May 9, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Priya Ganapati

'The UGC is trying to promote unscientific behaviour'

A battle is raging furiously. Between believers and rationalists. Between traditionalists and modernists. Between those who think universities today should also impart an education in ancient Indian knowledge and others who believe the sanctity of a university education lies in its ability to inculcate a scientific temper.

The conflict has been sparked off by a seemingly innocuous order. On February 23, 2001, the University Grants Commission issued a notification to universities across the country requesting them to submit proposals about courses in Jyotir Vigyan or Vedic astrology.

In its order, the UGC has said, "There is an urgent need to rejuvenate the science of Vedic astrology in India, to allow this scientific knowledge to reach to the society at large and to provide opportunities to get this important science even exported to the world."

It is these few lines that have enraged the scientific and mathematical intelligentsia across the country. The battle lines are clear. On one side is the University Grants Commission, a statutory organisation that co-ordinates, determines and maintains the standards of university education in India. On the other are most of the country's scientific intelligentsia.

The controversy is not new. The idea of introducing Vedic astrology courses was first mooted in June last year. The union human resource development ministry, headed by Murli Manohar Joshi, first proposed the idea, which was eagerly picked up by the UGC.

Dr Hari Gautam, UGC chairman and former vice chancellor of the Benaras Hindu University, was then reported to have said the proposal would aim to produce certified persons in the areas of Vedic astrology and the Hindu karmakand (rituals) with a view to provide job opportunities abroad.

And so, the UGC has decided to introduce graduate, postgraduate and research level courses whose beneficiaries, it believes, will be "students, teachers, professionals from modern streams like doctors, architects, marketing, financial, economic and political analysts."

But, ever since the order was formally issued by the UGC about two months ago, the literati are up in arms against the UGC. The list of those who have come out in protest against the UGC's order reads like a veritable Who's Who of Indian academia. The Indian Statistical Institute, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Indian Institute of Science, the Raman Research Institute and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics have all protested against the UGC's prescription.

"We at the Indian Statistical Institute have written a letter to the UGC chairman, signed by over 50 people from across our centres at Delhi, Bangalore and Calcutta, protesting against the order. The scientific community in Bangalore is extremely unhappy with the UGC's decision. We are working at mobilising protests against it," says Alladi Sitaram, a professor with the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore.

It is not just professors who are protesting against the UGC's directives. Students across many of these academies, too, are taking up cudgels. "We have tried to reach out to all the students by putting up posters and making the students aware as to why we should oppose the order. Next, we plan to send a letter to the UGC chairman, signed by the IISc students, in order to register our protest," says a student at the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore.

The UGC feels its objective behind introducing such a course is simple. In its order, the UGC has said, "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 the universe on time scale."

Experts, on the other hand, protest the attempt is nothing but a misguided bid to legitimise superstition.

Dr Balachandra Rao, principal and professor of mathematics at National College, Bangalore, declares, "The word Vedic astrology itself is a misnomer and a contradiction of sorts. There is no mention of astrology in the Vedas. The rudiments of astronomy were first mentioned in one of the limbs of the Vedas and was called the Vedangajyotisha. But the term Vedic astrology is only being propagated in order to mislead the common man by making him believe it has a relation to the Vedas that he respects so much."

Dr Rao, who has been teaching mathematics to undergraduate and postgraduate students for the last 33 years, is the author of several articles on ancient Indian astronomy and astrology. He has also written a book called Astrology: Believe It Or Not, which discusses the basic concepts and tenets of astronomy and proceeds to debunk many of the myths that surrounds Indian astrology.

In his book, Dr Rao has exhorted people to shun astrology, as he believes that it is against all common sense and makes dubious claims.

"People have been using the word Vedic to justify everything. But my research shows that astrology, as a form, is not even Indian. It has been borrowed from the ancient Greeks and the Babylonians. Historically speaking, astronomy started with the work of Aryabhatta. It was the first systematic astronomical text. The Vedas only discuss seasons, nakshatras and phenomena like solstices and equinoxes. What the UGC is trying to do instead is promote superstitions and unscientific behaviour," he alleges.

Dr Rao's fears do not seem to be entirely unfounded. An examination of the UGC's decree to universities does show a marked disregard for rationality. Consider these lines reproduced from the UGC's order. "The distinguishing feature of this subject is that it makes us familiar with time, its nature and 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 adopted for estimation the events happen in different ways and add to worries, tension and frustration in life. Here Vedic astrology can help to see the unforeseen, it being the subject dealing with time."

