NATURALLY: Tread Softly on the Planetby Vikram Soni. HarperCollins India, Delhi, 2015.
‘Whatever I dig from thee, O Earth,
May that have quick growth again.
O purifier, may we not injure thy vitals or thy heart.’
– Translated from the Atharva Veda (12.1.35).
TO what extent is the paradigm of development we have chosen during recent times compliant with this prophetic advice? Do modern technologies respect the need to replenish what we exploit? During the last two hundred years, ever since the Industrial Revolution unleashed a technology driven, resource intensive, polluting model of economic growth, have we not injured the planet’s vitals and its heart?
Vikram Soni’s thought provoking book, Naturally: Tread Softly on the Planet attempts to find answers to these vital questions. The author spent his childhood in the hills of Kumaon in the Himalayas; it explains his love for the environment and the need to conserve it. His enviable scientific background, his passion for environmental conservation and his active involvement in conserving Delhi’s Aravalli Ridge have motivated him to explain to the people in simple terms the chronology and the science of evolution of life on our planet and the kind of human interventions that could upset the delicate state of equilibrium which maintains life on earth.
The two introductory sections in the book describe Vikram Soni’s childhood days in the Kumaon hills in the Himalayas and, later, his dogged fight with the government to protect the Aravalli Ridge in Delhi. The book contains four main sections, the first being the way life has evolved over billions of years; the second on the chronology of human interventions, especially the technology driven interventions over the last two hundred years; the third on the dilemmas that confront humanity today in terms of what ‘development’ and ‘progress’ should imply; the fourth on the kind of lessons that we should draw from the evolutionary processes, so that we may stay on course, in step with the life sustaining cycles for the future well-being of the human race.
The introductory sections deal with the author’s campaign to save the Aravalli Ridge in Delhi. In 1995, while he was a resident of Vasant Vihar in Delhi, the author had come across the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) using bulldozers to uproot trees and dig out the earth over the Aravalli Ridge that cut across the city. The ridge represents a unique geological feature that has several uses, including preservation of biodiversity. The DDA had blatantly violated the Trees Act meant to regulate the cutting of trees in the city. When the government violates the law of the land, the only way for citizens to secure compliance is to seek judicial intervention. That was exactly what Soni and a few other environmentalists did. The court issued an interim directive to stop DDA from vandalizing the ridge. It was the court that set up an institutional mechanism to assess the damage to the ridge and its environment. ‘Development’ as understood today cares little for the law of the land and the sentiments of the people at its receiving end.
Fully supported by the government, the DDA soon came up with an ambitious plan to construct a number of five star hotels on the ridge. Other government agencies followed suit and started constructing residential colonies on the residual portion of the ridge. While Soni and his friends tried to battle this in the court, those who were bent upon destroying the ridge engaged the best legal counsel and progressively secured a foothold on the ridge. It was a long legal struggle that went on till 2006, during which time the environmentalists suffered a few setbacks, though some institutional mechanisms to conserve the ridge had also evolved in the process. In environmental litigation, the inherent delays in enforcement of the law often generate fait accompli situations. Out of 640 hectares of the ridge, only 223 hectares were finally conserved and notified as the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, not to mention another 100 hectares with a beautiful water body conserved by the army authorities. The credit for this should primarily go to Soni and his friends and, to an extent, the judiciary.
India’s environment laws are far too inadequate to translate the state’s obligation under Article 48A of the Constitution to safeguard the environment. The regulatory bodies we have are also far too fragile to effectively enforce the laws.
The first part of the book describes how life has evolved on our planet over the last three to four billion years. Life resides largely within a narrow margin, stretching from a few kilometres under the sea to a few kilometres over the earth’s surface. It is the earth’s atmosphere that acts as a unique cushion that absorbs solar radiation and delivers just that much of it required for sustaining life on earth. Both the planet and the life that exists on it today are the outcome of an evolutionary process that rested firmly on a set of well defined laws of nature. The human race is but a minuscule part of a myriad species of life that inhabit the earth. The species that reside on the earth at any given point of time are critically interdependent and components of a well knit, well orchestrated network. Evolution in itself implies a continuing change but a transition from one state of equilibrium to another is ‘soft’, not disruptive.
