Pseudoscience & Religion

Planetary combustion in astrology: Lack of meaning and evidence in tradition

My daughter’s wedding date has been set for in mid-May this year. Being a man of rationalist disposition, I do not much believe in the customs and rituals of date setting that are normally observed in traditional weddings. However, after the fixture of the wedding date, the groom’s father was worried about a certain astrological point called Sukra asta, a period of around 74 days starting from the last day of April, 2016. It appears, as per astrological tradition, no auspicious ceremonies are to be performed during this period. Not aware of my rationalist leanings he expressed his concern on this issue during one of the conversations with me.


Venus Combustion

Out of curiosity I browsed the net for understanding the meaning of Shukra asta. The search revealed that, according to astrological texts, during certain part of the year some planets come very close to the Sun. As a result they lose their brightness or luster with respect to Sun. This is symbolic of a planet losing its strength. In astrology this is termed as combustion of a planet. Such an occurrence with regard to the planet Venus is called the Sukra asta, the combustion of Venus. The astrological interpretation drawn is that it would rob away the beneficial effects of the planet. As a philosopher, and that too a philosopher of science, I wanted to understand the meaning of this idea of strength of the planets. It turned out that it meant the intensity or brightness of its light. The planetary strengths or brightness symbolized certain good and bad effects on the human being. I was a bit intrigued by this because any planet does not have a light of its own. It only reflects the light of the Sun. So where is the question of its having a brightness of its own? Therefore,
to talk of the brightness of the planet being blunted because of its nearness to the Sun seems meaningless.

Peter Achinstein, a philosopher, has written a book titled ‘The Book of Evidence’. The book delineates the different conceptions of evidence, particularly with regard to the relationship that an experimental observation has to a scientific hypothesis. Whatever be the concept of evidence that Achinstein was trying to delineate, the whole of idea of evidence seemed to be lacking in such kind of stupid and obscurantist beliefs in astrology. Not only is the concept of evidence lacking but also the idea of meaning seems to be absent. What exactly does the strength of a planet mean as far as human beings are concerned is also not made clear. Meanings in such case have to be made clear in empirical terms, i.e. by deriving meaning from observational correlations.

Such analytical demands for meaning and evidence is usually met, as I was told in this particular context by the groom’s father, by appealing to something unquestionable called “tradition”. A judgement or a statement of belief is open to question only by appeal to reason and empirical things. But tradition is easily invoked as a shield whenever there is any move to get rid of age old beliefs like Sukra Asta that disregards the rational sensibilities of human beings. If such tradition is taken as a ground for belief, a ground where neither reason nor empirical thinking operates, then tradition gets connected to ignorance. Such ignorance is the root of all superstitions that are stubbornly held to be sacrosanct by the use of the term tradition. It is time that a society guided by such baseless tradition is abhorred. It is time that TV channels stop airing such nonsensical programs on astrology.

Tradition is something that is mostly construction of beliefs, which are handed down over a period of time in oral or written forms. Unfortunately, whatever is handed over never ever makes a remote reference to the rational or empirical components that played a part in the construction or origin of beliefs. This is the lacuna of tradition that a man clinging to such outdated and irrational notions fails to understand.

About the author

S K Arun Murthi

I am a philosopher with rationalist bent of mind. I am a faculty in the Department of Humanities and Social Science, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER, Mohali). I did my PhD from National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. My area of work is philosophy of science, rationality,ethics and epistemology.

Dr. S K Arun Murthi
Faculty (HSS)
IISER, Mohali.


  • Not only TV channels allot huge chunk of time and space for weekly astrological details and predictions, number of seperate’ channels churn out astrological and divine discourses the whole day. People of all walks of life waste their precious time in listening and watching the programmes and calling to the astrologers to enquire about their future and auspicious days.
    Astrology is also being promoted in post- graduate levels by establishing departments in astrology, palmistry, ‘nadi’ jyotishyam, etc. In South, the universities in Hyderabad and tirupati offer post graduate, diploma and doctoral courses in mythology and astrology. Politicians and political parties patronise astrologers. Traditions are being followed by people without rational thinking.
    While the problem cannot be solved within short time, the efforts to scientifically educate people must be stepped up. People should understand that luck or divine presence does not make their future but concrete planning and clear understanding of events shapes their future.
    Various planets coming near the sun and reflecting more light as they come near should be enjoyed. Astronomy must replace ” astrology” . The sky must be source of Inquisition and not introspection of past and future human lives. Marriages can take place any day. Horoscopes and ‘ Lucky’ and ‘auspicious’ days do not make perfect marriage. Mutual love, concurrences of ideas, humanity transcending caste, gender and religion make perfect marriage. Marriages are not made in heaven, but they are made on earth. When patriarchy and male chauvinism are wiped out and both couples respect each other, earth will be more beautiful than heaven.
    Nehru did not believe in superstitions. Kalam when asked about auspicious day for filing nomination papers for president election said that the earth rotates around itself and revolves round the sun for the whole year. So, everyday is auspicious.
    Let science rule the world! Let ‘ scientific marriages’ rule human beings!!?

  • No other society on this planet is as obscurantist and hypocritic as Hindu s Rrich and well educated girls are married to a plantain tree first If mars and saturn are on 7th,,&8th place in their Horoscopes One Arun Murthy and Jayant Narlikar can not influence the minds of
    millions of people with infected brains. All scientists & Rational Thinkers should come together and tell the youth of the country that they will loose control over their brains If they believe Astrology, via all Media,

  • When science overcomes challenges from traditionalists, know power can stop it from being a dominant force. This is possible if every question posed by traditional superstition followers is answered cogently with patience.

  • Of course it is fear of the uncertain future which makes people believe these things. But that is only part of the story. There are others who are materially crazy of aggrandizing wealth by foul means of exploitation and oppression. For this they consult astrology. For example will I be rich if I buy this share/stock? Can I buy this plot of land? (Never mind even if it is speculation). In fact in my experience the religious people are the most materially crazy, but cleverly shield their pretensions of being materially crazy by appealing to what I have mentioned above-“tradition”. These so called religious people justify gender and caste inequality by invoking tradition. These people have to be directly exposed ruthlessly.

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