More Options

Gods and Rockets: A Tale of Science in India

Circumnavigations

Austin Dacey

July 24, 2009

“We are afraid that the thunder-storms might have an impact on the scheduled launch.” The Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, G. Madhavan Nair, was speaking to reporters in Tirupathi on the morning of May 5, 2005, as the countdown continued for the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, a 140-foot rocket loaded with two satellites. Still, he said, he remained optimistic that lift off would occur as planned at 10:19 am.

Nair had reason for confidence. Since 1993 the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, had been a success story of India’s space program. What’s more, earlier that morning Nair and more than a dozen other top space scientists had visited the Tirupati temple of Lord Venkateswara, where they laid a miniature prototype of the PSLV-C6 at the feet of the deity (a form of the sustainer-god Vishnu also known as Lord Balaji) and offered prayers for a successful mission.

Was this some kind of prank? Was it a symbolic gesture, intended in fact not for Balaji but instead for the more earthbound audience of the public, a Hindu equivalent of those prayer breakfasts that U.S. presidents cannot seem to go without? Or did the scientists actually believe in Balaji? Did they consider the temple ritual a proper part of their public scientific activities?

Indian scientists under study

This last question has been put to India’s scientific community as part of a national survey of professional scientists released last year by Trinity College’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society in cooperation with the Center for Inquiry-India, headquartered not far from Tirupathi in Hyderabad (full disclosure: I had a hand in coordinating the project while at Center for Inquiry). The first-of-its-kind study, entitled Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists: India 2007-2008, gathered responses to an email questionnaire from 1,100 participants at 130 universities and research institutes.1 The results reveal a fascinating portrait of science and religion in the subcontinental context.

Most readers of Skeptical Inquirer have committed to memory the figures from the famous 1998 survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S.: only 7.5 percent of physicists and astronomers and 5.5 percent of biological scientists believe in a personal deity.2 By contrast, Worldviews found that most Indian scientists are believers. Only one-fourth are non-theists, while 66 percent identified as Hindu. Half hold that homeopathy and prayer are efficacious; 90 percent approve of the offering of university degrees in Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional practice that prescribes various herbs, oils, and spices to bring the diseased back into balance with the universe. The blessing of rocket launches turned out to be relatively contentious, with 41 percent approving the 2005 event and 46 disapproving (the remaining 13 percent were not sure what they thought about it).

The Worldviews survey sparked plenty of conversation, especially in the Indian press, about whether such attitudes are defensible or whether they are a dangerous betrayal of the civic duty—mentioned in the national constitution—to cultivate a “scientific temper.” However, the survey did not attempt to explain why it is that so many Indian scientists cleave to non-naturalistic worldviews, as compared to their American counterparts. After all, the rates of religiosity in the Indian and American general populations are not so dramatically different.

Was this simply a case of Pascal’s Wager: Ignore Venkateswara, thereby risking his displeasure and aeronautical disaster; or supplicate Venkateswara, thereby risking nothing and possibly gaining favor? One classic objection to Pascal—the so-called Many Gods objection—points out that the wagering party, who resorts to a gamble precisely because he lacks conclusive evidence about the divine, cannot know which of all the possible gods might exist, and therefore which he might be enraging by wagering on another (to say nothing of the possibility of a supreme being who smites all those and only those who believe just to escape a smiting).3 The unimaginable pluralism of India, with its 22 official languages and thousands of castes, extends to its supernatural precincts as well, with over 200,000 gods and goddesses crowding temples and rickshaw triptychs. Many Gods with a vengeance! In this case, one might worry about Indra, formerly the king of the gods who was demoted to running the weather and who is quite possibly disgruntled about it. As with India’s infamous bureaucracy, the trouble may lie in figuring out which official to propitiate.

Science and reactionary modernism

A more general (if not generalizing) explanation of Indian scientists’ worldviews would point to the syncretism of Indian thought on the whole. Not unlike its urban centers, where livestock jostle with stockbrokers and illiterate rural immigrants mix with techno-billionaires, India’s religious, scientific, and philosophical minds appear capable of housing a wild admixture of seemingly incongruent occupants. The expansiveness of Hindu cosmogony, already noted by me and numerous other commentators, always leaves room for another entity with its own compartmentalized jurisdiction. You can have your quarks and Vishnu too; they’re all Brahma in the end somehow.

