Modi, the Pope and the ‘Problem’ of Science

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Nov 5, 2014 12:56 AM +05:30 IST
Modi, the Pope and the ‘Problem’ of Science

What Narendra Modi  said about genetic science being known in ancient India was wrong, but it was not anti-science. But what Pope Francis stated about the ‘requirement of a creator’ behind the Big Bang and evolution presupposing creation, though sophisticated, has the potential to thwart science.

In 1967, double Nobel Laureate (for chemistry and peace) Linus Pauling visited India and delivered two lectures in which he gave ‘a DNA twist to the Hindu notion of reincarnation.[1] No one accused him of trying to invent in old beliefs the new discoveries of science.

A few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to have claimed in his speech at a medical facility that certain mythological elements in ancient epics seem to be similar to some modern medical technologies. So he claimed past pride. The statement, if he really made it, was just plain wrong. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister did not do that to infuse chauvinism but to urge the Indian medical establishment to provide better medical amenities for the public. The Indian media on the whole did well to ignore the erroneous comparison that Modi made and focused more on the message and spirit of his speech.

Modi, the Pope and the ‘Problem’ of Science

But there was the inevitable fallout. He was ridiculed and mocked at. He had mentioned Karna and Ganesha as examples of genetic concepts and of plastic surgery existing in ancient times. British newspaper The Guardian seized the opportunity and published an elaborate story on those two lines, which took up less than a minute or two in a 16-minute-long speech:

Hindu nationalists have long propagated their belief that many discoveries of modern science and technology were known to the people of ancient India. But now for the first time an Indian prime minister has endorsed these claims…Modi’s claims at the Mumbai hospital initially went unreported in the Indian media, except on the website But on Monday night, Headlines Today TV talk show host Karan Thapar focused on it in his primetime programme, with opposition politicians criticizing Modi. The speech has also been posted on the prime minister’s official website. No Indian scientist has come forward as yet to challenge him.[2]

There is a widespread belief among many educated Indians cutting across the political spectrum that ancient India knew many of the modern sciences and had many of the modern or even future technologies. This is the result of the lack of traditional philosophical knowledge updated and adapted in dialogue with the worldviews generated by scientific exploration, and a literal interpretation of the mythologies devoid of appreciating the poetic imagination of its creators. But it also explains why Hindus can easily accept scientific discoveries which in many Western countries find resistance from the ‘Frankenstein complex’ – some aspects of nature should be left alone and should not be researched by humans – a continuing legacy of the Biblical forbidden fruit of knowledge.

Mythology for Science Pedagogy

In another more negative context of pseudo-sciences, the late scientist Carl Sagan made an insightful observation of using them as tools for arousing scientific interest in the otherwise dull curriculum:

If science is presented poorly in schools and the media, perhaps some interest can be aroused by well-prepared, comprehensible public discussions at the edge of science. Astrology can be used for discussions of astronomy; alchemy for chemistry; Velikovskian catastrophism and lost continents such as Atlantis for geology; and spiritualism and Scientology for a wide range of issues in psychology and psychiatry. [3]

What we have here is not pseudo-science – that is, unless literalist claims are made – but rich mythology with awesome anticipation of marvelous scientific discoveries and technological innovations The mythological extravaganza and the poetic hyperbole of ancient Indian epics with their astounding weapons and intelligent apes and flying machines can definitely help an eager mind to break free and imagine widely. Hindu mythology can be a fertile teaching aid to make young minds get acquainted with every wild idea that comes up in science: parallel universes to time travel to extraterrestrial life.

The Vanaras of the Ramayana can help the child understand that there had been other branches of humanoids sentient and tool-using like our own species. The ‘tissue culturing’ of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata can make the child wonder at the possibilities and remove any religious taboo in stem cell research. The vexed question of flying objects in the Ramayana can be used to highlight the imaginative genius of Valmiki who visualized graphically how the Indian land mass would look when viewed from a high altitude in a moving contraption.

The idea that there are millions of planets that could harbour life that one reads in many mythologies can be a good introduction to exobiology. The scenes of mass destruction by divine weapons in the Mahabharats could get the child to understand the value of peace and the ultimate need to abandon nuclear weapons. The ways of using Indian mythology creatively in the science curriculum are many, if care is taken not to fall into the trap of a literal interpretation that breeds fundamentalism and not imagination.

