On 21 September 1995, a devotee in Delhi declared the “miracle” that a statue of Ganesha drank the milk that was offered to it. By noon, similar claims were not only heard from temples all over the country but also from temples abroad: in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, and Nepal. Debates on television and newspapers erupted between science and belief. The rationalists explained that pious devotees were duped by “surface tension” and the simple law of “capillary attraction”.

However, the more intriguing question was regarding what led to the mass suspension of reason. Claims based on religious belief in India are often not without an element of mischief. The mischief is invariably political. In the case of the “miracle” of Ganesha drinking milk, then Central Minister for Welfare, Sitaram Kesari, accused two Hindu right-wing groups for legitimising this rumour for electoral gains. In modernity there can be no miracle, real or fake, that is devoid of politics.

The Hindu right-wing interest in the mass consumption of an event like the Ganesha “miracle” is obvious. This political aspect should, however, be kept distinct from the larger issue of crazy mass-belief. Right-wing politics could exploit the “miracle” for its own ends because such occurrences gain widespread social legitimacy. It reveals the dormant collective wish of a community to experience something extraordinary outside the rational constraints of modern life. The ennui of our sociological condition can lead people towards such moments of suspended reason.

The Ganesha incident, despite scientific explanations that countered the mass hysteria, marked Hindu society’s desperation for divine magic.

[Jawaharlal] Nehru would have abhorred such a scandal. But a scientific viewpoint on the matter is beside the point. Modernity is not an exclusive domain of positivism. Nor is scientific rationality a panacea for the degeneration of the collective unconscious. If modernity signifies the time for scientifically verifiable idea of truth, it does not obliterate the other truth that historically precedes the scientific: the miraculous.

In the absence of scientific reason, people in earlier times, before the advent of modernity, believed everything that was accidental or unexpected was a miracle. Scientism invalidates the logic of miracles through reasoning. But miracles don’t derive their meaning and power from logic.

In a lecture delivered in 1819, the German sociologist Max Weber, spoke about “de-magification” (German: Entzauberung der Welt, a term Weber borrowed from Friedrich Schiller, also translated as “the disenchantment of the world”). The everyday life of the traditional world in Europe “before the Protestant Reformation... [was] punctuated by saints’ days, fairs, pilgrimages, festivals, seasons of feasting, atonement and celebration”.

Weber writes in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that John Calvin and the Reformation, in the middle of the sixteenth century, sought “to free man from the power of irrational impulses” and subject him “to the supremacy of a purposeful will”. It led to what Weber calls the “rationalisation of the world, the elimination of magic”.

Daniel Defoe’s story on the pandemic, A Journal of the Plague Year – published in March 1772, based on the 1665 bubonic plague that hit various parts of the world, including London, also documents the effect of rationalisation in the West. Defoe’s condemnation of supernatural practices in the novel through the character HF, a saddler who traded with merchants dealing with the English colonies in America, echoes the effects of Calvinism and the Reformation in late sixteenth century England.

The growth of capitalism and the birth of scientism led to demystification. Science sought to drive away every mystery in the world with rational arguments. The overwhelming material concerns of (economic) life led to the rationalisation of both life and faith. This process is understood as “secularisation”.

The coming of capitalism and the Protestant ethic saw the emergence of surrealism in Europe in the early 1920s (among others like Dadaism, Expressionism, Symbolism, etc) as an anti-modernist movement of the disenchanted world. They produced art and literature highlighting our irrational, unconscious impulses and states of being.

Sigmund Freud’s 1919 lecture, “The Uncanny” – where he elaborates on E Jentsch’s earlier work on the subject – explains the paradox behind the German word, unheimlich or uncanny, which means an unconscious space where something that was once familiar is now unfamiliar, and hence we are “estranged” from it.

The uncanny reveals the source of what is repressed in us. It leads to a host of neurotic excesses, and remains the psychic surplus of modern civilisation. Surrealism and its sister movements wanted to address (and affirm) the state of the unconscious that was ignored and misunderstood by the rationalist culture of modernity.

These artists and writers tried to recover and produce a “re-enchantment of the world, and reorientation of human history” as a response to the psychological alienation faced by the human mind. These critical events from the modern West are crucial to consider in our understanding (or judgements in rationalist bad faith) of the irrational, the superstitious and the magical.

