June 13, 2021
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Sangh Parivar, The Pizza-Maker

Just as the humble pizza got modernized through repackaging and aggressive global marketing, any and every bit of obscure and even obscurantist Hindu tradition is being repackaged as 'science'.

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Sangh Parivar, The Pizza-Maker

The pizza was not always home-delivered in a box, or sold at Pizza Huts that have cropped up all around the world. The pizza, in fact, started out as the staple of the laboring classes in Sicily. It was a flatbread, a leavened version of our tandoori roti, that peasants ate with cheeses, meats, olives and other local produce. But then the Americans discovered it. The every-day fare of obscure peasants became an international sensation.

Herein lies the model for "Vedic science": just as the humble pizza got modernized through repackaging and aggressive global marketing, any and every bit of obscure and even obscurantist Hindu tradition is being repackaged as "science". Given that science is the only universally valid form of knowledge which demands our reasoned consent, anyone who disagrees with "Vedic sciences" is ostensibly, against reason itself! Anyone who insists on pointing the difference between science as-we-know-it-today, and the idealistic, Brahman-drenched view of nature present in the Vedas and the Upanishads, is only displaying her "colonized mind," imposing Western categories on Hindu ways of knowing. .

How is the Vedic mythos turned into the logos of science? The formula is simple, and the Sangh Parivar has been honing the art for over a century since Swami Vivekananda declared the Vedas to contain all the truths of modern science in his famed Chicago address in 1893. Here is how it works.

Step one: take any Hindu ritual of twice-born castes, preferably of Brahmin-Vedic lineage. Content and logic no bar. Step two: declare it to be "science" and therefore "modern" by definition. You can either proclaim that the most advanced modern sciences validate the ritual, or failing that, bring in logic of "Swadeshi science". Step three: market the new "science." Start in America where academic postmodernists are always on the lookout for alternatives to the supposedly reductionist and dualist "Western" science. With the Western stamp of approval in hand, Murli Manohar Joshi can set the NCERT machinery running, and before you know it, students all over India will be learning the new "science." Step four, proclaim to the rest of the world that while we teach "science" in our "secular" schools, those unenlightened Muslims across the border teach only the Koran in their madrasas.

With the blessings of the BJP, the Vedic science industry is booming. Vedic astrology is now followed by an announcement from RSS that it is training a crop of "scientific priests." Next time, you have a havan, your new scientific priest will be at hand to explain that by burning ghee, you are not only killing the germs in the air, but also proofing your house against radiation. Next time you have a religious ceremony, be it namakaran, or the last rites, you will know that you are acting in accord with the laws of nature. Other religions follow their prophets, mere men of their times, while "the Hindus" follow nothing less than the eternal, rational laws of nature. Dissent from Hindu dharma is dissent against nature and reason itself.


The question is how did we get to this surreal world where the distinctions between science and myth have all but disappeared? How to explain the quick and effortless victory of this dangerous doublespeak of Vedas-as-science?

The victory of Vedic science is, in no small part, a result of the nativist and anti-modernist trends among prominent public intellectuals in India, fed in turn by the fashionable postmodernist angst against modern science and the Enlightenment in the West. Simply put, Vedic sciences have won, not because of the merit of their arguments but because secular intellectuals themselves have been sitting on the fence on the science question.

On the rare occasions when Vedic science proponents do offer us philosophical arguments for treating the Vedas as books of physics encoding such physico-astronomical findings as the speed of light, the distance between the sun and the earth, the existence of bosons and positrons etc., they end up offering a weak version of what is called "social construction of science" - a relativist view of science popular among the avant-garde postmodern, feminist and postcolonial critics of science. Modern science, they claim, makes rational sense only within the metaphysical assumptions and social interests of the Judeo-Christian Western society, which is imperialist and patriarchal to boot. When looked at through "Hindu categories," Vedas make as much rational sense as the best of modern science. From within the Hindu conceptions of a unity (i.e. non-dualism) between spirit and nature, as opposed to the masculine, ecologically disastrous and imperialist separation (i.e., dualism) of spirit from nature in "Western" science, we can safely assume that spiritual disciplines of the Vedas are actually rational, empirical methods of learning about nature.

This insistence that knowledge systems of all cultures are symmetrical with that of modern science, because the latter is a cultural construct of Western, white (mostly) men (mostly), has become part of the commonsense of the new generation of postmodernist, left-wing intellectuals in the West. World-renowned public intellectuals from India, with Gandhian, anti-modernist tendencies - Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Dharampal, Claude Alvarez, their numerous followers of "patriotic science" movement, and their subaltern historian brethren readily come to mind - have added to this anti-Enlightenment mania by claiming all modernist, secular thought to be colonial in origin and content. After all, the first defence of astrology as a "science of the masses" came not from the Vedic astrology enthusiasts, but from Ashis Nandy's tirade against Nehru's scientific temper way back in 1981. The fashionable denigration of science has weakened all forces of resistance against the nonsense of Vedic science. A renewed respect for clear boundaries between science and myth, and between modern science and local knowledge is our only weapon against the doublespeak of Vedic "science."

The author's a philosopher of science. Her forthcoming work is Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (Rutgers University Press and Permanent Black).

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