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India: Hindutva’s science envy

by Meera Nanda, 7 September 2016

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Frontline, September 16, 2016

Hindutva’s science envy

Claiming an organic unity between the Vedic world view and modern science has been the agenda of Hindu nationalists from the very start. If modern science is nothing more than a minor tributary flowing into the ocean of Vedic spiritual science known to our rishis, it is Western science and scientists who should feel Veda envy. By MEERA NANDA

IF there is one knowledge tradition that has come to practically define the modern age in all corners of the world, it is modern science. While Arabic, Indian and Chinese civilisations undoubtedly contributed to the enterprise of science, no one can deny that the radical transformations in world view and methods that culminated in the birth of modern science took place in the West through the 16th and 17th centuries. From its European home, the universally applicable methods and theories of modern science spread around the world, often riding on the coat-tails of colonial powers.

These two facts—that modern science was born in the West and came to the rest of the world through Western exploits—have been a source of deep angst verging on ressentiment for all proud and ancient civilisations in the East. But nowhere in the postcolonial world is this angst more deeply felt than in India, the land that bore the brunt of British colonialism for the longest duration.

The problem is this: We can neither live without modern science and the technologies it has spawned, nor can we make peace with the fact that this most fertile and powerful of all knowledge traditions is, after all, a melechha tradition. 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, while we hanker after science and pour enormous resources into becoming a “science superpower”, we simultaneously devalue its historical and cultural significance and 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 which makes us think that we are entitled to the status of jagatguru.

This lethal mixture of desire, envy and a sense of innate “Aryan” superiority has characterised India’s encounter with modern science and technology from the very start. Read any of the great works of the Hindu Renaissance—from Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya, Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati, Annie Besant (and fellow Theosophists), Sarvepalli Radhakrishanan, M.S. Golwalkar and countless other gurus, philosophers and propagandists—and you encounter this simmering science envy and wounded pride at work. The current crop of Hindu nationalists and their intellectual enablers are the progeny of these thinkers and display similar traits.



The above excerpt from Frontline is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use