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The Science Wars in India

Meera Nanda




What do left intellectuals do when they know that they are too marginalized to change the world? They get busy interpreting the world, of course. And interpreting how we interpret the world, and how the non-Western "Others" interpret it, and how we interpret others' interpretations . . . and ad infinitum. The interpretive turn allows the left to create in discourse what it is unable to realize in the rough and tumble of real politics: a world where all ideologies have been deconstructed, revealed, and readied for overthrow; a world where all can live by their own lights. The inverse relationship between an explosion of high theory and a decline in political efficacy appears to be as true today as it was when Perry Anderson first observed it nearly two decades ago in his Considerations of Western Marxism.

What follows here is an appeal by an "Other," in whose name many contemporary left theorists justify their interpretive turn, to think about how their epistemological egalitarianism affects the urgent task of transforming oppressive social structures and cultural values in non-Western societies. I will argue that the recent rise in political and cultural visibility of the religious right (the Bharatiya Janata party, or BJP, and its affiliates) in my native India should give pause to all those academics in the West and in the third world who describe the rationality of "Western" science itself as a source of imperialism and racism.

Hindu nationalists have heeded the call for "decolonizing" science, and responded with aggressive propaganda for "Hindu ways of knowing," which they present as the locally embedded alternative to the alien and colonizing Western science. The two examples of the right's "Hinduization" of science and politics that I will discuss -- the introduction of Vedic mathematics in public schools and the spread of "Vastu shastra" (ancient Indian material science) -- do indeed meet the criteria of decolonized science advocated by left theorists: both are opposed to "Eurocentric Northern" ways of knowing; both are "situated knowledges" of non-Western people. The question I want to pose in the light of the BJP's victory is whether such knowledge is a step forward for women, minorities, and the desperately poor in non-Western societies. Does the project of de-Westernizing science deserve the support of my fellow progressive intellectuals?

As a one-time biologist, science writer, and a partisan of science-for-the-people movements in India and in the United States, I have watched with increasing unease the transnational alliance that has emerged around the idea that the rationality of modern science encodes Western and imperialistic social-cultural values, and is therefore inimical to the interests of non-Western peoples. The alliance brings together some of the most avant-garde scholars in U.S. universities with the neopopulist, cultural-nationalist, "postcolonial" intellectuals from the third world, most notably India.

Indeed, the cluster of ideas that postmodernist intellectuals deploy to deconstruct the supposedly Eurocentric assumptions of modern science appears with high frequency in the discourse of Hindu fundamentalist parties. The Hindu right has proclaimed the twenty-first century a "Hindu century" on the theoretical grounds made respectable by left critics of science. These reverse Orientalists who glorify whatever the Western powers devalued are walking through the door that the critics of Orientalism opened for them. The tools that deconstruct also construct.

Constructivist theories of science have cleared a discursive and political space that the nationalistic right is only too eager to move into. Indeed, the right could not have wished for a more fashionable neighborhood to pitch its own tent in. Making the content and rationality of science an epiphenomenon of the wider cultural and social structures is no doubt useful for exposing the play of power in supposedly objective accounts of the world. But when science is joined to culture at the hip in the constructivist fashion, it also opens the door to the so-called "ethno-sciences" -- "Hindu science," "Islamic science," "third world women's science" -- wherein scientific rationality is subordinated to the "forms of life" of different communities. When the existing social values are allowed to decide the validity of knowledge, knowledge loses whatever power it has to critique these often oppressive values. It is this deference to the existing "forms of life" that makes the project of constructing different ethno-sciences for different peoples so hospitable to all kinds of conservative social forces.

