www.sacw.net | February 20, 2005


SCIENCE, SCIENTISTS AND SCIENCE MOVEMENTS IN INDIA -- a comment on Pervez Hoodbhoy's
'India Through Pakistani Eyes' (South Asia Citizens Wire - 18 February 2005)

by Meera Nanda

February 19, 2005

Dear Pervez: Thanks to this wonderful instrument of communication called the internet, I happened to come across your account of your travels in India.

I am glad you took the time to write down your impressions. To see India through your eyes is very instructive. You capture India s many strengths and its many weaknesses very well.

I wanted to briefly comment on your observations regarding science in India.

You very astutely noticed some contradictory tendencies in the scientific community, both among scientists working in research/'teaching institutions and those engaged in science for the people movements.

Some of what you report affirms what I have been writing about and what I talked about in my presentation in the seminar in Paris, where you were one of the participants.

1.

First, the issue of peoples' science movements (PSM). It is true that India is practically exploding with all kinds of new social movements with many innovative methods of social protest and resistance against state and capital. As you notice, science for the people movements are "sweeping through towns and villages." As you know, this is not a new phenomenon. Well known, grass-roots people's science movements have been there for many decades. Through all kinds of lectures, demonstrations, street theater and other vernacular media, dedicated men and women do their best to convey awareness of, and excitement about, modern science. In my younger days, I myself was totally enraptured by science movements. They played a substantial role in my political awakening.

But it is important to ask some tough questions. What has been the record? What is the target of these science movements? What has been their lasting impact?

You hit the nail on the head when you write: "While I found myself admiring the energetic popular science movements, I was disappointed that they pay relatively little attention to anti-scientific superstitions that pervade Indian society."

Exactly!! 

Science for the people movements have not directly engaged with religious worldviews, rituals and prejudices. It is necessary but not sufficient, in my opinion, to teach naturalistic explanations of natural phenomena in general to the people in everyday settings. But it is equally important to use these naturalistic explanations to directly challenge religious superstitions and prejudices. It is important, indeed, not just to address ordinary people and children to motivate them to think scientifically, it is important to challenge the priests, the pandits, the astrologers directly. Nearly everyday, there is some outrage or the other coming from the religious establishment which, in India, is full of charlatans of the Vedantic orders (for the more sophisticated) and god-men and other frauds at the folk level. By and large, mainstream Indian science movements have not engaged with the religious establishment. That has been left to tired old "rationalist associations" which hardly have any constituency. ( I admire them for their courage and perseverance. But they are really voices in the wilderness. Neither the old organized left nor the new social movements on behalf of women, environment and such have established working relations with them. )

Knowing your work, I know that you will agree that it is important to enthuse and enlighten the young about scientific matters. It is a noble task. But as your comments make it clear, you agree that the harder part is to take the fight to the religious ideologues, to challenge their ways of thinking. Without that, naturalism and scientific temper hang in thin air as abstractions. They have to be employed as weapons against religion. Indian science movements have not fought that fight.

Why have PSMs not taken the fight to the priests and the temples? I have my own views about it, which I have tried to develop in *Prophets Facing Backward.* I believe that the nativist turn by an important segments of Gandhian social activists and intellectuals made it unfashionable to question tradition and religion. It became almost obligatory to defend the "wisdom" of the masses, as opposed to the "violence" of modern scientific ideas themselves. This kind of thinking moved the focus to "safer" targets, like big development projects, MNCs and such in which *modern* technology and modern institutions were the main culprits and people's traditions the source of resistance.. (I am not suggesting that the left should not oppose MNCs and big development projects, as and when they need to be opposed.. But they have to be opposed while defending a progressive, secular worldview; not in order to defend the "people's wisdom" which contains many inherited prejudices and superstitions.) Science movements imbibed the populism and cultural traditionalism of leading Gandhian/postcolonial intellectuals who took a highly anti-modernist position for nearly three decades, starting around late 1970s (coinciding with Indira Gandhi's emergency). It is only the shock of Hindutva that cooled down this passion for traditions.

Another minor but important point about science for the people movements: In the absence of regular schools which can teach elementary science in a non-religious idiom, all the many campaigns to "bring science to the people" are mere band-aids. Yes, you try enthuse the young with the spirit of science. Then what? What happens when your movement moves on? What do these kids do?

