Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodernism, Science, and Hindu Nationalism
Delhi,India: Permanent Black (publisher of 2006 paperback edition)
Hardback edition 2004
ISBN 81 7824 153 6
308 pages, paperback
Review by Joe Szimhart, 2008
Every now and then we pick up a book that brings into focus issues that concern us very much. Nanda Meera did that for me in Prophets Facing Backward. The author was trained in microbiology but later took up a career in science writing and journalism. She begins the Preface with: “This is a book I had to write. I had no choice in the matter.” On the last page of her Conclusion, she writes, “Without secularization on this level of ontology and epistemology, Indian people will always remain at the mercy of false prophets.” This is a demanding book as it not only requires the reader to recognize social and political forces that could ruin the future of the human race but also demands that we recognize essential realities that can save us. Nanda compels us to revisit the benefits of the Enlightenment and the “scientific temper” necessary to keep human kind grounded in real progress. She takes issues with post-Kuhnian and postmodernist efforts to validate all cultural realities as “true” or symmetrically valid as “science.” She sees an unholy marriage between postmodern deconstruction of modernist values and the pseudo-sciences of nationalistic fundamentalist religion.
Nanda maintains a www.meerananda.com. She won a John Templeton Foundation Fellowship award (2005-07) to further her research in religion and the sciences. She received her last Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,TroyNY, May 2000. This book is based on her dissertation: Prophets Facing Backward.
Nanda’s perspective recognizes that the lessons of science have yet to find universal acceptance. Indeed, there has been a cultural reaction to what has been labeled ‘positivism’ by conservative religious types (with the support of postmodernist activism and ecofeminism from the left) in Indiaand around the world since the 19th century. She argues that India’s now dominant Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, reflects the populist Hindutva assertion that Vedic science is “secular”. In this view, Vedic or scriptural truth is the basis of all reality including the sciences. Examples of Hindutva (Hindu-ness) propaganda appear within the teachings of Swami Bhaktivendanta in his Hare Krishna or ISKCON movement and in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation or TM. The Hare Krishnas taught, for example, that the first moon landing was faked by American film studios because their Vedas say the “moon” is unreachable. TM’s claim to ‘scientifically’ alter weather and crime through levitating during meditation or chanting a mantra is another example of pseudo-science based on scripture. This parallels fundamentalist Christian Bible-based claims for Intelligent Design and with radical Muslims using the Koran as the basis for scientific truth both thus denying thatDarwin’s evolutionary theory is true. “What is happening inIndia is not unique at all. Such reactionary modernism lies at the heart of radical Islam in most of theMiddle East as well” (262).
Taking a label from Professor Agehananda Bharati, Nanda calls the pseudo-secularization inIndiaa “pizza effect.” Bharati noted that “any traditional Indian idea, however obscure or irrational” gets honored as science if it barely or remotely resembles modern inventions like jet planes or research in quantum mechanics. During the Second World War the common pizza in Italian village homes found favor among American soldiers. The Pizza Pie soon developed inAmericaas a popular restaurant item with a variety of garnishes subsequently emerging inItalyas ‘native’ haute cuisine. “Thus obscure references in the Vedas get reinterpreted as referring to nuclear physics…It was always claimed in India’s wisdom anyway” (72).
Despite democratization since 1948, the traditional values of caste and male chauvinism remain strong within the Hindutva culture. For this reason Nanda criticizes what she calls ecofeminism that tends to uphold traditional village life as an antidote to Eurocentric values. In the process of upholding the native culture, ecofeminism argues that a “Western” paradigm of science (citing Thomas Khun) is unsuited for Indian culture. Nanda cites Partha Chatterjee, an Indian intellectual of the left: “Women were not the only or even the main targets. Rather, epistemic violence which works ‘not by military might or industrial strength, but by thought itself,’” lies at the heart of all colonialism (151). In other words, India’s anti-Eurocentric intellectuals claim that the Brits were trying to brainwash the Indians not only with their culture but their science also. Nanda argues that this mistaken notion of the value and essence of science is hurting India’s low caste women and mankind in general. Science in this view has nothing to do with Western or Eastern Kuhnian paradigms. The poor inIndia do not feel or admire the “exalted” ecologically sound status that armchair postmodernists bequeath on them.
