Meera Nanda uncovers an extraordinary coalition that is undermining science
The second-term election victory of George Bush - and India's own experience with Hindu nationalist 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 take-over 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. Unless we understand the ideological mechanism of this sacralisation of politics, we will not be able to combat the ongoing coups against secularism under nominally secular democracies.
As a student of the history and philosophy of science, I have been watching with concern how modern science itself - perhaps the single most powerful force for secularisation - is being re-coded as sacred, either as affirming the Bible or the Vedas, or as 'lower knowledge' of 'dead matter', in need of spiritualisation. 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 social justice, anti-imperialism, women's rights and sustainable development, have themselves paved the way for re-enchantment or re-sacralisation of science.
Many of the Hindutva arguments for 'Vedic science' find a resonance with the fashionable theories of alternative sciences and postcolonial studies. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the impression that postmodernist and multiculturalist critics of modern science are re-discovering and restating many of the arguments Hindu nationalists have long used to assert the superior scientificity of Hindu sacred traditions.
George Orwell's doublethink bears an uncanny resemblance to the well-known Hindu tendency to eclectically combine contradictory ideas by declaring them to be simply different paths or names of a shared enterprise, as is the case with the amorphous grab-bag of Hindu myths, mysticism and philosophy, known as 'the Vedas'.
Recall how double-think worked in 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 appeared to be saying. Shorn of any definite and contestable meanings, words began to be used interchangeably, hybridised endlessly, without any fear of contradictions.
Under BJP rule, superstitions started getting described as science. Hindu nationalists 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 Ayuerveda. This was not just talk: state universities and colleges got big grants from the government to offer post-graduate 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 to negative, positive and neutral gunas, or moral qualities; the reliance of 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 to support 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, the BJP and its allies presented themselves as great champions of science, as long as it could be absorbed into 'the Vedas', of course. On the other hand, they aggressively condemned the secular and naturalistic worldview 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.
Why this over-eagerness to claim the support of science? There is a modernising impulse in all religions 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 constitutional requirement for a separation of church and state, in India it is motivated by ultra-nationalism, Hindu chauvinism and 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, this business of Vedic science had been going on before anyone had ever heard the word 'postmodern'. But 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.
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 universal knowledge. Modern science, being the ideal type of such knowledge, naturally became a target of postmodernist critics. Sure, there were many critics of this universal science, including prominent scientists themselves before the advent of postmodernism, but their criticisms were leveled at the abuses of science, not at its logic.
As disillusionment with the military-industrial complex grew in the West in the wake of the Vietnam war and civil rights struggles, the top-down model of development in India led to a radical critique of science, in which its claims to objectivity and universality were questioned. In India well-known public intellectuals Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Shiv Vishvanathan, Claude Alvares and others 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 westernised Indian elite. 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.
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 its critics, because the standards of truth and falsity are also relative to the 'form of life' of a culture. To quote two leading theorists of the 'social constructivist' school: "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)
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 Judeo-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 universalised 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 is but a dialect backed by an army."
Presenting India as source of alternative universals that could heal the reductionism of western science became 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 declared astrology to be the science of the poor and the non-westernised masses in India.
Prayers to smallpox goddesses, 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 ecologists' search for a kinder and gentler 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 Judeo-Christian thinking. The history of modern science was rewritten to decry the progressive secularisation or disenchantment of nature as a source of oppression of nature and women. This naturally created an opening for eastern cultures, especially India, where such secularisation 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, where vitalistic ideas of life-force (shakti, Brahman) are 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 argued that leading lights of the Indian Renaissance such as Nehru, Bankim Chandra and Ram Mohan Roy were mentally colonised 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 universalism was that of 'critical traditionalism' or 'borderland epistemologies'. 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: Contradictions were not to be questioned and removed, but rather celebrated as expressions of difference.
The picture of science that social constructivism offers is tailor-made for the doublespeak 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.
While the Abrahamic religions are wary of epistemological relativism out of the fear of relativising 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.
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 attempts to 'decolonise' modern science: by viewing nature through local conceptual categories of women, non-western people and other cultural minorities, 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 decolonise the 'Hindu mind' of western, Semitic-monotheistic influences. Indeed, scholar-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 world view 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, 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, grounded on the naturalistic and capitalist assumptions of the western scientists.
Vedic creationism is only one example of 'decolonised science'. More generally, Hindu nationalists 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). Hindu nationalists have been using this purported holism of Hinduism as the cornerstone of their argument: any interpretation of modern science that fits in with this spirit-centered 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 recasting of quantum mechanics in mystical terms are examples of the kind of 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 civilisation. 'Vedic Aryans', on this account, were the authors of all natural sciences which then spread to Greece, Sumeria, China and other major civilisations in antiquity. To substantiate these claims, all kinds of modern scientific discoveries are read back into the Rig 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 claims that are basic to Hindu metaphysics, namely that 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 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 the culture-boundedness of rationality. Because in Hinduism there are no 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. Supporters of this mysticism-as-science argue that all science gains its coherence from within its own culturally sanctioned assumptions; modern science puts an artificial limit on knowledge as only that knowledge which can be accessible to senses. Within Hinduism however, 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 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. With the best intentions of giving marginalised social groups - especially if they were women and if they belonged to the non-western world -the right to their own ways of knowing, western academics, in alliance with populist Third Worldist intellectuals, have succeeded in painting science and modernity as the enemy of the people. Rather than encourage and nurture a critical spirit toward inherited traditions, many of which are authoritarian and patriarchal, postmodernist intellectuals have waged a battle against science and against the spirit of the Enlightenment itself. As the case of Vedic science in the service of Hindu nationalism in India demonstrates, this misguided attack on the Enlightenment has only aided the growth of pseudoscience, superstitions and tribalism.