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Prophets Facing Backward (Postmodernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism)

Prophets Facing Backward (Postmodernism, Science and Hindu Nationalism)
Item Code: NAI022
Author: Meera Nanda
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 8178241536
Pages: 323
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 312 gms
About the Book

This book argues that the secularization of cultural commonsense is the best answer to Hindu nationalist bigotry in contemporary India. It demonstrates how, under a Hindu nationalist regime, the country took a turn towards reactionary forms of modernism, acquiring cutting-edge technologies-including nuclear weapons- while reviving superstition In the guise of 'Vedic Sciences'. Aggressive modernization in the technological sphere accompanied an assault on modernity in the cultural sphere.

Prophets Facing Backward examines the intellectual sources of this reactionary modernism It shows a convergence between 'Vedic Science-,'. 'Hindu modernity' and postmodernist/postcolonial critiques of science by left-inclined intellectuals and new Social movements. The ideology of Hindutva on the Right IS scrutinized alongside social movements on the Left, the latter Including alternative science, people's Science, and ecofeminist/postdevelopment movements.

Nanda asks fundamental questions that tend to be brushed aside: are local knowledges good for marginalized groups? Are there trans-cultural criteria to evaluate the truth-content of local knowledges against modern science? Is modern science a source of Eurocentrism or does it have unfulfilled potential for challenging the political appropriation of traditional Hinduism?

About the Author

MEERA NANDA is the author of Breaking the Spell of Dharma and other Essays, and Planting the Future: A Resource Guide to Sustainable Agriculture in the Third world.


This is a book I had to write. I had no choice in the matter. For many years, I have seen modern science being 'put in its place.' For many years, I have heard all the problems of the world we live in being laid at the doorstep of the Enlightenment. For many years, I have felt as if I' m drowning in platitudes about cultivating the 'alternative sciences' of women, non- Western peoples, and other 'victims' of the modern age.

I could never join the chorus, but nor could I shut out its jarring notes. Circumstances of biography had brought me into the humanities in the American academy at the height of its postmodernist fervour. The very fundamentals of what constitutes knowledge, how it is constructed and its impact on society were being questioned. It was simply not possible to remain neutral to these questions and just do your work-more so, if these debates were challenging your own deeply felt beliefs.

A microbiologist by training (Ph.D., Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi), I came to America to study philosophy of science. For a variety of reasons, I dropped out after a couple of semesters at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. At that time, continuing with my chosen profession of science writing and journalism made more sense. But I soon tired of skimming the surface of things. My itch for books, ideas, and scholarship returned. I sought out academia one more time. In 1993, 1 enrolled for another doctorate degree at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York, considered one of the pioneer programmes in the field.

In science studies, I came face to face with a radical challenge to-even a denunciation of-all that I believed in. I found myself in a discipline whose very founding axioms I disagreed with. Using various nuances, science studies teach that modern science as we know it, down to its very content and criteria for justification, is a construction of the dominant social interests of Western society. As a construct of power, modem science serves as a legitimator of Western and patriarchal power around the world. Many of my own compatriots from India had contributed to this literature, arguing that non-Western societies needed a 'decolonization of the mind' that would come about by developing sciences that encoded Indian values which could still be found among non-modem women and men in farms and forests. Even worse, those enunciating these theories were people who professed to speak as feminists, radical democrats, and socialists-political ideals of the left that I share. The difference, of course, was that while they saw themselves as belonging to the left of the political spectrum because of their suspicion of modern 'Western' science among other things, I saw myself as a leftist because of my admiration of modern science among other things.

Having grown up in a provincial town in northern India, I considered my education in science a source of personal enlightenment. Natural science, especially molecular biology, had given me a whole different perspective on the underlying cosmology of the religious and cultural traditions I was raised in. Science gave me good reasons to say a principled' o!' to many of my inherited beliefs about God, nature, women, duties and rights, purity and pollution, social status, and my relationship with my fellow citizens. I had discovered my individuality, and found the courage to assert the right to fulfil my own destiny, because I learnt to demand good reasons for the demands that were put on me. When I came to New Delhi to do my doctorate, I was full of great idealism, and a great love for biology. When I finally gave up a career in research for science writing (I joined the staff of The Indian Express as a science correspondent after I completed my doctorate), it was because I thought science was too important to be confined to laboratories, and imprisoned in the pages of refereed journals. I was convinced that modern science had a role to play in religious reformation and cultural revolution in Indian society. Without knowing it then, I was speaking the language of the Enlightenment.

