2016-06-30
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. *** 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. 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 overeagerness to claim the support of science? There is a modernizing 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. *** Presenting India as a 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-Westernized 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. The deep investment of these philosophies in perpetuating superstitions and patriarchy in India was forgotten and forgiven. ***While the Abrahamic religions are wary of 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 mystical ways of knowing. Rather than accept 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 treat it as 'merely' one among the many different paths to the ultimate truth, known only to Vedic Hinduism. *** 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, for example, 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 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, 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 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 hybridity sanctioned by postmodernists.
But it gets worse. 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 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: 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. Within 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 spiritual realm, in turn, paves the way for declaring occult New Age practices like astrology, vastu, quantum healing, and even yagnas as scientific within the Vedic-Hindu universe.

Rather than encourage a critical spirit toward inherited traditions, many of which are authoritarian and patriarchal, postmodernist intellectuals have waged a battle against science. As the case of Vedic science in the service of Hindu nationalism demonstrates, this misguided attack on the Enlightenment has only aided the growth of pseudoscience, superstitions and tribalism.

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