February 16, 2020
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2001, A Space Odissi

The astrology debate is now sub judice. And the Supreme Court has a canvas full of contentions to adjudicate on.

2001, A Space Odissi
illustration by Jayachandran
2001, A Space Odissi
Just when M.M. Joshi and his knights in saffron armour thought they'd pulled off a masterly coup by inserting Vedic astrology (jyotir vigyan, as they call it) into university curricula, a gadfly of a scientist has decided to poop their party by challenging them to a legal joust.

Pushpa M. Bhargava, founder-director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, has approached the Supreme Court with a petition the Andhra Pradesh High Court had dismissed. Much to his delight, the apex court accepted it and issued notices to the hrd ministry and the ugc.

The relevant ugc circular states: "There is urgent need to rejuvenate the science of Vedic astrology, to allow this scientific knowledge to reach the society at large and provide opportunities to get (it) exported." The ugc proposes to disburse a non-recurring grant of Rs 15 lakh to universities to establish astrology departments—each with one professor, one reader, two lecturers, one library assistant and one computer operator. So far, 35 of some 237 Indian universities have expressed interest.

In dismissing Bhargava's petition, the high court had argued that opinion was divided over astrology's scientific status, and that it wasn't competent to adjudicate on an issue that an expert committee had decided on. Also, according to a fundamental principle of administrative law, courts normally don't tinker with a policy decision.

In his current slp, Bhargava says astrology hasn't been tested or proven as a science and hence to teach it as such is "unconstitutional, illegal and irrational".

Bhargava is miffed that the scientific community has not condemned with sufficient force what he calls a travesty of science. "I'm particularly upset with the cowardly silence of science academies. The Indian National Science Academy, which is supposed to uphold this spirit of science, should have at least issued a statement decrying the move."

The case against astrology and the motives behind its incorporation in university syllabi have, however, been put quite cogently by other critics. Ram Puniyani, who teaches mathematics at iit-Bombay, has written: "The claim that Vedic astrology is a science and a source of wisdom, which needs to be taught, is far from valid. Astronomy and astrology are two opposite poles. The latter is based on religious and magical beliefs, beyond questioning and based on faith, unlike the principles of science, which stand the test of being challenged and can be constantly improved upon."

One could, of course, go further and conduct experiments to verify astrological claims. Like Bhargava attempted early this year when he gathered horoscopes of four individuals born at different points of time during the last century and challenged astrologers to 'predict' the life-events of these individuals. For every correct prediction, he offered to pay Rs 10,000 and for every wrong one, he would charge a fine of Rs 2,500. Says he: "It was an open challenge I threw in a gathering of astrologers in Hyderabad. Not one, alas, took me up on this."

Physicist Yashpal, former ugc chairman, agrees with the line of argument: "I've no objection to a private institution starting courses in astrology, witchcraft, whatever. I also have no objection to the humanities looking at the popular appeal of astrology. But I'm afraid the state has no business in tapping the exchequer to patronise something that's not at all in the public interest nor produces new knowledge."

The larger question at stake is that of epistemology, or how we know what we know. Whether rationality as defined by modern science is the only valid and universal form of inquiry into truth, or should we accept other forms of truth-seeking as equally valid? Should ayurveda and homoeopathy be judged on their own and not by the standards of western science? Should vaastushastra and Vedic mathematics be taught in schools? There are enough critics, such as Ashis Nandy of the Delhi-based Centre for Studies in Developing Societies, who decries the western scientific project as imperialistic, destructive, and racist. But can that line be extended to validate astrology?

By a perverse stroke of circumstance, the Hindu nationalists, like their Islamic counterparts elsewhere, have happily accepted the challenge of decolonising science thrown up by the left critics. Ever since they assumed power, bjp ideologues have sought to revive, validate and institutionalise "Hindu ways of knowing", just as Islamists have sought to validate Islamic science. As Meera Nanda, a US-based science writer, put it: "The right could not have wished for a more fashionable neighbourhood to pitch its own tent in."

Critics of modern science believe that it's arrogant for the latter to claim universality, for it prevents westerners from appreciating other moral and cognitive points of view. According to them, only by sobering down the claims of empirical rationality can we see "different ways of doing science, ways that downgrade methodology, experiment and manufacturing in favour of local environments, cultural values and principles of social justice". Sandra Harding, a philosopher at the University of California, Los Angeles, posits her "borderland epistemology" in which different cultures knit a patchwork of sciences into a "knowledge collage" that serves their particular needs.

While there is a case to be made for "other" forms of knowledge, to reject the rationality of science without at the same time critically examining other ways of knowing amounts to deceit and hypocrisy.

Even if the courtroom drama doesn't produce fireworks, one hopes the judges would dwell on the whole sweep of the debate before pronouncing their judgement.
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