28 October, 2021


Astrology – Bunkum

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

It is not illogical to consider Horoscopes and Auspicious Times as cardinal factors in Astrology. It is also proper to consider an umbilical connection, however tenuous, between the respectable Science of Astronomy and the contentious practice of Astrology. It is easy to see that measurements of time and space (=distance) are crucial to the tenets of Astrology. The units of both measures are arbitrary. Time derives from the assumption that the rotation of the Earth takes a period which is called a “day” and spans 24 units of a period termed an “hour” which in turn divides itself into 60 minutes and 3,600 (60 x 60) “seconds”. In reality, 24 hours is an approximation, as also the sub-units that follow. Additionally, advances in chronometry further complicate the “unit”. The situation relative to space (distance, size) is even worse. Legend has it that the size of a Royal foot defined the unit from which (same name) all else flowed. Slightly better is the “Metre” which is defined as “the distance travelled by light in 1/299,792,458 of a second” or as “one ten-millionth of the distance from the Equator to the North Pole”. Unfortunately, neither definition is of easy or utility value. A further complication arises. Distance is defined by “a straight line between two points”. Physicists consider a straight line as the trajectory of light. When distances are large enough (e.g planetary distances) light no longer traverses a straight line! Utterly confusing, but to make matters worse, physicists now speak of a “Space-Time Continuum”, presumably meaning that time and space merge into one and presumably become indistinguishable one from the other! This is a Right Royal Mess for Astrology – the ground being literally cut from beneath their feet!

My knowledge of both Modern Physics and of Astronomy can, with even the greatest generosity, only be considered rudimentary. Despite this, as the foregoing shows, I detect serious deficiencies. There is little doubt, that more knowledgeable persons will see several more.

However, let us focus on birth time and planetary position – most significant inputs for horoscope construction. How does one define birth time? Various postulates infer – emergence of the foetus, detachment or severance of the placenta, rupture of the “water bag”, the first breath or even the moment of conception. This is uncertainty enough without taking into account possible errors of the labour room clock or the wristwatches of attending doctor or midwife! This complicates a key variable – assuming of course, that accuracy is important.

Next is Planetary Position. Here, my understanding is rudimentary. I believe that a fundamental error arises from an earth-centric vision. That we are static and the Sun and Nine Planets traverse the Cosmos. The Firmament (of 360 degrees) is divided into 12 sectors. Some Astrologers consider that these are equal (30 degree) segments while others employ systems, which divide them unequally. Then, the resulting “houses” are assigned to different Constellations and the positions of the 9 Planets, The Sun and two hypothetical “nodes” are assigned to the different “Houses” according to their apparent positions at the postulated “time of birth”. I say “apparent” because it is in reality the motion of the Earth and the orbiting Planets that create the illusion of their traversing the Cosmos. Any degree of accuracy or sense in these hypotheses is fanciful in the extreme.

There is no pretence that the individual Astrologer is capable of making these computations on his own and based on the requisite understanding of the relevant “Science”. He has recourse to a Book, (of which there may be several), the most widely used of which locally is “The Epa Panchanga Almanac”. Acceptance of the accuracy of the contained Tables, I leave to more competent judges. The Horoscope Reader then indulges in a series of mystic arithmetical computations that one must of necessity (and due deference) take to be correct. He next moves to other derived Tables to pronounce on all manner of deductions. Credulity and gullibility determines the utility of the exercise.

A fundamental difficulty is that an inordinate degree of accuracy is sort to be superimposed on data that is at best approximate. This manifests seriously in the issue of “Auspicious Times”. Apart from the very obvious quest for evidence of why certain times are auspicious and others not, there is the question of the precision of celestial bodies traversing very hypothetically determined lines in Space. An impossible question too is why, in an environment of billions of celestial bodies, of infinite variability, only a miniscule sample is postulated (by obscure means) to influence human destiny (collective and individual) .

