Science in the age of nationalism

: He wrote the foreword to a book for children which claimed— among other things—that the Hindu God Rama flew the first aeroplane and that stem cell technology was known in ancient India.

Karl Marx wrote in ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ that “Men make their own history but under the circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves, in creating something entirely new, they conjure up the spirits of the past, and borrow from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise”. Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, claimed in October 2014 that Hindu God Ganesha had received a head transplant which was a proof of India’s scientific advance in the ancient era. “We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time,” the Prime Minister told a gathering of doctors and other professionals at a hospital in Mumbai. During his time as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he wrote the foreword to a book for children which claimed— among other things—that the Hindu God Rama flew the first aeroplane and that stem cell technology was known in ancient India.

PM Modi is not the first Hindu Nationalist to make such claims and science has always been at the centre of Hindu nationalist revival. While rejecting modernity and science, the nationalists make an effort to present their own version of it. What fascinates me is the way Hindu nationalists have appropriated their arguments from postcolonial leftist writers and thinkers. A similar phenomenon happened in Pakistan when the postcolonial, leftist critique of capitalism and democracy was appropriated by the religious parties and their apparatchiks. Even the anti-colonial movement in India, in their hatred for the British, held anti-scientific views. Mahatma Gandhi was famously against synthesised drugs and surgery, which he associated with Western medicine, describing them as ‘black magic’. Doctors, he believed, ‘violate our religious instinct’ by prioritizing the body over the mind, religious instinct’ by prioritizing the body over the mind, and curing diseases which people had deserved by their conduct.

Dr. Meera Nanda in her book ‘Prophets facing backwards’ wrote, “India and Pakistan are focussed on aggressive ‘technological modernisation’ alongside ‘cultural re-traditionalisation’. These societies display a schizophrenia in which the modernisation of the material technological environment is embraced with great enthusiasm, while the modernisation or secularisation of cultural categories through which to understand these material developments is resisted as a sign of Westernisation. For these reasons, it is not surprising to find an overdeveloped technological infrastructure coexisting with underdeveloped civic cultures which, for all their other virtues, cannot adequately ground a popular commitment to a liberal and secular democracy”.

Jeffery Herf called his phenomenon of modernity without liberalism as ‘reactionary modernism’ based on his study of Nazi Germany and Weimar Republic. In such conditions, the dangers of fascistic nightmares cannot be ignored. In Germany, reactionary modernists were able to combine an affirmative stance towards technological progress with dreams of the past, creating the infamous ‘steel-like romanticism’ that Joseph Goebbels flaunted. During the last century, postmodern philosophers rejected modern science and modernity as tools of mental colonialism and propped up ‘local knowledges’ (such as ‘Vedic Science’ in India and ‘Islamic Science’ in Pakistan) as legitimate in their own right.

Students of science in Pakistan will find familiarity with the ideas of Hindu nationalists when they use the vocabulary of science to claim that the most sacred texts of Hinduism—the Vedas, the Upanishads and Adviata Vedanta—are actually scientific treatises filled with findings of modern physics, biology, mathematics and other natural sciences. Raja Ram Mohan Roy claimed in the book ‘Vedic Physics’, that ‘The Rig Veda is a book of particle physics.’ When India decided to test nuclear weapons in May 1998, Hindutva ideologues claimed that the bomb had been foretold by Lord Krishna in the Bhagvad Gita when he declared himself to be the ‘radiance of a thousand suns, the splendour of the mighty one’. In July 2001, the University Grants Commission in India announced its plans to offer courses in ‘Vedic Astrology’ in India’s universities and colleges. In May 2002, Indian government started funding scientists to develop techniques of biological and chemical warfare based on Arthashashta, a 2000 year old Sanskrit treatise on statecraft and warfare.

Things are quite dire on this side of the border as well. The head of the biology department at one of Pakistan’s elite Universities claims that reciting or listening to certain holy verses “can control genes and metabolites” and suggests that specially equipped audio-visual rooms be made in hospitals to treat terminally ill patients. These ‘recommendations’ are being applied at a large public sector hospital in Lahore. The outgoing Vice Chancellor of Pakistan’s largest University wrote a book espousing 9/11 conspiracy theories and decried a global conspiracy by the Jews controlling the financial system. We had an infamous International conference in the 1980s where ‘Islamic Scientists’ from around the world gathered and presented papers on harnessing energy from Jinns among other topics.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter