Friday, October 21, 2005

Predicting one's own death

Amit Verma's blog tells me of the story of an astrologer in Madhya Pradesh who predicted his own death. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) he turned out to be wrong. I remember a story I heard in Indore during the late eighties. I had just written a rather long computer program in the BASIC programming language for an astrologer. This program enabled him to do a series of complex calculatins in a jiffy. It also demystified the 'science' of astrology to me. It was clear to me that a good psychologist could become a good astrologer. All he had to do was to add terms related to astrology. Many of my friends and colleagues used this program to print out their astrological charts. But the astrologer was always puzzled that I hadn't asked him to predict my future. "I am just not interested," I had told him "kya aapney kabhi halwai ko mithai khatey dekha hai?" I had teased him. ("Have you ever seen a sweet shop owner eating sweets?") He had pretended he was amused and had laughed loudly. I remember telling this story to a group of friends. They had all laughed on hearing it. Then one of them told a story about a Maratha king (most probably a Holkar king from the family which ruled the central Indian state of Indore) who had invited an astrologer to his palace. When the astrologer arrived at the appointed time he was thrashed by the palace guards. He was then taken to the king. The king looked at him contemptuously and asked him "When you could not predict your own future how will you predict mine?" We had laughed loudly on hearing this story. The maharajas of yore could, and did, get away with murder.

Many years later I read writer and Sikh historian Khushwant Singh's account of the third battle of Panipat in which the Afghan Ahmed Shah Abdali's army defeated the Marathas who were fighting on behalf of the Mughals. According to Khushwant Singh the Marathas were militarily superior to the Afghan army but they waited for their royal priest, the Raj Purohit, to tell them the auspicious time to attack. Unfortunately for them their astrologer seemed to slip into some sort of paralysis and this gave Abdali's army the time to surround the Maratha camp and to cut off their supply lines. When they finally attacked it was a complete slaughter. The Marathas were starving and could barely scream out their battle cry of "Har, Har Mahadev" much less use their weapons. It was a complete rout as far as the Marathas were concerned. Astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar had once written an essay in which he had mentioned the fact that the Marathas were so sure of victory that they had even brought their women and children along with them as they had thought of going to various pilgrimage spots in the North after the battle was won. Many of these women were abducted by the Afghans. Every house in Pune had lost a member in this battle. Some of them were rescued by Sikhs. Khushwant Singh has mentioned that one of his female ancestors was a lady named Virabai. This is a Maratha name. She may well have been one of the ladies rescued by the Sikhs after the massacre at Panipat.

I had read these articles by Khushwant and Narlikar at a time when India's Education Ministry (the Human Resources Ministry) under the minister Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, who happens to be a physicist, was trying to introduce courses in Astrology in Indian Universities. This had happened a couple of years ago when the BJP was ruling India. A hue and cry had ensued. There were many who were impressed by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's statesmanship but were unable to understand why he gave a free hand to Dr. Joshi in matters of education. But then the compulsions of coalition politics in India are such that they produce strange bedfellows. I was one of the opponents of this scheme (I still am). I do not like crutches. And astrology is a crutch. I was also concerned with the fact that the Indian Army was (and still is) short of ten thousand officers. Our men were fighting jehadis in Kashmir and also guarding the Western and Northern borders with Pakistan and the long Himalayan border with China which stretches from Jammu and Kashmir till Arunachal Pradesh. It was a tough job and many of my friends who are in the Army would tell me "We could do with a few more subalterns."

If only Dr. Joshi had introduced some scheme with incentives which would have encouraged more university students to join the Army. I was scared that we had not learnt the lessons of the third battle of Panipat and were doomed to repeat history. I was also (still am) concerned with the fact that India has always had a big shortage of mental health professionals. Mental disorders are increasing. I hear horrific stories of stress breakdowns and road rage. We need more psychiatrists and mental health professionals. Look at what stress is doing to us. Instead of making students do courses in astrology our universities could make students of mathematics study how the calendars were made in ancient India. Strangely enough, almost a year ago I met Nachum Dershowitz, an Israeli mathematician from Tel Aviv, who is doing just this. His area of interest is "Indian Calendrical Systems" and he has written a detailed paper on this. Students of psychology can be made to analyse why astrology works, i.e. why people make a beeline towards astrologers.

Astrology is popular all over the Indian subcontinent. When the avuncular Bejan Daruwalla goes to Pakistan he is flooded with requests for appointments from the cream of Lahore and Karachi high society. And he continues to start each session with 'Shri Ganeshaya Namaha' - the invocation to Lord Ganesha. One can not miss the irony in the scene. A Zoroastrian whose ancestors left Persia centuries ago due to persecution by Islamic fanatics and settled in Gujarat happens to specialise in Hindu astrology. He goes to Pakistan and is flooded with requests to predict the future of the elite of this Islamic nation. Pakistan - a Muslim nation which is a breakaway part of India. It broke away because the elite of that nation did not want to live with their Hindu neighbours. But deep within they could not break away totally. They still believe in the power of Hindu astrology and in the skills of astrologers practising this art. Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

Astrology will continue to be popular in India. People will continue to go to astrologers. Thanks to technological innovations like TV Channels and the Internet astrologers and soothsayers will increase their earnings manifold. And many of these astrologers may themselves be patients of hypertension and anixety! Some of them will wrongly predict events including their own deaths. But let astrology remain astrology. There is no need to give it the garb of a science which it is not. And let us strive to make the next generation more logical and analytical in their approach to life and its problems. That, I think, would be much more beneficial than a trip to the fortune teller.