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How Modern Are We?

This essay examines the intellectual sources of the cultural contradictions of India's modernity. Rather than bring religion under the limits of scientific reason, India has witnessed a steady co-option of science into the spirit-based cosmology and epistemology of "the Vedas." The history, the logic and social consequences of this counter-Enlightenment are examined.

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How Modern Are We? Cultural Contradictions of India’s Modernity

This essay examines the intellectual sources of the cultural contradictions of India’s modernity. Rather than bring religion under the limits of scientific reason, India has witnessed a steady co-option of science into the spirit-based cosmology and epistemology of “the Vedas.” The history, the logic and social consequences of this counter-Enlightenment are examined.


erlin, 1783. A debating club called ‘Berliner Mittwocchgesellschaft’ (the Berlin Wednesday Club) invited its members to respond to this question: “What is enlightenment?” A strenuous debate followed. The philosopher Immanuel Kant joined in the fray with his well known essay, ‘Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?’ This is how Kant characterised what was distinctive about the ferment of ideas sweeping 18th century Europe:

Enlightenment is man’s release from this self-incurred immaturity [which is] his inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another…Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” that is the motto of the enlightenment.


The reader might justifiably wonder why an essay about India in the 21st century should begin with what Immanuel Kant wrote back in the 18th century. What possible relevance can these musty old European debates have for India today?

I believe that the transformation of reason brought about by the scientific revolution that so impressed Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers holds the key to the fulfilment of the programme of disenchantment and secularisation everywhere. Kant’s call of ‘Sapere aude!’ was simultaneously an invocation of a new standard of reason meant to challenge all a priori truths that we accept out of faith, cultural conditioning or overt indoctrination. Once we understand the transformation of reason that the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment set in motion, we will be in a better position to understand why modernity in India has this feel of incompleteness, superficiality and even schizophrenia.

Modern India has embraced the end products of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment in the west – namely, modern technology and a liberal-secular framework of laws encoded in the Constitution. But it has done so without challenging the cultural authority of the supernatural and mystical world view derived from the idealistic strands of Hinduism. If anything, from its very beginning in the Bengal renaissance, India’s project of modernity has evolved within a uniquely Indian inclusive style of counter-Enlightenment. By counter-Enlightenment I mean only this: in a stark contrast to the Enlightenment project of bringing religion within the limits of scientific reason, the Indian counter-Enlightenment has tended to subsume or co-opt scientific reason within the spirit-based cosmology and epistemology of “the Vedas.”1 Since independence, India has created an impressive workforce of scientists and engineers, many of them doing fairly advanced science which meets the standards of excellence in the best laboratories in the rest of the world. But India’s science has not evolved out of a critical engagement with the religious commonsense that still pervades the cultural life outside – and often inside – the labs. Modern ideas and innovations are being incorporated into a traditional Hindu world view, without diminishing many of its starkly irrational, occult and pseudo-scientific tendencies.


Let me illustrate what I mean by the superficial and schizophrenic nature of Indian modernity. I reproduce here an excerpt from a short essay titled ‘Is India a Science Superpower?’ I wrote for Frontline (September 10, 2005):

“The next century belongs to India, which will become a unique intellectual powerhouse …capturing all its glory which it had in millennia gone by”, Dr Raghunath Mashelkar, the director general of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research declared in Science earlier this year. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and author of the recent bestseller, The World is Flat, agrees that India, with its talented yet low-cost brainpower, is on its way to becoming the “innovation hub” of the global economy. Not to be outdone, the British weekly New Scientist, has dubbed India the world’s emerging “knowledge superpower… …What does not make sense, however, is the radical disconnect between the dreams of becoming a science superpower, and the grim reality of the mind-numbing superstitions and life-threatening pseudo-sciences that are thriving at all levels of the Indian society. Indian scientists may well be the most sought-after workers in the global economy, but many behave as if what they do inside their laboratories has nothing do with the supernatural and/or spiritual “truths” that pass as “scientific” explanations of natural phenomena in the rest of the society….. Do I exaggerate? Here is a report on the six weeks I spent in north India this summer:

