Am­bar­ish Satwik

One in five elec­tive cae­sare­ans is a mahu­rat C-sec­tion, at a time of an astrologer’s choos­ing, never mind the risks. Does ce­les­tial place­ment at the time of birth re­ally de­ter­mine a per­son’s traits? Does it bear sci­en­tific scru­tiny?


THE DE­TACHED PLA­CENTA REEKS OF CAKED BLOOD. It has the sul­try, damp, an­i­mal smell of the birth canal and the pick­led her­ring notes of the liquor that bathes the un­born child, but mostly, the fe­tor of blood. The word comes from the Latin word for cake and that’s ex­actly what it is: a mar­bled, blood-logged cake made from foetal and uter­ine tis­sues. In the third stage of labour it cleaves beau­ti­fully out of the womb, bid­den by a slow drag on the um­bil­i­cal cord, into the cold hands of the ob­ste­tri­cian.

In an elec­tive C-sec­tion, when the uterus is sliced open, there are no stages of labour. The af­ter­birth be­haves dif­fer­ently. With­out the womb bear­ing down on it, the pla­centa, on the odd oc­ca­sion, has to be drawn out. If it’s a re­peat C-sec­tion, the blood cake some­times finds the pre­vi­ous uter­ine scar to at­tach it­self. Like a bur­row­ing or­gan­ism, it in­vades the mus­cles of the womb, some­times even go­ing into the ad­ja­cent uri­nary blad­der. Faulty pla­cen­ta­tion, as it’s called, is a form of mor­bidly ad­her­ent pla­centa that has to be prised out, torn from the uter­ine fab­ric; there’s no other way of do­ing it. Af­ter it’s ripped out, the uterus bleeds in­con­ti­nently, like a breached dyke.

Ev­ery time it hap­pens, even the old stagers and grand­mas­ters of th­ese sur­gi­cal cam­paigns are trans­fixed by how much and how un­re­lievedly an or­gan can bleed.

As I stood over one such bloody surge, across a white-knuck­led ob­ste­tri­cian des­per­ately, blindly and hope­lessly try­ing to over­sew it, I thought about the stars. And the al­leged power they have over hu­mans. I had been called in to lig­ate the in­ter­nal il­iac ar­ter­ies, to stop the sup­ply of blood to the uterus. A 34-week foe­tus with pre­ma­ture lungs had just been pulled out and sent gasp­ing and grunt­ing to the neona­tal In­ten­sive Care Unit (ICU). All done in a favourable plan­e­tary pe­riod, when the as­cen­dant and the sev­enth house were free from af­flic­tions; the navamsha was ex­alted, the moon was well placed and dis­posed to be­stow­ing favours. This was a mahu­rat C-sec­tion: a shas­tri had been con­sulted by the fam­ily for an aus­pi­cious time for C-sec­tion that day. A nar­row win­dow of 15 min­utes was given to them. The as­cen­dant in navamsha changes within 8 to 14 min­utes, they were told. The neonate sur­vived af­ter four weeks in the ICU. All the money in the world and the be­nig­nity of the plan­ets couldn’t save the woman’s uterus.

With about a third of the first preg­nan­cies in ur­ban In­dia be­ing de­liv­ered by C-sec­tion, the rate of the mor­bidly ad­her­ent pla­centa has in­creased from 1 in 30,000 preg­nan­cies in the 1930s to 1 in 2,0003,000 preg­nan­cies in the last decade. About 50 per cent of th­ese C-sec­tions are planned elec­tively, for med­i­cal indi­ca­tions, but scores are done en­tirely on ma­ter­nal re­quest. At least one in five of th­ese elec­tive ce­sare­ans will be done at a time cho­sen by an astrologer. To the be­liever, the foe­tus in the gravid uterus is a slightly mod­i­fied Hindu equiv­a­lent of Schrodinger’s cat, but there’s no ran­dom­ness in­volved. It’s as though there is an in­vis­i­ble Geiger counter in­side that holds the prom­ise of fruc­ti­fy­ing or poi­son­ing the life of the yet un­born. As long as the box is closed, it can go ei­ther way.

