Banning Astrology in India

Astrologers have been guiding Indians since the fifth century – helping them navigate everything from marriages to monsoons. Practices such as astrology, palmistry, numerology and face-reading make up a multi-million dollar industry in India, but that hasn’t stopped one NGO from calling on the Bombay High Court to ban practices that they argue profit on people’s fears and superstitions.

Twenty-six-year-old Gauri Jauhar lives in Delhi and has visited astrologers since she was a child. “Just as every Indian has a family doctor, every Indian has a family astrologer. A lot of Indians always go back to their birth charts whenever there is a calamity in their life,” Jauhar explained.

Jauhar says belief in the signs is so entrenched that in the lead-up to a marriage an astrologer can make or break a match. “Before I got married my parents were quite against the match so they were, like, ‘Okay let’s go get the astrologists view’. I said, ‘Sure, I don’t care’. The astrologer said it was a perfect match, but in two years we got divorced so it can turn out to be wrong,” she says.

Jauhar remains skeptical of astrology, but hundreds of millions of Indians believe and rely on astrologers to lead them down the right path. Thousands of internet sites advertise their ability to predict everything from your day’s events to compatibility with your partner. Believers also follow remedies prescribed by astrologers, which includes wearing gem stones, performing prayers and making donations.

The Hindu system of astrology, known as Jyotish, has evolved over hundreds of years – by some accounts, from the ancient Greeks – supposedly with the ability to use the horoscope to predict a whole variety of events ranging from war to earthquakes to political events. Newborns are traditionally named based on their jyotish charts. In 2001, the Andhra Pradesh High Court deliver ed a controversial ruling endorsing the practice of some Indian universities in awarding advanced degrees in astrology.

For Bhagvanji Raiyani from the NGO Janhit Manch, however, astrology equals exploitation. In April this year he publicly criticized astrology and other predictive practices by filing a petition with the Bombay High Court. He called on the government to curb “widespread superstitions prevailing among the masses”.

“If you turn on your TV in the morning between 6.30 a.m and 7.30 a.m all news channels and most of the entertainment channels have lined up one astrologer who predicts what will happen. Under the guise of such magic remedies the operators of such skills like astrology and vastu etc., are exploiting gullible and illiterate people,” he says.

In the petition, Bhagvanji outlined cases where Mumbai astrologers advertised their ability to cure health problems. This, he argues, is a direct violation of the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act – which states that you cannot claim that prayers or miraculous abilities can cure ailments.

“It is not at all a science,” Bhagvanji says. “Astrology is not science. Our supreme court has declared that astrology is a pseudo science.”

Mumbai astrologer Dr Rajeshwar Singh acknowledges that for some such practices have become a business venture – with astrologers charging up to US$2,500 for readings and remedies. But he maintains that astrology, when practiced by the right people, can be a useful tool.

“There is no science. The most dynamic force is hope, everybody lives on hope. Most people come to the doctor with the hope of being cured. Most people come to an astrologer with the hope of their troubles being mellowed or addressed or whatever it is,” Rajeshwar says.

Since Bhagvanji filed his petition in April, the matter has been in and out of Bombay’s High Court. In a country where some people rely on their stars as much as their gods for guidance, he knows that he’s going against public sentiment.

“It is better to make an attempt and lose a battle rather than not to make any efforts at all,” Bhagvanji says, adding that he hopes the court case will ignite debate – and challenge people to question whether their fates lie with the planets and stars or with themselves.

This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.