Thus, when the secular and mostly left-inclined critics claim -- in the language and tone that Alan Sokal managed to feign so convincingly in his Social Text hoax of last year -- that scientific facts cannot be judged as objectively true or false, but only from within the "regime of truth" established by social power, the religious right reads in it a justification for its demand that the validity of Hindu science be judged only on its "own terms." When the academic critics argue that scientific rationality must be subordinated to cultural instrumentalities, the religious right finds in it an affirmation of its own cultural chauvinism. One cannot avoid a shock of recognition when one reads, for instance, the BJP's recent Humanistic Approach to Economic Development, which insists that the cultural ethos of the Hindu Rashtra (nation) must become "a light onto itself," and have the final authority over what aspects of "foreign" science and technology are admitted into schools and other institutions. Hasn't one encountered similar appeals for integration of values and politics in knowledge-seeking activities in more academic, self-described "progressive" critiques of science? If the critics see science as a dystopian, arrogant and "God's-eye view of the world," supposedly transcending the material lives and beliefs of people, the BJP is only too happy to offer a supposedly humbler and more situated "Mother India's view of the world." If, as the critics charge, the very logic of modern science is a cultural expression of a Western "will to power," then the Hindu nationalists justifiably consider it their patriotic duty to resist modern science, and to replace it with ways of knowing informed by the imagined Hindu values of holism, communitarianism, and androgyny. Interestingly, the ruthlessness with which the critics interrogate "Western" science is matched in intensity only by their charity and solicitousness toward non-Western, pre-scientific ways of knowing.



I do not for a moment believe, and neither should I be read as claiming, that the cultural critics of science knowingly speak for the Hindu right. In fact, both from personal association and from their written works, I know these critics to be motivated by deeply egalitarian, radically democratic, and staunchly antiracist sentiments. I know that they have no sympathy whatsoever for the anti-Muslim and anti-Christian platform of the Hindu right. But their personal politics and good intentions are not the issue here. What is an issue is the unintended impact of their theories on the lives of distant strangers. It is time the left critics of science ask: why is it that the religious right in India (and to a far more dangerous extent in Islamic countries) has been able to appropriate the theoretical language and conclusions of their intellectual labors? Isn't this appropriation reason enough to rethink some of their basic assumptions regarding science as social "all the way down"?

What fuels the antipathy of science critics toward those who wish to defend the traditional virtues of scientific realism, including the idea that although not free from cultural biases, scientific reasoning does incrementally lead to knowledge that corresponds to the actual state of affairs in the world? There was a time, not so long ago, when popularizing science was considered a progressive cause, and science was seen as a weapon against ancestral authority. (The flowering of a vigorous people's science movement in India through the seventies and the eighties, which openly advocated "Western" science for social revolution, motivated me to give up a career in biotechnology and become a science popularizer instead.) How has the left become so alienated from the institutional practices of natural science that it can find no use for them, in their present form, for progressive politics?

Limiting myself only to the recent battles in the "science wars," I believe I have a rough diagnosis of the left's disenchantment with science. The key word of my diagnosis is "empathy." As even a cursory reading of their work will show, the left academics who defend some variant of cultural relativism as "liberatory" believe that claims of universality of modern science prevent Westerners from fully empathizing with the moral and cognitive logics of others. Andrew Ross, for instance, seems to believe that supporting popular beliefs, say, in alternative medicine (his example) is a sign of "democratization from below," while those who demand that the popular beliefs be scientifically tested are elitist. According to Ross, only when we attenuate the claims of empirical rationality -- and recognize "different ways of doing science, ways that downgrade methodology, experiment, and manufacturing in favor of local environments, cultural values, and principles of social justice" -- can we begin to move toward true diversity of knowledge systems.

Sandra Harding extends the empathy argument to non-Western "Others" when she claims that modern science is an "ethnoscience" of the West, with no more global purchase than any other culturally specific, local knowledge system. Because the West's ethnoscience has been molded on the twin templates of capitalist greed and imperialist expansion, she believes that it is "incapable of producing the kinds of knowledge needed for sustainable human life under democratic conditions," especially in societies with different natural and social orders. The need to empathize with other cultures in a multicultural world, Harding insists, requires that we give up the dream of a "one true science," and begin to live with a "borderland epistemology" -- an epistemology that "values the distinctive understandings of nature that different cultures have resources to generate." Knowers in different cultures can pick and choose sciences and combine them in a "knowledge collage" that serves whatever particular goal might be of interest to them at any given time. Thus, in Harding's "borderlands," the appropriation of modern science by other cultures can only be defended for pragmatic or political reasons, not on epistemological grounds.