The time of un­box­ing de­ter­mines ev­ery­thing. The moon, the other gra­has, the naksha­tras, the ma­hadashas—all con­trol the Geiger counter. The time of birth grants the in­fant, for all its life, an oblig­a­tory ad­her­ence to destiny. Ergo, the mahu­rat C-sec­tion.

Should one de­ride and laugh at some­thing that peo­ple seek mean­ing from? Is the story in the na­tal chart a hal­lu­cino­genic fairy­tale? Are as­trologers ob­scu­ran­tist huck­sters? Or do they make pro­nounce­ments from some an­cient scrip­tural stock of em­pir­i­cal knowl­edge? With all this blather about plan­e­tary mag­netic en­ergy be­ing bruited about as a mech­a­nism of ac­tion, does jy­otisha shas­tra suf­fer from a sort of physics envy?

By virtue of be­ing clas­si­fied as one of the aux­il­iary dis­ci­plines that serve to as­sist and abet Vedic rit­u­als, crit­i­cism of Vedic as­trol­ogy is al­ways per­ceived as


crit­i­cism of the Hindu re­li­gion. But, for a sys­tem­atic en­ter­prise that calls it­self shas­tra and vidya (science and knowl­edge), can the claims of jy­otisha be even called em­pir­i­cal? To ap­ply the test of in­duc­tive rea­son­ing, any claim would have to be based on a se­ries of ob­ser­va­tions.

Dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the horoscope gov­ern spe­cific ar­eas of an in­di­vid­ual’s life. The first house or the lagna gov­erns the in­di­vid­ual’s body and health. The sec­ond house rules over speech and the oral cav­ity as well as wealth. Rahu in the lagna ren­ders the sub­ject ever ail­ing. The sub­ject is talk­a­tive, red-eyed, a sin­ner, ever en­gaged in for­bid­den ac­tiv­i­ties and ‘adept in coura­geous deeds’. It also con­fers cru­elty and ug­li­ness on the na­tive (from the text, Manasagari). Rahu in the sec­ond house con­fers on the in­cum­bent un­clear speech, and speech with hid­den mean­ing. It makes one a thief, ever haughty, and given to in­tense suf­fer­ing. They have a quar­rel­some na­ture, deal in an­i­mal skins and the sale of fish, have ac­cess to a lot of wine and flesh and tend to re­side in the houses of the fallen ones. They are eas­ily an­gered and suf­fer dis­eases of the oral cav­ity. If benef­i­cent, Rahu in the sec­ond house en­sures mon­e­tary gains (from the texts, Pha­ladeepika and Sar­vatha Chin­ta­mani).

Each of th­ese is a claim made by a text that calls it­self a sys­tem of knowl­edge. There is no rea­son to dis­miss, out of hand, any of th­ese as­ser­tions. The in­ci­dence and dis­tri­bu­tion of a bunch of traits and at­tributes in a given pop­u­la­tion and their cor­rel­a­tive as­so­ci­a­tion with a cer­tain ce­les­tial or­der­ing of plan­ets at the time of birth could be the sub­ject of an ex­cel­lent prospec­tive or ret­ro­spec­tive ob­ser­va­tional study. The only re­quire­ments would be clearly de­fined vari­ables and a con­trol group that is out­side the con­trol of the afore­said plan­ets.

PARASHARA, THE PA­TRON SAVANT of Hindu as­trol­ogy, in his Bri­hat Parashara Ho­rasas­tra, chap­ter 81, verse 47 says the fol­low­ing: If Mars (Man­gal) is placed in the lagna, the 12th, 4th, 7th and 8th houses, with­out any as­pect or con­junc­tion of the benefic plan­ets, the hus­band of such a woman will cer­tainly have an early death. For the mar­tian af­flic­tion (man­gal dosha) to be can­celled and the man­ga­lik-non man­ga­lik mar­riage not to end up in death of the spouse, there is a rem­edy. The woman has to first marry a ba­nana or peepal tree and then go ahead with the ac­tual nup­tials. For this to be true, first, the as­so­ci­a­tion must be demon­strated be­yond doubt—that early spousal death will re­sult when two in­di­vid­u­als with na­tal charts of the above de­scrip­tion marry. And then causal­ity must be evinced—that Mars, in a cer­tain align­ment at the time of birth, is the cause of the malef­i­cence. What char­ac­ter­is­tics of an as­so­ci­a­tion must one con­sider be­fore con­clud­ing that the most likely in­ter­pre­ta­tion of it is cau­sa­tion? Tem­po­ral­ity (ex­po­sure pre­cedes the out­come), strength (the stronger the as­so­ci­a­tion, the more likely that it is causal), con­sis­tency (re­peat­edly ob­served by dif­fer­ent per­sons, in dif­fer­ent places, cir­cum­stances and times), speci­ficity (a sin­gle pu­ta­tive cause pro­duces a spe­cific ef­fect). Ev­ery­thing ex­cept plau­si­bil­ity: it isn’t nec­es­sary that the as­so­ci­a­tion agrees with the cur­rently ac­cepted un­der­stand­ing of na­ture’s pro­cesses. That’s a fea­ture we can­not de­mand. What seems plau­si­ble de­pends on the knowl­edge of the day.

