Hindu Tradition, Modern Science and the intellectually colonised mind

Introduction

 

The impact of colonial rule by large empires on the colonised is a well known phenomenon. The spread of the Greek language in much of the ancient world and the spread of Greek cultural values and civilization, known as hellenisation,was mainly due to the enormous empire set up by Alexander the Great and his generals. Similarly the Roman Empire successfully spread Latin and Roman culture throughout the empire. The impact of Roman imperial rule was so great that Latin was the lingua franca of the educated in Europe for more than a millennium. Moreover, Roman republican ideas influenced the development of European political thought. Greek philosophers like Plato influenced Christian philosophers like St. Augustine. A  whole genre of western philosophy known as Scholasticism arose which reconciled Aristotle with Christian thought. Saint Thomas Aquinas is the most prominent of the Scholastics. His greatest achievement was amalgamating Catholic doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy. The renaissance in medieval Italy seen during the reigns of Cosimo Medici and Lorenzo the magnificent also looked backwards to ancient Greek and Roman writers like Plato, Cicero and others.

 

It was only after the 13th century that European thought began to move away from ancient Greek and Roman thought and began to come on its own. Franciscan monks like Francis Bacon and William of Ockham opened the way for the development of modern science. René Descartes, the 16th century French philosopher, started his philosophy with a clean slate with his famous declaration of cogito ergo sum (I think so I exist) and broke away from the Greek and Roman philosophies, which have influenced European thought since the Roman Empire.

 

India which only in the last 60 years came out of the 200 year British tutelage is a case study of the lingering influence of colonial rule on the people of India. Western models of thought dominate India in nearly all spheres of life. Current Indian thought reflects the full spectrum of western thought. Although colonial India is no more, thoughts of India’s former colonial masters strongly mould Indian thought. The intellectually colonised Indian finds little if any redeeming values in India’s native culture. She typically feels that social progress requires that Indians import and adopt the Western mores. A prime example of western influenced Indian thought can be found in Meera Nanda’s essay “Intellectual Treason”. Her essay (http://newhumanist.org.uk/827) implicitly clearly stakes out the position that Hindus should wholeheartedly accept modern science and get rid of what she seems to believe are backward cultural Hindu values that have prevented the blossoming of Hindus as an economic and cultural force.

 

Basic thrust

 

The basic thrust of the article is that the postmodernist intellectuals are traitors since they have given intellectual respectability to reactionary Hindu religiosity. She makes it abundantly clear that Hindu religious attitudes and values are clearly inferior to enlightenment and modern science, both of which are fruits of the western intellect. She develops the idea that western intellectuals of different persuasions have veered away (wrongly in her opinion) from the true and tested path of enlightenment and modern science and have given comfort to the enemy (the Hindu spiritual tradition). Nanda argues implicitly, like Francis Fukuyama’s claim about liberal western democracy being the final political system, that enlightenment and modern science with its scientific temper is the end of the road for human cultural values. Of course that would imply that both the Hindu spiritual tradition and western intellectuals who do not completely agree with the values of enlightenment and modern science are wrong.

 

On the Hindu Tradition

 

Nanda gives a variety of arguments to make her case about the inferiority of the Hindu tradition. Some of these arguments are discussed below.

 

(a) Dismissive view

 

Her lack of knowledge and disrespect about the Hindu tradition leaps to the eye as one reads through her comments about Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta. She dismissively characterizes the Vedas as a grab-bag of Hindu myths, mysticism and philosophy. It is true that Hindu scriptures do use myths. According to the Hindu tradition myths are useful to point at the ineffable. Nanda presumably is reading the myths in a literal sense and finding them devoid of meaning. Mysticism can mean experiencing God through contemplation or confused belief. What can Nanda, a self-identified partisan of the scientific temper, mean when she uses the word mysticism with regards to the Vedas? It seems reasonable to assume that she is using the word mysticism in the sense of confused belief. Thus Nanda dismisses the Vedas as sources of confused belief. She admits that Vedas also consist of philosophy and later we will discuss her reason for rejecting the  philosophical portion of the Vedas.

