Pages from Angela Saini's article, March/April 2011Everyone told me I must go to Akshardham.

It’s a word that’s pronounced from the belly, almost booming, like the name of an ancient Indian warrior. The new Hindu temple on a scrubby wasteland on the outskirts of New Delhi, between the high-rise suburbs to the West and the traffic-jammed centre of town, is as vast as it is glorious.

I had first noticed it six years ago when I was crossing one of the city’s long flyovers to my uncle’s house. Back then it was little more than a construction site. Eleven thousand workers carved the ghostly white stone into soft statues of gods, goddesses and peacocks. Today it also has sixty acres of pristine gardens, a giant film screen and a boat tour. And now it’s completely finished, it gleams in the murky Delhi sunshine like a painting of a beautiful woman hung over a slagheap.

It’s difficult to pass Akshardham and not be impressed by the motivations of the people who built the place. In a poor country, it’s a sumptuous and expensive testament to faith. I’m still disappointed that I never found the time to visit it. Instead, on this particular journey, I happened to stay on my auto rickshaw, bumping over the flyover, until I reached the offices of the Indian Rationalist Association.

One of the puzzles of India for a science journalist like me is that, despite being gloriously nerdy and science-obsessed, this remains among the most religious and superstitious countries on earth. Atheists still haven’t managed to crack a double-digit proportion of the population (the Indian Rationalist Association has 100,000 supporters – less than a hundredth of a per cent of people) and the charm of temples is so undiminished that worshippers can’t stop building new ones. It’s a situation encapsulated in my own family – my dad is an unashamed Indian geek, rational to the core and thoroughly sceptical. My mum, meanwhile, believes her horoscope readings. How the tension between these two ways of life is being resolved is one of the questions I wanted to answer while I was writing Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World.

I’m not the first to explore this territory. There have been attempts to wean Indians away from irrational traditions for at least sixty years. After India won independence from the British in 1947, the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (who had studied natural sciences at Cambridge University), tried to inject a wave of modern thinking through the population. The constitution even includes a call for citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform”.

Were he still alive, Nehru might be satisfied to know that science and engineering have never been more fashionable. But while churning out hundreds of thousands of geeky graduates, India does remain a country as seemingly attached to gods and goddesses as it was two thousand years ago. Indeed, the historian Meera Nanda in her book The God Market has argued that it’s only becoming more pious as it develops.

Some observers have said that enormously high levels of adult illiteracy make it inevitable that some Indians will fall under the spell of miracle-men, fake cures and lucky charms. Meanwhile others have suggested there’s something fundamentally fluid about Hinduism that makes it curiously able to absorb new ideas and survive the times.

It’s not just the case that a proportion of Indians are traditional and religious while the rest live separate, purely rational lives. The two do more than overlap: Sanal Edamaruku, the head of the Rationalist Association – and a rare breed here having been raised an atheist – describes India’s unshakeable religiosity as a sort of mental dualism, where everyday rationalism and age-old superstitions co-exist without being questioned. On the day I visited him in his office, past Akshardham, he was dealing with the bizarre case of a guru in the eastern state of Bihar who had claimed that by standing on the chest of an infant and reciting mantras, he could prolong the kid’s life. Stories like this arrive on Edamaruku’s doorstep every week.

Sanal Edamaruku challenges the guru Pandit Surinder Sharma to kill him live on TV in 2008But that’s not the oddest part of India’s attachment to gods, goddesses and magic. What’s really strange is that, these days, among those showing the most religious fervour and throwing the most money at temples like Akshardham are smart young urbanites. According to Edamaruku, they work in slick offices, maybe even as scientists and engineers, but they still consult astrologers when choosing their husbands and wives. There seems to have been a spiritual resurgence among India’s youth, making celebrities out of gurus. They are the educated faithful; the temple-going university graduates.

And some of the most interesting examples of how these believers have tried to square their faith with the realities of modern life have been in their attitudes to science. Rather than rejecting it outright, some Hindus have done the opposite and tried to co-opt new scientific ideas. It’s a phenomenon that began around a hundred years ago, according to Meera Nanda, and continues to this day.

Exploring this trend while researching Geek Nation took me to the Academy of Sanskrit Research in the tiny town of Melkote in Karnataka. Here, they’re trying to prove that ancient Hindu texts contain undiscovered scientific insights. I arrived at the Academy with an open mind, knowing that Eastern science isn’t yet completely understood by Western historians. India, after all, is said to be the birthplace of the zero. The numbers we use today and algebra were both popularised here, thousands of years ago. At that time, religion, philosophy and true scientific enquiry were so closely intermingled that a mathematical treatise might start with a prayer. So in amongst the old tomes in old libraries like that at the Academy, I imagined there might be a few genuine scientific gems.

