Source: Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay, India), July 7, 2001
Breaking the Spell of Dharma:
Case for Indian Enlightenment
by Meera Nanda
I What Is Enlightenment?
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. I came across one such picture recently that speaks far more eloquently about the roots of the crisis of Indiaís secularism than many a learned tome. I urge you, dear reader, to take a long hard look at this picture ó and weep.
It is a black and white wire photo, first printed in The Times of India on September 14, 1987 and reprinted in Lise McKeanís recent book, The Divine Enterprise: Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Movement. The picture shows a crude wooden platform, about five feet high, with an emaciated, half-naked and unkempt old man dangling one leg over the wall of the platform. Underneath stands a middle-aged man clad in all white, with his bowed head touching the foot of that leg dangling from the platform. The owner of the leg is a ìholy manî by the name of Sant Devraha Baba of Vrindavan. The bowed head belongs to none other than Balram Jakhar, former speaker of the Lok Sabha. The representative-in-chief of the house-of-the-people of this, the secular-democratic Republic of India, touching the feet of an alleged god-man with his forehead, seeking his blessings.
This picture troubles me. I wince every time I see it. Why? Havenít I seen it all before? Arenít utterly humiliating, hierarchical and non-reciprocal gestures of self-effacement before power ó sacred and profane, in private and in public institutions alike ó a routine part of social life in India? But the very fact that such sights are so commonplace, and that we have continued to accept them as facts of life, is exactly what troubles me. Indeed, the banality, the utter taken-for-grantedness of our elected representatives, in their official capacities, bowing, prostrating and in other ways displaying their helplessness and inferiority before religious authorities ought to trouble all secularists.
I read these displays of public religiosity as signs of a democracy under the spell of dharma ó a democracy without democrats, a secularism without secularists. Unfortunately, whatever little discomfort we felt at such sights is fast disappearing: we do not even play at being secularists any more. Instead, elected representatives bowing before sadhu-sants is being touted as the Hindu ideal of ëdharma rajyaí, where ìthe Rishis, through the authority of dharma, have the right to remove a king who defaults on his dutyî, where ìdharma is higher than both the legislature and the judiciaryî [Upadhyay 1965]. Reality has caught up with our schizophrenic national culture: we no longer profess to be secular in public and intensely religious in our private affairs; we now indulge in conspicuous religiosity in both public and private spheres. What is more, we claim that it is a good thing too!1
Move now, for a moment, from late 20th century India to 18th century Europe. In 1763, Genevaís ecclesiastical assembly ordered one Robert Covelle to genuflectand listen to a reprimand for having fathered an illegitimate child. Covelle refused to kneel and turned to Voltaire, the leading light of the French Enlightenment, for help. Voltaire was outraged at the idea of religious authorities daring to make a citizen kneel: ìAn ecclesiastical assembly that presumed to make a citizen kneel would be playing the part of a pedant correcting children, or of a tyrant punishing slavesî, Voltaire wrote in a pamphlet against genuflection. The rest of the philosophes rallied behind Voltaire, and after six years of agitation, succeeded in having genuflection abolished in Geneva [Gay 1959: 63].
It is of numerous such refusals to kneel before authority that a public sphere worthy of a secular, liberal democracy is created. Because the ëecclesiastical authorityí is dispersed, localised and self-enforced in our society, it calls for many more ó not fewer ó refusals. Where are the million mutinies that we need, every day, at every level to create a society where no one can dare demand, or expect, citizens, or citizensí representatives, to kneel? Where is the outrage against the everyday tyrannies, fears and inhibitions perpetrated in the name of dharma that make our social institutions unfit for a free, equal and democratic people? Where are our Voltaires? Or is the impulse that propelled Voltaire and the rest of the members of the ëParty of Humanityí to take up the cause of critical reason in the service of an open society, a ëwesterní impulse, inapplicable to India, where religion is a ëtotal way of lifeí, a matter of ëinnocentí faith that cannot be questioned without losing the essence of being Indians?
A society where citizens do not kneel before the authority of the church and the state2 did not emerge in the west without a protracted struggle against the cosmopolis sanctified by the church and traditions. The secularist doctrines of separation of church and state and the liberal idea of ërights of maní did not suddenly appear in 17th and 18th century Europe, fully formed, either as an unintended ìgift of Christianityî, or as an expression of ëcultural genesí coding some special western propensity for freedom and individual conscience, as the culturalist from both the west and non-west alike like to claim. Nor was it an automatic unfolding of universal law of progress, as vulgar materialists would have it. Instead, secularism in the west was an eminently political achievement. The liberal idea of rights-bearing individuals, including the right of conscience, had to be fought for against the medieval cosmology of Christianity, against all those institutions that embodied that cosmology, and against the classes whose privileges this world view legitimated. In a sense, human rights, secularism and liberalism are ìpost-traditionalî for they are objects of active effort and cannot be simply derived from any religious doctrine or metaphysics.
Yet, while cultural essentialism is false, culture does matter. Religious and cultural traditions ó and the metaphysics they are rooted in ó are not irrelevant to the content, breadth and depth of acceptance of post-traditional norms. Where cultural traditions and religion do make a difference is how they either aid or impede the struggle for human liberty, equality and fraternity. Religious answers to questions of fundamental human importance ó What the world is like? How has it come about? What makes us human? What is the goal of human life? How best to attain these goals and what errors to avoid? ó constitute a kind of meta-reality or world-image which guide the social and ethical life of individuals, often at an unconscious level [Kakar 1981]. Different religious traditions differ in those elements of the meta-reality which make the idea of equal dignity of all human beings in here-and-now more, rather than less, easily acceptable.
Going against the grain of current trends in Indian sociology, which has either ignored or glorified the role of religion in Indian society, I will argue that there are elements of Hindu meta-reality ó indeed, its central axioms of dharma, karma and moksha ó which continue to impede the development of a liberal and secular civil society which respects the fundamental equality of right-bearing individuals. As the mere mention of the influence of Hindu world view on social life in India raises red flags of ìessentialismî or ìOrientalismî, let me emphasise that I am not arguing that there is a single unchanging Hindu meta-reality which will always and forever override the play of material interests, power, customary laws, other local traditions in society. All I am suggesting is that the multitude of local social institutions in India have had to engage with the central axioms of brahmanical Hinduism, which have set the standards of all that is deemed ideal and desirable, even for those castes and sects of Hindus who do not actually live by these ideals: even the aspiration to achieve these ideals (as in Sanskritisation), to construct an identity explicitly in defiance of these ideals (as in ëdalitisationí) is an indication of the power of these ideals. The ëlittle traditionsí, and their customary laws cannot be adequately understood without understanding their relationship with the ëGreat traditionsí of brahmanical Hinduism, for the former gain their ethical bearings, their sense of right and wrong, from the latter. It is as sources of ideological hegemony, and not as the ultimate, unchanging motor of Indian history, that the content and uses of the central philosophical concepts of Hinduism bear a serious and critical examination.
While cultural meta-reality exerts a powerful influence on the structure of feeling, thinking and relating to nature and society, this meta-reality is not beyond rational examination and critique. A powerful case for the ëreach of reasoní into our sentiments and attitudes has been recently stated by Amartya Sen [Sen 2000]. In a response to those who would rather depend upon the supposedly spontaneous human emotions and the goodness of basic human instincts, than on supposedly cold and harsh light of reason and analysis, Sen argues forcefully that the inner world of unconscious fears and affects can be ìinfluenced and cultivated through reasoningî. Citing Adam Smithís The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Sen argues that even our instinctive reactions to particular conduct rely on ìour reasoned understanding of causal connections between conduct and consequenceÖ[and that] our first perceptions may also change in response to critical examinationÖî Lest one takes such propensity for critical examination to be a uniquely western cultural trait, Sen provides an interesting reading of Akbarís insistence on exposing prevailing attitudes and social norms to critical reasoning. As I will argue throughout this paper, it is this continuous, open and rational critique of a cultureís meta-reality, including its affective reality, and not some relativist gender, class or caste-indexed ìepistemology of the oppressedî that best serves the interests of the oppressed.
Indeed, Sen provides a useful framework to understand the Enlightenment as that period in European history when the reach of critical reason extended into the meta-reality of the age. The 18th-century Europe saw many changes in social manners, modes of address, assembly and social discourse, all increasing the level of civility and egalitarianism in everyday discourse in the public sphere. These changes in social manner were the outward signs of a fundamental change in temper that questioned the validity and methodology of the knowledge of the natural world inscribed in myth, theology and inherited traditions. If there was one single passion that defined the 18th century Enlightenment ó that ìrevolt against superstition,î as Kant called it ó it was a passion for critical reason in the service of demystification of church doctrines, supernatural beliefs, miracles and other such magical-religious practices. The network of otherwise quarrelsome philosophes that extended from France, England, Holland and Germany to the Americas, drew its sense of purpose from a belief in the redemptive power of new ways of knowing the world. The new philosophy of knowledge was exemplified above all by Newtonís great success, and given a philosophical expression by John Lockeís empiricism. It demanded publicly testable evidence based on experience and reason, the natural capacity of which is equally available to all,3 demolishing all claims of a priori knowledge available only to a select few through the grace of god or through their privileged social status. Of course, all people, all societies, at all times, reason, and reason critically, as the critics of Enlightenment like to point out. But the Enlightenment marks a culmination of a process that, through renaissance, the reformation and the scientific revolution and propelled by the forces of nascent capitalism, revolutionised what reason meant and what role it had in how men and women related to nature and to each other. ìThe purpose,î wrote Diderot, the author of the Encyclopedia, the remarkable compendium of the European Enlightenment, ìis not only to supply a certain body of knowledge, but also to bring about a change in the mode of thinkingî [quoted from Cassirer 1951: 14].
This ìchange in the mode of thinkingî lay broadly in a change from a contemplative, deductive reasoning from intuitively-grasped, god and tradition sanctioned a priori beliefs to an insistence on deriving any claim regarding natureís order from the data of experience alone. Knowledge was no longer to proceed from concepts and axioms to phenomenon, but vice versa. At its core, the Enlightenment was an attempt to popularise and institutionalise modest procedural principles of knowledge that insisted on breaking apart all existing claims of cause and effect derived from earlier metaphysical systems and rationalist schemes, and to test them against observation and experiment. If there was a dogma of Enlightenment, it was that there were to be no dogmas, no a priori truths and no privileged ëSources of Affirmationí. All dogmas could be queried by private citizens, who have the right to come together in the public sphere, as equals, to pursue truth through open critical debate.4 Needless to say, in actual practice, these ideals were marred by myriad inequities of class, gender and citizenship. The philosphes themselves were not free from what we would today reject as grossly elitist prejudices. But an exclusive, hyper-critical concern with these contradictions can blind us to the momentous implications of winning public legitimacy for new norms for public reason. These more democratic, naturalistic and secular norms were, in time, to expand to take in the excluded segments of society, leading both towards a more egalitarian and simultaneously a more rationalised, instrumental society.5
Such a change of temper towards nature, knowledge and society was not an automatic response to the change in material conditions ó rising literacy, growing affluence, increasing class mobility ó associated with the coming of industry and capitalism. It is a mistake, commonplace in Marxist writings, and unfortunately in Marxís own writings,6 to reduce the Enlightenmentís view of rights and negative freedoms to an expression of purely material, class interests of the bourgeoisie. This is a serious misunderstanding of the Enlightenment, both because it fails to do justice to the actual concerns that motivated the rising middle classes of 18th century western Europe, especially France, and because such a narrow materialist reading does not allow one to look for homologues of the European Enlightenment in non-European societies. As we shall see in the course of this paper, a class analysis fails to understand the Indian Enlightenment which, I will contend, finds its intellectual and political motivations in the quest for recognition of their humanity by the oppressed castes, as castes, rebelling not merely for their material/class interests, but against the social and existential insults heaped upon them. A purely economic motivation does not explain the hard-fought battle in the cultural realm against the dogmas of the age.
