Before India Launched Its Mars Mission, There Was a Blessing from the Gods

You may have heard that, earlier this week, India launched a spacecraft that will soon be orbiting Mars (for a fraction of the cost it took American scientists, no less).

What you may not have heard is what the Indian Space Research Organization Chairman K Radhakrishnan did before the launch: he took miniature versions of the rocket and spacecraft to a local temple and asked the (idols of) deities for their blessings, saying later that “a little divine intervention” wouldn’t hurt.

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan holds a model of the Mars orbiter that may or may not have been blessed by the Gods (via Associated Press)

Cultural traditions aside, just imagine what it would look like if the head of NASA decided to go to church in the days before a rocket was set to launch so that he could ask Jesus for a little help.

You know, if you think your rocket — your pinnacle-of-scientific-achievement-rocket! — need supernatural help, maybe it’s time to double-check your calculations instead of speaking to the spirits.

Shrey Goyal is appalled by Radhakrishnan’s behavior:

… such irrational behaviour from the head of the Indian government’s primary space agency is unbelievably senseless… This is not just ignoring the spirit of enquiry, but outright denying and denouncing the scientific method. How does taking on such an ambitious project even make a difference in our technological prowess, if praying to our imaginary friends in space is seen as a reasonable precaution? When the agency which is supposed to be a temple of science and uphold the search for truth and new knowledge, is worshiping a Hindu deity in such a public manner, are we making any progress at all? We should all be thankful that a black cat did not cross the scientist’s path; otherwise the mission could very well have been postponed

Narendra Nayak, President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA), added another important voice of dissent, referring to Article 51(A)(h) in the Indian Constitution which says it’s a duty of all Indian citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”:

“We strongly condemn the attitude of the Chairman of ISRO K Radhakrishnan who has insulted the Constitution of India by placing the replica of the satellite meant for the Mars mission at the feet of a deity at Tirupati. He is unfit to occupy the position of the head of the space mission and should be immediately sacked.

What may be even more disturbing is how relatively few people seem to care at all that Radhakrishnan asked the gods for help. This is just par for the course in a nation where superstition is so widespread.

This is why the work of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was so important. This is why the work of Sanal Edamaruku is still so vital.

It’s not just a frivolous pleasant tradition. It gives credit where it simply isn’t due. It shows a lack of confidence in the scientists who made the mission to Mars possible, as if they need some additional help to succeed. And if the head of the ISRO says he wouldn’t mind some “divine intervention,” what hope can we possibly have for those people in India who know far less about science?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • C Peterson

    Crap. During the Cold War we spent all that money on Star Wars, and all we really needed was some little straw effigies of Russian missiles, some chicken blood, and a few long needles.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I have some confidence that the miniatures of the rocket and spacecraft that received the blessing will remain in good condition for a long time, but given that less than half of the things anyone has ever attempted to send to Mars have actually made it intact, I think we’ll have to simply hope for the best, just like we do with all the other missions.

  • ZenDruid

    Meh. Some people sing or mumble to their gods, some hold a barbecue*, and some actually waste time with press conferences.

    *My crew at Vandenberg did this for the first MX launch. Didn’t hurt.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

      this.

  • Kimpatsu

    Whenever a new building is constructed in Japan, a Shinto priest is hired to officiate and bless the land at the groundbreaking ceremony. The costs for this are included in the contractor’s charges and itemized separately. When I asked if anyone actually believed this helped, I was told, “No, of course not, but if we don’t do it, we will be denounced as unpatriotic”, because going through the motions of Shinto is conflated with love of the motherland. Failure to hold the ceremony will hand a weapon to rival contractors, who will denounce your company as “un-Japanese” and you will lose business.
    Discuss.

    • Itarion

      Ummm… Not including the prayer can lead to lower bids for equivalent work, so companies that don’t include the prayer can lead to lower bids than other companies can make.

    • EdmondWherever

      Sounds familiar.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      To build anything in Iceland you have to first pay “experts” to make sure there aren’t any elves living on that land. I’m not sure how much anyone still believes any of that, but it’s a part of their culture.

      • Spuddie

        I think in both cases Japan and Iceland, it is really just a form of welfare for the homegrown woo industry. Giving the Shinto priest and Elf/Troll Hunter a couple of bucks out of pity.

