The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: From zero to gau mutra
In this week's The Taste, Vir Sanghvi writes, "India gave the world the number 'zero' but today we are losing our scientific edge and falling prey to obscurantism and superstition"
It is a quote that still has the power to anger every Indian nearly two centuries after the original work that it comes from was written. In 1835, Thomas Macaulay circulated his now infamous Minute on Education in which he wrote that “a single shelf of a good European Library is worth more than the whole native Literature of India and Arabia.”
In terms of logic, the quote has no merit. The Arabs taught mathematics and astronomy to Europeans. India gave the world the zero, without which science or modern mathematics would not have been possible. So, the wholesale dismissal of traditions and knowledge that Macaulay himself did not understand was laughable.
Unfortunately, Macaulay’s ignorance and snobbery marked the borders for a debate that rages to this day. At one end was the science and modernity of the West. At the other was the ‘spiritual mumbo jumbo’ (as European imperialists saw it) of the East.
Both extremes are absurd. So the task before modern Indians has been to find a happy place on the continuum between the two extreme positions. Until recently, we seemed to have solved that dilemma and found our own place. We agreed that there was much to gain from adopting the methods of western scientific inquiry and of embracing the latest advances in physics, medicine and other sciences.
At the same time, even though we could not always offer a scientific explanation, many (if not most) of us retained a (sometimes grudging) belief in astrology. Even if we didn’t want our horoscopes cast, we still planned our weddings and celebrated functions according to auspicious times revealed by the stars. We accepted (long before the West saw the point) that there was more to yoga than imperialists had considered. We relied on modern medicine but did not fully dismiss Ayurveda or ancient Indian medicinal traditions, arguing that western medicine did not have all the answers. Many of us also respected babas and godmen and godwomen even if some of us regarded them as charlatans.
This was a characteristically Indian balancing act but somehow we made it work.
It is now normal among semi-educated people to portray Jawaharlal Nehru as a man who rejected all things Indian and gleefully embraced the West. In fact, Nehru was a great advocate of yoga. He began practising it in 1931 and in 1952 he moved a resolution in Parliament stating that yoga would be a part of India’s health education.
His daughter, Indira Gandhi, maintained her own kind of balance though she moved even closer to eastern beliefs. Not only did she believe in yoga, she included a (rather dodgy) yogi called Dhirendra Brahmachari in her entourage. She consulted astrologers and, it is rumoured, tantriks. And she visited godmen and godwomen.
In a sense, this balancing act exemplified the ethos of modern India. There was much we could learn from the West. But it was not necessary to turn our backs on all our ancient beliefs, even if we could not fully reconcile them with a western approach.
This balance began to slip when the BJP came to power in 1998 and Murli Manohar Joshi became HRD Minister. I said of Dr Joshi then (in his presence) that while most politicians wanted to make history, he was content to simply rewrite it.
When he was not rewriting history, Dr Joshi chipped away at other parts of the curriculum, striving to roll back the frontiers of logic and rational thought. As Jaipal Reddy said memorably about him, Joshi confused “history with mythology, philosophy with theology and astronomy with astrology.”
Dr Joshi was mostly re-asserting the sort of world view his party represented at its reactionary core. (Jaipal Reddy also complimented LK Advani for his skill at packaging ‘medieval ideology in a modern idiom’.) But there were enough sensible people in the government to ensure that he did not run riot.
By the standards of today’s BJP, Dr Joshi comes across as a dangerous modernist. The party has travelled so far beyond the original Indian consensus that balanced modern science with our ancient traditions, that the lack of scientific thinking in the BJP and the government has hampered India’s ability to move forward in the modern world.
At a time when India is being ravaged by the worst pandemic in a century, Pragya Thakur, the BJP MP from Madhya Pradesh declared, “I consume cow urine daily and it is a kind of acid which purifies my body. It also purifies the lungs and saves me from Covid infection. I don’t take any medicines against corona but I am safe.”
