|Making science sacred|
THE second-term election victory of George Bush – and India’s own experience with the BJP rule, off and on, through the last decade – captures a dangerous moment in world history. We are witnessing the world’s first and the world’s largest liberal constitutional democracies, officially committed to secularism, slide toward religious nationalism. By voting out the BJP and its allies in the last election, the Indian voters have halted this slide, at least for now – a heartening development, compared to the virtual takeover of America by Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists.
The question that interests me in this electoral route to faith-based governance is how this counter-revolution is actually accomplished or, to put it differently, how the spirit of secularism gets subverted without any formal abrogation of secular laws. How nothing changes, and yet everything changes. How do perfectly secular issues which have no necessary implications for the practice of religion – issues having to do with national security, social welfare, family law, women’s rights, science and the environment, for example – begin to get framed in the jargon of religiosity? How does the secular get re-coded into a sacred vocabulary, and vice versa, and how the two are used inter-changeably in the public sphere for electoral gains? Unless we understand the ideological mechanisms of this sacralization of politics, we will not be able to combat the ongoing coups against secularism under nominally secular democracies.
As a student of history and philosophy of science, I have been watching with concern how modern science itself – perhaps the single most powerful force for secularization – is being re-coded as sacred, either as affirming the Bible or the Vedas, or as ‘lower knowledge’ of ‘dead matter’ in need of spiritualization. As an old time partisan of the Enlightenment and scientific temper, I have been watching with concern as my fellow intellectuals and activists, in the United States and India, who identify themselves with traditional leftwing causes of social justice, anti-imperialism, women’s rights and sustainable development, have themselves paved the way for re-enchantment or re-sacralization of science.
As I will show in this essay, many of the Hindutva arguments for ‘Vedic science’ find a resonance with the fashionable theories of alternative sciences and postcolonial epistemologies. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the impression that postmodernist and multiculturalist critics of modern science are rediscovering and restating many of the arguments Hindu nationalists have long used to assert the superior scientificity of Hindu sacred traditions.1
I find George Orwell to be the most helpful guide for understanding how modern science either gets equated with, or absorbed into, the amorphous, grab-bag of Hindu myths, mysticism and philosophy, lumped together as ‘the Vedas’. Indeed, Orwell’s doublethink bears an uncanny resemblance with the well-known Hindu tendency to eclectically combine contradictory ideas by declaring them to be simply different paths or names of a shared enterprise.
Recall how double-think worked in George Orwell’s 1984. Words came to mean their opposites: war meant peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance strength. History was endlessly revised to make the present look like a confirmation of eternal, unchanging truths. Words, representations, facts ceased to mean what they appear to be saying. Shorn of any definite and contestable meanings, words began to be used interchangeably, hybridized endlessly, without any fear of contradictions.
Under the BJP rule, superstitions started getting described as science. Murli Manohar Joshi and his RSS brethren started invoking science in just about every speech and policy statement. But while they uttered the word ‘science’ – which in today’s world is understood as modern science – they meant astrology, or vastu, or Vedic creationism, or transcendental meditation, or ancient humoral theory of disease taught by Ayurveda. This was not just talk: state universities and colleges got big grants from the government to offer postgraduate degrees, including PhDs in astrology. Research in vastu shastra, meditation, faith-healing, cow-urine and priest-craft was promoted with substantial injections of public money.
Nearly every important discovery of modern science was read back into Hindu sacred books: explosion of nuclear energy became the awesome appearance of God in the Bhagvat Gita, the indeterminacy at quantum level served as confirmation of Vedanta, atomic charges became equivalent of negative, positive and neutral gunas, or moral qualities, the reliance on experience and reason in science became the same thing as reliance on mystical experience and so on. Contemporary theories of physics, evolution and biology were wilfully distorted to make it look as if all of modern science was converging to affirm the New Age, ‘mind over matter’ cosmology that follows from Vedantic monism. ‘Evidence’ from fringe sciences was used in support of all kinds of superstitions – from vastu, astrology, ‘quantum healing’ to the latest theory of Vedic creationism. Science and ‘Vedas’ were treated as homologues, as just different names of the same thing. Orwell’s Big Brother would’ve felt right at home!
