Haldane, Caste And Hinduism: A Closer Look

Haldane, Caste And Hinduism: A Closer Look

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Tuesday, May 23, 2023 10:17 PM IST
Haldane, Caste And Hinduism: A Closer Look JBS Haldane
  • From 1917 till the end of his life, the JBS Haldane's approach to Hinduism was shaped by one thing—his quest for Satya.

Can a person combine an uncompromising search for both the fundamental truth underlying all existence and for making the society a more humanistic one with lesser suffering than the present?

Where would such a search lead a person?

If one has been living in the 1940s, the answer would have been obviously, Marxism.

Marxism has the promise of both answers - answering the fundamental mystery of existence through dialectical materialism and providing a solution for human suffering through the dictatorship of the proletariat which would finally usher humanity into an utopia where the state would wither away. And it places itself in the tradition of Christianity and Islam as 'the only truth'.

In this context, let us examine a life of a scientist—a polymath committed to finding the secrets of life and existence and also equally committed to a better world where human condition would vastly improve.

Where did that quest lead such a personality?

I - JBS Haldane - 'a potential Muslim not a potential Hindu'

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964), British-born Indian scientist, led a colourful life, ever-adventurous of the cerebral kind. An evolutionary biologist, physiologist, biochemist and statistician, he was a polymath. He was one of the architects of modern evolutionary theory.

In 1917, Haldane came to India. He was barely 25. His views were typically that of a British colonial, military man.

Young J.B.S.Haldane in military uniform (right). His values were those of an imperialist then.
Young J.B.S.Haldane in military uniform (right). His values were those of an imperialist then.

He wrote:

When an Indian and I are both genuinely trying to be polite to one another, he suspects that I am being condescending and I suspect that he is being servile. The Indians with whom I got on best were Indian army officers holding King’s [as opposed to Viceroy’s] commissions, with some of whom I used to play chess.
Ronald Clark, J.B.S: The Life and Work of J.B.S Haldane, Oxford University Press, 1984, p.49

His observation of Indian society was negative:

The key to India was snobbery. The Hindu caste system is the greatest glorification of snobbery that the world has ever known.

He compared Hinduism with Islam:

Hindus are born, not made. And Islam is a religion of universal brotherhood, whilst Hinduism perpetrates a complex hierarchy of classes. Further, I am sufficiently prudish to find the human sexual organs unsuitable as religious symbols.

The above is a typical colonial assessment of Hinduism and not different from that of a Winston Churchill or a Beverley Nichols.

Essentializing Hinduism with caste, they admired the 'egalitarian' Islam. Churchill was at one point ready to embrace Islam or so, thought his near ones. Haldane's biographer Ronald Clark remarks similarly that Haldane 'was a potential Muslim, not a potential Hindu.' (p.50)

II- From 'a Party-Scientist' to 'Party or Science?'

In 1930s, Haldane started getting attracted to Marxism. During this period, in a rather condescending way, he was looking at the deeper philosophical aspects of Hinduism.

Couched in Hegelian terminology and gravitating towards Marxist materialism, he diagnosed an unfortunate 'tendency to identify the absolute—i.e. the universe considered in its mind-like aspect—as in some sort an equivalent of God'.

Though he himself could not 'see the cogency of that view' it still provided 'a fairly satisfactory emotional substitute for Theism.' He could easily see the similarity between this and the Hindu 'Brahman' but cautioned that such a philosophical religion could still worship various Gods.

He was also confusing Brahma the Puranic creator with Brahman the principle. ('The Inequality of Man and Other Essays', 1932:38, pp. 184-5)

Though in an accelerated fall towards Marxism, he admired Gandhian Satyagraha. The official Party line (both Communist Party of Great Britain and that of Soviet Union) was that salt Satyagraha was actually 'calculated to help the triumph of colonial power in India.'

Haldane though attracted to Marxism supported in his book Salt Satyagraha. Communist Parties of both Britain and the USSR attacked Gandhi.
Haldane though attracted to Marxism supported in his book Salt Satyagraha. Communist Parties of both Britain and the USSR attacked Gandhi.

Haldane supported Salt Satyagraha refreshingly from a physiological perspective:

... the need of salt is most felt by vegetarians in hot countries such as India. Here it is a necessity of life. In England it is somewhat of a luxury, and most of us eat more of it than we need, though it probably does us no harm. It could be taxed without injustice. But in India the salt tax weighs most heavily on the poorest workers, and Mr. Gandhi’s campaign for its abolition was biochemically justified.
'Food' in 'Science and Everyday Life', Kitab Mahal (First Indian Edition), 1945, p.199

In 1942, Haldane officially joined the Communist Party.

Throughout the 1940s though, his views on India slowly changed. The evolutionist underwent his own inner evolution. Writing copiously for Daily Worker the organ of CPGB, he became the Party's voice of science.

