By Kumar David –
Inadequate push back by Indian intellectuals against politico-religious charlatans: Hindutva exposes its fake idolatry
The world is awash with nutters. When I was an undergrad Colombo Uni had an earth-is-flatter by the name of Mendis in the maths department. He said at afterhours “science” seminars that the earth was flat and the moon was its other side. He never explained how we craned our necks round to see it. Visit Christian fundamentalist websites and see how they sweat to explain how humanity multiplied beyond Adam and Eve; all explanations reluctantly concede some element of incest – there is no way round that. The Buddha is said, by others, to have visited Lanka three times; but the sage himself insisted he was no highflying divine entity but a human who had attained a higher state of mind. I leave you to choose which version of each you find palatable. All are old hats, we have got accustomed to them and learnt to deal with the vendors of these tales with a polite smile.
India has an ample cornucopia of wonderful myths and timeless epics; the Mahabharata and Ramayana are no second to the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Hindu pantheon has far more gods than the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Nordics put together. It’s marvellous stuff; as a child I loved to hear these tales and as an adult I have been transfixed by colourful serials of the goings on at the court of Duryodhana or the battle to end all battles at Kurukshetra – though to be honest I find the Bhagavad Gita stymied and artificial. The purana stories are another world, a world of imagination and magic soaked in long ago events; myth and fantasy interwoven with tales two millennia old, transmitted first verbally and later written down.
But great heavens what have we now! At the 106th Indian Science Congress (ISC) 2019, at Lovely Professional University in the Punjab, Andhra University Vice Chancellor Nageswara Rao claimed that Ravenna had 24 different types of aircraft and Lanka had airports at the time. Sure, the temples at Khajuraho and Konark show that ancient Indians were accomplished at airborne acrobatics. Rao also claimed the Kauravas were born of stem cell research and test tube fertilisation. “The Mahabharata says, 100 eggs were fertilised, and put into 100 earthen pots. Are they not test-tube babies? India had stem cell research thousands of years ago”. A Panjab University “scientist”, who had worked on dinosaurs claimed that it was Lord Brahma who first discovered dinosaurs. He cited the Vedas and linked the meaning of the word ‘dino-saur’ to Sanskrit. “Dino means terrible, it translates to daayan and saur, which means lizard and is related to asur” he explained. The same nutter claimed ‘Dash-avtar’, the ten avatars of Vishnu, predates and pre-empts Darwin’s theory of evolution.
There were more looney “scientists” at the ISC; Kanan Jegathala Krishnan dismissed the work of Newton and Einstein as bunkum and said they had little knowledge of physics. He claimed his own theory of gravitation will soon be proved and that what are now called gravitational waves will be renamed “Narendra Modi Waves”.
Modi has to take a part of the blame fair and square for this mushrooming of nutters in Indian “science”. At a 2014 symposium he made a mad hatter’s claim. Pointing to the elephant headed god Ganesh he asserted that this proved advanced plastic surgery was practised in India thousands of years ago. (My young nephew says he will believe the claim if these cosmetic surgeons stuck a jackass head on Modi himself!) To be serious however, Modi has a split personality. This column has supported his initiatives to take India into the modern world (mobile banking for the masses, industrialisation and infrastructure expansion, not very successful demonetisation and thousands of latrines to discourage al fresco crapping). But this Jekyll and Hide character is also a Hindutva zealot. Modi and his leading lieutenants cannot be trusted to fight the anti-Muslim excesses of the RSS and BJP any more than Lanka’s political leaders can be trusted to push back the perils of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism.
Indian student groups have demonstrated against the fakery of Hindutva snake-oil vendors and to say there have been no push back by the Indian scientific community would be untrue. But missing was an outpouring of outrage at the prostitution of science at the nation’s premier scientific gathering. Principal Scientific Adviser to the PM, Dr K Vijay Raghavan politely declared the nutters claims “scientifically untenable”. An organisation called India March for Science-Abroad said very seriously: “The speakers did not provide evidence or cite authentic scientific studies to back their claims. Given their grooming they should know that evidence is the cornerstone of science; the bedrock on which scientific advancements are made. Is subverting a basic tenet of the scientific process acceptable?” The media too was humbly and apologetically critical.
Oh, the dissent was so polite and formal and so seriously worded. Is this how you deal with snake-oil vendors and crackpots? Far more serious however is that none of the scientists or student protesters or the media had the guts to call the nutters Hindutva zealots. If Indian intellectuals don’t have the courage to expose these happenings as backward Hindutva cultural manifestations creeping from the religious and political domain into the sciences, their cowardice will do great damage. I am at a loss to understand why India’s intellectuals given the country’s traditions of academic boldness, rationalism, scientific inquiry and secularism have not manifested a much greater degree of outrage and damned Hindutva politico-religious bigotry for invading science.
There are comments on the web by Indians that I can identify with. Here are two: “Forget the jibes, what I would like to know seriously is how speakers at the Indian Science Congress are chosen. Why is science low priority at a science congress?” And the other: “India has a thriving scientific community from genetics and medical research to rocket science. Their work is undermined and insulted when low-grade Hindutva-backed charlatans get the dais at the Indian Science Congress”.
It is not only in India that intellectuals are reluctant challenge a country’s hegemonic religious-cultural ideology. The masses are inundated in mumbo jumbo; it is physically dangerous and a threat to one’s livelihood to take on the quacks. No one in Sri Lanka dares say that the chapter on Buddhism in our constitution is an aberration, that it is the root of much ignorance and prejudice and that it would be much better if this country donned a secular constitution. It’s not safe to say this in public and any politician who does so can kiss is parliamentary seat goodbye. To mention ‘secular state’ in any Islamic Republic is a death sentence. My issue is not religion as personal belief, religious freedom must be safeguarded as a principle of democracy, the issue is when religion creeps into the social domain, affects the state and decrees social norms.
Kamanthi Wickremasinghe (Daily Mirror 11 January) describes how despite an Indian Supreme Court order allowing women to enter the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala hartals, protest marches and civil and political unrest defeated an attempt by two women to enter the temple and test the judgment. It was the man in the street Hindu who blocked entry and the local authorities had neither the power nor the will to enforce the decision. As is often the case bigotry is rooted in the masses themselves. An interesting aspect is the one dissenting judge in the Supreme Court judgement, lady judge Indu Malhotra argued that “rationality cannot be brought into religion” and that “in a secular society, followers of all faiths are free to practice their faith irrespective of whether the practice in rational or not”.
The appeal to “our ancient heritage” is hypnotic; I have seen grown men with BSc and PhD titles in engineering make jackasses of themselves. A prominent now retired civil engineer and great admirer of our ancient irrigation systems actually told me with a straight face that ancient engineers who built our tanks and irrigation canals had found a way to make water flow up, defying the laws of gravity. Then from time to time there is a flap that some village mechanic has found a way to make cars run on water, demolishing the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As expected ministers, politicians and presidential advisors rush to the scene to witness such feats to end all known laws of science, but when my colleagues at Peradeniya [PhD, MIMechE, BSc(Eng). Hons] thought it fit to excitedly drive to the hamlet instead of relaxing with a good laugh and another beer, it drove home to me the auto-suggestive power of cultural nationalism. The sensation that we too have yokels who outshine Newton and Einstein is exhilarating to the philosophically half-baked. Cultural nationalism opposed to internationalism and the philosophical wholeness of science, an inferiority complex and sense of inadequacy are at the root of nut-science and politico-religious intolerance.