 

(b) contradictory ideas?

 

She claims that the Hindu tradition has a tendency to eclectically combine contradictory ideas by declaring them to be simply different paths or names of a shared enterprise. She gives the following example of this eclectic tradition: Take the statement, “There is only one reality, different cultures approach it differently, each of which is rational in its own context”. She claims that if you replace culture with caste in the above statement then you will get the golden rule of Hinduism that all paths are different only in name. Well let us rewrite the statement by replacing the world culture by caste:  “There is only one reality, different castes approach it differently, each of which is rational in its own context”. Is Hinduism saying this? No, it is not saying this. The word caste can be translated either as Varna or as jati (endogamous group). The caste system followed by Hindus is the jati system and not the Varna system prescribed in various Hindu scriptures. The Varna concept in Hinduism is associated with the quality of the mind (gunas) and has nothing to do with approaching one reality! The Jati system relies on birth in a particular jati and has nothing to do with approaching one reality either. Nanda does not distinguish between Varna and jati and her usage of the word caste is curious to say the least.

 

Is Hinduism the only system to combine contradictory ideas? Nanda does not seem to know that Quantum Mechanics, the doyen of modern science, combines eclectically apparently contradictory ideas. For example, according to Quantum Mechanics, fundamental particles like electrons have contradictory features of both wave and particle like properties. Thus Quantum Mechanics sometimes treats electrons as waves and sometimes as particles. The contradictory nature of an electron is only apparent. The real point is that an electron is not a classical particle and thus should not be expected to behave like classical matter. Similarly the Hindu tradition says that spirit or God is not matter and thus all contradictions are only apparent and not real. This is the reason why although different religions say different things about God, nevertheless all those different descriptions are partial truths. Nanda is having problem with the Hindu tradition’s tendency of eclectically combining contradictory ideas because of her “strictly materialistic” worldview.

 

(c) secularization of nature

 

She claims that in India secularisation of nature is frowned upon by religious doctrines (presumably Hindu ones). It is true that Hindu traditions like Advaita Vedanta do consider Brahman to be all and in that sense there is no secular sphere in life. Nevertheless, there is, in Hinduism, a  distinction between  ‘higher knowledge’ and ‘lower knowledge’ according to the Mundaka Upanishad I.i.4. The lower knowledge includes all knowledge that endows a man with the knowledge of the manifested universe and enables him to enjoy material prosperity on earth. The higher knowledge enables a man to realize the Self or God. The lower knowledge is knowledge of the empirical world and there is no bar to pursuing it. The lower knowledge is obtained by the use of reason.

 

(d) Brahman and shakti — vital life-force?

 

Nanda claims that according to the most orthodox philosophies of Hinduism, including Advaita Vedanta, the vital life-force (shakti, Brahman) are embodied in all species through the mechanism of karma and rebirth. This statement is not in accord with the Hindu traditional view. Firstly, Brahman and its Shakti are  non-material and have nothing to do with any vital life-force. Secondly they are not embodied in all species through the mechanism of karma and rebirth.

 

(e) superstition and patriarchy, inequality and freedom

 

She also makes the claim that Hindu philosophies have perpetuated superstition and patriarchy, inequality   and freedom in India. Apparently Hindu metaphysics and mysticism has inhibited the growth of reason,   equality and freedom in India. It is true that these ills have affected all human societies. It seems too   simplistic, however, to say that all these ills are due to Hindu philosophies. Firstly, India was under the political domination of Muslims from 1100 to 1800 CE and under the domination of the British from 1800 to 1947. It is hard to see how Hindu philosophy can be blamed for the ills of Hindu society for this long stretch of 850 years when Hindus had no political power. Secondly, it is a principle in Hindu darshanas that one can’t make illogical claims about Hindu scriptures. Sri Sankara, the famous Advaita philosopher, makes this point in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita [1]:

 

” …… The appeal to the infallibility of the Vedic injunction is misconceived. ….. Even a hundred statements of sruti to the effect that fire is cold and non-luminous won’t prove valid. If it does make such a statement, its import will have to be interpreted differently. Otherwise, validity won’t attach to it. Nothing in conflict with the means of valid cognition or with its own statement may be imputed to sruti.”

