The Decline of the Scientific Temper Among Indians

Seshadri Kumar on the Unscientific #Indian

First published on LEFT BRAIN WAVE

One very important part of the Constitution is the section on “Fundamental Duties” of Indian citizens, added to the Constitution by an amendment in 1970. One of these fundamental duties is that “it shall be the duty of every citizen to develop the scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

Indians in today’s India seem to have forgotten this important injunction.

What is this “scientific temper?” The Wikipedia article on Scientific Temper describes it as follows:

Scientific temper is a way of life – an individual and social process of thinking and acting – which uses a scientific method, which may include questioning, observing physical reality, testing, hypothesizing, analysing, and communicating (not necessarily in that order). Scientific temper describes an attitude which involves the application of logic. Discussion, argument and analysis are vital parts of scientific temper. Elements of fairness, equality and democracy are built into it. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first to use the phrase in 1946. He later gave a descriptive explanation:

“[What is needed] is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems.” —Jawaharlal Nehru (1946) The Discovery of India, p. 512.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime Minister of India, Who Coined the Term, “Scientific Temper”

Nehru, who seems to have coined this word, qualified what was meant by scientific temper even more, clarifying that it was a way of thinking, and not just about science. As the Wikipedia article continues:

Nehru wrote that scientific temper goes beyond the domain in which science is normally done, and deals also with the consideration of ultimate purposes, beauty, goodness, and truth. But he also said that it is the opposite of the method of religion, which relies on emotion and intuition and is (mis)applied “to everything in life, even to those things which are capable of intellectual inquiry and observation.”While religion tends to close the mind and produce “intolerance, credulity and superstition, emotionalism and irrationalism”, and “a temper of a dependent, unfree person”, a scientific temper “is the temper of a free man”. He also indicated that the scientific temper goes beyond objectivity and fosters creativity and progress. He envisioned that the spread of scientific temper would be accompanied by a shrinking of the domain of religion, and “the exciting adventure of fresh and never ceasing discoveries, of new panoramas opening out and new ways of living, adding to [life’s] fullness and ever making it richer and more complete.” He was of the strong opinion that “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people.”

The Vanishing Scientific Temper of Hindutva Followers

Of late, or, more specifically, since the rise to prominence of Narendra Modi and his ascent to the prime ministership, many Indians seem to have totally lost the scientific temper. I refer not to illiterate, uneducated people. I am talking about friends of mine who have studied at the most prestigious Universities in India and the United States. I am talking about those who have worked in world-class industrial R&D organizations and who, even today, apply logic relentlessly in their professional domain.

For quite a few years now, these people have developed a split personality, a schism within themselves, in their approach to the world. When it comes to their professional domain, they are relentless in the pursuit of logic and rationality; if one of these people is a marketing manager, for example, you can be sure that he will not invest a dime of his company’s money in a new market unless the data show unquestionably that there is a profit to be made; if she is a scientist, you can be sure that she will not follow a scientific route of inquiry unless she has researched the work of scientists past and can clearly defend whatever hypothesis she is proposing; if he is an IT person, you can be sure he will only use the best practices in that industry, which have been tried and tested and proven to be the best.

But a strange transformation comes over these people when they switch from the professional to the personal domain – when they talk about their religion, their culture, and the history of the country of their birth. Suddenly they undergo a 180 degree turnaround – they insist that it is not fact that matters but belief. They refuse to apply logic. They accuse those who use logic and rationality to analyse situations of being unpatriotic and possessed of a “slavish mentality.” There are many examples of this Jekyll-Hyde transformation. I will discuss a couple of them here.

The Aryan Migration Debate

The Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro, with The Great Bath in the Foreground

The Aryan Migration debate relates to the history of India a couple of thousands of years ago. Archaeological expeditions started in pre-Independence India by the British revealed the great Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) sites of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. This showed the world that the Indian subcontinent was the home of one of the truly advanced and great civilizations of the ancient world. The IVC settlements are dated to as long back as 6000 BC (e.g., Mehrgarh), but the city of Harappa itself, the most important city in this complex, is dated to only as far back as 2600 BC. There is a mature phase of the Harappan Civilization that is dated between 2600-1900 BC, a transition phase between 1900-1800 BC, and a late phase that sees the decline of Harappa, leading to the abandonment of the city itself, between 1800-1300 BC.

There are a lot of links between Vedic Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, specifically that the Avesta, the main religious book of the Zoroastrians, specifically refers to the Devas as the enemy. Linguists have long postulated that “Asura” in the Hindu holy books, theVedas, refers to “Ahura,” especially in light of passages in the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, which refer to the Devas as their enemy, with the passage,The decline of the IVC also coincides with the rise of Vedic Hinduism, which appears to have come into India roughly around 1500 BC.

