The belief in astrology is as deeply entrenched as religion is in India. Vedic Astrology, is supposed to be ‘revealed’ in holy texts of Hinduism while being popularized as an ancient science of foreseeing futures based on planetary alignments (half-baked understanding of the universe). The touted sanctity and the irrefutability of the setup is established by tracing its roots to the religion and it is popularized owing to a population obsessed with charting out every detail of their life according to ‘auspicious’ moments. Astrology has been proven to be pseudoscience, well developed superstition mimicking scientific methods.
The focus of this post is to see sense in the much delayed, yet, much needed societal reforms in banning advertisements of astrological services and remedies, as done by Maharashtra and being contemplated by Karnataka.
Astrology is not a faith, it is founded on and thrives off faith, it is staunchly propagated as working for people who believe in its sanctity and miracle prowess. It works purely on emotionally manipulating somebody, reassuring them of ‘destiny’ or the factor that every act, is definite, foreseeable; ergo, fixable. From charting out the course of a lifetime based on the time of birth and planetary positions at the time (or counting stars) it sets out to determine every important event in a person’s life. How the planets manage to do anything at all to people, why would they be concerned in the first place, how ridiculous it sounds, has been well answered. Why does the government need to step in or why are a section of people crying hoarse for an intervention in the propagation of astrological remedies as life fixes, is what needs an answer.
The chasm exists between the sections of society, one which comes with certain privilege, of exposure to advanced education, liberal thought processes, opportunities to communicate, with like-minded people; and the other, which clings on to faith as a resort of emotional support. It never was, nor is an urban-rural divide. It is as simple and as rigid as a person’s unwavering religiosity or masked religiosity in the name of spirituality. They are not immune to reason or logic, literacy, or even a specialized education in science does not encroach on the personal consciousness.Reason, logic and science, and faith exist in alternate unmixing universes for them. One does not imply the absence of the other. It isn’t a problem of illiteracy or the need of the educated, liberated to sweep in to rescue the poor, uneducated people.
At the risk of sounding over simplistic, it is a matter of a contractual promise, purely commercial exchange, in which the consumer needs to be protected from fraudulent or unfair trade practices. Modern hindu astrology sells fixes for losses in business, marital discord, not being able to get married, sickness, academic lacunae, bad houses, bad karma, bad bosses, temperamental pets, you-name-it. It is an aggressively commercial setup, hinged on the faith factor. The advertisements are made studying the demography they cater to, for businessmen who are overnight millionaires, dutiful wives and mothers concerned for their family’s prosperity, well being of their children, etc. affluent and poor alike. Seeping patriarchy is just a side effect of this. The advertisements are timed for slots with maximum viewership for maximum impact (sales).
The main poison it spreads is a unanimous promise of fixing every contemplatable issue in the viewer’s life, subscribed by ‘real life wonders’, people who have successfully used these methods. Astrological remedies are sold with the same premise as deodarants, magical powers, to get you lucky. There are no magical remedies, where by placing a picture in some particular direction and praying to a stone, five times a day, will money rain down on the consumer. It could be argued here, that people who are smart enough to know so, yet, they fall for these gimmicks, do not need any rescuing. The target demography is a mix of people who are capable of making informed decisions while there are plenty who are in unspeakable emotional distress, due to financial strains, sickness, ‘ n’ number of reasons. We cannot underestimate the emotional solace and dependance people seek from faith, however illogical it appears, it needs innovative means of countering rather than mere rhetoric from positions of privilege. The principle to be understood is twofold;
- When astrological remedy is promoted as a commercial, expansive service/good, with targeted advertising, it no longer is a mere matter of religion or individual impact. It effects the consumers as a whole, as in the case of insurance or pharmacy. It needs to come from regulated setups, to protect consumer interest an safety.
- It follows from the above premise, that the onus cannot be laid alone on the consumers to be ‘smart’, the regulations of the consumer industry apply pan-commercially advertised practices. The advertisements need disclaimers (subjective, varying results, conditions for refund), advisory of individual discretion; information conducive to making sound decisions.
The case for undue influence: Exaggerated, deceptive advertising content, unsubstantiated claims, hired actors rattling scripted, manipulative language, which repeatedly asserts the powers of absolute resolution to all maladies, works on the power of suggestion and manipulation. The remedies have no proof of being effective, yet, are marketed as being a unique solution to the varied problems of a diverse group. That is analogous to the pharmacist prescribing paracetamol for any symptom of fever, it is not the pharmacist’s job to prescribe medicines, not one medicine cures all ailments, no matter how alike the symptoms are. Most people who turn to these remedies have diminished capacity based on pure gullibility/extreme vulnerability. Think of a mother nursing a terminally ill child, where the doctors have given up hope, she is conditioned by ‘faithfuls’ around to leave it to god, or seek remedy in astrology. It is a classic setup for pulling off such a trick, where the woman has the solace of ‘being taken care of’ by god, and a means of curing her child.
York University sociologist Julia Hemphill- astrology in the media specifically targets women:
“Astrology is an unempirical epistemology that’s peddled to women as a way of understanding themselves and the world,” she says. “All you have to do is open a ‘women’s magazine’, and you’ll inevitably see at least one or two pages devoted to astrology. The same pattern, she says, is evident in television programming for women. “While shows about ‘mediums’, and other supernatural phenomenon can be found on virtually any network whose mandate is to attract and keep the viewership of women, such shows are a rarity, if utterly nonexistent on the schedules of ‘men’s’ networks,” she says. “These networks are more likely to air shows that tend to focus on actual science.”