Another sign of doublespeak was this: On the one hand, BJP and its allies presented themselves as great champions of science, as long as it could be absorbed into ‘the Vedas’, of course. But on the other hand, they aggressively condemned the secular and naturalistic world-view of science – the disenchantment of nature – as ‘reductionist’, ‘western’ or even ‘Semitic’ and therefore un-Hindu and un-Indian. Science yes, and technology yes, but a rational-materialist critique of Vedic idealism no – that became the mantra of Hindutva.2
Why this over-eagerness to claim the support of science? There is, undoubtedly, a modernizing impulse in all religions, that is, all religions display a desire to make the supposedly timeless truths of theology acceptable to the modern minds raised on a scientific sensibility. ‘Scientific creationism’ among Christian and Islamic fundamentalists is an example of this impulse. But while Christian fundamentalists in America indulge in creationism primarily to get past the First Amendment,3 Hinduization of science in India is motivated by ultra-nationalism and Hindu chauvinism.
As originally formulated by Swami Vivekananda, followed up by Sri Aurobindo and repeated endlessly in the far-right tracts of Guru Golwalkar and Savitri Devi, the urge to claim the support of modern science for the Vedas is motivated by the nationalist urge to declare Hinduism’s superiority as the religion of reason and natural law over Christianity and Islam which are declared to be irrational and faith-based creeds. Contemporary Hindu nationalists are carrying on with the neo-Hindu tradition of proclaiming Hinduism as the universal religion of the future because of its superior ‘holistic science’ (as compared to the ‘reductionist science’ of the West.) Besides, it is easier to sell traditions and rituals, especially to urban, upwardly mobile men, if they have the blessings of English-speaking ‘scientific’ gurus.
Granted, that this business of Vedic science has been going on before anyone had ever heard the word ‘postmodern’. But, and this is central to my thesis, this Hindu nationalist appropriation of science has found new sources of intellectual respectability from the postmodernist, anti-Enlightenment turn taken by intellectuals, most radically in American universities, but also in India. (Indeed, intellectuals of Indian origin made original contributions to postcolonial theory). Many of the arguments for ‘decolonizing knowledge’ and constructing ‘holistic sciences’ in tune with the Indic civilizational values converge with the arguments used by the Hindu nationalists.
But that is not even the worst of it. As they condemned modern science and the Enlightenment rationality (‘scientific temper’ as it used to be called in India), Indian intellectuals championed the use of unreformed religious traditions for indigenist versions of science, development, environmentalism, feminism and other causes dear to progressive social movements. Their uncritical embrace of traditions from the populist, third-positionist, mostly neo-Gandhian perspective, left very little space for a principled opposition to the rapid Hinduization of the public sphere. Indeed, many of these new social movements (Chipko, patriotic science movement and elements of anti-globalization movement, for example) have become indistinguishable from similar initiatives from the right.
What do I mean by postmodernism and how did it play out in India? Postmodernism encompasses a wide variety of theoretical discourses, touching on everything from literature and history to architecture. What unites them is a suspicion of all forms of universal knowledge which claim to represent the world objectively and transparently. Modern natural science, being the ideal-type of such knowledge, naturally became a target of postmodernist critics. In what follows, I will present a very brief account of the postmodern turn in ‘science studies’, a new-fangled discipline devoted to deconstructing modern science, which in turn, became the target of deconstruction by Alan Sokal, the physicist who revealed its inanities in his well-known hoax.4
Before it came became a candidate for deconstruction, modern natural science was held up as a model of universal discourse. It was widely accepted that while there could be different styles in art, literature, mythology, culinary tastes and the like, there is only one science, and that the criteria of justification of scientific inquiry cut across national and cultural differences. Following the pioneering work of Joseph Needham, it was accepted that while all societies have their own ethno-sciences in the past, these are only tributaries that flow into the ocean of modern natural knowledge.