Life on our planet fits beautifully into numerous natural cycles that cut across the sea, the land and the atmosphere, all interconnected in a well orchestrated, symbiotic way. Unlike modern technologies that generate toxic waste which cannot be easily disposed of, nature represents a highly evolved production system that leaves no residual waste whatsoever. Biodiversity makes the waste of one species the food for another species and so on.
The removal or addition of a single species at a given location can throw the system off balance with catastrophic results. The author illustrates this by citing several examples, including two from Australia. The introduction of the prolific breeder, the European rabbit, as a game animal in the Australian grasslands, without natural predators, resulted in the rabbit species multiplying rapidly and taking over the grasslands, depriving the other species of their food and habitat. Similarly, the Australians introduced the South American cane toad to get rid of beetles that were destroying their sugarcane. The beetles proved to be cleverer. They moved up the cane stalk beyond the reach of the toad and the latter, facing no natural predators in that part of Australia, multiplied out of control and introduced toxicity with disastrous results. In either case, the Australians had to resort to highly questionable approaches to exterminate the intruder species.
On the other hand, the way the species have evolved over billions of years, as vividly described by the author, makes fascinating reading. In our solar system, at the present moment, the sun is getting hotter every day. As a result, had the earth’s carbon dioxide greenhouse blanket remained passive, it would have triggered global warming. It is the photosynthetic processes that take place in the ocean and on the earth’s surface that have helped the atmosphere to absorb the incremental heat. Initially, photosynthesis took place at the ocean-air interface, splitting the water molecules, providing carbon dioxide as food for algae and releasing oxygen to maintain the equilibrium of the atmosphere to prevent excessive warming of the planet’s surface.
As life thus evolved in the ocean, its plant species gradually moved to the land mass to create life forms that breathe oxygen to maintain the carbon cycle in balance. Too little carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have frozen us cold; too much of it would have made it far too hot for our survival. The state of equilibrium, ‘homeostasis’, is necessary to maintain the metabolic activity that sustains life. Even small departures from it, if not orchestrated as nature does, can lead to the extinction of life itself. A natural shift from one state of equilibrium to another involves a delicate graduation from one set of well harmonized closed cycles to another, that leaves no residual waste. Biodiversity is one of the factors that help achieve this miracle. To underestimate the value of biodiversity is to ignore the very basis of life on the planet. Biodiversity, in itself, has its own provincial abodes.
The second part of the book analyzes human interventions that have taken place since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. Modern science and technology have indeed contributed to phenomenal advances in the way we live. However, they seem to have missed the wood for the trees. In the words of Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician-cum-philosopher, ‘The parts of the world are so linked and related, that I think it impossible to know one without another, or without the whole.’ As the author states elsewhere in the book, in reference to the genetically modified seeds technology, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’
Driven by an irresistible temptation to increase the production of food and non-food commodities, shrink distances by speeding up transport and improve living conditions through large-scale industrialization and urbanization, the human race has adopted new technologies to exploit scarce minerals that could never be replenished, generated toxic wastes that could not be easily reprocessed, indiscriminately interfered with the carbon cycle that sustained life and wantonly disrupted the delicately balanced biodiversity networks. Trouble started when the scale of human consumption overtook the scale of the planet. In Gandhiji’s words, ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.’ Despite the Club of Rome pointing out during the seventies the resource-related ‘limits to growth’, the global community started viewing economic growth as the arch objective of progress, overlooking its negative impacts. No wonder that several irreversible ecological damages have started taking place.
Large manufacturing facilities, power projects, multi-lane highways, mega-cities and so on, have disturbed water bodies, wetlands and forests, causing local environmental problems, in addition to their negative global impacts.
Even if the global community were to act in cohesion to correct the trajectory of human progress from now on, it may take hundreds of years before we can reverse the distressing effects of global warming, depleting fresh water resources, pollution of air, land, water and the sea, ozone depletion and the loss of biodiversity.
