The spirit of dissent that was nourished first by the scientific temper of the Arthashastra and the Kamasutra and then by the Charvaka mythology of scepticism has now come up against a new incarnation of the forces of repressive dharma, now supporting pseudoscientific claims. Once again science, now the sciences of physics, aeronautics, and medicine rather than politics and erotics, has come into direct conflict with authoritarian aspects of dharma.
This, too, began back during the British Raj. By assimilating the same British Protestant judgments that inspired the Hindu reaction against kama, members of Reform Hinduism came to admire both British science (particularly as expressed in technology such as trains) and British moral codes, in essence British ethical and social dharma – progressive in opposition to aspects of Hindu social dharma such as suttee.
They accepted the idea of moral progress as an integral part of scientific progress. But then, in a kind of compensatory reaction against their uncomfortable admiration of their colonisers, many Hindus kept the foreign values but denied that they were foreign.
Just as they had reasserted their own “eternal” sanatana dharma in response to British moral codes, now they asserted that their own oldest religious document, the Veda, back in 1500 BCE, had already anticipated European science. They claimed that ancient Indian scholars had made major scientific discoveries not only in grammar and mathematics (which they had, though not in the Vedas) but in aeronautics (which they had not, ever). Swami Dayanand Saraswati argued that the incarnate god Krishna and the Mahabharata’s human hero Arjuna (Krishna’s close friend) had gone to America five thousand years ago, travelling through Siberia and the Bering Straits. And so, others insisted, since the Vedic people had discovered America long before Columbus, he was, therefore, actually right when he called the native Americans “Indians.” Confusion here hath made its masterpiece!
Those who made these claims referred to the Vedas for their authority, ignoring the far more scientific shastras, for two reasons. First, because it’s always easier to argue that something is “in the Vedas” than in a later text, since Vedic language is so archaic (it is to classical Sanskrit what Beowulf is to Shakespeare) that only relatively few priests and scholars know what’s in the Vedas well enough to contradict anyone who cites the Vedas as their authority. And second, because the Vedas, being much older than the shastras (indeed, even older than the Bible), have more authority – particularly, of course, religious authority.
Hindu Nationalists, working to expel the British from India, therefore advanced a series of two-pronged arguments, not just “You are scientific, but we are spiritual” (though this was often said, too), but, better, “Our religion is wiser than your science – and our religious texts contain science much older than yours.” And, finally, “We’re better than you, in religion and science, because our religion is scientific and our science is religious, and we want you to leave.”
The complex relationship between science and religion in India continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and took a sharp turn to the right under the impetus of a Nationalist movement known as Hindutva, “Hinduness.” This term was invented by the nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in his 1923 pamphlet entitled Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? Hindutva’s members call themselves Hindutva-vadis (“Those who profess Hindutva”), but one can call them, more simply, Hindutvats (on the analogy of bureaucrats). They propound a bowdlerised Hinduism that owes much to the Reform Hinduism of the nineteenth century, a variety of sanatana dharma now heavily laced with anti-Muslim and anti-woman sentiments.
The seeds of ambivalent resentment (what Nietzsche would have called ressentiment) sown during the Raj found fertile ground after Indian Independence, in 1947. VS Naipaul, in 1976, was appalled by “the prickly vanity of many Hindus who asserted that their holy scriptures already contained the discoveries and inventions of Western science.” In 1985, a man from Varanasi (which the British had called Benares) accused the nineteenth-century German Indologist Friedrich Max Mueller of having stolen chunks of an ancient Vedic text that “facilitated German scientists’ later development of the atom bomb.”
National pride in India’s great progress was shadowed by the realisation that it had been accomplished in large part by borrowing technological advances from the West.
This science envy is wonderfully captured in a statement by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s joint general secretary, Swami Vigyananand, referring to the Indus River, whose name is the source of the words “India” and “Hindu”: “I am telling you the ‘industry’ word has come from us – Indus. We were very industrialised...that is why [the British] used the word.” Meera Nanda spells out the thinking behind the resurgence of the old Raj ambivalence about “Western” science:
“It rankles with us that these impure, beef-eating ‘materialists,’ a people lacking in our spiritual refinements, a people whose very claim to civilisation we delight in mocking, managed to beat the best of us when it came to nature-knowledge. So that while we hanker after science and pour enormous resources into becoming a ‘science superpower,’ we simultaneously...decry its ‘materialism,’ its ‘reductionism’ and its ‘Eurocentrism’. We want the science of the materialist upstarts from the West but cannot let go of our sense of spiritual superiority.
The solution is obvious: locate the science in the spiritual, which is to say, in the Vedas, and sometimes in the Ramayana.
The Ramayana tells us that an army of talking monkeys built a bridge or causeway for Rama to cross over from India to the island of Lanka (not the same island as the present-day Sri Lanka) to rescue his wife Sita from the ten-headed demon Ravana. The Hindutvats identify that causeway with the stone formations that extend into the channel between India and Sri Lanka, obstructing the passage of ships there. This mythical causeway was real enough, in September 2007, to inspire Hindutva protests that put an end to a major government project to build a much-needed shipping canal through the area where, the protesters said, Rama’s bridge was built. One scholar, arguing that “modern science had insidiously dated [the causeway] to be far younger than it actually was,” claimed that he himself had ordered a specimen rock from the underwater rock formation said to be where that causeway was built: “After validating the authenticity of the rock, by checking whether it floated on water (it did), he conducted his own research and managed to prove the carbon dating wrong.”
Mythoscience thrives in the climate that was created after the BJP...took power in 2014 and Narendra Modi became prime minister. Government allegiance to Hindutva and its “eternal dharma” is now coupled not only with strong anti-Muslim agendas but also with a virulent repression of other versions of Hinduism and its history, particularly those that contradict the skewed construction of Hindu history proclaimed by Hindutva.
This regime encourages the by now entrenched bad habit of seeking scientific authenticity in religious rather than scientific texts from the past.
The Modi government has now set up ministries of yoga and Ayurveda...to peddle their versions of these ancient Hindu sciences. And Modi has commissioned a number of revisions of textbooks (the modern heirs to the ancient shastras) mandated as supplementary reading for all government primary and secondary schools. Many of these books, including the widely assigned 125-page book Tejomay Bharat (Brilliant India), had originally been published in 1999 in Gujarat; Modi had written the forewords to [Dina Nath] Batra’s books when he was chief minister in Gujarat and now reissued the books and wrote new forewords for them.
These revised textbooks include outlandish claims about the history of science in India, often producing weird anachronisms. One maintained not only “that ancient India had the nuclear bomb, it even practised non-proliferation by carefully restricting the number of people who had access to it” (presumably to Brahmins). There have also been books about Vedic physics and Vedic string theory. In 2015, the incumbent minister at the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Earth Sciences publicly announced, “We all know we knew ‘beej ganit’ [“seed-counting,” the Indian word for algebra] much before the Arabs, but very selflessly allowed it to be called algebra” (a Latin word based on the Arabic al-jabr). Claims have also been made about Vedic quantum mechanics and general relativity.
Excerpted with permission from Beyond Dharma: Dissent in the Ancient Indian Sciences of Sex and Politics, Wendy Doniger, Speaking Tiger.