why india’s toxic nationalism and science don’t mix

An Indian science conference espoused the superiority of Hindu religion and legends over actual facts and history. And it’s just a small part of an alarming and accelerating trend...

woman celebrating holi
An Indian woman celebrates Holi, the Hindu spring festival of colors

When you attend a science conference, you’re probably not expecting to hear speakers tell you how a deity invented chakra guided missiles, or how the descendants of an Iron Age dynasty used stem cells to grow test tube babies, or dismiss Newtonian laws of motion and general relativity. But all those things, and more, happened in India, which has a habit of rejecting or downplaying science from the West and Far East in favor of ultranationalist proclamations according to which Hindu spiritual leaders and Indian scholars of the distant past accomplished everything other nations claim to have done, and then some. Just consider the following quotes from one of the presenters…

“We had 100 Kauravas from one mother because of stem cell and test tube technology,” said G. Nageshwar Rao, vice chancellor at Andhra University, referring to a story from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Rao, who was addressing school children and scientists at the event, also said a demon king from another centuries-old Hindu epic had two dozen aircraft and a network of landing strips in modern-day Sri Lanka.

“Hindu Lord Vishnu used guided missiles known as ‘Vishnu Chakra’ and chased moving targets,” added the professor of inorganic chemistry.

This is especially disconcerting if we also note that India’s education minister wants to remove chapters on evolution from textbooks, insisting that the theory is wrong and preaching simplistic creationism while other powerful figures in Indian politics are also busy discarding science in support of traditional religious beliefs. It’s a noxious stew of fundamentalism and denialism in service of divisive, intolerant, ultranationalist rhetoric. As India nurtures ambitions to become a global superpower and compete with China and the United States to steer global affairs, this retreat from scientific literacy in the name of nationalistic pride will only hurt its own agenda.

Would you consider a scientist who claims that evolution is a hoax a credible biologist who can work on new generations of antibiotics? Would you really want to employ an engineer who is dead sure that not only is Lord Vishnu real, but he invented chakra seeking technology which can be transferred to a drone or a missile with meditation and prayer? The Soviet Union tried the same substitution of science for ultranationalistic propaganda with Lysenkoism. Millions died in the resulting famines while the country’s leaders shrugged their shoulders and blamed the farmers, the weather, and the crops instead of their denialism of proven scientific facts.

And keep in mind that India has nuclear weapons. How safe do you feel about the fate of the world if the experts working on them believed they could enchant bases holding their stockpiles through religious rituals, which they were taught were clearly superior to the incorrect and outdated Western science and technology, and actual safeguards for humanity’s deadliest weapons weren’t necessary anymore? Or if their defense minister was raised to believe that the military could summon a protective spiritual shield around the country, clearing the way for a first strike in a conflict with also nuclear armed Pakistan, certain their cities were invincible from a massive and certain counter-bombardment? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d be somewhat alarmed…

# science // nationalism / pseudoscience / skepticism / woo

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