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Degrees of pseudo-science

Volume 18 - Issue 07, Mar. 31 - Apr. 13, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

Table of Contents


Degrees of pseudo-science

The University Grants Commission's move to approve and allocate funds for regular university-level courses in Vedic Astrology reflects the Hindutva agenda. Academic scholars have come out strongly against the step.


THE University Grants Commission (UGC) on February 23 wrote to Indian universities announcing its clearance for the introduction of regular courses in Vedic Astrology in universities under its purview from the coming academic year. This move is seen as a n attempt to legitimise pseudo-science and superstition (Frontline, September 15, 2000).

The Commission, according to the letter, had approved the proposal on January 25 based on the report of a committee that was set up to prepare guidelines for the scheme. According to a member of the Commission, this committee (which included two members of the Commission) was set up at the instance of UGC Chairman Hari Gautam when the matter came up for discussion on June 16, 2000. The meeting also considered a proposal for introducing degree courses in Karmakanda (ceremonial rituals performed by priest s) and this too was approved.

The Commission, the letter says, approved the guidelines and decided that Vedic Astrology should be given the name "Jyotir Vigyan". (Karmakanda will be referred to as Purohitya.) Universities interested in setting up a department of Vedic Astrology and s tarting a course were to send in their proposals by March 15. According to R.P. Gangurde, Additional Secretary, UGC, several universities had sent in proposals for both Vedic Astrology and Karmakanda courses, and the list of universities selected should be ready by the last week of March.

The UGC will set the syllabus. It expects that the course will benefit "students, teachers, professionals from modern streams like doctors, architects, marketing, financial, economic and political analysts, etc." The degree courses will have a duration o f three years and the post-graduate courses will be for two years. According to the UGC's guidelines, certificates will be awarded to candidates who successfully complete one year of the course at the graduate level, diplomas will be awarded upon success ful completion of two years of the course, and degrees will be awarded to those who complete the three-year course successfully. Ph.D and other research programmes will be similar to those in other disciplines.

Understandably, the proposal has agitated the scientific community. An appeal to the UGC signed by scores of scientists reads: "We the members of the Indian scientific community feel that the proposal by the UGC to introduce Vedic Astrology (Jyotir Vigya n) and Vastushastra in Indian universities is a giant leap backwards, undermining whatever scientific credibility our country may have so far achieved. We request the UGC to abandon this ill judged course of action."

According to observers, it is one thing to study with academic rigour the place of astrology in the history of cultures and in the history of sciences, the evolution of astronomy in particular, and another to give the subject the legitimacy of a science. The name Jyotir Vigyan indicates a bid to emphasise its nature as a science. Conclusive proof of astrology being nothing but mumbo-jumbo was provided by a double-blind test carried out by Shawn Carlson of Berkeley University in 1985 which showed that se emingly successful astrological predictions were no better than random hits (Frontline, February 7, 1997, Page 86).

A clamour from astrologers to accord astrology a place among the sciences started some years ago. The attempt to saffronise education and educational institutions at all levels at the behest of Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi, that has been evident over the years, and the Hindutva agenda of the Union government in general, would seem to have suited the lobby of obscurantists to influence decisions in the education sector.

Consider the following passage from the UGC's letter: "... there is an urgent need to rejuvenate the science of Vedic Astrology in India, to allow the scientific knowledge to reach the society at large and to provide opportunities to get this important s cience even exported to the world..."Two prominent scientists who are members of the UGC, S.K. Joshi, physicist and a former Director-General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and Sipra Guha-Mukherjee, a plant molecular biolog ist from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), seem to have given their silent consent to the move.

When asked about the move, S.K. Joshi said that the manner in which the decision was taken - by constituting a committee and placing just the recommendations of the committee before the Commission for approval - did not permit any meaningful discussion. "And I normally do not place any dissenting note in the decisions of the Commission even if I disagree," he admitted.

Guha-Mukherjee refused to discuss the matter with the press and said that what transpires at the meetings of the Commission constitutes confidential information.

According to S.K. Joshi, the proposal relating to Vedic Astrology was not on the agenda of the June 16, 2000 meeting. Apparently there was a letter from a Professor at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) on a proposal for courses in ethics and value education . In the process of discussing that letter the topic of Vedic Astrology came up. "The report of the committee was not placed before the Commission during the January meeting for a proper discussion," says Joshi. The UGC letter, however, says: "The guidel ines (were) approved by the Commission."

Apparently the following arguments were projected in order to push through the proposal. One, such courses were already being offered by some universities, though not under the UGC system: the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi University, the Lal Bahadur Shastri Sanskrit Vidyapeeth and the Indian Council of Astrological Studies. Two, Vedic Astrology is being accepted in the West and a study of it is in the same spirit as a study of yoga and, three, it will provide fresh avenues for emplo yment.

Yash Pal, the eminent physicist, said rather sardonically: "According to the UGC the study of time is best done through Vedic Astrology. Atomic clocks, biological clocks, carbon, uranium or potassium dating were never invented. Copernicus, Newton and Ein stein never happened. In any case, not being Vedic they are not perhaps as holy or valid as Vedic Astrology. If you want to know the age of the earth or the universe itself all you need to do is to consult the appropriate places in texts of Vedic Astrolo gy."