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In early May, throughout the countryside in northern India, thousands of children, mere girls and boys, were married off on Akshay Tritya, a day considered astrologically auspicious for marriages and other new ventures. The rare social worker who tried to prevent child marriages, had her hands chopped off by those bent on defending their hoary traditions. There are, of course, many complex social and economic reasons why child marriages still persist in India in significant numbers. But these secular motives come with full blessings of our priests and astrologers who have declared the bright sun and the moon on the third day of the month of May to be auspicious for new ventures, including child marriages which are supposed to bring good karma to the parents of child-brides. Meanwhile, astrology was getting a corporate makeover to appeal to the “modern”, urban middle classes, who were being bombarded with advertisements by the World Gold Council to celebrate the “auspicious” alignment of the stars by buying some more gold jewellery. If you thought that scientists, especially space scientists, would have something to say regarding the astrological logic underlying popular traditions (old and new), well, think again. While the country was gearing up for Akshay Tritya, India’s top space scientists were busy seeking the blessings of Lord Balaji at the Tirupati temple for a safe launch of the polar satellite launch vehicle. A miniature model of the rocket was laid in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and prayed over by priests in the presence of 15 scientists, led by the space-agency chief, Dr G Madhavan Nair. Scientists, who have not let go their own security blanket of gods, can hardly be expected to question the comforting but false illusions astrologers sell to ordinary people. Meanwhile, the many satellites that India’s space agency has launched in the past were busy beaming TV programmes selling wild, unsubstantiated health benefits of yoga and Ayurveda, delivered in a heady brew of spiritualism and Hindu nationalism. India’s most popular tele-yogi, Swami Ramdev, has amassed a fortune selling his Divya yoga on the TV. Interspersed with the swami’s calls for awakening “desh kaa svabhiman” (national selfrespect) by teaching “crore saal purana vigyan” (science dating back 10 million years), one finds totally unsubstantiated claims about the power of yogic postures, deep breathing and his own Ayurvedic concoctions for every ailment known to humankind including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, glaucoma, obesity… What is remarkable is that all these reason and evidence – defying traditions – come wrapped in the fancy dress of “science”. On my visit to Chandigarh, my hometown, I heard an Arya Samaj preacher exhort the devotees at an open-air public discourse held right outside my house (with loudspeakers set at full blast) to “read the ancient Vedas to learn all the sciences known to humanity”. (He was discoursing on how to succeed in the modern world with its prized high-tech jobs!) Astrology, yogic ideas of prana and kundalini and even the ideas of reincarnation, karma and varna (i e, caste order) are justified in the language of modern physics and evolutionary biology. All these ancient metaphysical speculations are proclaimed to be “Vedic sciences” (i e, empirically testable and logical within the metaphysics of the Vedas) and they are supposed to have been belatedly rediscovered by modern science. What we have here is pseudo-science in its purest form, that is, religious dogma, lacking rigorous scientific evidence and plausibility, dressed up as science...

Everything Vedic is “scientific” and every “science” known to human kind only affirms the wisdom of the Vedas. Indeed, claims of the “innate” scientific temper of the Vedas occupy a place of pride in the Hindutva assertions of Hindu superiority over Islam and Christianity, which are declared to be merely faith-based “creeds.” Science, “vedically” interpreted, is feeding into Hindu chauvinism.


That “the Vedas” are conflated with science as we know it today will hardly come as news to anyone who knows anything about India. This is routine business and has been going on since the very introduction of modern science and technology in India, dating back to the 18th century. (Indian rationalists, in comparison, have never enjoyed the same degree of cultural hegemony. The marginalisation of rationalism in India’s cultural politics is a topic for another day and another essay.)

Most Indians pause to think about this streak of scientism in modern Hinduism,2 just about as much as fish pause to reflect upon the water they live in – which is not much at all. It has become a part of the commonsense of modern, science-educated, English-speaking Indians to treat the teachings of popular gurus, yogis and swamis as vaguely “scientific,” and therefore modern. Indian scientists, for the most part, have not challenged the religious uses of science: they tend to keep their laboratory lives and their personal lives in separate water-tight compartments. Our public intellectuals and social critics, meanwhile, have been more exercised about the real and imagined scientism of the modern Indian state, than about the scientism that pervades modern Hinduism.