What makes modern science universal is that it has progressively learned how to learn better, or how to correct itself through socially institutionalized ways of subjecting existing knowledge to empirical tests. Because of its cumulative nature, ethno-sciences of other cultures have to test their theories against what has been learned about nature through the developments in modern science. Sure, there were many critics of this universal science, including prominent scientists themselves, but their criticisms were levelled at the abuses of science, not at its logic.
With postmodernism, this ecumenical, universalistic view of science comes to an end. Mistrust of science’s claims to objective, value-free facts began to gather force around the time of Vietnam war and civil rights struggles in the West and around the time of Emergency in India. Deep disillusionment with the military-industrial complex in the West and the top-down model of development in India were the major engines of a radical critique which decried not just abuses of science, but its very claims to objectivity and universality.
In India, modern science came under fire from well-known public intellectuals – Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Shiv Visvanathan, Claude Alvares and others associated with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi and with the emerging ecology and alternative technology movements around the country. These critics condemned modern science as being innately barbaric, violent and even genocidal because of its ‘reductionism’ and its imposition of western interests and values in collusion with westernized Indian elite. One can debate the strengths and weaknesses of the Nehruvian model of modernization.5 But the critique of science and technology that emerged out of the so-called ‘Delhi school of science studies’ was not limited to uses or abuses of science: it questioned the content and methodology of science as we know it.
The Indian critique of science found its theoretical justification in theories of social constructivism, also called the Strong Program in sociology of science that claimed to follow Thomas Kuhn’s work (even though Kuhn repudiated them). The Strong Program, put forward by David Bloor and Barry Barnes from the University of Edinburgh, claimed that not just the agenda, but the very content of natural science were socially constructed. In their view, all knowledge, regardless of whether it is true or false, rational or irrational, whether it is modern science or traditional knowledge of non-modern cultures is equally conventional or perspectival. In all cases, it is the social interests and cultural and religious meanings, metaphors and metaphysical assumptions that decided how the natural world will be classified, what kind of observations will be accepted as legitimate evidence and what kind of logic will be accepted as reasonable.
No one can deny that there are alternative, culture-dependent descriptions of nature: the world is full of a vast variety of such descriptions. Given this diversity, can we not say that modern science provides us a closer, a more approximate representation of nature which is more adequately supported by evidence and logic? Not so, according to social constructivists, because the standards of truth and falsity are also relative to the ‘form of life’ of a culture. To quote Barry Barnes and David Bloor, ‘the labels "true" and "false" are simply different names for cultural preferences.’ The grand conclusion of this school of thought is that all ways of knowing are at par because all are culturally embedded attempts to understand brute reality. There is only one reality, different cultures approach it differently, each of which is rational in its own context. (If you replace culture with caste in this statement, you get the golden rule of Hinduism that all paths to truth are different only in name. But more on this later.)
Social constructivists do not deny that modern science has discovered some truths about nature that are universally valid – Newton’s law of gravity for example. But even these universals are seen as products of the Judaeo-Christian and masculine assumptions of western cultures. To paraphrase Sandra Harding, one of the best-known proponents of feminist standpoint epistemology, other cultures are capable of producing alternative universals of their own. Which culture’s ‘universals’ get universalized and which ones are consigned to the status of ethno-sciences, is not decided by superior explanatory power, but by superior political power. Well-known scholars including Andrew Ross and David Hess wrote books arguing that the line between accepted science and heterodox sciences of cultural minorities is an arbitrary construct reflecting cultural and ideological interests of those in power. Dipesh Chakrabarty, a subaltern historian, expressed the sentiment well when he wrote that ‘reason (capital R) is but a dialect backed by an army.’