For Harding, as for many other advocates of multicultural science, the impulse to empathize with non-Western "Others" requires that knowledge systems not be rank-ordered in terms of better or worse accounts of reality. They are "different" accounts that different social orders produce in order to cope with their culture- and language-bound perceptions of reality. And yet, cultural critics of science continue to deny that they have erased the line between science and nonscience. Such denials are surprising, for it has been shown many times over that any account of knowledge that makes the standards of validity (for example, logic, experiment, and evidence) internal to a culturally conditioned consensus cannot escape epistemological and judgmental relativism. But constructionists simply refuse to play ball with philosophers -- one more symptom, I presume, of the skepticism toward all abstractions that has come to define the post-all academy.

No doubt this empathy with the long-oppressed Others is liberatory for Western outsiders. But I contend that those insiders whose interest in a fuller, freer life has long been frustrated by the oppressive elements of local, "situated" knowledge -- women, the "lower castes," and working people -- need a richer kind of empathy that includes respect, but also critique; love, but also anger. The oppressed Others do not need patronizing affirmations of their ways of knowing, as much as they need ways to challenge these ways of knowing. They do not need to be told that modern science is no less of a cultural narrative than their local knowledges, for they need the findings of modern science, understood as transcultural truths, in order to expose and challenge local knowledges.

I submit that the moment the Indian left began to talk the language of cultural constructionism, it lost the battle to the Hindu nationalists. Those of us associated with the people's science movements of the 1970s and the 1980s could use modern scientific knowledge to contest the dominant, largely Hindu world views on caste and women, precisely because we could claim that the content of science was not Western in any substantive way, and that it gave us a picture of the natural world that was as true for us in India as it was for anyone living anywhere on this planet. But when a small but highly influential group of Indian intellectuals, borrowing heavily from Western critics of the Enlightenment, began to argue that scientific rationality itself is a colonial construct, the people's science movements were left with no principled defense against accusations that popularization of modern science means internal colonization. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the old, bold slogans of "science for social revolution" gave way to a parochial, almost obsessive compulsion to search and destroy any contaminating traces of the Western/colonial "episteme." Correspondingly, the cosmopolitan vision of socialism and secularism gave way to communitarian fantasies of Gandhian village republics -- which sound much more egalitarian than they have ever been in reality.



In this context, is it any surprise at all that the Hindu nationalists have been able to position themselves as the true defenders of non-Western ways of knowing? Themselves leading the charge for "decolonizing knowledge," what principled argument could the alliance of left-leaning and neo-Gandhian critics of modern science have offered when the Hindu fundamentalist parties began to replace modern mathematics with so-called "Vedic mathematics" in public schools? One of BJP's first acts after coming to power in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 1992 was to make the study of Vedic mathematics compulsory for high school students. Explicitly stating an interest in "awakening national pride" among students, the government-approved textbooks replaced standard algebra and calculus with sixteen Sanskrit verses proclaimed by their author, Jagadguru Swami Shri Bharati Krishna Tirathji Maharaj, the high priest of Puri, to be of Vedic origin. Prominent Indian mathematicians and historians who have examined these verses believe that there is nothing Vedic about them, and that the Jagadguru has tried to pass off a set of clever formulas for quick computation as a piece of ancient wisdom. But that has not stopped BJP and other revivalist cultural movements in India from equating Jagadguru with Ramanujan in their hagiographies of Indian knowledge systems.

The problem with introducing supposedly indigenous and ancient knowledge is not that it is indigenous and ancient: there can, of course, be instances of ancient lore that can help us see a contemporary problem in a new light. The real issue is that the supposed Vedic mathematics, as many progressive Indian mathematicians and critics have argued, offers students mere tools for computation in place of the allegedly "Western" algebraic equations of which they are instances. In the name of national pride, students are being deprived of conceptual tools that are crucial in solving the real-world mathematical problems they will encounter as scientists and engineers.

Hinduization is not limited to mathematics alone. History curricula have always been favorite targets of religious nationalists. Under the growing influence of religious nationalists in the state and central governments, the earlier emphases on secularism is being reversed. New history textbooks celebrate all things Hindu (including even the caste system), propagate the myth of India as the original home of the "Aryan race," and deplore all "foreigners," including the Muslims. The history of Indian science and technology is not exempt. It is described as an unfolding of the Hindu genius, although material accomplishments (ancient technologies, for example) are emphasized over the penchant for critical inquiry that exists in some Indian traditions.

