[Paleopsych] NYT: How India Reconciles Hindu Values and Biotech
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Sun Sep 4 00:44:05 UTC 2005
How India Reconciles Hindu Values and Biotech
By PANKAJ MISHRA
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
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
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
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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