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Q: Can Yagna or havan bring rains and purify the air or is it pseudo-science?

Krishna: Two days back I was debating the same question on TV.

Two vedic pundits said Yagna can bring rains. I asked them to explain the process. They said it  's written in vedas and they can't explain it in simple terms. And added that it 's their 'belief' that it 's based on science and therefore would definitely work. They said this ...

 How Vedic Yagnyas cause rain ... 

Vedic yagnya (or yajna or yagya) ritual works when it comes to rain-making. Time and again Vedic priests perform Vedic yagnyas to invoke Gods Varuna or Indra in order to bring rainfall. The most popular verse from Vedic scriptures that modern Hindus wrote in support of this faith based activity is from Bhagavad-Gita - Annaad-bhavanti bhuutaani parjanyaad-anna sambhavah&yagnyaad-bhavati parjanyo yagnyah karma samudhbhava!
Translated - it means that the life is born from food & food is produced by rain & rain is produced by performing yagnya and that yagnya is performed by doing karma. The procedures are elaborate and include animal sacrifice (2). ( But the pundits I debated against said on TV there won't be any animal sacrifices, that  means they were lying! Oh, my, what a shame!)
I asked them, 'Why can't trying something through science be good Karma too?'. But they were adamant that only what 's prescribed in vedas is good karma, not things done by going the way of science! What type of logic is this? May be people of vedic period didn't know anything about science that governs this universe. That is why they didn't mention it. Otherwise they would have!
According to the believers, the continuous burning of wood & combined with clarified butter and other offerings made to the sacrificial fire & i.e. agni & in a yagnya releases a variety of chemical particles into the atmosphere which cause rain!

According to science, that is not possible. You have to study the science behind rain, and use the acquired knowledge  to exploit nature to our benefit. Just throwing some stones in the dark and believing that it would work, won't work actually. Of course, beliefs and fantasies can become reality with the help of pseudo-science! 

Yagnas actually pollute air. I attended a house warming ceremony some time back. There they performed  Yagna or havan. Thick smoke was coming out of the havan pit and an old person  got severe asthmatic attack despite sitting outside the house. He inhaled some of the smoke that came out and was breathing heavily. Even inhalers and nebulizers didn't work. We had to take him to a hospital to stabilize his condition that got worse and worse as time went by. I saw all this with my own eyes and was sure enough to link the smoke to his health condition! Later, even the doctors who treated him confirmed this.

But people argue that the ghee used in Hawan actually produces oxygen, which is a misconception. 

Dr. Ajit Singh Bhatnagar, a food technologist, CFTRI, says ...

 

Burning or combustion is a high-temperature exothermic redox chemical reaction between a fuel (the reductant) and an oxidant, usually atmospheric oxygen, that produces oxidized, often gaseous products, in a mixture termed as smoke.

A simple example can be seen in the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen into water vapor, a reaction commonly used to fuel rocket engines. This reaction releases 242 kJ/mol of heat and reduces the enthalpy accordingly (at constant temperature and pressure):

2H2(g) + O2(g) → 2H2O(g)

BE IT GHEE OR ANY OTHER EDIBLE OIL OR FAT, THEY ARE ALL TRIGLYCERIDES WHICH ARE BASICALLY FATTY ACIDS (CARBON CHAIN LENGTH OF 4 - 24) ESTERIFIED WITH GLYCEROL (TRIHYDROXY ALCOHOL). THEY ARE NOT HYDROCARBONS. SO THEY DO NOT COMBUST(BURN) COMPLETELY. AND THEY NEVER RELEASE OXYGEN ON BURNING.

DURING YAGNA OR HAVANA, GHEE TAKES UP THE OXYGEN FROM ATMOSPHERE AND RELEASES CARBONDIOXIDE, CARBONMONOXIDE, KETONES, ALDEHYDES, ALCOHOLS, DIMERS, TRIMERS, HYDROCARBONS, EPOXIDES, VOLATILE FREE FATTY ACIDS AND WATER.