I soon found out that science studies had no room for the likes of me. Enlightenment was seen as the agent of colonialism, and modern science as a discourse of patriarchy and other dominant Western interests. Salvation was to be found in debunking the Universalist pretensions of science and encouraging alternative ways of knowing that would end the hubris of the West. Someone like me could only be pitied-which I often was-as a 'colonized mind,' dazzled by the superficial charms of the West.

The problem, I discovered, lay not only in the political ambience which overwhelmingly favoured a debunking, radical sceptical stance towards science and modernity-that I could have put up with, even at the cost of intellectual loneliness. But the real problem lay in the theoretical rubric of social constructivism that justified the kind of relativist disdain for science that I was encountering. Starting with the Strong Programme, with its various cultural studies and feminist offshoots, combined with postcolonial theory and post-development critiques, science was assumed to be 'symmetrical' with all other local knowledges, all the way down to the content and cognitive values used for assessing and evaluating the evidence of experiments. In all cases, the ultimate source of justification was to be found in the prevailing social relations, cultural metaphors, and metaphysics. I saw this approach as denying the progress and universality of modem science. I also refused to make peace with the extreme indulgence, in the name of respecting cultural differences, towards patent falsehoods in other cultures' ontologies, and palpable irrationalities in their ways of relating to nature. What was being celebrated as 'difference' by postmodernists was, more often than not, a source of mental bondage and authoritarianism in non-Western cultures.

This book started as my dissertation in which I decided to answer the constructivist science critics. I had two goals in my dissertation, both of which appear rather limited when I look at them from where I have ended up in this book. My first goal was to show why I could not consent to the dogmas of social constructivism, including feminist and postcolonial epistemologies. I tried to show that these critics did not do justice to science, either as an intellectual inquiry or as a cultural weapon for the Enlightenment, especially in non-Western societies. My second goal was to examine the actual track record of postmodernist, 'alternative science movements' in India. In my analysis of India's ecofeminist opposition to the Green Revolution, for example, I showed that the critics of science were eventually embracing the same traditions that have kept Indian women tied to home and hearth for centuries. I also tried to find a compromise between the relativism of social constructivism and an old-fashioned realism in the pragmatic realism of the classical American pragmatism of Charles Pierce and John Dewey. Interestingly, I was able to find an Indian homologue of a Deweyan secular-humanism in the teachings of the Buddha, as interpreted by India's most well-known dalit (untouchable) public intellectual, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Indian Enlightenment, I argued in my dissertation (as I do again in this book), will be built upon these indigenous resources of reason, naturalism, and humanism, updated and refreshed by modern science, and will be led by the victims of home-grown, religiously sanctioned Oppressions. Sceptical reason, institutionalized by modem science, is the standpoint epistemology of the oppressed, I argued. My dissertation, in other words, was a confrontation with the founding assumptions of the entire paradigm of post - Kuhnian, anti-Enlightenment science studies, 'including feminist and postcolonial epistemologies.

It so happened that just as I was beginning my second stint in academia, dark clouds of Hindu nationalism were beginning to gather on India's horizon. In 1992, the long-simmering storm broke, and brought violence and mayhem in its wake. Mobs of frenzied Hindus destroyed an ancient mosque in Ayodhya with the intention of building a temple to their god Rama at the very spot where the mosque had stood, and where they claim God Rama was born eons ago. Soon afterwards, a coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, a party with solid Hindu nationalist credentials, took control of the central government in New Delhi. Indulged and protected by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a culture of cruelty and intolerance in the name of the 'Hindu nation' has become main stream in India today. I consider Hindu nationalism to be one of the most dangerous developments in India's years of independence.

It might come as a surprise to those who are unfamiliar with the importance of natural law in Hinduism, and with the history of Hindu nationalism, that science has always been at the centre of Hindu nationalist revivalism. Hindu nationalists are obsessed with science, in the same way and for the same reasons as the 'creation scientists' are obsessed with science. They display a desperate urge to 'prove' that modern science verifies the metaphysical assumptions of the classical, Vedic Hinduism, and conversely, that the sacred books of the Vedas and the Upanishads are simply 'science by another name.' Rather than take the contradictions between science and the Vedic conception of nature seriously, Hindu nationalists deny that there is any contradiction at all. This view of Vedic science is being pushed in schools, colleges, and the mass media to create a generation of Indians who think in Hindu supremacist terms.

