'Narendra Modi had his palm read by me – Bejan Daruwalla'
(Seen flashed in its Quote Box by the TV news channel India Today at about 16:52 hrs on 02 Nov, 2015 during a live conversation with Mr. Venkaiah Naidu).
The quote above is about a private affair that is now in the public domain. It is certainly not about an exception. It points to a widespread epidemic, viz., astrology, afflicting, rather ruling India. Astrology has no scientific basis, there is no evidence of forces selectively exerted by planets over individuals but, over the centuries, it has seeped into our culture so much that India today is largely a superstitious nation. The people who root for a glorious past may not know that astrology is an imported superstition. It came to India in the Ist century from Alexandria through a Greek astrological text. The book was recreated soon in Sanskrit, entitled the Yavanajataka, and in the centuries that followed, astrology began to develop and spread around. By the sixth century, it had secured a foothold, much to the dislike of Indian astronomers and in the times India was beginning to make great strides in astronomy. Hindu astronomy and mathematics served, together with the Greek astronomy, as the foundation for the emergence of Islamic astronomy (all technical terms only) beginning in the late eighth century that grew to eventually serve the stepping stone for a fundamental reform in our worldview by Copernicus (1473-1543) and other Renaissance astronomers in Europe.
What else does the quote above say? It reflects the dichotomy of many an Indian - privileged and common both. They take pride in ancient scientific achievements and are ever ready to adopt modern technology. But they also shy away from professing or inculcating in self scientific temper since it interferes with faith and tradition. This has only confounded the minds and led to ill-conceived notions. This is exemplified in recent claims made by some eminent political figures about ancient India having made great strides in science. Peculiarly, the claims relate more to what is in the mythologies, e.g., expertise in stem cells science, organ transplants, knowledge of atom and nuclear devices, the assertion that science is a trifle before jyotisha (astrology) and the like. Apparently in the same vein, there followed advice by Mr. Rajnath Singh asking Indian media as to why it looks up to NASA about details on eclipses etc. when a neighbourhood Pandit ji can provide precise information from his panchanga (almanac) on the same events, whether of 100 years ago or a hundred years hence. He did not know that the media does just that and much more, for there is money in astrological content and reportage.
So, what is the dire need to tell the world things that are either unfounded or are facts coloured to suit? Reactions apart, it is not right to dismiss everything. The truth lies somewhere that the people do not either care to put forth or just do not know about. For instance, a panchanga (panchangam, panjika) is a Hindu calendar and almanac. It carries basic information on important events of a year as also positional information on the planets, their rise- and set-times, the eclipses, transits and conjunctions etc. Its core is scientific and the calculations accurate enough even today. All the panchangas trace their origin to the Surya Siddhanta, a prominent mathematical astronomy tract first presented circa 400 CE. The worldview herein is geocentric with the Sun, the Moon and the planets moving about the Earth in circular orbits, and along their own epicycles. However, there is no physical theory, like Newton's gravity, as the base and so the mathematical framework can account for the visible planets' kinematics only. Being empirical the panchangas require adjustments from time to time and therefore are totally unsuitable for modern scientific work. There are numerous almanac-makers' families that have been producing panchangas through generations. These are designed exclusively to meet astrological needs of the society. So, the advice in the foregoing is only partly well-meaning since it carries the same retrogressive slant as the other propositions. My comments are not to discredit the panchangas. These should be seen for their historical value only. Celestial events offer great opportunities to fire up peoples' interest in science. So, one wishes the honourable minister, himself a physics postgraduate, had recommended instead the 'Indian Astronomical Ephemeris', published annually by the Positional Astronomy Centre (http://www.packolkata.gov.in/iae.php); it is modern and gives all one needs to know about the planets and celestial events. There is also a claim made about India having actually discovered the famous theorem of geometry well before Pythagoras (b. 570 BCE) did. The Sulba sutras (rules of chords; 9th-8th Century BCE) propose vedika (arena for rituals) arrangements that are assigned dimensions in the sense of the Pythagoras theorem. That realization was surely fundamental. Beyond that, opinions differ. According to some, the sutras do not go so far as proposing a generalized concept.
The other propositions cannot stand the scrutiny of science and history. Ironically, the stuff of this kind makes for supplementary reading in schools in Gujarat. Many old Sanskrit texts are pure science and mathematics and have been the subjects of extensive study over the last three centuries by scholars from home and abroad. India's contribution to science and mathematics is duly acknowledged and documented in books and book-series, and in research journals of standard. An excellent work to cite here is 'A concise history of science in India', published by the Indian National Science Academy (http://www.insaindia.org/index.php). The enthusiasts nearer home do not read or want to refer to any of this and jump heads-first into the quagmire of mythologies to pass off fantasy as science and claim it as the great knowledge India gave to the world. In fact, in the first few lines of the song cited here, the lyricist Indivar did far better.
*'…India gave zero to the world', after the first line of Mr. Indivar's song in the 1970 Hindi film – 'Purab aur Pachhim'.