[Paleopsych] NYT: How India Reconciles Hindu Values and Biotech

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How India Reconciles Hindu Values and Biotech


    LONDON In 2001, President Bush restricted federal financing for stem
    cell research. The decision, which was shaped at least partly by the
    Republican Party's evangelical Christian base, and which disappointed
    many American scientists and businessmen, provoked joy in India. The
    weekly newsmagazine India Today, read mostly by the country's
    ambitious middle class, spoke of a "new pot of gold" for Indian
    science and businesses. "If Indians are smart," the magazine said,
    American qualms about stem cell research "can open an opportunity to
    march ahead."

    Just four years later, this seems to have occurred. According to Ernst
    & Young's Global Biotechnology Report in 2004, Indian biotechnology
    companies are expected to grow tenfold in the next five years,
    creating more than a million jobs. With more than 10,000 highly
    trained and cheaply available scientists, the country is one of the
    leading biotechnology powers along with Korea, Singapore, China,
    Japan, Sweden, Britain and Israel.

    A top Indian corporation, the Reliance Group, owns Reliance Life
    Sciences, which is trying to devise new treatments for diabetes and
    Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and create human skin, blood and
    replacement organs genetically matched to their intended recipients.
    Some scientists have even more ambitious ideas. Encouraged by the
    cloning of a sheep by British scientists in 1996, they plan to do the
    same with endangered species of Indian lions and cheetahs.

    American scientists and businessmen note enviously that religious and
    moral considerations do not seem to inhibit Indian biotechnologists.
    But this indifference to ethical issues would have certainly appalled
    Gandhi, father of the Indian nation. Gandhi accused Western medicine,
    along with much of modern science and technology, of inflicting
    violence upon human nature. His vegetarianism and belief in
    nonviolence were derived from Indian traditions, mainly Hinduism,
    which is also the faith, though loosely defined, of most Indian
    scientists and businessmen.

    Indeed, most evangelical Christians, who believe that the embryo is a
    person, may find more support in ancient Hindu texts than in the
    Bible. Many Hindus see the soul - the true Self (or atman) - as the
    spiritual and imperishable component of human personality. After death
    destroys the body, the soul soon finds a new temporal home. Thus, for
    Hindus as much as for Catholics, life begins at conception.

    The ancient system of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda assumes that
    fetuses are alive and conscious when it prescribes a particular mental
    and spiritual regimen to pregnant women. This same assumption is
    implicit in "The Mahabharata," the Hindu epic about a fratricidal war
    apparently fought in the first millennium B.C. In one of its famous
    stories, the warrior Arjuna describes to his pregnant wife a
    seven-stage military strategy. His yet-to-born son Abhimanyu is
    listening, too. But as Arjuna describes the seventh and last stage,
    his wife falls asleep, presumably out of boredom. Years later, while
    fighting his father's cousins, the hundred Kaurava brothers, Abhimanyu
    uses well the military training he has learned in his mother's womb,
    until the seventh stage, where he falters and is killed.

    But the religions and traditions we know as Hinduism are less
    monolithic and more diverse than Islam and Christianity; they can
    yield contradictory arguments. Early in "The Mahabharata," there is a
    story about how the hundred Kaurava brothers came into being. Their
    mother had produced a mass of flesh after two years of pregnancy. But
    then a sage divided the flesh into 100 parts, which were treated with
    herbs and ghee, and kept in pots for two years - from which the
    Kaurava brothers emerged.

    Indian proponents of stem-cell research often offer this story as an
    early instance of human cloning through stem cells extracted from
    human embryos. They do not mention that "The Mahabharata" presents the
    birth of the hundred Kaurava brothers as an ominous event.

    Other Asian scientists have also pressed myth and tradition into the
    service of modern science and nationalism. In South Korea, where a
    third of the population is Buddhist, a scientist who cloned human
    embryonic stem cell lines claimed that he was "recycling" life just as
    reincarnation does.

    But spiritual tradition cannot solve all the ethical issues raised by
    science's progress through the third world. Ultrasound scans help many
    women in India to abort female fetuses; a girl child is still
    considered a burden among Indians. The trade in human organs,
    especially kidneys, remains a big business, despite growing scrutiny
    by the police. It is not hard to imagine that, as stem cell research
    grows in India, and remains unregulated, a small industry devoted to
    the creation of human embryos would soon develop.

    In any case, biotechnology may offer only pseudo-answers to many of
    India's urgent problems. For one thing, if and when lions and cheetahs
    emerge from biotechnology labs, the steadily deforested Indian
    countryside may not have a place for them. Stem cell research is also
    expensive, and seems glaringly so in a country which does not provide
    basic health care for most of its people. The advanced treatments
    promised by biotechnology are likely to benefit the rich, at least for
    the first few years.

    In the meantime, the poor may be asked to offer themselves as guinea
    pigs. In an article on biotechnology last year, India Today asserted:
    "India has another gold mine - the world's largest population of
    'naïve' sick patients, on whom no medicine has ever been tried.
    India's distinct communities and large families are ideal subjects for
    genetic and clinical research."

    Scientism has few detractors in India; and the elites find it easy to
    propose technological rather than political and moral solutions to the
    problems of poverty, inequality and environmental damage. Obsessed
    with imitating Western consumer lifestyles, most middle-class Indians
    are unlikely to have much time for Gandhi's belief that "civilization
    consists not in the multiplication of wants but in the deliberate and
    voluntary reduction of wants." They subscribe to a worldly form of
    Hinduism - one that now proves to be infinitely adjustable to the
    modern era, endorsing nuclear bombs and biotechnology as well as
    India's claim to be taken seriously as an emerging economic and
    scientific superpower.

    Pankaj Mishra, an Indian novelist and journalist, is the author, most
    recently, of "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World." He lives
    in London and India.

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