It is hard for me to not get reminded of one of the wittiest anecdotes from the history of scientific thought – the conversation documented by British mathematician Walter Ball between the mathematician and cosmologist Pierre Simon Laplace and the French monarch Napoleon Bonaparte – the Laplace Napoleon Anecdote, as it is known. Laplace, after being patronised by the then monarch Napoleon Bonaparte, produced a six-volume work titled ‘Celestial Mechanics’. As a gesture of gratitude towards his patron, Laplace decided to present the first copy of book to Napoleon. Napoleon had been told that there was no mention of God in any of the six books. Napoleon, in an eventually futile effort to embarrass Laplace, asked him how he could write books about the Universe without mentioning its creator. Laplace, a mind committed to the project of Enlightenment, responded “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.” ['I had no need of that hypothesis.']
It is impossible for any of us, who believe in the project of rationality and scientific thought to escape the absurdity of the ISRO Chairman K Sivan praying to the Gods ahead of the ISRO’s second attempt at the launch of Chandrayaan-2 mission. What followed the photo-op of the Chairman of the government organisation that is at the edge of all scientific research was a debate that grazed along the ideas of secularism, personal faith, and the allowance for the government to approach these two terms. A large section of rationally thinking individuals and secularists ridiculed and criticised the act while a considerable section of the populace, if not a majority, either provided apologia for a government officer worshipping the Gods in public at the embarkment of a space mission, or even went on to totally reject the idea that a government must remain indifferent to all faiths.
The ISRO chief deserves to be criticised and ridiculed at least, reviewed and penalised ideally, for consulting an astrologer/ priest in the affairs of ISRO's launch.
My argument prevails for two reasons.
Firstly, it violates the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution of India, after observing which in 1976, the Preamble to the constitution put specific weight that India must be a Secular state. That means, by definition, that the Government shall treat all religious faiths equally and shall not valorise one over the other or acknowledge a particular ritual over other rituals. The Chairman of ISRO presides over one of the highest offices and representatives of the Government of India. In his capacity, as the representative of the Government of India, it is a violation of the 42nd Amendment to perform the rituals as he did and include the act of worship of one particular religion of the country in the most critical and the most expensive and ambitious projects of the state.
Secondly, it violates the Article 51A (h) of the Constitution that requires every Indian citizen to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” as a duty. Mr. K. Sivan, who, at his position is supposed to spearhead the values of rational thought and critical enquiry, embodied in the above mentioned section of the Indian Constitution, went on to state that it is the best if the timing of the launch is organised to coincide with the auspicious time according to Hindu astrology, which, by the way, considers stars, moons, the Sun, and every other celestial object as planets that can be impressed into making a rocket launch successful through rituals and prayer. While the ‘window of launch’ as it is popularly called is an entirely scientific and material window – one characterised by the orbit of the Earth, the planned trajectory, and other physical factors; for the space research organisation to have the official position of beginning the countdown at the auspicious hour dictated by a priest is a massive contempt of everything that the Indian Constitution stands for.
However, it is important to be stated that it is a violation of the constitutional spirit and word only in Mr. Sivan’s capacity as the ISRO chief. At his personal level, he can certainly pray to the celestial orbs that he is tasked with demystifying himself. While the irony in that one idea is difficult to miss, the Constitution grants him the right to practice a religion of his choice at his personal level. Although, a scientist, praying to planets and stars might appear to be ridiculous, it is within his fundamental rights to do so, even if it does not uphold the spirit of a scientist. Science and the pursuit of truth through the scientific method are indifferent to religion but Mr. Sivan can do so because he has the right to practice his religion, Article 25 specifically, granted to him by the same Constitutional ethos of Secularism that he violates by bringing religion into Government projects.
In the space of public discourse that immediately followed the launch, one common argument that is put forth to defend such a practice is that the act is ‘harmless’ or ‘does not compromise the project in any manner’. Contrary to those opinions, involving religious rituals in a Government project is far from harmless. Separation of religion and state functionaries is important because it is quite harmful to have it otherwise. One implication is that when a government chooses to perform one ritual, it discriminates against the others. One can raise questions at the behest of this instance such as, ‘Why did the officer in consideration not invoke the Christian or the tribal mountain God?’ While the question is valid, such a trap can be dangerous. The classic argument of 'include all faiths' does not stand because those are three fallacious words owing to their impossibility of execution and their exclusionary stance with the faithless. For a Government to treat all faith (or lack of it) equally, it has to remain indifferent to every faith.
Every other action, by its own virtue, is discriminatory.
(Fahad Zuberi is an architect and academician, invested in the realms of socio-political discourse and cultural criticism. He frequently contributes ideas and opinions on Rationality, Religion, and Critical Thinking. Views expressed are personal.)