The Enlightenmentís call for reason at the service of ìLiberty, Equality and Fraternityî is best understood as a call to arms in a struggle for recognition of equal dignity of all, regardless of origins and station in life. The Enlightenment counterpoised the idea of honour in the ancient regime with that of dignity: whereas for some to have honour, it was necessary that not everyone has it, the underlying principle of dignity is that everyone shares in it by the virtue of being human [Taylor 1992]. Seen in purely class terms, the interests of the bourgeoisie in France ó the flag-bearers of the French Enlightenment ó were not all that different from the class interest of the nobility. Like the nobility, the rising middle classes of the Third Estate also aspired to accumulate proprietary wealth in land, office or rents, which involved a minimum of risk and could safely be handed down in the family. The capitalist entrepreneur, speculating with borrowed capital and few fixed assets, was not typical of the upper middle classes. What the well-heeled bourgeoisie resented was not so much economic frustration, as social disparagement at the hands of the nobility, which claimed to derived its status from lineage. The rising bourgeoisie were motivated not by a desire to revolutionise the economic basis of society but to dismantle those social ideologies and attitudes that denied them full recognition of their own worth. Not just in France but in most of Europe, the 18th century bourgeoisie revolutions were struggles waged between relatively well-off minorities ó ìa revolt of the privilegedî, as Norman Hampson (1969) calls it ó with hardly anyone contemplating the full enfranchisement of the urban and peasant masses.
The fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers ó reason as a distinguishing mark of humanity and a basis for entitlement to equal respect, and nature as devoid of divine purpose and hierarchy and amenable to human understanding and control ó struck a chord with the bourgeoisie. These ideas enabled them to challenge the superstitious acceptance of the prevailing order personified by the priests and the king. Man was henceforth, at least in theory, to be free to create for himself the social and political conditions necessary for his own development. True, this ìmanî was cast in the image of white, male and bourgeoisie man. But the underlying conception of reason and nature of the Enlightenment contained within it the seeds for its own self-universalisation. In time, the Enlightenment philosophy has been embraced not just by the labour movement but all those ó including the suffragists, black liberation and anti-colonial movements ó seeking liberal political reforms [Bronner 1995].
European Enlightenment did not emerge out of shadowy mists of western culture or traditions. This movement was deliberately created and set in motion by human beings at a definite point in time, on the basis of a certain theoretical understanding of man and nature. Neither the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century,7 nor the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century,8 alongside the growing forces of industrial capitalism,9 were sufficient for bringing about the displacement of myth and god from social life. It took the principled intervention of public intellectuals of the emerging pan-Euro-American ìRepublic of Lettersîó journalists, pamphleteers, science popularises, amateur scientists, mostly men but some women, some well known and independently wealthy, others provincial and struggling ó to spell out the philosophical and social implication of the advances in scientific knowledge. The great achievement of the Enlightenment was to build a political vision-based upon reason, to transform reason from an arid epistemological position of interest to professional philosophers alone into a social ethic: the refusal to accept anything without demonstration and reason, was simultaneously a refusal to bow to the authority of those who have hitherto claimed a unique possession of truth.
II Enlightenment Project Under Fire
One of the most important jobs of intellectuals, whether as priests, philosophers or activists is to define what is wrong with their society, and to identify the obstacles that stand in the way to a desirable future. Identification and articulation of the causes of our social malaise generate new objects of desire, longing and hatred and new modes of social activism.
Through a strange and dangerous convergence of anti-imperialist/anti-capitalist and populist third worldist impulses in the second half of the 20th century, an influential segment of left academics and activists around the world have tended to identify the legacy of the Enlightenment itself as an obstacle to a desired society. The ìprogressiveî discourse, among the heirs of Nietzsche, Gandhi and Marx alike, is characterised by a deep despair over the modern condition engendered by science-based industry, nation states and increasingly global markets. The conditions of modern life are seen as deforming and dehumanising individuals, by turning them into bourgeois, philistines and last men. One discerns a deep ìlonging for total revolutionî which will overcome the modern structure of feeling, thinking and acting [Yack 1992], and lead to a more whole, less alienated modernity. This longing best explains why a certain image of ìReasonî and ìthe Enlightenmentî have become for the postmodern and postcolonial intellectuals what the ancien regime was to the Enlightenment: an intimate enemy against which the critics define their own projects of ìalternative modernitiesî.The critics claim that it is in the interest of the oppressed to challenge the phony ìobjectivityî of science with their more ìauthenticî and holistic ways of knowing which, unlike modern science, do not tear apart nature from society, the object from the subject, facts from meanings, reason from affect, etc. ìOppositional consciousnessî, it is claimed, must extend to an opposition to scientific world view and scientific reason itself.10
This urge to overcome the heritage of the Enlightenment poses a special set of problems for postcolonial societies where the Enlightenment project has not yet taken off the ground, let alone having allegedly reached a point where it has turned into its opposite. The desire for a total revolution is nothing less than a disaster for a society like India where cultural nationalism has allowed an illiberal and segmentary social logic, sanctified by the core assumptions of Hindu dharma, to continue to serve as a cultural code, even among the most secular and enlightened political and intellectual leaders.11 Before the supposed communitarian, humane and rational elements myth and traditions can be recovered as the Gandhian neo-romantics desire ó they must first be forced to loosen the deadly grip they have had for centuries on the Indian imagination. Before the liberal Enlightenment regime of economic and civic liberties can be radicalised ó as the Marxists desire ó they must first be allowed to win legitimacy over and against the dharmic common sense of the Indian society.
In India, different elements of postcolonial ìleftî-inclined intelligentsia have different conceptions of desirable futures in whose name Enlightenment is to be indicted. A wordabout my use of the appellation ìleftî when applied to intellectuals, activists and social movements may be appropriate here. What passes as ìthe leftî in India today includes well known personalities and social groups that I call ìreactionary modernists.îThese groups are mostly associated with neo-Gandhian communitarians, who share the postmodernist and postcolonial suspicion of reason and the Enlightenment, but not the postmodernist critique of essentialism. Thus, while they accept the postmodernist idea of cultural embeddedness of all ways of knowing (which reduces modern science to a mere ìethnoscienceî of the west), their view of ìIndian modeî of knowing and relating is essentially a Hindu, non-dualist mode, and their view of Indian community is an idealised dharmic, wholist community.12 (Can they be called ìcontingent postmodernistsî or ìstrategic postmodernistsî?) I call these intellectuals, including internationally acclaimed stars like Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Partha Chatterjee, Gayatri Spivak (in parts), Gyan Prakash, Dipesh Chakravarty, Veena Das, Claude Alvares and their numerous fellow travellers and followers, reactionary modernists because they seek to model their alternative modernities on the ìinnocentî, ìgenuinely archaicî and supposedly subaltern modes of knowing and living, completely ignoring the fact that these same local knowledges are, more often than not, patently irrational, obscurantist and downright oppressive to the same subaltern on whose behalf these intellectuals claim to speak. Their de facto advocacy of Hindu tradition notwithstanding, these intellectuals retain an aura of progressive left politics because of their association with the classic left causes (anti-imperialism, multiculturalism, feminism and environmentalism), although in my opinion, they are actually the bridge between the nationalist elements of the anti-capitalist left and the full-blown, fascist religious right.
The other component of the left is, of course, the organised Marxist left which has traditionally stood for a modernist socialist solution to overcome the inequities and injustices of capitalism. But this stream of the Indian left, unfortunately, has allowed its economism to underestimate the value of non-economistic struggle in the realm of culture and meaning that the Enlightenment was all about. The more traditional Marxist left has looked to an as yet unrealised socialist future where ìtrueî critical reason and ìtrueî human autonomy will be realised: Enlightenment and its supposed ìpositivismî, ìrationalismî and its supposed self-universalisation stand indicted because of their historical connection with capitalism and imperialism.13 The true potential of the Enlightenment, on this reading, can only be achieved under socialism.14 This appropriation of Enlightenment project for socialism constitutes a misreading of the actual history of the Enlightenment Europe where a relative autonomy of the public sphere from class interests allowed the institutionalisation of procedural rationality in public affairs. There is no doubt that the Enlightenment shared the glorification of work, industry and the profit motive that marked the Protestant ethic of the rising capitalist class [Gay 1977: 45ó55]. But it would be a mistake to reduce the Enlightenment to an ideology of capitalism and imperialism alone. As Jurgen Habermasí influential study of public sphere has shown, aristocrats, men of property and men of letters played a formative role in creating the institutions ó salons, coffee houses, newspapers, journals of opinion ó where ìcommon interest in truth allowed ëbracketingí of status differencesî [Calhoun 1992: 13] in public discussions of a variety of topics ranging from the latest scientific discoveries to matters of religion and state. It is very likely that ìcommon interestî was often a cover for class interests, and there is no doubt that the public sphere was restricted in its initial phase to only those who could afford the books, the public lectures and the coffee houses. But however often it was breached, the idea that the best rational argument, and not the identity of the speaker, was important to arrive at truth was gradually institutionalised as the norm for public discourse.
In an open society that admits of a plurality of interests, identities and self-chosen ends, it is important that the public sphere and the norms of discourse not be controlled and dominated by any one class interest: there is no ìsubject positionî, no unique ìstandpointî of the proletariat, or dalits, or women or any chosen group that can liberate the whole of society. Public reason must be conceived of as a never-ending critical debate among contending interests where the content of the argument can be judged through publicly testable experience, independently of the class/caste/gender identity of the arguer. That is the essence of critical rationality that the Enlightenment project was all about, and not the sterile debates about ìfoundationalismî or ìpositivismî or ìEurocentricityî. Marxist suspicion of universalisable claims of reason and experience which can transcend class interests have contributed to an underestimation of the importance of procedural rationality in social institutions; and conversely, the Marxist priority to material forces has led it to underestimate the hold of the dharmic view of the world on social life and how it stands in the way of equal recognition of the humanity of each and every person, regardless of ascribed status. I intend a more thorough critique of the Marxist understanding of modern science and the Enlightenment in a future publication. This little detour is only meant to signal my dissatisfaction with Marxist alternatives to the anti-Enlightenment discourse so common in the indigenist, postmodernist movements.
If on the other hand, the Enlightenment is a struggle for recognition (see the previous section), it is not the Indian bourgeoisie, or the minuscule organised working classes but the oppressed castes who have been the most principled and consistent proponents of an Enlightenment-style critique of brahmanical Hinduism, which provides both the conscious ideology of ëvarna dharmaí and the everyday rules of behaviour among and between castes.15 The largely upper caste Indian bourgeoisie have been more than willing to embrace an updated and sanitised neo-Hinduism as their world view, for it allows them to stake out a claim for recognition from the west as members of a ìGreat Civilisationî equal to, if not better than the civilisation of their erstwhile colonisers. Thus, for all the formal gestures towards modern ideas of scientific temper, secularism and liberalism, political leaders and intellectuals have, by and large, understood these terms in a neo-Hindu, dharmic idiom.16 In theory, there is nothing wrong with an attempt to seek indigenous-religious legitimation for modern ideas: indeed, finding cultural homologues and historical antecedents may be even be necessary for a new modernist cultural ethos to develop and take root. But the problem is that Hinduism, both in its principles and in its practices, directly contradicts the view of reason and nature that is necessary and adequate for a liberal polity and culture of the Enlightenment. Given the peculiar nature of Hinduism, we in India cannot unproblematically turn to our dominant religious traditions in search for an anchor for modern ideas. We have no option but to create new traditions on the foundation of minority, anti-brahmanical traditions that have been ridiculed and silenced for centuries. It is not only intellectually dishonest to read back secularism, liberalism, scientific temper ó and even the most revolutionary findings of modern science ó into the ancient ìwisdomî of the Vedas, as neo-Hindus from Vivekananda, Gandhi, Radhakrishnan and even Nehru to some extent have done, and as the likes of Murli Manohar Joshi continue to do in our own times, or to argue for a specifically Hindu view of science (ìethno-scienceî), reason and nature, as the neo-Gandhian, ìcritical traditionalistsî and postmodernists continue to do. Such sanitisation of Hinduism or Hinduisation of modernity is downright dangerous, for it absorbs and disarms all potential challenges to Hinduism and the illiberal, hierarchical world view sanctioned by it.