When “Auspicious Times” are further embellished with prescribed “facing directions”, approved garb, prescribed diet and so on, the strain on credulity is increased. An unfortunate reality is that while the Dhamma unequivocally dismisses and discourages occult practices, our temples and priesthood are deeply immersed. So much so that one is constrained to search for some justification for this blatantly aberrant practice. By way of excuse (not reason) it may be pleaded that the Buddha himself encouraged independent evaluation of practices with acceptance of what is truthful, harmless and wholesome without prescribing outright rejection. Further, in return for their reliance on their devotees for all of their sustenance, reciprocation in whatever form, however unsure may still seem well meant.

In matters occult and paranormal, with very few exceptions, “evidence” is anecdotal. This is often the case with tales of premonition and predictive dreams. The problem here is that a stray “hit” is remembered, while hundreds of “misses” fade away in memory. A record needs to be kept of all instances to establish that the occurrence is beyond expectation on chance alone.

Much of Astrology and associated occult crafts flourishes on fear. Predictions of disaster are commonly accompanied by recommendations for escape, usually by some kind of propitiation. Some of the remedial acts (often Pujas of varying complexity and cost) could depend on the wealth or gullibility of the afflicted. One cannot underestimate the extents to which the desperate may go, especially for a sick loved one. There is probably no dearth of expert exorcists and combatants of sundry evil forces. Weekend Newspapers – especially in the Vernacular – abound in Advertisers offering their expertise to the distressed or apprehensive.  One may dismiss these claims as harmless nonsense except for the fact that much economic loss and mental distress may result.

Consider the matter of horoscopes. How many well-matched and compatible couples may have been denied a future of happiness on the grounds of some dubious mismatch? Equally, how many may have been committed to misery by reliance on celestial expectations? Logically, must not marital failures be strikingly more frequent in societies that do not rely on horoscopes but rather on compatibility of characters? Any acceptable evidence rather than anecdotal or individual, is conspicuously lacking. The cost in happiness, of this probably deluded belief, could be very high.

The element of fear is an unsavoury way of enlisting compliance. When one near and dear is afflicted with an intractable or dangerous ailment or even a continuous streak of “ill-luck”, it is easy to be inveigled into a belief that a particular ritual, chant, talisman, offering, pilgrimage or observance would bring relief. There are many factors that would influence susceptibility. Not uncommonly, the prescribed procedure could be prohibitively expensive or inconvenient. Human nature being such, faith in efficacy could well be in proportion to the severity of the imposition – a subconscious assuming of a sort of penance.

To compound matters further, the occult is subtly tinged with a whiff of religion – often secured by an appropriate dose of mumbo-jumbo. Surprisingly, despite the explicit rejection within the tenets of the Dhamma as preached by the Buddha, the majority of Buddhists are heavily prone to horoscopes, auspicious times and allied beliefs.

How, one may imagine, would a twenty-first century nation, obsessed with the occult as we clearly are, be judged by its peers? Sri Lanka’s “National Gullibility Quotient” is quite high. We nearly came to the point of having an “Astrologer-Royal” who mercifully disqualified himself by a grievous predictive error which guided his Godfather to electoral disaster. Interestingly in that instance, the system successfully botched a 50% chance (win or lose)!

Without malice, I note, That our Minister of Heath that time Ms Pavithra. Wanniarachchi, who sponsored “Dhammika. Peni“ who is said to be a Mason by profession and a Kapurala of a local temple by trade, lacking any medical background whatsoever, and unregistered by any Professional Health authority, to practice Medicine, was able to get to Parliament to launch his “gift to mankind.” Even the Speaker, was pictured along with a crowd (presumably fellow MP’s), lapping up spoonsful of this magical decoction. Much has been said of the alarming lack of Educational quality our Legislature. Are these the kind of people in whom the destiny of our Nation, could be placed in trust? Are we getting value, for an estimated cost of Rs, 1,000,000/= (or more per month for an MP), each sitting day is said to cost around Rs, 7,000,000/=. Did the day of the “Peni Circus” also qualify? Can promoters of similar “Snake Oils” expect the same privilege? It is sad to record that the Minister of Health of the time, had to seek hospitali
gift to mankind “