Nanda is not dismissive of religion as religion or its real value to any culture that finds in religion a way to cope with the mysteries of life as well as address important functions regarding marriage, death, birth and transcendent feelings. Her mission is to preserve the freedom of science as a universal category. She argues for the freedom to explore things with well established scientific methods without enchanting science or subsuming it to non-testable transcendental beliefs. To me Nanda’s approach to science and religion compares with that of Father Georges Lemaître credited for the “big bang” theory of the origin of the universe. Lemaître, a mathematician, applied Einstein’s theory of relativity to cosmology and he convinced Einstein of the big bang theory. When one of the popes referred to Lemaître’s theory as a “proof” for the Biblical Genesis creation account [God created the world out of nothing], Lemaître protested. Even as a priest he saw that it was dangerous to equate scientific theory with scriptural revelation. The former can change with new evidence whereas the latter is “sacred” and fixed.
Nanda’s view also reflects rational approaches in ancient Greek medicine and philosophy. The Greeks at the time of Hippocrates may have been the first to separate practical science from the mystical and supernatural. This is not to say that Greek culture on the streets lacked superstitious tendencies. They did not. The antics of the gods were very real to them. Common Greeks were suspicious of philosophers—Socrates on trial was a case in point. There was also some indication of a similar skepticism in ancient Indiaaround the same time. The Samkya of Indian tradition, most likely the one that influenced the Buddha, posited a separate reality for purusha [inner transcendent self] and prakriti [our physical nature] but this dualism was rejected by the developing Advaita or non-dualism best defined by Shankara in the 8th century. Non-dual approaches tend to monism which dominates most Hindu religions and Western re-interpretations of Vedanta. We all may have heard the New Age saying “We are all one” and postmodern references to “holism” and the interrelatedness or relativity of all things. More to the point, the discussion of Hindu ideas among Western spiritual pundits favors the non-dualist identification of Atman [a soul] with Brahman [Being as such].
Curiously, there is a fascinating sympathy between Fascism and non-dual ideology. Nanda explains it this way:
“But what is deeply troubling is that Hindu nationalists are putting the exact same spin on Vedic monism andvarna[caste/color] as the Nazis did, and the neo-Nazis still do. Rather than interpret monism as a mystical pantheism, which is what it was meant to be, proponents of ‘Vedic science’ insist upon treating monism as a scientific doctrine based upon a uniquely Hindu conception of rationality and congruent supposedly with the most advanced theories of quantum physics, cognitive sciences, and ecology” (16).
In her chapter “Epistemic Charity: Equality of All Ethnosciences” Nanda notes how the Strong Programme, a form of social constructivism or relativism in social study inadvertently erased essential values of science. Citing Ernest Geller’s ‘all cows are grey…everything is like science and science is like everything’ (126) Nanda offers good evidence “to show that the denial of the objectivity and universality of science has political consequences. What looks like a tolerant, non-judgmental, ‘permission to be different’ is in fact an act of condescension towards non-western cultures” 127).
Nanda’s antidote to prophets facing backward is Bhimrao Ranji Ambedkar (1891-1956) who hybridized John Dewey’s conception of scientific temper with the teachings of Buddha. Ambedkar, who spent his childhood in Indiaas a low class, untouchable Dalit, “challenged Hindu metaphysics and the ethics of the natural inequality it sanctions” (182). As a “prophet facing forward” Ambedkar, a graduate ofColumbiaUniversity (1913-16) under the influence of Professor Dewey and his circle, made his mark inIndia fighting against Mahatma Gandhi’s endorsement of the caste system and other Hindu folk traditions. Ambedkar led a rebellion among half a million dalits who renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism. “Ambedkar’s call for making local cosmologies and sciences answerable to the findings and methods of modern science still reverberates in neo-Buddhist and other segments of the contemporary dalit movement” (183).
Although she questions religious cosmology and epistemology Meera Nanda is not espousing atheism, something her critics accuse her of. Her dissertation is part of the longer debate stemming from ancient Greeceand Hippocrates that examines the natural order with rational inquiry. It is part of the universal human struggle or jihad for wisdom not dictated from supposed supernatural connections. Her argument is that all religions can share in this struggle because science in and of itself has value for all cultural expressions that do not naively dismiss the scientific method. Another way to put this is every architect and builder uses the same math to properly design and build temples, mosques, churches, and shrines. The “god” of science favors no prophets looking backward:
“Although many believe man first reached the moon in July, 1969, we have information from a very reliable source, the Sanskrit Vedic scriptures that the astronauts never actually went to the moon. The manned moon landing was a colossal hoax… Another important reason why the manned moon landing must be a hoax is that, according to the Vedas, each planet has its particular standard of living and atmosphere, and no one can transfer from one planet to another without becoming properly qualified.” http://krishna.org/man-on-the-moon-a-colossal-hoax-that-cost-billions-of-dollars/
“Through transcendental meditation, people at the Fairfield school say they can fly; they can create peace; they can reverse the aging process, change the weather, and boost the stock market. They are dead serious.”