The Perils of Vedic 'Science'

Hindu nationalists, like U.S. evangelicals, are co-opting their nation's culture and calling bad science good.

BY: Meera Nanda

 
Excerpted, with permission, from a longer article in the January 2005 issue of New Humanist magazine.

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 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.

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. My fellow intellectuals 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 the re-sacralization of science.

Many of the Hindutva arguments for 'Vedic science' find a resonance with the fashionable theories of alternative sciences. Indeed, 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.

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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, vastu, Vedic creationism, transcendental meditation or ayurveda. 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 just different names for the same thing.

Continued on page 2: »

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