Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism by Banu Subramaniam, University of Washington Press, Orient Blackswan, 2019; pp xv + 290, $95, `945 (hardcover).
Arecent calendar published by a department at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur presented ancient and religious knowledge as being modern and scientific.1 Stretch back a few years and we have sessions within the annual Indian Science Congress titled the “Neuroscience of Yoga” and “Engineering Applications of Ancient Indian Botany.”2 Even in the midst of a pandemic, there was no dearth of pseudoscientific claims valorising traditional practices.3 The scientisation of religion has long been a feature of the Indian society. Meera Nanda adopted the term “reactionary modernism”4 to argue that Hindu nationalists have often appropriated the benefits and outcomes of science and simultaneously suppressed egalitarian values that inform the scientific world view (universalism, secularism, equality, and democratisation) (Nanda 2005).5 A broad range of social reformers, rationalists, scientists, and progressive political forces6 have argued that this suppression has been a historical presence in the Indian society. This view argues that the cultivation of egalitarian values (precursors to the scientific world view) serves the sectional interest of those purporting religious dogma (in particular, the caste system in India). They further argue that science and values underlying it hold emancipatory potential for the Indian society.
However, a third view, which emerged in the 1970s, is that one can and should preserve the “unique India assemblage” of science and religion whilst being critical of Hindu nationalism and Western models of science. It is in this context that Banu Subramaniam’s book Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism is to be understood. The objective of the book is “(to explore) the enduring relationship of science and religion in India as both forged practices and ideologies that resist gender and caste transformations” (p 8). The book itself is an ode to the third view mentioned in the introduction. While doing so, the book draws its theoretical framework from postcolonial theory, feminist science, and technology studies as well as Michel Foucault’s biopower and bio-nationalism (Donna J Haraway, Helen Longino, Sandra Harding, and Foucault).
Scientisation and Hindu Nationalism
The book can be read as two distinct and related sections. The bulk of the book is devoted to five case studies on how science and religion inform various debates on caste, race, gender, sexuality, ecology, and history in India. The author’s fluid writing style and the use of thick case studies trace contemporary debates from their precolonial and colonial origins. They also contain a rich review of literature on each of these debates. Each contemporary debate also presents a snapshot of statements made by various prominent members of the Bharatiya Janata Party that helms the central government.
Chapter 1 examines how Indian nationalism (albeit with a more inclusive imagination) shares with Hindu nationalism the idea that science and technology-led development would usher in a new age for the people of India. Further, it explains that the latter often reinforces its claims of the past by using the tag of “scientific.” The primary example of this is the claim that vastu shastra constitutes both a “modern” and “ancient” science. Chapter 2 deals with questions of sexuality and hyper-masculinist notions of nationalism. It is argued that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code institutionalised unequal rights for different citizens by tautologically defining sexual practices as criminal. This draws from the Western scientific notions of sexuality and Christian world views of sexual practices and is redrawn by Hindu nationalists in their own hyper-masculine imagination. Chapter 3 demonstrates how certain strands of environmentalism closely resemble Hindu nationalism. It begins with a description of the controversy surrounding the Sethusamudaram Shipping Canal Project and critically reviews studies in the Indian ecology. It demonstrates that Indian ecology has often shared with Hindu nationalism the view that India’s ecological past was more sustainable. In particular, the chapter critically examines how the work of ecologist Madhav Gadgil and his collaborators valorised the environmental benefits of caste in India.
Chapter 4 looks at the historical debate on the “Aryan migration theory” to examine how genomics reinforces positions on caste and race. It also describes how different national and international groups use genomics as a “battleground on which old debates are being waged anew” (p 148). It describes for instance how some international Dalit activists have used the distinction between the Ancestral North Indian (ANI) and Ancestral South Indian (ASI) genomes to argue that caste is a form of race that must be adjudicated at international forums.7 It ends with the description of ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, unani, siddha, and homoeopathy as a tool to rebrand traditional and indigenous practices of medicine and knowledge systems of the body. Chapter 5 examines the debate on surrogacy and reproductive rights in the Indian context and how Hindu nationalism conflates biological sciences with the idea of bodily control.
Complementing these book chapters and interspersed across them are short fictional narratives (nine in total). These stories represent a creative attempt to describe what an “imaginative” and “progressive” confluence of religion and science in India should look like (p 8). These stories take place in a fictional planet called Kari—created by divine beings and connected to a central Avatar Lokam (a land of lost dreams and souls). There are periodic life cycles on planet Kari for carbon-based life forms. Each story proposes the evolution of more empathetic human-like life forms and cosmic entities (creation, time, knowledge, and empathy) that work with each other in a seamless manner. Heavily drawing from the notions of Hindu mythology then, part of the book serves largely as an analogy for syncretic practices within the Indian society where “science and religion are not oppositional” but are “symbionts,” “partners,” and “syncretic collaborators” (p 42).