To ‘provincialize Europe’, and to present India as a source of alternative universals that could heal the logocentrism and reductionism of western science emerged as the major preoccupation of Indian followers of science studies. Vandana Shiva wrote glowingly of Indian views of non-dualism as superior to western reductionism. Ashis Nandy embraced this post-Kuhnian paradigm and declared astrology to be the science of the poor and the non-westernized masses in India. Prayers to the smallpox goddess, menstrual taboos, Hindu nature ethics which derive from orthodox ideas about prakriti or shakti, and even the varna order were defended as rational (even superior) solutions to the cultural and ecological crises of modernity.
All this fitted in very well with western feminist and deep-ecologists’ search for a kinder and gentler science that could undo the dualisms or ‘logocentrism’ of modern science. Prominent feminist theorists (led by Carolyn Merchant and Evelyn Keller) condemned the separation of the subject from the object as a sign of masculine and dualist Judaeo-Christian thinking. History of modern science was rewritten to decry the progressive secularization or disenchantment of nature as a source of oppression of nature and of women.
This naturally created an opening for Eastern cultures, especially India, where such secularization of nature is frowned upon by religious doctrines and cultural mores. In the recent literature on Hindu ecology, the most orthodox philosophies of Hinduism, including Advaita Vedanta, vitalistic ideas of life-force (shakti, Brahman) embodied in all species through the mechanism of karma and rebirth, began to be presented as more conducive to feminist and ecological politics. The deep investment of these philosophies in perpetuating superstitions and patriarchy in India was forgotten and forgiven.
The critics went further: They argued that if, in the final analysis, all representations of nature are cultural constructions, then different cultures and subcultures should be permitted to construct their own representation of nature. To judge other cultures from the vantage point of modern science, as the Enlightenment tradition demanded, amounted to an act of ‘epistemic violence’ against the other, as Gayatri Spivak called it. This became the foundation of what is called postcolonial theory, which combined a perspectival epistemology with Michel Foucault’s notion of power of discourse and Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism.
Postcolonial theory led to a flood of discourse analyses showing how the modernist critics of tradition – especially Nehru, but also the nationalist neo-Hindus like Bankim Chandra, Ram Mohan Roy and other leading lights of the Indian Renaissance – were mentally colonized because they were seeing India through western conceptual categories. Any change that challenged India’s ‘unique cultural gestalt’, as Nandy liked to call it, was to be resisted.
All told, preservation of cultural meanings took priority over validity. Objectively false cosmology of the ‘other’ was not to be challenged because it gave meaning to people’s lives. Any demand for self-correction of local knowledges was routinely decried as a rationalist ‘witch-hunt’. The alternative to Needhamian universalism was that of ‘critical traditionalism’ or ‘borderland epistemologies’. Like a bricolage, pastiche or a cyborg, cultures should be encouraged to create an eclectic mix of different and even contradictory ways of knowing. One need not reject modern science altogether, but rather selectively absorb it into the Indian gestalt: this was the message of the so-called ‘critical traditionalism’ that postcolonial thinkers like Ashis Nandy and Bhiku Parekh derived from Gandhi. Contradictions were not to be questioned and removed, but rather celebrated as expressions of difference.
It is my contention that the picture of science that social constructivism offers is tailor-made for the double-speak of Vedic science. All the major conclusions of science studies – culturally different but equally rational paths to truth, equation of universalism with colonialism and totalitarianism, penchant for eclecticism and hybridity, and the condemnation of disenchantment of nature – end up restating the fundamental assumptions which the nationalist neo-Hindus have always used to assert the superior ‘scientificity’ of Hindu metaphysics and mysticism. Postmodern prophets who promise us a kinder, gentler science do indeed face backward to the spirit-soaked metaphysics of orthodox Hinduism, which has, in fact, inhibited the growth of reason, equality and freedom in India.