In the popular sphere of India’s cultural imagination, the disenchantment produced a bizarre episode: the miracle of Ganesha. The common sense of modernity had never completely sidelined belief in a deeply religious society. But never before did postcolonial India witness a nationwide “miracle” that threw all considerations of reason to the winds. It is possible to read the Ganesha incident as a mark of collective return to the time before modernity. What sort of time was it?

It is not the replica of a time as it existed in the past, but a delirious attempt to evoke what is lost forever. The ridiculous is not constrained by rationalism. People are not happy with the death of gods in their daily lives. The daily life of rational choices is oppressive, repetitive and boring. The desire to return to the time of myth, where reason can be temporarily abandoned, is part of the collective unconscious.

Something that cannot be explained by reason is what we understand as the miraculous. People are tricked by rationalist politics. The magical world of unreason is just another trick. The social fact is that people believed Ganesha drank the milk.

Nehru, a product of the Enlightenment, grapples with this paradox in The Discovery of India. He begins by affirming his modernist mindset: “My early approach to life’s problems had been more or less scientific, with something of the easy optimism of the science of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.”

Science was the sole source of newness, optimism and progress. But the word “easy” used by Nehru also gives the impression of what is a fact: the optimism for science and the idea of progress was elitist in nature. The idea of the superiority of science was available only to a certain class of people who could afford a certain education.

Nehru carried the optimism for science and rationality so deeply in his intellectual makeup that he could say, “If the subjective element is unavoidable and inevitable, it should be conditioned as far as possible by the scientific method”.

Nevertheless, Nehru conceded certain limitations to this optimism: in the sphere of understanding the “purpose of life”, and in learning to “appreciate goodness and beauty”. In other words, he was circumspect about science being able to provide answers to the ethical and aesthetic spheres of life.

More crucially, he pointed out that science despite facilitating the “control of nature” failed to bring about self-control or “the power to control himself”.

In a striking passage nearing the end of The Discovery, Nehru comes to pause on his firm belief in the idea of progress coming from scientific rationality:

“There is something lacking in all this progress, which can neither produce harmony between nations nor within the spirit of man. Perhaps more synthesis and a little humility towards the wisdom of the past, which, after all, is the accumulated experience of the human race, would help us to gain a new perspective and greater harmony.”

The idea of harmony is understood in both political and spiritual terms. Nehru’s “Eastern” sensibility acknowledges the limits of the Enlightenment project. This also appears to be his reflection on the dark political scene in Europe, reeling from war, the fascist uprising in Germany and the harsh communist regime in Russia.

What Europe lacked during the period of 1942-46, when Nehru was writing The Discovery in the Ahmednagar Fort prison, was any trace of harmony. What he says immediately after that shows he had a different idea when it came to his own country:

But for countries like India a different emphasis is necessary, for we have too much of the past about us and have ignored the present. We have to get rid of that narrowing religious outlook, that obsession with the supernatural and metaphysical speculations, that loosening of the mind’s discipline in religious ceremonial and mystical emotionalism, which come in the way of our understanding ourselves and the world.

Nehru felt what’s sauce for the goose was not meant for the gander. Europe has to be cautious about too much modernity, and India, about too much history. What India lacked was the “present”. The past was present in excess, in the form of what Nehru calls “religious outlook”. So, India was ripe for a rationalist revolution of the mind, which was going to be a form of modern Enlightenment in the social sphere. Nehru had a supreme reason for optimism for the possibility of India’s change over from religion to rationality:

In India, because of the recognised freedom of the mind, howsoever limited in practice, new ideas are not shut out...The essential ideals of Indian culture are broad-based and can be adapted to almost any environment. The bitter conflict between science and religion which shook up Europe in the nineteenth century would have no reality in India, nor would change based on the applications of science bring any conflict with those ideals.

Nehru holds that Indian culture encourages an adaptive and open mind. It will prevent, he feels, the “bitter conflict” between faith and reason that rocked Europe’s nineteenth century.

Nehru and the Spirit of India

Excerpted with permission from Nehru and the Spirit of India, Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, Penguin Viking.