Unlike the political brahmanism of upper-caste nationalists, who are satisfied with the reformist agenda of eradicating untouchability but retaining the basic world view and institutions of varna dharma, the oppressed castes have an ìinherent interest not simply rising in the system but in overthrowing itî [Omvedt 1994: 31]. Given the long and oppressive history of Indiaís peculiar institutions, the agents of ìbourgeois revolutionî in India will not be the bourgeoisie, but the poor and insulted castes, for it is they who have experienced both the objective deprivation and the subjective insults of Hindu social institutions. These castes have natural allies among those segments of Indian society who have no interest in preserving the ancien regime and these include, above all, women of all classes and castes who have been deprived of their full agency and humanity by Hindu patriarchy. Because the ìpurityî of upper caste women has been paid for by the enforced segregation of the men and women of ìimpureî castes [Chakravarti 1993] women, together with the non-brahman castes share an objective interest in shaking the ideological pillars of Hinduism. Contrary to the exhortations of ecofeminist and cultural feminists, reason and science are allies of women in their joint struggle with the dalits against patriarchy and caste.
Before I move on to the real purpose of this paper ó which is to affirm the relevance of the Enlightenment project or what used to be called ìscientific temperî in India ó let me sum up my discomfort with the contemporary left opposition to the Enlightenment project. The left intelligentsia in India has looked at the Enlightenment through a bifocal lens: one ìanti-materialistî which views the Enlightenment as perpetrator of Eurocentrism and Orientalism, leading to a ìcolonialism of the mindî; and the other ìmaterialistî that sees it as the ideology of capitalists and imperialists. Both these lenses are equally distorting for they fail to see Enlightenment for what it was: a movement to change the way of thinking of a civilisation. Capitalism and colonialism were contingent features of the Enlightenment: capitalism facilitated but did not determine the content of Enlightenment, whereas colonialism, as Robert Darnton has put it, ìwas driven by trade, disease, technology, rather than by philosophyî. What was necessary to the Enlightenment was critical reason or scientific temper, captured by Kantís call of ìSapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason.î
This essential core of the Enlightenment is as relevant to India today, as it was to Europe in the 18th century. Indeed, contrary to the critics, this essential core of Enlightenment is not a foreign import at all. The intellectual resources and political motives for critical reason, or ìscientific temper,î have been with us since the Lokayatas, which surfaced again, after centuries of suppression and ridicule by the Vedantists, in the naturalism, scepticism and pragmatism of Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar. These ideas took a bourgeois form in our time in the Nehruvian idea of ìscientific temperî. The call for scientific temper, even though couched in whiggish, Nehruvian terms and often conducted through a contemptuous, top-down development bureaucracy, was not contradictory to Ambedkarís call for reason in the service of ìannihilation of casteî. Had it not been written off so hastily under the influence of neo-Gandhians and postmodernists, there was no reason why middle class, left-inclined intellectuals and activists who swell the ranks of social movements could not have created working alliances with the inheritors of the Lokayatas among the rationalist Ambedkarites and self-respecters. After all, a substantial number of these intellectuals and activists were already participating in peopleís science movements and were deeply engaged with science and development policies. A misguided, uneducated and pseudo-radical critique of critical reason and modern science, borrowed from the fashionable nonsense that prevails in some segments of the western academe, has prevented the full flowering of a radical Enlightenment-style movement in India. The culturalist understanding of science and reason has diverted the peopleís science movements into indigenist and economistic critiques of imperialism, rather than a self-critique of dominant and oppressivetraditions. The ëreactionary modernismí of Hindutva is a direct beneficiary of the leftís slide into irrationalism.
III ëScience Warsí and Indian Science Critics
I am a child of the Enlightenment. Those irreverent, spirited, and courageous men and women of French salons, English coffee-houses, learned academies and public lecture-halls are my brothers and sisters in spirit. I came to share their heretical project long before I had ever heard their names, or read their works. My provincial, mid-middle class, Punjabi upbringing gave me good reasons to fight against the patriarchal, upper caste Hindu traditions that threatened to snuff out all that I held precious. I had the motive for rebellion, but not the intellectual tools ó until I encountered modern biology and physics which altered my view of the world entirely. It was the empowering influence of science that inclined me towards peopleís science movements and science journalism. The much trashed idea of ìscientific temperî was not an ìelitistî and ìwesternî fad for me, but a way of life and a philosophy for social action.
I have watched with great sorrow how modern science, scientific temper and Enlightenment have been repeatedly trashed by ever more ìradicalî intellectuals and activists, and how myth, traditions and ìlived experienceî have been elevated as the source of ìliberatoryî ethno-sciences. My sense of loss and over these misguided critiques, however, began to turn into political concern with the rise of the Hindu right which has been the chief beneficiary of the erasure between myth and science.
This background should explain why I have taken on a difficult and personally costly battle on two fronts. First against the ìtheoristsî, located mostly but not solely in the west, who have produced sociological and philosophical arguments against the idea of a universal and progressive science of nature, and second, against the ready embrace of these relativist theories of science by Indian intellectuals. It so happened that around the time when I got started with my project, some working scientists and philosophers of science in the US, led by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, a biologist-mathematician pair, also began to question the dominant paradigm of sociology of science, cultural studies and feminist critiques of science.17 It was while the ìradicalî critics of science were trying to argue their way out of Gross, Levitt and associatesí critique, that the now-famous Sokal hoax appeared. (The Social Text issue in which Sokalís contribution appeared was titled ìScience Warsî and was meant to be a response to Gross and Levitt.) My critique of social constructivism converged with what Gross and Levitt, and Alan Sokal were saying, even though I had not put the matter as glibly as the first two, or as creatively (!) as Sokal.18
The science wars in the US were noticed in India. A handful of Indian scientists and rationalists expressed their support for Sokal. In 1997, Alan and myself (along with Stephen Jay Gould) were invited by the Socialist Scholars Conference for a panel on science wars. The papers we read at that conference were published in EPW (April 18, 1998). These papers have provoked much criticism ó as well as a great deal of sympathy. First Gita Chadha took up cudgels in defence of feminist epistemology and relativism (EPW, April and August 1997, Jan. 1999), followed by Sundar Sarukkai (March 27, 1999), who made a detailed critique of my views on the nature of science, its cultural meaning and relevance for a critique of religious thought in India.
I stand guilty ó and proudly so ó of most of the sins Sundar Sarukkai accuses me of having committed in my defence of the ìoutmodedî idea of scientific temper. Not only do I hold the ìabsurdî view that ìone ought to live science and not just do itî, I even think ó heaven forbid! ó that without allowing the modern scientific world view to serve as a cultural force in society, all the talk of ìdemolishing power structuresî and ìempowering the powerlessî will go nowhere. I am guilty, as charged, of the ëfacile beliefí that the content of our beliefs about the nature of ìthingsî affects how we treat people, and that the process of arriving at these beliefs about things affects how we relate to authority in our private and public lives. I am guilty as well of not conceding parity between scientific explanations and local folk beliefs. I am guilty, in other words, of believing that through the 300-odd years since the scientific revolution, human beings have learnt how to learn better, and there is no reason why we should not expose our ancestral knowledge to what we have learned about the world through modern scientific methods. And of course, I am guilty, as charged, of not heeding the siren songs of postmodernism and postcolonialism. But does this litany of sins mean that I am also guilty of being ìblind to the lived experienceî of peasant women? Or that I see science as a substitute for real material changes in power structure? Or that I do not appreciate the real local causes in India for disillusionment with science and modernity and the consequent turn to postmodernism? Or that I am attacking Indian intellectuals from a position ìmore American than Americansî? These accusations I firmly reject.
I decided to continue a conversation with Sarukkai in this paper because he has raised truly fundamental questions regarding the relationship between growth of knowledge of nature and the expansion of human capabilities and liberties, or between the domains of ìthingsî and ìpeopleî, respectively, in Sarukkaiís words. The very essence of Enlightenment lies in the belief that as we learn more about nature, and as we learn how to learn better, we also learn how to live without any transcendent authority, without a fear of the unknown and without fear of those who think differently. To go back to our earlier concern, a society where citizens donít kneel before spiritual authority is possible only when we divest the natural world of final causes and ultimate ends determined by a super-mundane power and accessible only to some through the grace of god.19 How we understand nature and how we treat each other are not two different, and unrelated ìdomains,î as Sarukkai treats them. Rather, a naturalistic, secular understanding of the domain of nature is a necessary precondition for a secular, democratic society to emerge.
The relationship between the domains of nature and the domain of society is absolutely basic ó but also the most ignored ó for understanding the radical potential of science and scientific temper in India. I am grateful to Sarukkai for bringing it up and I will use this opportunity to expound on it at various levels, ranging from everyday practices to the philosophical tenets of Hinduism.
IV Restating Case for Scientific Temper
The first stop in our journey to find the rationale and resources for Indian Enlightenment will be Iran.
Why Iran? Iran of the Ayatollahs, at that? Because after two decades of living under theocratic rule, Iranian intellectuals are raising the banner of the Enlightenment. I am referring to the highly influential writings of Abdol Karim Soroush. Going by the fear and loathing he brings out in the religious establishment, and the adulation and enthusiasm he generates among the Iranian youth, Soroush is clearly one of the most influential public intellectuals of Iran today. A part of the Islamic establishment (until recently) and its most feared critic, a man of faith and a follower of Popperís philosophy of science, Soroush has been called the Martin Luther of Islam.
Iíll be honest. It is partly a sense of personal vindication that attracts me to Soroush: he is saying in a much more forceful way precisely what I and other much derided ìrationalist secularistsî have been saying all along. It is not out of place, therefore, that I should enlist his help in making my own views clearer.
Soroushís advocacy for democracy in Islam rests on two pillars. One, freedom as a precondition for true belief in Islam; and the second, evolution of human knowledge, that it, science and its relevance to the interpretation of sharia or the word of God. Soroush has argued his second principle at great length in his thesis ëThe Evolution and Devolution of Religious Knowledgeí [Soroush 1998].
His basic argument is simple and proceeds in two steps: ìReligion is divine, but its interpretation is thoroughly human and this-worldlyî and two, ì[the interpretation of religion] is the natural product of the evolution of human understanding in non-religious fields and contexts that forces religion to be comprehended differentlyî (1998: 246, italics added). What Soroush is insisting upon is rather elementary but revolutionary: since the Scientific Revolution, scientific discoveries of the natural world have altered the humanityís knowledge of itself and its place in the world. This altered self-knowledge made possible by science must influence how we interpret the word of God, or the dogmas of religious thought, or any other sacralised practice. As a believer, Soroush is not arguing for an end to the religious impulse, but he is demanding that this impulse become contemporaneous, that is, it becomes contingent upon the pursuit of a systematic, methodical, rational and justifiable inquiry, best represented by modern science. As long as our understanding of the truth about nature is evolving, our interpretation of religion cannot stand still because religious knowledge, too, makes claims regarding the relationship between man, nature and society.
