Interview with Meera Nanda

Stefano Bigliardi interviewed Meera Nanda, who has just published Science in Saffron, for the Italian rationalist magazine L’Ateo. Meera and Stefano invited me to publish this translation here.

SB: Which points do you prefer to be mentioned in my general presentation of your studies and career? If I describe you as atheist, can we expand a little on the roots and reasons of your atheism?

MN: My intellectual/career trajectory and my “faith” trajectory are completely intertwined, each acting upon the other.

I grew up amid multiple pulls-and-pushes between tradition and new ways of thinking,  between patriarchy and a faint glimmer of my own potential as a person, between an intense nationalism (my father had spent his youth fighting the British for the country’s independence) and a revulsion against narrow-minded us-v-them mentality, and last but not the least, between faith and skepticism.

The north Indian city, Chandigarh,  where I was born and where I grew up embodied these contradictions.  Chandigarh is India’s first planned city and was constructed as a symbol of the nation’s new birth: It was imagined by Jawaharlal Nehru and designed by Le Corbusier, the well-known French urban planner.  The city was “modern” in infrastructure and appearance, but it lacked an organic connection with the place and the people.  Most of its inhabitants (including my parents) were refugees from the blood-bath caused by the Partition of the subcontinent.

I grew up immersed in an atmosphere of traditional mores and Hindu religiosity. Regular prayers in the family shrine and neighborhood Hindu and Sikh temples, recitations from the Ramayana and the Bhagavad-Gita were a part of life.   I took my gods seriously, and used to take the lead in prayers and other rituals.

It was my education in science (microbiology) that sowed the seeds of doubt and eventually a complete abandonment of faith.  The turning point came when I was introduced to molecular biology and biochemistry. I still remember how reading about the structure of the double-helix set my mind aflame: I felt I knew the answers to the mystery of life and the answer was far more persuasive and beautiful than the gods and goddesses of the myths.  I don’t think I have ever prayed since.

I became committed to science and decided to do a Ph.D., which I did from one of India’s most elite institutions, the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. But the poor quality of research, the authoritarian, almost feudal, way in which the labs were run and the lack of any relevance to the world outside the labs turned me off.  It was around this time (I got my first Ph.D. in biotechnology in 1983) when  modern science came under an intense attack from prominent intellectuals who were influenced by a variety of ideas, including home-grown Gandhianism and the anti-science currents from the West, including the writings of Critical Theory (Horkheimer and Adorno), anarchist philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend , a badly misunderstood Kuhn and feminist and anti-imperialist  literature of the “sixties.”   (This was the beginning of the postmodern and postcolonial critique of Eurocentrism and modernity in India).

To cut a long story short, I decided not to pursue a career in science: I got my Ph.D. and dropped out to become a science writer for a major newspaper (the Indian Express).  I then moved to the US where I fist studied history and philosophy of science in Indiana University (Bloomington) and later completed another Ph.D. in what is called Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.

My second academic trajectory has been devoted to defending science, the source of my intellectual and personal awakening, from its despisers.  I remain committed to the project of Enlightenment and secularization of cultural mores in India.

Even though I have taken a circuitous path in my career, I have stayed true to my “conversion” from faith to skepticism and naturalism that happened in a lecture hall in the department of Microbiology in Punjab University many decades ago.

SB: In Italy your home country is still presented and perceived as a special place where forms of “alternative knowledge”  are nurtured and can be encountered in order to find “one’s true self”. Of course there are also people who entertain a less stereotypical image of India – who are for instance familiar with its amazing economic development – and the ensuing problems. How does Meera Nanda describe India?

MN: India is a land of many contradictions.  What to outsiders appear are “alternative knowledge” traditions imbued with spirituality no doubt provide a framework for meaning for ordinary men and women, but are not always so benign and “spiritual” as they may seem.

How do I describe the situation? Let me use the headlines from a national daily (The Indian Express, Dec. 28, 2015) as a guide to the ground realities;

  • A young woman goes missing in Shamli, a small town in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Immediately the Hindus organize a meeting of elders where the Muslim community is accused of abducting the young woman for the purpose of converting her to Islam. Provocative statements inciting hatred and violence against Muslims are made by temple priests and elected leaders belonging to the Hindu Right party, the BJP. (A few days later, the woman is found in Delhi where she testifies that she had voluntarily married the Muslim man she loved).

What happened in Shamli is part of the moral panic over something called “love jihad,” a supposed conspiracy by Muslims to swell their numbers by marrying Hindu women and converting them to Islam.

