Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Reaching for the stars

A former student of mine who is a diehard supporter of the BJP and its radicalism wrote on Facebook: “So some of the political parties in my country has (sic) a stern view that 'Astrology' is no science.”  I don’t know if the political parties in India have really stern views about anything, let alone astrology.  Isn’t politics, particularly the kind one finds in India, all about opportunism?  Even the BJP, my student’s own party, would have made all kinds of flip-flops had it not won the absolute majority in the Lok Sabha elections, hugging strange bedfellows and cooking up a bizarre coalition.  The drama that unfolded in Maharashtra after the Assembly elections is a mild indicator of the nature of politics in India.

The stars in the heavens do not alter their positions a bit while such dramas unfold all over the world. 

Do the stars affect our lives in any significant way?  When the Earl of Kent said in Shakespeare’s King Lear, “It’s the stars, / The stars above us, govern our conditions,” did he really mean that the stars determine our destiny?  Or was he expressing his pathetic inability to understand why evil strikes down good people?  Maybe, he was plunging desperately into escapism due to wretched helplessness.  Earlier in the play, another character (Edmund, “the bastard son” of the Earl of Gloster) says, “This is the excellent foppery (foolishness) of the world: that when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeit of our own behaviour), we make guilty of our disasters, the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if they were villains by necessity.”

I go with Edmund.  Astrology is not science but a good means of throwing our guilt, inability or sheer mistakes on to some other entity.  The stars are a good place to throw them since they are far enough to do anything about our shamelessly irresponsible acts. 

Science follows rigorous rules.  It can prove what it claims.  It can prove it anywhere, anytime, under the stipulated conditions.  Astrology cannot do that.  Hence it is not science.  QED.  My logic is as simple as that.

That does not mean astrology should be thrown lock, stock and barrel into the garbage bin.  Science is essentially an attitude of openness.  Science is the relentless quest for truth.  As such, science can research into the claimed impact of the stars and the planets on human lives or whatever.  I support research, inquiry and quest for truth.  But I sternly oppose unwarranted assertions of truth. 

Everything in the universe is interconnected.  There are laws that govern the positions and movements of the planets and other heavenly bodies.  The laws connect the heavenly bodies to one another.  The bodies attract one another with forces beyond our earthly imaginations.  The oceans on the earth respond to the pull of the moon, for example.  Lovers too do, it seems.  There’s much connection between the moon and romance in poetry, at least.  But poetry is not science!  When I was a boy I used to hear my villagers speaking about the relationship between the full moon and the mating season of the cattle.  That’s not poetry, I guess because the villagers had empirical evidence.

There are many things that science may not have understood yet.  That’s a limitation of science.  But that is also the strength of science, I know.  Astrology lacks that strength.  Hence it is not science.

But I’m a greater lover of literature than science.  Hence I admire the stars and the poetry they communicate.  I can hear the music of the heavenly spheres if I care to stand quietly in the right place.  The stars and the spheres can alter my feelings and attitudes.  To that extent, astrology is valid for me.  But is that the astrology that the BJP will include in the curriculum it is proposing?

Scientist Carl Sagan said in his book Cosmos, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”  There is science and poetry in the utterance.  The first sentence is science.  The second is poetry.  I love both.  Where does astrology lie?

Monday, November 24, 2014

India’s new rulers

Capitalism has never anywhere provided good houses at moderate cost. Housing, it seems unnecessary to stress, is an important adjunct of a successful urban life. Nor does capitalism provide good health services, and when people live close together with attendant health risks, these too are important. Nor does capitalism provide efficient transportation for people—another essential of the life of the Metropolis. In Western Europe and Japan the failure of capitalism in the fields of housing, health and transportation is largely, though not completely, accepted. There industries have been intensively socialized. In the United States there remains the conviction that, however contrary the experience, private enterprise will eventually serve.

A personage no less than John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that in his book, The Age of Uncertainty (1977).  America has succeeded in exporting that belief to quite many countries.  India, under the present leadership, is the latest entrant into the elite club of capitalists.  People like Mukesh Ambani escort the Prime Minister on his important trips. Capitalists like the Adani Group get US $ 1 billion (INR 6200 crore) in the form of loan from the country’s premier bank for extending their business to Australia. 

Wayne Roberts, Canadian food policy analyst and writer, pointed out time and again that big corporations moved ahead from being taxpayers to tax recipients.  Tax breaks given to industrialists and corporations cost capitalist governments huge amounts of their revenues in the heydays of capitalism.  Will the huge loan given now to the Adani Group end up as a millstone around the Indian common man’s neck? 

Many economists and thinkers have drawn the attention of various policy makers to the plain fact that capital always drives for power, for control over markets, lands and resources.  “Capital, in corporate hands, can move anywhere and thus demand and get the utmost in concessions and privileges as well as the freedom to operate in the interest of ever-increasing wealth and assets,” wrote Eric Kierans, Canadian economist and politician, in 2001 (Remembering).

America shelled out its taxpayers’ money to bail out the country’s capitalists in the recent past.  American can afford to do that.  It has the potential to tide over every bust engendered by capitalism.  “Boom and bust has always marked capitalism in the United States,” to quote Galbraith again. “There were panics in 1785, 1791, 1819, 1857, 1869, 1873, 1907, 1929 and 1987.”  The more recent busts are still fresh in our minds.  Does India possess the potential to manage the busts spawned inevitably by capitalism? 

My knowledge of economics is limited.  I can only raise these questions and apprehensions.  As an observer of what capitalism has done so far in countries where it was given a free rein I’m afraid that the poor in India will have to be satisfied with Swachh Bharat and such crumbs. 

The BJP government is going to take away the subsidies from the rich.  I think it’s a good move.  But I’m quite sure that it is simply a forerunner of the end of all kinds of subsidies.  That is, in the near future there will be no subsidy for anyone, however below the poverty line may one be.  Welfare government is breathing its last in India, I think.  May I be proved wrong.