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From SWRD to Mahinda: Influence of Astrology on Sri Lankan Political Leaders


Prof. Carlo Fonseka

In The Island of 19 January 2015, N. Amarasekera of Colombo writes: “It was the late Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru who pooh-poohed astrological predictions as inspired guesses, but as there is a saying that a sucker is born every minute one may have to give in to the majority’s wishes!” If I understand NA correctly, what he is saying is this:


“Although JN pooh-poohed astrology he nevertheless gave it to his people because most of them were born suckers”. JN read natural sciences – chemistry, botany and geology – at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. In 1910 at the age of 21 he took the natural science tripos with second class honours. His public persona was that of a scientific, agnostic, socialist, secularist public intellectual. He was, however, born a Hindu, lived a Hindu and contrary to his expressed written wish that no religious ceremonies should be associated with his funeral, was given the last rites of a traditional Hindu King. There is evidence that during the 17 years he led India, Hindu occultism and astrology pervaded his governing circle. Such was the power that the culture into which he was born, exerted even on a famous, powerful public intellectual who had read natural sciences at Cambridge University.

Transfer of Power

The transfer of power from Britain to India was arranged to take place at the stroke of midnight on the 14th of August 1947. The explanation for the ungodly hour at which the transfer took place had to do with unmitigated astrological superstition. It so happened that Britain’s last Viceroy of India Lord Mountbatten who presided over the event insisted that the 15th of August 1947 should be the day of transfer of power. This was because he regarded the 15th of August as his ‘lucky day’ for the simple reason that the Japanese Army had surrendered before him on the 15th of August 1945. But Hindu astrologers considered the 15th of August 1947 as a very “unfortunate and unholy day “and demanded that the transfer should take place on the 14th of August. Thus, the problem that JN was obliged to solve was how to satisfy the superstitious Indian astrologers and the equally superstitious Lord Mountbatten. His solution was simple and brilliant. He knew that according to the western calendar a new day begins at the stroke of midnight, whereas in Hindu astrology a new day begins at sunrise of each day. Therefore the stroke of midnight of 14th would be the 15th of August for Lord Mountbatten but would remain the 14th of August for Indian astrologers.(One is reminded of Caesar’s taunt to the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar: “The ides of March are come” and the soothsayer’s riposte, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.” ). In the event, JN summoned the Constituent Assembly in the afternoon of the 14th of August and continued the session until the stroke of midnight when the 15th of August dawned according to the western calendar. Then he gave memorable utterance to those immortal words: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge… At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”. Permit me to say irreverently that in all honesty, after the phrase “India will awake to life and freedom” JN should have added the words “at a time decreed by Hindu astrology.” There is evidence that JN who condemned astrology publicly, consulted astrologers privately. Those are the inevitable acts of harmless hypocrisy that politicians are obliged to perform. Let us understand them and forgive them. After all, if they are worse than us then why did we freely elect them?

The Bandaranaikes & Astrology

To my knowledge in our country the influence of astrology on politicians surfaced during the premiership of SWRD Bandaranaike, JN’s Oxford- educated contemporary and friend. Astrologers openly predicted that the second half of 1959 was “fatally bad” for SWRDB. One of those who predicted it was Dr. David Jansz, my Cambridge- educated physiology lecturer in the Colombo Medical School. I have recounted elsewhere how Dr. DJ gloated with glee on the 25th of September 1959, not because SWRDB was shot but because his astrological prediction came true!

Even like JN, SWRDB publicly affected an air of indifference to astrology. For many people like Dr. DJ, though, his assassination constituted iron-clad proof of the truth of astrology. During the rule of Mrs. Sirimavo Banadranaike astrology dominated state affairs. For example, Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, precisely at the astrologically prescribed time of 12.43 p.m. on the 22nd of May 1972. Mrs. B had the good sense, however, to enjoy elected power until the last possible legitimate day, and not gamble away a legitimate period in power on astrological grounds.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga

CBK the daughter of SWRDB and Sirimavo B is the head of state I came to know best by reason of her marriage to a member of my extended family. No head of state has treated me with greater kindness and courtesy than President CBK. In 1994 she offered me a seat in parliament and a ministry of my choice. I have never regretted declining with a million thanks her extraordinarily generous offer. Nor will I ever forget her phenomenal kindness to me, but that is another story. Like other Sri Lankan politicians she has a profound and abiding faith in astrology. At occasional family gatherings, I used to argue with her about the absurdity of astrology. She was educated at the Sorbonne in Paris and she knew about Nostradamus, the world-famous French astrologer and physician of the 16th century who firmly prophesized that the world would end in the 7th month of 1999, which never happened. I cited all the evidence I knew to disprove astrology. I drew her attention to the fact that in 1975, 186 scientists (including astronomers and astrophysicists) warned the public against the unquestioning acceptance of the predictions of astrologers. One day in exasperation she told me: “Look, astrologers predicted that September 1959 was disastrous for my father and he was assassinated. When my sister and brother and I were very young children astrologers read our horoscopes and predicted that I was the one destined to be a head of state and it happened. I don’t need further proof of the truth of astrology. You can go and do your randomized, double- blind control trials till the cows come home.” And that was that. I muttered to myself that it might be more productive for me to argue with the cows when they came home.

