The Satyagrahi Scientist

The Satyagrahi Scientist

by Shanthu Shantharam - Oct 12, 2016 01:59 PM +05:30 IST
The Satyagrahi ScientistGandhi and his followers 
  • We can only guess what Gandhi’s views on today’s science would have been.

    What we do know is that he was not opposed to science, but wanted it to have a human touch.

Far too many people, including many of the Gandhi followers today, think that the Mahatma was anti-science. Hardly. He was largely pro-science but with a humanistic touch. One of his quotes—“science without humanity is of no value to society”—proves the point. It is true that a large volume of his own writings and writings on him almost excludes any reference to science. He was not a materialistic person, and to the extent science was used for exploitative purposes, he might have been opposed to science. However, if science was ultimately used to benefit humanity, particularly the poor, he was all for science.

He must have thought of morals in science. For example, when asked for his opinion on nuclear energy, he was not appreciative of the devastating use of the atomic bomb, but hoped that one day it might be used for peaceful purposes. In other words, he thought of science as a double-edged sword that can be put to both good and bad uses. That’s the essence of all his views on science. His contemporary Albert Einstein had written to the Mahatma admiring his satyagraha as a means of finding peace in the world that had been ravaged by two world wars. Gandhi’s man-nature and fact-value relations form the essence of his theoretical framework for Gandhian science, if there is such a thing.

Shambhu Prasad writes that scholars of Gandhian studies have not been really able to fathom his views on science as most of them are moulded by Nehru’s famous Scientific Policy Resolution of 1956. Gandhi’s views on science have been mostly deduced from his views on machinery, industrial age, and modern civilisation. Aldous Huxley was among the first to brand Gandhi and his khadi movement as anti-science. Gandhiites believe that his call to “return to nature” was his call to abandon science altogether. If one objectively analyses the modern day environmental movement, one can see how activists have coopted Gandhi’s positions to agitate and militate against science as can be witnessed in today’s anti-GMO movement in India.

Some of these activists ill-advised Prince Charles to quote Mahatma Gandhi to oppose GMOs in many of his utterances on the subject. If one were to adopt this so-called Gandhian views on science today, millions of Indians would perish due to starvation and for want of modern medicine. Nehru wrote explicitly to Huxley disavowing Gandhi’s views on science. Anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose cast Gandhi as a religious and a political person as opposed to a person with a scientific attitude, and that has stuck with time. Scientist Meghnad Saha saw Gandhian views on science as retrograde. Today’s anti-science and anti-tech activists in India overdraw imagery of good old days when no one had anything to complain about and blame all troubles of the world due to modern science. Saha told Russians that Indian scientists have the same amount of regard for Gandhian science as Russians have for Tolstoy.

Gandhi, unlike Swami Vivekananda, had a purely spiritual view of science and materialistic aspects of Indian culture. Shambhu Prasad writes that missing Gandhi in science is missing science in Gandhian studies. Political scientist Bhiku Parekh has seen scientific attitude in Gandhi by referring to his experiments in truth. According to Ashish Nandy, Gandhi judged technology as what is represented as in the case of GMOs and multinational corporations. Makarand Sahasrabudhe, in his “Science Question”, reveals that Gandhi propounded a new dynamic theory of man-man and man-nature relationships that does not differentiate any fact from value, bereft of humanity. Shiv Viswanathan describes Gandhi as an innovative scientist who chartered the “swadeshi” way of peaceful political resistance to the British rule. One wonders, if the present day, Swadeshi Jagran Manch derives its anti-GM stance from this interpretation of Gandhian science.

When in South Africa, Gandhi told the British Association for the Advancement of Science to rename itself “British Empire Association for the Advancement of Science” to facilitate all its colonies to develop their own scientific capacities. Gandhi placed science in the context of decolonisation. British Association for the Advancement of Science seems to be the precursor of the Indian Science Congress that began in 1930s. Gandhi always prompted the people to cultivate a spirit of inquiry that scientists possess. Gandhi maintained that he was a humble seeker of truth, but not a scientist.