But I didn’t find them that day. Instead, I was taken to a room where I was told that I could find out about the secrets of ancient flying machines.

Now, hold on to your hats because what I’m about to tell you next may sound like something out of the Twilight Zone. The basis for the Academy’s scientific research is the Vaimanika Shastra, a manuscript derived from a Hindu religious text and written about a century ago by a mysterious guru in south India. It’s on the subject of a religious legend, the so-called “chariots of the gods”, steered and powered by a combination of metaphysical power and magical substances. For many Hindus, they are simply myth and allegory. But according to scholars here and some others, the tales are true (in fact I met one real-life rocket scientist at a science conference in south India who believes them too). Modern aeronautics is nothing, they say, compared to the universal knowledge contained in the old scriptures.

The English translation of the Vaimanika Shastra is titled “Science of Aeronautics… All About Machines”. It includes the technical blueprints for these flying machines, which are apparently so advanced that we puny 21st-century mortals cannot hope to replicate them. Some look like flying birds, others like multi-tiered wedding cakes, powered by such substances as mercury and camel urine. In the room dedicated to this work inside the Academy of Sanskrit Research are rows of tiny toy airplanes, accompanied by quotes and pictures. One painting shows a group of old Hindu warriors standing around what looks suspiciously like a flying saucer.

Representations of the ancient flying machines described in the Vaimanika ShastraAnd so at the end of this close encounter, I left the room with my original question unanswered. Given that India is intent on becoming a scientific superpower, why are these odd ideas tolerated?

“I’ve met a lot of people who simply swallow these kinds of things,” says Sanal Edamaruku at the Indian Rationalist Association. “They want some kind of scientific justification for their beliefs and if they get a fabricated concept, they will immediately accept it. They want to accept everything that is in modern science and say this was there in our ancient texts. They want sanction from science.”

That India should be getting more irrational over time flies in the face of recent history. The more educated people are, the less superstitious and religious they generally tend to be. It’s the reason that churchgoing has declined in parts of Europe. Despite the shouty efforts of evangelicals, the percentage of people in the US with no religious affiliation rose to 15 per cent by 2008 – almost double the proportion in 1990 – according to the American Religious Identification Survey. Why should India be an exception?

It was only by meeting atheists that I began to understand. Edamaruku warned me that atheists have a tough time in India. Here, religion surrounds you: it is mixed into the politics, the festivals and the movies. Being an atheist “is a deadly position”, said one scientist who underwent his own personal struggle before abandoning Hinduism. Not only is it a rejection of god, it’s a rejection of a way of life.

Recent years have seen stepped-up attempts to make Hinduism not only meet the demands of modernity, but also to make it become more logical and scientific. “For an ordinary believer, it’s just faith,” Meera Nanda told me. “They don’t need to explain it. But there’s a certain class of people coming up that need to justify their faith, who need to somehow intellectually put into words why they believe. It’s more of a disease of educated people.” In other words, the same graduates who seem to be turning to religion in their droves are the ones who are trying to rationalise it. These educated Hindus aren’t just religious; they’re desperately religious.

So is it possible that the efforts being made at the Academy of Sanskrit Research to prove that flying machines existed thousands of years ago, and the construction of grand new temples like Akshardham, may in fact be manifestations of something else? A fear, not of gods and goddesses, but of a nation losing its faith?

Non-believers can sometimes fail to understand just how difficult it is to abandon religion. In India that struggle is multiplied because the culture is so dominated by it. Beliefs are burned into the minds of children – Hindus often keep shrines at home, pray daily and have their fates decided by their horoscopes at birth. It’s common to appeal to the gods to guide you in your choices and to give you luck. Not only this, superstition and religion are big business: astrologers have their own television programmes; homeopathic drugs and traditional medicines are sold in the millions; and fashionable gurus attract stadia full of fat-walleted worshippers. Ditching god isn’t easy when you’re surrounded by an infrastructure built on belief.

And so if atheism doesn’t seem to be on the rise – yet – perhaps the attempts to reconcile scientific facts with religious stories are signs of a generation of Indians struggling with their faith. On the one hand they’re getting geekier, and on the other hand the science and technology they love can sometimes be at odds with the religion they practise. Maybe, in a way, they really are fulfilling Nehru’s dream of developing “the scientific temper” by applying reason and logic to their beliefs. Predictably, this is resulting in confusion.

So the next question is whether this confusion will eventually clear, and we end up with an India that is less religious and superstitious than it is today. History suggests that we will. If grand new temples like Akshardham suggest otherwise, it’s worth remembering a statistic recounted to me by Sanal Edamaruku: there may be only 100,000 supporters of the Indian Rationalist Association now, but in the 1980s there were fewer than a thousand.

Angela Saini’s book Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World is published by Hodder on 3 March 2011