Postmodernism, Hindu Nationalism and ‘Vedic Science’
The Vedas as books of science
In 1996, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) of the United Kingdom (U.K.) produced a slick looking book, with many well-produced pictures of colourfully dressed men and women performing Hindu ceremonies, accompanied with warm, fuzzy and completely sanitised description of the faith. The book, Explaining Hindu Dharma: A Guide for Teachers, offers “teaching suggestions for introducing Hindu ideas and topics in the classroom” at the middle to high school level in the British schools system. The authors and editors are all card-carrying members of the VHP. The book is now in its second edition and, going by the glowing reviews on the back-cover, it seems to have established itself as a much-used educational resource in the British school system.
What “teaching suggestions” does this Guide offer? It advises British teachers to introduce Hindu dharma as “just another name” for “eternal laws of nature” first discovered by Vedic seers, and subsequently confirmed by modern physics and biological sciences. After giving a false but incredibly smug account of mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine and evolutionary theory contained in the Vedic texts, the Guide instructs the teachers to present the Vedic scriptures as “not just old religious books, but as books which contain many true scientific facts… these ancient scriptures of the Hindus can be treated as scientific texts” (emphasis added). All that modern science teaches us about the workings of nature can be found in the Vedas, and all that the Vedas teach about the nature of matter, god, and human beings is affirmed by modern science. There is no conflict, there are no contradictions. Modern science and the Vedas are simply “different names for the same truth”.
This is the image of Hinduism that the VHP and other Hindutva propagandists want to project around the world. The British case is not an isolated example. Similar initiatives to portray Vedic-Aryan India as the “cradle” of world civilisation and science have been launched in Canada and the United States as well. Many of these initiatives are beneficiaries of the generous and politically correct policies of multicultural education in these countries. Under the worthy cause of presenting the “community’s” own views about its culture, many Western governments are inadvertently funding Hindutva’s propaganda.
But what concerns us in this article is not the long-distance Hindutva (or “Yankee Hindutva”, as some call it), dangerous though it is. This essay is more about the left wing-counterpart of Yankee Hindutva: a set of postmodernist ideas, mostly (but not entirely) exported from the West, which unintentionally ends up supporting Hindutva’s propaganda regarding Vedic science. Over the last couple of decades, a set of very fashionable, supposedly “radical” critiques of modern science have dominated the Western universities. These critical theories of science go under the label of “postmodernism” or “social constructivism”. These theories see modern science as an essentially Western, masculine and imperialistic way of acquiring knowledge. Intellectuals of Indian origin, many of them living and working in the West, have played a lead role in development of postmodernist critiques of modern science as a source of colonial “violence” against non-Western ways of knowing.
In this two-part essay, I will examine how this postmodernist left has provided philosophical arguments for Hindutva’s claim that Vedas are “just another name” for modern science. As we will see, postmodernist attacks on objective and universal knowledge have played straight into Hindu nationalist slogan of all perspectives being equally true – within their own context and at their own level. The result is the loud – but false – claims of finding a tradition of empirical science in the spiritual teachings of the Vedas and Vedanta. Such scientisation of the Vedas does nothing to actually promote an empirical and rational tradition in India, while it does an incalculable harm to the spiritual message of Hinduism’s sacred books. The mixing up of the mythos of the Vedas with the logos of science must be of great concern not just to the scientific community, but also to the religious people, for it is a distortion of both science and spirituality.
In order to understand how postmodern critiques of science converge with Hindutva’s celebration of Vedas-as-science, let us follow the logic behind VHP’s Guide for Teachers.
This Guide claims that the ancient Hindu scriptures contain “many true scientific facts” and therefore “can be treated as scientific texts”. Let us see what these “true scientific facts” are. The prime exhibit is the “scientific affirmation” of the theory of guna (Sanskrit for qualities or attributes). Following the essential Vedantic idea that matter and spirit are not separate and distinct entities, but rather the spiritual principle constitutes the very fabric of the material world, the theory of gunas teaches that matter exhibits spiritual/moral qualities. There are three such qualities or gunas which are shared by all matter, living or non-living: the quality or guna of purity and calmness seeking higher knowledge (sattvic), the quality or guna of impurity, darkness, ignorance and inactivity (tamsic) and the quality or guna of activity, curiosity, worldly gain (rajasic). Modern atomic physics, the VHP’s Guide claims, has confirmed the presence of these qualities in nature. The evidence? Physics shows that there are three atomic particles bearing positive, negative and neutral charges, which correspond to the three gunas! From this “scientific proof” of the existence of essentially spiritual/moral gunas in atoms, the Guide goes on to triumphantly deduce the “scientific” confirmation of the truths of all those Vedic sciences which use the concept of gunas (for example, Ayurveda). Having “demonstrated” the scientific credentials of Hinduism, the Guide boldly advises British school teachers to instruct their students that there is “no conflict” between the eternal laws of dharma and the laws discovered by modern science.
