Pseudoscience In The Stars: An Indian Rationalist’s Experiences with Astrology
My first contact with astrology must have been soon after my birth, because a horoscope is a must-have for every child born in my parents’ community. This horoscope must have also been drawn up by my maternal uncle, himself an astrologer of no mean repute, though in the last decades of his life he used to tell me, “it is not for unbelievers like you!”. My first conscious contact with this ‘science’ occurred when I was a schoolboy. A cousin of mine, S.S. Kamath, was interested in investigating astrological claims. He told me of an incident where he had copied Jawaharlal Nehru’s (the then Prime Minister of India) horoscope from a magazine and showed it to an astrologer telling him that it was the horoscope of a salesman in a cloth shop. The astrologer made his calculations and told him that it was that of an ordinary man who would be leading a routine humdrum existence. On being told that the horoscope was actually that of the Prime minister of India, the astrologer wiggled out of the situation making up some excuse.
Another incident involved two of my cousins. They went to another astrologer and posed him a challenge - tell us which one of us is the Doctor and which one is the engineer. The astrologer said that the questioner was the Doctor (it was correct) and the other one was an engineer (not true). When the one who was told that he was an engineer protested and said that he was a chartered accountant- the astrologer said, “Yes it is the same – both professions deal with calculations!”
The rich use astrology to explain away the misdeeds of their children. We would always hear that so and so was doing all those bad things because of the wrong planetary configurations in his/her horoscope. There would be rituals to counteract these ‘ill-effects’. All these rituals are performed by specialist priests who would naturally extract steep charges for their services! Many a time the one who does the calculations and the one who does the pujas would be one and the same individual! Even when it is not so, we can rest assured that the spoils would have been shared among the various participants. While it is still a matter of conjecture whether the planetary configurations were changed by these rituals, it is beyond a doubt, certain that it improved the economic status of the concerned individuals who were involved in the “diagnosis” and “treatment” of the rich.
My father was a great believer in astrology. When he got into financial problems, he would get up early in the morning and take his horoscope to his favourite astrologer for consultation. I do not know what actually used to transpire between them but in the end he lost everything and we became paupers. One of the reasons my father took so many wrong decisions was because of the sheer confidence with which the astrologer would pronounce decisions. This personal experience of utter set-back was one of the reasons I questioned the veracity of this so-called science.
As a child I used suffer from severe attacks of bronchial asthma. As usual the astrologer was consulted and no surprise this too was due to an evil planetary configuration. The treatment suggested was that I had to feed a dalit woman for the next three new moon days and I’d be cured. I followed it religiously. Needless to say, nothing came out of it. The bronchial attacks continued unabated. Anyway, many years later my father’s favourite astrologer died. The old crook managed to kick the bucket in his sleep when his family members were away on a pilgrimage. The neighbours came to know of it only when the body started stinking after a few days! When I thought out aloud in front of my venerable ancestor as to how some one who could not predict his own death could have predicted things for others accurately as was claimed, my father’s reply was that it works only for others, one can not do that for self! Well, coming to the subject of predicting things for oneself, my eldest maternal uncle was no mean astrologer either. In family circles as well as outside he was quite well known for his ‘accurate’ predictions. As he lay on his death bed his main problem was with his horoscope. He was more than 90 and his worry was that his horoscope stopped at that point. Of course he did not survive for long.
When my mother was on her death bed suffering from cancer, this uncle was consulted and he told my father that it was a passing phase of an evil planetary configuration and would pass away soon. It was my mother who passed away and not the evil configuration. Though she did not want any religious mumbo jumbo with her mortal remains, my father insisted on them. We protested. Finally some one managed to bring a priest who consulted his almanac and came to the conclusion that it was not one but the effect of five evil planets together on the day that she passed away. He also threatened us with calamities if the appropriate rituals were not done to propitiate the planets. When I asked to wait and watch for what would happen if the rituals were not done, my suggestion was not well-received. The prediction that five other members of the family would pass away if the propitiatory rituals were not done has come true! My mother passed away in 1995 and my father too, though a good ten years later! Of course, all other children of my mother are also going to die sooner or later confirming the accuracy of this astrological forecast! Later on I came to know that no one to date has passed away when the planetary configurations were good! So, the priests could always have some appropriate rituals to offset them and naturally could extract more from their gullible clients.
I was born to the community of the Gowd Saraswath brahmins. For this community the belief in astrology is an absolute must. For each and every thing an astrologer is consulted, whether it be a birth, death or marriage.There are many who specialise in ‘matching’ horoscopes for the purpose of marriage. One of my friends who is now no more, was very much concerned about my lack of belief in what he called as the ‘ancient science of astrology’. He told me that he would convince me once and for all about the greatness of this science if I could get my horoscope. I promised to do that and on the appointed day he brought his astrologer friend who was also working in the same bank as my friend. I handed over my horoscope and the astrologer (part time – his full time job was a clerk in a bank) peered at it, wrote a number of things, made a number of calculations and told me a number of things that were well-known. I pretended to be surprised and asked him how he came to these conclusions. He pointed out the various planetary configurations that were the cause for these. He also suggested solutions for the imaginary problems about which I told him and explained them on the basis of his ‘rational scientific’ terms. When all this was over I told him that while what he had said about me was very correct, the horoscope was not mine! It was that of a friend of mine who had left school at the age of eleven. He (the astrologer) had told me that the horoscope was that of a highly educated person with a post graduate degree and on his way to acquiring higher qualifications. The legitimate owner of the horoscope was a primary school drop out! When I pointed this out the astrologer and my friend who wanted to convince me of the efficacy of this ‘science’ were both flabbergasted. They tried the lame excuse that the astrologer was a specialist only in matching horoscopes for the purpose of marital alliances! I had to ask them what had prevented them from making that clear in the beginning itself. They had no answer! To me, the purpose of the whole exercise had been clear from the very beginning. In his enthusiasm to convince me about the efficacy of astrology my friend had told the amateur astrologer all about me before bringing him over to read my horoscope! As for the matching of horoscopes for marriage purposes, though I married Asha who was also born in the same community into which I was born, there was neither any religious ritual nor any hor(ror)oscope matching when we got married. More about that some other time.
There was a lecturer in the department of Kannada at the college where I studied. He was an expert in matching horoscopes for marriage purposes and used to be a consultant for many families. His consultations were always at his residence. If any one expressed doubts about the efficacy of his astrological predictions, he would call for his daughters. They would come out and ask him why they were called. Then he would point out to the visitors that all of his daughters who were widowed had been married after he had diligently matched their horoscopes – they had returned home after their husbands had expired and he was looking after them! He used to tell those who had asked about the efficacy of his predictions that his daughters were living proof! Despite such examples, the community into which I was born are obsessed with matching horoscopes for marriage purposes, and many otherwise suitable alliances are called off due to the non-matching of horoscopes!
There are many social service organisations which arrange marriages, and to enlist one has to give one’s biodata along with a copy of the horoscope. I can recall one such incident that happened about thirty four years ago. I was seated in a friend’s office when a gentleman belonging to this community of the Gowd Saraswath Brahmins dropped in and remarked that he was in search of a suitable bridegroom for his daughter who was working in a bank. At that time another gentleman who was seated there said that he had a son who was also employed in a bank. They were quite happy that the match was suitable after they compared the details of the two. But, the final barrier of the matching of horoscopes had to be crossed. So, as per the usual practice, the horoscopes were exchanged for consultation with their respective astrologers, and the two men promised to meet each other after a couple of days. On the appointed day they met and had conflicting accounts of the suitability of the matching of horoscopes. The boy’s father announced that his astrologer had given quite low marks for the match; he said that the marks were only 20%. But, the girls father had exactly the opposite report. He said that his astrologer had pronounced that it was a very good match – the marks were 80%! When the names of the respective astrologers were asked, it turned out that it was the same individual who had pronounced 20% for one and 80% for the other for the same pair of horoscopes. So, my friend who was the owner of the office promised to sort out the matter. He took the same pair of horoscopes and went to the very same person. This time after various calculations, the same astrologer pronounced that the matching was 50% and if everything else was alright they could go ahead with the marriage! This is astrological matrimonial consultation for you.
One could, of course, tell me that I have not studied astrology. I don’t need to. I don’t know how to cook either. That does not prevent me from appreciating or criticising someone else’s cooking or evaluating the quality of food available, particularly when one pays for it at a restaurant. So, when one pays an astrologer it is expected that the services which are paid for should be of a certain quality and that is basically a demand from any sensible consumer. More on my brushes with this ‘science’ in my next article.
Professor Narendra Nayak is the President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA). He regularly tours the country, giving demonstrations and holding workshops to develop scientific temper.