  • 3lemenope

    I guess this is just another of one of those things where I don’t get what the big deal is.

    The rocket worked, right? Even from where we sit, a little divine intervention couldn’t hurt, since something that doesn’t exist can’t well have baleful effects, can it? Where’s the beef?

    Do we call for all NASA engineers who knock on wood to be fired?

    • mlj11

      A NASA engineer knocking on wood privately is one thing; the Chairman of the national space research agency publicly asking gods for help is quite another.

      I’m not Indian, but I suspect the beef is in this ritual being given any credit at all for whatever success the Mission might achieve, which, you know, means full credit is deprived from the actual space research that would’ve truly deserved it… If this results in just one young Indian child deciding to be a holy man or priest when he grows up instead of aspiring to be a scientist or astronaut, well – I think that qualifies as a baleful effect.

    • C Peterson

      It’s not such a big deal. It’s just a beautiful example of the irrationality of human beings, who can simultaneously draw on modern science to design a craft capable of traveling to another planet while asking a divine elephant to help it get there. There’s a lesson in this story.

      • 3lemenope

        The only lesson I get out of it is that humans are not optimized to operate rationally 100% of the time and in 100% of circumstances.

        Absent a push to “fix” humans to make them so (which I would absolutely not support), the real lesson, I guess, is that we shouldn’t maintain expectations of humans that conflict with the status of being human.

      • WillBell

        FIRA asked for the director to be sacked…

  • Jeff See

    Honestly, I wouldn’t care that the head of NASA went to church that Sunday, and tossed a prayer in for the flight and crew. Wouldn’t bother me in the least. If he happens to be a man of faith, I would have expected no less.

    The only problem I would have, is if prayer invaded a venture at NASA, to the point where he would halt the launch sequence for a prayer. There’s a difference there. One is a person’s business, which should forever only ever be, their business. Otherwise it should stay out of business.

    • Itarion

      Or, you know, include a prayer at around t minus five minutes as part of the launch sequence. They tend to not stop the launch once it’s started, except in the case of weather.

  • A3Kr0n

    As long as they’re not getting spit in the wires kissing it, or anything, what’s the harm? And speaking of their craft soon to be orbiting Mars, history would say otherwise. I wish them the best, and may the Invisible Pink Unicorn not mistake it for a chew toy.

  • James Stevenson

    Normally I’d be calling him out… but unless doing this lead to actual neglect it’s not really something to sack him over. It’s kind of like doing your job, then as you go away from it, the result completely out of your power to control from that point on, you cross your fingers and wish really really hard that it doesn’t blow up.

    When that superstition actually leads to people suspending their efforts to actually take things into their own hands? Yep absolutely inexcusable. Otherwise its just a really excessive way to cross your fingers.

  • invivoMark

    Now that’s just lazy, sub-standard science. Every college freshman majoring in science knows that it wouldn’t be valid without a non-blessed control spacecraft! I hope respectable journals refuse to publish any data collected by this mission until the experiment is repeated with the proper controls.

  • cary_w

    So if this mission is a success thay will claim God helped, but if it fails, it will be because of mechamical failures or miscalculations. Just once I would like to see someone blame God when something they prayed for is unsuccessful.

    God is an asshole, he kills people who are prayed for all the time, so why wouldn’t he blow up a spacecraft just for the heck of it? What pisses me off is that no one ever calls Him out on it. In 2007 six miners were trapped in a mine collapse 20 miles from where I live. There was massive praying for them for days on end, but God didn’t listen. He killed them all and three of the men who were trying to save them. When someone survives an accident they all thank God, so why don’t they ever admit that He turned His back on these men and killed them all?

    • C Peterson

      I’d love to see the news story: “After first Indian Mars mission is lost in space, angry mobs stormed the Tirupati Venkateswara temple, knocking over statues of gods and whipping the temple priests with wet noodles”.

  • Loren Petrich

    There’s an argument that Mr. Radhakrishnan could use. What can one lose? If he gets the mission blessed by some deity, and that deity delivers, then so much the better. But if there is no such deity, then he wouldn’t be worse off than if he had not tried to get that blessing.

