[Paleopsych] New Humanist: Intellectual Treason

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Tue Feb 8 21:46:02 UTC 2005

Intellectual Treason
by Meera Nanda

[I'm taking my annual Lenten break from forwarding articles again this 
year. It's a vice to spend so much time doing this. So I'll be off the air 
for forty days and forty nights from Ash Wednesday until Easter.]

    Meera Nanda uncovers an extraordinary coalition that is undermining

    The second-term election victory of George Bush - and
    India's own experience with Hindu nationalist BJP rule, off and on,
    through the last decade - captures a dangerous moment in world
    history. We are witnessing the world's first and the world's largest
    liberal constitutional democracies, officially committed to
    secularism, slide toward religious nationalism. By voting out the BJP
    and its allies in the last election, the Indian voters have halted
    this slide, at least for now - a heartening development, compared to
    the virtual take-over of America by Christian evangelicals and
    The question that interests me in this electoral route to faithbased
    governance is how this counterrevolution is actually accomplished, or
    to put it differently, how the spirit of secularism gets subverted,
    without any formal abrogation of secular laws. Unless we understand
    the ideological mechanism of this sacralisation of politics, we will
    not be able to combat the ongoing coups against secularism under
    nominally secular democracies.
    As a student of the history and philosophy of science, I have been
    watching with concern how modern science itself perhaps the single
    most powerful force for secularisation is being recoded as sacred,
    either as affirming the Bible or the Vedas, or as lower knowledge of
    dead matter, in need of spiritualisation. As an oldtime partisan of
    the Enlightenment and scientific temper, I have been watching with
    concern as my fellow intellectuals and activists, in the United States
    and India, who identify themselves with social justice,
    antiimperialism, womens rights and sustainable development, have
    themselves paved the way for reenchantment or resacralisation of
    Many of the Hindutva arguments for Vedic science find a resonance with
    the fashionable theories of alternative sciences and postcolonial
    studies. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the impression that
    postmodernist and multiculturalist critics of modern science are
    rediscovering and restating many of the arguments Hindu nationalists
    have long used to assert the superior scientificity of Hindu sacred
    George Orwells doublethink bears an uncanny resemblance to the
    wellknown Hindu tendency to eclectically combine contradictory ideas
    by declaring them to be simply different paths or names of a shared
    enterprise, as is the case with the amorphous grabbag of Hindu myths,
    mysticism and philosophy, known as the Vedas.
    Recall how doublethink worked in 1984: Words came to mean their
    opposites: war meant peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance
    strength. History was endlessly revised to make the present look like
    a confirmation of eternal, unchanging truths. Words, representations,
    facts ceased to mean what they appeared to be saying. Shorn of any
    definite and contestable meanings, words began to be used
    interchangeably, hybridised endlessly, without any fear of
    Under BJP rule, superstitions started getting described as science.
    Hindu nationalists started invoking science in just about every speech
    and policy statement. But while they uttered the word science which in
    todays world is understood as modern science they meant astrology, or
    vastu, or Vedic creationism, or transcendental meditation or ancient
    humoral theory of disease taught by Ayuerveda. This was not just talk:
    state universities and colleges got big grants from the government to
    offer postgraduate degrees, including PhDs in astrology; research in
    vastu shastra, meditation, faithhealing, cowurine and priestcraft was
    promoted with substantial injections of public money. Nearly every
    important discovery of modern science was read back into Hindu sacred
    books: explosion of nuclear energy became the awesome appearance of
    God in the Bhagvat Gita; the indeterminacy at quantum level served as
    confirmation of Vedanta; atomic charges became equivalent to negative,
    positive and neutral gunas, or moral qualities; the reliance of
    experience and reason in science became the same thing as reliance on
    mystical experience, and so on. Contemporary theories of physics,
    evolution and biology were wilfully distorted to make it look as if
    all of modern science was converging to affirm the New Age,
    mindovermatter cosmology that follows from Vedantic monism. Evidence
    from fringe sciences was used to support all kinds of superstitions,
    from vastu, astrology, quantum healing to the latest theory of Vedic
    creationism. Science and Vedas were treated as homologues, as just
    different names of the same thing. Orwells Big Brother wouldve felt
    right at home!
    Another sign of doublespeak was this: On the one hand, the BJP and its
    allies presented themselves as great champions of science, as long as
    it could be absorbed into the Vedas, of course. On the other hand,
    they aggressively condemned the secular and naturalistic worldview of
    science the disenchantment of nature as reductionist, Western or even
    Semitic and therefore unHindu and unIndian. Science yes, and
    technology yes, but a rationalmaterialist critique of Vedic idealism
    no that became the mantra of Hindutva.
