Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Stars Have no F@$ks to Give

Recently, I was invited to take part in a discussion on the validity of astrology.  Specifically, this was a Desi audience, so the particular brand of stellar stupidity that people leaned towards is so-called Vedic astrology.  I say "so-called" because the oldest sources for it are two collections of texts called the Vedanga Jyothisha and the Brihat Parashara Horashastra (both ca. 700-600 BCE), which at best indicates that this might have been part of the original Vedanta when it was still an oral tradition or at least draws off of something taught therein.  No real indication that the Vedas actually contained it until people appeared to start combining texts together a few centuries later.  Even then, it was largely treated as an "auxiliary discipline" of learning often treated as valuable, but not crucial for an individual unless they sought an ascetic lifestyle.  The term "Vedic Astrology" seems to be a more recent term coined during the early 1980s with the influx of Indian woo-woo self-help and Ayurvedic wishful thinking from the likes of Deepak Chopra.

As if it wasn't obvious from the mention of that second text, I happen to share my name (Parashar) with the person credited with authoring one of those two (and generally considered the more comprehensive) foundational texts.  Apparently, some people still believe that because I'm apparently named after this person, I would also be a believer in the cosmological claptrap that is astrology.  Because...  the name makes the man...?  That would imply that the guy I knew at my previous job named Scott Peterson must have murdered his wife and the guy I know in my current job who happens to be named Andrew Wakefield must be anti-vaccine...  except that neither of those things are true.  Apologies to Scott and Andrew for "outing" them as people who actually love their families and believe in actual medical facts.  Well, that aside, the vast majority of Desis are believers, and that's largely attributable to how deeply entrenched it is in the culture.  It isn't merely some newspaper entertainment page, but a core component of religion that births a bedrock industry that is viewed as being every bit as fundamental as electricity and water.  In India, people aren't just talking horoscopes to pick up girls in a night club; corporate entities are having astrologers guide them; doctors refrain from providing care when the stars aren't right; a handful of courts and several rural panchayats (village governing chiefs) will not recognize marriages between people of incompatible birth horoscopes...  this is no minor amusement for entertainment purposes -- people view horoscopes as a roadmap for life.  In that light, I was somewhat eager to get into this discussion and seek out and demolish everything anybody had to offer to support this mark of shame unto the subcontinent.

A little too eager, it seems, as the pre-event commentary drove enough people to play the victim to drive the organizer to cancel.  The truth hurts -- and therefore, people who reject truth as a matter of course are somehow automatically justified in hurling insults, while those who call a spade a spade are the hurtful ones.  Sound familiar?

I kind of expected some people to raise points about the history of astrology and how it is, at its most basic level, an early precursor to modern astronomy.  People developed methods of calculating and predicting the apparent motion of celestial bodies through the sky and that set the stage for the real science of astronomy to follow.  This much is true, and at best, it makes astrology a significant idea in the history of science not that that makes it science.  Nonetheless, this argument never really showed up, so I was kind of surprised by that.  Maybe people wanted to save that for the actual event.