It was not a question of whether but when a scientific institution would hold a conference, meeting or workshop on astrology, or permit such a meeting or workshop to be held in its premises. And the waiting has come to an end. Come November 25-26, 2017, the Indian Institute of Science Alumni Association (IIScAA) will be holding a two-day workshop on “Astrology as a Scientific Tool for Individual Progress” at IISc. Yes, at IISc.
And the Director of IISc is the patron of the Alumni Association.
In 2001 the University Grants Commission came up with a decision to encourage universities to teach astrology. “A few departments of Vedic astrology were to be set up in Indian universities, which “would provide exclusive teaching and training in the subject leading to certificate, diploma, undergraduate, post-graduate and PhD degrees”. And about 35 India universities had sought permission to set up courses. There was widespread protest.
“There are 36 universities in India that have a degree programme on astrology,” claims Dr. M. S. Rameshaiah, Executive Committee of IIScAA and the person who will be conducting and convening the workshop in IISc. The workshop brochure says he is a member of the Indian Council of Astrological Sciences (ICAS) founded by Dr. B. V. Raman, whatever that means. He has done his M.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IISc in 1984-1986.
“There is no newspaper that does not reserve a column on astrology either daily or on weekends. The electronic media has so many 24-hours channels on astrology,” says Dr. Rameshaiah explaining why the workshop is being held now. I had to gently remind him that The Hindu does not have such a column for years now.
The workshop will teach the participants how to improve productivity for the remaining period of their life, he tells me. “Using astrology participants can improve their life and become an astrologer within 24 hours,” he says. “The programme will be held for 12 hours from 8 am to 8 pm so you can learn everything about astrology in those two days,” he tells me enthusiastically.
So becoming an astrologer is part of the “Scientific tool for individual progress”!
Not to sound critical and put him off or disconnect the phone I played along. And he invited me several times to participate in the workshop and get benefitted. The personal invitations continued till the end despite introducing myself as a journalist from The Hindu. I am to expect a formal invitation that will be emailed to me!
The workshop will be an activity-oriented programme, whatever that means, he tells me.
I slowly began asking him the rationale behind hold such a pseudoscience workshop in a scientific institution and he tells me: “Like how people are getting benefitted from yoga, similarly people can get benefitted through astrology.”
“People who question astrology, do they even know the subject? Do research and publish in journals. Do project work on astrology,” he says a bit irritated. “You just attend the conference and see for yourself.”
“What is Science? Newton’s law of motion is under scrutiny and is getting further researched. Everything that is true is science and everything that is false is science and those that are neither true nor false are not science.”
“People who disagree can attend the workshop and decide whether it is a science or not a science. If somebody claims that astrology is not a science one should not believe it. Check for yourself instead of believing what others say,” he says. This was in response to my query that most scientists consider astrology as a pseudoscience and not a science.
He then changes track and says unlike other people who charge huge sum and do not teach astrology properly, his attempt is to do it the correct way and without pinching people’s pocket. “Other people are not teaching correctly, completely and clearly. We are charging only Rs.2,000 per person,” he says.
How it came to this stage
While the scientific community may be aghast that IISc has allowed such a workshop to be held in its premises, even if it is not directly involved in the programme, it will not come as a shock to those who have closely followed the developments on several fronts in India since mid-2014. The tone was set with the implausible claim by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that cosmetic surgery was practised thousands of years ago and in-vitro fertilisation-like procedure was done long ago in India and well before these were tried and perfected by scientists in the developed countries.
The January 2015 102nd Indian Science Congress held in Mumbai gave pseudoscience a legitimate platform when a session on “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit” was held. Some of the papers presented were about Indians’ “knowledge of making aeroplanes” that could undertake interplanetary travel, between 7000 and 6000 BC, and about “radars” working on the principle of detecting energy given out by animate and inanimate objects and finding out if a body was dead or alive!
And a few months back just like how the U.S. set a national goal to put man on the moon and successfully achieved it ahead of Russia, India too set a National Programme — Scientific Validation and Research on Panchagavya! In July this year, a 19-member committee was constituted to select projects that can help scientifically validate the benefits of panchagavya. The national programme is coordinated by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in collaboration with IIT Delhi.
At regular intervals we have been witnessing bizarre claims by several ruling part ministers about the virtues of cow urine and cow dung. Believe it or not, in June this year Junagadh Agricultural University (JAU), Gujarat, had even claimed to have found gold particles in cows’ urine.
Will it be business as usual?
So the workshop on “Astrology as a Scientific Tool for Individual Progress” is a continuation of this trend. Scientists in India did not even murmur when the national programme on “Scientific Validation and Research on Panchagavya” was started. Then came the fund crunch for CSIR labs and directive to seek funding from other sources to meet their expenses. Our scientists did not feel the need to join the global March for Science in April this year. It was only in August that Indian scientists woke from the deep slumber and organised a March for Science. The immediate provocation: the fund crunch faced by CSIR and fear that it would become more widespread, and to seek an end to the propagation of unscientific beliefs.
Will scientists now protest against this workshop, especially since it is held at IISc? Many of the IISc alumni are aghast at the prospect of such a workshop being held at IISc and have drafted a letter addressed to the IISc director. They plan to send the letter on October 30 once sizeable number of people sign it. There is also a provision for alumni to sign the letter without identifying themselves. I have seen the letter, which is a strongly-worded plea to have the workshop cancelled.
There is also a letter being drafted for scientists and others who are not IISc alumni to sign. Will provide the link once the letter is ready. There is also plan to write to media houses so it gets published in some newspaper and the event gets cancelled.
This is when I sorely miss Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, who passed away in July this year. He was a strident critic of government’s bad policies, particularly which are anti-science. Way back in 2001, he had moved the Supreme Court against an initiative by the government to introduce astrology in universities. There is somehow no one with his kind of stature who can stand up to such issues.
I am waiting to see how this unfolds.
UPDATE: October 28, 2.30 pm
I spoke to Dr. M.P. Ravindra who is the President of the IISc Alumni Association a few minutes back. According to him, the workshop has been CANCELLED. The decision was taken this morning. “Due to lack of interest and disagreement, the event will NOT be held,” he says. The lack of interest part intrigued me and I probed further. He was then more honest by saying: “There is a negative connotation about astrology. Given the image astrology has in the society, IISc should not get involved.” My attempts to know how a decision to hold the workshop in IISc was taken in the first place was not answered. I have been asked to call after 30 minutes to know that as he is travelling.
UPDATE: October 28, 5.15 pm
Dr. Ravindran called me as promised and said the intention to hold the workshop in IISc was to “educate people as astrology as a discipline is misunderstood and people are misusing it, especially TV channels. Astrology is used by bad elements who are exploiting the ignorant people.”
“The intention behind holding the workshop was missed. The intention was not properly communicated and with adequate clarity. The intention was more to educate the society about the meaning and place of astrology in the society and how they should view astrology,” he says. “The reaction was pretty unexpected and negative. It was a bad move and the workshop has been cancelled.”