On the surface, the religious right and the proponents of ethno-sciences seem to make similar arguments. For example, proponents of ìIslamisation of knowledgeî, including Ziauddin Sardar and his followers [Sardar 1988], have long insisted that Islam is not a rigid dogma but allows sufficient interpretive flexibility within the limits of the core idea of unity of god (twahid). Likewise, BJP-RSS writings on science [Feurerstein et al 1995] celebrate the interpretive flexibility and modernity of Hinduism. As far as the demand that traditions do not contradict the rationality of science goes, both the religious right and the left anti-secularists re-define science to fit the native genius, and in turn, use these ethno-sciences as the benchmark of rationality of modern ìwesternî science ó this is what the talk of ìalternative universalsî amounts to in practice. The Hindu right takes the left-indigenist argument to its logical conclusion and claims that norms of reason internal to High Hinduism are not only capable of producing special sciences indigenous to India (for example, Vedic mathematics, Vedic physics, Vastu shastra, ayurveda, etc), but are in fact affirmed by, and presage, the findings of modern sciences. In the Hindutva scheme of things, to be scientific all that Indians ó nay, the whole world ó has to do is to come home to Vedic Hinduism!
Soroush is arguing for the exact opposite of the above position: not Islamisation of science, but a reinterpretation of Islam in the light of science understood as a universally valid stock of justified beliefs about the natural world. His argument is not that science should replace religion, but only that the body of knowledge amassed by human intellect in the secular realm should be a guide for refining and developing manís understanding of the sacred. What separates Soroush from the nativists of both the Left and the Right is his understanding of the nature of science. Very simply, Soroush is a Popperian who believes in the growth of objective knowledge, while the indigenists of all stripes embrace varying versions of social constructivist theories that deny the very idea of knowledge that is free from cultural values particular to a place, a people and a time. This is as good a place as any to clarify that those like Soroush, Popper, and many post-positivist philosophers of science who believe that objective knowledge is possible are not saying that scientific knowledge is free from cultural assumptions, gender biases, metaphysics and such. All they are saying is that it is possible ó albeit not always easy ó to identify and put these assumptions, biases, etc, to a systematic test of reason and experiment. The danger of social constructivism and the postmodern theories of science is that they deny that we can ever break out of the prison of our myths, biases and cultural assumptions: for them, even the best attested knowledge at any time is ìlocal knowledgeî of a particular place, time and people. This idea of all science as local science or ìethno-scienceî opens the way to indigenist defence of traditions as legitimate sciences. By now there are a sufficient number of serious critiques20 of why social constructivism, including its more politicised feminist epistemology, is based upon faulty reasoning. It is not surprising that Soroush too has written a critique of historicism and postmodernism in science. Unfortunately his philosophical work is not accessible to those who do not know Persian.
A word regarding the politics of knowledge: Sardar and other jet-setting Islamists are feted by Islamic rulers of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia and elsewhere. Our own left-wing indigenists ó Vandana Shiva, Madhu Kishwar, Claude Alvares, Sundar Lal Bahuguna ó are being warmly embraced by neo-Hindu gurus and reactionary publications like Hinduism Today and The Organiser, the official voice of RSS.21 Soroush, the Luther of Islam, on the other hand, is facing death-threats and state-sponsored censorship. Before we pat ourselves on the back for Hinduismís tolerance for its rationalists and scientists, let us not forget that Brahmanical Hinduism is replete with strictures against rationalists, skeptics and materialists. Besides, the persecution has already begun: what else does the ìretirementî of the left historians mean? If the rest of the left in India has got a relatively easy ride so far, it is because the Right finds it easy to coopt the left-populist anti-globalisation, ecological and alternative science and technology campaigns. We simply have no public intellectuals of Soroushís stature and courage who have challenged the world view of the religious right.
To bring it back to Sarukkaiís claims of the incompatibility between the domains of nature and society, science and religion, between doing science and living science, Soroush is obviously denying such incompatibility. (Interestingly, it is the clerical critics of Soroush who, like Sarukkai, are claiming the separation of spheres or faith and science, as two entirely different domains, each with its own separate methodology.) Soroush insists that empirical developments in science have an impact on epistemology: that is, the more we learn, the better we can understand how we learn. The new self-understanding of human capabilities can lead to a new understanding of humanityís knowledge of itself, its relationship with nature and human beingsí relationship with each other. Like the Enlightenment philosophes of the 18th century, Soroush is trying to bring the developments of natural sciences to bear upon how we live with each other, how we reason in society, how we organise our social institutions.
What Soroush is saying is precisely what the doomed idea of ìscientific temperî was all about, an idea that was put to a premature end by the Gandhian anti-modernists who used the anti-intellectual philosophies from the west as a ìprogressiveî fig-leaf. In my opinion, the left, including the Marxist left and the secularist-rationalist elements of peopleís science movements (with the honourable exceptions of K N Pannikar, K V Subbaram and some others), made a momentous mistake in the early eighties by not taking a principled stand in favour of scientific temper as their operating philosophy. Even those who believed in it began to make public obeisance to traditions, culture and such, or turned their attention purely to economistic critique of development, ignoring the cultural freedoms that are possible with economic development. The populist urge to learn from the wisdom of the unlettered and the oppressed, combined with the fear of the barbed questions of the neo-Gandhians and postmodernists challenging the ìadhikarî of the supposedly westernised scientists to commit ìepistemic violenceî against the innocent traditions of the masses has done untold harm to the cause of secularisation of Indian society. We have wasted precious time, and now it is too late.
V ëThingsí and ëPeopleí: Separate Domains?
We are faced with a paradoxical situation. Critics like Sarukkai who see natural science as a social construct deny that knowledge of nature has any relevance for social life. On the other hand, we have Popperians like Soroush who allow for a relative and progressive separation between science and society who argue that science is relevant for a critique of society. The more tight the relation between society and science, the less relevance given to scientific understanding of nature for understanding and/or changing society. The paradox, of course, is only apparent. Those who tend to read the content and logic of natural science as determined by social interests will also tend to see any meaning attached to nature as ideological. It follows that they should be more resistant to allowing such reading of nature to influence social behaviour. If science is ideology, then allowing scientific understanding to influence society becomes an exercise not of demystification but of ideological naturalisation of social power.
Social constructivists deny any analytical distinction between knowledge of nature and structural and cultural morphology of a society. Science, as Sarukkai claims, is simply one mode of ìadjudicationî through which a society declares some ìclaims of truth to become ëtruthíî. The knowledge of nature we acquire through modern science has no special claim to superiority: other cultures have their own socially grounded methods of adjudication among contending claims of truth, On this reading, the ìdomain of the socialî gives meaning to the ìdomain of natureî: nature in itself has no meaning, it is ìmuteî, and ìsilentî (even though Sarukkai does not refer to it, muteness of nature is a salient idea of the strong programme of sociology of science: see the recent writings of Barry Barnes,1992 and David Bloor, 1999 for instance). Different societies give different meanings to nature: some talk of inverse-square gravitational forces, while some talk of djinns, but you cannot say that one is an advance over the other. (Sarukkai takes great umbrage at my preference for Newton over the djinns and the goddesses of folk sciences. His argument is: ì.It is not possible to compare different epistemological systemsî and that ìdifferent systems of justification embody different norms. And the fight between different systems of knowledge [is].. about whose norms one should accept.î These ìnormsî of course are seen as above any rational evaluation, as they are historical products embedded in the fabric of a society.)
In social constructivist accounts of science, while the domain of the social is supposed to explain and encompass the domain of nature, the reverse is staunchly denied: that is, the domain of nature is declared to have no relevance for the domain of the social. While how we organise our social life is declared to be of primary salience to the meaning we give to nature, the different meanings we give to nature are deemed to have no relevance for how we organise our social life. Indeed, any attempt to read social significance in scientific understanding of nature is put down as ìreductionistî, ìscientisticî, and worse.
Sarukkai gives expression to this very widespread and deep fear of scientific understanding of nature as somehow turning people into things: ìHow does an epistemology related to ëthingsí get transformed into an epistemology of social action, unless society and its human constituents are seen as ëthingsíÖThings do not actî On Sarukkaiís reading, then, replacing a view of nature in which gods keep an account of karma, for instance, with a view of nature that moves by immutable laws which can be understood by all of us, regardless of our karma, makes no difference to how we live and reason together in a society. This is indeed Sarukkaiís brief against me, for he repeatedly accuses me of ìinsufficient understandingî of why the domains of things and people must be kept separate, and why we do not become ìcaste conscious, or see the evils of sati through canons of scienceî.
Without any more philosophical hair-splitting, let us look around us and ask if it is indeed true that how Hindu ìsciencesî ó both elite and folk ó understand nature has no bearing on the socially regressive, illiberal, anti-human customs we encounter in our everyday life. Let us start with concrete commonplace practices and then peel away the layers of the onion, so to speak, and get to the cosmological views of the ìgreatî traditions of Hinduism that legitimise these practices.
VI Causes of ìThingsî and Conquest of Fear
Let us examine the case of Charanshah who burned herself to death along with her dead husbandís body in November 1999 in Satpura village in Bundelkhand, UP. I have no intention of adding to the learned disputations over the ìnobilityî of this Bharatiya tradition. I am not going to ask whether Charanshahís suicide was or was not a sati, and if a sati, how ìvoluntaryî it was. And neither am I about to wallow in the most recent brand of Parisian discourse theory in order to ponder if a subaltern like Charanshah can speak, or whether or not she can act like a ìsubjectî and show ìvolitionî when she throws herself into the flames. Indeed, there is nothing more pathetic than feminists looking for signs of female agency and resistance in sati ó patriarchy at its most brutal and barbaric. When a woman ìchoosesî to die because she cannot stomach the idea of a lifetime of degradation in widowhood, I donít need any high theory to hear what the subaltern is saying: I can hear, loud and clear, the inhuman traditions that not only make such ìchoicesî possible, but wrap them in an aura of nobility and self-sacrifice.
I am going to leave Charanshah aside and look at the mindset of Charanshahís neighbours and fellow villagers in Satpura and surrounding areas. The media reports are pretty clear about the role of Satpuraís residents, Charanshahís neighbours and relatives. It looks as if Charanshah was left alone in tending for her husband who was suffering from tuberculosis. The fear was such that, according to India Today (November 29, 1999), ì the villagers refused to accompany her even to the cremation ground because he had TB.î The fact-finding team of the All-India Democratic Womenís Association reported that the men left the burning pyre unattended while they hurried for a bath, because ìthe dead man had been a TB patient and they [the mourners] believed that once his body started burning, they might catch infection from itî, (The Hindu, December 27, 1999). This premature ritual bath has indeed become the communityís alibi: they were away bathing and did not know that the widow was heading for a fiery death. These same villagers who were so reluctant to come to Charanshahís aid when she needed them, and were so perfunctory in whatever assistance they did provide, showed no such compunction when it came to worshipping her as Sati Mata after she was burnt to death.
Why? Both the act of omission ó the villagersí reluctance to help their neighbour in need ó and the act of commission ó gathering to celebrate their neighbourís horrible self-immolation ó need explanation, for both are equally contrary to what one would normally expect from the good and honourable people that the Satpura residents surely are. What led these good men and women to go against the normal standards of morality and neighbourly behaviour that must surely prevail in their community?
Why did the neighbours not help Charanshah? Why were they in a hurry to cleanse themselves even while the funeral pyre was still hot enough to burn not one but two human bodies (one alive) to ashes? We can rule out caste prejudice. Satpura is a largely dalit village, so it wasnít as if Charanshah was surrounded by some purity-fixated upper castes. Dalits are in fact well known for their culture of mutual help. Why would such people, who are free from the irrationality about touchability and purity, show such an uncustomary haste for a ritual bath?