And I shall destroy the malice of all the malicious, the malice of Daevas and men, of the Yatus and Pairikas, of the oppressors, the blind, and the deaf.

Like the Vedic Hindus, the Zoroastrians also worshipped the fire, and consumed the sacred offering Soma (which they called Haoma). All this leads to the possibility that Vedic Hinduism migrated to India from Central Asia through Iran.

The Famous “Unicorn Seal” of the Indus Valley Civilization

In addition, the IVC appears to have very few links to Vedic Hinduism. In particular, the horse, which is an important part of the Vedas, finds no reference in the IVC seals. The only animal similar to a horse that is found in the IVC seals is an animal that is often described as a “unicorn,” (see figure below) but really looks like a bull with one horn. But what seems more likely (since there is no evidence of unicorns anywhere in history or geography) is that this is a bull viewed end-on, with just one horn shown. But the horse finds no pictorial depiction in the IVC seals at all.

The Pashupati IVC Seal

One connection that the IVC does seem to share with modern Hinduism is the famous Pashupati seal: a seal depicting a person in an obviously yogic pose, surrounded by a variety of animals. This seal is thought to perhaps mean the adi-yogi, Shiva. The explanation for this might well be, as eminent researchers like Iravatham Mahadevan have proposed, that the IVC was a prototypical Dravidian civilization, and Shiva a Dravidian God. One of the modern ideas on IVC is that modern Hinduism is a blend of religious customs and deities from the IVC and the Vedic religion.

Unfortunately, the facts do not support this. Archaeologists have found that the oldest reference to the Vedic culture occurs not in India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, but in Syria. If Hinduism started in the Indian subcontinent and travelled westwards, we should expect the opposite – the oldest Hindu artefacts found in India.Hindutva followers are very uncomfortable with all these discoveries. They are uncomfortable with the idea that Vedic Hinduism is a fairly recent import to India. They would like to believe that India has remained Vedic for ever; that Vedic Hinduism arose in the Indian subcontinent. This is also central to their aim to declare non-Hindus (and followers of religions unconnected with Hinduism, such as Islam and Christianity) as “foreigners” because India is not their holy land (as Savarkar said in his book “Who is a Hindu?”) They prefer to think of the links between Vedic Hinduism and Zoroastrianism as having been there because Hinduism arose in India and then migrated westwards.

I should point out here that the issues are certainly not completely settled. There is fierce debate among scholars on many issues on the facts and what they mean and how they should be interpreted.

Rather than dispute the facts in a logical manner, and discuss which of them may have errors in them, these Hindutva followers often confront rational thinkers like me with questions such as: “Why don’t you have pride in India?” “Why don’t you want to believe that India was the source of Hinduism?” Or worse, they will say, “Your assertion that Hinduism came to India from the west was first stated by Western scholars to undermine India. Your agreeing with them shows that you are a slave of the west and have no national pride.”

What these people are missing is that pride in something false is pointless. If it is false and you believe it, someday your mythical worldview will come crashing down on you and make you look really bad. Our honourable PM experienced this when, in order to show his pride in India’s glorious past, he claimed that Hindus knew about plastic surgery thousands of years before the west, with the story of the God Ganesha being an example to prove this. Or the Indian Science Congress of 2015, in which some speakers, encouraged by the Central government, made ludicrous statements that Indians knew how to fly thousands of years ago on the basis of mythological stories. Attempts like this only make you look sorry.

But the point I am making is that when someone says “Hinduism may have migrated into India from Central Asia,” the correct response is NOT to say, “Oh yeah? Go to Pakistan, you brown sahib, you Macaulay-putra.”Reason and logic – in short, the scientific temper – is the only way to analzye these really complex issues. I do not want to get into more detail of the issues involving the AMT debate now. My objective is not to prove that the AMT is absolutely correct. There can be, and there are, many valid objective views on this.

One can have a lot of pride in Indian culture (as I do) and still think the evidence seems to heavily suggest that Hinduism is a blend of two religions – what existed before the Aryans came to the subcontinent and what the Aryans brought with them.

The Caste System in Hinduism

Another thing that always gets the Hindutva supporter’s goat is discussion of the caste system in Hinduism. The caste system is one of the most abhorrent legacies of Hinduism to the world. It is so corrosive that even converts from Hinduism to other religions, like Islam and Christianity, tend to practice it within those religions (which do not permit such distinctions.)

Furthermore, the caste system is very much alive, and even in the 21st century, we hear of caste-based atrocities in India, in which upper castes behave horribly with lower castes just because they may have used a common facility, like a road. And this, in spite of the Indian constitution, which was written 67 years ago this day, specifically outlawing caste discrimination.

Hindus are often mortified when non-Hindus ask them how their religion can sanction such horrible crimes against fellow humans. This is particularly true of Indians who live abroad, as western Christians are completely unfamiliar with these concepts, and many are shamefaced about explaining this obviously unjust and cruel concept.