I believe that we need to pay closer attention to Hindu scientism because it is a symptom of the deeper cultural contradictions that afflict India’s modernity. We pride ourselves in being modern, yet we trample upon the first principle of modernity, namely, to draw principled distinctions between science and metaphysics, or between verifiable knowledge of tangible material entities occupying space and time, and the intuitive knowledge of intangible soul-stuff – god, brahman or any form of “subtle” spiritual energy – that is not accessible to the five senses all human beings share alike. The sapere aude spirit that Kant was talking about meant just this: to divest metaphysicians, theologians and priests from making existence claims about supernatural powers, and conversely, using existence claims of natural sciences to affirm supernatural or spiritual powers. The point of the Enlightenment project was not to destroy religion, but to limit what it could say about nature and how it could use the authority of nature to defend its dogmas.

Modernity in India lacks the spirit of sapere aude, understood as setting limits on the authority of religion, as separating the realms of science and religion in the larger culture. If anything, India has followed an exactly opposite path, absorbing more and more of science into the traditional teachings of the Veda, Vedanta, Yoga Sutras and Ayurveda. Indeed, as I will argue below, India has taken a uniquely “inclusive” (read co-optive) route to the classic phenomenon of counter-Enlightenment or reactionary modernism.3


In order to understand India’s unique style of counter-Enlightenment, we must first be clear what we mean by the Enlightenment. Without getting entangled in the many nuances of the European Enlightenment, we can keep three general propositions in mind.

To being with, the Enlightenment refers to a historical epoch which began with the English Revolution in 1688 and culminated

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in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789. There was no one unified movement called “the Enlightenment” that swept through all of Europe simultaneously. There were, rather, a series of debates and critiques directed against the authority of inherited intellectual and religious traditions. These debates took different shapes and forms in different national contexts, affecting all of western Europe and northern America to a lesser or greater extent. In all cases, these movements were supported by the rising class of the industrial bourgeoisie. In Protestant England and America, the Enlightenment took place largely in alliance with the church, while in largely Catholic France, the church was relatively less hospitable to new ideas. Led by a new class of intellectuals who made a living by writing for the “grub street” (newspapers, periodicals and cheap novels) and by giving lectures and demonstrations on current sciences in coffee houses and pubs, Enlightenment ideas found a receptive audience among the reading public.4

Secondly, for all the national differences, the movements included in the rubric of the Enlightenment were marked by, to quote Alan Kors, the editor of a new Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, “an increasingly critical attitude toward inherited authority,…a sense that armed with new methods and new powers, the human mind could re-examine claims upon it…including the claims of religion. This was not a rejection of authority per se, but of arbitrary authority whose sole claim upon one’s mind or body was its having withstood the test of time”.5 Sapere aude

– “dare to know” – was the motivating force behind the entire movement, and was used by British freethinkers as their rallying cry much in advance of Kant.6

Third and finally, notwithstanding all the postmodernist attacks, it is still possible to defend the Enlightenment as the precondition for any kind of progressive politics. As Stephen Bronner writes in his spirited new book, Reclaiming the Enlightenment, nearly all aspects of modern life, especially “the ideals of personal autonomy, tolerance, secularism and reason, developed against the backdrop of Enlightenment’s protest against the exercise of arbitrary power, the force of custom and ingrained prejudice [that] justified social misery”.7 On this reading, it was the Enlightenment that made real the ideals of modernity that were only latent in the Renaissance, the Reformation and the scientific revolution. Enlightenment, then, is considered by many intellectual historians as the true beginning of modernity.