On balance one would seem justified in postulating that Astrology has to be rubbish. Why then not dismiss it as harmless nonsense and move on? It is for the powerful reason that any kind of deception or misconception has to be rejected. The two principal reasons are firstly, the direct harm that is inflicted on the gullible and most often the frightened. Frightened for fear that non-observance will bring dire disaster. The second is the damage done to our image as an enlightened society in the twenty-first Century by bizarre belief.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    By the yardstick used by Upatissa Pethiyagoda I am superstitious. By my experiences, I am an able forecaster!
    Here is an illustration:
    My supervisor wanting to have his periodic review of my work, came over and said:
    ‘Nathan, I will have your review, done tomorrow’.
    I said, you may have it; but, it won’t happen tomorrow’. He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t be silly”.
    Because of certain development on his side, it did not happen the next day.
    Here is another:
    My sis-in-law was holding a letter, the Admission Card for an Exam., delivered to her address. Knowing my superstitious ways, she asked me, ‘What # is in your card?’.
    “I am not going to predict an eight digit #. Add up the digits, an you will end up with my day of birth”, was my answer.
    She was stunt to see that it did!

    • 6

      “Much has been said of the alarming lack of Educational quality in our Legislature. “
      I think it has little to do with formal education, but more with the regressive culture within which that education is imparted. There is a Medical Professor in Parliament, who promoted the “peniya”.
      When a child is taught Astronomy in school, and on weekends forced to listen to astrological theories in Dhamma school, he develops a split personality. He believes in both!
      We have to make up our minds whether we want to live in the 2nd century or the 21st. Obscurantists should not be allowed to destroy children’s minds in the name of religion or culture.

      • 3

        Dear OC,
        This article reminds me that “Yatarupa” weekly program telecasted by SLRC for a period of 1.5 years. Srilankens would nt do many things without going by myths based astro predictions. They set names of the newly born with respect to numerology and astrology; first time eating and teach how to start reading are based on auspicious times issed by stupid men that have nothing but all the predictions in their little heads. Is there any facts check methods before going to totally accept what one single man to have said, no it s just nativity of the parents. In today’s world even what renowned doctors and researchers make mistakes in their meta analyses regarding etiology of some health problems. Like for example, some experts in medicine and virology until few months ago heavily argued that Covid infections are milder than influenza viral infection which common in winter season in Europe, Latin and north America. They the quer denker even wrote books going by meta analyses made by them. However today they have to stay mum, because all their arguments are against the Covid deaths across the globe. 😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡😡

      • 2

        1) Howmany in slanken society would respect facts and .
        2) how many are puppeted by myths based conditioned mindset .
        Almost 99,9999% go after 2) .
        Fake Prof entered to parliament filled with stupid sinhalayas than anyone else, dont have arguments to stand against a Prof controlled by medamulana doctrine. Those who know how he became a prof is through bribes than, sufficient post doctoral research records..
        Now u ll question me how Natha dewiyan aka ultra nationalist NDS/ former ambassador to myanmar and his blind affinity to ultra myths and sinhala racism?.

      • 1

        Dear OC,
        Please come with your thoughts to the article below.
        Your comments are valuable to us in this regard.

  • 3

    Just felt that in saying in the article:
    …..In matters occult and paranormal, with very few exceptions, “evidence” is anecdotal. This is often the case with tales of premonition and predictive dreams. The problem here is that a stray “hit” is remembered, while hundreds of “misses” fade away in memory. A record needs to be kept of all instances to establish that the occurrence is beyond expectation on chance alone…..
    The above applies to “prayers” resorted to by many in many religions. Also to “miracles” attributed to saints and gods, and many yet believe them.
    May be all these unusual beliefs give hope and relief to those who repose faith in them, at least temporarily.

    • 1

      Should have also said:
      Beliefs like Rathana Sutra chanted to ward off Covid.
      (Not that Rathane’s organic fertilizer “Suththaraya”, which has ruined our agriculture.)

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