For the on-going debate, please see the RHS bar under Also See
I had planned a second part to my earlier article (The Peer-Review Cartel) to explore the cartel issue in further depth. But given the misunderstandings reflected in Vijay’s response (Po-Mo, Neo-Lib...And Shoddiness) I shall restrict this piece (and its companion) to responding to it.
Vijay complained that "Rajiv jumps on another horse," because I moved between discussing political issues of peer-review and issues of Western-centric cultural theory. However, these are indeed two distinct though interrelated criticisms that I make, one challenging the academic cartel’s discriminatory practices due to the power of certain vested interests and the other questioning the shortcomings of certain "theories." Both phenomena reinforce each other. Theories sustain and privilege the established power structure. Conversely, the dynamics resulting from this asymmetrical structure tend to cultivate "theories" that justify and preserve the underlying power relationship. The cartel flies on both wings.
I clarify this dualist nature in The Peer-Review Cartel with the following statement:
"There are two levels of abuse: the general blindness of the episteme, as Foucault would put it, and the incestuous power relationships that prevent even people who know better from blowing a whistle. One is an intellectual problem of method and perspective, and the other is a "governance" issue within academics. Both are pernicious, but they are not the same. The former requires the guild to open itself up, while the latter requires dealing with in-house corruption."
To correct the misperceptions apparent in Vijay’s article, I have structured my response into two separate articles: This article deals with issues of theory, and a separate one in parallel deals with issues of power imbalance and non-transparent academic governance. In this article, I will address Vijay’s misunderstandings by clarifying the following:
a) The theories I criticize are literary theories dealing with culture and are not scientific (as in the natural sciences). Vijay drags in science as a diversion from the discussion on cultural theories.
b) On science (even though it is off-topic), I have opposed the project of "Vedic Science" / "Hindu Science" very publicly, and this was after considerable debate before launching our own History of Indian Science and Technology project (i.e. the Needham project for India). Yet, Meera Nanda (whom Vijay quotes as his authority) has foisted false allegations on me. Furthermore, Nanda’s critique suffers from her ignorance about the academic discipline called "Science and Religion" that is prominent in Western universities. Just as I reject "Vedic Science," I also consider notions like "Leftist Science" to be equally nonsensical. I shall point out that Nanda’s error is the result of a confusion between correlations and causation.
c) The theories I deal with in my critique of the cartel are not merely about postmodernism, but cover the entire tool-box of literary/critical theories that are the staple in liberal arts.
d) The scholars of Indian culture cannot claim to be using "empiricism," if that term is to be judged according to the standard of science. It is just another example of liberal arts scholars wanting to associate with symbols (in this case from science) to upgrade their personal symbolic portfolios.
In essence, I will take the position that science is neither "Vedic", nor "Western", nor "Leftist," nor to be mixed up with "cultural theory". This will hopefully free us from this diversion to return to discuss the cartel’s cultural theories. Vijay misses the point of my use of Sokal’s Hoax. I explained in my prior article that using that example had nothing to do with one’s philosophical positions. I wrote: "This essay does not take any stand on either side of the universalism/relativism debate in philosophy [of science] that Sokal is involved in." Therefore, Sokal’s loyalty to the left or to any epistemology is irrelevant to his demonstration that theories often blind the editors of prestigious journals in liberal arts. While Vijay may try to disown this example as not pertaining to his own ideology – sort of like saying, "this does not happen to us leftists because we run fool-proof journals" – it is illustrative of the academic system in liberal arts/social sciences at large.
Science is neither "Vedic," nor "Western," nor "Leftist"
I have rejected theories of "Hindu" or "Vedic" science. I have given one of the proponents of these theories my list of what he must produce in a concrete and verifiable manner in order to have any scientific case at all. He has yet to come back to me. But Meera Nanda gives them far too much credit for understanding the philosophy of science and postmodernism.
When The Infinity Foundation started the project to develop a twenty-volume set on Indian science modeled on Needham’s magnum opus, we took great care to exclude any scholar with the "Vedic Science" mindset. I raised the issue of "Vedic Science" with the team of scholars, just to make sure that we had common ground rules. We discussed that while Sanskrit was very important in many other contexts, in this particular project we would exclude any claim that was solely based on Sanskrit texts, because it would introduce controversies about dating the texts, determining the geographical origins of the texts, and about interpretation. We would rather focus on compiling the enormous academic-grade material that already exists based on empirical (physical) evidence. We decided to stick to concrete areas like textiles, steel, medicine, agriculture, shipping, water-harvesting, etc., for which the primary evidence is archeological and not classical texts.
I used the following example to drive the point home: If one day archeologists find an ancient spacecraft, then, for sure, it would be within the bounds of this project to inquire about the claims of space travel. Pending such a physical discovery, mere reference in a text about travel to other planets cannot be admitted as scientific evidence, because literature could also be metaphorical, fictional, poetic or otherwise imaginary.
We wanted the project’s output to be credible among scientists of the highest caliber. The project team agreed on the following position, which is excerpted from the project web site:
"Some writers have tended to exaggerate claims of Indian scientific accomplishments, by stretching statements written in classical texts. Based on such textual references, for which there is no physical evidence as of now, they have concluded that there was space travel in the Mahabharata, along with nukes, intergalactic missiles, and just about every modern hi-tech item. This has justifiably earned them the term "chauvinists," and the entire activity of writing about Indian science has become discredited, thanks to them. IF considers it very important to distance itself from such discredited scholarship. This is why the series being described here is being built on solid academic scholarship only, and not on wild extrapolations. IF believes that researching unsubstantiated claims about old knowledge has its place, but that facts must be separated from unproven hypotheses. Therefore, IF’s project does not include Puranas as scientific sources. There is no reason to cloud the issue..."