Against this background, let us return to Kant’s motto. Why did he make sapere aude – “the courage to use your own reason”

– the distinguishing mark of his times? After all, the Age of Enlightenment was hardly the first to apply the power of reason to comprehend nature and society. Human beings in all societies and in all epochs have exercised the powers of observation, logic, and experimentation, along with imagination, insight, myth and magic to understand and materially manipulate the force of nature. What was so special about reason in the Age of Enlightenment that Kant would turn it into a rallying cry for freedom?

While the philosophers of the Enlightenment exhorted their fellow citizens to live by the light of reason, they were simultaneously redefining reason by setting limits on what can legitimately be known, given the kind of sensory apparatus and reasoning powers human beings are endowed with. The philosophers and architects of the age of reason, from Locke and Hume in England; to Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu in France; Kant, Lessing and later Marx in Germany; and Jefferson, Paine and Franklin in the US, were impressed by the success of the scientific revolution, especially the disciplined empiricism of Newton. His famous laws of force and universal gravitation emerged out of patient and careful observation of comets, planets, objects in motion and transmission of light. Newton, in other words, derived his first principles from the empirical investigation of phenomena. This, to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, was in refreshing contrast to the method of theologians and metaphysicians who started with infallible, divine revelations and proceeded to deduce the knowledge of physical phenomena from them. They recognised full well that Newton’s observations themselves required metaphysical grounding – that is, a belief in the existence of order created by god. But what they found remarkable was that Newton used this metaphysical belief as a springboard for empirical examination, rather than as an a priori truth to explain material phenomena.

Newton’s method became the paradigm of reason for the Age of Enlightenment. The philosophers denied – most strenuously

– that it was possible to make any factual claims about the world based upon “pure reason” by which they meant Gnostic intuition, mysticism, “direct realisation” or revelation, that is, any means of knowing which cannot be validated by sensory experience. Only those objects in the “phenomenal world” (to use Kant’s vocabulary) that correspond to human categories of space, time and causality can possibly become objects of our experience, and human knowledge can only extend to these objects. We have no possible way of knowing the objects of the “noumenal world” (to use Kant’s vocabulary again), the things-in-themselves that lie outside our mental categories of space, time and causality. This meant that supra-sensible entities like god, absolute consciousness, soul, vital spirit, etc, which lack extension in space and time forever lie outside human abilities to know them. We can therefore make no empirical claims about this supra-sensible or noumenal world, neither can we use our knowledge of the noumenal reality to explain the phenomenal world.8 This world view did not exactly deny the existence of supernatural forces or ultimate realities, but it limited them to the world of noumena, totally beyond the reach of human experience. Such forces could be accepted as allegories, as poetry, even as necessary fictions to defend our moral intuitions about good and evil, but they could not provide foundations for knowledge of the natural world.

This was a monumental change. So far human history, science, or natural philosophy, had existed within the limits of religion. Henceforth, religion could exist only within the limits of scientific reason. This was the philosophical core of the Enlightenment, the rallying cry of the “moderns” against the “ancients.”

This transformation had far-reaching consequences, not just for the conduct of science, but for the evolution of a democratic and secular public sphere. As the new historiography inspired by the path-breaking work of Jurgen Habermas has established,9 the empiricist revolution in the conception of reason was hugely important in the creation of new ideals of publicness, open in principle (though not in practice) to all, in which all authority was open to critical scrutiny on the basis of evidence accessible to ordinary human faculties of sensory perception and elementary logic. Gradually, the old taboos which derived their force from natural law, which was supposed to express divine will, lost their powers to persuade. Depending upon the historical balance of

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006 forces between the church and the throne, and the allegiance and strength of the bourgeoisie who derived their wealth from industry and commerce, different degrees of secularisation took place in different societies, a process which is still in progress.


