Imagine that you are ensconced comfortably in a luxury car, stuck in traffic, when your car begins to slide forward ever so gently, without your realising it. The movement is so smooth that you are convinced your car is still stationary. In this state, as your car moves past the adjacent car, you could swear that the other car is moving gently backward. Alternatively, when the other car moves forward, you panic, thinking yours is sliding backwards. This is a phenomenon we also experience from time to time on railway platforms, when imagining our own carriage to be stationary on the platform, we assume the adjacent train to be moving in the reverse direction, when actually it is our train that is moving forward.
In ancient times, when the universe was believed to be geocentric, as the earth approached the outer planets (more distant from the sun than earth) in its journey around the sun, some of them seemed to be moving towards us. These planets were dubbed ‘retrograde’. In reality, as we know today, the apparent or relative backward motion of that distant planet through space was caused by the simple fact of the earth moving faster in its orbit around the sun than the outer planet.
In the limited understanding of those times-that planets must move forward in the normal course of business-a planet moving backward must surely portend some evil. So, such movement was conventionally thought to be inauspicious, as it went counter to the ‘natural’ order of forward movement. And thus, for example, evolved the folklore of the wicked Shani, or Shani dosham, embodied in the retrograde movement of Saturn. Nonetheless, a retrograde planet causing some consternation to an ancient society may be quite acceptable, given the simplistic view of the universe at that time.
Mangal dosham-supposedly an astrological amalgamation of planets that occurs if Mars is in the second, fourth, seventh, eighth or twelfth house of the ascendant chart of Vedic astrology-involves the same problem. In most parts of India, a person born during this combination of stars is called a manglik. Being a manglik, like smoking, is considered injurious to the health-nay, the very life-of the spouse of the person, or, at the very least, to their matrimonial life. Apparently this is ascribed to the ‘fiery’ nature of Mars. Thanks to this belief, it is not unusual to find people (more often women) who remain unmarried till late into life.
The belief, once again, may be perfectly acceptable in a primitive society with a primitive understanding of the nature of the planets. In those times (as even today), having pronounced mortal danger for those unfortunate enough to be born under unfavourable stars, the priests and sages couldn’t simply throw away their powers over the masses. After all, if they were the intermediaries between gods and the masses, they also had to suggest solutions. A solution, if any, would also reassure the masses that all wasn’t lost, since help was on hand thanks to the priests. These priests gave birth to another belief: the ‘fault’ in a marriage in which the woman was a manglik could be corrected if she was first married off to a sacred peepul tree (ficus religiosa), banana tree or a silver or golden idol of Lord Vishnu-a practice called kumbh vivah. With the ire of Mars unleashed on the tree or the idol, the woman was now safe and could marry a mortal man. The system continues to this day.
Clearly, for the ancient sages, when science or scientific methods were thousands of years away, the challenges of establishing why a distant planet should cause marital disharmony on planet earth or how the antidote of kumbh vivah could neutralize the evil effect of Mars were unnecessary complications. In the present day, these have grown into beliefs, or parts of our heritage and culture, not to be questioned.
The sages at the time showed the same implicit faith in these beliefs that Aristotle did when he declared that women had fewer teeth than men. Just as it never occurred to Aristotle to line up a few men and women, have them open their mouths, count their teeth and compute an average for the two sexes, it never occurs to our society to investigate such misplaced beliefs by employing a dash of scientific temper, by following up on the lives of, say, fifty random manglik marriages to investigate if any systematic danger to life and limb accrued to the relevant spouse.
The real issue is not so much that people in their inertia continue to believe in such mumbo jumbo. The more important issue is why very few social or religious institutions come forward to free religion from ancient dogmas, given the twenty-first-century knowledge of the universe about a so-called retrograde planet, or why we do not have many more studies and public discussions on the observed absence of correlation between being a manglik and marital disharmony.
*Excerpted from Chapter 6, Ganesha on the Dashboard (Penguin India, 2010).