Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Case for Astrology

In The Tao of Cricket, Ashis Nandy says that astrology was not used as a serious guide to the future in ancient India. He relates a story to show that it did not have uncritical acceptance. Two kings consulted the same astrologer before going to war with each other. The result came out reverse of what the astrologer had predicted. Instead of keeping quiet, the two kings demanded an explanation from the astrologer. The astrologer said that the loser had taken the battle casually after hearing the prediction that he was going to win and  the winner tried even harder after hearing the prediction that he was going to lose. The astrologer said that in such cases astrology was useless!

Ashis Nandy says that not just the truth value but also the social uses of astrology should be considered. Take for example cricket which ‘is a game of chance and skill which must be played as if it was only a game of skill’.  The same characteristic exists for films and politics. All three fields are highly susceptible to the charms of astrology because it gives the actors the feeling that they are doing something to control the uncontrollable. Similarly people who feel threatened by the winds of social change will clutch at astrology so that they get ‘an internal locus of control when dealing with outside forces’. He quotes a journalist as saying:
Today, the phenomenon in India is ironic. The westernized section of the youth, who do not know which Indian rashi they belong to, or even the names of the rashis, who have not seen their horoscopes, and who scoff at superstitious Indians, the section considered the most modern, liberal, the hope of the country, are the ones who believe the most in newspaper forecasts.
Horoscopes are often exchanged between parents before fixing marriages. Many times, horoscopes are used by one side to reject certain marriage proposals which they may not be keen on for some reason. Even if the other side produces an astrologer who says that the horoscopes match, an astrologer can always be found who will say that they don't match.  In these cases, giving rational reasons for the rejection might cause friction among old friends and relatives who may find themselves on opposite sides. Citing mismatched horoscopes as the reason for the rejection enables both sides to shrug their shoulders and continue relationships as before.

Horoscopes can be used to used to justify certain decisions which have been arrived at logically. Ashis Nandy illustrates such a situation with a story by Tagore. In the story, a mother is hostile to the marriage between her daughter and the latter’s lover because their horoscopes don’t match. The husband overcomes her opposition by revealing to his wife that he had doctored his own horoscope to marry her 21 years ago because their horoscopes too did not match!

People may take astrological help as an additional insurance which may or may not help while they take normal, rational steps to cope with the problems of life. 'Maybe it has some effect, who knows!' could be the reasoning. The psychology is similar to a story I once read of an atheist philosopher who started praying on his deathbed. When he was asked why he had started praying, the philosopher replied, ‘This is no time to to be making enemies!' Nandy concludes thus:
It is possible to argue that, even as a proper superstition, astrology is less harmful than taking glucose, or taking multivitamin capsules daily in response to advertisements or bottle feeding one’s baby or drugging it with overdoses of sugar, food preservatives, or hydrogenated, hydroxyquinoline derivatives used as anti-diarrhoeal agents. At worst, the first kind of superstition benefits small-time cheats who are ill-organized and scattered. At best, the second kind of superstition is a global enterprise; it makes us a victim as well as a participant in a centrally organized, capital-intensive structure of exploitation. 
The multi-million dollar global superstitions include the prestige of quaffing certain sugared waters, the idea sold by the global arms industry that increased spending on national security will increase people's security, books on tips to beat the stock market / guarantee business success / increase self-confidence etc. (based on the belief that everything is within your control and that luck is irrelevant), fairness creams, health foods...(To a large extent, the consumers of these superstitions are the educated.) I am reminded of Gandhi's statement in Hind Swaraj, 'I am prepared to maintain that humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.'

And looking at the jet-setting, globalised modern swamis who abound in India, they seem to have a greater following in cities than in villages, among the educated than among the illiterate, among the rich than among the poor. If you thought that superstition is due to lack of education, you are ignoring reality. Ashis Nandy writes in Bonfire of Creeds:
It is a feature of the recipient culture which is to be created though the modern state system, that the superstitions of the rich and the powerful are given less emphasis than the superstitions of the poor and lowly.This is the inescapable logic of development and scientific rationality today.

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