I’ve written here about what I referred to as “nationalist science”, in that case actions by the Hungarian government against its own universities and the Chinese government’s vigorous promotion of traditional medicine. Now we can (unfortunately) add another one to the list. The Hindu nationalist movement in India has been moving into science and medicine in recent years, making claims about ancient discoveries and remedies that are completely unfounded but appeal to their supporters.
This article at Science will get you up to speed, most unenjoyably. There was an incident last month at the Indian Science Congress where a chemist, vice-chancellor of Andhra University yet, made the claim that ancient Hindus has been doing research in stem cell technology based on a tale from the Mahabharata. You know, back in 1972 I was more skeptical as a ten-year-old reading those Erich von Däniken paperbacks which made similar claims, so it’s not very encouraging to see this stuff showing up in 2019. In fact, from the looks of it, some of these folks are citing the exact same verses in the ancient epics, and why the hell not, I guess.
Problem is, this is not some lone crank:
Some blame the rapid rise at least in part on Vijnana Bharati (VIBHA), the science wing of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a massive conservative movement that aims to turn India into a Hindu nation and is the ideological parent of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. VIBHA aims to educate the masses about science and technology and harness research to stimulate India’s development, but it also promotes “Swadeshi” (indigenous) science and tries to connect modern science to traditional knowledge and Hindu spirituality.
VIBHA receives generous government funding and is active in 23 of India’s 29 states, organizing huge science fairs and other events; it has 20,000 so-called “team members” to spread its ideas and 100,000 volunteers—including many in the highest echelons of Indian science.
The former head of Indian defense research, for example, says that he firmly believes in the powers of gemstones to influence human health. Narenda Modi himself claimed a few years ago that the transplantation of the god Ganesh’s elephant head onto a human was an example of outstanding ancient Hindu surgical techniques. And if that sort of thing doesn’t make you want to bury your head in your hands, try this:
Critics say pseudoscience is creeping into science funding and education. In 2017, Vardhan decided to fund research at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology here to validate claims that panchagavya, a concoction that includes cow urine and dung, is a remedy for a wide array of ailments—a notion many scientists dismiss. And in January 2018, higher education minister Satya Pal Singh dismissed Charles Darwin’s evolution theory and threatened to remove it from school and college curricula. “Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral [texts], has said that they ever saw an ape turning into a human being,” Singh said.
Excellent. The first time I remember hearing that one was from Mr. Smith, an elderly man who lived next door to us in my small Arkansas town in the late 1960s. He had the exact same line about apes and humans, and went on to inform me that moon landing program was a hoax and that dinosaurs never existed (“Just a bunch of old bones they stuck together”) As a six-year-old fan of NASA and defender of the honor of dinosaurs, these claims did not go over well with me. My 1968 visions of what the world would be like in fifty years tended towards space travel and flying cars, and most definitely did not include national ministers of science taking the side of Mr. Smith.
Needless to say, India has produced great scientists (Hindu and otherwise) who have done great work: Bose, Raman, Chandrasekhar, Ramanujan, Khorana and many more. But the country’s scientific record is dishonored and mocked by this sort of thing. There are many prominent Indian researchers speaking out against these idiotic statements, and I support them wholeheartedly. Science in general is dishonored by attempting to impose nationalist or religious criteria on top of its underlying principles. Those principles? To find out the truth about the natural world, to validate it by careful and repeated experiment, to build on that knowledge wherever it may lead. To understand physical reality, in other words, to work with it as it is and not to play games by believing only what it makes us feel good to believe.