 

The necessity of reason in the interpretation of Hindu scripture runs through the Hindu tradition as is clear from the following quotes:

 

According to Yoga Vasishta Ramayan [2]:

“Though human in origin, an exposition of truth is to be accepted; otherwise even what is regarded as divine revelation is to be rejected. Even a young boy’s words are to be accepted if they are words of wisdom; else reject it like straw even if uttered by Brahma the creator.”

 

Vacaspati Misra, the author of Vamati, says [3],

 

“Even one thousand scriptural statements cannot transform a jar into a piece of cloth”.

 

It does seem unfair and unkind that Nanda summarily accuses the Hindu spiritual tradition for all the ills of Hindu society. The statements cited above would seem to suggest otherwise. Hindu tradition is an open system which encourages challenges to even scriptures that are otherwise considered holy and sacred.

 

It is true that the jati system (translated as the caste system) is a problem in India. It is, however, simplistic to blame the Hindu tradition for it. After all the Hindu spiritual tradition stresses equality as is clear from the following verse [4]:

 

Enlightened men are those who see the same (i.e., the Atman) in a Brahmana with learning and humility, in a cow, in an elephant, and even in a dog or in an eater of dog-meat.

 

It is not clear why Nanda is accusing the Hindu spiritual tradition of stifling freedom. The Hindu tradition does not have a church-like hierarchy nor does it have any centralized authority. So how is it possible for the Hindu tradition to stifle freedom? The Hindu spiritual tradition is unique among the world’s great spiritual traditions in not asking Hindus to follow its teachings blindly. Sri Krishna says in the Gita [5]:

 

Thus have I imparted to you wisdom which is more secret (profound) than all that is secret (profound). Reflecting over this whole teaching, do as you think fit.

 

The ancient Hindu law book Manu Smriti does not ask for blind obedience to its teachings either as is clear from the following verse [6]:

 

Let him avoid..….even lawful acts which may cause pain in the future or are offensive to men.

 

 

Hindu scripture advises Hindus strongly to ignore even scriptural teachings if such teachings will cause pain to another. Freedom of conscience is a leitmotif of Hindu spiritual thought. Ancient Hindus classified even atheism as a nastika (heterodox) branch of  Sanatan Dharma. It seems from the article that Nanda does not have an adequate grasp of the Hindu spiritual tradition.

 

(f) dishonest?

 

She accuses Brahminical Hinduism and Hindu nationalism of thriving on hierarchical relativism to evade all challenges to its idealistic metaphysics and mystical ways of knowing. Nanda does not seem to accept the possibility that Hindu tradition genuinely believes in hierarchical relativism. If she thinks otherwise then she should give solid evidence for such a claim.

 

(g) several questions regarding evidence for Brahman or ultimate reality

 

Nanda asks several questions regarding Brahman or ultimate reality that cannot be assessed through sensory means. She wants to know how the Vedic forefathers knew about its existence and that it actually determines the course of evolution of species. She also wants to know how Brahman which is beyond all sensory   knowledge can be experienced and how this experience can be empirically tested.

 

The premise behind these questions seems to be that since modern science is based on sensory inputs and only modern science is correct, the Vedic forefathers could not have known about Brahman since Brahman cannot be accessed through sensory means. This position is strongly based on her materialistic worldview. Hindu tradition says that the ordinary human mind which works by receiving and processing sensory input is the veil that prevents us from experiencing the ultimate reality. This sensory mind has to be stilled in order to have the experience of ultimate reality as is clear from the following Gita quote [7]:

 

The flame of a lamp sheltered from wind does not flicker. This is the comparison used to describe a Yogi’s   mind that is well under control and united with Atman.