When there was an uproar, she stuck to her view, “I have recommended these because they have scientific backing. Research has already established it”.
You could argue that Thakur is a loose cannon, a wild card of limited intelligence. But the examples of this kind of thinking go far beyond her. The chief minister of Uttarakhand assured pilgrims who wanted to attend the Kumbh Mela that they would be safe because the Ganga would protect them. (It didn’t and the Mela became a super-spreader event.)
Or consider Baba Ramdev, the regime’s favourite yogi. Baba Ramdev and his partner Balkrishna have a nice line in exaggerating their achievements. A few years ago, Balkrishna told a TV channel that Ramdev’s outfit had developed cures for AIDS and cancer.
Last year, Ramdev’s drug Coronil was said to cure Covid in seven days. That claim had later to be withdrawn but Ramdev launched Coronil anyway, claiming that the drug now had certification from the WHO, though the WHO later clarified that it had not endorsed the drug.
But there to launch Coronil was Dr Harsh Vardhan, the health minister and the man supposed to be leading India’s fight against the pandemic.
Once this sort of thinking receives political backing, it spreads among the rank and file. Even when it is shown to be wrong, the faithful still find reasons to justify it. For instance, Ramdev’s defenders on social media will now mercilessly troll anyone who attacks Coronil and say that it was only meant to be an immunity-booster (which it wasn’t) and will offer personal endorsements. (“I have taken Coronil. And I am safe”.)
Even absurd remarks are justified to the bitter end. Last year, the junior health minister said that all you had to do to avoid Covid was to spend some time in the sun. This was a palpably absurd prescription from a man in a position of responsibility for the country’s health. But it is still aggressively defended by the faithful on social media. The current argument used to justify this nonsense is that sunlight helps in the production of Vitamin D and Vitamin D protects against Covid. If only this were the case, then India’s rural poor who spend hours in the sun, would be entirely safe. But they are dying in the thousands.
The danger with this kind of fanatical devotion to the absurd is that it provides an environment where, in the middle of a crisis, people with influence can get away with saying whatever they like about Covid, no matter how irresponsible their statements are.
The actress Kangana Ranaut, heroine to the BJP faithful, told her followers that they should hold their breaths to fight Covid’s effect on their lungs. The actor Akshay Kumar endorsed an Ayurvedic product (chyawanprash) that he claimed would advance immunity against Covid. (The ad had to be withdrawn.)
But why only blame the stars? Dr VK Paul, the government’s Covid czar (and a doctor himself) also recommended chyawanprash and a herbal brew called kadha for those who have Covid.
I could go on. The science ministry has funded a trial to determine whether the chanting of the Gayatri Mantra can either protect against Covid or cure it. Various other ministers have made many more unscientific pronouncements.
But here’s my point: We have lost the balance we had reached between traditional Indian beliefs and modern scientific thought. Too many of the BJP faithful believe it is patriotic or atmanirbhar to reject modern science and to return to what they see as glorious Indian cures. To accept modern medicine would - in their eyes- amount to embracing Nehru and the habits of an English-speaking elite. Better to trust a yogi than a doctor.
The notion of rational thinking and of proving the efficacy of any cure by rigorous testing has been abandoned. We embrace quacks instead and pass superstition off as wisdom.
For a while this was alarming, but not necessarily dangerous.
But now, it has gone beyond that. As thousands of Indians die, the government’s health ministers and health officials (the chyawanprash mafia, for want of a better term) make mistake after mistake, the most serious of which was the failure to understand India’s vaccine needs and to order enough doses.
All of us respect ancient Indian wisdom. But we balance that respect with logic and rationality. Independent India was founded on a belief in science and modern thinking. Abandon that approach, fall back entirely on the outdated ways of an earlier era and, in the long-run, you risk the progress of this country and the future of our children.
And in the short-run, people continue to die entirely avoidable deaths, victims of politicians and officials who, when they should have chosen science, fell back on superstition.
For more stories by Vir Sanghvi read here