ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Virtual Dialogue

Vedic Astrology in the Universities

Recently, the issue of introduction of vedic astrology as an independent, if optional, course programme in universities has come into a great deal of focus (‘Vedic Astrology or Jyotirvigyan’, EPW, June 16, 2001). The protagonists for such an incorporation have presented several engaging arguments in its favour. We do not endorse this view. However, instead of an outright dismissal, we examine here the main tenets of the protagonists’ position, and attempt to establish its inherent vulnerability.

(1) Astrology is taught in many universities in India (about 20) and abroad (about 20). Some other universities across the globe are thinking seriously of introducing it in their curricula. The proposal is to introduce it as an optional course, by no means mandatory, and not necessarily as part of existing science programmes.

If, say, 50 of the world’s universities are the only ones that have course programmes in an antiquated area like astrology (by no means an emerging field like information technology or genome research), then the issue is: why is it that the rest of the few thousand universities in the world have not felt it important enough to include an independent course on astrology in their curriculum, even as an optional subject? The answer must lie in the fact that globally, astrology is held at the same level of importance as other antiquated areas of enquiry, such as alchemy which has yielded its place completely to modern chemistry. Likewise, while some ancient astronomers are known to have practised certain forms of astrology, over time this mode of enquiry has yielded its place to the modern science of astronomy and astrophysics. Thus, study of certain aspects of ancient Indian astrology in a programme on historical evolution of Indian science may not be totally objectionable. But an independent stand-alone university programme on vedic astrology (even an optional one) would be tantamount to a course on extracting gold from coal a la’ alchemy, and hence is totally unwarranted.

(2) There are so many courses in universities on subjects like Chinese, Japanese, Russian languages, etc, so why not have an optional course on astrology which is after all an indigenous ‘discipline’ ? Unless we cultivate it, it might become like the patenting of basmati and turmeric wherein western entrepreneurs have allegedly expropriated knowledge that is known to be traditionally Indian. We may stand to lose our comparative advantage in the international market vis-a-vis claims on intellectual property.

The study of foreign languages is extremely important in the ‘age of globalisation’ when capital and labour in particular and people in general freely move across international borders. To reap the benefits of these globalising currents we need to equip ourselves with skills in foreign languages in order that exchange of knowledge, information and culture take place without hindrance. This is particularly true of the languages mentioned by the protagonists for astrology; some of the countries where they are spoken are increasingly emerging as world economic leaders with whom our economic interaction is bound to increase, as most economists would agree. But, a course on astrology cannot be regarded on par in priority with one on Chinese or Japanese language. In the cost-conscious climate existing in the country today, the allocation of sparse educational resources must be done very prudently. If far greater resources were placed at our disposal, our educational priorities could have included not only vedic astrology, but also somewhat more imaginative courses on, say, vedic cuisine (which may involve real ‘saffronisation’ in terms of cooking beef and horse meat with saffron) or vedic sports (including elephant taming).

To the charge of neglecting an indigenous mode of enquiry and hence losing out to international competition, we would like to point out the following: traditional knowledge on basmati and tumeric cultivation has indeed a lot to add to the knowledge corpus of all mankind with regard to bio-diversity. Similarly ayurveda and yoga can potentially augment existing understanding of medicine, subject of course to rigourous scientific scrutiny. In contrast, vedic astrology has been thoroughly and completely superceded and supplanted by modern astronomy, as already mentioned. It is not our purpose here to dwell in detail upon the numerous scholarly works which have adequately demonstrated the unscientific underpinnings of astrology. Suffice it to say that there is no room to accommodate the tenets of astrology in the system of explanation of interaction of heavenly bodies, given the overwhelming evidence from modern astronomy (Majumdar, M and P Majumdar, ‘Science, Astrology and Openness’, The Hindu, May 5, 2001). Simply put, all that is indigenous is not necessarily ingenious.

(3) Introduction of a course on vedic astrology is not a turnaround in the existing educational policy; rather it is a continuation of earlier policy. That it is acceptable to people of disparate political positions and is evident from recent pronouncements by some ministers belonging to opposition parties in support of the proposal.

It is possible that some sporadic efforts have been made in the past to include astrology as part of a university curriculum. But it was never presented as a structured full-blown proposal of the University Grants Commission of India, with the ostensible purpose of incorporation in universities across the country. Elevation of astrology to the level of a formal ‘discipline’, to be taught alongside other more standard subjects, is an unambiguous departure from extant educational agenda. In its original form, the proposal was to include vedic astrology as a science discipline in the universities. This was an outrageous departure from existing science curricula, and understandably, was vehemently criticised by eminent scientists and others across the nation. Now the proposal has evolved into a diluted version which only asks for incorporation of astrology as an optional subject, not necessarily attached to science departments. This dilution on the part of the proponents would not have happened unless the original proposal entailed a radical departure from the past. In this light, current efforts to pass-off the present version as merely a continuation of earlier educational policy does not hold water.

