Much has been written about the nonsense that finds its way into the Indian Science Congress. There is a reason why pseudo-scientific beliefs are uttered at such prestigious events. They are shared by politicians in power and this inspires their repetition despite the widespread criticism they receive every time they are aired in public. Unscientific belief systems and grand political narratives have a symbiotic relationship.
The most infamous examples of this relationship in the near past are the eugenics project that had Nazi Germany in its thrall and Lysenkoism in Stalin’s Soviet Union. As the author Siddhartha Mukherjee eloquently explains in his book, The Gene: An Intimate History , these two projects positioned themselves as paradigmatic opposites apropos the science of genetics. The former emphasised “selective breeding” of human beings to achieve “desired characteristics” by working on genetic engineering, while the latter rejected Mendelian inheritance and the concept of the gene itself. Both these belief systems served their ideological state apparatuses well — eugenics fit well with the glorification of the “perfect Aryan race” and Nazi ideology, while Lysenkoism and its belief in what Mukherjee calls the “complete pliability” of identity served the totalitarian collectivisation project launched by Stalin.
In India’s case, the belief systems are less consequential but equally problematic. Repeatedly, there is talk of a “glorious past” described in Hindu mythology, which is uncritically taken as fact. These “facts” can only be understood if it is assumed that the technological advancements of today were already achieved in the past. It is also the same epistemology that drives these belief systems to attribute miraculous powers to cow urine and to promote research on how dung and urine can cure cancer.
The political project that these belief systems are bound with is, of course, Hindutva, that bases itself on a monistic version of Brahminical Hinduism, whose apogee was supposedly in ancient India. The warriors of Hindutva in the Sangh Parivar therefore seek to revive the “glorious ancient Hindu past” in a modern, technological world. This project seeks to identify with the instrumentalism of the technological progress achieved today without having to engage with the phenomena that brought about modernity. Western Enlightenment that emphasised reason, pluralism and a grounding in philosophies that go beyond abstract metaphysics is therefore anathema. Also unacceptable is the idea that profound achievements in areas such as astronomy and mathematics in ancient India were a product of contested ideologies and philosophies that included materialist and non-Vedic thought. Unless the political project of Hindutva is tackled head-on ideologically, we will continue to receive more pearls of unscientific wisdom.
Srinivasan Ramani is Associate Editor at The Hindu