During the colonial era, Indian intellectuals lived amid ambivalent attitudes to the European scientific tradition and the Enlightenment outlook associated with it. According to Meera Nanda, a philosopher of science and a consultant on the Worldviews study, although many of these thinkers and social reformers looked to “the West” for the tools they needed to bring their country into modernity, they at the same time sought to vindicate the value of the indigenous. Nanda explains,

keen to assert their national pride against the colonizers, these intellectuals tended to subsume the new ideas into the unreformed tradition. Rather than agitate against those elements of the inherited tradition that negated the content and the spirit of the modern worldview, neo-Hindu intellectuals began to find homologies between the new worldview of science, liberalism, and even Christian ideas of monotheism, and the high-Brahminical Vedic literature, especially the philosophy of non-dualism.4

In contemporary politics, one can find a similar pattern of “reactionary modernism” taken to the extreme in the discourse rightwing Hindu nationalism:

. . . Hindu nationalism asserts itself not by rejecting the modern ideas of democracy, secularism, and scientific reason, but by aggressively restating them in a Hindu civilizational idiom. The champions of Hindu nationalism pretend to set themselves apart from their Islamic and Christian counterparts by claiming to be enlightened champions of democracy, secularism, science, all of which they claim to find in the perennial wisdom of the Vedas, Vedānta, and in the original, uncorrupted Vedic institution of four varnas or castes.5

In practice, then, the discourse of science and modernity can be impressed into the service of a reactionary agenda that re-asserts a traditional Hindu social order and national identity. In her excellent book Prophets Facing Backwards, Nanda documents a convergence with postmodern critiques that would make science a culturally specific narrative. On this view, India has its own authentically saffron-colored science. Ayurveda is literally a “science of life”; the celebrated tolerance of Hinduism means remaining open to the utility of astrology.

It is just this kind of thinking that alarms Nanda and Innaiah Narisetti, the chairman of Center for Inquiry-India, who told the Sunday Hindustan Times in 2008, “It is disturbing to see scientists touching the feet of godmen and taking replicas of rockets before their launch to the Tirupati temple. If scientists do these things, what message will it send to the general public?”6

A widening debate

As it happened, that morning in May the PSLV-C6 blasted off on time and placed its two satellites into polar sun-synchronous orbits roughly 18 minutes later, thanks to the dedication of its team of technicians and engineers. Nair might just as well have offered his prayers to Robert Goddard. One of the satellites deployed was HAMSAT, which would relay the signals of ham radio operators. Its launch represented the government’s recognition of the critical role played by the amateur radio community in coordinating disaster management in the wake of supercyclones and tsunamis. PSLV-6 also put into orbit the solar-powered CARTOSAT-1, which was carrying two earth-imaging cameras capable of high-resolution applications in agriculture, water-management, and cartography.

A survey of the landscape of Indian thought and scientific opinion makes one thing clear. Rationalists cannot simply insist on the value of cultivating a scientific temper. The debate now turns on the very meaning of science. Until recently this debate has largely been internal to India, but that may be changing. We now have the Worldviews survey. Meanwhile, Amartya Sen has been pressing for more cosmopolitan models of Indian identity.7 And thanks to Narisetti, there is now a Telegu translation of the first chapter of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

Still, real philosophical work remains to be done at a smaller scale of analysis. Is it possible to harmonize the notion of argument by analogy, so important in classical Indian logic and epistemology since 7th century B.C.E, with post-Galilean quantitative methods and contemporary accounts of induction and evidentiary confirmation? And what could it mean to say that any mode of inquiry belongs to one civilization or another in the first place?

Notes

  1. See worldviewsofscientists.org.
  2. Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, Leading Scientists Still Reject God. Nature 1998; 394, 313.
  3. For a critical discussion of the Many Gods Objection, see Jeff Jordan, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God (Oxford: Claredon Press, 2006).
  4. Meera Nanda, Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 46-47.
  5. Ibid., 38.
  6. C. Sujit Chandra Kumar, Is HE for real? Sunday Hindustan Times, June 22, 2008.
  7. See Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey's photo

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.