 

It is possible to still one’s mind by the practice of prolonged meditation.

 

There is a strong similarity between science and Hindu spiritual tradition. Both insist that mere belief is not enough and any claim must be tested. Hindu tradition affirms that a first-person empirical experience of Brahman is possible through prolonged meditation practices. This is certainly different from the usual third-person empirical method of reductionist science. This difference is because of the private nature of the   human mind. There are certain theories in modern science also where the nature of the subject makes it   impossible to use third person empirical methods. For example, the prediction of string theory that there is a multiverse cannot be tested by  third person empirical methods. How can an observer in this universe find out about other universes? The even more bizarre prediction of the many worlds theory of Hugh Everett (which is fully consistent with the mathematical underpinnings of Quantum Mechanics) that every human being on Earth has a clone in every other universe also cannot be tested. Everett’s theory has now become very popular among string theorists because it has certain calculational advantages over the standard Copenhagen   interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

 

On Hindu Nationalists

 

She accuses Hindu nationalists of willfully distorting contemporary theories of physics, evolution and biology to make it appear that all of modern science is converging to the mind-over-matter cosmology of Vedantic monism.  She accuses Hindu nationalists of reading important discoveries of modern science into Hindu sacred books: explosion of nuclear energy became the awesome appearance of God in the Bhagavad Gita; the indeterminacy at quantum level served as confirmation of Vedanta ;.. the reliance of experience and reason in science became the same thing as reliance on mystical experience.

 

It is a sign of the times we live in that Hindu nationalists want to show the convergence of science with Vedantic monism. This is to be expected given the enormous prestige accorded to modern science.  Hindu nationalists are not the only ones who are doing this. Social studies are now, for example, called Social Science studies for the same reason, to bask in the glories of science. It was not Hindu nationalists who first identified the explosion of nuclear energy with the awesome appearance of God in the Bhagavad Gita. It was the American scientist Oppenheimer who first did that. The strangeness of Quantum Mechanics has baffled even great scientists like Einstein and Schrödinger and continues to baffle physicists today. The indeterminacy at quantum level certainly raises questions about the nature of reality even if it is not a confirmation of Vedanta. As for the reliance of experience and reason in science becoming the same thing as reliance on mystical experience, is Nanda claiming that the reductionist methodology of science, the third person empirical experience, the only possible way to truth? If this is her position then she should give some solid empirical evidence in favour of such a position.

 

She also attacks Hindu nationalists of giving grants for research in astrology, vastu shastra, meditation, faith-healing, cow-urine etc. What is the harm in studying these subjects? Nanda has not made a case that researching these subjects will harm society.

 

Her unfamiliarity with Hinduism and its theological traditions become even clearer in her criticism of Vedic creationism of Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson. For example, although she ascribes to Hindu   revivalists postmodern and multiculturalists patterns of thought, Cremo and Thompson are anything but postmodernists or multiculturalists or Hindu nationalists. Both happen to be long-time ISKCON men!

 

On the intellectuals

 

Nanda criticizes postmodernists, social constructivists, feminists and others. Her principle grouse is that these western intellectuals do not criticize abuses of science but its logic. These intellectuals make the apparently incredibly brazen claim for relativism and the culture-boundedness of rationality. For example, social constructivists admit that modern science has discovered some truths about nature that are universally valid but that these universals are products of the Judeo-Christian and masculine assumptions of Western cultures. Postmodernism represents a treason of the clerks which has given intellectual respectability to reactionary religiosity (read Hindu nationalists). She also attacks Indian intellectuals both of the public variety and of the pro-Hindu kind for daring to encourage relativism. It is deeply troubling reading through this aspect of Nanda’s criticisms. Nanda seems not to have thought through her position carefully. If intellectuals have to stop criticizing systems because of fear of giving comfort to others then they will have to self-censor   themselves. Is self-censorship compatible with a free society?

