Editorials by Sangharakshita

 
 

Stars and Stupidity

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, February 1962

Error, it has been said, is coaeval with truth. Certain wrong beliefs, being rooted in primitive emotions of desire and fear are, like weeds,extremely tenacious of existence, and however often cut down spring up and flourish again as soon as the agency which kept them in check is removed. Beliefs and practices which the Buddha, twenty-five centuries ago, exposed as harmful and irrational, still maintain a firm grip on the minds of millions of people in the very land sanctified by the dust of the Lord's feet and hallowed by His Teaching.

According to the Hindu system of Astrology (though not, it would seem, its Western and Far-Eastern counterparts) there is to be a conjunction of eight planets in the zodiacal signs of Cancer and Capricorn lasting for three days, from the 3rd to the 5th of this month. So inauspicious a conjunction, it is said, has not occurred since the time of the Mahabharata War, and global conflicts involving unprecedented loss of life, to say nothing of floods, fires and earthquakes all over the world, are therefore confidently predicted for these days by the star-gazing fraternity. How a particular conjunction of planets comes to exert so malefic an influence on the course of human life, or indeed any influence at all, none of them has so far deigned to explain: presumably it is sufficient that such things are written in some old book, or form an article of faith with somebody's grandmother. It also appears to be forgotten that the Mahabharata War, far from being of world significance, was a petty inter-tribal conflict, lasting for a few days only, that occurred in a remote corner of North-Western India and resulted in only a hundred or two casualties. Indeed, it seems to have been quite a leisurely affair, with intervals for long-winded and rather pointless philosophical debates.

 

Having assured us that we are threatened by imminent destruction, the astrologers are kind enough to indicate a possible means of escape - a true combination of Wisdom and Compassion. Yajnas and homas must be performed; clarified butter and other food-offerings must be burned in the sacred fire (it would be impious to give them to the hungry); the Vedas must be chanted; and, of course, as many brahmins as possible must be fed, clothed and given liberal cash donations. For the last month and more, reports of a frantic round of propitiatory rituals all over the country have appeared daily in the newspapers. Incredible as it sounds, tens of millions of rupees are being lavished on these superstitious outbursts of extravagance which benefit nobody except astrologers, priests, and other social parasites. Even the vehement criticism of the Prime Minister, Shri Nehru, who in the course of a speech at Ludhiana on January 21st remarked that those who conducted yajnas were lacking in intelligence, has been powerless to dam the flood of expenditure. From the peasant to the prince, the coolie to the Cabinet Minister, a large portion of the Hindu public, whether educated or uneducated, has temporarily reverted to the mentality of the Cowdung Age.

Yet despite the extraordinary expenditure on yajnas and homas the fear of impending doom persists. Thousands of people have returned to their native places in order to die with their families. Others, afraid of being crushed beneath falling masonry, are camping out in the open air. Railway bookings have dropped by more than 60 per cent. Taxi drivers have annouced that they refuse to ply on the fatal days, and even train and plane services, it seems, will be suspended. One is reminded of Dhammapada verses 188-89: 'Many people, tormented by fear, resort for refuge to hills, woods, groves, trees and shrines. This refuge is not secure; this is not supreme. Resorting to such a refuge one is not released from all sorrow'.

Amidst the general hubbub, the few saner voices, like that of the Prime Minister, are barely audible. The Indian Buddhist community has, of course, remained unaffected by the rising tide of popular hysteria. Elsewhere, in at least one place, astrologers and sadhus who by way of levying a voluntary contribution to the yajnas, had deprived some illiterate women of their gold ornaments, were roughly handled. Cartoonists and columnists, for once provided with a really good target for ridicule, are making merry at the expense of the credulous public. Cases are even reported of brahmins being threatened with a beating if the catastrophes fail to take place as predicted.

Apart from the undesirability of any resort to violence, it is no use trimming the twigs and leaving the root intact. It is not so much Astrology and its kindred 'low and lying arts', as the Buddha called them, together with the whole racket of commercial ritualism, that needs to be exposed and destroyed as the system which makes such aberrations possible. The events of this month prove, if further proof were needed, that India still stands in need of a religion which is not incompatible with intelligence; it still needs Buddhism. 'He who seeks refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma and the Sangha, he who sees with right knowledge the four Noble Truths, namely, Suffering, the Cause of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering and the Noble Eightfold Path which leads to the Cessation of Suffering, - this indeed is the refuge secure; this is the refuge supreme. Seeking such refuge one is released from all suffering.' (Dhammapada verses 190-92). But how many people, one wonders, rising above desire and fear, will have the strength of mind to throw off the shackles of age-old superstitions and take refuge in the Teaching of Enlightenment?