J.B.S.Haldane addressing workers at a Party meeting. Facsimile of 'Daily Worker'
J.B.S.Haldane addressing workers at a Party meeting. Facsimile of 'Daily Worker'

Then came the Lysenko crisis.

Under Stalin's patronage, Lysenko, a plant-breeder castigated genetics as Bourgeois science. Ideological commissars agreed. Information started leaking that the geneticists were persecuted in Stalin's USSR. Geneticists were arrested, asked to recant or jailed, tortured and executed.

Haldane was torn between his commitment to party and science. Within party circles he argued against what was happening in the USSR to the geneticists. Outside, including in an infamous BBC debate, he half-heartedly tried to justify what was happening in the USSR.

This included the death of Nikolai Vailov, personally known to Haldane.

Haldane thought Vavilov had actually been freed and died working in Arctic and stated so in a BBC debate. Haldane even went to the extent of calling the brilliant scientist Vavilov as a 'plant-breeder'. Yet, the Party was not pleased with his half-hearted defence.

Haldane was torn between loyalty to Party and his commitment to science.  Soviet Geneticists were arrested and executed.
Haldane was torn between loyalty to Party and his commitment to science. Soviet Geneticists were arrested and executed.

Finally he had to break with the party and denounce the USSR. By this time the Soviet Union had gone to the extent of characterizing genetics as Bourgeois science and even denying the existence of genes. Teaching genetics was banned.

In 1948, Haldane quit the party.

Cartoon in 'Evening Star' Haldane attacked for not supporting Party stand on the purging of Soviet Geneticists. circa 1949: from Gordon McOuat, 2017
Cartoon in 'Evening Star' Haldane attacked for not supporting Party stand on the purging of Soviet Geneticists. circa 1949: from Gordon McOuat, 2017

In a detailed study of this painfully fascinating phase in the history of genetics, Prof. Diane B. Paul concludes thus:

Most of the party's scientific members ultimately left it but, surprisingly, not over the Lysenko issue. ... As far as I have been able to determine, Haldane alone broke with the party over Lysenkoism, choosing his scientific over his political loyalties.
A War on Two Fronts: J. B. S. Haldane and the Response to Lysenkoism in Britain, Journal of the History of Biology , Vol. 16, No. 1, 1983, p. 36

Yet another problem surfaced. Reports of atomic espionage by politically influenced or financially favoured scientists were coming out in the West. Haldane himself was coming under increased scrutiny of British intelligence. Also questions were raised in political circles as to why a Communist scientist like Haldane had access to important researches.

Haldane could neither go to the USSR nor live a life of freedom in England.

Meanwhile he had started admiring Indian culture more and more. He was also observing keenly the developments happening in Indian society. Here are a few glimpses into the evolutionary trajectory of of his views.

III-An Evolutionary Biologist's Evolving Views on Hinduism

Even a few years before migrating to India he believed in the historical validity of Marxism. But he was increasingly understanding the dynamic nature of Hindu Dharma.

Still categorizing Advaita as 'absolute idealism' as opposed to scientific materialism though, he considered the latter to be true:

If I state my opinion to the officiating Brahmin that Sarasvati has no real existence, he will probably reply, ‘Of course not, nor have you or I, all three of us are illusory forms.’ We can then proceed to discuss the nature of illusion. The fact that such an opinion is not only common but even orthodox implies that Hinduism will offer a different kind of resistance to humanism from the other great religions. It may, of course, go down before a frontal attack by Marxism, but it is so plastic and undogmatic that I believe that it may incorporate a great deal of humanism without succumbing.
(A Rationalist with a Halo, 1954) in 'Science and Life: Essays of a Rationalist', Rationalist Press Association: Pemberton Publishing Co., 1968, p.89

In 1956 writing about 'miracles' Haldane wrote:

I think that the conditions for the scientific investigation of miracles are much better in India than in modern Europe. This is not only because they are more frequent but because Hinduism is more sophisticated, and less censorious of human psychological variation, than is Christianity or Naturalism, a word which I use for the world view common in scientific circles. Unfortunately many of my Indian colleagues have accepted this latter standpoint so completely that they are unwilling to investigate the claims of yogis to perform even such minor prodigies as slowing their hearts down. Seeing that yogis perform most remarkable feats with other muscles, it seems to me probable that some of them can control their hearts. And they can certainly control their breathing. ... I think it probable that the yogis, by their special methods of breathing achieve what they regard as an extension of consciousness, though I have used the word hallucination for comparable phenomena. The terminology used will vary with one’s world view.
ibid., pp. 112-13

One should note here how Haldane, within a span of two years, had gone from the possibility of Hinduism succumbing to Marxism, to criticizing the narrow worldview of 'Naturalism' which he thought his scientist friends, including those from India, had. Even his admiration for Nehru was partly because the Prime Minister practiced Yoga and mainly because he was a rationalist. This admiration would later diminish.