In this book, I have broadened the scope of my inquiry to include the right- wing anti-modernist-or more accurately, reactionary modernist-movement of Hindu nationalism in my examination of how postmodern critiques of science are circulating in a modernizing society like India. The reality in India is that today, there is not one but two populist movements that stand shoulder to shoulder against secular modernity: they are the postmodernist new social movements on the left, and the Hindu nationalist movements on the right. I wanted to see what the causes of their origin and growth were. How did the postmodernist vision of a post-Enlightenment 'alternative modernity' differ from that of the idea of 'Hindu modernity'? Was the defence of epistemological parity between all sciences demanded by social constructivist theories any different from the much celebrated Hindu notion that different ways of knowledge are different only in name, and lead to the same truth?

Thus, I shifted my attention from social constructivist/postmodernist theories flowering in science studies and allied disciplines to what was going on the ground in India. I plunged into the voluminous Hindu nationalist literature on 'Hindu science' and 'Hindu modernity.' It is the result of my inquiry into the shared ground between the postmodern and Hindu conceptions of science and modernity that I report in this book.

My inquiry has led me to conclude that what is going on in India today can best be described as 'reactionary modernism,' a development not very dissimilar to the one described by Jeffrey Herf in his 1984 study of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. Nuclear-tipped India is aggressively modernizing its technology, and equally aggressively re-traditionalizing its culture.

Now, Hindu ideologues might occasionally display Taliban-like sensibilities (demolishing a mosque, for instance, or destroying paintings that they find offensive, or inciting violence against films and books), but they are not crude revivalists. Their brand of revivalism is very sophisticated and often indistinguishable from the left-wing, postmodernist defence of 'difference.' It is not as if the Vedic science proponents are reading Michel Foucault, David Bloor, or Sandra Harding, although some of them do cite Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend. But the defenders of the faith simply assume that science and the project of modernity have been discredited 'even in the West,' and that they need not, any longer, treat them as phenomena of universal and critical import.

Re-traditionalization in India means not a rejection of the modern ideals of democracy or scientific reason, or even secularism: India has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only society in the world where religious fanatics claim to be the 'true' defenders of 'genuine secularism'! As I learnt more about the mode of Hindu-style re-traditionalization of modern ideas, especially of science and secularism, I came to see that at the heart of Hindu supremacist ideology lies a very postmodernist assumption, namely, each society has its own distinctive norms of reasonableness, logic, rules of evidence, and conception of truth and there is no non-arbitrary, culture-independent way to choose among these various alternatives. What is more, I found a very postmodernist political assumption motivating the defenders of the faith in India, namely, each culture not only 'naturally' prefers its own norms, but each culture has an obligation to be true to itself and cultivate a 'modernity' in keeping with the 'ways of knowing' ingrained in its own culture. The only difference was that while postmodernist intellectuals hoped for a new, more humane, feminist, and less reductionist science to emerge from the traditions of the oppressed and the neglected peoples in non-modern cultures, Hindu nationalists were claiming that such a humane, ecological, and non-reductionist science was already present in the worldview of the Vedas and the Vedanta, the dominant tradition of Hinduism. I found that the arguments that the postrmodern and postcolonial left use to develop standpoint epistemologies of the colonized and the oppressed were being used by Hindu chauvinists, the enemies of the left, to present Hinduism itself as a paradigm of 'alternative science' that will lead to the 'decolonization of the mind.' To be truly scientific, Hindu nationalists demand a return to the most orthodox elements of Hinduism. These same elements, incidentally, have a long history of accommodating the most irrational practices from astrology and magic to irrational taboos involving purity and pollution. These same elements have, for centuries, also justified depriving the vast majority of Indian people (women of all castes, the lower castes, untouchables, and tribal people) of their full humanity.


Part-I Hindu Nationalism and 'Vedic Science'
Part -II Postmodern Critiques of Science
Part -III Postmodernism and New Social Movements in India

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