    Why this overeagerness to claim the support of science? There is a
    modernising impulse in all religions to make the supposedly timeless
    truths of theology acceptable to the modern minds raised on a
    scientific sensibility. Scientific creationism among Christian and
    Islamic fundamentalists is an example of this impulse. But while
    Christian fundamentalists in America indulge in creationism primarily
    to get past the constitutional requirement for a separation of church
    and state, in India it is motivated by ultranationalism, Hindu
    chauvinism and the nationalist urge to declare Hinduisms superiority
    as the religion of reason and natural law over Christianity and Islam,
    which are declared to be irrational and faithbased creeds.
    Contemporary Hindu nationalists are carrying on with the neoHindu
    tradition of proclaiming Hinduism as the universal religion of the
    future because of its superior holistic science (as compared to the
    reductionist science of the West.) Besides, it is easier to sell
    traditions and rituals, especially to urban, upwardly mobile men, if
    they have the blessings of Englishspeaking scientific gurus.
    Granted, this business of Vedic science had been going on before
    anyone had ever heard the word postmodern. But this Hindu nationalist
    appropriation of science has found new sources of intellectual
    respectability from the postmodernist, antiEnlightenment turn taken by
    intellectuals, most radically in American universities, but also in
    What do I mean by postmodernism and how did it play out
    in India? Postmodernism encompasses a wide variety of theoretical
    discourses, touching on everything from literature and history to
    architecture. What unites them is a suspicion of universal knowledge.
    Modern science, being the ideal type of such knowledge, naturally
    became a target of postmodernist critics. Sure, there were many
    critics of this universal science, including prominent scientists
    themselves before the advent of postmodernism, but their criticisms
    were leveled at the abuses of science, not at its logic.
    As disillusionment with the militaryindustrial complex grew in the
    West in the wake of the Vietnam war and civil rights struggles, the
    topdown model of development in India led to a radical critique of
    science, in which its claims to objectivity and universality were
    questioned. In India wellknown public intellectuals Ashis Nandy,
    Vandana Shiva, Shiv Vishvanathan, Claude Alvares and others condemned
    modern science as being innately barbaric, violent and even genocidal
    because of its reductionism and its imposition of western interests
    and values in collusion with westernised Indian elite. But the
    critique of science and technology that emerged out of the socalled
    Delhi school of science studies was not limited to uses or abuses of
    science: it questioned the content and methodology of science as we
    know it.
    No one can deny that there are alternative, culturedependent
    descriptions of nature: the world is full of a vast variety of such
    descriptions. Given this diversity, can we not say that modern science
    provides us a closer, a more approximate representation of nature
    which is more adequately supported by evidence and logic? Not so,
    according to its critics, because the standards of truth and falsity
    are also relative to the form of life of a culture. To quote two
    leading theorists of the social constructivist school: the labels true
    and false are simply different names for cultural preferences. The
    grand conclusion of this school of thought is that all ways of knowing
    are at par because all are culturally embedded attempts to understand
    brute reality. There is only one reality, different cultures approach
    it differently, each of which is rational in its own context. (If you
    replace culture with caste in this statement, you get the golden rule
    of Hinduism that all paths to truth are different only in name)
    Social constructivists do not deny that modern science has discovered
    some truths about nature that are universally valid Newtons law of
    gravity for example. But even these universals are seen as products of
    the JudeoChristian and masculine assumptions of Western cultures. To
    paraphrase Sandra Harding, one of the best known proponents of
    feminist standpoint epistemology, other cultures are capable of
    producing alternative universals of their own. Which cultures
    universals get universalised and which ones are consigned to the
    status of ethnosciences, is not decided by superior explanatory power,
    but by superior political power. Wellknown scholars including Andrew
    Ross and David Hess wrote books arguing that the line between accepted
    science and heterodox sciences of cultural minorities is an arbitrary
    construct reflecting cultural and ideological interests of those in
    power. Dipesh Chakrabarty, a subaltern historian, expressed the
    sentiment well when he wrote that reason is but a dialect backed by an
    Presenting India as source of alternative universals that could heal
    the reductionism of western science became the major preoccupation of
    Indian followers of science studies. Vandana Shiva wrote glowingly of
    Indian views of nondualism as superior to western reductionism. Ashis
    Nandy declared astrology to be the science of the poor and the
    nonwesternised masses in India.
    Prayers to smallpox goddesses, menstrual taboos, Hindu nature ethics
    which derive from orthodox ideas about prakriti or shakti, and even
    the varna order were defended as rational (even superior) solutions to
    the cultural and ecological crises of modernity.