Just as surely as day is followed by night, the Enlightenment was followed by the counter-Enlightenment. The proclamation of the autonomy and authority of testable, sensory knowledge, over and against revelations, mystical intuitions, miracles and all forms of extra-sensory knowledge was resisted by the keepers of faith everywhere.10

There are primarily two routes the counter-Enlightenment has taken through history: the less-travelled path of outright refusal, favoured by the orthodox observant communities, and the more popular and politically-correct option of co-option through indigenising or relativising the norms of reason, favoured by religious/cultural nationalists on the one hand, and the postmodernists and multiculturalists, on the other.11

The great refusal can be seen in the enclaves of traditionalism and orthodoxy in some heradim Jewish communities in Israel and the US, the Amish and among the separatist sects of evangelical Christians in the US. But this option of “just saying no” to the larger secular culture is becoming rarer and harder to maintain in the world increasingly permeated by modern technologies and new ideas.12

Cultural relativism – that is, not an outright refusal but a reinterpretation of the norms of empirical science within one’s own civilisational or national culture – has been the preferred mode of most of the illiberal, counter-Enlightenment movements, notably the fascist movements in Germany and Japan in the 20th century, down to the religious fundamentalisms of the 21st century. Assorted fascists, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists and our own Hindu nationalists cannot be categorised as oldfashioned anti-modernists who want to take their societies back to some primitive pre-modern, pre-scientific age of faith and/or magic, insulated from global developments in science and technology. They are more properly described as “reactionary modernists”, a term coined by Jeffery Herf in his 1984 intellectual history of the Weimar and Nazi Germany. Reactionary modernists, in contrast to backward-looking golden-age pastoralists, say “yes” to modern technology, but “no” to the Enlightenment norms of scientific reason. They succeed in “mixing a robust modernity and an affirmative stance toward progress with dreams of the past: a highly technological romanticism”.13 Reactionary modernists, in other words, display a great enthusiasm for technological modernisation, overlaid with a deep aversion to rationalism, secularism and individualism that comes with modernisation. They want the fruits of modernisation, without the pain – and joys – of cultural dislocations that modernity brings.

The question before all reactionary modernists is how to use the technological products of modern science, while rejecting its world view and its norms of reason. The solution has been to remove scientific reason from the world view of the Enlightenment, a world view of reason, intellect, internationalism, materialism and redefine it in the jargon of authenticity, community, and heritage. The claims of science and modernity are not rejected out of hand, but “only” translated into an ethno-scientific vocabulary. Universalism of science is not denied in favour of anything goes kind of relativism, but modern science is deemed to be only one of the many other equally universalisable ways knowing. The importance of subjecting beliefs to experience and evidence is not denied, but what constitutes evidence and experience is made relative to the metaphysical categories of the rest of the culture. While something called “science” is celebrated, it invariably ends up re-affirming – and legitimising – the traditional common sense of the culture, derived largely from the dominant religious tradition.


Translating the empiricist tradition of modern science into the jargon of mysticism derived from Patanjli’s Yoga Sutras and monistic strains of Vedanta has been the hallmark of neo-Hindu counter-Enlightenment. Declaring the Vedas to be based upon “direct realisation” of “higher realities”, and therefore “another name for science”, was the work of the thinkers of the Hindu renaissance, notable among them being the Adyar theosophists, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Servapalli Radhakrishnan. Contemporary descendents of these 19th-early 20th century Vedas-as-science thinkers include the many monks of Ramakrishna missions around the world, “Vedic creationists” of Krishna Consciousness and well-know personalities like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Deepak Chopra and their many clones and/or admirers in the west as well as in India. The saffronisation of history, including the history of science, that we experienced under the reign of the Sangh parivar was a political expression of this long-standing conflation of the Vedas with modern science.

Like other reactionary modernists before them, neo-Hindu philosophers seem to accept the challenge of the Enlightenment. They accept that with the success of the scientific revolution, as Radhakrishnan put it in his Hindu View of Life, “the centre of gravity in religion has shifted from authority to reason”. But

– and here is the rub – they define the non-sensory, intuitive or mystical experience, the so-called “pure reason”, to be actually referring to real, causal entities and/or energies which can be directly “seen”, or “heard” by altering your consciousness through yoga: mystical insight is interpreted as an empirical experience of natural order. They argued that what the yogis experienced “in here” in their minds actually corresponded with realities “out there,” and by experimenting with their inner selves, Vedic adepts can come to know and control external reality. Indeed, neo-Hindu and Hindutva writings are replete with references to the Vedas as describing empirical facts and law of nature that were actually “seen” and “heard” by the mythic authors of the Vedas through the process of yogic meditation alone.14