In the 18th cen­tury, Per­ci­val Pott could es­tab­lish an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween sweep­ing chim­neys and scro­tal can­cer. The mor­tal­ity of chim­ney sweeps from scro­tal can­cer was

200 times that of work­ers who were not ex­posed to tar or min­eral oils. In the 18th cen­tury, it was a seem­ingly ab­surd as­so­ci­a­tion, quite out­side the prov­ince of plau­si­bil­ity.

In Au­gust 1883, a vol­cano vi­o­lently erupted on the is­land of Kraka­toa in the Dutch East Indies. Ex­plo­sions were heard as far away as Mau­ri­tius and West­ern Aus­tralia and caused mul­ti­ple tsunamis. A prodi­gious load of sul­phur diox­ide was dis­charged into the at­mos­phere and car­ried by winds all over the planet. The re­sul­tant cir­rus clouds re­flected most of the sun­light; the skies dark­ened ev­ery­where on earth for many years. A bluish halo called the Bishop’s ring be­gan to be seen around the sun. Sum­mer tem­per­a­tures fell by a cou­ple of de­grees. Sul­fate aerosols re­mained in the strato­sphere till 1889, caus­ing spec­tac­u­lar, flar­ing, scar­letor­ange sun­rises and sun­sets through­out the land. In the sea­sons af­ter 1883, a dra­matic surge in the in­ci­dence of Rick­ets was noted in the dark, squalid, ur­ban, coal-fu­elled cen­tres of Eng­land. That’s when Theobald Palm made the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the crip­pled child and scant sun­light: that skele­tal de­for­mi­ties, bow legs, knock knees and thick­ened wrists and an­kles could have some­thing to do with the pri­va­tion of the light of day.

ALL IN­QUIRY STARTS with the care­ful ob­ser­va­tion of the world around us. French statis­ti­cian Michel Gauquelin con­ducted sev­eral em­pir­i­cal stud­ies on the ca­pac­ity of ce­les­tial bod­ies to gov­ern hu­man and ter­res­trial mat­ters. His test of op­posed des­tinies in­vited as­trologers to eval­u­ate 40 birth charts and asked them to sep­a­rate those of 20 crim­i­nals from 20 re­spon­si­ble cit­i­zens. Their re­sults were en­tirely in line with the play of chance. In 1955, Gauquelin pub­lished his sig­nal mono­graph on his dis­cov­ery (that star­tled Gauquelin him­self and oth­ers of his fra­ter­nity) of a se­ries of highly sig­nif­i­cant sta­tis­ti­cal cor­re­la­tions be­tween plan­e­tary po­si­tions and the birth times of em­i­nently suc­cess­ful peo­ple. He wrote: “One of the strong­est cor­re­la­tions I have ob­served is that sports cham­pi­ons tend to be born when the planet Mars is ei­ther ris­ing or cul­mi­nat­ing in the sky (much more of­ten than it does for or­di­nary peo­ple).” He called it the Mars ef­fect. Ben­ski et al from the Com­mit­tee for the Study of Para­nor­mal Phe­nom­ena (in 1994) con­ducted a mas­sive study (fol­low­ing Gauquelin’s pro­to­col) on 1,066 French sports cham­pi­ons and found ab­so­lutely no ev­i­dence of a Mars ef­fect con­trol­ling or mark­ing the birth of em­i­nent sports cham­pi­ons. The ef­fect, they said, was at­trib­ut­able to a bias in Gauquelin’s data se­lec­tion process.