They were obviously afraid of catching TB. They evidently thought of TB as a highly contagious disease, which it is not. Such a fear would be rational (because it is based upon a desire for self-preservation) but false, because it is based upon inadequate and factually wrong understanding of the TB bacillus. Obviously, I have not personally asked the villagers what it was about TB they feared. I am only offering a conjecture that an unscientific, objectively false understanding of the disease influenced Charanshahís communityís actions in this matter. Such a conjecture is not entirely far-fetched, for similar fears about leprosy, AIDS and such are quite common in our society.22
Sarukkai is right: nature is mute; things donít act, people do. The TB bacilli donít come with labels declaring that they are the ones that cause TB or that they will/or wonít kill on contact. Indeed, TB bacilli donít reveal themselves to the human eye at all. It is us humans, at least some humans in a particular time and place, who made the bacilli visible under the microscope and connected them to the disease. It is us humans who gave these bacilli the meaning as carriers of a disease. And as we came to understand the behaviour of these organisms, we learned better how to avoid them, how to control them, how not to fear them or fear those who have the disease. How we understand the mute forces of nature influences our sense of ourselves as people and our ethics as neighbours: Are we subjects of our lives who can exert rational control over our circumstances? Or are we objects on which our circumstances act and all we can do is cringe in fear and hide away when our neighbours need us?
I know that our sophisticated theorists will find my concerns simplistic, hyper-rational and not considerate enough of peopleís own knowledge. I will nevertheless persist in my examination, for it is these kinds of elementary misconceptions, fears and taboos that make up the everyday reality of our society. The point I want to make is simple: human societies are a part of nature, and how we understand nature (both methodologically and substantively) influences how we live with nature and with each other. While nature does not determine social behaviour, the domain of nature and society are not different ìobjects of discourseî which cannot be brought in a conversation. Neither are all the different meanings different societies attach to ìmuteî nature equally good: some meanings, although rational in their own framework of assumptions, are nevertheless objectively false, for they ascribe wrong cause-and-effect relationships between different entities of a phenomenon. Some of these objectively false (even though subjectively meaningful, and even comforting) meanings of nature take a terrible toll on social relations, because they perpetuate fear and hold back full development of human capabilities, which include human kindness, empathy and a sense of commonality. Scientific reason is not an enemy of human goodness as it is made out by the critics. If understood modestly and fallibly, it plays a central role in practical reason in society which includes how people evaluate their options, how they match means to ends, how they plan their lives, in short, how they make moral distinctions.
Indeed, this relationship between objectively correct knowledge and human freedom was amply clear to the ancient Indian materialists who scoffed at the brahminsí using the fear of death to peddle their doctrines of the immortality of the spirit (Chattopadhyay, 1976, 234). Like their Indian counterparts, the ancient pagans of the classical antiquity of Greece and Rome were equally aware of the freedom that comes from knowledge. Here is a tribute by Virgil to Titus Lucretius, a poet of the Roman Republic who, like our own Lokayatas, dared to challenge the Platonic idealism of his time: ìHappy the man who can know the causes of things, and has trampled underfoot all fears, inexorable fate and the clamour of greedy hellî (Quoted from Gay, 1966, p 99).
In their battle against Christian orthodoxy of their age, the Enlightenment philosophes recovered precisely this ancient connection between knowledge of causes and conquest of fear, which as Gay rightly points out, is the ìessence of the critical mentality at workî. Yes, the Enlightenment philosophes turned to their history and their traditions in search of arguments against Christianity. But unlike our romantics, they turned to history to recover the lost voices of the skeptics and the materialists ó Lucretius, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius ó whom they could use as a historical and cultural justification of modern science and humanism. As Peter Gay remarks: ì[The Enlightenment thinkers] used their classical learning to free themselves from their Christian heritage, and then, having done with the ancients, turned their face toward a modern world viewî (p 8).
The contrast with our own anti-Enlightenment ìprophets facing backwardsî23 could not be more stark. Captivated as they are by the siren songs of postmodernity, they have lost confidence in the modern world view. Consequently, when they look back, they retrieve not our Lokayatas, not our ancient sceptics and materialists who insisted, at the cost of invoking the wrath of the brahmanical law-givers, upon putting the Vedic idealism to the test of experience and logic. No. Our disillusioned anti-modernists look back into Indian traditions and come back with precisely those ìwholisticî brahmanical traditions that have disallowed a separation of the spiritual from the material, and prevented the growth of critical reason in Indian society. All the talk of incommensurability of rationality of east and west will disappear, like mist in the sun, if we, like the Enlightenment philosophes, were to recover the suppressed traditions of science and reason that did prevail, despite great odds, among the labouring castes in Indiaís antiquity.
The point of this historical detour into antiquity was simply to remind Indian critics of science of the fundamental connections between knowledge and freedom. Given the deeply entrenched ignorance and unfreedoms that are a part of our cultural heritage, we in India cannot afford to forget or trivialise the liberatory potential of knowledge. This connection has been lost in the unilateral collapse of knowledge into power and ideology of the west. We in India have only worried about the exaggerated power that science has supposedly exerted in the service of colonialism24 and ignored the deadly power that superstitions and obscurantist ideas have continued to exert on the mental universe of ordinary people. If Indian intellectuals had saved even a fraction of the outrage they express against the ìinstrumental reasonî of modern science and technology, for the palpably real, life-denying, inhuman instrumentalism of our hallowed traditions, we could have made a real and positive difference to the cultural temper of our society, without which no real change is possible.
VII Dharma as Cosmopolis
But this is hardly the end of the story of Charanshah. We have only examined the act of omission, based upon irrational fear, on the part of her community. That was the easy part. I will now look at how a certain view of the natural order, derived from the core values of Hindu dharma, goes into the making of the culture of sati. I will argue that while the postmodern critics of science and modernity are anxious to insulate the domain of the social from the domain of nature, all religious ideologies base their legitimacy on a putative harmony between their social-ethical prescriptions and the workings of the natural order. By denying that (a) objective scientific knowledge of nature is possible, and (b) that it has any relevance for social ethics, the critics of science disarm any challenge to the religious view of the world. The irony is that these same critics of sciencecontinue to count themselves as secularist opponents of Hindutva. I do not doubt their sincerity. But can they oppose the politics of Hindutva consistently and effectively while they also oppose the best available means of deconstructing the world view from which Hindutva gains its intellectual coherence and popular appeal? (Sadly, the tendency to shy away from a critical scrutiny of the actual content of popular Hindu religiosity is common even among the critics of postmodernists who prefer a more ìmaterialistî explanation of the rise of Hindutva.25 I, on the other hand, believe with Nikki Keddie that new religio-political movements ìtend to occur only where in recent decades religions with strongly supernatural and theistic content are believed in, or strongly identified with, by a large proportion of the populationî and where this religiosity is identified with the nation (Keddie, 1998, p 702, emphasis in the original).26 A critical engagement with folk religiosity is therefore important.)
Let me go back to the issue at hand: namely, the relationship between the domains of ìthingsî and ìpeopleî, or the relationship between the science of nature and society. Let us stay with Charanshah a bit longer. As I did in the last section, I will stay with her relatives and neighbours who saw her death as an event of religious significance. Even granting that the reports of large-scale glorification may have been exaggerated, the fact that the villagers believed that something of great religious significance had happened in Satpura cannot be denied. As long as there are people who continue to treat sati as an act of piety, women will continue to burn.
Whatever else may be in dispute regarding the practice of sati, two facts are beyond doubt. One, that a widow is treated in high Hindu communities as inauspicious; and two, a widow who commits sati is not only not inauspicious but is actually worshipped like a goddess in these same communities. A widowís self-sacrifice is supposed to wash off the inauspiciousness of widowhood.27
But what makes a widow inauspicious? And what makes a sati a goddess? The answer to both these questions is to be found in the two central dogmas of Hinduism, namely, karma and samsara. Hindu scriptures may or may not explicitly condone widow immolation, but the cosmology which turns a natural event (death) into a moral infraction against womenís dharma is enshrined as the very foundation of Hinduism. As Arvind Sharma, an ardent advocate of neo-Hinduism and ìHindu human rightsî, freely admits, to understand the social significance of sati, one has to understand what is specifically Hindu about it: stripped of what is uniquely Hindu, sati collapses into an ordinary suicide or homicide. Widowhood, according to Sharma, is seen by Hindus as a ìkarmic crimeî of ìcausing [the] husbandís deathî and ìentails spiritual misfortune and a temporary absence of dharmaî (p 76). Sati is only the most extreme form of yogic austerities (which Sharma calls, appropriately, ìpati-yogaî ) that all widows were enjoined to go through in order to ìrectifyî their lapse from stri-dharma: ìa sati was viewedÖas the very embodiment of the goddess for she expiated immediately her bad karma that caused the husbandís death. [While] the widow took time to rectify her faults and perfect her yogic discipline to join her husband. The goal (upeya) was the same for both [the widow and the sati] but the means (upaya) differedî [Sharma 81, emphasis in the original]. Thus sati is only the extreme form of pati-yoga which is supposed to bring ëpunyaí to the dead husband, the families and to those who come for darshan. This karmic-yogic frame explains why a burned-to-death widow is supposed to have miracle-working abilities: yoga, after all, is supposed to develop, among other things, special supernatural powers among the practitioners.28 This explanation of wifehood, widowhood and sati is not a purely textual explanation, but is accepted by feminist scholars as the operational ideology of sati [Chakravarti 1998 and Narasimhan 1990]. Please note that karma functions here and in the brahmanical Hinduism as a force of nature that transfers actions from the moral realm to the physical realm. The domains of nature and morality are not separate but both obey the same laws of dharma. The karma men and women accumulate by living in obedience with the duties of their dharma translate into their good and bad experienes in their physical lives in here and now. A closer fusion of the domain of nature and moral order would be harder to imagine.
Now, there is enormous amount of sociological, ethnographic, journalistic and everyday, existential data that confirms that the karmic interpretation of widowhood/sati and indeed many other misfortunes ranging from oneís caste, illness, childlessness, failure, etc, are commonplace in contemporary India. Although as a general rule, the ìlowerî castes are more immune to, although by no means not entirely free from, karmic interpretations for their ìstationî, there is no denying that the karma doctrine is available, both to the ìgreatî (Sanskritic) and the ìlittleî (popular) traditions of Hinduism, as a ìframe of reference that is potentially available in any situation that calls for the interpretation of destiny.î [Babb 1983: 171]. Contrary to those who read only ìresistanceî in the subaltern versions of Hinduism, important ethnographic studies [Delige 1993, Fuller 1992] show that even when the subaltern seem to create an alternative and a counter-culture for themselves, the terms of this oppositional identity are set by the norms of the ëgreatí tradition.
Take for instance, how a middle-aged Tamil woman, Viramma (whose wonderful first-person account of her life has recently appeared in print), explains her status as a pariah. Her original story does not invoke the brahmanical cosmology of Purusha sacrifice and insists upon an original equality of all. Yet, she explains the ìlowlinessî and ìuncleannessî of her caste but as a result from a fall from an earlier situation of equality as a result of a crime of theft by an ancestor of their caste [Viramma 1997, p 165ó167] and considers it her dharma to be ìhumble, obedient, discreet and affectionateî (p 148). The point is that Viramma ends up reconstructing the brahmanical idea of impurity and inequality as just deserts for oneís own communityís actions. Even when she does not use the language of karma or Purusha, she accepts ó and tries to explain ó the ìfactî of uncleanness and unworthiness of her caste. The same dynamic becomes apparent in Kancha Ilaiahís Why I am Not a Hindu. Despite the strengths of dalit-bahujan culture that Ilaiah describes so powerfully, it cannot be denied that the ideology of varna and purity still shapes dalit identities: the ìmutilationî it inflicts on dalit self-respect ends up as a negative force against which dalit-bahujan have to react, defend and define themselves. One cannot but agree with Christopher Fuller (1992, 256) that the ìreligion of the oppressedÖdoes not constitute subversive opposition to the social and religious system as a whole. Even when they are resisting elitist pressures to conform, lower social groups consistently tend to reconstruct their own socio-religious inferiority.Inequality is deeply entrenched in Hinduism and Indian society, at both ideological and institutional levelsÖî
This brief foray into karma doctrine as it plays out in gender and caste relations was meant to establish the continued importance of cultural codes derived from brahmanical ideology in Indiaís social life, at all strata. This leads me to the issue at hand, namely, the close nexus between the domain of the social and the domain of the natural in Hindu dharma.
