Just hours before the celebrated launch of Chandrayaan 3, officials of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) accompanied by the Chief of the space agency, S Somanath visited Tirupati Venkatachalapathy Temple and carried a miniature model for blessings. However, it was not the first time that ISRO scientists went to a temple before a crucial launch.
In February, prior to the launch of the SSLV D2 mission, ISRO officials visited the Tirumala temple in Andhra Pradesh. Former chairman of ISRO Dr K Kasturirangan who was in office between 1994-2003 used to visit the hill temple of Lord Venkateswara near Tirumala before any satellite launch. The practice was to carry a replica of the satellite to the temple for blessings.
Dr G Madhav Nair, the next chairman, also ritually followed the practice and when Dr K Radhakrishanan took over the position in 2009, it had already become a tradition. His prayers to Lord Venkateswara for the successful launch of PSLV-C18 in 2011 didn’t go unnoticed.
As India is about to launch Chandrayaan 3, one can’t help but look at the relations between science, rationality, faith and superstition. How has India performed in terms of ‘scientific temper’ as envisaged by the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru? What is the relevance of the national celebration over the Chandrayaan launch at a time when NCERT books remove the Darwinian theory of evolution citing ‘rationalisation’?
During the Covid period, the country had witnessed bizarre practices ranging from playing utensils to chanting ‘Go Corona Go’ in a bid to fight the fatal virus. However, had the rituals been practised by any Tom, Dick and Harry, it would have not evoked scientific justifications. But it was none other than the District Magistrates, Union Ministers of Police Bosses. On the day of ‘Janta Curfew’, DM and SP of Pilbhit Vaibhav Srivastava and Abhishek Dixit were found leading a dozen of people through empty streets with metal bells and conch.
Social media army immediately started peddling the scientific root of blowing a conch and the metal bell. It was said that such sounds had receded the virus and none other than NASA had captured it through satellites! The fake scientific justification was spreading so fast that the government had to intervene to withdraw it from social media.
During the same time, Union Minister Ramdas Athawale was found chanting ‘Go Corona Go’ near Gateway of India in Mumbai. Interestingly, he was accompanied by the Chinese Consul General in Mumbai Tang Guocai and several other Buddhist Monks. The voices of Mumbai were echoed in Bangalore, known as the hub of science and IT. However, they were a step ahead. Here, the anti-Corona sloganeering was coupled with the consumption of cow urine as an antidote to the virus.
Such actions get encouraged and legitimised when the political top brasses peddle such narratives as legitimate truth. BJP MP Sadhvi Pragya during the heydays of Covid said, “Gau-mutra ark (cow urine extract) of a desi cow keeps us away from lung infection. I am in a lot of trouble (health issues) but take the ‘gau-mutra ark’ every day. After this, I am not supposed to take any other medicine for coronavirus. I am not affected by coronavirus infection. I believe God will keep me protected as I am using this medicine of ‘gau-mutra ark’.”
Earlier, Sadhvi said that her cancer was cured due to cow urine. However, her doctor SS Rajput of Ram Manohar Lohia Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow told the media that she had gone through three consecutive surgeries in 2008, 2011 and 2017 to get rid of malignancy. Her suggestions pertaining to the usefulness of cows, nevertheless, continued. While giving an interview on Valentine’s Day which was proposed to be celebrated as ‘Cow Hug Day’, she noted that patting and touching cows might be useful for high blood pressure.
Even as these statements, without any scientific corroboration, did enough harm to the scientific temper of the country, it becomes worse when the call for research on indigenous cow products comes from the Ministry of Science and Technology. The funding programme titled “Scientific Utilization through Research Augmentation Prime Products from Indigenous Cows” in its call for proposals notes, “Cow urine and its distillate is being used by Ayurveda practitioners throughout the country. However, the scientific information is lacking regarding active principle, batch-to-batch variation, seasonal variations, urine collection time and its effect, effect of fodder and differences/similarities among the urine of other cattle.”
Such proposals and peddling of cow myths are in stark contrast to Nehru’s vision regarding the scientific temper of the country. In his words, “Scientific temper cannot be nurtured by ignoring the fact that there are major differences between the scientific attitude and the theological and metaphysical attitude; especially in respect of dogma.”
In 1958, the Indian government passed its Scientific Policy Resolution that noted, “The dominating feature of the contemporary world is the intense cultivation of science on a large scale, and its application to meet a country’s requirements.” In 1976, through the 42nd Amendment, Indira Gandhi introduced Article 51A to instil 11 fundamental duties in the body of the Constitution. Clause (h) of the Article says, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”
So, from the surge in rational thinking during the colonial days to fundamental duties, striving for a scientific temper has been an obligation for Indian citizens.
When the launch of Chandrayaan III is about to be celebrated as a matter of National pride, one must remember what C V Raman told Gandhi: “Mahatmaji, religions cannot unite. Science offers the best opportunity for a complete fellowship. All men of science are brothers.”