In 1956 he delivered the Huxley Memorial Lecture. He astonished his audience with a call for using 'Hindu anthropology.' The talk, worth quoting in detail, is relevant even today for the formation of Hindu social sciences.

Colonialism lasted for about four centuries, and is now drawing to a close. Hindu anthropology is similarly a by-product of caste system, which is now also drawing to a close, but which lasted for over two thousand years. Soviet anthropology is a by-product of yet a third system. We do not know how long it will last, but it is not yet forty years old, and some of its tenets are taken over from Morgan's study of the Iroquois, which was a by-product of colonialism. ... I shall thus annoy not only British and Soviet anthropologists, but the majority of Indian ones, who may very reasonably object to a terminology associated with ideas which are a hindrance to progress in India. On the other hand I am emboldened to use the terminology of Indian cultural anthropology because some Western anthropologists ignore it completely.
'The Argument from Animals to Men: An Examination of its Validity for Anthropology', The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland , Jul. - Dec., 1956, Vol. 86, No. 2, pp.1-

The Hindu system he expressed was based on the work of Nirmal Kumar Bose (1901-1972), Cultural Anthropology. Haldane continued:

According to the Hindu classics, human desires can be classified according as they are concerned with artha, economic needs, kama, reproductive needs, and moksha, the need for emancipation from these other needs. Perhaps there is also a dharma concerned with beauty, sundara. A culture is characterized by various dharmas which satisfy these needs to a greater or less extent. Each dharma acts through five agencies, vastu or material object, kriya or habitual action, samhati or social grouping, vicharamulaka tattwa, namely 'knowledge based on experience and subject to criticism,' and viswasamulaka tattwa or knowledge based on faith. These interact with the svadharma of each individual, which, to some extent, corresponds with our notion of genotype.

Of course, his way of presenting the Purusharthas could be challenged. But the more important point to be noted is his formulation of a Hindu framework for social studies without the usual obsession with caste system.

In his Huxley Memorial lecture Haldane based his anthropological view on Hindu framework.
In his Huxley Memorial lecture Haldane based his anthropological view on Hindu framework.

He seemed to have realised clearly that the principles for longevity of the civilisation lay elsewhere, and not in social stratification. With an extraordinary insight he pondered over the question of discovering these elements—- including what he called Mokshadharma— in non-human animal life

Haldane had his own misgivings about Jan Sangh as a religious orthodox party. Yet it was the Jan Sangh ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya who took forward the format put forth by Haldane.

Upadhyaya's 'Integral Humanism', while mostly ignoring jaati-varna, concentrated on Purusharthas.

In 1957, Haldane announced his decision to come to India for a talk to the rationalist association. It was later published as A Passage to India.

He still held some inaccurate views. For example he said that Gandhi was assassinated because he opposed caste and his assassin was a 'traditionalist' though Godse had been an anti-caste activist.

Despite Haldane's 'sneaking sympathy for Brahmins' he also held a non-negative view, but not an acceptance, of 'Mr. Naicker's movement' in southern India.

But his earlier view on caste system had changed. He saw the 'caste system' as more dynamic. Surely it was discriminatory. He compared it with similar elements in British society:

The Indian government has made it a crime to exclude ‘untouchable’ men and women from streets or temples. The British government regards bequests to religious foundations whose members must treat women as untouchable as charitable bequests. I regard the Indian government as more progressive, in this respect, than the British.
'A passage to India', in 'Science and Life: Essays of a Rationalist', p.127

Now he was more a 'potential Hindu' and rejected Islam categorically. He told the members of the rationalist society this:

I certainly object to a religion like Islam which tells its adherents in great detail both what they must do and what they must believe. A Hindu must, I suppose, believe in some god or gods. But if he chooses, he has scriptural authority for the opinion that the gods only exist in human minds.
ibid., p.129

With much enthusiasm he joined Indian Institute of Science.

In 1957 Haldane gave the famous Patel memorial lecture. The title he chose was 'Unity in Diversity.' Among other things he pointed out that diversity of various components in a system is healthy when each of these components could perform their Swadharma. Haldane concluded his lecture by pointing out the unity of life and stated:

On the walls of the large room in the zoological laboratory at Munster where Professor Rensch keeps living animals are written the words 'tat twam asi'. If I have helped any of you to understand some of the implications of this great saying, my lectures have not been in vain.
Unity in Diversity, Patel Memorial Lecture-1957, Publications Division, Govt of India, 1958, pp.74-5

While many know about physicists being fascinated with 'Eastern wisdom' not many know about the fascination biologists had for Hinduism.

