The other day, a colleague who is unfamiliar with Indian culture was wondering why Indians were obsessed with knowing about their future and why despite being a scientifically advanced nation, its citizens are so reliant on astrology.
He was referring to politicians who are making a beeline to astrologers to know about their prospects in India’s election. This phenomenon is not new. But how to explain this propensity to my colleague?
Bejan Daruwalla, one of the most popular names in Indian astrology, told a newspaper recently: “Today, everyone is hungry for power, money, status. The easiest way to access all three is politics. For seasoned politicians, it is their money and reputation which is at stake. Therefore, before investing, they would obviously check twice.”
Even though predictions often result in failure, faith in astrology has remained unshaken among Indians for generations. As far back as 1971, The Astrological Magazine, the world’s longest-running English astrological monthly – it was published from 1895-2007 – was filled with forecasts of Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the election. She won with a thumping majority.
In 1980, at a conference organised by the Indian Astrologers Federation, both the president and secretary of the federation predicted a war with Pakistan in 1982, which India would win, and a world war between 1982 and 1984. They proved wrong. In the 2009 parliamentary election, a large number of soothsayers wrongly predicted that Pranab Mukherjee would become prime minister.
Believers, however, cite instances of successful predictions. In 2001, when Kerala-based astrologer Unnikrishna Panicker forecast that Jayaram Jayalalithaa – she reportedly added an extra “a” in her name upon advice from a numerologist – would become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, many found it hard to believe.
Although she couldn’t contest, her party, the AIADMK, won the assembly election and she was made the chief minister as a non-elected member. The prediction earned Mr Panicker a reward of one million rupees.
These examples show that there is more to it than ambition, greed and superstition. One explanation of this popular appeal of astrology is ignorance and lack of criticism, as Jayant Narlikar pointed out in a study. Unlike in the West, he said, where criticism of astrology is common, few in India would make an effort to divert diehard believers towards logic and rationality.
On the contrary, astrology enthusiasts received a huge impetus in 2001 when the University Grants Commission (UGC) – a statutory government organisation charged with coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of university education – decided to offer funds for training in astrology leading to certificate, diploma, undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate degrees in the subject at various Indian universities. Its circular underlined: “There is urgent need to rejuvenate the science of Vedic astrology in India ... and to provide opportunities to get this important science exported to the world.”
In less than a year, dozens of universities applied for government grants to set up departments of astrology.
In 2004, a group of sceptics filed a petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court to stop the UGC from funding courses in Vedic astrology.
They argued that it was a pseudoscience that would erode the credibility of India’s institutions as well as funds available for genuine scientific research.
The court dismissed the case on the grounds that it was not right for it to interfere with a UGC decision that did not violate Indian law.
In 2011, an appeal was made to the Mumbai High Court under the law that bans false advertising. That, too, was dismissed by the court on the ground that the law, as the The Times of India reported, “does not cover astrology and related sciences. Astrology is a trusted science and [has been] practised for over 4,000 years”.
Is India’s fascination with astrology then a psychological phenomenon?
“It isn’t,” says Dr Shamil Wanigaratne, a consultant clinical psychologist at the National Rehabilitation Centre, Abu Dhabi.
“It’s steeped in the culture. Thousands of years ago, rajas and maharajas used to consult astrologers before going to war. That tradition has continued today.”
So the answer to my colleague is this: our trust in astrology is here to stay. I have looked at the stars and predict it’s not going to disappear any time soon.