One of the most ludicrous mantras of Hindutva propaganda is that there is “no conflict” between modern science and Hinduism. In reality, everything we know about the workings of nature through the methods of modern science radically disconfirms the presence of any morally significant gunas, or shakti, or any other form of consciousness in nature, as taught by the Vedic cosmology which treats nature as a manifestation of divine consciousness. Far from there being “no conflict” between science and Hinduism, a scientific understanding of nature completely and radically negates the “eternal laws” of Hindu dharma which teach an identity between spirit and matter. That is precisely why the Hindutva apologists are so keen to tame modern science by reducing it to “simply another name for the One Truth” – the “one truth” of Absolute Consciousness contained in Hinduism’s own classical texts.
If Hindu propagandists can go this far in U.K., imagine their power in India, where they control the Central government and its agencies for media, education and research. This obsession for finding all kinds of science in all kinds of obscure Hindu doctrines has been dictating the official educational policy of the Bharatiya Janata Party ever since it came to power nearly half a decade ago.
Indeed the BJP government can teach a thing or two to the creation scientists in the U.S. Creationists, old and new, are trying to smuggle in Christian dogma into secular schools in the U.S. by redefining science in a way that allows God to be brought in as a cause of natural phenomena. This “theistic science” is meant to serve as the thin-edge of the wedge that will pry open the secular establishment. Unlike the creationists who have to contend with the courts and the legislatures in the U.S., the Indian government itself wields the wedge of Vedic science intended to dismantle the (admittedly half-hearted) secularist education policies. By teaching Vedic Hinduism as “science”, the Indian state and elites can portray India as “secular” and “modern”, a model of sobriety and responsibility in contrast with those obscurantist Islamic fundamentalists across the border who insist on keeping science out of their madrassas. How useful is this appellation of “science”, for it dresses up so much religious indoctrination as “secular education”.
Under the kindly patronage of the state, Hindutva’s wedge strategy is working wonders. Astrology is flourishing as an academic subject in public and private colleges and universities, and is being put to use in predicting future earthquakes and other natural disasters. Such “sciences” as Vastu Shastra and Vedic mathematics are attracting governmental grants for research and education. While the Ministry of Defence is sponsoring research and development of weapons and devices with magical powers mentioned in the ancient epics, the Health Ministry is investing in research, development and sale of cow urine, sold as a cure for all ailments from the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) to tuberculosis (TB). Faith-healing and priest-craft are other “sciences” receiving public and private funding. In the rest of the culture, miracles and superstitions of all kinds have the blessings of influential public figures, including elected Members of Parliament.
There are two kinds of claims that feed the notion that the “Vedas are books of science”. The first kind declared the entire Vedic corpus as converging with modern science, while the second concentrates on defending such esoteric practices as astrology, vastu, Ayurveda, transcendental meditation and so on as scientific within the Vedic paradigm. The first stream seeks to establish likeness, connections and convergences between radically opposed ideas (guna theory and atomic particles, for example). This stream does not relativise science: it simply grabs whatever theory of physics or biology may be popular with Western scientists at any given time, and claims that Hindu ideas are “like that”, or “mean the same” and “therefore” are perfectly modern and rational. The second stream is far more radical, as it defends this “method” of drawing likenesses and correspondences between unlike entities as perfectly rational and “scientific” within the non-dualistic Vedic worldview. The second stream, in other words, relativises scientific method to dominant religious worldviews: it holds that the Hindu style of thinking by analogies and correspondences “directly revealed to the mind’s eye” is as scientific within the “holistic” worldview of Vedic Hinduism, as the analytical and experimental methodology of modern science is to the “reductionist” worldview of Semitic religions. The relativist defence of eclecticism as a legitimate scientific method not only provides a cover for the first stream, it also provides a generic defence of such emerging “alternative sciences” as “Vedic physics” and “Vedic creationism”, as well as defending such pseudo-sciences as Vedic astrology, palmistry, TM (transcendental meditation) and new-age Ayurveda (Deepak Chopra style).
In what follows, I will examine how postmodernist and social constructivist critiques of science have lent support to both streams of Vedas-as-science literature.
But first, I must clarify what I mean by postmodernism.