Bringing science to the people, I have come to believe, ought to be part of the larger responsibility of the government to bring education to the people. NGOs and people's movements are no substitutes for solid, rigorous education. Rather than start countless number of NGO-run schools, it would perhaps be more meaningful for the popular movements to agitate for the government to fulfill its obligation to provide decent, non-sectarian, secular elementary education to all children, regardless of their ability to pay for it. Scientific education has to be treated as a fundamental right.

2.

Turning now to your other very interesting observation regarding scientists themselves: you write "Attitudes of Indian scientists towards science are conservative. Progress through science is an immensely popular notion in India, stressed both by past and present leaders. But what is science understood to be? I was a little jolted upon reading Nehru's words, written in stone at the entrance to the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute for Advanced Research in Bangalore: "I too have worshipped at the shrine of science". The notion of "worship" and "shrine of science" do not go well with the modern science and the scientific temper. Science is about challenging--not worshipping. But science in India is largely seen as an instrument that enhances productive capabilities, and not as a transformational tool for producing an informed, rational society."

Exactly!!

This is precisely what I was trying to say in my Paris talk when I suggested--and you disagreed--that Indian scientists had not done enough to challenge Hindutva's obscurantism. Yes, scientists came out to oppose astrology. But it was too little and too late. For so long, scientists--especially physicists and biologists--have not only kept silent on important matters of scientific method and naturalism, many of them have actively perpetuated the myth that the Vedantic world view of consciousness permeating matter has been affirmed by modern science of physics and biology. They have, indeed, treated science as just another form of Vedantic philosophy.

Exact numbers are simply not available-for no one is keeping count- but I challenge you: visit ANY modern guru or ashram, be it the reformist Ramakrishna Mission or a charlatan such as Sai Baba. You will find well-educated, well-known scientists, with Ph.D.s in advanced topics in cutting edge sciences drinking in the obscurantism of these gurus. (Indeed, there is a famous confession by a professor of IIT who was advised by monks of Ramakrishna Mission to teach physics in IIT as a chapter of Advaita Vedanta-which he proudly did).

India is home of the world's third largest scientific workforce. Yet, in India you will find most obscurantist teachings which verge on medieval vitalism ( and New Age obscurantism) i.e. nature as animated by a dis-embodied life force which has the attributes of consciousness being peddled by any number of modern gurus who cater to the upper class, English educated urbanites. I challenge you to find me even one sustained critique of these ideas from the Indian scientific community. There isn't any. There was a tradition of Marxist philosophy of science which emphasized sensory experience and naturalism to question the soul-stuff. But it died when its major proponent (Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya) died. Since then, the trend has been in the other direction: You find many more scientists, with their Ph.D's dangling after their names, affirming the scientific status of the wisdom of Vedic sages.

Indeed, I have come to believe that rather than take science to the people, Indian scientists first need to develop the scientific temper of their own class/upper caste, pampered community.

Indian science is extremely under-developed when it comes to establishing a culture of rational thought. Indian scientists worship at the altar of science without using it to challenge the traditions they have inherited.

Their silence has been costly, for it has allowed Hindutva nationalists to perpetuate the ridiculous claim that Vedic wisdom is true because it has been affirmed by modern science. (Which respectable, empirically warranted theory of physics or biology affirms the existence of consciousness in matter, as Vedanta teaches?? Except for fringe scientists, hardly anyone in the scientific community interprets quantum mechanics, evolutionary theory or empirical studies of consciousness to defend the kind of spirit suffused universe Hindu gurus and intellectuals celebrate as "scientific."

Neo-Hindu philosophers and Hindu nationalists have managed to erase all boundaries between mystical experiences and properly scientific (i.e. sensory) experiences. This has allowed them to declare Hinduism to be a religion of "experience" and "reason" and therefore superior to irrational creeds like Christianity and Islam which depend upon faith and revelation. While they are overly eager to demolish the personal God of Abrahamic faith, Hindu intellectuals have refused to cast a critical look at the Vedantic conception of God as disembodied soul-stuff. If God as a person is dead, then so is God as Brahman, the impersonal Absolute consciousness.

By and large, Indian scientists have either bought into the myth of modern science converging with Vedantic conception of a spiritual cosmos, or they have remained silent. But silence in the face of obscurantism is immoral.

I just thought of sharing these thoughts with you. I hope we will continue to discuss these ideas in future.

With my best regards  
Meera Nanda


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