Naturally, it is being dismissed as humbug in the academic circles. Most of the scientists are protesting against the UGC's attempt to pass off an unscientific methodology as science. They say there is nothing remotely scientific about astrology and the UGC's attempt to prove otherwise is unjustified.

"The labelling of astrology as a science is totally erroneous. All scientific disciplines derive their legitimacy from the scientific method, the foundations of which are: a respect for data, consistent reasoning, observational checks and the possibility of experimental refutation. Sadly, neither the method nor the practice of astrology conform to the standards demanded of a science," claims a student of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

But why is there such a strong opposition to the UGC's order? After all, the UGC's decree is only an invitation for those universities that might want to offer these courses; it is not a mandatory instruction of any kind.

The scientific community is not convinced.

"We are opposing the introduction of the course itself because most of us think it is sheer nonsense. There is no scientific evidence to indicate that the position of the stars when you are born will have any bearing on the kind of life you lead. It is sheer superstition and such courses only serve to heighten that," says Professor Sitaram vehemently.

His views are echoed by others. Dr Rao believes the fault lies with the UGC, since it is granting legitimacy to the subject by making it a university course. "We are not saying the subject should be killed. Sanskrit patshalas, which encourage this learning, already exist. But there is a difference between that and a university introducing such courses on flimsy grounds; they are even saying there is a demand from NRIs for such courses," he emphasises.

More than anything else, the academicians feel the UGC's order will reallocate funds that should go towards far more legitimate causes.

"Most universities in the country are dependent on central grants. Many of them have already been affected by the cut in grants over the last two years. At the Bangalore University, there have been no PhD registrations made for the last one year. There has been a nearly 15 per cent cut in research grants. The salaries of the teachers are getting affected. Under the circumstances, how can grants and the introduction of such a course be justified?" questions Dr Rao.

However, those who support UGC's directive allege the brouhaha raised in academic circles is unjustified. Many believe the UGC is merely following in the direction taken by universities abroad. Their argument is that if foreign universities can have courses in religious studies, then why should the introduction of Vedic astrology in Indian universities cause so much heartburn?

"We are not against teaching theology or, for instance, the beliefs of the Christian church. But, to draw a parallel, teaching Vedic astrology is like making an attempt to teach the theory of creation in the Bible as opposed to Darwin's theory of evolution by putting them on the same footing," rebuts Professor Sitaram.

He points out that the protestors are not against the teaching of Vedic astrology to the masses; what rankles them is UGC's involvement in the scheme.

"How can a respected body like the UGC, which is expected to maintain the standards of university education, be involved in these kind of things? Training purohits is not what a regular university is expected to do. There is some sanctity attached to university education; this sanctity will be broken by these kind of schemes. Anyway, there are Vedic patshalas that are imparting this kind of education," explains Professor Sitaram.

Dr Rao is more outspoken. "The UGC may indulge in arm-twisting tactics and refuse to release funds to universities unless they introduce this course. That is what we fear. What other reason could vice chancellors have to introduce this the course?"

Repeated explanations that the UGC's directive only seeks to offer those interested in the subject of Vedic astrology a choice to specialise in it are brushed aside.

"It is quite clear that the UGC's objective is to give legitimacy to the study of astrology. It has taken upon itself the task to promote astrology as a science. This entire perspective is not only misleading but also dangerous. We strongly feel Vedic astrology cannot be classified as either a science or an art because there is a lack of rational thought in the entire structure of astrology. Astrology depends on chance to fulfill its objectives, which is not the case with any other form of discipline," says a physics major from the Indian Institute of Science.

"Vedic astrology is not a body of knowledge. There are just principles and certain rules that are applied. I believe the UGC is trying to pass off an irrational body of statements as some kind of science and knowledge. Would you like our universities to teach something like witchcraft or sorcery? Would you like our universities to teach the science of how to turn base metals into gold? Then why apply a different rule to Vedic astrology?" demands Professor Sitaram.

So far, the UGC has not reacted to these protests. There has been no response from the commission to the protest letters it has received. Despite repeated attempts, UGC chairman Dr Hari Gautam was unavailable for comment. Meanwhile, 39 universities have reportedly come forward in response to the UGC's order. The scheme commences in July, which means universities can introduce it from the academic year beginning July-August. But UGC has stressed that it is upto each university to decide when, and if, they want to introduce the course.

But Professor Sitaram and his ilk are not fazed. "I think this whole Vedic astrology thing is bogus. We shouldn't be producing charlatans in our society. And we will not condone an attempt by our universities to do so."

Page design: Dominic Xavier

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