Percy Sey­mour, in the late ’90s, while he was still an as­tro­physi­cist at Ply­mouth, ap­proached na­tiv­ity from the other end. He pro­duced a slightly twisted hy­poth­e­sis on the time of birth. A se­ries of bi­o­log­i­cal clocks in the foe­tus (ac­cord­ing to Sey­mour) are syn­chro­nised by the mag­netic field of the earth (which is a fac­tor of the mag­netic field of the sun and af­fected by plan­e­tary and lu­nar po­si­tions), which has the ef­fect of caus­ing a countdown to birth, telling the foe­tus when it ought to come out. Ocean dwelling bac­te­ria use the mag­netic field to search for food, birds and fish use it to nav­i­gate, so why not hu­man foe­tuses? Plan­e­tary align­ments at the nat­u­ral birth of the child there­fore la­bel the in­her­ited ge­netic char­ac­ter­is­tics of the child.

Sey­mour’s con­tention was that while the signs in the sky that pre­side over birth have no power to form our at­tributes, they do, ver­ily, mark them. His the­ory was as­saulted from all quar­ters. Amer­i­can astronomer Seth Shoshak rub­bished it by say­ing: “You’d ex­pe­ri­ence a far stronger mag­netic field from your lights and wash­ing ma­chine, than you would from Jupiter.”

So, in In­dia, the ter­mi­nus we find our­selves in is some­thing like this. In 2011, an ap­peal un­der the act that bans false ad­ver­tis­ing was dis­missed by the Mum­bai High Court by stat­ing that the act “does not cover as­trol­ogy and re­lated sciences”. The Union govern­ment had put on record an af­fi­davit that “as a trusted science be­ing prac­tised for over four thou­sand years, as­trol­ogy does not fall un­der the purview of the Drugs and Mag­i­cal Reme­dies (Ob­jec­tion­able Ad­ver­tise­ments) Act, 1954”. The act de­fines magic rem­edy as any tal­is­man, mantra, amulet or any other ob­ject, which is claimed to have mirac­u­lous pow­ers to cure, di­ag­nose, pre­vent or mit­i­gate a dis­ease in hu­mans. About a fourth of Vedic as­trol­ogy is touted as the science of prog­nos­ti­ca­tion and in­ter­ces­sion in mat­ters of health and dis­ease. The science of dis­ease be­ing caused by the in­flu­ence of malefic plan­ets and health be­ing re­stored and pre­served by benefic plan­ets. Of dis­pens­ing Sap­phire and the Shani yantra pen­dant for im­po­tency. Or pre­scrib­ing an of­fer­ing of meethi ro­tis to cows on Fri­days or the do­na­tion of yel­low ar­ti­cles to priests for paci­fy­ing a malefic Jupiter to man­age di­a­betes


mel­li­tus. Or the prom­ise of the peepal tree in­ter­ven­tion to ob­struct death due to man­gal dosha. With com­plete im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion and le­gal ac­tion, even if found to be patently fraud­u­lent and in­ef­fec­tive. There has to be some con­sen­sus on what the sci­en­tific process is all about. It was Karl Pop­per, the Aus­trian philoso­pher, who sug­gested the fun­da­men­tals of the sci­en­tific method. You don’t prove a sci­en­tific hy­poth­e­sis right, he said, you try to prove it wrong. It has to be testable, refutable and fal­si­fi­able. Vedic as­trol­ogy, like all other kinds of as­trol­ogy, fails to ful­fil the ba­sic re­quire­ments of sci­en­tific the­ory. It fails on the first prin­ci­ple of testability. Real out­comes do not con­form to pre­dicted out­comes. This hal­lowed 4,000-year-old dis­ci­pline fails to demon­strate the as­so­ci­a­tion of any hu­man at­tribute with any con­fig­u­ra­tion of ce­les­tial ob­jects.