Meera Nanda’s disingenuous juxtapositions:
Unfortunately, however, Meera Nanda disregarded the rules of evidence before drawing conclusions, and wrote [Postmodernism, Science and Religious Fundamentalism]:
"How do these postmodern arguments play in the construction of Hindu sciences?...First, the more sophisticated, Western educated ideologues among Hindu nationalists (notably, Subhash Kak, David Frawley, N.S. Raja Ram, K. Elst, Rajiv Malhotra and his circle of intellectuals associated with the Infinity Foundation), have begun to argue...that modern science, as we know it, is only one possible universal science, and that other sciences, based upon non-Western, non-materialist assumptions are not just possible, but are equally capable of being universalized."
I posted the following response on-line where her article was published [15/11/2003]:
I was surprised to see my name in this article, especially amongst those classified as believing in Vedic Science. As a physicist by training, I am well aware that there is ONE universal set of scientific laws. I don’t believe in postmodernism or any form of cultural relativism when it is applied to the natural sciences. There is neither any Vedic Science nor any Hindu science, just as Newtonian Laws are not Christian, and nor are Einstein’s theories Jewish laws.
At the same time, I do believe that there have been considerable Indian contributions to science that have gone unacknowledged. Therefore, The Infinity Foundation has launched a 10-year project to publish a 20-volume series similar to the seminal work by Joseph Needham on China, except that our series will be on Indian science. What makes it Indian is not a unique epistemology but that it was Indians who did it. For details on this project and its current status, please visit: Indianscience.org
A policy that was explicit clarified right up-front was that Indian science for our project does not include claims based on textual reference that "might" be interpreted as science. The acid test is physical empirical evidence. For instance, the focus of the books so far has included: steel and metallurgy; ship-building; agriculture; medicine; water harvesting; textiles; civil engineering; etc. [nothing even remotely linked to "Vedic".]
We have distanced ourselves from claims of space travel in Mahabharata, atomic weapons and other exotic and far fetched ideas that require extrapolating the Sanskrit texts with speculation. At the same time, we are not denouncing such claims that others make, the fact being that they cannot be proven or dis-proven as of now. So we simply exclude them, rather going out of our way to denounce them as many writers have made a career doing. We simply wish to focus on the monumental task based on physical-empirical evidence we have set out to do.
Therefore, it was disheartening that Meera Nanda, with no empirical evidence or homework, made outlandish claims about my position on these matters. It goes to show the sloppy and over-politicized state of Indian scholarship. It is the blind leading the blind, since the colonial masters seem to have built a whole generation of English language based babus and neo-brahmins, who can simply mug-up and copy the standard line, even without verifying the facts. They will, undoubtedly, be able to market their services and accents to call-centers profitably.
Finally, I have no relationship with Frawley, Elst and the whole "Hindutva scholar’s" lot, and nor do I share in Hindutva political ideology.
Hopefully, Nanda in future will bother to establish contact with third parties and ask them for their positions directly, along with backup data, rather than insinuating based on her own wild extrapolations or fourth-hand information to brand people simplistically. It is dangerous to place everyone in a few fixed boxes, and Nanda seems good at doing that. There is a whole cottage industry of brown sahibs good with the English language feeding whatever the dominant culture rewards them to dish out. Their criticism is so predictable and now overdone. It’s time for their sponsors to send them new scripts. Why don’t they want to have open dialogs with opponents, in forums where both sides get equal and fair time to respond? I would be happy to accept such an invitation. Why is Demonology the accepted methodology to avoid the real issues at hand?
For any further details on my work please contact directly at: Rajiv.email@example.com
Unfortunately, by blindly quoting Nanda, Vijay goes down the slippery slope right behind her. Furthermore, Nanda does not live up to Vijay’s view that leftists should be open to dialog with others, because she has not even acknowledged my public comment above. (In her defense, I did notice that she removed my name in subsequent writings from her list of scholars whom she accuses of just about everything political that comes to mind.)
Nanda must first ask me (in the same above-board spirit as I started this debate by sending Vijay my list of issues/questions) to explain my views on whatever topic she likes. It must be clear by now that I am hardly shy in expressing my opinions openly. Then she would have every right to criticize whatever I stand for. That’s the purva-paksha Indian tradition (which, by the way, is neither Vedic nor Hindu specific!), and differs radically from the tradition of opponent-is-evil demonology by the Indian Left. Clearly, she lacks a basic understanding of my views on these matters and merely imputes my positions based on hearsay and political fads. Meera Nanda has fallen into the trap of hit-and-run politicized scholarship.
Vijay’s remark about astrology in Indian colleges is a delayed echo of what I wrote years ago when the program was announced. I had felt strongly that this ill-advised program would discredit Indian science. I would have liked instead to see a program introducing research on mental health and meditation, yoga and health, and Ayurveda – each being actively researched at several mainstream institutions around the world for many years.
The Kira Group
Let me also give the other side of this epistemological debate, of which Vijay may not be aware. Bas van Frassen (a professor in the philosophy department at Princeton University) sees nature as text that is being read by scientists. There is therefore the potential for the application of some literary theory principles to his philosophy of science. He develops non-dualistic theories without acknowledging the Vedantic or Madhyamika Buddhist influences that are fundamental to some of his work. One of his major postulates is that the subject-object mutually sustain each other rather than having separate inherent existences. Despite being one of the most eminent philosophers of science in the world, he is discouraged from such lines of inquiry by his academic peers. So he has a parallel intellectual life, using a private non-academic group (called The Kira Group) along with some other well-known academicians. Some years back, The Infinity Foundation gave a research grant to their group enabling its pursuit of off-the-academic-record ideas on the philosophy of science. This resulted in the creation of several interesting papers/discussions that eventually fed back into academic discourse.
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