The scientist whom Haldane mentioned was Bernhard Rensch (1900-1990). An evolutionary biologist, he started with belief in transmission of acquired characters driving evolution. Soon he was convinced of Darwinian selection and like Haldane was one of the chief architects of 'the modern synthesis' - between genetics and natural selection.

He did his field work in India and Indonesia and his non-dualist philosophy of biology was influenced by Upanishads, Spinoza etc. He wrote:

So everyone must constantly bear in mind that each living organism is part of the same eternal and divine brahman (tat tvam asi), to which no violence must be done (ahimsa). The Katha Upanishad contains the following passage (II.ii,9): "As the same non-dual fire, after it has entered the world becomes different according to whatever it burns, so also the same non-dual atman dwelling in all beings, becomes different according to whatever It enters."
Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, 1971, p. 332

Into the 1960s, Haldane was increasingly disillusioned with the way Nehruvian State had lovely words for science but little to show for them. It combined the inefficient elements of both British and Soviet systems to become their worst caricature.

Nehru initially considered Haldane a prized catch. He even politely answered a few of his letters. Later, he ignored them.

Finally his conflicts with Mahalanobis at the Indian Institute of Statistics made Haldane move to Bhubaneswar to establish the Genetics and Biometry Laboratory with the support of the then 'Orissa' state government.

Indian statistician Mahalanobis was originally Haldane's good friend, instrumental in bringing him to the Statistical Institute. Haldane's own inability to fit into institutions also was a factor in move away from the IIS.

Alarmed at a new caste system that Nehruvian State was creating, he compared it with the old system and wrote:

The old caste system had this merit, that the richest merchant or Zamindar could not buy the status of brahmin for his son even if the son was learned and pious. Whatever the defects of that system - and I think they were and are grievous- it was not subservient to wealth. The new caste system which the university administrative authorities, with the connivance of many government officials are trying with some success to impose upon India, has no such excuse. ... In India today the unworthy successors of Durvasa and Vishvamitra actually invite governors, vice-chancellors and the like to address them. This may be a relic of British Rule. If so, it is a regrettable one.
'What ails Indian science?' in 'Science and Indian Culture', New Age Publishers, Calcutta, 1965

Dr. Krishna Dronamraju (1937-2020) was a brilliant geneticist. When J.B.S. Haldane came to India in 1957 he wrote to him and joined him as a PhD student. Then he became his colleague in research and was closely associated with Haldane till the latter's death in 1964.

In 1985, he wrote about the life of Haldane.

Benefitting from his close association with Haldane the book naturally focussed on his life in India. The book Haldane: The Life and Work of J.B.S.Haldane with Special Reference to India (Aberdeen University Press, 1985) was reviewed by another scientist, a bio-chemist and virologist, N.W.Pirie in Nature magazine.

In this critical review Pirie opined that Dronamraju had overstated the affinity JBS Haldane had for Hindu Dharma. He wrote:

I feel that Dronamraju overstates the extent to which Haldane accepted Hinduism. He was, of course, sympathetic to the principle of non-violence in spite of having written, many years before moving to India, that he enjoyed killing people in the First World War. But non-violence underlies almost all ethical systems-in- Hinduism it may be nearer the surface. Haldane was too original a man to fit tidily into any political, religious or social system. The attempt to appropriate him is one point on which this book can be criticized.
N.W.Pirie, Haldane as guru, Nature Vol.319, 20-Feb-1986, p.630

Prof. Dronamraju, also a prolific science writer wrote his last book in 2017 which too was on Haldane. Here he brought out a very interesting incident in Haldane's life :

One of our memorable visits was to see the holy temple at Benares or Varanasi, the holiest shrine for Hindus, where foreigners are rarely allowed. A man at the entrance to the temple stopped us and asked me, “Who are these people? Are they also going in?” I answered, “They are devotees, just like you and me.” We were allowed inside. It was an occasion of great joy for Haldane to step inside that temple at Benares or Varanasi! It was my impression that he came closest to being a Hindu or what he felt like being a Hindu at that point. ... Pirie was seriously mistaken. If he were present at that point when Haldane entered the holy temple at Varanasi, I am sure Pirie would have reached a different conclusion. Furthermore, there is a lot more to Hinduism than nonviolence.
Krishna Dronamraju, Popularizing Science: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane, OUP, 2017, p.345

The view of both Haldane and his wife Helen Spurway with regard to evolution and Hinduism is given in another article. From his 1917 prudish aversion for the worship of so-called 'reproductive organs' by which he meant Shiv Linga, to his near religious rapture before the Shiv Linga at Kashi, the change had been phenomenal.

In conclusion, from 1917 till the end of his life, the approach to Hinduism for Haldane was shaped by one thing - his quest for Satya. He placed that quest above everything else - from his colonial biases in 1917 to party affiliation in 1940s to the end of Indian days. His life is the embodiment of the Upanishadic message to humanity - असतोमा सद्गमय !

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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