What prevents Hindutva from having a healthy dialogue with science? Should the dialogue with science and age old Indic civilization always degenerate into pseudo-science and worse?
In 2009, the Tamil Nadu branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad launched its web TV. In one of its first webcasts, it claimed that a stone carving found at a village in Tamil Nadu, which was claimed to be ‘yantra’ dedicated to Shani—the deity of Saturn—resembles the design of the polar region of Saturn—the planet—that NASA’s Cassini spacecraft had photographed.
Anyone who goes through the Hindu forums on the internet would be struck by similar claims—absolutely unscientific and pseudo-scientific fabrications—which often go viral with the “true believers”. NASA satellites stopping over a temple in the village of Thirunallar in Tamil Nadu is one such example. Then we have the completely fantasy-based narrative about why a statue of Nataraja was installed at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which operates the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. This viral meme claims that the world faced the threat of apocalypse due to CERN’s experiment to discover the till-then-theorized Higgs boson, popularly known as the God Particle. Scientists around the world were terrified. Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam then came to the rescue and proposed that invoking Lord Nataraja would avert the wrath of the gods. So the two-metre-high bronze statue symbolizing Shiva’s cosmic dance of creation and destruction was installed. These memes get shared in thousands if not millions.
The truth is that the statue was a 2004 gift—four years before the experiment began—from the Indian government to celebrate CERN’s long association with India, with no connection to any fear of Pralaya—the end of the universe.
At another level, we have ‘Vedic’ mathematics, which is neither Vedic nor mathematics. Then there is the persistent obsession with ancient flying machines and atomic weapons supposedly used in the wars of our epics. A treatise on aeronautics attributed to an ancient sage Bharadwaj was apparently downloaded through “psychic channeling” during the years 1918-1923, and since then Bharadwaj has been projected in much Hindu propaganda literature as the father of aeronautics.
All these have given the critics of Hindutva valuable ammunition and justifiably so. Superficially, the juvenile need to find all modern scientific and technological achievements in ancient Hindu civilization and scriptures looks very much like the theo-politically motivated pseudo-science of Intelligent Design (ID)/ Creationism—which denies evolution—that is very much a part of the Abrahamic right wing package. However, there is a vital distinction. Molecular biologist Paul F. Lurquin and anthropologist Linda Stone, in their book Evolution and Religious Creation Myths (Oxford University Press, 2007), point out the important difference between the encounter with science of the Abrahamic right wing kind and Hindu nationalist kind. A negative bias against the BJP permeates the book which is also replete with wrong interpretations of certain core Hindu concepts like Brahman as creative principle—an obvious confusion with Brahma the creator God of Hindu mythology, and Atman as “universal spirit” instead of the individual consciousness. Nevertheless, the following passage brings out the vital distinction between the Hindutva discourse and that of the Abrahamic rightwing fundamentalism:
“The BJP is an ultra-nationalist movement whose aim is to show and teach the ascendancy of all things Hindu, from history to science. In particular, the BJP advocates the development of ‘Vedic Science’ based on the posited scientific superiority of Hindu sacred traditions…Also, the BJP does not advocate ID or anything like it. The BJP has not singled out the theory of evolution as a threat to Hindu values. Hindu fundamentalism, then, is not interested in detracting science (including evolution) or proving it wrong but in integrating Vedic and Hindu traditions within the main body of science. This may reflect the enormous power of syncretism in Hinduism.”
This is a significant difference. And in this difference lie the possibilities for the Hindutva movement to forge positive and healthy relations for the dialogue between science and Indic culture and philosophical traditions. However, the popular psyche of Hindutva seems to be inhabited by “cargo cult” memes which mimic serious dialogue with grotesque invention of fantasies that belittle both science and the umbrella of Indic philosophical traditions.
“Cargo cults” are symptoms of a deeper longing. The term originates from New Guinea, where waiting for ships or planes to bring dead ancestors and cargo began as a religious tradition in the 1910s. The natives mimic the entire operation of radio communication of the planes with wooden replicas and await the arrival of the cargo as well as their promised leader. At first sight, the whole business looks childish and superstitious. But cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris, in an insightful study Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (Random House, 1976), pointed out that the cult actually carried within it a deeper criticism of global unequal distribution of wealth:
“This would be a cogent theory if there were nothing mysterious about how industrial wealth gets manufactured and distributed. But in point of fact, it is not easy to explain why some countries are poor and others rich, nor is it easy to say why there are such sharp differences in the distribution of wealth within modern nations. What I’m suggesting is that there is really a cargo mystery, and that the natives are justified in trying to solve it.”