  • In the Eastern state of Odisha, a witchdoctor branded a 17days old infant with hot iron nails to “cure” him of a stomach illness. Such “cures” are popular not entirely because of superstitions but because of an abysmal lack of medical facilities. While witchdoctors thrive, women accused of witchcraft are hunted and murdered in many parts of the country.
  • In the northern state of Punjab, the ruling political party proclaimed itself to be the “defender and propagator” of the Sikh faith. The Chief Minister of the state ridiculed the idea of keeping the state separate from religion.
  • Meanwhile, Indian economy was doing just fine: the Prime Minister announced a “Start-up India” plan, while the Finance Minister declared that the business climate in the country had improved with the growth prospects for the economy ranging between 7 to 7.5 percent for the next year.

SB: Speaking in political terms India is known as one of the biggest democratic countries in the world. Is it a secular democracy  as well?

MN: Yes,  India is the world’s largest functioning democracy. To our great credit, peaceful transfer of power through fairly fair and free elections has become a norm. What is more, the democratic process is kept going by the keen and active participation by the poorest of the poor, the most marginalized.  Unlike Western democracies where those at the bottom have given up on electoral democracy, the poor in India vote in much larger proportions than the elite and the middle-classes.

Secularism is another story altogether.  The Constitution originally did not include the word “secular” to define the nature of the new nation-state.  But under the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi, words “socialist and secular” were added to the preamble.  The current BJP-led government has proposed that these additions be nullified and the Constitution returned to its original form.

Labels notwithstanding, the Constitution is secular in spirit: it detaches citizenship from all markers of identity, be they caste, class, gender or religion-based. All citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) enjoy equal rights and freedoms.

But the Indian understanding of secularism is not the classical secularism of the United States and Europe.  There is no wall – or even a hedge – between the state and religious institutions.  Indian secularism does not demand the state to get out of matters of faith, but only requires that the state protects and safeguard all religious faiths equally.  This is justified by harking back to the Hindu tradition of “tolerance” and syncretism.

There are many problems with the Indian variant of secularism.  While in theory the state is supposed to treat all religions alike, in practice it is not that simple. Given that the majority of elected officials and the majority of the population is Hindu, Hinduism serves as the de-facto religion of the state: the symbols, the rituals and the idiom of the state are all derived from Hinduism.  Economic resources in the form of support for tourism to sacred places, pilgrimage sites and aid to educational and social-welfare institutions end up flowing into the majority religion, although minority-run institutions are not denied aid and enjoy substantial autonomy in managing their affairs.

More than that, the public spaces – including hospitals, police stations, government offices etc.—are saturated with Hindu icons and symbols. Even scientific and technological institutions undertake Hindu rituals to mark important events.  It is hard to find public spaces which are unmarked by religious symbols in India.

SB: [In India] If religion interferes at all with politics, what are the consequences for educational policies?

MN: The biggest problem, as I see it, is that education has become a conduit for national chauvinism.  Indian history — and especially the history of Indian science – is taught to create and reinforce the myth of Indian uniqueness and greatness.   (In fact that is what provoked me to write Science in Saffron: I wanted to set the record straight and put the Indian contributions to science in a comparative global perspective).

With the Hindu nationalist party (the BJP) in power, attempts to give education a Hindu tinge have intensified. Some states have drawn plans to introduce the Bhagavad Gita as a part of school curricula, while yoga is already a part of regular routine in many schools.  There are plans to rewrite the education policy and there are great fears that we will soon see a   more Hinduized curricula. With Narendra Modi holding the highest office of the land, the movements for Hinduized education have gained prominence and their writ is already being enforced in many states around the country. Dina Nath Batra, the man who spearheads the largest education “reform” movement, was responsible for forcing Penguin to pulp Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus. Intimidation and self-censorship of publishing houses and other media has become commonplace.

The slow capture of educational institutions by the Hindu Right has been going on for a while now.  Thanks to the policies put in place when the BJP was in power the first time around (1998-2004), combined with the growing privatization of universities (what is politely referred to as “public-private partnerships”), any aspiring astrologer, priest or pranic-healer can find a university where he or she can obtain a professional degree. Even elite science and technology institutions have started offering graduate degrees in “consciousness studies,” which is but euphuism for teaching Vedanta.  Established gurus, ashrams and cults like the Hare Krishnas often spearhead these “educational” initiatives.  As many politicians, public officials and even professors in higher education institutions are devotees of these gurus, the incursions of Hinduism into education happens almost seamlessly and hardly raises any eyebrows.

On top of all this,  the BJP government and its allies have been actively stacking  leading research institutions and research councils (especially those involved in historical research) with Hindu nationalist sympathies.  The Indian Council of Historical Research has declared an open season on Marxist and secular historians who are labelled as “anti-national.”  There are plans for takeover of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the country’s preeminent social sciences and humanities research institution.

SB: Atheism in India: in which forms does it exist, who are the authors atheists refer to, how is it represented and do atheists run any risks?