Unlike the Abrahamic religions which are weary of epistemological relativism out of the fear of relativizing the Word of God revealed in the Bible or the Koran, Brahminical Hinduism (and Hindu nationalism) thrives on a hierarchical relativism to evade all challenges to its idealistic metaphysics and mystical ways of knowing. Rather than accept the naturalistic and empirical theories of modern science as contradicting the Vedantic philosophy – which they actually do – Hindu nationalists simply declare modern science to be true only within its limited materialistic assumptions. They do not reject modern science (who can?) but ‘merely’ treat it as one among the many different paths to the ultimate truth, which is known only to the Vedic Hinduism.
In theory, of course, social constructivists deny the very possibility of truth and that does differentiate them from religious zealots of all faiths who want to hold on to the literal truth of their creeds. But since in practice, it is not easy to live without some notion of truth – not even social constructivists live without accepting some statements as true – it is the relativist aspects of postmodernist social theory that actually percolate down into the cultural space.
By treating truth in proportion to the evidence for it, modern science in fact provides the only sensible alternative to religious notion of ‘ultimate truth’. But by venting their fury on science and insisting on the ideological nature of scientific objectivity, postmodernists have left no middle ground between the ultimate truths of religions and the relativist truths of cultures. Hindu nationalist genius has been to use the relativist view of truth to protect the Hindu conception of ultimate truth from any challenge. By enshrining relativism as a source of empowerment of the weak, social constructivist theory has unintentionally provided intellectual respectability to the strategy of hierarchical inclusivism which is the time-tested method of Hindu apologetics.
Let me, very briefly, give some examples of this convergence between supposedly ‘emancipatory’ postmodernist deconstruction of science and the clearly reactionary, chauvinistic doublespeak of Vedic science. For starters, take the issue of ‘decolonizing’ modern science. As noted above, developing ethno-sciences which comprehend nature through local conceptual categories of women, non-western people and other cultural minorities has been a cornerstone of social constructivism and postcolonial theory.
Well, Hindu nationalists see themselves as a part and parcel of this postcolonial enterprise. They justify developing a science in accord with the Vedic cosmology as an attempt to decolonize the ‘Hindu mind’ of western, Semitic-monotheistic influences introduced by Macaulay and Marx. Indeed, scholars-activists sympathetic to the Hindu worldview, including Rajiv Malhotra and Koenard Elst, routinely cite the writings of Ashis Nandy, Ronald Inden and even Gayatri Spivak as allies in a shared project of understanding India through Hindu categories.
Like the postmodernist supporters of ethno-sciences, they do not deny that modern science has discovered some truths about nature. But they declare them to be lower-level truths, because they ‘merely’ deal with dead matter, shorn of consciousness. Notwithstanding all pious declarations of the ‘death’ of the Newtonian worldview of matter obeying mechanical laws, the fact is that any number of rigorous, double-blind tests have failed to show any signs of disembodied consciousness or mind-stuff in nature: matter obeying mindless laws of physics is all there is. But in the Vedic science discourse, the overwhelming evidence for adequacy of matter to explain the higher functions of mind and life are set aside as a result of ‘knowledge filtration’ by western-trained scientists.
Take the example of the emerging theory of ‘Vedic creationism’ (which updates the spiritual evolutionary theories of Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda). Its chief architects, Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson, actually cite social constructivist theories to claim that Darwinian evolutionary biologists and mainstream biologists, being products of the western ontological assumptions, have been systematically ignoring and hiding evidence that supports the theory of ‘devolution of species’ from the Brahman through the mechanism of karma and rebirth. All knowledge, they claim, parroting social constructivism, is a product of interests and biases. On this account, Vedic creationism, explicitly grounded in Vedic cosmology is as plausible and defensible as Darwinism is on the naturalistic and capitalist assumptions of the western scientists.