The invention of the fantasy-filled narrative on why the Nataraja statue was installed at CERN, connecting it with God Particle and protecting the world from annihilation, or the NASA Saturn yantra discovery, or the stopping of satellites by a mysterious ray above a particular temple…all these are equivalents of the cargo cult.
There is unquestionably an Indic-Asian contribution to the generation of knowledge and there is space for the dialogue for Indic philosophical systems with the core questions that move the finest human minds towards probing the mysteries of the universe. But in the last seven decades, the institutions of the State have consistently denied any such healthy dialogue in the name of secularism. Left wing radical propaganda, the Dravidian pseudo-rational movement, and so on, have either reduced Hindu philosophy to the determinism of production relations or worse, to racial interpretations of the lowest kind.
Consider the imagery of Shiva as the dancing Nataraja. It was Indologist Dr Ananda K. Coomaraswamy who popularized the image through his historical essay The Dance of Shiva. Since then, the image has become a symbol for the dynamic nature of existence being continuously discovered by various material sciences. Particle physicist Fritjof Capra’s best seller The Tao of Physics (1976), exploring the parallels between modern physics and mysticism, used a photomontage of Nataraja and images of trajectories of particles in a bubble chamber. Nobel laureates Ilya Prigogine and Philippe Glansdorff used a Nataraja image on the cover of their book Thermodynamic Theory of Structure Stability and Fluctuations (1978) to symbolize the centrality of non-equilibrium thermodynamics in nature. For V.S..Ramachandran, the neurologist, the dance of Shiva provides the metaphor for placing an individual in the grand show of evolution—accepting one’s life and death as part of the movements of the great dance (Phantoms of the Brain, 1999).
Yet, in Tamil Nadu, the icon was crudely criticized by the so-called rationalists of the Dravidian movement. Ironically, this racist social movement which prided itself as rationalist was itself based on pseudo-scientific colonial axioms of a separate Aryan and Dravidian race. In the name of pseudo-rationalism it transformed the symbol of Nataraja into a literal rendering and made a cruel caricature of it, demeaning the dancing Shiva into an emblem of primitive superstition. A Dravidian racist propaganda poster of early 1970s shows an American astronaut descending on the crescent-wearing head of the dancing Shiva. There is much irony here. Throughout the world, it is usually fundamentalists who resort to literal interpretations of the scriptures. But in India, the so-called rationalists are the most eager to do the same, while the so-called believers often speak of their deities as symbolic rather than literal.
Unfortunately, the entire Indian educational system has a deeply inbuilt aversion to Indian symbols that have the capacity to harmonize science, philosophy, art and aesthetics. It is this rejection, the denial of a healthy dialogue between science and philosophical systems of India that is the reason for the cargo-cult caricatures inventing such fabulously nonsensical narratives involving Shiva, God Particle and world destruction.
It is not that the Hindu movement does not have the history or the capacity to engage in such a dialogue. Even during colonial times, India produced a comprehensive historiography of science that challenged the Euro-centric nature of the prevalent science history narrative. One just has to go through the pages of Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray’s (1861-1944) voluminous A History of Hindu Chemistry (1903). Apart from about 200 original papers he published in the Journal of Chemical Society (London), Acharya Ray was the first to synthesize mercurous nitrite. It was his work that established that nitrites were stable substances contrary to the dominant view that they were unstable. His demonstration that ammonium nitrite is indeed stable was highlighted by Nature (15 August 1912). Motivated by French chemist-politician Marcellin Berthelot, he wrote his monumental work on Hindu chemistry.
