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Why India can't ban astrology

December 12, 2015 10:04 IST

On the grounds of freedom of expression alone, astrology cannot be banned; it also provides a legal livelihood to lots of people, opines Devangshu Datta.

Like its elder sibling, religion, astrology is founded on a sound understanding of human psychology and an utter contempt for experimental science. The ability to generate and monetise fear makes astrology a successful industry.

The astrologer draws charts that map the astral position of sundry (in some cases non-existent) astronomical entities at specific moments. Based on these charts, the astrologer extrapolates the future trajectory of his or her clients’ lives and the chances of good or nasty things happening to them. (Disclaimer 1: I’ve written programs to calculate such charts.)

There are exact “scientific” rules for doing this. Astrology can produce mechanical predictions. Two astrologers using the same “system” and studying the same charts will make similar predictions. It’s pseudo-scientific because the “rules” make no sense and the predictions don’t hold up to experimental verification.

A clever astrologer can verbally “fuzz” predictions enough to feed, or assuage any specific paranoia a given client may possess. For example, a client who is afraid of drowning may be told that “Yes, that retrograde movement of Venus could imply death by H2O in the next five years”. Another client may be warned that it could mean a terrible fire. People pay large sums of money to hear such predictions, provided the jargon is well-articulated.

The big value-addition comes from the intimate connections between astrologers and the gems and jewellery industry. It is no coincidence that the astrologer often sits in a jewellery shop, or owns a share in such a business. All over the planet, in sundry different cultures, gemstones are marketed by tying the “attributes” of stones to complicated life scenarios. A glance at any astrology channel, or a stroll through any jewellery shop, will make that evident.

The approved astrological method of warding off looming astro-predicted disasters, or inducing good luck, or getting a crack at better sex, is to buy and wear the “right” gemstones. An educated guess suggests that about three-fourths of all gemstones sold in India were bought at the behest of an astrologer. (Disclaimer 2: The “educated guess” was made by a friend of mine, who is an astrologer with a share in a jewellery and gemstones business.)

People buy stones for all sorts of astrological “reasons”. For example, someone might buy a specific gemstone tomorrow in order to reduce the chance of drowning in an accident that may otherwise occur in 2019. Another chap may buy a stone which is supposed to change his luck at picking up women. A third may buy a stone to help him score capital gains on the stock market.

Now, belief in astrology and gemstones is undoubtedly irrational. Some of the claims made on behalf of astrology may also skate close to the definition of false advertising. However, you cannot ban somebody from believing the irrational, or even from trying to perpetrate irrational beliefs, or profiting from the propagation of irrational beliefs.

Otherwise, religion would have to be banished from the public domain, and a large chunk of the social sciences would also have to be expunged. Even the physical sciences would suffer under such rigid censorship, since new science hypotheses frequently seem strange until proved experimentally. For example, the solar-centric theory was originally thought absurd since it contradicted the evidence of everyone’s eyes.

Astrology milks the gullible; it does not cause direct physical harm. On the grounds of freedom of expression alone, astrology cannot be banned from TV channels, as the Karnataka government has recently proposed.

Nor can it be banned for another important reason: it provides a legal livelihood to lots of people.

Apart from astrologers themselves, there is the gems and jewellery industry. That employs people up and down the value-chain. India is also a big player in the global gemstones market.

The positive externalities of astrology are therefore quite significant. It may seem like a joke. Indeed it is a joke. But it helps a lot of people to laugh all the way to the gem market.

Image used is for representational purposes only.

Devangshu Datta
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