Gandhi constructed his view on science with it needing the least amount of money that would need no big and costly laboratories, ashrams and gurukuls of science. Gandhi probably thought that the entire natural world is a huge scientific laboratory, and that would not necessarily be a wrong notion to have, based on what we know of the world of science today. Gandhi did not like to separate science from morality. It is not clear if Gandhi had any view on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Drafting Gandhian principles, the same anti-tech activists also oppose IPR in science and technology, making it a moral issue. Modern day anti-tech activists do not approve of any science or technology that are patentable.

According to Anup Sam Ninan, the techno-scientific notions of the Gandhian school of thought, and the idea of technology and sustainability needs, are broadened, based on the idea of nature. Nature-human interactions were crucial for Gandhians in pursuing their political activities. Posting nature methodologically as an unproblematic abstract category, Gandhians formulated, redefined and appropriated techno-scientific spaces, thereby facilitating their technological choices and artefacts to embody the values of sustainability, decentralised autonomy, and labour-intensiveness. They engaged science and technology as a contextually contingent social process and integrated it into a mass political movement by identifying techno-science as a site of political action. By Gandhian philosophy, mass movements in the techno-scientific space create the so-called democratisation of technology. But it can also become the mobocratisation of science to the detriment of scientific progress.

Gandhi was opposed to vivisection, a perfectly normal practice of science. Using laboratory animals for biological experimentation was anathema to him. Fortunately, today, computer graphics and modeling have replaced many such animal experiments. Gandhi could not have had any vision of what the 21st century held for humanity and how it is really the machines (robots) that can do so many things that man could not or maybe should not do. His belief in Ayurveda was also due to the fact that unlike western medicine, Ayurveda maintained a close relationship with his other beliefs in religion.

Gandhi was highly appreciative of modern scientists’ humility and spirit of inquiry that the traditional people lacked. Gandhi repeatedly highlighted that some of the greatest achievements of science are weapons of mass destruction of people and nature because that is all what he saw. One wonders whether he appreciated the discovery of antibiotics!

He was also hurt by large scale commercial advertisements by Ayurveda vaids as he must have believed that medicine must be a service to humanity and one that should not be crassly commercialized. He berated vaids for pretending to do a lot more than they actually did and their tall claims of curing everything under the sun. He accused them of stagnating the system by not making their knowledge open and transparent. He said, “I know not of a single discovery or invention of any significance of Ayurvedic physicians as against a brilliant array of discoveries and inventions which western physicians and surgeons boast.”

Gandhi admired many ancient things as noble, and argued for adding and enriching the ancient legacy with modern thoughts and ideas of experimentation. But he also said that ancient texts are not always the last word on everything. He was all for revitalising old systems of medicine wherever there was merit, and through modern research. He was striving for Ayurvedic physicians to undertake research and offered his own ashrams for experimentation. He really wanted to create a cadre of satyagrahi scientists, just like political satyagrahis, of purity and character, to turn the tide of medievalism. By looking into his views and arguments on Ayurveda, it becomes clear that Mahatma Gandhi had a scientific spirit and inquisitiveness.

Gandhi’s idea of practical science came to the fore with coining of the phrases like “science of the spinning wheel’ and “khadi science”. His Ahmedabad ashram became a means to organise satyagrahi scientists in the khadi science movement. The ashram became a laboratory, educational and training institute for khadi scientists. In an address to scientists in 1927 at the Indian Institute of Science, he appealed to scientists to have a heart and a mind in doing scientific research so that they can earn the confidence of the common man whose tax money was being used by them to do their lofty science. This is still the cry of many among ordinary Indians that scientists really don’t explain what they are doing with all the government money. Gandhi saw science not as a material pursuit but a process that must help society. In order to pursue his desire to promote rural science, he created an organisation called All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) with 20 members, including eminent scientists like C.V. Raman, P.C. Ray and J.C. Bose to develop a blueprint with centralised thought, ideas and scientific knowledge to take science to the villages.

Gandhi also had his own ideas on science education. The first thing he wanted to do was to loosen the vice grip the English language had on science education that in and by itself had denied science education to India’s teeming millions. He laid emphasis on practical, hands-on training that is still eluding lots of students of science in the country. He wanted the Gujarat Vidyapeeth to use vernacular language to teach science and use English wherever only technically necessary by explaining it in Gujarati. He wanted scientific learning in all subjects. He strongly believed that Indian science would stagnate as long as untouchability was not eradicated from Indian society. He believed that science should level the field for all, and not divide society. He believed that modern science should completely erase class distinctions throughout the world.

