The Perils of Vedic 'Science'

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

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 ownexperience with Hindu nationalist BJP rule, off and on, through the lastdecade--captures a dangerous moment in world history. We are witnessing theworld's first and the world's largest liberal constitutional democracies,officially committed to secularism, slide toward religious nationalism. Byvoting out the BJP and its allies in the last election, the Indian votershave halted this slide, at least for now--a heartening development,compared to the virtual takeover of America by Christian evangelicals andfundamentalists.

The question that interests me in this electoral route to faith-basedgovernance is how this counter-revolution is actually accomplished.

I have been watching with concern how modern science itself--perhaps thesingle most powerful force for secularization--is being re-coded as sacred,either as affirming the Bible or the Vedas, or as 'lower knowledge' of 'deadmatter,' in need of spiritualization. My fellow intellectuals in the UnitedStates and India, who identify themselves with social justice,anti-imperialism, women's rights and sustainable development, havethemselves paved the way for the re-sacralization of science.

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Many of the Hindutva arguments for 'Vedic science' find a resonance with thefashionable theories of alternative sciences.Indeed, postmodernist andmulticulturalist critics of modern science are re-discovering and restatingmany of the arguments Hindu nationalists have long used to assert thesuperior scientificity of Hindu sacred traditions.

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Under BJP rule, superstitions started getting described as science. Hindunationalists started invoking science in just about every speech and policystatement. But while they uttered the word 'science'--which in today'sworld 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 substantialinjections of public money.

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