An example. Many educated Hindus believe that the 10 incarnations of Vishnu embeds the idea of evolution. Even the Marxist politician Sitaram Yechury wrote that the avatars could ‘be seen as a remarkable recording of the evolution of human life and its civilisational advance.’[4] This is also plain wrong. The incarnations form a progressive chain. Darwinian evolution, including humanoid evolution through the branching mazes of Australopithecus to Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon, is actually a tree. However, this notion has made Hindus accept evolution more easily than any other religious group.

This is revealed by 2009 Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life which shows that 80 percent of Hindus and 81 percent of Buddhists living in the United States agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth, as against 77 percent Jews, 58 percent Catholic, 45 percent Muslim and 24 percent Evangelical Protestant. Overall acceptance of evolution in the United States is only 48 percent, according to the study. [5]

The Pope and Evolution

This brings us to the next question. There is much media fanfare that Pope Francis has ‘accepted Big Bang and Evolution’. However a closer look at the statement shows that the Pope has only reiterated and reinforced what his predecessors have been saying for the last few decades. This is what Pope Francis has actually stated about evolution:‘Evolution of nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation because evolution presupposes the creation of beings which evolve.’ With regard to the Big Bang, Pope said: ‘The Big Bang, which is today posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creation; rather, it requires it.’[6]

Modi, the Pope and the ‘Problem’ of Science

The Catholic Church started considering evolution as a possibility in 1950 in the papal encyclical titled Humani Generis by Pope Pius XII. But even before that, in 1930, the famous Catholic Bishop and radiopreacher Dr Fulton Sheen rejected a fundamentalist interpretation of Bible and put forth a view that would accommodate evolution:

Belonging to a tradition which is more Fundamental than Fundamentalism and more Modern than Modernism, I do not go to the Bible and interpret the word ‘day’ as a day of 24 hours, unless the Church, which is beyond the Bible, assures me that such is the meaning, and this the Church has not done. She reminds me that the word ‘day’, in Hebrew ‘yom’, may stand for a day or week, or month or century, or any indefinite period of time and hence the world may have been created six million years ago for all we know. [7]

But even after the official encyclical in 1950,the Church had ambivalent and at crucial times an overtly hostile stand towards evolution and evolutionists in its own rank – as in the case of Teilhad de Chardin. Chardin, a Jesuit and an anthropologist, was the one who popularized the idea of ‘noosphere’, the next stage of evolution with the emerging of humans in the biosphere. Chardin was a devout Jesuit whose attitude towards Hinduism was critical if not negative. British academic Robert Charles Zaehner considered Chardin’s view of Hinduism ‘a monstrous generalization and a travesty.'[8] Yet his conceptualization of human evolution and beyond,does have an uncanny resemblance to that of Sri Aurobindo.

Chardin’s important work was The Phenomenon of Man (Le Phenomena Humaine). In 1941 Chardin submitted the work for publication to Holy See and was refused permission to publish it. In 1955, five years after the Papal encyclical accepted evolution as a ‘possibility’,Chardin was refused permission to attend the International Congress of Paleontology. He died the same year.[9]

In a decree issued on 1962, ‘the Most Eminent and Most Reverend Fathers of the Supreme and Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office’ exhorted the clergy to ‘to protect minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers of the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin’ for his works were ‘filled with ambiguities and even serious errors that offend Catholic doctrine’.[10]

In 1996, Pope John Paul II conceded that new findings force the Church to accept evolution as more than a hypothesis. But widespread reluctance remained. So Pope Francis arrives at an astonishing statement::‘Evolution…presupposes creation.’

It is unfortunate that after almost two centuries of having a dialogue with evolution, the Vatican has to arrive at such a pathetic statement. Evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma punctured this oxymoronic stand decades ago. In 1983,Futuyma wrote in his book Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution, what would become a much quoted passage:

Creation and evolution, between them, exhaust the possible explanations for the origin ofliving things. Organisms either appeared on the earth fully developed or they did not. If they didnot, they must have developed from pre-existing species by some process of modification. If theydid appear in a fully developed state, they must indeed have been created by some omni potent intelligence.[11]

Cosmology and the Vatican

The case of the Big Bang is even more interesting. To understand the complicated dynamics of the Vatican’s engagement with emerging cosmologies we need to go beyond the well-known inquisition of Galileo and the burning at the stake of Giardano Bruno. Catholic theology has been both a stimulant and an impediment in the scientific exploration of the natural world.

