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Science

The Narendra Modi Government's Pursuit of Scriptural Authority Is a War Against Doubt

Wherever there has been room for doubt about interpreting a bit of information, the government has swooped in attempting to establish clarity ("the Vedas already know this") or to offer a way out ("the Vedas can help").

At a meet organised by the International Solar Alliance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that to find a way out of the quagmire climate change has landed humanity in, we will have to borrow ideas from the Vedas.

Various news publications (including the The Wire) have covered such claims – by the prime minister as well as other ministers – in the past with a commensurate dose of astonishment, reasoning and hope, often in that order, and similar coverage would be warranted here, too. After all, it’s Modi with the mic.

However, with each successive episode of a minister saying something wrong or misguided, it has become clear we will all soon enter, and shortly after leave, a pseudo-news-cycle of outrage that will not have taken public dialogue on the issue to any useful place. It has also become clear that the ministers in question aren’t listening to what critics are saying – almost as if they don’t care.

The Reuters exposé last week gave us all a glimpse into the official mindset, revealing how the government wants to “use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact, not myth.”

Appealing to the wisdom of the Vedas is a parallel effort because in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s worldview, the Vedas have value not because of their innate content – much of which, like the ‘Nasadiya Sukta’, is profoundly speculative – but because they are a product of a pre-Islamic, pre-Christian India, one that was “purely” Hindu.

By rooting every major Indian endeavour – ancient, medieval or modern – in Hindu scripture, the Modi government has not just been trying to establish the existence of an intellectual tradition that began thousands of years ago but has also been trying to delegitimise other Indian traditions.

But does the favoured tradition really continue to be relevant the way it was all those years ago? Of course not. By aggressively pushing the idea that it is, the government has been doing a major disservice to scientists and citizens.

Another consequence of this politico-religious endeavour has been that whosoever desires to cosy up to the Modi government can do so simply by dovetailing to its silly, pseudoscientific claims. Exhibit A: Madhavan Nair, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, recently said the Vedas have some lines about there being water on the Moon and that Aryabhata knew about gravity before Newton.

It’s a known thing that the best lies are often so close to the truth that you’d struggle to tell the difference. Similarly, Aryabhata may have known about gravity but he and Newton belonged to such different periods that what it meant to be a scientist in Aryabhata’s time was NOT what it meant to be a scientist in Newton’s. If Aryabhata knew about gravity, it wasn’t the way Newton did (and vice versa, but that’s besides the point). Who’s going to remember these nuances in the heat of the moment, however?

Through its words and actions, the Modi government has been pursuing scriptural authority – politically, culturally, scientifically. Wherever there has been room for doubt about interpreting a bit of information, the government has swooped in attempting to establish clarity (“the Vedas already know this to be the truth, so why are you in doubt”) or to offer a way out (“the Vedas offer ideas about tackling climate change, so you better believe it”).

Of course, Modi’s remark in this case is somewhat true: humans around the world have known for a long time that the Sun has been a powerful and long-lasting source of energy. But bringing the Vedas into the narrative suggests he is not furthering a scientific agenda but a political one.

In a sense, using “the Vedas” is like using the term “quantum physics” to make quackery sound legitimate. Most of us don’t know what the Vedas actually say, so if you do it with requisite authority, you can easily pass off what you’re saying as the real thing.

Anyway, it’s important for science and scientists, and for society, to have room and reason to doubt as necessary, and to find their own ways out. Doubt is the name of the limbo between “That’s interesting” and “Aha”. It’s a necessary precursor of new knowledge and progress.

This is just what the Modi government has been destroying – either by taking recourse to religious authority or by resorting to historic primacy. One wonders how important the Vedas would’ve been if they’d been written, say, in the 17th century.

The right to doubt is also being stamped out in other ways: by accusing doubters of being “anti-national”, calling them secessionists, arresting those who disagree, not speaking to the press, choking off the RTI Act, etc.

One moment, you can’t help but think how facile the thinking of some of our ministers is – but the next moment, you come across them putting the outcomes of those thoughts into horrifying action, such as by attempting to rewrite history.

To break out of pseudo-news-cycles like this one, and gut the self-fulfilling outrage prophecies, everyone should at every available opportunity doubt freely and reasonably (i.e. within the limits of reason), independent of what we want the truth to be.

To preserve room for doubt in society, we must preserve room for doubt in the media, in offices, classrooms, public spaces and the streets, in the parliament and of course in our homes. By repeatedly exercising doubt, we can reinforce doubt’s place in the fight against the hegemonic majoritarianism of modern India. Every “Wait a sec…” and “I don’t get it…” is pushback.

Let me end by quoting the final quatrain of the ‘Nasadiya Sukta’ (Rig Veda 10:129), as translated by A.L. Basham, a hymn that captures the pride of place the Rig Veda accords to doubt but which the government would much rather reduce to catechism:

Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows – or maybe even he does not know.