Magic, curative stones, talismans, obstructions in Vaastu, remedial fasts, prayers offered at designated temples, all of these are goods and services offered by astrology. The power to convince someone of a miraculous cure increases exponentially, when it is coupled with its roots in divine sanction and personal narratives. It makes the assertion that much unquestionable, as a matter of fact and of faith. While there is no physical coercion involved, the factor which influences the buying decision, the absolute emotional clouding, should be understood as impeding reasonability, a form of generating consent by undue influence.
Ban: It is most certainly not about free speech, which is a topic of luxurious ponderance and debate in privileged circles. When we speak of consumers, we speak of every person who can be influenced by a product purchase, an undefined audience. When every product, automobile to cigarettes, comes from a setup of regulated norms, because they are focal to the functioning of the competitive market, to consumers, of every strata, class and means making informed choices and not being duped, why should astrology be allowed any leeway? Generating awareness to fight a staunch belief in astrology or any offshoot of religion, sounds ideal. But, the fight is against a problem inherently loaded with personal faith, poised against not just existing ideas, but the proliferation of them, the unmeasurable ramifications, especially involving physical harm and emotional distress to a considerable section of the public. An active barrier is required to limit the damage. A ban on advertising of astrological remedies seeks to stop the wheel, to cut off one form of sanction and access to the system. Additionally, awareness may be generated by counter advertising, by myth busting but, not by a legal sanction to subverting consumer rights in a media driven market.
Aside: In the few PILs and cases challenging deceptive advertising of astrology, introduction of Astrology as a subject of specialized study by the UGC, the sole defence has usually been ‘Astrology is a science’, the centre being under the control of hindutva forces, education has been deemed a matter for academicians, not courts. And the hindutva ideology of peddling tripe as science has been blessed with legal sanction.
But, there is hope: In Astro Science Technologies & Anr. Vs. Ministry of Information & Broadcasting & Ors. Appeal under Section XLIII rule 1 r/w Section 151 CPC The main cause of action arose out of the letter issued by The Advertising Council, seeking comments regarding a complaint against TVC of Lal Kitab Amrit. In the absence of receipt of any comments, the advisory / letter was issued to the TV Channel to observe the code of conduct and TV Channel stopped the advertisement, for being misleading. The order of the ACCI is advisory in nature, compliance is optional for the television broadcaster, non compliance making them open for punitive action. The Cable Television Networks (Regulations) Act, 1995 has provided an advertisement code: Section 6 of the said Act and the Cable Television Networks (Rules) Act, 1994 has also described what is the violation of code of conduct and programme under which category can be restrained by the TV Channels under the directions / advisory of ACCI and Consumer Complaint Commission. The combined reading of Section 6 & 7 of Cable Television Network (Regulations) Act, 1995 r/w Rules 6 (j) and 7 (5)& (9) of Cable Television Network Rules, 1994 made it clear that the respondents are well competent to check the programmes and advertisements which encourages superstitious or blind belief. Rule 7 (a) of Cable Network Rules, 1994 authorized the Advertising Council Of India to issue such directions in case of violation of the advertisement code.
Kannadiga astrologer Sachinandababu was dragged to court by a dalit activist for predicting possibilities of rape/assault on women according to their zodiac signs. The episode content has been cleared off the web, but screenshots of the telecast with the scroll are widely available. The defence Sachinanda tenders, is the best example of the audacious sham astrology is and how asinine the concept of being able to foresee rape/assault is. In the context if a gruesome crime, where the focus is on legal measures to make safer spaces for women, this man, frivolously tosses around fear-mongering lies, knowing fully well, the power he weilds in influencing his avid viewers. The following is an excerpt from his interview, lengthy, but single handedly undoing the foundations of astrology.
He says “The episode went on air long time back. That might be the reason its not available online. Also all episodes don’t go online. I have been doing TV shows since 2008 and have always stressed on the usefulness of astrology in preparing us to face problems. 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.”
“A web portal has translated your Kannada versions to English. And the translations claim that the forecasts predicted that if a girl belongs to the zodiac sign Virgo, there are chances that the girl can be raped between the age of 14 and 20, near the staircase in the house. Capricorns, the forecast claims can be raped by father or mother or colleague. For Aries there is a possibility of getting raped in the bathroom. Aquaries have chances of getting raped by husband’s elder or younger brother. Can the actual predictions be taken so much out of context? Surely there is something that sparked the fire.”
“The actual text is in Kannada so the translation is not done precisely. Extreme meanings have been predicted from those words’. “I never meant/used the word ‘rape’, but only words like ‘mistreat’ which you can also mean atrocity or molestation”.”
“The show was for safety of women from astrological point of view. I was also answering the queries asked by the anchor on viewer’s behalf. Extreme conclusions cannot be drawn from a single statement. What you just asked is completely absurd; no learned astrologer would say such things on TV.”
“I remember telling my Capricon viewers to beware of outsiders, especially those close to their parents, as they might cheat them. I did not refer to parents doing any harm themselves. That does not mean rape. The text by itself does not convey the full meaning and intent.”
What about the molestation near stair case or bathroom?”That is again completely misinterpreted. Please note that astrology is not fortune telling or tarot card reading. It is entirely based upon the horoscope of a person which is prepared according to one’s time, place and date of birth. It requires years of study and experience.”
He goes on to recommend chanting mantras and vibhooti and turmeric as alternatives to pepper spray to ‘ward off’ evil.