The work can rightly be considered the concretization of the Hindu civilizational tryst with the discourse of science that was initiated in the modern times by Swami Vivekananda. It was neither just collection of facts nor vain glorification. It was a critical study taking into account the dynamics of social evolution and its role in shaping the way institutions of science emerge. Acharya Ray sharply criticizes the Euro-centric attitude in weaving the history of science that had a clear agenda of western superiority. The tendency of colonial historiographers to impute Greek origins to many Indic scientific discoveries is carefully analyzed by Ray:
“It is curious to reflect that the upholders of the ‘Greek Culture’ are often found ready, though unconsciously, to twist and torture facts and conclusions to serve their own purpose, and reserve to themselves the benefit of doubt as regards date: but whenever the priority of the Hindus is unquestionable, an appeal is made to the theory of common origin and independent parallelism of growth. These scholars seem to smart under a sense of injury if they have to confess that Europe owes an intellectual debt to India, hence many a futile attempt to explain away positive historical facts.”
Acharya Ray also analyzes how social stagnation has led to the decline of science in ancient India. The remarkable passage, that anticipates Dr.Ambedkar, is worth quoting in detail. Acharya Ray states:
“In ancient India the useful arts and sciences, as distinguished from mere handicrafts, were cultivated by the higher classes. In the White Yajur Veda and in the Taittitriya Brahmana, we meet with the names of various professions which throw light on the state of society of that period; unfortunately the knowledge of these perished with the institution of the caste system in its most rigid form. In the Vedic age the Rishis did not form an exclusive caste of their own but followed different professions according to their convenience or natural tastes… But all this was changed when the Brahmins reasserted their supremacy on the decline or the expulsion of Buddhism. The caste system was established de novo in a more rigid form. The drift of Manu and of the later Puranas is in the direction of glorifying the priestly class, set up most arrogant and outrageous pretensions. According to Susruta, the dissection of dead bodies is a sine qua non to the student of surgery and this higher authority lays particular stress on knowledge gained from experiment and observation. But Manu would have none of it. The very touch of a corpse, according to Manu, is enough to bring contamination to the sacred person of a Brahmin. Thus we find that shortly after the time of Vagbhata the handling of a lancet was discouraged and Anatomy and Surgery fell into disuse and became to all intents and purposes lost sciences to the Hindus
“…The arts being thus relegated to the low castes and the professions made hereditary…was done at a terrible cost. The intellectual portion of the community being thus withdrawn from active participation in the arts, the how and why of phenomena, the coordination of cause and effect were lost sight—the spirit of enquiry gradually died out among a nation naturally prone to speculation and metaphysical subtleties and India for once bade adieu to experimental and inductive sciences.”
Take the question of ancient “missile technology”. Even today the fertile imagination of Indian epic writers regarding the weapons of ancient wars is being projected as proofs of ancient nuclear technology. The notorious documentary series Ancient Aliens on History Channel peddles such fantasies which simply get recycled by internet-neo-Hindutvaites. Later, in academic studies on Hindutva, the movement gets strongly identified with such crackpot delusions. Yet as early as 1902-3, Ray had dismissed any attempt made then to read any prevalent technologies of the times in the weaponry of the epics:
“In Sanskrit literature, there are frequent but vague references to ‘agni astra’ or firearms, but we have no reason to suppose that the combustible matter these firearms contained supplied a motive power of the nature of the gunpowder. The fire missiles were probably of the same category as the flax, resin, naphtha or other bituminous substances discharged from bows…But there is nothing to show that gunpowder of any sort was in use or any chemical which would act as a propelling agent.”
Acharya Ray is one of the first significant initiators in modern times, from the Hindu side, of a dialogue with science as a historical and human phenomenon. This is a legacy that has often been forgotten conveniently by the leftwing scholars studying the Hindutva movement and forgotten by Hindutvaites themselves. It is an area worth exploring further.
It is also worth noting that in all the internet gloating about western scientists invoking Nataraja to avoid apocalypse, none of the deluded Hindutvaties seemed to notice that the experiment was planned to find a boson. The boson, one of the two classes of sub-atomic particles, is named in honour of the great Indian scientist Satyendranath Bose, the prime creator of Bose-Einstein statistics, one of the foundations of particle physics. Incidentally Satyen Bose was an ardent admirer of Swami Vivekananda and drew parallel between the words of Vivekananda and the works of Teilhard de Chardin (the Jesuit anthropologist who introduced the term ‘noosphere’). To Satyen Bose ‘the unprecedented synthesis of scientific temper and spirituality’ that he finds in Swami Vivekananda is a need ‘that persists even today’ in the educational system of India (Bose, Rachana Sankalan, 1963:1994 S N Bose National Center for Basic Sciences).
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