Postmodernism is a mood, a disposition. The chief characteristic of the postmodernist disposition is that it is opposed to the Enlightenment, which is taken to be the core of modernism. Of course, there is no simple characterisation of the Enlightenment any more than there is of postmodernism. A rough and ready portrayal might go like this: Enlightenment is a general attitude fostered in the 17th and 18th centuries on the heels of the Scientific Revolution; it aims to replace superstition and authority of traditions and established religions with critical reason represented, above all, by the growth of modern science. The Enlightenment project was based upon a hope that improvement in secular scientific knowledge will lead to an improvement of the human condition, not just materially but also ethically and culturally. While the Enlightenment spirit flourished primarily in Europe and North America, intellectual movements in India, China, Japan, Latin America, Egypt and other parts of West Asia were also influenced by it. However, the combined weight of colonialism and cultural nationalism thwarted the Enlightenment spirit in non-Western societies.
Postmodernists are disillusioned with this triumphalist view of science dispelling ignorance and making the world a better place. Their despair leads them to question the possibility of progress toward some universal truth that everyone, everywhere must accept. Against the Enlightenment’s faith in such universal “meta-narratives” advancing to truth, postmodernists prefer local traditions which are not entirely led by rational and instrumental criteria but make room for the sacred, the non-instrumental and even the irrational. Social constructivist theories of science nicely complement postmodernists’ angst against science. There are many schools of social constructivism, including the “strong programme” of the Edinburgh (Scotland) school, and the “actor network” programme associated with a school in Paris, France. The many convoluted and abstruse arguments of these programmes do not concern us here. Basically, these programmes assert that modern science, which we take to be moving closer to objective truth about nature, is actually just one culture-bound way to look at nature: no better or worse than all other sciences of other cultures. Not just the agenda, but the content of all knowledge is socially constructed: the supposed “facts” of modern science are “Western” constructions, reflecting dominant interests and cultural biases of Western societies.
Following this logic, Indian critics of science, especially those led by the neo-Gandhians such as Ashis Nandy and Vandana Shiva, have argued for developing local science which is grounded in the civilisational ethos of India. Other well-known public intellectuals, including such stalwarts as Rajni Kothari, Veena Das, Claude Alvares and Shiv Vishwanathan, have thrown their considerable weight behind this civilisational view of knowledge. This perspective also has numerous sympathisers among “patriotic science” and the environmentalist and feminist movements. A defence of local knowledges against rationalisation and secularisation also underlies the fashionable theories of post-colonialism and subaltern studies, which have found a worldwide following through the writings of Partha Chatterjee, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty and others. All these intellectuals and movements mentioned here have their roots in movements for social justice, environmental protection and women’s rights – all traditional left-wing causes.
Social constructivist and postmodernist attacks on science have proven to be a blessing for all religious zealots, in all major faiths, as they no longer feel compelled to revise their metaphysics in the light of progress in our understanding of nature in relevant fields. But Hinduism displays a special resonance with the relativistic and holistic thought that finds favour among postmodernists. In the rest of this two-part paper, I will examine the general overlap between Hindu apologetics and postmodernist view of hybridity (part I) and alternative sciences (part II).
Postmodern “hybridity” and Hindu eclecticism
THE contemporary Hindu propagandists are inheritors of the 19th century neo-Hindu nationalists who started the tradition of dressing up the spirit-centered metaphysics of orthodox Hinduism in modern scientific clothes. The neo-Hindu intellectuals, in turn, were (consciously or unconsciously) displaying the well-known penchant of generations of Sanskrit pundits for drawing resemblances and correspondences between religious rituals, forces of nature and human destiny.
Postmodernist theories of knowledge have rehabilitated this “method” of drawing equivalences between different and contradictory worldviews and allowing them to “hybridise” across traditions. The postmodernist consensus is that since truth about the real world as-it-is cannot be known, all knowledge systems are equivalent to each other in being social constructions. Because they are all equally arbitrary, and none any more objective than other, they can be mixed and matched in order to serve the needs of human beings to live well in their own cultural universes. From the postmodern perspective, the VHP justification of the guna theory in terms of atomic physics is not anything to worry about: it is merely an example of “hybridity” between two different culturally constructed ways of seeing, a fusion between East and West, tradition and modernity. Indeed, by postmodernist standards, it is not this hybridity that we should worry about, but rather we should oppose the “positivist” and “modernist” hubris that demands that non-Western cultures should give up, or alter, elements of their inherited cosmologies in the light of the growth of knowledge in natural sciences. Let us see how this view of hybridity meshes in with the Hindutva construction of Vedic science.
