Art & Culture

What Wendy Doniger says about 'subversion of science' under Modi government

Kaveree Bamzai
Kaveree BamzaiMay 03, 2018 | 12:25

What Wendy Doniger says about 'subversion of science' under Modi government

Public intellectuals in India need to learn a thing or two about resilience from Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions at University of Chicago.

Despite the abuse heaped on her and Dinanath Batra's misreadings of her books, she continues engaging with India and its texts. In her latest book, Beyond Dharma: Dissent in the Ancient Indian Sciences of Sex and Politics (Speaking Tiger) she shows the tradition of subversion and dissent was alive and well in ancient Indian writing, especially Kautilya's Arthashastra and Vatsyanana's Kamasutra. She also chronicles in detail the "subversion of science" in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.



Some key points:

1) Mythoscience is the new science

Mythoscience, she says, thrives in the climate created after Prime Minister Modi came to power. He has commissioned, she writes, 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 Tejomay Bharat (Brilliant India), prepared by RSS education wing Vidyabharati - formerly headed by Dinanath Batra - originally published in 1999 in Gujarat, were prescribed by the Gujarat State School Textbook Board for supplementary reading. Modi, she says, "had written the forewords to Batra's books when he was chief minister in Gujarat and now reissued the books and wrote new forewords for them.''

2) Outlandish claims

These revised textbooks often produce 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'. There have been books about Vedic physics and Vedic string theory. In 2015, the incumbent minister in the ministry of science and technology and the ministry of warth sciences publicly announced, 'We all knew beej ganit much before the Arabs but very selflessly allowed it to be called al-gebra (a Latin word based on the Arabic al-jabr)'.''


"The most notorious of these wildly counterfactual claims concern ancient airplanes, which 'capture the imagination of this resurgent, neo-Hindu India like nothing else.' The argument that ancient India had airplanes is a very old one, as Hindus long pointed out that characters in the two ancient Sanskrit epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) fly about in flying planes called vimanas.''

"According to the new textbooks, the ancient Indians also knew about automobiles: 'What we know today as the motorcar existed during the Vedic period. It is called the anashva rath. And they had television. One of the textbooks states that there was 'an even older television (Doordarshan)' created when Hindu sages used magic yogic powers to attain divine sight."


3) Blame it on Europe

In what she describes as a reversion to the Raj mentality, many Hindu nationalists blame Europe for the suppression of Indian science. "One said that in 1895 a Sanskrit scholar named Shivkar Bapuji Talpade had used an ancient Indian treatise on airplanes to build and fly an airplane. The treatise had been forgotten because of the 'passage of time, foreign rulers ruling us, and things being stolen from this country', or the cultural amnesia injected into India by foreigners ruling the country." Her argument is this: If ancient India had all these scientific inventions, what became of them?


4) Genuine ancient Indian science given go-by

The true scope of Indian science, she writes, is in the Sanskrit shastras rather than the Vedas. Quoting IIT Gandhinagar visiting professor and scholar, Michel Danino, she writes, that it exists in the fields of linguistics, homeopathic medicine, agriculture, water management, construction, statecraft, philosophy, psychology, ethics, environmental conservation, management and mathematics... Indian accomplishments have retained much relevance and applicability.

Astronomy, chemistry, botany, zoology and a few more disciplines also saw brilliant developments which, if no longer relevant today, still need to be studied as they are an important part of the history of ideas. These shastras, she points out, however, "are not the texts cited by theocrats, who insist on locating Indian science firmly in religion, which means the Vedas''. This is causing great embarrassment to Indian scientists, who have "strongly objected to what journalists called the Modi-fication of science".


5) Holy cow

She also points out how Indian scientists have protested against the government's recent announcement of its intention to prove that the traditional Indian concoction of the five products of the cow - panchagavya, milk, cow, urine, cow dung, yogurt and clarified butter - has actual scientific value.

She writes: "The truth is that panchagavya is very strong and very powerful," India's science minister Harsh Varshan said. The validation effort, he says, will use modern scientific tools "to show to the world the supremacy of Ayurveda." It will be studied, she notes, at the Centre for Rural Development and Technology. She says it has created a dilemma for scientists similar to Soviet scientists under Stalin or climate scientists under Donald Trump - how to debunk these cuckoo theories without losing one's job.

She urges the government to take to heart the true lesson of Arthashastra - its scepticism and dispassionate clarity - as a counterweight to the reign of sanatana dharma and its false science. "Until then", she adds, "India remains a land in which, after so many centuries in which scientific traditions managed to keep alive a subversive attack on religion, religion now is invoked in the subversion of science".

Last updated: May 03, 2018 | 20:15
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