A Middle Path?
A common thread present across these chapters is the claim that we can imagine a counter to the dominant narratives of gender, caste, race, religion, ecology, and science (read Western). However, none of the chapters actually go far enough to explain what this view would constitute in practice.
For instance, Chapters 1 and 5 make no attempt to describe the work of various historians who have painfully explained what was scientific and what was mythological within ancient Indian science (Wujastyk 2003; Chattopadhyaya 1978).8 Chapter 2 notes that the opposition to Section 377 was brought about by political mobilisation within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community in India and greater visibility of queer politics in the public discourse. But by the end of the chapter, it collapses this view as one of the many opposing hyper-masculine sexualities in India (including Hindu mythological stories and spiritual leaders calling for a decriminalisation of homosexuality).
Similarly, Chapter 3 highlights how a sustainable precolonial past was constructed by valorising resource distribution under the caste system. It calls for imagining a more just, “non-human”-centric ecology but never provides a description of what this entails in practice. Chapter 4 does not explain how historians have cautioned against the reading of contemporary social divisions onto the objective analysis of prehistoric populations (Thapar 2000; Joseph 2013).
In great detail, the book identifies the sources of Hindu nationalism within religious and traditional practices. Yet within these practices, the book highlights the idea of syncretic pragmatism and even cautions in some places against the romanticisation of a precolonial past. However, the same treatment is not accorded to its assessment of the scientific world view and its practice. Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism does not highlight how universalism, equality, and democracy also inform science and its practice. In fact, it does not attempt to explain how these values oppose the views of a fractured and hierarchical traditional society.9 These shortcomings stem from the position that it is dedicated to the belief that we do not have to choose between binary logics … instead [we can] embrace science and religion … to imagine worlds that defy imperial Western logics and nativist religious nationalisms. (p XIII)
Is science (its values, methods, and practice) largely defined by its cultural context or does it have a universal import? Why has there been a historical opposition to the adoption of science by dogmatic beliefs not only in India but also in other parts of the world? Further, why does chauvinist nationalism seek to oppose the values that inform the scientific world view? On these questions, the author-proposed third view remains inadequate.
These questions are important because we live in a society where obscurantism is used to justify exploitation and discrimination based on caste, gender, and religion. Many have opposed this at the cost of their lives, while a culture of impunity allows the perpetrators to be untouched.10 If science is thought of as an activity that provides an explanation to the world around us, then it is also an activity that is purposive and social in nature. It is achieved through the physical and intellectual labour of workers, technicians, scientists, and other individuals in society. It is affected by various social, economic, and political institutions but is also distinct from other forms of knowledge about the world. The task that falls on the social sciences is to investigate these aspects of science in practice without shying away from describing how various sectional interests (socio-economic and political) have used science to perpetuate unjust means and ends. Such studies can also effectively challenge various regressive political ideologies present in the Indian society. In the Indian context, it is not a matter of choosing the best of both worlds but one of explaining which of these world views should be the basis of a more just society.
1 The calendar was made by researchers at the Centre for Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. See more at https://scroll.in/article/1013976/iit-kharagpur-2022-calendar-on-ancient-india-is-an-exercise-in-propaganda-not-knowledge-production.
2 See descriptions of various seminars held at the Indian Science Congress at https://frontline.thehindu.com/science-and-technology/article26004777.ece.
3 To list out a few, that certain sounds and lights could drive away the COVID-19, that an untested ayurvedic tablet could prevent infection from COVID-19, and the bigoted belief that the virus itself originated from some ethnic minorities.
4 Originally coined by Jeffery Herf (1981) to describe the use of science to glorify Nazism in Germany before World War II.
5 The use of science, technology, and development to bolster religious world views (through pseudoscientific claims) is not unique to India; evidences of this can be found in the past and present within the developed and developing world (Aramesh 2017; Mugaloglu 2014;
6 This includes progressive social reform movements in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the All India People Science Network (AIPSN), the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), and the works of Narendra Dhabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M M Kalburgi to name a few.
7 This refers to the 2001 United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance where some Dalit activists made the claim that caste in India should be seen as a form of race-based discrimination and exploitation.
8 The author, in fact, very briefly acknowledges the contribution of Debiprasad Chattopadhyay to this literature in the introduction but does not refer to a bulk of this work in the chapters that refer to ancient Indian science.
9 Such a position is also opposed by certain forms of communitarian ethics as well as the ethics of care (which has its origin in biomedicine and feminist epistemology). These viewpoints argue that while universal principles cannot be applied as the normative basis of all action, they can and must inform them (Gilligan 1982; Taylor 1994).
10 This refers to the assassinations of Pansare, Dhabholkar, and Gauri Lankesh. It was also widely reported that the assassinations were linked to the same perpetrators and no tangible action was being taken against such organisations. The Supreme Court even entertained the idea of a common investigation to the same.
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This article first appeared on epw.in