It is a well-known fact that Hinduism uses its eclectic mantra – “Truth is one, the wise call it by different names” – as an instrument for self-aggrandisement. Abrahamic religions go about converting the Other through persuasion and through the use of physical force. Hinduism, in contrast, absorbs the alien Other by proclaiming its doctrines to be only “different names for the One Truth” contained in Hinduism’s own Perennial Wisdom. The teachings of the outsider, the dissenter or the innovator are simply declared to be merely nominally different, a minor and inferior variation of the Absolute and Universal Truth known to Vedic Hindus from time immemorial. Christianity and Islam at least acknowledge the radical otherness and difference of other faiths, even as they attempt to convert them, even at the cost of great violence and mayhem. Hinduism refuses to grant other faiths their distinctiveness and difference, even as it proclaims its great “tolerance”. Hinduism’s “tolerance” is a mere disguise for its narcissistic obsession with its own greatness.
Whereas classical Hinduism limited this passive-aggressive form of conquest to matters of religious doctrine, neo-Hindu intellectuals have extended this mode of conquest to secular knowledge of modern science as well. The tradition of claiming modern science as “just another name” for the spiritual truths of the Vedas started with the Bengal Renaissance. The contemporary Hindutva follows in the footsteps of this tradition.
The Vedic science movement began in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. In that famous address, he sought to present Hinduism not just as a fulfilment of all other religions, but also as a fulfilment of all of science. Vivekananda claimed that only the spiritual monism of Advaita Vedanta could fulfil the ultimate goal of natural science, which he saw as the search for the ultimate source of the energy that creates and sustains the world.
Vivekananda was followed by another Bengali nationalist-turned-spiritualist, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). Aurobindo proposed a divine theory of evolution that treats evolution as the adventures of the World-Spirit finding its own fulfilment through progressively higher levels of consciousness, from matter to man to the yet-to-come harmonious “supermind” of a socialistic collective. Newer theories of Vedic creationism, which propose to replace Darwinian evolution with “devolution” from the original one-ness with Brahman, are now being proposed with utmost seriousness by the Hare Krishnas who, for all their scandals and idiosyncrasies, remain faithful to the spirit of Vaishnava Hinduism.
Vivekananda and Aurobindo lit the spark that has continued to fire the nationalist imagination, right to the present time. The Neo-Hindu literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially the writings of Dayanand Saraswati, S. Radhakrishnan and the many followers of Vivekananda, is replete with celebration of Hinduism as a “scientific” religion. Even secularists like Jawaharlal Nehru remained captive of this idea that the original teachings of Vedic Hinduism were consonant with modern science, but only corrupted later by the gradual deposits of superstition. Countless gurus and swamis began to teach that the Vedas are simply “another name for science” and that all of science only affirms what the Vedas have taught. This scientistic version of Hinduism has found its way to the West through the numerous ashrams and yoga retreats set up, most prominently, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his many clones.
All these numerous celebrations of “Vedas as science” follow a similar intellectual strategy of finding analogies and equivalences. All invoke extremely speculative theories from modern cosmology, quantum mechanics, vitalistic theories of biology and parapsychology, and other fringe sciences. They read back these sciences into Sanskrit texts chosen at will, and their meaning decided by the whim of the interpreter, and claim that the entities and processes mentioned in Sanskrit texts are “like”, “the same thing as”, or “another word for” the ideas expressed in modern cosmology, quantum physics or biology. Thus there is a bit of a Brahman here and a bit of quantum mechanics there, the two treated as interchangeable; there are references to “energy”, a scientific term with a definite mathematical formulation in physics, which gets to mean “consciousness”; references to Newton’s laws of action and reaction are made to stand for the laws of karma and reincarnation; completely discredited “evidence” from parapsychology and “secret life of plants” are upheld as proofs of the presence of different degrees of soul in all matter; “evolution” is taught as the self-manifestation of Brahman and so on. The terms are scientific, but the content is religious. There is no regard for consistency either of scientific concepts, or of religious ideas. Both wholes are broken apart, random connections and correspondences are established and with great smugness, the two modes of knowing are declared to be equivalent, and even inter-changeable. The only driving force, the only idea that gives this whole mish-mash any coherence, is the great anxiety to preserve and protect Hinduism from a rational critique and demystification. Vedic science is motivated by cultural chauvinism, pure and simple.
What does all this have to do with postmodernism, one may legitimately ask. Neo-Hinduism, after all, has a history dating back at least two centuries, and the analogical logic on which claims of Vedic science are based goes back to times immemorial.
Neo-Hinduism did not start with postmodernism, obviously. And neither does Hindutva share the postmodernist urgency to “overcome” and “go beyond” the modernist fascination with progress and development. Far from it. Neo-Hinduism and Hindutva are reactionary modernist movements, intent on harnessing a mindless and even dangerous technological modernisation for the advancement of a traditionalist, deeply anti-secular and illiberal social agenda. Nevertheless, they share a postmodernist philosophy of science that celebrates the kind of contradictory mish-mash of science, spirituality, mysticism and pure superstition that that passes as “Vedic science”.
