Date:22/05/2004 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/2004/05/22/stories/2004052201691000.htm
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Opinion - Editorials

Calling India's freethinkers

By Meera Nanda

A principled insistence on drawing clear distinctions between science and religion is crucial in India.

MURLI MANOHAR Joshi has learned the hard way that astrology does not work after all. The will of the Indian voters has overturned the alignment of auspicious stars in the astrological charts of the BJP, just as it has defied the numerology of the pollsters.

Indian voters have thrown out the obscurantist-in-chief and the party he represented. Even though most of the 370-million-strong voters did not consciously set out to punish the BJP for its obscurantist cultural and educational policies, they have inadvertently created the conditions where secularism has a second chance to succeed. This by itself is reason enough to cheer and hope.

But it is also a time to reflect and reaffirm the role of rationalism in the Indian society. Sure, throwing out the peddlers of superstitions is no mean task. But harder still is the task of creating a society where superstitions lose their hold on the public imagination. Ridding the government of those who would freely and arbitrarily mix science and spirituality is undoubtedly a great achievement. But greater still is achieving a society that has internalised the principle of separation between science and spirituality. Without this deeper secularisation of the cultural commonsense of the Indian people, secularism will remain a shallow legalism, forever at the risk of a saffron take-over.

This is where the intellectuals come in: the Indian voters have done their part, now the intellectuals must do theirs. Secular-minded citizens, scientists, writers, intellectuals, and the liberal, forward-looking clergy of all faiths will have to join the battle for a deeper secularisation of the Indian society. Scientists will have to step out of their laboratories and humanists will have to give up their haughty disdain for modernity. Those Left-inclined intellectuals seeking a "third position" between wholesale Westernisation and a nostalgic traditionalism will have to get over their preoccupation with cleansing modern science of its Eurocentrism. It is time for a no-nonsense commitment to the much-trashed idea of "scientific temper."

The objective of a genuine and sustainable secularisation is not to denigrate the religious impulses of ordinary people — that would be foolish, because all societies need a sense of the sacred in order to celebrate the rhythms of life and death. The purpose of secularisation is not to hasten the disappearance of the sacred, but to keep it within the limits of reason. In the case of Hinduism, secularisation must involve a critical engagement with those aspects of Hindu sacred teachings that make empirical claims regarding the presence of a disembodied spiritual element in nature "seen" in the mind's eye by mystics and yogis.

The fact is that people everywhere need a way to reconcile their faith with modern learning driven by science and technology. Fundamentalists (and unfortunately, many postmodernist defenders of "alternative epistemologies" as well) offer one way to reconcile faith with science: they relativise science and, in effect, declare religious cosmologies to be as rational within their own assumptions, as modern science is within its own materialistic and Western (or "Semitic") context. This road leads to Vedic sciences and the phony Hindutva slogans of "all truths being different only in name." Indian secularists have to offer a more honest way to reconcile Hinduism with modern science. They must refuse the cheap comforts of relativism. They must insist that all truths are not equal. In the name of respecting popular religiosity, they must not close their eyes to the glaring contradictions between what we scientifically know about how nature actually works, and what our sacred books, our gurus and our godmen preach.

The first challenge before India secularists is to carefully but firmly un-twine the wild and uncontrolled intertwining of science and spirituality that has been going on in Hinduism since the time of Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century. Public intellectuals, in collaboration with progressive scientists, will have to explain — over and over again, through demonstrations and argument — why modern science is not another name for the same truths known to our Vedic forefathers. Indeed, Indian secularists will have to challenge the deep-seated and self-serving habit of Hindu apologists to draw wild parallels and equivalence between just about any shloka from the Vedas and the laws of quantum mechanics and other branches of modern science. The second challenge will be to bring what we know about the natural world through science to bear upon the cosmological assumptions of such "Vedic sciences" as astrology, vaastu, Ayurveda, yagnas, Vedic creationism, "consciousness studies" and the like. Indian secularists must sow seeds of doubt in the popular imagination about these "sciences" so that the masses reject the worldview of Hindutva on rational grounds.

A principled insistence on drawing clear distinctions between science and religion is crucial in India because Hinduism maintains a grip on this-worldly affairs by claiming to be "just another name" for science and reason. Hindu gurus and godmen stake a claim to extraordinary and extra-constitutional powers not by invoking God's commandments or by a literal reading of a sacred book — such stratagems are easy to laugh off in this day and age. Hindu apologists instead stake a right to intervene in secular matters by claiming for Hinduism a rational and empirical "holistic" knowledge of the "higher" and "subtle" levels of the material world.

Indeed, even a cursory reading of the voluminous writings of Murli Manohar Joshi, K.S. Sudarshan (or any number of RSS ideologues), David Frawley, Subhash Kak, N.S. Rajaram and the host of other apologists associated with the Ramakrishna Mission and Aurobindo Ashram can show that Hinduism's unique "scientificity" constitutes the central dogma of Hindutva.

Hindutva ideologues stake their claims to make "Hindu India" into a "guru of nations" on the notion that only Hinduism is compatible with modern science, while all the "Semitic" faiths have been proven to be false by modern science. Hindutva's self-serving and entirely fallacious equation of Hinduism with modern science — Hindutva's central dogma — can be summarised as follows:

Hindu dharma is rooted in the eternal, holistic or non-mechanistic laws of nature discovered "in a flash" of insight by the "Vedic Aryans." These laws have been affirmed by modern science and therefore, Hinduism is uniquely scientific. Because the Hindus live in accord with a scientifically proven order of nature which unifies matter with higher levels of spirit, they are more rational and ecological as compared to those of Abrahamic faiths who derive their moral laws from an imaginary supernatural being, and who treat nature as mere matter, devoid of spiritual meaning. Because Hinduism is so scientific, there is no need for an Enlightenment style confrontation between faith and reason in India. To become truly and deeply scientific, Indians — indeed, the entire world — must embrace the teachings of the Vedas and Vedanta.

It was this central dogma that gave Dr. Joshi and his fellow travellers the chutzpah to install departments of Vedic astrology in public universities, to pour taxpayers' money into every superstition under the sun, and to try to take over public institutions like IITs and IIMs.

It should now become the first order of business of Indian intellectuals to demolish this central dogma. We must demolish this dogma not because we do not want India to shine and prosper and take its rightful place in the community of nations. We must demolish this dogma because it is based upon false parallels and correspondences between modern science and Vedic metaphysics. We must demolish this dogma because it denies the existence of deeply oppressive superstitions, including the occult notion of the presence of consciousness in matter. And we must demolish this dogma because of its deeply Hindu and Aryan supremacist overtones.

This dogma can only be demolished by drawing clear distinctions between scientific evidence and the evidence of religious and/or mystical experience. Clarifying what is science and what is superstition must become the top priority of India's freethinkers.

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