    All this fitted in very well with western feminist and ecologists
    search for a kinder and gentler science. Prominent feminist theorists
    (led by Carolyn Merchant and Evelyn Keller) condemned the separation
    of the subject from the object as a sign of masculine and dualist
    JudeoChristian thinking. The history of modern science was rewritten
    to decry the progressive secularisation or disenchantment of nature as
    a source of oppression of nature and women. This naturally created an
    opening for eastern cultures, especially India, where such
    secularisation of nature is frowned upon by religious doctrines and
    cultural mores. In the recent literature on Hindu ecology, the most
    orthodox philosophies of Hinduism, including Advaita Vedanta, where
    vitalistic ideas of lifeforce (shakti, Brahman) are embodied in all
    species through the mechanism of karma and rebirth, began to be
    presented as more conducive to feminist and ecological politics. The
    deep investment of these philosophies in perpetuating superstitions
    and patriarchy in India was forgotten and forgiven.
    The critics went further: They argued that if, in the final analysis,
    all representations of nature are cultural constructions, then
    different cultures and subcultures should be permitted to construct
    their own representation of nature. To judge other cultures from the
    vantage point of modern science, as the Enlightenment tradition
    demanded, amounted to an act of epistemic violence against the other,
    as Gayatri Spivak called it. This became the foundation of what is
    called postcolonial theory, which argued that leading lights of the
    Indian Renaissance such as Nehru, Bankim Chandra and Ram Mohan Roy
    were mentally colonised because they were seeing India through western
    conceptual categories. Any change that challenged Indias unique
    cultural gestalt, as Nandy liked to call it, was to be resisted.
    All told, preservation of cultural meanings took priority over
    validity. Objectively false cosmology of the other was not to be
    challenged because it gave meaning to peoples lives. Any demand for
    selfcorrection of local knowledges was routinely decried as a
    rationalist witchhunt. The alternative to universalism was that of
    critical traditionalism or borderland epistemologies. Cultures should
    be encouraged to create an eclectic mix of different and even
    contradictory ways of knowing. One need not reject modern science
    altogether, but rather selectively absorb it into the Indian gestalt:
    Contradictions were not to be questioned and removed, but rather
    celebrated as expressions of difference.
    The picture of science that social constructivism offers is tailormade
    for the doublespeak of Vedic science. All the major conclusions of
    science studies culturally different but equally rational paths to
    truth, equation of universalism with colonialism and totalitarianism,
    penchant for eclecticism and hybridity, and the condemnation of
    disenchantment of nature end up restating the fundamental assumptions
    which the nationalist neoHindus have always used to assert the
    superior scientificity of Hindu metaphysics and mysticism. Postmodern
    prophets who promise us a kinder gentler science do indeed face
    backward to the spiritsoaked metaphysics of orthodox Hinduism, which
    has, in fact, inhibited the growth of reason, equality and freedom in
    While the Abrahamic religions are wary of epistemological
    relativism out of the fear of relativising the Word of God revealed in
    the Bible or the Koran, Brahminical Hinduism (and Hindu nationalism)
    thrives on a hierarchical relativism to evade all challenges to its
    idealistic metaphysics and mystical ways of knowing. Rather than
    accept the naturalistic and empirical theories of modern science as
    contradicting the Vedantic philosophy which they actually do Hindu
    nationalists simply declare modern science to be true only within its
    limited materialistic assumptions. They do not reject modern science
    (who can?) but merely treat it as one among the many different paths
    to the ultimate truth, which is known only to the Vedic Hinduism.
    By enshrining relativism as a source of empowerment of the weak,
    social constructivist theory has unintentionally provided intellectual
    respectability to the strategy of hierarchical inclusivism which is
    the timetested method of Hindu apologetics.
    Let me, very briefly, give some examples of this convergence between
    supposedly emancipatory postmodernist deconstruction of science and
    the clearly reactionary, chauvinistic doublespeak of Vedic science.
    For starters, take attempts to decolonise modern science: by viewing
    nature through local conceptual categories of women, nonwestern people
    and other cultural minorities, Hindu nationalists see themselves as a
    part and parcel of this postcolonial enterprise. They justify
    developing a science in accord with the Vedic cosmology as an attempt
    to decolonise the Hindu mind of western, Semiticmonotheistic
    influences. Indeed, scholaractivists sympathetic to the Hindu
    worldview, including Rajiv Malhotra and Koenard Elst routinely cite
    the writings of Ashis Nandy, Ronald Inden and even Gayatri Spivak as
    allies in a shared project of understanding India through Hindu
    Like the postmodernist supporters of ethnosciences, they do not deny
    that modern science has discovered some truths about nature. But they
    declare them to be lowerlevel truths, because they merely deal with
    dead matter, shorn of consciousness. Notwithstanding all pious
    declarations of the death of the Newtonian world view of matter
    obeying mechanical laws, the fact is that any number of rigorous,
    doubleblind tests have failed to show any signs of disembodied
    consciousness or mindstuff in nature: matter obeying mindless laws of
    physics is all there is. But in the Vedic science discourse, the
    overwhelming evidence for adequacy of matter to explain the higher
    functions of mind and life are set aside as a result of knowledge
    filtration by westerntrained scientists. Take the example of the
    emerging theory of Vedic creationism (which updates the spiritual
    evolutionary theories of Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda). Its
    chief architects, Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson, claim that
    Darwinian evolutionary biologists and mainstream biologists, being
    products of the western ontological assumptions, have been
    systematically ignoring and hiding evidence that supports the theory
    of devolution of species from the Brahman through the mechanism of
    karma and rebirth. All knowledge, they claim, parroting social
    constructivism, is a product of interests and biases. On this account,
    Vedic creationism, explicitly grounded in Vedic cosmology is as
    plausible and defensible as Darwinism, grounded on the naturalistic
    and capitalist assumptions of the western scientists.