So they have come up with some clever, albeit false, rationalizations.

The chief plank of their defence is to claim that caste discrimination, especially the crude and evil way it is practiced in many parts of India even today, was never part of the pure Hindu way. They admit that caste discrimination is an evil, but claim that it is a social custom that was added to Hindu custom by some people from the upper castes a few hundred or maybe a thousand years ago to empower themselves; that it is a false Hinduism; that pure Hinduism never gives sanction it; even that the story about Hinduism crushing underfoot the lower castes and the “untouchables” in India is a myth that the Englishman introduced to make India lose confidence in itself; that the scriptures do not sanction caste discrimination.

This is a lie.

The fact is that the Hindu scriptures have reams of rules about caste discrimination – rules that are absolutely unambiguous, and cannot be “interpreted” in any convenient way – that state quite clearly the position of the different castes. They state quite clearly that the Brahmanas (priests) are the highest stratum, followed by the Kshatriyas (warriors), followed by the Vaishyas (merchants), and finally by the Shudras (laborers). These are finally followed by those outside the four-fold division of society, the Dalits (not the name used in the scriptures – Dalit is a modern name – but the meaning is the same) – who have no status and no rights in society, who are essentially slaves of the four strata of Hindu society.

When confronted with this truth, Hindutva followers often claim that the fourfold division of Hinduism is simply an optimal organization of labour, just as today we have bankers, engineers, priests, accountants, drivers, doctors, and the like. The vital difference is that today the son of a sweeper can become a doctor; in Vedic times this was impossible.

Nothing illustrates this truth better than the story of Matanga from the Mahabharata. Matanga was a boy who was born a Dalit but adopted by a kind Brahmana. When an adolescent, he learns the truth of his birth and is told his soul is unclean (since he is a Dalit). Matanga resolves to cleanse his soul of its blot, and performs terrible penance, starving himself and devoting himself to God for years. Finally satisfied with his prayers, Indra, king of the gods, comes down from the heavens to grant Matanga’s prayers. Matanga asks to be transformed into a Brahmana. Indra tells him this is not possible and asks Matanga to ask another boon. Matanga will not relent; he performs more and more penance to force Indra to grant his wish. Finally, Indra tells him that his wish is impossible to grant; that his soul being born in the low caste of Dalits, he would have to suffer millions of rebirths as a Dalit to be born as one of the fourfold, a low Shudra, then again millions of rebirths with good behaviour to graduate to the next caste, and so on, until he would need quintillion rebirths as a Kshatriya to be born as a Brahmana. He thus assures Matanga that being converted to a Brahmana in the same birth is impossible.

When confronted with these uncomfortable facts, the Hindutva follower gets very angry, calls me a stooge of those who would like to malign Hinduism, and asks me why I cannot find good things to say about Hinduism.

But things do not become good simply because we wish them to be. The scientific temper requires that we use rationality and logic to examine questions and decide whether they are right or wrong. Just saying that Hinduism never discriminates against lower castes will not make it so.

We have to accept what a careful analysis of Hindu scripture tells us. And in my careful study, 95% of scripture strongly sanctions caste discrimination and cruelty, and about 5% says the opposite – that caste is based on character, not birth. But there is a preponderance of passages that say that caste discrimination is not only correct, but required of a good Hindu. (This is the subject of a future article.)

Mahatma Gandhi (left) and Swami Vivekananda (right)

To be fair to the Hindutva follower, his ignorance is not entirely his fault. This false version of Hinduism has been fed to him by such eminent people like Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda. Their desire to fill Indians with pride about their civilization was stronger than their love for the truth. It was luminaries like these who taught the Hindu of the 20th century that Hinduism was not to blame at all for its ills; it took a man of the courage of BR Ambedkar to expose this lie in his classic work, “The Annihilation of Caste.”

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Architect of India’s Constitution

Calling someone who points out the deficiencies in Hinduism a Hindu-hater or a follower of Lord Macaulay, who held Hinduism in contempt, is not the way to address this problem. It reveals a deep deficiency in the scientific temper.

Concluding Thoughts

India is facing a serious problem in the vanishing of the scientific temper when it comes to social and religious issues. There are many among the majority Hindus who see any criticism of one “official” line of thought very offensive. This serious problem has to be rectified if India as a country and a civilization is to move ahead, and if its culture has to grow and be dynamic.

If we truly want to celebrate our Republic Day, maybe we could go beyond the parades and make a true commitment to inculcate a scientific temper within us, as is enjoined upon us by the Constitution.

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Dr. Seshadri Kumar Written by:

Seshadri Kumar is an R&D Chemical Engineer with a B.Tech from IIT Bombay and an M.S. and a PhD from the University of Utah, U.S. He writes regularly on political, social, economic, and cultural affairs at http://www.leftbrainwave.com

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