 

Modern science and the nature of the human mind

 

She also claims that “Hindu nationalists simply declare modern science to be true only within its limited materialistic assumptions. They do not reject modern science (who can?) but merely treat it as one among the many different paths to the ultimate truth….”. She also claims that, “Notwithstanding all pious declarations of the ‘death’ of the Newtonian world view of matter obeying mechanical laws, the fact is that any number of rigorous, double-blind tests have failed to show any signs of disembodied consciousness or mind-stuff in nature; matter obeying mindless laws of physics is all there is”.

 

Hindu nationalists do not claim that modern science leads to the ultimate truth. This is because according to Hindu tradition the ultimate truth is not matter and cannot be explored by materialistic modern science. It is not clear how Hindu nationalists can be criticized for admitting the validity of modern science within its limited materialistic assumptions since modern science has nothing to say about the spiritual world.

 

Presumably, Nanda wants to say that Hindu nationalists (and postmodernists) are not taking into account the failure of numerous double-blind tests to show any signs of disembodied consciousness or mind-stuff in nature. Thus it is her position that both postmodernists and Hindu nationalists should just accept that there is only the material world. Also this failure to detect disembodied consciousness is a body blow to Hindu philosophy.

 

There is one obvious objection to Nanda’s argument. The failure of the double-blind tests could also be interpreted as the failure of the reductionist method of materialistic science to investigate the mystery of consciousness and mind. This failure of modern science to explain mind and consciousness has led to numerous schools of philosophy with very different theories of mind and consciousness in the western world. There is moreover another implication of Nanda’s claim that, “matter obeying mindless laws of physics is all there is”. As commented on by some one this is of course a metaphysical proposition and not a scientific conclusion. There is no empirical proof for such a statement. If Nanda knows about any empirical proof of such a statement then she should provide such a proof.  Such an eliminativist materialistic position is   inherently contradictory. If such a position is true then there is no free will and thus there will never be any change of mind. So if Nanda really believes that the human mind is governed by the mindless laws of physics then she should not expect the Hindu nationalists and postmodernist intellectuals to change their mind on this issue.

 

Curiously she mentions Rupert Sheldrake’s occult biology in her article. Why did Rupert Sheldrake develop an occult biology? Hasn’t he heard of Nanda’s claim that rigorous, double-blind tests have failed to show any signs of disembodied consciousness or mind-stuff in nature; matter obeying mindless laws of physics is all there is?

 

Is Enlightenment the last word in Western Philosophy?

 

Nanda seems to think enlightenment as the last word in western philosophy. Presumably she will call anyone who does not subscribe to her view on enlightenment as a traitor. Many other philosophical systems like Romanticism have been proposed by western philosophers. In the 20th century, the more substantial challenge to rationalism came from existentialism. Edmund Husserl noted that modern science (as Nanda describes it) cannot describe reality as it really is. Hence, he posited what he called the “Transcendental Realm”, which is basically reality that we can apprehend but which science cannot describe. Martin Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, or “being there”, was somewhat of an extension of and divergence from Husserl’s work but nevertheless existentialist. (Heidegger’s allying himself with the Nazis permanently discredited him, however. Even philosophers can make grand ethical misjudgements.) In any case, Husserl’s philosophizing was specifically a critique of rationalism and modern science. This critique is not trivial. In the area of psychology, behavioural psychology, which is premised on a rationalistic, scientific approach had been successfully challenged by the emergence of humanistic psychology, which is fundamentally based on existentialism. In writing about the failure in creating a science of psychology, behavioural psychologist Skinner wrote that Humanistic Psychology was one of the three main causes for this failure. So, major intellectual revolutions that have specifically repudiated rationalism have taken place within western civilization. Some of these revolutions are recent.

 

At the very least, Ms. Nanda’s essay is lacking for want of including them in her analysis.

 

Is nominalism the way — A U-turn?