In other words, while neo-Hindu philosophers accepted the Kantian emphasis on using “one’s own reason” and not the authority of priests and holy books, they rejected the limit the empiricists had put on the powers of reason. The empiricist tradition that flowered during the Enlightenment had steadfastly denied that one can make any substantive claims about reality based upon “pure” or non-sensory reason alone. Neo-Hindu philosophers insisted that within the holistic world view of Vedanta, in which consciousness permeates all matter, nonsensory, meditative knowledge of one’s inner self can give you insights about the ultimate reality of the material world. While the Enlightenment drew a line between sensory and non-sensory perception, neo-Hindus rejected this line and insisted that mystical experience constituted a valid empirical experience.

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How was this interpretation of mysticism as providing valid empirical knowledge defended? Here we find striking similarities with the postmodern theories of all knowledge – including modern science – as being paradigm-bound, a construct of specific metaphysical assumptions, which serve the interests of power over nature and society. Neo-Hindu thinkers have asserted that the Kantian restriction on sensory knowledge as the only legitimate source of knowledge is a construct of the dualist world view of Abrahamic or “Semitic monotheistic” religions in which god/ divine consciousness is separated from brute matter. Because the Hindu tradition does not separate matter from spirit but considers all matter – living and non-living – as the embodiment of “vital energy” (‘prana’) or consciousness (‘brahman’), it is considered perfectly legitimate within the Hindu tradition to treat mystical “realisation” of the spirit in our own selves to correspond to the spirit, or essence, of the rest of the universe. And, Vedic science apologists go on to insist that because a “reductionist” materialistempiricism is an aberration of the Abrahamic faiths, anyone who accepts its validity suffers from “mental colonisation” and trying to semitise Hindu dharma.15 This defence of mystical empiricism, unfortunately, got a big boost from the idealistic interpretations of quantum mechanics popularised by Fritjof Capra, Mahesh Yogi, Deepak Chopra and Amit Goswami in recent years.

So, how modern are we, really? If modernity means a differentiation and separation between science and religion, between sensory experience and the mystical experience of metaphysical “realities”, we in India have a long way to go. Rather than challenge the authority of private mystical experiences of our “holy” men and women with the evidence and logic that is available to ordinary men and women in everyday walks of life, we have dignified mystagogy with the name of “holistic science.” We have been playing word games, rationalising and pretending we-know-it-all while, in fact, we do not.


But one can sympathise with all that I have said above and still ask: So what? What is so terribly wrong with the scientism of neo-Hindu gurus, intellectuals and believers? By presenting ancient wisdom in scientific terms, are they not encouraging Indians to study science and develop a scientific temper? By refusing to separate consciousness from matter, are they not avoiding the sterile materialism of the west? Besides, why crusade against superstitions anyway? Isn’t it true that irrationality can coexist with good science as, say, in America, the world’s undisputed leader in science? Others advise that as long as you have secular institutions and laws in place, popular superstitions are not worth worrying about. Still others insist that rather than fight “mere” ideas in people’s heads, we should fight for a socially just society: secularisation, they say, will naturally follow the lead of political and economic reforms.

I do not deny that there are specks of truth in most of these caveats. One cannot simply reason a just and secular society into existence; scientific temper alone can only take you some distance. A rationalist offensive against superstition and pseudosciences can only be meaningful if it is a part of a larger political movement that can meet people’s aspirations for existential security and justice in this life, rather than in some future birth, in some future ‘sata-yuga’. I agree that it is not people who need to be made more rational, but that social systems that thwart rationality and creativity need to change.

