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This week, India made headlines when the nation put a spacecraft into orbit around Mars. It's the first country to do it on the first try. But today we turn to a different Indian fascination with celestial bodies. From New Delhi NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the role astrology plays in the day-to-day lives of Indians, including its scientists.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Astrology is the study of human destiny. Is it superstition or is it science? Neither says one leading practitioner who declares astrology a super science.
K.N. RAO: Not an ordinary science, because it is extraterrestrial extra-physical, it is super physical, therefore supernormal, right?
MCCARTHY: The gracious host is K.N. Rao. Swap his Indian tunic for a black robe and the white-bearded Rao could have walked from the pages of Harry Potter as Hogwarts headmaster. A retiree, Rao once ran India's vast comptroller and auditor general's office. He now directs one of India's premier astrology schools in New Delhi, just as rigorously.
RAO: Our astrology is very, very, highly developed. It means lot of concentration, very good deal of training.
MCCARTHY: Astrologers of old would hunch overelaborate charts. But Rao consults a computer, blinking with astrological charts. The software provides the astronomy, the basis of astrology. Renowned for his predictions Rao offered this forcast weeks before it happened.
RAO: USA and Obama will be in very aggressive mood. (Unintelligible) You'll see major aggressive decisions will be taken by USA.
MCCARTHY: It's not uncommon in India to find highly educated people from accomplished professions becoming astrologers.
H.S. HANDE: The farthest planet which you believe has effect on human life is Saturn.
MCCARTHY: That's retired Wing Commander turned astrologer H.S. Hande. I dropped in on him with a Bangalore businesswoman, Simran Mangharam. She finds Hande's Air Force background reassuring.
SIMRAN MANGHARAM: He knows what he's doing, you know, he's not a quack of astrologers, just like quack of doctors.
MCCARTHY: Nor does Hande oversell astrology. He calls it a judicious mix between destiny and self-effort.
HANDE: We're all passing through life, by groping in darkness. For that purpose this is a tool. Now, it is left to me to use a tool or not.
MCCARTHY: Simran says her mother first used that tool on her as infant. At six months she had her daughter's horoscope prepared. Years later she obsessed over Simran's marriage prospects.
MANGHARAM: When will I get married? I mean, I was 22 when my mother started going to an astrologist to check when am I going to get married. I got married at 36 (laughter). So she went to many astrologist.
MCCARTHY: Simran says 60 to 70 percent of what Hande wrote in a horoscope he did for her eight years ago has come true. She would have a child in 2010 and she would become inexplicably ill.
MANGHARAM: So, you know, I do believe in some force, but I don't know if I let that rule my life.
MCCARTHY: Meet Shruti Modi, she planned the birth of her two children around astrological charts. The alignment of the planets at the time of your birth determines your destiny according to the basic tenet of astrology. A real estate developer Modi hails from a long line of believers.
SHRUTI MODI: Every single member of this family is super affluent. All the children of this family are going to Harvard, Princeton, Wharton, Oxford, it's not a coincidence. But - but we are fortunate to have the correct people guiding us.
MCCARTHY: Believers cross all social strata and paths with nonbelievers. On the other side of the issue sits Bangalore homemaker, Shveta Mehra, who says charlatan astrologists are exploiting the gullible and vulnerable.
SHVETA MEHRA: Major populace, major population goes to people who probably are not so good at their job, let me just say that.
MCCARTHY: Do you think that it's basically superstition -based?
MEHRA: A lot of it. A lot of it is superstition -based.
MCCARTHY: But for anthropologist Shiv Vish, you cannot put astrology in a scientific box.
SHIV VISH: It can even be substitute with a certain kind of spirituality because they tend to be closer to nature, closer to the cosmos, closer to the stars. Of course part of it is buncombe.
MCCARTHY: Buncombe, not withstanding, Vish (unintelligible) says so pervasive is the practice that you wouldn't start a business in India without consulting an astrologer.
VISH: Let me tell you, you wouldn't open a science laboratory without consulting an astrologer, or no one's going to come (unintelligible) to you.
MCCARTHY: Meanwhile astrologer K.N. Rao says people seek astrologers in India the same way others in the West seek psychiatrists, but he says the astrologer does something much greater.
RAO: Because he sees the actual event taking place. I can combine both counseling and prediction.
MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.
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