I have not come across any critique of Vedic mathematics from any of the intellectuals who have been so vocal in their criticism of "Western" science. The only opposition to the communalization of education has come from scientists, mathematicians, and other intellectuals associated with the people's science movements. It is quite likely that when confronted with the blatant nationalism driving such attempts, those who criticize modern science as a "Western" implant often try to distance themselves from the BJP's zeal for institutionalizing Vedic knowledge. But the fact remains that the BJP is not doing anything that those who see modern science as "inherently Western" have not themselves clamored for in the past. A good example is the well-known "Penang Declaration on Science and Technology" signed by prominent proponents of ethno-sciences in 1988. Among many other demands, the declaration calls for a system of education that "appreciates the value of indigenous scientific and technological culture. . . . the teaching of science should never be divorced from the value-system of the indigenous civilization. The students should also develop a critical faculty so that they may judge the cultural and ideological bias of western science and technology." (The declaration is silent on the biases of indigenous civilizations.)

The BJP may be on the wrong side of the egalitarian ideals espoused by science critics, but it is by no means on the wrong side of their constructivist logic. The irony is that the largely academic critics who offer sophisticated theoretical justifications for indigenous sciences have the material resources and the opportunities to escape being grounded in them. Vedic mathematics and other projects for Hinduization of education does not personally affect most of the academic critics of science, for their own children hardly ever attend the state-run schools that cater to the poor or the BJP-run schools that cater to small businesses. Those who are most ardent about locally situated knowledges are the least embedded locally: most of them have one foot in the transnational academic world to which they regularly escape.

Another illustration of the co-option of the left's advocacy for indigenous knowledges by the powers-that-be is the recent craze for Vastu Shastra, the Sanskrit name for the ancient Vedic rules that govern the construction of sacred buildings on the basis of the "auspiciousness" of space. If the practice of this Hindu science were limited to the nouveau riche in Delhi and Bombay, who build their houses to maximize the "positive energy" that comes with spatial correctness, one could ignore it. But last June we witnessed how cultural ideas can play a role in politics. N. T. Rama Rao, the late chief minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, sought the help of a traditional Vastu Shastri to help him out of some political rough weather, and was told that his troubles would vanish if he entered his office from an east-facing gate. But on the east side of his office there was a slum through which his car could not pass. The chief minister ordered the slum to be demolished.



If the Indian left were as active in the people's science movement as it used to be, it would have led an agitation not only against the demolition of people's homes, but also against the superstition that was used to justify it. In a case like this, modern science and social justice were clearly pulling in the same direction, and the left could easily have made the pure irrationality of Vastu Shastra an opportunity for consciousness raising. A left movement that was not so busy establishing "respect" for non-Western knowledge would never have allowed the power-wielders to hide behind indigenous "experts."

I tried out this case on my social constructionist friends here in the United States. Although they see the injustice of the situation, they do not see why I am so exercised about the irrationality that led to it. We have our superstitions in the West, they tell me. Did not Nancy Reagan consult astrologers? As for my suggestion that if we want justice, we must challenge the irrationality of ideas that lead to injustice, I am told that there is no need for proving that Vastu Shastra is wrong and modern science correct. I am told that seeing the two culturally bound descriptions of space at par with each other is progressive in itself, for then neither can claim to know the absolute truth, and thus tradition will lose its hold on people's mind. I am told that this desire to prove that traditional knowledge is an incorrect representation of nature is a sign of a scientistic mind-set, a hangover from my training in biology that I must overcome if I do not want to re-engineer the society of my birth on technocratic lines. Finally, I am told that I am an incorrigible modernist if I believe that Western science has any democracy-enhancing potential in my part of the world.

After all this, I should hardly be surprised when I hear my position labeled as that of the "antidemocratic right," as it often is within the radical circles of science critics. I plead guilty to believing that modern science is not something to be deconstructed and overcome. It must have an active role in progressive politics. The alternative is staring us all in the face. It is called religious fundamentalism, and it is not pretty.



Meera Nanda has worked as a science writer in India and the United States.

Copyright 1997 by the Foundation for the Study of Independent Social Ideas, Inc.


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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .