When Astrologers Convinced India That Doomsday Was Nigh

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Astrologers predicted that the world would end in 1962, and India came to a standstill. How can we combat superstitions?

Jawaharlal Nehru had exhorted the citizens of India to develop a ‘scientific temper’. And so, he was naturally frustrated when, in February of 1962, thousands across India huddled together to pray. Millions of Indians, convinced by astrologers that the world was coming to an end, were preparing for their final hour.

A phenomenon called ‘Ashta-graha’, the conjunction of the Sun, Moon, Earth, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, touted as a sign of imminent disaster, was supposed to end the world. Across the country, saffron-robed men led mass prayer meetings from the time the moon ‘entered’ the Zodiac sign of Capricorn.

Speaking at an election meeting to over 300,000 people in Kanpur, Nehru said:

What strikes our intelligence as completely absurd should not be accepted.

The first prime minister called it a ‘laughing matter’ that so many were bathing in the Ganges during an eclipse – a practice that continues today. He urged a scientific temperament. But superstitions based on fear are hard to die.  Across India, people started to deal with the situation. Beggars were paid more, the so-called ‘holy men’ raked in money as everyone was performing sacrifices and pujas. Those who paid more silver to the saffron-robed men expected to have better prospects of escaping this catastrophe. Many areas faced acute shortage of ‘holy men’.  People even stopped buying country liquor – as sales dropped 50 percent.

The panic was widespread. Trains stopped and offices were empty. Many villagers, fearing earthquakes, constructed straw huts. They reasoned that if an earthquake were to hit them, at least they would not be crushed by stones. Coal miners refused to work. Ghee (clarified butter) and grains, much needed to feed the country’s poor, went up in smoke in numerous yajnas. This cost the nation to the tune of 35 crores, according to Khushwant Singh.

Unfortunately, the world did not end. The day after the world was supposed to end, life went on as normal in Delhi and everywhere else. Normal traffic was reported. The crime was also the lowest in the week. Taking credit, a pundit declared that the Hindu goddess, Durga appeared to him in a dream and told him how immensely pleased she was with the devotion and prayers offered by the people of India.

Those who were sceptics felt vindicated, but the believers ascertained that their rituals had held some effect on the fortunes of the cosmos. The persistence of astrologers continued. Skeptics, prominently Khushwant Singh, pointed out how they never predicted major events like the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

But even today, not much has changed in their attitudes towards astrology. If anything, there is a deceptive attempt to classify it as science. Yet, scientific temperament remains a hard sell. Millions of people base their everyday decisions based on astrological predictions – from weddings and purchase of new vehicles to moving into their new homes.

A quick look at India’s matrimonial pages published by some of the leading newspapers offers an insight into the deep-rooted belief in an Astrological connection between two potential mates. This belief is rooted to such an extent that some people marry trees and dogs before their marriage. A case in point is the former Miss World and actress, Aishwarya Rai, who is supposed to have married a tree to overcome astrological differences with her fiance.

Aspiring businessmen and politicians alike seek out expert astrologers for their advice. Smriti Irani, the actress turned politician consulted an astrologer (who told her she would become President of India one day). This is not restricted to one’s personal choices. Many political appointments and administrative decisions are based on predictions made by ‘astrological experts’. Newly elected Governments take the oath of office on an auspicious day and time suggested by astrologers. Many of India’s Chief ministers and Prime ministers are advised by astrologers. Even visiting heads of states of states and dignitaries are not spared. When Theresa May made a state visit this year, she was advised by an astrologer to wear a red sari on Tuesdays.

There is also a desperate attempt to introduce astrology as a science into the educational curriculum. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Human Resource Development minister Murali Manohar Joshi sanctioned the teaching of ‘vedantic astrology‘ at University level. In November this year, there was an attempt to conduct an astrology workshop at one of India’s oldest modern research institution – the IISc, calling it a scientific tool.

Attempts to introduce unproven superstitions into academic curriculum at the university level risks breeding superstitions into academia as science. There is every reason for the scientific community to challenge unverifiable acts of superstition. As Vasudevan Mukunth writes:

Astrology is not a science and belief in it, to the extent to which it leads people to sometimes act irrationally (e.g. letting it interfere in the life choices of young women and men), can inflict great harm. Scientists have an obligation to combat it.

Thankfully, when it comes to doomsday, no astrologer has been proved right so far, though many have tried. As long as the world doesn’t end anytime soon, Nehru may indeed have the last laugh.

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