    • Deus Otiosus

      Yeah, but there’s more than one Hindu god, isn’t there? What if, by praying to one god, he makes the other gods jealous and they spoil the mission?! Use your head, man.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        Well there are different ones who do different things. I think it’s more a matter of praying to the right one(s). Otherwise you’d get a “sorry, not my department” response. ;-)

  • Mick

    …just imagine what it would look like if the head of NASA decided to go
    to church in the days before a rocket was set to launch so that he could
    ask Jesus for a little help.

    I thought he did.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Given that my parents go to church with NASAEngineers, I would say this is likely. As long as I’m not paying for it, I don’t think it’s any of my business. I don’t even care if he says a prayer at the launch. That’s his right. I would only care if it were costing taxpayers something or if people were being required to participate in the prayer. Otherwise, pray away.

  • busterggi

    Just for that I’m going to make a voodoo doll of the rocket & make it malfunction totally.

  • Deus Otiosus

    In fairness to Radhakrishnan, prayers have probably been said before every space mission, and so far there have never been any horrible accidents or terrible tragedies. Ergo, praying creates safe, successful missions. Try a little common sense here. This isn’t rocket science, people.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Of course it cost a fraction of our probes. That’s what happens when you can pay people $1 an hour.

  • shramana

    Radhakrishnan was exercising his constitutional right to religious freedom in visiting the Tirumala temple, on his own time, prior to the mission and in praying to the Gods. I understand that his actions don’t convey the kind of message that rationalists and atheists in India would wish to promote regarding a clean separation of science and religion. But, it makes no sense to call for his removal especially when his performance has been commendable to this point and the mission is still ongoing.

    Radhakrishnan is a rather interesting man. Apart from being an accomplished scientist and a devout Hindu, he’s also an exponent of the classical Indian dance form of Kathakali and a keen musician. I think his actions underscore a point that atheists would benefit from making. You often hear from Christians about how sophisticated, advanced, and supposedly unique their faith is for them to be able to reconcile it with the findings of modern science. But in actuality, a person of any religious faith, with sufficient interest and capacity to engage in the kind of intellectual contortions needed, can find ways to make their existing religious beliefs comport with scientific findings. Here we have an accomplished scientist who prays to many Gods, who has a personal testimony of having experienced their presence in his lives, and prays before idols (shock and horror!). There’s nothing unique or impressive in being able to square your religious beliefs, of whatever variety, with current science. You just need to abstain from applying the standards of evidence and the kind of rigorous, critical thinking required for the scientific process to succeed to the faith claims of your religion.

    Radhakrishnan’s mature faith in the existence and beneficence of his Gods is more of a challenge to those who would deny the truth of his faith while proclaiming that of their own with no better justifications, than it is to atheists, who question and refrain from acceding to such faith claims altogether.

  • Claire

    Calling for him to be fired over this is just ridiculous. An act of superstition done on his own time doesn’t invalidate his career as a scientist and the accomplishments he must have made to get to his current position.

  • Patrick

    What’s as bad, is that I heard, but cannot find a source online currently that the launch date of the Mars Mission was determined by astrological means and that is the normal practice fro Indian Space Missions.

  • http://shreygoyal.com/ Shrey Goyal

    Hey Hemant,

    Thank you for featuring my article and the incident which FIRA and I wrote about. I am glad to see a few supportive comments here as well. The story reached tens of thousands of people (mostly in India), and I received an unbelievable amount of feedback. Almost all of it was hate-mail, some of it anonymous, but mostly openly proclaiming how I was stupid/bigoted/unpatriotic/anti-hindu etc. A centre-right think tank did respond with a somewhat civic rebuttal, and then there was this prominent conspiracy nut wrote about me on his blog, about how I was being funded by HASBARA and other foreign forces who are against hinduism (and a surprising number of people actually do follow and believe him). Which is alright; at least some people read about the issue at hand, and at least a few understood the point I tried to make.

    What disappointed me, though, was that how little of the public commentary (both on newsyaps and on centre right India) was positive. Many friends as well as strangers contacted me via private messages on facebook and email thanking me, telling me they understand my concern and were glad someone brought it up, but hardly any on these publicly put up their views. A few friends confessed that they didn’t want everyone to know what they thought about the incident, and some put up their thoughts and then deleted them when someone from the other side replied to these comments with hate. Religion dominates not only our institutions and politics, but also our dialogue and ‘free’ speech.

    Anyhow, these are the seeds of change. Let’s see where this country goes.


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