A good illustration is given by Amir Alexander, historian of mathematics at UCLA,in a detailed analysis of a deeply religious crisis at the roots of the beginning of integral calculus. When in 1635, Italian mathematician Bonaventura Cavlieri came up with the ‘method of indivisibles’, which would become the forerunner of integral calculus, it was attacked by Swiss mathematician Paul Guldin. Alexander discerns the real motive behind the attack. His findings need to be quoted in detail to understand the complex dynamics of interaction between theology and evolution of mathematical models in late medieval Christendom:

When taken as a whole, Guldin’s critique of Cavalieri’s method embodied the core principles of Jesuit mathematics…The approach produced a rigorous and hierarchical mathematical logic, which, for the Jesuits, was the main reason why the field should be studied at all…In this, Clavius pointed out, Euclidean geometry came closer to the Jesuit ideal of certainty, hierarchy and order than any other science. It follows that Guldin’s insistence on constructive proofs was not a matter of pedantry or narrow-mindedness, as Cavalieri and his friends thought, but an expression of the deeply held convictions of his order.The same was true of Guldin’s criticism of the division of planes and solids into ‘all the lines’and ‘all the planes’. Not only must mathematics be hierarchical and constructive, but it must also be perfectly rational and free of contradiction.

Yet Cavalieri’s indivisibles, as Guldin pointed out, were incoherent at their very core because the notion that the continuum was composed of indivisibles simply did not stand the test of reason. ‘Things that do not exist, nor could they exist, cannot be compared,’ he thundered, ‘and it is therefore no wonder that they lead to paradoxes and contradiction and, ultimately, to error.’ To the Jesuits, such mathematics was far worse than no mathematics at all. The purpose of mathematics, after all, was to bring proper order and stability to the world, whereas the method of indivisibles brought only confusion and chaos. If this flawed system was accepted, then mathematics could no longer be the basis of an eternal rational order. The Jesuit dream, of a strict universal hierarchy as unchallengeable as the truths of geometry, would be doomed.[12]

That was just an instance of how the Catholic Church has been studying and debating developments in various branches of science and their impact on Christian theology.The Big Bang model of the origin of the universe was proposed by a Belgian Catholic priest and astrophysicist Georges Lemaitre. Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter had applied Einstein’s general theory of relativity to astronomy and had suggested an expanding universe. It was Fr. Lemaite who in 1927 took this idea one step further (or many steps backward in time) and suggested that if the universe is expanding now, then some time in the past, it should have all been contained in one single entity which he curiously named as a ‘cosmic egg’, whichshould remind Hindus of the Vedic Hiranyagarbha.

In December 1932, at a Caltech seminar, Lemaitre explained his theory which he originally named as ‘the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation’. Einstein was in the audience and though the theory rejected Einstein’s own idea of a static universe, the patriarch of new physics applauded Lemaitre’s theory as ‘the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever heard’. Lemaitre even predicted residual radiation effects of this initial explosion.[13]

Even as Fr. Lemaitre was using Einstein’s theory of relativity in his cosmological model, the general theory of relativity and Einstein’s own religious views were attacked by Catholic theologians. William Henry O’Connell, who was Archbishop of Boston and later Cardinal, called Einstein’s theory ‘authentic atheism…camouflaged as cosmic pantheism.’[14] Dr Fulton Sheen crossed letter swords with Einstein over the latter’s rejection of a personal God. When The New York Timescarried Einstein’s denial of the existence of a personal God, Sheen condemned the newspaper for having ‘degraded itself’ by publishing ‘the sheerest kind of stupidity and nonsense’.[15]

It does not need a theologian to see that the Big Bang model of the origin of the universe has a resemblance to the initial moment of creation. Pope Pius XII used the Big Bang and the expanding universe model in his 1951 citation as scientific proof for the Catholic worldview. But this is faulty logic and a stand injurious to healthy science to make God the cause behind the Big Bang. Astronomer John Barrow explains:

Universes without a beginning in time cause problems for our limited imaginations. In some circles the implicit beginning of the Universe implied by the naïve Big Bang model is still used as a logical argument for God. For, it is claimed everything must have a cause, so there must be a Cause of the Universe that is in essence ‘other’ than the Universe. However, the logic of that particular argument is not compelling. Anyone who can live with the concept of the Deity as an uncaused cause can surely live with the Universe itself as the uncaused cause.[16]

Modi, the Pope and the ‘Problem’ of Science

Yet it is this doctrinal fixation or theological obsession that God as the ‘cause’ behind the Big Bang that has the Church still uncomfortable with cosmological studies. Physicist Stephen Hawking had an encounter with this mindset at the highest level at a conference on cosmology organized bythe Vatican on September 1981:

[Pope John Paul II] told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the Big Bang, but we should not inquire into the Big Bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God. I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference – the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation. I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo… [17]

Today, Pope Francis has only reinforced what Pope John Paul II said to Hawking.