    Vedic creationism is only one example of decolonised science. More
    generally, Hindu nationalists routinely insist on the need to develop
    a science that is organically related to the innate nature, svabhava
    or chitti of India. Indias chitti, they insist, lies in holistic
    thought, in keeping matter and spirit, nature and god together (as
    compared to the Semitic mind which separates the two). Hindu
    nationalists have been using this purported holism of Hinduism as the
    cornerstone of their argument: any interpretation of modern science
    that fits in with this spiritcentered holism is declared to be valid
    Vedic science while naturalistic, mainstream interpretations are
    discarded as western. The overwhelming enthusiasm for Rupert
    Sheldrakes occult biology (which builds upon the failed vitalistic
    theories of Jagdish Chandra Bose) and the near unanimous recasting of
    quantum mechanics in mystical terms are examples of the kind of
    critical traditionalism and hybridity sanctioned by postmodernists.
    But it gets worse. As is well known, Hindu nationalists have been keen
    on proving that the landmass of India was the original homeland of the
    Aryans and therefore the cradle of all civilisation. Vedic Aryans, on
    this account, were the authors of all natural sciences which then
    spread to Greece, Sumeria, China and other major civilisations in
    antiquity. To substantiate these claims, all kinds of modern
    scientific discoveries are read back into the Rig Veda, the most
    ancient of all Vedas. But such boastful claims raise the question of
    methodology. How did our Vedic forebears figure out the speed of
    light, the distance between the sun and the earth and why did they
    code it into the shape and size of fire altars? Similar questions
    arise for the more general claims that are basic to Hindu metaphysics,
    namely that there is a higher realm of ultimate reality (Brahman) that
    cannot be assessed through sensory means. How did our Vedic forbears
    know it exists and that it actually determines the course of evolution
    of species, and makes the matter that we all are made of? How can you
    experience what is beyond all sensory knowledge? But even more
    important for the claims of scientificity of the Vedas, how do you
    test the empirical claims based upon that experience?
    Here one finds an incredibly brazen claim for relativism and the
    cultureboundedness of rationality. Because in Hinduism there are no
    distinctions between the spirit and matter, one can understand laws
    that regulate matter by studying the laws of the spirit. And the laws
    of spirit can be understood by turning inward, through yoga and
    meditation leading to mystical experiences. Supporters of this
    mysticismasscience argue that all science gains its coherence from
    within its own culturally sanctioned assumptions; modern science puts
    an artificial limit on knowledge as only that knowledge which can be
    accessible to senses. Within Hinduism however, it is as rational and
    scientific to take the nonsensory seeing that is mystical and other
    meditative practices as empirical evidence of the spiritual and
    natural realm. This purported scientificity of the spiritual realm, in
    turn, paves the way for declaring occult New Age practices like
    astrology, vastu, and quantum healing and even yagnas as scientific
    within the VedicHindu universe. This defence of parity (i.e. equal
    rationality) of the Vedic method of nonsensory, mystical knowing is
    fundamentally a social constructivist argument: it assumes that all
    sciences are valid for a given community that shares a fundamental
    Long ago, Julien Benda wrote in his La Trahison De Clercs, that when
    intellectuals betray their calling that is, when intellectuals begin
    to exalt the particular over the universal, the passions of the
    multitude over the moral good then there is nothing left to prevent a
    societys slide into tribalism and violence. Postmodernism represents a
    treason of the clerks which has given intellectual respectability to
    reactionary religiosity. With the best intentions of giving
    marginalised social groups especially if they were women and if they
    belonged to the nonwestern world the right to their own ways of
    knowing, western academics, in alliance with populist Third Worldist
    intellectuals, have succeeded in painting science and modernity as the
    enemy of the people. Rather than encourage and nurture a critical
    spirit toward inherited traditions, many of which are authoritarian
    and patriarchal, postmodernist intellectuals have waged a battle
    against science and against the spirit of the Enlightenment itself. As
    the case of Vedic science in the service of Hindu nationalism in India
    demonstrates, this misguided attack on the Enlightenment has only
    aided the growth of pseudoscience, superstitions and tribalism.

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