 

The most surprising point of this article is Nanda’s reference to Julien Benda’s statement about intellectuals exalting the particular over the universal and this leading to a society’s slide to tribalism and violence.

 

Julian Benda is criticizing nominalism which rejects categories and affirms that only particulars are real. Nominalism was successfully posited by William of Ockham and allied intellectuals in medieval Europe although the problem of the universals dates back to Plato and Aristotle. What the establishment of nominalism did was to pave the way for the development of modern science and reduce the role of dogmatic religion. For if particulars are what is real, then it follows that the highest object of study is particulars. Since categories (like God and morals) are now unreal, then it follows that ideas like “good” and “bad”, or “right and wrong” are also unreal. If there are only particulars, then there is no such thing as the “common   good”–you only have a collection of particular “goods” that are each competing with each other (ah! multiculturalism!).

 

Since nominalism is so fundamental to modern science, and since moral categories have no essential existence within a nominalist   interpretive framework, it stands to reason that modern science has nothing important to say about morality and ethics. It is very surprising that Nanda who wants to get rid of the categories (like God and morality) in favour of the particulars (i.e., modern science) does a sudden u-turn at the very end of the article and wants intellectuals to exalt the (universal) categories and not the particulars (modern science). Nanda is confusing the universals of nominalism with scientific universals.

 

Some perplexing omissions

 

Nanda mentions in her article that she is a student of history and philosophy of science.  This makes some of her omissions very perplexing to understand. She accuses Hindu nationalists of attacking modern science because of its reductionist approach. As a student of philosophy of science she does not say if she agrees with the emergent phenomena and networking approach of some modern scientists who have developed this new approach in order to avoid reductionism. She also has nothing to say about the breakdown of Cartesian dualism which says that mind and matter are separate. Does such a breakdown as seen in Quantum   Mechanics affect her position? She does not seem to know that Newton’s law of gravity is not universally valid and has in fact been replaced by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity as a more correct theory. In fact, there is no universally valid theory in modern science with each theory being valid only in a limited domain.

 

Some final comments

 

The article discussed here is a fine example of the colonial influence on the colonized. Nanda finds no good thing in her native tradition and accepts the tradition of the coloniser without any question. There is no doubt that there is a good deal of truth in the enlightenment and the modern scientific worldview. There is also no doubt about the necessity for scientific temper to permeate through the Hindu society. The two questions are whether such a worldview is the final position in human culture and whether the Hindu tradition is an obstacle to the propagation of scientific temper. Nanda who has drunk deep from the well of the western materialistic tradition seems to think the answer is yes to both these questions. The very fact that such a worldview has nothing to say about morality and ethics seems to suggest otherwise to the first question. It is a stretch to think modern science can explain the human mind, consciousness and free will. Moreover she has not given any evidence that the Hindu tradition is the main obstacle to the growth of scientific temper in India. The truth is that both the Hindu tradition and scientific temper can co-exist happily in the Hindu   society. It is well known, for example, that Indian rocket scientists offer pujas before launching their rockets. Hindus do not feel any incongruity in doing this because they feel that science and dharma operate in different domains. The route to the development of science and technology in India is to spread scientific and technical education in India’s countryside and not merely to criticize the Hindu tradition.

 

Acknowledgement

 

I would like to appreciate the guidance and help of KKD and Karigar  in writing this article.

 

End Notes

 

[1] Bhagavad Gita Bhashya 18.66 of Sri Sankaracharya translated by Dr. A.G.

Krishna Warrier

[2] Vasishta’s Yoga II.18 translated by Swami Venkatesananda

[3] quoted in Indian Philosophy by S. Radhakrishnan

[4] Srimad Bhagavad Gita 5.18 translated by Swami Tapasyananda

[5] Srimad Bhagavad Gita 18.63 translated by Swami Tapasyananda

[6] Manu Smriti IV.176

[7] Srimad Bhagavad Gita 6.19 translated by Swami Tapasyananda

 

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