The Catholic Church’s problem in its engagement with science is the result of its theology being tightly wedded with Aristotelian philosophy. The West lost its philosophical pluralism when Christian theology emerged as almost a monolith. Various other schools of philosophy like Neo-Platonism (the school to which incidentally Hypatia that great female martyr of mathematics belonged to) were ruthlessly destroyed. So even as the Church constantly interacted with various disciplines of science, it also routinely monitored for any discovery whose philosophical implications either really or perceived to be affecting the theological edifice of the Catholic religion.

Thus science has to abide by theology or it would not be tolerated. When it had the power,the Church destroyed whatever it deemed as heresy. But with the coming of the secular age, it could at best only stop books within the body of the Church. Or it has to make convoluted theological adjustments with the new discoveries. The situation is not much different from what prevailed in the Soviet Union where the commissars of ideology decided what science is bourgeois and what is people’s science. Actually what the Roman Catholic Church did to the heretics in medieval times, the Soviet State did to scientists more efficiently in recent times – made them undergo inquisition.

Fortunately, India has always nurtured a culture of philosophical pluralism which also means the existence of both epistemological and ontological pluralism. The organic relation between epistemology and good science cannot be overstated. In the words of Einstein:

The reciprocal relationship of epistemology and science is of a noteworthy kind. They are dependent upon eachother. Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is – insofaras it is thinkable at all – primitive and muddled.[18]

The six darshanas that Hindu culture has nurtured, differ with one another. There are theistic and atheistic systems built over them. For a non-Indian observer, these systems may look mutually incompatible. Yet they have coexisted and cross-fertilized each other. Every student of philosophy, religion, astronomy, medicine and mathematics imbibed the texts of all the six darshanasn so they never had an ideological or theological anxiety about the implications of scientific exploration in India.

Science production, reception and the Indic psyche

Let us take the example of an Indian mathematician who lived not in the very distant past. Krishna Daivajna, the author of the algebraic work Bijapallava, lived in the 16th century. He introduced the number line to elucidate the addition and subtraction of positive and negative integers. His work shows a profound knowledge of the six darshanas while his elaborate commentary of the first benedictory verse of Bhaskara combines the cores of Sankhya and Yoga philosophy. The mathematician explains the theory of transformation of Sankhya and theory of appearance of Advaita schools as well. [19]

It is not only in production of science but also reception of science by the general psyche that the epistemological pluralism and theo-diversity of India play a healthy role. For example, Hawking created a lot of Abrahamic heartburn with his 2010 book that rejects a creator-deity. Dismissing the creator from his heavenly throne, Hawking states:

We saw…that our universe seems to be one of many, each with different laws. That multiverse idea is not a notion invented to account for the miracle of fine-tuning. It is a consequence of the no-boundary condition as well as many other theories of modern cosmology…But just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.[20]

Now the idea of multiverse is something that Abrahamic faiths find very hard to accommodate in their theological box-structures. However, Hindu-Buddhist cosmologies have always considered a multiverse scenario and have embedded it in their cosmological visions.  As physicist-author MichioKaku points out:

In [Hindu-Buddhist] mythologies, the universe is timeless, with no beginning or end. There are many levels of existence, but the highest is Nirvana, which is eternal and can be attained only by the purest meditation. In the Hindu Mahapurana, it is written, ‘If God created the world, where was He before Creation?…Know that the world is uncreated, as time itself is, without beginning and end.’

Kaku moves on from there towards a greater synthesis:

Perhaps, scientists speculate, Genesis occurs repeatedly in a timeless ocean of Nirvana. In this new picture, our universe may be compared to a bubble floating in a much larger ‘ocean’, with new bubbles forming all the time. According to this theory, universes, like bubbles forming in boiling water, are in continual creation, floating in a much larger arena, the Nirvana of eleven-dimensional hyperspace. A growing number of physicists suggest that our universe did indeed spring forth from a fiery cataclysm, the Big Bang, but that it also coexists in an eternal ocean of other universes. If we are right, Big Bangs are taking place even as you read this sentence. [21]

Towards Inclusion:

It is exactly the absence of philosophical and hence epistemological pluralism that creates agony, censorship and antagonism towards the discoveries of science. So while what Modi mentioned in passing about genetic science being known in ancient India was wrong, it was not anti-science. If rightly used, they can make good pedagogic tools. Yet India needs not fantasies of the past but vigorous and intelligent integration of her pluralist philosophical traditions with the modern educational system. But what Pope Francis stated about the ‘requirement of creator’ behind the Big Bang and evolution presupposing creation, though sophisticated, is not only faulty logic but has the potential to thwart science.