Recent political statements by some opposition political leaders favouring the pro-astrology position originate from the so-called ‘liberal’ view which espouses free pursuit of all intellectual predilections. Appealing as it may be, in a world of finite resources do we have a compelling reason to de-prioritise our educational goals, even if we have a libertarian right to do so? More importantly, political approval or otherwise per se cannot be the sole rationale for introducing courses into university curricula, without consideration of the intrinsic merit of such proposals.

(4) Innumerable people across the globe believe in astrology. Important events in lives of many people, like marriages, business ventures, contesting elections, etc, are guided by astrological pronouncements. It is therefore important to accord a formal status of an academic discipline to the study of such a pervasive practice.

 

For Popularity’s Sake

While it is true that large numbers of people rest faith in astrological ‘predictions’ of various sorts, the numbers are negligible in comparison to those who do not. The every-day struggle for life and livelihood among the deprived peoples of the world is too acute to afford the luxury of obeisance to astrological pronouncements. Even the access to what proponents may consider as reliable astrological ‘help’ is severely limited in regions across the globe where infrastructural deficiencies overwhelm daily existence. Thus, compared to the pressing need for alleviation of such basic predicaments, discourses on faith in astrology appear totally counter-productive to their well-being.

Coming now to the issue of astrological guidance vis-a-vis marriage, contesting elections, launching new business ventures, etc, it is not clear at all that such guidance is decisive in most cases, at the cost of other, more immediate and relevant, considerations. An extremely lucrative business deal, the lure of a very favourable election constituency or a very attractive prospective spouse very often offset our adherence to unfavourable astrological pronouncements. Such compromises with our faith are commonplace. Take the case of marriage for instance. Fifty years ago most horoscopes predicted that girls are likely to get married in their early teens; surprisingly now this has almost uniformly changed: most unmarried women are now predicted, according to their horoscopes, to marry in their mid to late 20s. Socio-economic changes which have necessitated the age of marriage for women to rise, also seem to have affected horoscopic predictions. It appears as if socio-economic factors on earth have started influencing behaviour of heavenly bodies in their turn, rather than the other way round!

The purpose of raising all these issues vis-a-vis the ‘popularity’ argument is to suggest that popularity alone, like political approval, cannot be the primary raison d’être for elevating astrology to the level of a formal academic discipline.

Having addressed the main tenets of the pro-astrology position, and demonstrated the intrinsic shallowness of such a standpoint, we now proceed to briefly raise some more substantive reasons as to why astrology should not be a part of university curricula. We focus our attention on issues pertaining to redundancy, inter-sectoral allocation of funds in education and manpower planning.

First of all, financial allocations to university education in particular and to education in general are not on par with our national requirements. Most universities have frozen hiring at several academic and non-academic levels for want of adequate resources. Our educational priority, amid the existing resource crunch in universities, must incorporate programmes of training of far more immediate applicability. For example, there is a dire need to include in the university curriculum, hitherto neglected subjects such as Disaster Management (both man-made and natural, e g, starvation deaths and famine, earthquakes, floods, cyclones, droughts, etc) road and rail safety, rural (‘barefoot’) public health, occupational health of workers (like miners, tannery workers) and so on. There are no structured training programmes in any of these subjects in India; currently all we do with these recurrent problems is ‘firefighting’. Compared to such courses, an independent optional course on astrology is highly redundant.

Secondly, investing on infrastructure building and instructional resources for a new full-scale programme on something like vedic astrology is bound to divert finances from an already resource – poor elementary educational sector, in urgent need of far greater finances. This will clearly be disastrous for the country’s future. The allocation for higher education is also very likely to be adversely affected, including funding of research in emerging sciences and technologies (like IT, genome research and biodiversity) which are certainly of higher priority internationally.

Consider, finally, placement opportunities for students who graduate with university degrees in astrology. In a country faced with ‘famine’ of work, a new university programme on astrology will unduly distort our priorities in future manpower planning. Efforts at creating employment for astrology degree holders, at a time when programmes like Food for Work (which affect huge sections of our economically-challenged population) are atrophied to skeletal levels, do not constitute an urgent priority by any stretch of argument.

In sum, not only are the arguments in favour of an university programme in astrology intrinsically bereft of value, more damagingly, such proposals come in the way of actualising our far more exigent developmental priorities.

 

 

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