I submit to you that Hindu dharma, of which karma is a fundamental axiom, maintains its spell on Indiaís cultural ethos because it is cosmopolis par excellence. It is a cosmopolis in which two of the most inegalitarian ideas of nature ó namely, nature as a hierarchical chain of being and nature as an organism ó have combined to produce a highly inegalitarian social philosophy. A cosmopolis is exactly what it says: it is a cosmos + a polis, a formula that holds that ì there is a natural harmony between the order of all the heavens (that is, the cosmos) and the order of human society (that is, the polis) andÖ[that] human affairs are influenced by, and proceed in step with heavenly affairsÖî (Toulmin, 1990: 67).
Although Hinduism is unique in turning the fusion of the natural and the social into a sacred tenet, thinking in terms of a cosmopolis is not unique to Hinduism at all. All premodern cultures see the society as an organic whole in which natural events have a moral import and, conversely, moral behaviour has an effect on the course of nature.29 The much-vaunted ìwholismî of non-western traditions has nothing non-western about them: they are simply non-modern ways of knowing, which abounded in the west until they were discredited by the combined assault of capitalism, the reformation, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.Wholism is simply another name for not separating out what actually belongs to the cosmos, and what belongs to our polis, and its traditions and myths.
Cosmopolitic thinking serves two important social functions, traces of which continue in modern societies as well. One, by anchoring morality in natural order, it provides human beings with an assurance of permanence and dependability behind the flux of events. In societies where change and innovation are seen as a threat, the belief that there is a permanent order which underwrites peopleís lives and actions is obviously comforting [Lovin and Reynolds 1985: 8]. Secondly, the view of society as a unified whole with the universe, society as an ordered hierarchy where everyone has his proper place, each place being associated with different rights and duties, obviously serves a legitimating function. What could be more potent as an ideology than making social arrangements as natural as self-evident, inescapable and necessary as the order in nature itself?
Cosmogony is not unique to Hinduism. But what is unique, however, to Sanskritic Hinduism is the view of the natural order and how it is mapped on to the social order. Lacking the concept of a law-giver god whose laws of nature make themselves evident in the daily workings of nature which human beings can observe and understand, Hinduism has depended on a monist idealism of the doctrine of Absolute spirit (Brahma) at a Sanskritic level, and on correct ritual and duty, at a folk level, as the mediating factor between the cosmos and the polis. In Hinduism, it is not godís natural law that assures a continuity between cosmos and the polis, but dharma. This dharma, I need not remind the readers of EPW, does not have an identical content for all: each human group has its own sva-dharma, the fulfillment of which maintains the socio-cosmic order.30
Why the spell of dharma is so disastrous for the cause of freedom and reason in our society is that it naturalises hierarchy and hierarchically assigned duties of different varnas and genders. It makes hierarchy an obligation imposed by the order of nature. Just as nature has its ërtaí, that is, the universal harmony in which all things in the world have a proper place and function, so do social beings have corresponding places and functions. It does not require much sophisticated discourse analysis to see how dharma anchors social ethics in the alleged order of nature itself. Hindu texts, from learned commentaries of the late president of India, S Radhakrishnan, to the crude political tracts of the Hindutva brigade, openly acknowledge the inseparability of social ethics and morality from the order of nature. Here is Radhakrishnan (1927, p 59): ìdharma is virtue in conformity with the nature of things; moral evil is disharmony with the truth which encompasses and controls the world ì (emphasis added). Here is Gandhi, who famously declared the 1934 Bihar earthquake to be a ìdivine chastisementî: ìPhysical phenomena produce results both physical and spiritual. The converse is equally true.î Here is Deendayal Upadhyay, the author of Integral Humanism that forms the official ideology of the BJP: ìwhen nature is channelled according to the principles of dharma, we have culture and civilisationî. According to K S Sudarshan (1998), the RSS boss: ìAll those institutionsÖand conventions that allow a disturbance free [i e, harmonious] and untrammeled discourse between an individual, the society, nature and the supreme being, come under the term dharma.î
What is important to understand about the Hindu cosmopolis is that the two orders ó the natural and the social ó do not just mirror each other, but are actually seen as constituting and sustaining each otherís functioning. Fulfillment of functions appropriate to the station in life is supposed to be responsible for the maintenance of rta (order) in nature, and conversely, improper actions lead to the fall of the universe into unreality, chaos and non-being. Dharmic actions carry ontological weight.
Thus, while we moderns and postmoderns may want to deny ó for perfectly justifiable reasons, which I as a liberal humanist share ó any necessary connection between the working of nature (the realm of necessity) and the social order (the realm of human freedom and choice), the fact is that the dominant ideology of Hinduism is premised upon a unity of nature and society. In the next section, I will elaborate upon why the postmodern-indigenistsí embrace of the unity of nature and society as a source of ìemancipatoryî science is fundamentally misguided and collusive with the Hindu right. But before I do that, I want to consider the frequently voiced objection that Hindu shastras and priests may want to harp upon dharma on the lines described here, but ìthe peopleî have somehow escaped the spell of dharma. The ìpeople,î it is said, have their own hardy empiricism which allows them to break free from brahmanical notions of dharma; or that ìthe peopleî actually use the dharmic notion of unity of the social and the natural to come up with ìemancipatoryî sciences; or that the dharmic justifications for such crimes against humanity as sati and caste were only given the status of ruling ideology by the colonialists in the first place. These claims come from the left, in the fashionable denunciation of ìorientalismî or ìessentialismî of any critical examination of the social consequences of Hindu dharma. With ìenemiesî like these, the Hindu right does not need friends!
Is dharma then only of philosophical interest? And is its effect on the people only benign? Let us seeÖ
a) Varna: I have already touched upon the continuing role of karma and varna on dalit consciousness. Here I only want to point out the resurgence of dharma as the official ideology of the Sangh parivar.
Here is Gandhi on varna-dharma: ìVarna is not a human invention, but an immutable law of natureÖThe law of varna is a special discovery of Hindu seersÖand had universal application. The world may ignore it toady but it will have to accept it in the time to comeî (Gandhi 1962: 13). I have no use for the supposed ìegalitarianismî of Gandhi and his neo-Hindu, neo-Vedantist fellow-travellers who have simply declared all varnas to be equal, by fiat, against all the weight of textual and historical evidence for a clear hierarchy of values found in the Vedas, Vedanta and other holy texts of high Hinduism.31
And here is one of true inheritors of Gandhiís conservative revolution, Deendayal Upadhay, the inspiration behind the Sangh parivar,on why varna dharma is preferable to class struggle: ìIn our concept of four castes, they are thought of as analogous to the limbs of Virat purushaÖ can there] arise any conflict between the head, the stomach and the legs of the same Purusha? There is a complete identity of interest, identity of belongingÖî If this is not a religious justification for denying even the possibility of individual autonomy and plurality of interests, then I donít know what ideology is.
But, one can argue, even the BJP dare not invoke dharma nowadays to justify caste divisions. Havenít realpolitik interests of political parties and the rising assertiveness of dalits made dharmic justifications of caste irrelevant? The answer lies not in words but in actions. Jan Breman (1999) describes the brutal beating to death of a halpati in 1994 and suggests that the impunity with which the dominant castes carried out their crime comes from the injunctions of Manu they carry in their heads as part of their common sense. The outrage the upper castes feel at their caste inferiors usurping their power gets its emotional charge from the righteousness of the social order in their minds. The victims of varna dharma do not have much use for dharma, even though they inadvertently end up internalising some aspects of it (as described earlier). Cosmic/dharmic understanding of varna has always served as an upper class, upper caste justification for their good karma that earned them a spot among the twice-born. And that aspect of dharmic justification of caste is in no danger of disappearing. Far from it! The ìsocial harmonyî of varna dharma is now a part of the official platform of the BJP, even as it reluctantly gives in to the demands for affirmative action [BJP Election Manifesto 1998, see also, Jafferlot 1998]. One can hear the echoes of Gandhi and Golwalkerís pronouncements on varna dharma as a universal law of nature in the more recent advocates of ìHindu scienceî who present laws of dharma as a product of scientific thinking of our ìsagesî and in keeping with the most cutting-edge developments of modern ecology and quantum physics [Sudarshan 1998]. Moreover, as Lise McKean has shown in her fine work, as the political and economic salience of Hinduism grows, the much-vaunted values of harmony and cooperation are being sold as a new business ethic to the upwardly mobile classes while at the same time denigrating individual rights as a pathology of the west.
b) Patriarchy: I have already touched upon the role of dharma that can transform a death in the family to a case of ìkarmic crimeî of the wife, who must atone for it for the rest of her life. But dharmic notion of correspondence between cosmos and the polis also serves a more widespread and seemingly innocuous ó even feminine ó function of equating women with nature, earth and the organic. While western xenophiles seeking comforting myths in the spiritual east may find the interconnections between fallow fields and menstruating women most romantic, the fact remains that in actual life, linking of the two serves as a powerful justification for treating women as polluted beings, tied to their menstruating wombs and burdened with obligations to behave as the fecund mother earth. I have dealt exhaustively with the dangerous romance of ecofeminism elsewhere and will not add to it here.
c) Miracles, or the instrumental rationality of traditional knowledge: The ontological content of dharma works both ways: it makes human arrangements appear as ordained by nature, and gives the illusion that human interventions can alter the course of nature through supernatural means. Because Hinduism holds divinity to be immanent in nature, the impulse to control nature takes the form not of a study of natural law laid out by a law-giver god, as in Judeo-Christian traditions ó much less the fully materialist world view of modern science ó but in propitiating local gods through ritual and prayer.
I find it amazing that Indian intellectuals who are so adept at spotting real and imagined depredations of ìinstrumental reasonî of modern science and technology in all its disguises, should be so untroubled by the deadly toll the instrumental reason of traditions takes. Religious rituals are not innocent expression of simple faith of simple people that are off-limits to critical evaluation by out-of-touch hyper-rational elite. More often than not, religious rituals, yagnas, prayers ó even to sacred trees or earth or rivers, much beloved of our ecofeminists ó have a component that addresses the very human need to understand and control the forces of nature. Of course, understanding and control of nature is not the sole or the ìrealî purpose of religion, but it definitely is one component ó and an important component at that. (Indeed, as Clifford Geertzís classic exposition of Religion as a Cultural System suggests, religion gains its hold on the imagination by ìclothing [itself] in an aura of facticity.î)
In the current left discourse, even among those who have no love lost for the traditional social order, there is a near perfect consensus that any rational critique of popular religious practices is not to be allowed. Such ìunadulterated secularismî, as Bharucha (1998: 39) calls it, amounts to being ìprejudicedî against tradition, seeing it as ìfundamentally retrogressiveÖ backward repository of feudal and primitive valuesî. In Bharuchaís reading, the progressive writers in an era past, who dared to object to government sponsorship of a yagna belonged to this brand of scientific rationalism (p 34). Critics like Nandy, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakravarty have weighed in with their critique of critical reason as a ìderivative discourseî of colonial masters. One wonders what these anti-secular intellectuals will have to say when yagnas and prayers become part of official educational and cultural policy, as they are showing all signs of becoming? Yes, they can still object to the mixing of religion and politics on ìcontingentî or ìstrategicî grounds ó that has always been the last resort of ìanti-essentialistî critics of reason. But when political action is divorced from philosophical conviction it soon degenerates into crass opportunism.
