New Delhi: ‘Art of Living’ founder Sri Sri Ravishankar’s visit to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, sparked controversy this week with a section of students protesting that the spiritual leader’s proposed lecture would be seen as an endorsement of his “unscientific” views.
According to multiple media reports, a petition was circulated by a group of students, professors and IISc alumni asking for the institute to disassociate itself from Ravishankar’s talk on multiple grounds.
These ranged from his views on mental health to other pseudoscientific claims.
The Deccan Herald reported that the petition garnered over 700 signatures before it was eventually delivered to IISc director Anurag Kumar.
The institute reportedly has a student strength of about 4,000.
“We, the undersigned, hereby express our objections to the upcoming lecture by Sri Sri Ravishankar on the grounds of the threat we perceive it poses to the state of mental health on our campus and because of the unscientific claims we found on Sri Sri Ravishankar’s webpage,” a part of the petition reads.
“IISc has already made the aforementioned unscientific and baseless statements only one click away from its own website, by hosting a link there. Also, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar categorically lists the institutions he visits and is accepted to offer talks/lectures/programmes. We feel that in complicity endorsing such statements, IISc shall be jeopardising its position of respect in the global scientific and academic community,” it adds.
It appears that a compromise was eventually struck, with the IISc’s website dropping any mention of Ravishankar’s talk but allowing the lecture to take place nevertheless.
During the discussion, which took place on Thursday, the spiritual leader chose to use part of his time to criticise the petition and the students behind it.
“I heard some people opposed my talk at IISc today. People who opposed me don’t know me. Even to oppose something or someone, one needs to study and know it in detail. You study something properly and then you discard it,” Ravishankar was quoted as saying.
Slamming the students and faculty who opposed the talk, he said, “In this mode of scientific temperament and learning, a factor called prejudice is detrimental to science. If you have prejudice towards anything then you can’t call yourself a scientist. Because it won’t allow you to perceive things properly.”
The spiritual leader in the past has received criticism for a number of his views, including during a student interaction at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2017, where he referred to homosexuality as a “tendency” that may not be “permanent”.
This isn’t the first time that IISc has had to confront activities that may lack scientific validity in its campus. In October 2017, the institute’s alumni association surprised many within the academic community with their plans to hold an astrology workshop on campus.
As The Wire’s Vasudevan Mukunth wrote at the time:
By calling astrology a ‘scientific tool’ from within an institution that teaches students, and the people at large, what science is, Rameshaiah [the convener] had been misusing the name of the IISc to bring credibility to his personal beliefs. More importantly, persons on the outside – on the fence so to speak – could have seen the location of the venue as confirmation of the “scientific validity” of astrology. This was obviously wrong.
While members of the IISc alumni association eventually got the event cancelled, the event sparked debate on when the institution or its top scientists should draw a line in the sand.
When the culture ministry’s ‘Vedic Heritage’ portal went online earlier this year, some of the content clearly did not live up to the government’s stated goal of disseminating “pure scientific information”.
As The Wire noted at the time, at least one document, titled ‘A ‘Glimpse of Science in Ancient India – Retrospection from IISc’ claimed that astrology had a “basis in science” and that any criticism surrounding the field could be “traced to a complete ignorance or misunderstanding of the … law of karma.”
The paper in question was co-authored by a former IISc professor. The institute is yet to speak against him or the document.