I even grant that at least initially, under colonialism, Hindu scientism did serve a useful purpose: it gave us the much-needed confidence to confront colonial stereotypes of irrational and mystical India, and it made the pursuit of science sufficiently non-threatening. But over time, Hindu scientism has morphed into a full-blown pseudo-science with nationalistic overtones. There are relatively harmless but self-indulgent New Age-ish aspects of the mind-matter holism that are becoming increasingly popular among the urban sophisticates in India: a bit of yoga here, some vastu there, with Ayurvedic potions thrown in for good measure. But this is the same world view which also justifies the traditional logic of innate karmic purity and hierarchy, and which legitimates the paranormal “spiritual” powers of god-men and soothsayers. I understand that some kind of superstitious thinking will always be with us: that is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of the human imperative to find explanations, right or wrong. Granted, also, that there is no need to declare a war on every idea that does not meet the standards of scientific justification, for human beings do not live by reason alone. But as long as superstitions and pseudo-sciences enjoy the kind of cultural hegemony, patronage and linkages with nationalism as they do in contemporary India, they remain a political force to reckon with. In view of their pervasive social influence, they cannot be treated as matters of personal belief.

It is sometimes argued that rationalisation and secularisation of world views will follow, pretty much on their own, in the wake of technological and economic modernisation, and therefore no special engagement with the content of people’s beliefs is needed. Indeed, even well-meaning secularists are weary of criticising religious beliefs as elitist and disrespectful of ordinary people. But there is no evidence that modernisation of infrastructure and economic relations alone, or by itself, can bring about a secularisation of beliefs. Beliefs, especially those beliefs that answer our existential questions regarding death and birth, misfortune and good fortune, right and wrong, have a life of their own. Beliefs don’t simply lie down and die when the social context changes: instead, they mutate, and adapt to the new social context. The planetary configuration of Akshay Tritya, to take an example cited above, did not cease to be auspicious for modern Indians, many of whom have grown rich on jobs in the hightechnology and scientific research and development. Rather, it is mutating from a day that was considered auspicious for child marriages into a day that is auspicious for conspicuous consumption of gold jewellery. But the underlying idea that stars can confer auspiciousness on human actions remains intact. India today is witnessing a resurgence of many old superstitions and rituals – couched in pseudo-scientific language to appeal to modern sensibilities. Economic and technological modernisation, then, is no guarantee of a secular culture. The creation of a secular culture requires active engagement with the religious common sense of the people.

It is also true, as some scientist friends have suggested, that good science can exist and even thrive in otherwise superstitious societies. It is true that modern science has become relatively autonomous of the larger culture. It has developed a naturalistic metaphysics and an empiricist methodology of its own which is often at odds with how the workings of nature are interpreted in the rest of the culture. It is possible for scientists trained in the culture of their own arcane specialisation to do great science, without ever having to engage with the religious interpretations of nature that prevail outside the walls of the lab. The two cultures

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006 simply don’t seem to talk the same language, even though they, in fact, often offer competing explanations for the same phenomena (e g, Darwin’s evolution by natural selection, and “spiritual evolution” as propagated by “integral yoga” of Sri Aurobindo and his followers, or the “Vedic creationism” through the agency of karma and rebirth, as propounded by the followers of Krishna Consciousness).

But, while science can thrive in otherwise irrational societies, there is a huge price to pay for the gap. It is not a coincidence, in my opinion, that a majority of Americans who believe in divine creation over Darwinian evolution should have believed the Bush administration’s completely bogus case linking Iraq with terrorism: in both cases, there is a faith-based, rather than evidence-driven, reasoning at work. In both societies, there is a need for scientists to stand up for critical reasoning and sound evidence both inside and outside the laboratory. The need to speak up for, defend and advocate scientific temper is far greater in India where superstitions and pseudo-sciences have a far deeper hold on the popular psyche and where they often make a difference between life and death, between dignity and indignity of caste and other hierarchies.

To conclude, Indian modernity will remain incomplete and schizophrenic until the time it is animated by the spirit of critical reasoning. Kant’s motto: sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” remains as vital for India today as it was in his own time. Special pleas to spiritualise nature and science in the name of Vedic holism may make us feel superior over other faiths and cultures, but it will not help us shed our own prejudices and superstitions.




[This is a much revised version of the paper that appeared in Eastern Quarterly, Vol 3, Issue II, July-August 2005, pp 75-85.]