Let me take a couple of contemporary examples and ask how our critics of secular-rationalists would respond. I will go back to Viramma, whose honest, down-to-earth account of her trials, tribulations and triumphs I find most touching. She is a woman who can combine faith in gods with a great deal of common sense. The gods she worships are non-Sanskritic gods and goddesses of her paraiayar caste, although she surreptitiously listens in ó from a respectful distance ó to the religious ceremonies of the upper castes. Her relationship with her own gods is most intimate: she sings to them, offers animal sacrifices to them and goes to pilgrimages, the expense for which she can barely afford. But it is amply clear that her faith is not devoid of instrumental reason: her piety is also a means to an end of warding off evil spirits and illnesses. On one occasion that captures the complex dynamic of faith, caste ideology and instrumental reason, Viramma ascribes the temporary loss of her milk (she is nursing her baby) to her ìcrimeî of having listened in to the prayers to upper caste, superior gods in her masterís house. Her ìuncleannessî, she believes, has brought upon her the wrath of the goddess. I cannot find a more telling example of the ideological work of religious faith. No doubt that Virammaís religiosity is very earthy, practical and egalitarian ó pretty much as described by Ilaiah. But Viramma accepts her gods as inferior to the gods of the clean castes. Moreover ó and here I have a problem with Ilaiahís celebratory view of dalit religiosity ó her faith in the protective powers of gods did nothing to save nine of her 12 children from dying of perfectly curable infectious diseases. If dalits are to serve as the agents of reason and Enlightenment in Indian society, they will have to accept that reason will expel their own gods, as well as the gods of the twice-borns, from social life.
Any misconception that such instrumental uses of religious faith is only limited to poor people and will go away as more modern alternatives become available, ought to disappear on reading Lise McKeanís account of well-heeled, urban middle-to-upper class devotees of modern gurus who run modern, profit-making, technologically sophisticated ashrams (not unlike the rich fundamentalist outfits in the US). (Most of these gurus are ardent supporters of VHP and the rest of the Sangh parivar.) It is clear that faith in the miracle-working powers of gurus feeds upon the dharmic notions of karma, yoga and moksha: the gurus, through their asceticism, have accumulated sufficient power that they can alter the course of nature which ó recall from our earlier discussion of cosmopolis ó follows the same course as dutiful, righteous action.
The point I am trying to make is this: the religiosity of people is not just a matter of simple faith ó the supposed antithesis of the derided ìinstrumental reasonî of modern science and technology. And neither is this religiosity simply an ideological cover for ërealí material needs. This religiosity has roots in the actual doctrines and world view of Hindu dharma which sanction an irrational route to solving the problems of here and now.
I agree that religious sentiments cannot be reduced without a residue only to stand-ins for cognition and control. But there is no need to over-correct the reductionism of rationalists and swing to the other extreme and ignore the cognitive-instrumental needs religious beliefs do actually serve. In fact, one must take Geertzís understanding of religion seriously and consider the possibility that religious beliefs masquerade as facts of nature in order to gain acceptability. If ëmaní does not live by reason alone, he does not live by faith alone either: faith can use reason as its vehicle to lodge itself in human consciousness. In fact, in order to protect true faith ó which does not need subterfuge of reason ó it is important to tease out the two components of religious beliefs. That is the reason that unlike our basically secular and non-believing defenders of ëthe peopleísí faith and traditions, those internal critics of religion who are men and women of faith (such as Soroush in Iran, and any number of modernist priests and theologians in the west), have not hesitated in exposing inherited religious beliefs to critical reason: they did that more out of a desire to put faith on a secure ground than to spread rationalist scepticism all around. In India, as even the most ardent neo-Hindus readily grant, the impulse to reform religion from within has been very weak and has invariably fallen prey to the brahmanical-nationalist interest in absorbing heterodoxies into the supposedly universal core of Hinduism. Out of necessity, the task of religious reform has fallen to lay intellectuals. Apart from a small but principled minority, Indian intellectuals have not taken the on a critique of religious reason with the seriousness it deserves.
VIII Breaking the Cosmopolis: Historical Role of Reason
Life in a cosmopolis is stifling: man-made laws are backed by the alleged force of nature, and the keepers of these laws ó the god-men, the gurus and the priests ó correspondingly acquire an aura of unquestioned authority in both the sacred and the secular realms. Justifiably, we m oderns (and postmoderns) are vehemently opposed to any natural ó or supernatural ó justifications for man-made laws. (This explains Sarukkaiís mocking condescension towards my argument that the cultural universe we live in India today stands to be liberated if what we know about nature through science is allowed to challenge what our dharmic sources tell us about the world. To a postmodernist like Sarukkai, it is simply unimaginable and morally abhorrent that any aspect of nature can or should illuminate social ethic.) It is this fundamentally sound distaste for cosmopolis ó which I as a liberal humanist share ó that underlies the postmodern rebellion against modern science. The critics of science fear that modern scienceís claim to have discovered objective truths of nature will legitimise attempts to restore cosmopolis in a modern disguise, that is, to justify the capitalist social order as ordained by nature.
What I find objectionable about post modernist-indigenist attacks on science is not their distaste for cosmopolis, but their misguided and distorted understanding of modern science as an ideology of cosmopolis. What I object to, in other words, is the completely ahistorical and factually incorrect understanding of modern science as a discourse that justifies the interest of the powerful by making their power look natural. While science as an instrument has sometimes served the interest of power, science as a world view has been the solvent of the cosmopolis. Indeed, the historical record clearly shows, despite all the blind-alleys of scientific racism, that breaking down the premodern cosmopolis has been the crowning achievement of modern science. Consequently, I will argue, it is simply inconsistent, philosophically, on the part of postmodernist-indigenists to simultaneously want to end any naturalistic justifications for social arrangements and to deny the possibility of rational progress in modern science. These critics are trying to get the world that the Enlightenment made ó that is, a world where the cosmos and the polis are not expected to march in lock step ó without the protracted and personally painful struggle against oneís own inheritance that the Enlightenment calls for. The post colonial intellectualsí embrace of post-modernist concerns and postmodernist frames of thought, without first becoming modern, is a replay in the realm of culture of the communist leftís hurry to get to the ultimate bliss of a classless society without a bourgeois revolution.32 Both, I contend, are routes to the same unintended end of reactionary modernism, with postmodernism being the ideology of reactionary modernism of the right. Reactionary modernism, either of the right or of the left, can promise highly sophisticated modern technology, without the benefit of political liberalism in the public sphere. India ó with nuclear bombs in the silos and ëVedic scienceí in the schools ó is showing all the signs of a dangerous reconciliation between forces of modernity and atavistic social philosophies. Such a reconciliation has been tried once before ó in Nazi Germany [Herf 1984].
I submit that two of the most fundamental concessions to Hindutvaís reactionary modernism that the postmodernist-indigenist critics of modern science have made are: (a) That ìweî the oppressed/colonised/east think ìwholisticallyî, while ìtheyî the oppressors/colonisers/west think ìreductionisticallyî, and (b) that thinking holistically will lead to ìemancipatoryî science. This supposed wholist, non-dualistic, non-reductionist standpoint epistemologyî of the oppressed, is precisely the philosophy of ìintegral humanismî so dear to Hindutva-wadis. The much vaunted ìnon-dualismî of Vedanta that is the foundation of all neo-Hindu revivalists from Vivekanand onward, is nothing but the religious rightís version of the postmodernist leftís agitation on behalf of the supposedly incommensurate differences in thecriteria of validity of experience, reason and truth between the west/colonisers/men and the east/the colonised women.
The fact is that both ëwholisticí33 and ëreductionistí34 thinkings are historical modes of thought: the pre-capitalist west was no less ìwholistî than the east. What is more, transition from wholist to ìreductionistî thinking is not the disaster that it is made out to be. ìReductionismî is nothing but a cognitive ó and concomitantly, a political ó ethic that demands of its practitioners to make all honest effort to separate the influence of the polis when they study the cosmos and vice versa. It is an ethic that demands that we take apart the package deal between nature and society that our priests, our gurus, our traditions offer us, and analyse the two in terms that we, ordinary mortals, can ascertain through our own reason and senses. Reductionism is an ethic based upon Kantís insistence to seek guarantee of our social morality not in nature, or in God, or in any external source of authority ó and that includes the party, the proletariat, women, ëpeople of colourí or any group that can claim an ëepistemological privilegeí based upon either their power or their lack of it ó but in the ìcategorical apparatusî of our own minds and reason, disciplined by a collective, and free exercise of reason by all in public life. (Lest this account of the historical role of reason be put aside as ëpositivistí, it is significant that such staunch social-democratic critics of positivism as Jurgen Habermas, Hilary Putnam, Richard Bernstein, Seyla Benhabib subscribe to this communicative ethic over a special epistemic privilege of the oppressed.)35
It is this much ridiculed ëreductionismí, or ëdualismí between object (nature) and subject (the culturally shaped mind) that, slowly but surely, drove the gods out of the cosmos (though not necessarily out of the life in the polis ó gods could stay in the polis as objects of personal faith, but not as final causes of natural events). It is the scientific refusal to recognise any source of epistemic privilege that translates, in society, into a refusal to bow to anyone. Nothing and no one is sacred but a procedure in which potentially any one, with due education and training can participate. No doubt this ethic is nowhere fully and perfectly realised ó and perhaps should never, even in principle, be fully realised, for men and women do not live by procedural reason alone. Moreover, those seeking a socialist society find the new culture of reason complicit in the bourgeois order, for it upholds formal and procedural equality of individuals without challenging the class privileges of the bourgeois. For all the admitted limitations, both inherent and contingent, reason still remains a force for permanent revolution in a society. Those of us who aspire for a liberal, democratic socialism in which no one can rule on the behalf of all, in which there is no fount of liberatory consciousness, cannot afford to deny the very possibility of critical reason, as postmodernists and social constructivists do.
I know that postmodernists and their sympathisers will assert most strenuously that they are not denying reason, but only challenging its claims to universalism and cognitive superiority over other ways of knowing. By now, all the standard postmodern arguments have been repeated ad nauseum. Sarukkai repeats the tired old cliches: scientific justification is only one variant of how ìclaims of truth become truthî [Sarukkai 779]; other cultures use their own norms for justifying their claims of truth (783); modern science establishes its western norms of justification by ìforced exclusionî of other rationalities (p 781), which are presumably as capable of ìadjudicationî of truth claims, etc. In my previous writings, I have challenged the philosophical grounds for theories of ìalternative epistemologiesî, which Sarukkai espouses. Rather than repeat myself, I want to extend a challenge to Sarukkai. Will he please tell us, how he will respond to the votaries of Hindu science who claim ó in almost the exact tone and vocabulary that Sarukkai uses to decry the exclusiveness of modern science ó that karma is an exact science, at par with the discovery of laws of gravity by Newton, for it can predict and explain events in human and natural life (see Sundarshan, for example, although the claim is present in such sophisticated neo-Hindus as Radhakrishnan as well)? Here is one cultural tradition ìadjudicatingî and proclaiming the truth of culturally sanctioned experiences of nature and society. Would Sarukkai grant that this adjudication is at par with science? If not, why not?
Those of us who are concerned with the rise of state-backed revivalism have no choice but to rethink the deference to traditions we ourselves have shown. This rethinking need not take us back to positivism ó for cultural discourse and traditions do indeed guide our empirical experiences and our reasons. But we need to recover a respect for critical reason that remains committed to the belief that we can become aware of our prejudices and learn to evaluate them rationally through free, open and critical debates.
In one of his last important books, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion, Ernest Gellner described three major contestants in the global intellectual conflict at the close of the millennium: religious fundamentalism, relativism/postmodernism and Enlightenment rationalism, or what Gellner jokingly calls ìrationalist fundamentalismî.
Like Gellner, I am a proud and unrepentant adherent of Enlightenment rationalism. This essay was meant as a call for reviving the prematurely aborted project of Enlightenment in India. The indigenist intellectual dalliance with postmodernism has only aided the rise of reactionary modernism of Hindutva. Even though religious right has no use for the deeply anti-essentialist and secularising possibilities of postmodern thought, postmodernist denigration of reason has provided the grounds for the revivalist project of Hindu science and Hindu modernity. Enlightenment rationalism is the only viable, long-term solution to the crisis that India faces today.