Burning anything would consume oxygen rather than producing it. It is a misconception that burning ghee with cow dung produces Oxygen  that came out of  ignorance. The havan process itself produces much more carbon monoxide than it takes out of the air.
How can burning of 500kg or more mango wood, milk, jaggery,  cow dung cakes, ghee, flowers reduce pollution (people claim they do!)? Imagine several people doing this all over the country! In fact it increases the pollution! And the green house gases produced during havan can actually contribute to climate change and unpredictable and extreme weather conditions and disastrous pouring of rain (7).
Spending public money in such a wasteful way is not a wise thing. Okay people donate money to temples. Is it not public money then? We appreciate using it for feeding the poor, or providing education, managing hospitals, providing shelters to homeless like some temple trusts do. Not using it to burn things to pollute air more.  
The vedic pundits asked me - if they can't use the money for yagnas, am I suggesting indirectly that they donate it for scientific research? My answer was, '"Why not? That might result in more positive things". And they laughed at the suggestion! 
However, I found a research paper that says that 'there is  Scientific Basis for Hawan to be used in Epilepsy-Prevention/Cure' (1). But there is a disclaimer attached to the article: The presence of an article in PMC does not reflect an endorsement of, or concurrence with, the contents of the article by NLM ..... So take it with a pinch of salt.
A study published in  Journal of Ethnopharmacology (December 3, 2007) says bacterial count decreased in a room where a Hawan was performed because of medicinal herbs used. 
And there is a paper published by 'doctors' in Gujarat. 'Effect of smoke from medicinal herbs on the nosocomial infections in ENT outpatient department' (3).
As a Microbiologist I know that smoke can inhibit microbes and even microbial toxin production. I can confirm that. But smoke is harmful to even human beings.
T K Joshi, director of the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Delhi's Lok Narayan Jai Prakash Hospital says, "The havan smoke might have medicinal properties but, overall, smoke is an irritant and has a negative impact on human health". S K Chhabra, cardio-respiratory physiologist at the Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute at University of Delhi, added a word of caution: "Smoke is an irritant. If it removed bacteria, it could be due to this property. Researchers should study the chemical properties of individual ingredients from havan samagri to establish this. Until then, be cautious about it".
How do you deal with these contradicting results? Don't they confuse common people? The punditji's I debated against were quoting several research papers ( they even gave a number  - some 600 plus) that confirm what they said and believed! I and another rationalist in the studio were shocked and had to deal with this pseudo-science all the while. 
A few days back a Western Physicist I spoke to said, 'Asian scientists do some work that reflect their culture, tradition and thinking. And even peer reviewers there recommend accepting and publishing these papers. Strange! But when we tried to reproduce these results in our labs, we couldn't do that most of the time. Should we call this genuine science?'
The punditji's also gave some ' anecdotal evidence* of havans bringing rains'. We politely refused to accept it. And demanded genuine evidence. A direct link between havan and the rain. They couldn't provide it!
*Anecdotal evidence:  stories people tell in support of their arguments (' What 's the real evidence based connection apart from co-incidence?', we asked. There was no answer!)

A coincidence is a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances that have no apparent causal connection with one another. The perception of remarkable coincidences may lead to supernatural, occult, or paranormal claims.

From a statistical perspective, coincidences are inevitable and often less remarkable than they may appear intuitively. An example is the birthday coincidence which shows that the probability of two persons having the same birthday already exceeds 50% in a group of only 23 persons! A rational mind thinks about statistics and probabilities in such circumstances whereas an intuitive person thinks about his beliefs!

Now come to your own conclusion. 
And what happened to our debate on TV? We tried our best to counter it. But people's perception depends on strange interpretations. Anybody can come to any conclusion when people don't understand the differences between  various levels of scientific evidence . Evidence and opinions. Science and pseudo-science. And how science really works. I tried my best to explain things in the limited time we had.
I had to face pseudo-science live on TV two days back. The 600 plus research papers that say 'havans can bring rain, clean environment and good health' rained on me. And the 'cloud-seeding 'was done by two ved-pundits. But I survived the onslaught! Ufff!
Still our endeavour continues ...

Q: Can cow dung used in hawans produce oxygen?
Krishna: Cow dung is mostly plant matter or  cellulose, which the animal was not able to digest. When cellulose is burnt, it produces carbon dioxide and water. There is no ingredient in the cow dung that can release oxygen.

Q: Can cloud seeding really work in bringing rains? What are environmental effects of artificial rain creation? 
Krishna: Now we are dealing with science!
Cloud seeding is a type of weather modification that aims to change the amount or type of precipitation that falls from clouds by dispersing substances into the air that serve as cloud condensation or ice nuclei, which alter the microphysical processes within the cloud.
Common chemicals used for cloud seeding include silver iodide, potassium iodide and dry ice (solid carbon dioxide). Liquid propane, which expands into a gas, has also been used. This can produce ice crystals at higher temperatures than silver iodide. The use of hygroscopic materials, such as table salt, is becoming more popular now.
Cloud seeding chemicals may be dispersed by aircraft or by dispersion devices located on the ground (generators or canisters fired from anti-aircraft guns or rockets). For release by aircraft, silver iodide flares are ignited and dispersed as an aircraft flies through the inflow of a cloud. When released by devices on the ground, the fine particles are carried downwind and upward by air currents after release.

An electronic mechanism was tested in 2010, when infrared laser pulses were directed to the air above Berlin by researchers from the University of Geneva.
Can we really produce positive results? Science can't claim full success like others do. We got mixed results.
There have been several detailed ecological studies that showed negligible environmental and health impacts (4,5,6) after cloud seeding.

Q: Are incense sticks harmful?
Krishna: Incense sticks come with a health threat. Several research results proved that burning agarbattis inside the house generate air pollutants. 

References:
4.  Bureau of Reclamation, 1977: Project Skywater, A program of Research in Precipitation Management. However, some research indicates that silver toxicity is bio-accumulative in aquatic environments, causing respiratory distress to some species of fish (Aquatic Toxicology Volume 49, Issues 1-2, May 2000, Pages 111-129). Final Environmental Statement (INT FES 77-39).
5.  Harris, Edward R., 1981: Sierra Cooperative Pilot Project - Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact. US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Denver, CO, 208 pp.
6. Howell, Wallace E., 1977: Environmental Impacts of Precipitation Management: Results and Inferences from Project Skywater. Bull. American Meteorological Society, 58, 488–501

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