I’ll be honest…I am a great admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. He wasn’t perfect, but Pandit Nehru was instrumental in India’s nationalist effort to gain independence and he struggled mightily to help insure that India would survive its “tryst with destiny” and become a great nation. So it is not surprising that I find India’s Hindu Nationalist attacks on science (which are perhaps in keeping with their attacks on Nehru) to be deeply distressing.
Under the BJP administration, India has given pride of place to the extraordinary and absurd. The Indian Science Congress now hosts lectures on such inane topics as whether ancient Indians had flying vehicles, the Defense Research and Development Organization has publicly contracted to work with temple authorities to look for weaponry in the Vedas, and textbooks end up attributing modern technologies like the invention of television and stem cell experimentation (to name but two) to the Vedas and Mahabharata. I’ve discussed related matters in this blog and in my book.
Now, in a time of public crisis see the continued onslaught of Hindu Nationalism against what Nehru called scientific temper (the duty to apply scientific rationality to life’s problems). In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, instructed the population to stay home and self-isolate on March 22 until 5pm, at which point they were to take to the streets banging pots and pans. Ostensibly this was to show support for the nation’s healthcare professionals, but as the completely ludicrous WhatsApp message pictured above shows, there was another reason why some people advocated for and participated in the clamor.
The vigorous effort of BJP and RSS advocates in India (equating “Hinduness” with “authentic Indianness” and taking shelter under a worldview that inspires pride only by misapprehending the past, such as by claiming that Indians first invented modern technoloiges) is a disaster for India. I am a great fan of myth, folklore, and religion: all make valuable contributions to human flourishing. But, the decay of scientific thinking and the effort to make religious and mythical principles into scientific ones produces dangerous outcomes. When policymakers break down the barriers between the Mahabharata and biology labs we risk total disruption to modern life. It leaves some people thinking that pandemics can be fought with sound waves and that cows can speak Sanskrit. As Nehru argued, Indians have reason for pride in their history and in their culture–but properly seen that is a diverse culture that incorporated contributions from Muslims and Christians (and even a few small pockets of Jews, such as those in Kochi) in addition to Hindus. It includes tribal cultures that have been integrated into Hinduism (though more in word than in practice). It includes multicultural contact for thousands of years. And sometimes it involves a dedication to rational, empirical thinking. The COVID pandemic calls us to remember how our community is one we build together out of our differences and is safer when we keep distinct our mythical pasts and our scientific experiments.