He also believed in his “nai talim” that people should promote centres of excellence and not mediocrity. On higher education, he wrote: “Under my scheme, there would be more and better libraries, laboratories and research institutes. Under it will be an army of scientists who will be the real servants of the people and the nation and solve varied number of growing problems of the society to meet growing needs, rights and wants of an enlightened population. These people should speak the language of the common people and their knowledge become the common property of the people. Only then, there would be truly original work instead of mere imitation and the cost evenly and justly distributed.” The Gandhi Seva Sangh started in 1923 was his dream “post-graduate institute for research” to serve as a platform to speak about science and research for villagers.

Gandhi was not an environmentalist in the modern sense of the word, but the word “nature” creeps up time and again in all his writings. His famous quote that “nature has enough to satisfy everybody’s needs, but not to satisfy anybody’s greed” has become an ethical credo in the modern environmental movement. He is often described as an apostle of “applied human ecology”. Ramachandra Guha calls him an early environmentalist. His life’s philosophy of satyagraha based on truth and non-violence, simple lifestyle and development reveal his ideas on how sustainable development is possible without doing undue harm to the nature.

Gandhi considered the earth as one living organism. His idea was expressed in terms of two fundamental laws: Cosmic Law and the Law of Species. Cosmic Law views the entire earth as a single entity that has threshold limits within which both living and non-living co-exist in harmony. He believed that the universe was structured and informed by the cosmic spirit, that all men and women, indeed all life, is one. He wrote he believed in Advaita (non-duality). Gandhi believed that according to the Law of Species, no evolution is possible without the cooperation between human and non-human species. He believed that humans, being rational, are custodians of the rest of Creation and should respect their rights and cherish the diversity. It is for this reason that taking more than what is required is considered a theft. Gandhi evolved his reasoning from his vast readings on Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam. His social, economic and political ideas were framed on the understanding of inter-dependence of the whole universe.

Gandhi did not reject modern science, he sought to humanise it. In his address to college students in Trivandrum in 1925, Gandhi said that we cannot live without science, provided we keep it in its right place. No one knows what he meant by that as we are all immersed in the scientific world today. He certainly lamented the misuse of science like eugenics and nuclear technology. He had no idea about modern biotechnology as we know it today. Gandhi wanted students of science to also toil in the streets just like the poor to develop empathy for them so that they could bring to bear their science in the service of the poor. He really wanted development of villages through science, which is why he wanted scientists to understand villages more than anything else.

Gandhi was not merely interested in technical solutions to the problem, but wanted a value (meaning) attached to it. This is precisely what every scientist manager asks a scientist in his R&D today. One cannot create anything of value using science if it does not serve some larger purpose of humanity, meaning the paying customers. Gandhi did not see science outside religion. For him, to be a scientist was to follow his dharma. To him, faith transcended reason. Faith is a function of the heart that needs to be enforced by reason. Scientists too have faith in science. Science to him was not above truth. For him, ahimsa was truer than scientific facts. He believed faith and reason can explore many other facets of life that science cannot explore. He thought that scientists had no clue about moral behavior with natural phenomena.

Gandhi was a many-sided personality. His simplicity of life and single-minded devotion to non-violence permeated all his ideas and thoughts. It is really unfortunate that many of the followers of Gandhi in today’s India interpret his ideology to suit their own whims and fancies to pursue their own personal agenda, because if one were to use the name of Gandhi, somehow the people of India just swallow it and give it a stamp of approval. But that scenario is changing rapidly. Gandhi cannot be misused for all sorts of things any longer.

Gandhi passed away before witnessing the fantastic progress in modern science and technology that came after the 1950s. Not all his views can be used to interpret what his opinion of them would have been today. They can at best be guesses that cannot be verified. However, Gandhi was not opposed to science, wanted science to have a human touch and a discipline that should not misused. In today’s world, the only way one can make sure that science is not misused is through oversight, but that in and by itself has become a very controversial approach to promoting scientific enterprise.

Shanthu Shantharam is a Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. A former biotechnology regulator with the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Shantharam has served as a consultant to UN-FAO, UNIDO, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank. He was responsible for initiating the development of India’s biotech regulations in the early 1990s when he was a Fulbright Scholar at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

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