Astrology in university education – twenty years after

(Note: The following article speaks the truth, instead of taking sides. However, the Indian media being totally polarised, I could not publish the article in either English or Hindi. Hence, am now posting it on my blog, since I feel it is important for me to take a stand on the matter.)

Astrology is a superstition, but why are the colonised unwilling to admit that Johannes Kepler was a superstitious astrologer, who got his livelihood from astrology, and wrote in praise of astrology.  And what of Isaac Newton who superstitiously believed in Biblical creationism and apocalypse. His superstitions rubbed off into science and math as in the “eternal laws of nature”, not to mention his superstitions about the Indian calculus, all of which church superstition we happily teach in schools today.  But there is no outrage among the colonised who blindly accept all church superstitions in mathematics and science. That is exactly why it was the church which brought Western ethnoscience and Western ethnomath to the colonised in general and to India in particular. The real issue is about Western dominance, not science vs superstition.

The Indira Gandhi National Open University recently introduced a postgraduate course in astrology. A similar issue had arisen twenty years ago when the University Grants Commission (UGC) announced a scheme to open 16 university departments, to teach astrology across the country, in 2001. This was hugely opposed, and the late Kapila Vatsyayana organized a public debate, between scientists and astrologers, in the India International Centre, on the desirability of astrology in university education. The late Pushpa Bhargava, Raja Ramanna and I represented scientists. But the astrologers ran away from the debate, though I did later discuss this issue publicly with some other astrologers in other forums. The UGC eventually scrapped the scheme. However, some clarifications given 20 years ago are still relevant.

First, the term “jyotish”, which means time-keeping (through astronomy), is wrongly confounded with astrology (called “phalit jyotish”). The earlier UGC scheme was announced as pertaining to Vedic astrology. However, there is no mention of astrology in the Veda-s. Then, at the India International Centre, I had challenged the assembled scholars, in front of the international press, to show me a single sentence on astrology in the core text of Vedanga Jyotish.1 No one could do so, and some started asking for my copy of the Vedanga Jyotish, which they had obviously never seen before. The Vedanga Jyotishe is a manual of timekeeping, completely disjoint from astrology.

Indians persistently separated astronomy from astrology, which separation is not limited to the Vedanga Jyotish, last updated around -1500 CE. Thus, Nilakantha’s commentary on the Aryabhatiya is dated to +1500 CE.2 During this 3000 year period, there were numerous books written on astronomy in India. These included the Surya Siddhanta, the Aryabhatiya, the Laghu and Maha Bhaskariya of Bhaskar 1, the Brahmasphutasiddhanta of Brahmagupta, the Shishyadhivrddhida of Lalla, Vateshwar Siddhanta, and Gola, Tantrasangraha, Yuktidipika, etc. In none of these books do we find a single sentence related to astrology. The beginning of astrology in India is credited to the 6th c. Varahamihira, and his Brihat samhita, but even Varahamihira’s astronomy book Pancasiddhantika does not have a single sentence on astrology.

However the colonially educated are deluded that jyotish means astrology. The same colonial education also impacts nationalists. Hence, they repeatedly return to the claim that astrology was an important aspect of Indian tradition since Vedic times. Twenty years ago, Pushpa Bhargava had challenged the teaching of astrology in the Madras High Court. In response, the UGC had said that astrology was an important aspect of ancient Indian tradition, a claim happily accepted by the judge (Kalifulla J.) Nobody asked for evidence that astrology was a significant part of Indian tradition, and nobody offered it.

To the contrary, the Buddha explained3 that common people praise him because he does not earn a livelihood by the unethical means of predicting uncertain future events, such as predicting the victory or defeat of kings in a war, or predicting good or bad rainfall. This was not any specifically Buddhist ethics, since it was the common people (then pre-Buddhist Hindus) who praised the Buddha thus.

In contrast, the West traditionally believed in prophecy. Herodotus4 begins his History with the story of Croesus, from Lydia (Turkey), who first made Ionian Greeks his vassals. Before fighting the Persians, Croesus checked the outcome with the Oracle of Delphi. “A great empire will fall” was the prophecy. Unsure about which Empire would fall, Croesus again sent an emissary to ask how long his own rule would last. “Until a mule rules the Medes (Persia)”. Croesus thought that hardly likely and battled Cyrus the Great and lost. The prophecy was then explained that Cyrus  was the mule since he was of mixed descent. Of course, had the outcome been different, there would have been no need for an explanation. This illustrates how foretelling the future was traditionally based on subtle con-tricks.

Prophets were given a very high religious status in the West. Hence, during the Crusades, the church tried to put down Muslims by the criticism that Paigambar Muhammad made no prophecy. Unfortunately, the strange response of Muslims to this critique has been to translate Paigambar (meaning messenger) as Prophet!

Traditional Western superstitions did not magically disappear with the advent of science. Johannes Kepler, famous for his “laws” of planetary motion, wrote on the fundamentals of astrology.5 Before he grabbed the high church position of Astronomer Royal to the Holy Roman Empire, Kepler was a practising astrologer, and he wrote that providing astrology as a means of livelihood to astronomers was proof the of pre-established harmony created by God!

