Professor Yash Pal, India’s grand old man of science, died this week. Fond tributes are pouring in for the scientist, educationalist and institution builder.
What resonates with me today is something he said on his 80th birthday. The year was 2006. The renowned scientist, whose interests ranged from the weight of school bags to cosmic rays, was to receive a special felicitation from the then President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, at a conference organised by the Indian National Science Academy. The country’s top scientists were there. So were many journalists.
Prof. Pal had devoted his entire life to science, had won accolades within the country and beyond its borders. But he was unhappy. The reason? “While science and technology is flourishing, the scientific temper is going down. That’s why all kinds of stupid things like astrology are becoming popular,” he told a reporter.
The good professor is no more. But his message is hugely relevant today. Can we promote scientific temper while wilfully overlooking everything that mitigates against it?
Take the case of the brouhaha over “astrology OPDs” in Madhya Pradesh.
The state hit the headlines some days ago when media carried reports about the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led government’s proposal to foist astrologers in outpatient departments in hospitals. The national media ran with the story. Soon the BJP-ruled state’s health minister Rustam Singh had stepped in to inform journalists that his government had made no such decision.
The original controversy had been triggered by a statement of an official working for the government-run Maharishi Patanjali Sanskrit Sansthan. The gentleman had reportedly said “astrologers and soothsayers” would consult with patients suffering from various diseases in hospital OPDs or outpatient department.
The state government trashed the media reports as baseless and said that the proposed scheme was limited to astrology consultations at a yoga centre in Bhopal where people could consult astrologers and vaastu experts. The consultations may not be related to health but to issues such as marriage, education, jobs and so on.
As controversies go, this one had a short shelf life. And it is good to know that the Madhya Pradesh government does not have any plans to wheel in astrologers into health facilities to advise patients.
But a niggling question remains. Should the government be in the business of promoting astrology at all? The Sansthan comes under the state’s department of education. One media report said the Sansthan, which has been administering teaching of Sanskrit in over 140 government schools in the state, has plans to offer a diploma course in astrology from later this year. How will this official push — for stargazing impact — scientific temper among young people?
Madhya Pradesh is by no means the only state where the government promotes astrology education.
In New Delhi, there is the Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, a deemed university, under the ministry of human resources development. It offers a variety of courses on astrology, including “medical astrology” besides its regular fare. There are others.
Nor did the phenomenon start with the Narendra Modi government. In a 2009 magazine article, Meera Nanda, author of The God Market: How Globalisation is Making India More Hindu, pointed out how teaching of astrology got its real push with the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) infamous decision in 2001 to introduce “jyotir vigyan” (vedic astrology) and “karma kanda” into post-secondary education.
With this, says Ms Nanda, the previous BJP-led NDA government created a new network of deemed universities, which continue to provide direct and indirect support for training Hindu ritualists. The Union human resource development ministry, headed by Murli Manohar Joshi at that time, first proposed the idea. It was eagerly picked up by the UGC.
UGC’s decision triggered a rumpus among many of India’s senior academics, particularly in the sciences. More than 100 scientists and 300 political and social scientists wrote a protest letter to the government, to no avail.That was the start.
A 2008 newspaper report also refers to a study funded by the UGC that comes up with this breath-taking claim — planetary positions do affect your health. The UGC-funded study was done by the medical astrology department of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth. The UGC, as everyone knows, is a statutory body set up by the Indian government and is tasked with coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of higher education.
No one has any quarrel with promotion of yoga or Sanskrit. But astrology is a different cup of tea.
As Ms Nanda points out in a 2009 magazine article, while it is true that Sanskrit education is deeply intertwined with the ritualistic aspects of Hinduism and the two are often hard to tease apart, learning to perform a yagna or puja is only the practical, hands-on aspect of mastering Yajurveda for a degree in Sanskrit. “But rather than try to draw lines between teaching the religious literature written in Sanskrit and teaching rituals, the Indian educational establishment has gone the other way: it is using the cover of teaching Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy to use public money and resources to promote Hindu rituals.”
Many argue that since most Indians, including quite a few scientists, believe in astrology, there is nothing wrong in promoting it. Many people I know also believe in ghosts. Children believe in wizards and the tooth fairy. So, should we institutionalise the study of ghosts, wizards and tooth fairy?
Astrology and palmistry are not unique to India. Many institutions around the world offer courses in such subjects. But few of those bodies abroad enjoy state support.
In a country where most government schools don’t have laboratories and basic equipment, should the government be spending scarce resources promoting astrology? In a country with an abysmal public healthcare system and widespread superstition and quackery, can we afford to officially promote stargazing?
As we mourn the passing away of Prof. Pal, these are questions to think about.