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
ASTROLOGY IS THE WORST KIND OF SUPERSTITION, THAT MAKES US BELIEVE THAT THE STARS AND THE PLANETARY PLASMAS ARE ALL ABOUT US
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
SOME TIME AGO IN PUNE, LEADING INDIAN ASTROLOGERS, WHEN SUPPLIED WITH 200 HOROSCOPES OF CHILDREN, FAILED TO EVEN DETERMINE THE SEX OF THE CHILD AT A RATE HIGHER THAN CHANCE
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.
VEDIC ASTROLOGY FAILS TO FULFIL THE BASIC REQUIREMENTS OF SCIENTIFIC THEORY: THE FIRST PRINCIPLE OF TESTABILITY. REAL OUTCOMES DO NOT CONFORM TO PREDICTED OUTCOMES