Even Isaac Newton superstitiously believed in Biblical creation, some 6000 years ago. He explicitly used it to deny the antiquity of Egypt.6 He also believed the Bible correctly foretold the future apocalypse of the world at the “seventh trumpet”.7 Indeed, belief in prophecy, or the belief that the future can be foretold, persists in the scientific belief in the mechanistic evolution of the world according to some “eternal laws of nature”. This belief in “eternal laws of nature” is a Christian dogma first propounded by Thomas Aquinas.8 This dogma, is not, for example, acceptable in Buddhism,9 or Islam,10 or Hinduism.11

But, both Newton and Kepler believed in this dogma, and we teach it in our schools today.12 This dogma asserts that the future is determined and predictable by the knowledgeable, like prophets and Laplace’s demon. (On Karl Popper’s formulation, Laplace’s demon is a super-scientist, who knows all the laws of nature, a super-observer, and a super-computer, who can hence calculate the future.13) Of course, no one knows how the “laws of nature” or equations of physics (supposedly) causally determine human actions, any more than anyone knows how planets determine human actions. So, the difference between the demon and astrology is a matter of technique, not of principle.

The colonially educated believe Indians were especially superstitious. But the experimental method was used in India, long before Bacon,14 and many traditional Indian astronomers spoke out against superstition. For example, it is said that Indians believed that Rahu  and Ketu are the cause of eclipses. This myth is undoubtedly found in the Purana-s. However, the eighth century Lalla titled the 20th chapter of his Sisyadhivrdhida15 as the “Correction of mythical knowledge”. Here he gives several arguments why demons such as Rahu, cannot be the cause of an eclipse. In the 26th sloka he says “In a solar eclipse, people in different parts (of the earth) see different portions of the Sun eclipsed. Some do not see (the eclipse) at all. Knowing this, who can maintain that an eclipse is caused by Rahu?” Further, Lalla (20:22) asks why eclipses occur only near the full moon or new-moon. In contrast, the Bible (Luke 23:44-45) states the superstition that God caused a solar eclipse at noon on the crucifixion of Jesus, which is impossible, because Easter, or the supposed date of resurrection of Jesus, is linked to the full moon when a solar eclipse is impossible. Before the 19th c., which Western astronomer rejected this Biblical assertion as a superstition?

The conclusion is that scientific thinking is a much older part of Indian tradition than astrology which was probably imported in the 6th c., and true nationalists ought to encourage that older tradition. On the other hand, church superstitions still flourish in science (and math) and the tail-wagging colonised who believe science is a matter of Western approval, not critical thinking, need to understand that.

1K. V. Sarma, ed., Vedanga Jyotisa of Lagadh, trans. & notes T. S. Kupanna Sastri (New Delhi: INSA, 1985).

2K. Sambasiva Sastri, ed., Aryabhatiya of Aryabhatacarya with the Bhasya of Nılakanthasomasutvan (University of Kerala, Trivandrum, 1930).

3Maurice Walshe, trans., Digha Nikaya: Long Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), 68–72 Brahmajala sutta, section on Mahashila.

4Herodotus, The History, trans. G. C. Macaulay, n.d., https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2707/2707-h/2707-h.htm.

5J. Bruce Brackenridge and Mary Ann Rossi, ‘Johannes Kepler’s on the More Certain Fundamentals of Astrology Prague 1601’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 123, no. 2 (1979): 85–116.

6Isaac Newton, “Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms amended”, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15784/15784-h/15784-h.htm#chapII.

7C. K. Raju, The Eleven Pictures of Time: The Physics, Philosophy and Politics of Time Beliefs (Sage, 2003) chp. 4, ‘Newton’s time’.

8Thomas Aquinas, Sumnma Theologica, First part of the second part, 91,1, n.d., http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2091.htm.

9C. K. Raju, ‘Buddhism and Science’, 2016, https://youtu.be/SkS1HM6g0O4, a conversation with the Dalai Lama.

10C. K. Raju, ‘Islam and Science’, keynote address, in Islam and Multiculturalism: Islam, Modern Science, and Technology, ed. Asia-Europe Institute University of Malaya and Japan Organization for Islamic Area Studies Waseda University, 2013, 1–14, http://ckraju.net/hps-aiu/Islam-and-Science-kl-paper.pdf.

11Minutes of a meeting in the University Sains Malaysia, 2011, to discuss whether the belief in “laws of nature” should be part of a course in the philosophy of science. http://ckraju.net/usm/PSc-minutes.html.

12See, e.g., the 2021-22 NCERT text on science for class IX, chp. 10, p. 133. http://ckraju.net/papers/presentations/images/NCERT-class-IX-science-chp-10..pdf

13For Laplace’s demon see C. K. Raju, Time: Towards a Consistent Theory (Springer, 1994).

15For a general account, see “Indians against superstition”, extract from “Proofs and Refutations in Mathematics and Physics: an Indian Perspective”, in History of Science and Philosophy of Science, ed., P. K. Sengupta, Pearson Longman, 2012. For the original source see Lalla, ‘शिष्यधीवृद्धिद’, ed. Bina Chatterjee (Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1981).

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