MN: As I documented in my last book, The God Market, India remains a highly religious country: some 96 percent of the respondents in surveys report to be believers. There is such a strong bias toward religiosity that when census-takers ask what your religion is, and you reply that you don’t believe in god, they count you in the Hindu column!  Anyone who does not declare himself explicitly to be a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh, a Buddhist or a Jain, is automatically assumed to be a Hindu.

Atheism does exist in India –we have many rationalists groups that actively and openly combat magic and superstitions. There is a flourishing of rationalist thought on the Internet as well. But atheism does not have much of a public presence.

Whatever presence it does have is increasingly under threat.  In the last couple of years, there have been three execution-style murders of leading intellectuals who dared to question Hindu superstitions and Hindu distortions of history. Book-burnings and bans on movies that even faintly question the Hindu worldview and practices are increasing in frequency.

More insidious and widespread is how the state empowers its own Hindutva-aligned student groups to intimidate and harass secular voices on university campuses and in the public sphere.  Even as I write these words,  the Central University in Hyderabad is in turmoil after the suicide of a Dalit (ex-untouchable) student who was suspended under political pressure from the highest office on the basis of a false complaint by Hindutva-aligned student group active on campus. Secular, rationalist voices (quite often raised by Dalits) are being squelched on campuses even in elite institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology. These banal, every-day acts of state-sponsored intimidation are creating an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.

SB: In your books you describe and criticise “saffronized science”. Is it only a form of postmodern folklore, or does it have any concrete, negative consequences on science and technology? How?

MN: By saffronized science I mean two things: modern science interpreted to remove all traces of contradictions between traditional Hindu beliefs in the existence of the Spirit (Brahman) as the ultimate reality and associated ideas of afterlife and rebirth etc.; two, ancient Hindu sciences interpreted as anticipations of modern scientific theories like the Copernican heliocentrism, theory of evolution and even quantum physics.

There is nothing particularly postmodern about saffronized science.  Postmodern and allied anti-Enlightenment theories only help the Hinduization of science by denying any demarcation between modern science and other “alternative” knowledge systems. Besides, the postmodern and postcolonial preoccupation with science as a Western and colonial  construct whose theories and facts only appear to be true and universal because of the West’s colonial reach, ends up perversely talking the language of Hindu nationalists who have always argued for promoting indigenous ways of thinking.

SB: Do you think that science and religion can be consistently reconciled at all?

MN: No.

Modern science, to quote from Steven Weinberg’s recent book To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, seeks “mathematically formulated and experimentally validated impersonal principles that explain a wide variety of phenomena..”

There is no room for any principles with purposes, or with consciousness, be it a personal God or an all pervasive spirit.

God or sprit can only exist as a poetic metaphor, as psychological aid for those who need it. Nothing more.

What I mean is that there can be no reconciliation if God and/or spiritual principles are given any role in explaining the workings of nature: the natural world has to be ceded to modern science.  Once you bring God into explaining the world, you have to abide by the demands of scientific evidence and a naturalistic worldview. The trouble is that Hindu theology (unlike the Abrahamic religions) allows no separation of the divine from the material: the material world – down to the atoms — is seen both as animated by, and as an epiphenomenon of the Absolute Consciousness, Brahman or spirit.  Hinduism, in other words, does not see the spiritual and the material, or the subject matters of religion and science, as “non-overlapping magisteria,” to use Stephen Jay Gould’s words.  The challenge in India is to make them non-overlapping, to break the false category of “spiritual science.” This can only be done by subjecting the claims of “spiritual science” to ruthless examination in the light of the best evidence from real science. That is the reason why I have made it my business to take apart the writings of Swami Vivekananda and the Theosophists, as  they were the first ones in India to  offer “scientific” justifications for finding a spiritual dimension in the study of material phenomena.

SB: How would you reform scientific education (or education in general) in India? Is there any country you would take as a model?

MN: This is a huge subject and I don’t think I am competent to answer it properly.

India is so far behind the curve when it comes to providing universal, quality education to all school-age children that I would be quite satisfied to see good public schools available to all.

SB: Women and (scientific) education in India. Which problems, which possible solutions?

MN: There are no legal or formal barriers to women’s participation in science education and research. Women actually have a better deal than their sisters in the United States, for example, when it comes to paid maternity leave, extended leave for raising children etc.

Women have made strides: the Institute where I teach, which is one of the premier science education and research institutes of the country, there is gender parity at least at the level of entry,  and female students  generally do better than their male counterparts academically.

Yet, one finds in India, as is true in other countries as well, that the proportion of women begins to decline the higher you move on the career ladder. The drop-out rate from careers in science is higher for women than for men.

The reasons have to with the extra burdens that the society places on women in terms of taking care of children, the elderly etc. Unless and until men begin to shoulder their fair share of responsibilities, women will always be disadvantaged.

About the Author

Stefano Bigliardi is a researcher in the field of religion and science.

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