For those modernists who share the Enlightenment’s hope for overcoming ignorance and superstition, the value of modern science lies in its objectivity and universality. Modernists see modern science as having developed a critical tradition that insists upon subjecting our hypotheses about nature to the strictest, most demanding empirical tests and rigorously rejecting those hypotheses whose predictions fail to be verified. For the modernist, the success of science in explaining the workings of nature mean that sciences in other cultures have a rational obligation to revise their standards of what kind of evidence is admissible as science, what kind of logic is reasonable, and how to distinguish justified knowledge from mere beliefs. For the modernists, furthermore, modern science has provided a way to explain the workings of nature without any need to bring in supernatural and untestable causes such as a creator God, or an immanent Spirit.
For a postmodernist, however, this modernist faith in science is only a sign of Eurocentrism and cultural imperialism. For a postmodernist, other cultures are under no rational obligation to revise their cosmologies, or adopt new procedures for ascertaining facts to bring them in accord with modern science. Far from producing a uniquely objective and universally valid account of nature, the “facts” of modern science are only one among many other ways of constructing other “facts” about nature, which are equally valid for other cultures. Nature-in-itself cannot be known without imposing classifications and meaning on it which are derived from cultural metaphors and models. All ways of seeing nature are at par because all are equally culture-bound. Modern science has no special claims to truth and to our convictions, for it is as much of a cultural construct of the West as other sciences are of their own cultures.
This view of science is derived from a variety of American and European philosophies of science, associated mostly with such well-known philosophers as Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, W.O Quine, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Michel Foucault. This view of science has been gaining popularity among Indian scholars of science since the infamous “scientific temper” debates in early 1980s when Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva and their sympathisers came out in defence of local knowledges and traditions, including astrology, goddess worship as cure for small-pox, taboos against menstruation and (later on) even sati. Over the next two decades, it became a general practice in Indian scholarly writing to treat modern science as just one way to adjudicate belief, no different from any other tradition of sorting out truth from mere group belief. Rationalism became a dirty word and Enlightenment became a stand-in for “epistemic violence” of colonialism.
According to those who subscribe to this relativist philosophy, the cross-cultural encounter between modern science and traditional sciences is not a confrontation between more and less objective knowledge, respectively. Rather it is a confrontation between two different cultural ways of seeing the world, neither of which can claim to represent reality-in-itself. Indeed, many radical feminists and post-colonial critics go even further: they see modern science as having lost its way and turned into a power of oppression and exploitation. They want non-Western people not just to resist science but to reform it by confronting it with their holistic traditional sciences.
What happens when traditional cultures do need to adopt at least some elements of modern knowledge? In such cases, postmodernists recommend exactly the kind of “hybridity” as we have seen in the case of Vedic sciences in which, for example, sub-atomic particles are interpreted as referring to gunas, or where quantum energy is interpreted to be the “same as” shakti, or where karma is interpreted to be a determinant of biology in a “similar manner” as the genetic code and so on. On the postmodern account, there is nothing irrational or unscientific about this “method” of drawing equivalences and correspondences between entirely unlike entities and ideas, even when there may be serious contradictions between the two. On this account, all science is based upon metaphors and analogies that reinforce dominant cultures and social power, and all “facts” of nature are really interpretations of nature through the lens of dominant culture. It is perfectly rational, on this account, for Hindu nationalists to want to reinterpret the “facts” of modern science by drawing analogies with the dominant cultural models supplied by Hinduism. Because no system of knowledge can claim to know reality as it really is, because our best confirmed science is ultimately a cultural construct, all cultures are free to pick and choose and mix various “facts”, as long as they do not disrupt their own time-honoured worldviews.
This view of reinterpretation of “Western” science to fit into the tradition-sanctioned, local knowledges of “the people” has been advocated by theories of “critical traditionalism” propounded by Ashis Nandy and Bhiku Parekh in India and by the numerous admirers of Homi Bhabha’s obscure writings on “hybridity” abroad. In the West, this view has found great favour among feminists, notably Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway, and among anthropologists of science including Bruno Latour, David Hess and their followers.
To conclude, one finds a convergence between the fashionable left’s position with the religious right’s position on the science question. The extreme scepticism of postmodern intellectuals toward modern science has landed them in a position where they cannot, if they are to remain true to their beliefs, criticise Hindutva’s eclectic take-over of modern science for the glory of the Vedic tradition.
Meera Nanda’s book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India, has just been published.