J.R. Jayewardene

Concerning JRJ’s assumption of office as President of the Republic, the international magazine Newsweek of 13th February 1978, reported:” Facing east at 8.58 last Saturday morning – the auspicious hour chosen by his astrologer—Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Junius Richard Jayewardene took the oath of office as his country’s first President…”.In those days I was so appalled by this public display of mambo jumbo by our Head of State that I wrote to the Newsweek of 3 April 1978 and said:” When Sri Lanka’s new President Jayewardene chose to take the oath of office at a time prescribed by that medieval mambo jumbo called astrology, he was acting contrary to the Buddhist sprit of Sinhalese culture. The Buddha contemptuously dismissed astrology as a superstition of fools”. I know that this letter came to his notice because I quoted it in my presidential address to the section on medical and dental sciences of the Sri Lanka Association of the Advancement of Science in 1986. I sent a copy of this address to JRJ at his request conveyed to me by his brother, my medical teacher Dr. R.P. Jayawardena. If he ever read it, he never held against me my insolent and impertinent criticism of him.

Ranasinghe Premadasa

The self-made, self-taught, high political achiever Ranasinghe Premadasa was publicly and notoriously addicted to astrology and occultism. Regrettably his devotion and practise could not save him from being blown to smithereens on the May Day of 1993. So much for the protection offered by the hugely expensive mambo jumbo!

Mahinda Rajapaksa

Liberally endowed with empathy, amiability, courage, grit and the will to succeed, charismatic leader MR who decisively ended the destructive 30 year old separatist terrorist war, finally lost power two years before his legitimate period ended, because of his unalterable ultimate faith in an astrologer. Goodness knows the heroic, unsuccessful attempts his leftist colleagues and friends made to save him from his folly. After the predictable – and predicted – catastrophic result came, his supposedly infallible astrologer publically said that even Nostradamus occasionally made wrong predictions. According to the newspapers MR’s successor took oath of office at the astrologically auspicious time of 6.21 p.m. on the 9th of January 2015.Politicians will come and go but astrology will go on – for how long will it be?

Paramount Question

The paramount and crucial question that confronts us is why so many humans all over the world naturally and spontaneously turn to astrology for guidance in the conduct of their lives. Even in the USA where the marvelous inventions of modern science (the internet, television, airplanes and so on) are widely used, a Gallup poll conducted in 1996 found that 25% of Americans believed that astrology works. President Ronald Regan made many decisions on state affairs based on astrology. Even more significantly, polls conducted in the 1990’s showed that more than 95% of Americans believed in God and practiced some form of religion. There is evidence that for the past 50, 000 years or more people have practiced religion. In a fascinating book called The Faith Instinct published in 2009 Nicholas Wade hypothesizes that a strong impulse to believe without proof – a faith instinct – has become hardwired into the human brain. Axiomatically, any biological trait that becomes hardwired into human nature must have survival value. On this premise, belief in religion has survival value. My hypothesis is that belief in astrology is like belief in religion. Indeed religion and astrology are inextricably intertwined. It seems to me that compared to belief in assorted gods, belief in astrology represents a higher level of intellectual development. By the operation of the faith instinct humans have believed in invisible gods for thousands of years. As their knowledge and understanding of the world advanced their faith in invisible gods has come to be gradually replaced by belief in the influence of visible celestial bodies like the sun, moon, planets and the stars.


Astrology is the belief that the position of the celestial bodies at the time and place of a person’s birth determines the structure and function of their body, mind, personality, behaviour and final destiny. In principle this is a testable hypothesis and to that extent belief in astrology is more scientific than belief in assorted gods. Belief in astrology is based on sensory experience whereas belief in gods is based essentially on a feeling in one’s inner being. Thus, belief in astrology is more empirical than belief in religion. In other words, astrology is more like science than like religion. In truth astrology is a pseudoscience. My tentative conclusion is that humankind’s journey from ignorance to knowledge, from myth to truth is through pseudoscience. Astrology is simply bad science. As in Gresham’s law in economics that “bad money drives out good”, so in the politics of President MR’s camp, astrology drove out psephology, the rigorous statistical analysis of election results. Predictably, bad science lost.

Courtesy: The Island