1 In modern Hinduism, “the Vedas” have come to mean a loose, miscellaneous category of texts which refer not only to the four canonical Sanskrit Vedas, but to all kinds of post-Vedic, extra-Vedic and even anti-Vedic texts. Neo-Hindu gurus and intellectuals have honed the tradition of claiming Vedic origin of, or at least Vedic parallels with, any idea that they find useful for perpetuating an essentially spirit-based and hierarchical cosmology of the Vedas and Vedanta. For a hilarious (but misleading and dangerous) example, see Deepak Chopra’s best-seller, Quantum Healing,Bantam Books, New York, 1989, where he puts a spin of quantum physics on developments in neurosciences as if they were merely re-stating the spiritual truths known to Vedic rishis.

2 By scientism, as it appears in religious apologetics, I mean the positivist belief that if religion is to be made respectable and meaningful, it must be “scientific”, that is, its metaphysics and epistemology must meet the standards of empirical testability that apply in modern science. This leads to recasting traditional metaphysics in scientific-sounding theories. Rather than use the empirical methodology of modern science to challenge metaphysics, and create a non-metaphysical, non-supernatural basis for religiosity – as was the intent of logical positivists and empiricists – scientism in the hands of religious apologists turns modern science into a vehicle of traditional metaphysics. Hindus are not alone: American Protestantism also has strong strains of scientism. For a comparison, see ‘Secularisation without Secularism?’ in my Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2005.

3 Here I continue the dialogue I began regarding the place of science in Indian culture in my earlier work, notably, in Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, and my more recent ‘Response to my Critics’, Social Epistemology, Vol 19, no 1, 2005, 147-91.

4 Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1995. 5 Alan Kors, Preface, The Encycopedia of the Enlightenment, Vol 1, Oxford University Press, New York, 2003. 6 For a fascinating study of the Enlightenment in Britain, see Roy Porter,

The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment, WW Norton, London, 2000. 7 Stephen Eric Bronner, Reclaiming the Enlightenment, Columbia University Press, New York, p 7.

8 While Kant provided a defence of empiricism against the radical scepticism of Hume, he also limited empirical knowledge to the phenomenal world only and denied the possibility that we will ever know if empirical knowledge of phenomena corresponds to the structures of the real world, the world-in-itself. As Kant himself admitted, he had set limits on science to make room for faith. Ernst Cassirer’s classic The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1951, is still one of the best explorations of the implications of Kantian philosophy for the Enlightenment.

9 Jurgen Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1989.

10 Isaiah Berlin’s writings remain the best starting point for understanding the opposition to the Enlightenment. See Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Counter-Enlightenment’ in The Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Vol II, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1973.

11 I have shown the overlap between Hindu nationalist and postcolonial views on science in my earlier writings. See note 3.

12 See Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, The Glory and the Power: The Fudnamentalist Challenge to the Modern World, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992 for a good description of the enclaves of orthodoxy.

13 Jeffery Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984.

14 For a classic statement of yoga as a source of knowledge and control of the natural world, see Vivekananda’s exposition of Patanjli’s Yoga Sutra in his well known lectures on raj yoga. Critical reflections on this kind of “spiritual empiricism” are few and far between. But see Willhelm Halbfass, ‘The Concept of Experience’ in India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding, SUNY Press, Albany, 1988 and Anantanand Rambachan, The Limits of Scripture: Vivekananda’s Interpretation of the Vedas, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1994. For a stinging critique of treating mystic experience as having ontological references, see Agehananda Bharati,The Light at the Centre: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism, Ross Erikson Publishers, Santa Barbara, 1982.

15 I have been at the receiving end of these kinds of slurs from Hindutva supporters.

Special Issue


September 17, 2005

Social Health Insurance Redefined: Health for All through Coverage for All – Indrani Gupta, Mayur Trivedi

Health Care Financing for the Poor: Community-based Health Insurance Schemes in Gujarat – Akash Acharya, M Kent Ranson

Emerging Trends in Health Insurance for Low-Income Groups – Rajeev Ahuja, Alka Narang

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Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006

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