajnas. Yajnas are magical practices: according to the Oxford Reference Dictionary magic is “the supposed art of influencing the course of events by the occult control of nature or of the spirits”, ‘witchcraft’. Thus, the ‘putreshti’ yajna is believed to lead to the birth of a son. While yajnas were prescribed by Samhitas, the earliest parts of the Vedas, they were criticised by Upanishads, the latest, thus indicating development of thought. Gautam Buddha and Jain prophets came down heavily on yajnas, particularly those prescribing animal sacrifice, such as the ‘ashvamedha’ yajna, which involves the burning of a horse. The development of sciences like mathematics and astronomy began to cast more doubts on old astrological beliefs. Modern science, of course, sees no relationship between, say, a yajna and the birth of a son. How would we describe the legitimation and revival of magical rituals laid down in some old Hindu scriptures, but criticised and rejected by later philosophers and scientists, except as Hindu fundamentalism?

(iii) The role of knowledge in society tends to become more important with every passing day due to the advance of science and technology. Does the UGC perceive no contradiction between propagating nuclear physics and agricultural biotechnology on the one hand, and superstitious beliefs and practices on the other? If the former will help development, the latter will surely help to keep us backward. Even today fertile pieces of land are sometimes not ploughed for fear of spirits, diseases like chicken pox are often not treated for fear of a goddess, old women are burnt as witches, children of others are abducted and sacrificed to help the birth of a son, and a child’s potential not allowed fruition due to an astrologer’s injunctions. Legitimation and dissemination of such beliefs through higher education can only strengthen them. Will this exercise not be similar to that by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan? How far is this endeavour justified, especially in view of the ‘fundamental duty’ enjoined on every citizen by Article 51(A) (viii) of the Constitution “to develop the scientific temper”?

Yours very truly,
Satya Deva

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