1 There are those avowed anti-secularists who have argued that nothing has changed, that Hindutvawadis are only more open, less hypocritical variants of Nehruvian ëpseudo-secularistsí, for they both seek the same goal of modern ëunmarkedí culturally-denuded ëabstract individualsí, [see Nivedita Menonís (1998) twist on Nandyís well known argument] and that the whole idea of keeping religiosity out of the public realm is wrong-headed and unsuited to Indian culture in the first place. But these well known anti-secularists apart, there is a general feeling among those who oppose the Sangh parivar that the Nehruvian secularism mostly meant a formal nod to secular ideas, with very little principled commitment to them.
There is a substance to these concerns. As I will argue here, the battle for secularism and humanism was never joined at the terrain of culture; the secularists ó and here not just the Nehruvian liberals but all other left intellectuals share the blame ó never adequately challenged the pervasive and reactionary influence of religious thought on the hearts and minds of Indians.
Nevertheless, it is facile to deny any difference between the Nehruvian secularism and what has now come to pass. There is an essential difference: while the communalism of the former, deplorable as it was, was a matter of unprincipled political opportunism, that of the latter is grounded in the ideals of ëdharma rajyaí. There is no conflict between the ideals and the actual practice in the case of BJP. Sometimes, even lip-service to formal principles has its uses, for it provides a vantage point from where to hold the state accountable for delivering on the formal principles.
2 This does not mean that I do not recognise the pervasive influence of the power of money and privilege in western societies. But the proposition that social institutions in western democracies do not humiliate their citizens on an everyday basis can be supported by a comparative study of institutions across cultures and political systems. Instances of humiliation ó like Rodney Kingís beating by Los Angeles police ó make news around the world precisely because they are relatively rare and because they contradict the well-established norms of fairness and justice.
3 Needless to say, the natural equality of all is still not fully realised in even the most advanced countries. Social inequities have to be recognised but should not be allowed to trivialise, as they often are in ëradicalí discourse, the importance of the recognition of the principle of the equality of natural reason. Such a principle is not at all self-evident, even to this date, in brahmanical Hinduism.
4 It was this spirit of intellectual modesty and anti-dogmatism that constituted the self-understanding of the Enlightenment and not the delusions of grandeur contemporary critics have read into them. This understanding is based upon not just the earlier, more sympathetic commentators like Peter Gay (1969) and Ernest Cassirer (1951), but also contemporary students of Enlightenment who read it through their encounter with postmodernism. Notable among the latter are: Porter (1992), Outram (1995), Bronner (1995), Dranton (1997) and Gordon (1999).
5 Jurgen Habermas [see Calhoun 1997] remains the best source for a history of the structural transformation of the public sphere.
6 In the Jewish Question, Marx made it plain that he saw the rights of man of the American and of the French declarations as ìnothing but the rights of members of civil society, i e, the rights of egotistic man, of man separated from other men and from the communityî. Recognition of such rights by modern state, in his opinion, ìhas no other meaning than the recognition of slavery by the state of antiquity hadî.
Yet, it cannot be denied that Marx himself and Marxist social movements have led the struggle for securing human and civil rights around the world. But such struggles are more utilitarian than principled and run the risk of opportunism.
7 While the Protestant Reformation did indeed purge the medieval church of miracles and superstitions, it actually led to an increase in magic, witchcraft and other supernatural beliefs in the rest of the society, primarily because the Catholic church was no longer available to minister to those material and emotional needs that miracles and supernatural beliefs answered. The classic text that examines the influence of Reformation on popular beliefs is Keith Thomas (1971).
8 The Scientific Revolution did not mark a break with the Christian worldview. All the major figures of the Scientific Revolution continued to be pious Christians.
9 Although capitalist social relations do have a tendency to ìmelt all that is solid,î they can also selectively conserve the magical and mystical beliefs that serve the profit-motive. The use of ideologies of karma and bhakti by Indian industrialists has been studied by Milton Singer (1972). Lise McKeane (1998) offers new evidence of the accommodative tendencies of Hinduism. She describes neo-Hindu gurus who are modernising elements of Hindu worldview to serve as ideology of the new, globalised business classes. Indeed, the ability of Indian traditions to accommodate modern capitalist development is what the whole thesis of ëmodernity of traditionsí is all about.
10 Many streams of ëprogressiveí thought have converged to shape this post-Enlightenment common sense. Most persistent and far-reaching critiques of reason have come from feminists (notably, Sandra Harding, Helen Longino, Evelyn Fox Keller, Donna Haraway, Vandana Shiva) and the proponents of ëalternative sciencesí (notably, Ashis Nandy and the so-called ëDelhi Schoolí, Ziauddin Sardar and the allied proponents of the so-called ëIslamic scienceí.) This style of science critique finds philosophical justification from a radicalised Kuhnian sociology of science on the one hand, and the Foucaultian critiques of Orientalism on the other. As most of these works have become contemporary classics, complete references are not included in this paper.
11 See Saberwal, 1995 for the segmentary logic of caste, and see S Gopal 1996, Upadhyay 1992 and Larson 1995 for the continued influence of neo-Hindu ideology on Indiaís brand of secularism.
12 See Gurpreet Mahajanís (1995) critique of this tendency.
13 Javeed Alam (1999) is a good example of common Marxist misconceptions about the politics and epistemology of the Enlightenment.
14 On this count at least, the Marxist left is a mirror image of the Hindutva right. Hindutva right wants to keep the economic freedoms of the market, while denying as un-Hindu the individual freedoms and rights of liberalism. The Marxist left wants to keep the political rights and freedoms of liberalism, without the economic freedoms of the market. The problem with both these positions is that they ignore the necessary structural links between economic and political freedoms.
15 This is not to deny that the dalit-OBC politics has its share of opportunism, identity politics and sheer chauvinism. But the philosophical underpinnings of dalit-OBC movements are derived, most consistently, from the Enlightenment view of the world.
16 Gerald Larson (1995) provides a very sympathetic reading of how neo-Hinduism has provided the political philosophy of post-colonial India.
17 While there always had been some isolated dissidents, the first major critique of constructivism appeared in 1994 with the publication of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrel with Science by Paul Gross, a molecular biologist and Norman Levitt, a mathematician. The book was followed with a conference organised by the New York Academy of Sciences. The proceedings of this conference were published in a volume titled Flight From Reason and Science. In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that one of my essays appears in the Flight volume.
18 For a recent compendium of writings of anti-constructivist philosophers of science, see Koertge (1998).
19 To anticipate the usual complaints: Yes, it is possible to deify science itself as a new religion. But no, it does not mean that science by its nature is a new myth. It only means that weneed a constant vigilance against all mythic thinking. The dialectic of Enlightenment can only be cured by a more radicalised Enlightenment.
20 Including my own, Nanda 1997, but also see Koertge 1998, Kitcher, Laudan, and Haack, and the original works of Karl Popper and the American pragmatists, especially Charles S Peirce and John Dewey.
21 On nearly any issue pertaining to women from domestic violence to quotas for women, Hinduism Today runs special interviews with Madhu Kishwar, or reprints her writings. On matters of ecology, globalisation, intellectual property, The Organiser turns to Vandana Shiva. Hindutva writings on relevance of Hinduism to ecological preservation are replete with the Shivaís and occasionally, Patkarís invocation of nature as mother, shakti and such. Claude Alvaresí writings get kudos among the Hindutva critics of modernity. Lise McKean (p 261) reports the appearance and the stirring speech by Sundarlal Bahuguna of the Chipko fame in the praise of Bharatiya Sanskriti to combat the evils of science and modernity at the centenary celebrations of Sivanandaís Divine Life Society in Hardwar. The founding guru of Divine Life Society was one of the founding members of VHP.
22 This is not to suggest that the west is entirely free from irrationalities. Fear of those with AIDS is widespread in the US. It is not an all-or-nothing issue, but more of a continuum. India has to go longer on the continuum to become a more rational society. 23 Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and the Rise of Reactionary Modernism in Third World is the title of my forthcoming book which will examine the philosophical fallacies of postmodern critiques of science and their hold on Indian ëalternative science movementsí.
24 How little colonialism or even postcolonial modernity actually changed the basic tenor of Hindu worldview is well described in Gerald Larson (1995), whose defence of neo-Hinduism inadvertently reveals the continuities that have withstood and absorbed the colonial ideas within Hinduism. Indeed, even a cursory reading of Radhakrishnan reveals how deeply entrenched the architects of modern India were in a brahmanical worldview, complete with its justifications for caste and patriarchy.
25 Here I have my good friend Achin Vanaik in mind, from whose otherwise excellent writings I have learned so much.
26 The fact that mass religiosity of a strongly super-naturalistic kind is a contributory factor in the rise of religious politics makes the anti-Enlightenment bias of the Indian Left all the more distressing. The populist turn to traditional values has only ended up deifying as ëdecolonisation of the mindí what needed to be questioned. Decolonisation to what end? Whether intended or not, the mental decolonisation has only prepared the great hope of the Indian left ó the ëpeopleí, the ësubalterní ó for a take-over by the Hindu right.This nexus between ìcritical traditionalismî and neo-Hinduism has been visible for all to see since Gandhi and later the JP movement. It appears to me that Indian left intellectuals must first break the spell of dharma from their own minds before they can approach the cultural question with any degree of balance.
27 Unless this worldview changes, we cannot hope to alter the status of widows. Calls for more development, etc, as the answer to Satpura tragedy are perfectly legitimate. But it is not clear at all if material development by itself translates into a modernisation of consciousness. On the contrary, there is ample evidence to suggest that the habits of the heart, conditioned by a host of intimate social relations and institutions, can bend the changing modes of production to their own continued survival.
28 Interestingly, at the end of his phenomenological analysis of what is specifically Hindu about sati, Sharma seems to have one great regret: these poor widows and satis were not told, and neither were they perceived by others, as actually doing yoga. If pati-yoga was could be seen as a form of yoga rather than just plain old drudgery, widows could get the respect that is due to a yogic! So, keep widowhood, only call it yoga! (Although to be fair to Sharma, he does come down against sati on the ground that unlike real yogis, women do not choose the yogic path as their vocation.)
29 See Gellner 1992, Popper 1962 for classic statements of the history of reason in society. Patricia Crone (1989) provides a useful introduction.
30 If a theoretical statement of this idea of (sva)-dharma, which is familiar to anyone ó non-Hindus included ó growing up in India is needed at all, see Biardeau 1989.
31 For a clear, textually grounded, learned ó and without any over-heated rhetoric ó analysis of the support of hierarchy in the Vedas and Vedanta, see the writings of Wilhelm Halbfass (1988, 1991).
32 This does not imply that I subscribe to universal laws of history. Neither a bourgeois revolution in social relations nor a classless society is inevitable. But they become possible to imagine, for the first time in history, with the forces unleashed by science, industry and capitalism.
33 Technically, the term ëwholismí describes any doctrine that emphasises the priority of a whole over its parts. In discourse theory, wholism claims that the meaning of an individual word can only be understood in terms of its relation to an indefinitely larger body of language, such as a whole theory, or even a whole language or form of life (Blackburn 1994). In multicultural and postcolonial critiques, wholism comes to take connotations of unity, or lack of separation of knowledge and culture, facts and values.
34 Technically, the term ìreductionismî holds that the ìfacts or entities apparently needed to make true the statements of some area of discourse are dispensable in favour of some other facts or entitiesî (Blackburn 1994). Thus one might advocate reducing biology to chemistry, or chemistry to physics. Reductionism assumes a unity of science so that laws of any special branch of science can be described as special cases of the universal way things are. However, multicultural and postcolonial critics of science use reductionism more in its historical sense of differentiation between the spheres of factual knowledge and sphere of philosophy, theology and ethics (See Gellner 1992). Reductionism here comes to take on a connotation of separation of knowledge from culture, facts from values.
35 My own account here is indebted to Karl Popper (1962) and Ernest Gellner (1992). For an earlier statement of this historical role of reason for postcolonial societies, see Nanda (1996).
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