Remembering Amalendu Bandopadhyay

An astronomer who fought astrology

​​​​​​​Amalendu Bandyopadhyay

Amalendu Bandyopadhyay, astronomer and activist, passed away on June 23, 2020, leaving behind unfading memories of intellectual honesty, dedication and personal warmth. He was 90 but when I met him last in 2018, he was still full of amazing vitality. Early in his life, he was drawn by the mystery and wonder of the sky full of stars. He studied astronomy at Benaras Hindu University where he had Dr Narlikar, father of the renowned astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, as his teacher. He was the founding Director of Positional Astronomical Centre in Calcutta (1968-88). Since1989 ,he served as the Senior Scientist at MP Birla Institute of Fundamental Research. 

He presented papers at International Astronomical Symposiums at Washington, Paris, London, Brussels and many other places. He wrote more than 2500 articles in front ranking newspapers and journals discussing astronomy in a lucid yet charming style. Bandyopadhyay was a member of the International Astronomical Union and a Life Member of the Royal Astronomical Society, London. Apart from his distinguished career as a scientist and teacher ,he was an extraordinary science communicator. He believed that astronomy must not remain confined to Observatories, universities and research journals but reach the common people, broadening their mental horizons and making them aware that though they inhabit a small planet, they can make sense of the expanding universe. His was the well spent life of a humanist who passionately believed in reason to solve human problems and the necessity of a scientific culture.

Bandopadhyay was a lifelong fighter against all pseudoscience and obscurantism, particularly astrology. In public imagination, the distinction between astronomy and astrology does not exist or is blurred. Astrology permeates the Hindu way of life – from womb to tomb. There is hardly any ceremony, festival or rites which is not, in one way or another, associated with astrology. Hindus also consider astrology as a predictive science. The stars, in a mysterious but inexorable way, govern our fates and an astrologer can tell what is in store for us. Interestingly enough, astrologers also play the role of a physician prescribing the jems to be worn to ward off or lessen the impending danger, improve health, find jobs or disentangle a complicated love affair. In India the business of gems and semi precious stones is a huge one amounting to several billions. Astrologers run newspapers, magazines and more than a hundred TV channels (there is hardly one dedicated to science) all the time brainwashing viewers and making them prospective buyers of the bogus jems and ‘stones’. 

Very few can defy the dark spell of astrology- university teachers, doctors, engineers, scientists, lawyers, realtors, film artists, protesters and, above all, politicos are irresistibly drawn into its black hole. Even astrologers are consulted before a satellite launch or when a fighter jet takes its maiden flight. As astrologers are mostly Brahmins, it is no wonder that for Hindutva ideologues it is a science as much as mythology is archaeology. It is curious that astronomy, as we know it today, had its origin in ancient Babylonia and later went through further developments in Alexandria. Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblios written in the 2nd century AD is the most authentic source of astronomy. During the Hellentic age astrology reached India through Bactrian Greeks and Zoroastrian magi. Varahamihir was a Moga (magi) Brahmin. One of the foundational texts of Hindu astrology is Pauliya Sutra which is the translation of the Greek original of Paul, an astronomer of Alexandria. Carl Sagan once remarked, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary extraordinary evidence.” Now astrology makes such extraordinary claims of human life being controlled by the distant stars, planets or other heavenly bodies. If it was true, all the principles of Physics, Chemistry and Biology would prove to be unreliable. Unlike astronomy which grew out of astrology, it has not undergone any change in the last two thousand years. For astrologers, the earth is the unmoved centre of the universe; the sun and moon are ‘grahas’ or planets and newly discovered planets simply do not exist. Science advances through the refutation of old theories and new discoveries and all scientific theories are provisional. For astrology what Ptolemy wrote is the final truth.

Amalendu Bandyopadhya published a lengthy article in the Statesman exposing the wobbly basis of astrology. He received hundreds of threat calls from astrologers of the city who feared it might adversely affect their business. In India, they have grown in an organized mafia enjoying political patronage and protection. He did not cave in before their threats and continued to speak and write against the pseudoscience with redoubled energy. When the ultra-right BJP government decided to give astrology the same status accorded to Physics and Mathematics and include it in the university curriculum in 2003, rationalists and popular science activists protested. We, the members of Bibartan, invited Bandyopadhyay to give a talk on astrology. The hall was packed to the capacity and there was much excitement. After he had finished, a lady walked up to the podium, faced the speaker and took off her rings and amulets one after another. Then turning to the audience she said, “Now I know what a fool I was. Don’t be duped by the astrologers.” Bandopadhaya told us it was the greatest moment in his life. We again invited him to give a talk on astronomy in 2018. In this highly successful lecture he opened up before the audience the cosmic background of our existence and used the occasion to lambast astrology. When it was over he said, “I’m now a man of 88. I’m so happy to be here with you once more.” His face lit up with a genial smile when I told him he was a young man of 88. He was really a man with an ‘eagle mind’ which could soar and pierce the sky.

*This piece originally appeared as a Facebook post on the author’s wall and may be read here



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