MERE ANNUNCIATION of a set of rules about houses and trines doesn’t make it science. How were th­ese hy­pothe­ses gen­er­ated? Where are the ob­ser­va­tions that bear out the as­ser­tions? Will an ob­ser­va­tional study on the Man­gal-Shukra yoga (Mars and Venus con­junct in the same house), for in­stance, stand scru­tiny? A per­son born in this yoga is a char­la­tan, ad­dicted to gam­bling, has ex­tra-mar­i­tal af­fairs and can’t get along with most peo­ple. But, he’s good in math­e­mat­ics and likely to be a sportsper­son. If we’re so wrought by the stars, where’s the ev­i­dence?

Some time ago in Pune, lead­ing In­dian as­trologers, when sup­plied with 200 horo­scopes of chil­dren, failed to de­ter­mine in­tel­li­gence (based on a def­i­ni­tion pro­vided by them, us­ing rules from their scrip­tures) at a rate higher than chance. They even failed to de­ter­mine the sex of the child at a rate higher than chance. Nu­mer­ous tests have been done on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions where as­trologers were asked to match the per­sonal in­for­ma­tion (gen­eral in­ter­ests, vo­ca­tions, per­son­al­ity traits) and pho­to­graphs of test cases with birth in­for­ma­tion and na­tal charts. On ev­ery oc­ca­sion, they failed to per­form any bet­ter than ran­domly picked non-astrologer con­trol sub­jects.

All su­per­sti­tion is the un­founded as­sign­ment of cause and ef­fect, a false story about the world given to the cred­u­lous, mak­ing us pi­geons from Skin­ner’s study of op­er­ant con­di­tion­ing. Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist B.F. Skin­ner once had an ex­per­i­ment in­volv­ing caged pi­geons who were given food at ran­dom in­ter­vals. They soon started dis­play­ing rit­u­alised be­hav­iours, as though they be­lieved that their ac­tions were caus­ing the food to ar­rive. As­trol­ogy is the worst kind of su­per­sti­tion, the most stul­ti­fy­ing and solip­sis­tic one, that makes us be­lieve that the stars and the plan­e­tary plasmas are all about us. The spell of its cler­i­cal class has to be bro­ken. They have to be called out to im­pugn the man­ner in which they ‘sci­en­tise’ their claims. How is it that this form of sub­jec­tion and ab­jec­tion plays a cen­tral role in the Hindu way of life? Why do a ma­jor­ity of Hin­dus have birth charts? Why are they brought out to check for com­pat­i­bil­ity be­fore a wed­ding is fixed? And what about the ethics of the mahu­rat cae­sarean? Do we hu­mour th­ese women in­dul­gently? From the time the scalpel was first used to sec­tion the lower seg­ment of the uterus in the non-labour­ing woman, we have it within our means to de­ter­mine the ex­act mo­ment of birth. If there are go­ing to be non-clin­i­cal fac­tors that in­flu­ence the choice of cae­sarean sec­tion as a method of ob­stet­ric de­liv­ery, if there is such a thing as a cae­sarean on ma­ter­nal re­quest, the prin­ci­ple of pa­tient au­ton­omy would man­date the per­mis­si­bil­ity of a mahu­rat cae­sarean in a nor­mal preg­nancy. If it can be per­formed on con­sid­er­a­tions of pain and vagi­nal tone then why not on the doc­trine of fate and the creed that the char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity of the neonate are ir­re­vo­ca­bly formed by the gra­has at the mo­ment of birth? Wouldn’t it come un­der the clause of foetal and ma­ter­nal well-be­ing?

A high pro­por­tion of elec­tive cae­sare­ans tend to be per­formed at or be­fore 39 weeks of ges­ta­tion, be­fore the on­set of labour. There’s enough ev­i­dence that in­fants born be­fore 39 weeks are at an in­creased risk for neona­tal ad­verse res­pi­ra­tory out­comes. Clearly, pre-labour elec­tive cae­sare­ans aren’t harm­less. For all that and more, one can­not con­demn one kind of ma­ter­nal re­quest with­out con­demn­ing the other. And then there’s the spec­tre of the mor­bidly ad­her­ent pla­centa. The one that makes the womb bleed in­ex­orably. One way or the other, in this mor­tal coil, we’re all Schrodinger’s cats.


Illustration by SIDDHANT JUMDE

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