So for an Abrahamic religion like Catholic Christianity, the real solution for a healthy interaction with science is not to invent theological adjustments which would retreat behind the left out mysteries of each new discovery but to reconcile the limitations of the faith-based system before the magnificence of the universe.

Let us also not underestimate or rigidly negative-stereotype the Catholic Church’s contribution to science. Beyond the fantasy of genetics in the Mahabharata, it was Gregor Mendel, an Austrian Catholic abbot who laid the foundations for genetics as a science.But the problem of the Church is its rigid adherence to a theology that requires an exclusive, monotheistic, personal creator-deity and its ever constant vigil against any possible heretic implications of modern scientific discoveries.

As Kaku points out, the Abrahamic deity has to recognize himself as just one of the many infinite space-time cycles that happen in the eternal play of the Divine. Philosopher Alan Watts was even more explicit. He said:

We have seen that if the Christian view of the world is true, the Hindu cannot be true. On the other hand, if the Hindu view is true, the Christian can also be true…This ‘Chinese box’ inclusion of the Christian myth within the Hindu seems to be more fruitful and suggestive than the alternative of taking the Christian myth to be true to the exclusion of the Hindu.[22]

Perhaps what the Pope really has to attempt is to move towards this inclusion.

(References made available in the next page)


[1] Linus Pauling,
Linus Pauling in his own words
, [Ed. Barbara Marianacci], Simon & Schuster, 1995, p.191 [2] MaseehRahman,
Indian prime minister claims genetic science existed in ancient times
, The Guardian, 28-Oct-2014 [3] Carl Sagan,
Broca’s Brain
, Random House, 1974,p.70 [4] SitaramYechuri,
Misusing Faith
, People’s Democracy, 23-Sep-2007 [5]
Religious Differences on the Question of Evolution
, Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, 4-Feb-2009: URL:  [accessed on 30-Oct-2014] [6] Adam Withnall,
Pope Francis declares evolution and Big Bang theory are real and God is not ‘a magician with a magic wand’
, The Independent, 01-Nov-2014 [7] Rev. Fulton J Sheen, Ph.D., S.T.D,
Dr. Fulton Sheen answers questions of Prof.Einstein
The Guardian
(Official organ of Little Rock diocese, Arkansas),The Catholic Publication Society, 29-Nov-1930 [8] Robert Charles Zaehner,
Concordant discord: the interdependence of faiths: being the Gifford lectures on natural religion delivered at St. Andrews in 1967-1969
, Clarendon Press, 1970, p.152 [9] Rev.Fr. John W. Flanagan,
A Periscope on Teilhard de Chardin
, Catholic Priests Association Newsletter, Vol.1, 1971 [10]
Condemnation of Teilhard de Chardin by the Holy Office in 1962
, Holy Office Decree published in Latin in L’Osservatore Romano, July 1, 1962: Translation:
[accessed on Oct-30-2014] [11] Douglas J. Futuyma,
Science on Trial: The case for Evolution
, New York: Pantheon Books, 1983, p. 197 [12] Amir Alexander,
The Secret Spiritual History of Calculus
Scientific American
, April 2014, pp.82-85 [13] David M Harland,
The Big Bang: A View from the 21st Century
, Springer, 2006, p.136 [14] Cardinal William Cardinal O’Connell, quoted in the obituary article:
Death of a Cardinal
, 01-May-1944 [15] Max Jammer,
Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology
, Princeton University Press, 2011,p.82 [16] John D Barrow,
The World within the World
, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.227 [17] Stephen Hawking,
A Brief History of Time
, Bantam Books, 1988,p.116 [18] Albert Einstein in
Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist
. The Library of Living Philosophers, vol. 7.(Ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp), 1949, p.683 [19] SitaSundra Ram Ph.D,
Bijapallava of Krishna Daivajna Algebra in sixteenth century India: a critical study
, The KuppusawmiSastri Research Institute, 2012, pp.216-7 [20]Stephen Hawking,
A Grand Design
, Bantam Books, 2010, p.53 [21] MichioKaku,
Parallel Worlds: a journey through creation, higher dimensions, and the future of the cosmos
, Doubleday 2005, p.5 [22] Alan Watts,
Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship
, Vintage 1972, pp.198-9

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

An Appeal...

Dear Reader,

As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber
Comments ↓
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.