"The stated objective is so shallow as to be almost a caricature," says Romila Thapar, the eminent historian. "How can any educationist seriously argue that astrology helps us to foresee events and therefore removes the worries, tensions and frustrations of life? Even those whose lives are dictated to by astrology would not endorse such a statement.

To call astrology 'scientific knowledge' and to say that this 'important science needs to be exported to the world' is to make fun of scientific knowledge, for, however important astrology may claim to be, its fundamentals are not in conformity with scie ntific knowledge," she adds.

According to the UGC guidelines, the proposed departments could seek academic collaboration with departments of Sanskrit and Oriental Studies. "If there was a serious interest in astrology then the obvious collaboration would not be with these alone, but would have to be primarily with departments of Mathematics and Astronomy. However, the latter departments may well reject Vedic Astrology as a discipline," points out Romila Thapar.

"I have no objection to studying the sociology and the anthropology of the era in which astrology was born and the influence it has had on human history," says Yash Pal. "This was an important step in the growth of human cognition. This needs to be studi ed and understood better. But all this is best done in one or more of the existing departments, preferably in collaboration with each other. This is very different from establishing structures to apply, with a utilitarian passion, the received wisdom of the distant past. Setting up, almost like religious seminaries, separate departments protected from other sensible ways of thinking would be a horrible mistake. I hope no self-respecting university would ask to start such a department."

P.K. Srivastava, a Professor of Physics and director of the Centre for Science Education and Communication (CSEC), Delhi University, has similar views. "But here it is an attempt to close the process of inquiry," he says. "The UGC is telling us what astr ology is and what the course should be. This is yet another prescriptive structure being imposed by the UGC. In this respect, it is no different from the other new courses that have been introduced in the recent past, like those in electronics and comput er applications. My opposition to this proposal is more from the larger perspective of the UGC telling us what is right and what we should do," says Srivastava.

Romila Thapar concurs with this view. "Usually when new disciplines are introduced at the university level the request comes from the university departments which have studied the discipline in depth and prepared the pedagogy and structure of the subject . In the case of Vedic Astrology the procedure has been reversed, presumably because the HRD Ministry is instructing the UGC."

"It is surprising that such a proposal has gone through the Commission," says Naresh Dadich of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA). "Should the academic members of the Commission not be obliged to state their case clearly t o the academic community they are supposed to represent?" he asks.

The guidelines that the UGC has formalised include details of staff requirement (one Professor, one Reader, two Lecturers, one library attendant and one computer operator), the funds that would be available to set up the departments, the fees to be charg ed at the graduate and post-graduate level (Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 4,000 respectively a year), and so on. The main intention would seem to be to provide jobs for a large number of astrologers (there is also a provision to rope in guest-lecturers, who will be paid honorarium at UGC rates) and to provide a major financial outlay of Rs. 15 lakhs for each department (non-recurring) to establish a library, an observatory, a computer laboratory and a horoscope bank. The salary for the staff will, of course, be pai d by the UGC.

Says a statement issued by the Democratic Teachers Front (DTF), Delhi University: "The UGC proposal is at once ridiculous and dangerous. It is ridiculous because it seeks at the beginning of the second millennium to pass off astrology as a science. It is dangerous because it seeks to use the powers of the UGC to pressure universities to introduce such courses.

In sharp contrast to the large-hearted support offered for the course on Vedic Astrology is the step-motherly treatment meted out by the UGC to the departments of modern Indian languages and literatures as well as its lack of concern for developing the n atural sciences."

The scientific academies are contemplating ways to respond to the development. The Astronomical Society of India (ASI) will issue a statement, according to S. Ananthakrishnan of the National Centre for Radio Astronomy (NCRA), Pune. If what P. Balaram, E ditor, Current Science, wrote in the November 10, 2000, issue of Current Science is an indication, the Indian Academy of Sciences should also soon make its stand clear. He wrote: "As in the fight against creationism (in the U.S.), Indian s cientific bodies have a responsibility to express a collective and reasoned view. The Academies and Associations must not adopt the expedient path."

The stated objectives

Following are excerpts from the guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission for setting up departments of Vedic Astrology in universities:

"Vedic astrology is not only one of the main subjects of our traditional and classical knowledge but this is the discipline which lets us know the events happening in human life and in universe on time scale.

"The distinguishing feature of this subject is that it makes us familiar with time, its nature & feature and its effects on human life and other events and that way it helps us to manage and make optimal utilisation of time.

"It is a common feature that despite best methods adapted for estimation, the events happen in different way and add to worries, tensions and frustration in life. Here Vedic Astrology can help to see the unforeseen, it being the subject dealing with time .

"Starting of the courses in Vedic Astrology in universities will not only impart the knowledge of this subject to the people but will also add a new dimension for research in the fields of Hindu-Mathematics, Vastushastra, Meteoro- logical Studies, Agricu lture Science, Space Science, etc."

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