Vedic creationism is only one example of ‘decolonized science’. More generally, Hindu nationalists from Swami Vivekananda, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya to Murli Manohar Joshi and his brethren in RSS routinely insist on the need to develop a science that is organically related to the innate nature, svabhava or chitti of India. India’s chitti, they insist, lies in holistic thought, in keeping matter and spirit, nature and god together (as compared to the ‘Semitic mind’ which separates the two). Like proponents of critical traditionalism and hybridity, Hindu nationalists have been using this purported holism of Hinduism as the touchstone of a uniquely Hindu gestalt: any interpretation of modern science that fits in with this spirit-centred holism is declared to be valid Vedic science while naturalistic, mainstream interpretations are discarded as ‘western’. The overwhelming enthusiasm for Rupert Sheldrake’s occult biology (which builds upon the failed vitalistic theories of Jagdish Chandra Bose) and the near unanimous interpolation of quantum mechanics in mystical terms are examples of the kind of meaning sustaining critical traditionalism and hybridity sanctioned by postmodernists.
But it gets worse. As is well known, Hindu nationalists have been keen on proving that the landmass of India was the original homeland of the ‘Aryans’ and, therefore, the cradle of all civilization. ‘Vedic Aryans’, on this account, were the authors of all natural sciences which then spread to Greece, Sumeria, China and other major civilizations in antiquity. To substantiate these claims, all kinds of modern scientific discoveries are read back into the Rg Veda, the most ancient of all Vedas. But such boastful claims raise the question of methodology. How did our Vedic forebears figure out the speed of light, the distance between the sun and the earth and why did they code it into the shape and size of fire altars?
Similar questions arise for the more general ontological claims that are basic to Hindu metaphysics, namely, there is a higher realm of ultimate reality (Brahman) that cannot be assessed through sensory means. How did our Vedic forbears know it exists and that it actually determines the course of evolution of species, and makes up the gunas of the matter that we all are made of? How can you experience what is beyond all sensory knowledge? But even more important for the claims of scientificity of the Vedas, how do you test the empirical claims based upon that experience?
Here one finds an incredibly brazen claim for relativism and culture-boundedness of rationality. Because in Hinduism there are no ontological distinctions between the spirit and matter, one can understand laws that regulate matter by studying the laws of the spirit. And the laws of spirit can be understood by turning inward, through yoga and meditation leading to mystical experiences. Since all science, supporters of this mysticism-as-science argue, gains coherence from within its own culturally sanctioned, taken for granted assumptions, modern science puts an artificial limit on knowledge as only that knowledge which can be accessible to senses.
Within the taken-for-granted assumptions of Hinduism, it is as rational and scientific to take the non-sensory ‘seeing’ – that is mystical and other meditative practices – as empirical evidence of the spiritual and natural realm. This purported scientificity of the non-mechanistic, spiritual realm, in turn paves the way for declaring occult new age practices like astrology, vastu and quantum healing and even yagnas as scientific within the Vedic-Hindu universe. This defence of parity (i.e. equal rationality) of the Vedic method of non-sensory, mystical knowing is fundamentally a social constructivist argument: it assumes that all sciences are valid for a given community that shares a fundamental metaphysics.
Long ago, Julien Benda wrote in his la Trahison de clercs, that when intellectuals betray their calling – that is, when intellectuals begin to exalt the particular over the universal, the passions of the multitude over the moral good – then there is nothing left to prevent a society’s slide into tribalism and violence. Postmodernism represents a treason of the clerks which has given intellectual respectability to reactionary religiosity.
1. For a more complete treatment of this issue, see my book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004. For complete references to scholars whose ideas are mentioned in this essay, please consult the book.
2. In the Prophets, I have described Hindutva’s zeal to adopt the vocabulary of science and the instrumental reason of technology while rejecting the Enlightenment rationality as ‘reactionary modernism’.
3. The First Amendment of the US Constitution bars the Congress from making any law that ‘respects an establishment of religion…’ By claiming the support of science, ‘creation scientists’ are trying to sneak in the Genesis story of the Bible as a legitimate scientific theory into public schools. The US courts have consistently denied the scientific credential of creation science.
4. The hoax and some of its aftermath is included in Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals Abuse of Science. Picador, 1998.
5. I question the dismal picture of development painted by the critics in my book.