What Astrology is… and Isn’t

Zoey Greenwald

More stories from Zoey Greenwald

May 9, 2019
What Astrology is... and Isnt

  When my twin sister and I were born, my great grandfather consulted the stars. The chart which he produced proclaimed that we would become great world travelers — that we would grow to do amazing things. I’d like to believe that these ideas are true, but because I’ll make them true —  not because of any star’s great destiny for me.

  Let’s preface this by stating that I am not religious. I consider myself agnostic on the topic of a greater power’s existence, and I believe strongly in respect for all beings regardless of the nature or meaning of our creation.

  But the confluence between myself and astrology is at the religion of my grandparents: Hinduism. The Vedas are the sacred poetry of India, heavily tied to both hinduism and its practice of astrology —  Vedic astrology. It’s a form of astrology taken from mentions of astronomy in the Vedas.

  India is an interesting case when it comes to astrology because it is so ingrained in both the ancient and the modern culture — more so (arguably) than any other country. While most American universities disregard astrology as a pseudoscience and don’t teach it, Indian universities do.

  In 2004, the Indian Supreme Court decided to back up the University Grants Commission (UGC) of India in funding universities with the resources to add astrology to curriculum, and imploring the universities to do so. Critics say that this is a violation of a bill passed in 1954 outlawing advertisements that promoted magical remedies for sickness, and even cite American cases on separation of church and state. Special care is still taken by both universities and the government at large to emphasize that astrology does not count as one of the aforementioned “magical remedies”, and the Supreme Court of India maintains that astrology is indeed a science, regardless of its religious nature.

  The court stated that “it was for the pupil concerned to select any particular field or subject in furtherance of his future career, and merely because the subject has got its basis or origin traceable to some cult, it cannot be held that the same would only result in propagation of a particular religion. On these findings the writ petition was dismissed.” The UGC also funded a study that found that planetary positions affect your health.

  Except they don’t.

  In the case at the Supreme Court, influential Indian scientist Pushpa Mittra Bhargava said that, “For a field to be science the knowledge must be acquired through the use of scientific methods and should have attributes like verifiability, fallibility and repeatability. If tested against these accepted and essential attributes of science, Vedic Astrology will unarguably fail on most, if not all, parameters mentioned above.”

  Most mainstream astronomers outside of India agree: Astrology is not scientifically viable.

  Even if the stars did have some magical effect on our lives, there are 13 zodiac signs. There are 12 months. Thus, you’ve never met anyone with the birth sign Ophiuchus, even though that sign is right up there with Aries and Aquarius. Even if astrology were true, it wouldn’t be correct.

  Hannah and I were born on June 5. According to the chart that my great grandfather had, according to Instagram account that a middle-school-me gleaned advice from, and according to the birthstone pearls which my aunt bought me when I turned 13, I am a Gemini.

  When you account for Ophiuchus, I’m a Taurus.

  A Taurus.

  Where had my fiery spirit gone? Was I no longer curious? Quick-witted? Excitable? Must I now subscribe to dull virtues such as patience and dependability?

    The day when my astronomy teacher revealed the mystery of this 13th sign to us was the first day I truthfully asked myself if I believed in the zodiac. I think I never really did. It was believing in Santa Claus even when you saw the wrapping paper in the the broom closet. It was believing in magic even when you know that your dad had kept the quarter in his hand the entire time. It was a fantasy. The fact that I was a Gemini meant just as much as the fact that I was a Slytherin.

  But then I did research. And it occurred to me that not everybody has the luxury of play behind their astrology. To them, it was more than a game. It was more than a fun personality quiz. It was real — 4,000 years real.
  P.M. Bhargava banded together with other scientific officials in India to bring forth “An appeal signed by a large number of reputed members of Indian Scientific Community and others against the decision of the respondents to start courses of Vedic Astrology was sent to the UGC wherein the impugned decision of UGC was termed as a giant leap backwards, undermining whatever scientific credibility the country has so far achieved.”

  For me, it’s the best of both worlds. I have the personal ability to both enjoy astrology for fun and recognize it’s scientific invalidity. Maybe India isn’t in a place where that can happen. There, it’s bigger than astrology being “just for fun”. It’s the idea of using an outdated, non-refutable idea to treat modern medical cases.

  But still, I understand. I kept astrology around because it was comforting. It was a way to bond between friends. It was the reiki magic that radiated between my mother’s hand and my stomach when I was sick. It was a way to know that I had a destiny, or at least that someone cared enough about me to believe that I had a destiny.

  In the 2004 case, a government official said that the 1954 Drugs and Magic Remedies Act “does not cover astrology and related sciences. Astrology is a trusted science and is being practised for over 4000 years.”

  Notice the “and” in the last sentence of this statement. I’d argue that subconsciously, this was a “because”.

  When something has been an integral part of who you are for 4,000 years, it’s hard to let it go. And India doesn’t have to let go of astrology. It’s a part of culture — not science.

  Acknowledging something as not scientifically correct does not strip it of its validity as a cultural symbol. But allowing astrology in institutions like hospitals and university medical programs is dangerous. Here, you blur the line between hope and remedy. You blur the line between church and state. You build a false narrative which people in hopeless situations will cling to with a violent fervor, only to end up disappointed.

  Astrology is a lot of things, but it is not science. Acting like so not only hurts those with hope in something that’s not real, but also assigns a beautiful part of Indian culture a silly, superstitious reputation.