The third part of the book deals with the dilemmas confronted by humanity in the wake of the overwhelming evidence that is emerging on disruptions to the natural cycles of evolution. A recent audit of the world’s ecosystem found that over half of the world’s ecosystems are declining rapidly as a number of species that support them are going extinct. Ironically, if modern technology is the culprit behind this ecological decline, it is also the harbinger of the evidence that should make us sit up and respond. Satellite imagery has shown how fresh water sources and ground water aquifers the world over are drying up. Forests rich in biodiversity are disappearing. Toxic pollutants have entered the food chain, affecting the health of human beings. Environmental changes have also exposed humanity to hitherto unknown vectors of diseases. The protagonists of economic growth should note that the economic costs of environmental changes would surely outweigh the perceived economic benefits of growth.
The dilemmas emerging from this are clear. Should humanity continue on the path of a consumption driven progress or contain consumption within the planet’s resource boundaries? Are the modern ways of living such as urbanized settlements, super-fast transport systems and energy guzzling lifestyles consistent with the long-term sustainability of life? It is not a question of choosing one alternative in preference to another, such as nuclear electricity in preference to coal based electricity. If coal burning generates carbon dioxide that disturbs the thermal equilibrium of the planet, nuclear power, which in itself is highly unsafe, also throws up waste that is toxic and cannot be disposed of.
The fourth and the final part of the book is futuristic in the sense that it suggests a new trajectory of progress that can be sustained in the long run. It aims at technological progress that keeps in step with nature. The technologies needed to achieve this would be far more sophisticated than the present ones, as they must ensure a neat fit into natural cycles in which no wastes are to be left as residuals.
The author has cited numerous examples of present day models of industrial clusters organizing themselves in such a way that each component unit makes sure that its waste constitutes a feedstock for another. The examples cited may not be the most optimal, but they do suggest how initiatives are being taken to use industrial wastes.
When it comes to irreplaceable evolutionary living resources like rivers, aquifers, original forest organic food and organic water, created by millions of years of evolution, the book suggests a novel, non-invasive ‘conserve and use’ approach. These are perennial solutions where one can use what is replenished each year by nature, but scrupulously conserve the health of the living resources bequeathed to us. By way of an example, the author proposes solar plants in the mountain desert valleys of Ladakh, which can generate over 3,000 megawatts of power to be transmitted to areas where it is required. Similarly, he suggests that the vast sandy flood plains along the Ganges could provide a copious source of water for the cities and people living in the area. This project in now going on stream in the Delhi Yamuna flood plains. His other ideas include ‘natural cities’ supported by medium sized forest tracts to provide subterranean mineral water sources. However, such solutions need to be tested in relation with how the local communities view them.
Do we know enough about the natural cycles that sustain life to be able to craft new ways to progress? As the author points out, there is perhaps a delicately balanced life cycle for each element of the Periodic Table and there are huge gaps in today’s scientific knowledge for us to understand the emerging imbalances. At least in the case of those emerging imbalances about which we are reasonably aware, as in the case of the fresh water cycle, there is need for regulation and monitoring to pre-empt any further deterioration in the coming decades.
Often, there is a great deal of convergence between the concerns of the local communities and the concerns that arise from the point of view of maintaining the natural cycles that sustain life. The reason for this is that it is the local communities who are in constant communion with the environment in which they live. They are the ones who are conscious of the value of their ‘commons’. Conservation norms have got embedded into their religious and cultural practices. Whenever a new industrial project is mooted, a genuine public consultation process highlights such a convergence of concerns, usually brushed aside by the rulers in their anxiety to push through the project.
In conclusion, it is no exaggeration to say that this book is an excellent primer on the science of evolution of life in relation to the emerging global concerns on environment. The decision makers all over the world should read the book and digest its contents to be able to appreciate the irreversible damage they may be unwittingly causing to the very existence of life on our planet. Environmental activism these days is looked upon as ‘anti-development’ and environmental activists are being harassed worldwide. This book should enhance their own conviction in what they are doing and give them a redoubled vigour in their campaigns. In many people’s movements in India and elsewhere, the local communities resisting destructive projects have always tried to find convincing scientific reasoning to justify what they are doing. If this book can be delivered to them in the local languages, it will strengthen resistance movements and promote overall human well-being.
After reading this book one cannot help pondering over a more vexatious dilemma. Human beings are but one among myriads of interdependent species. However, their ego and ‘superior’ intellect have made them go astray, claiming greater space within the domain of life than they deserve. The Greeks called it ‘pleonexia’, an insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others. As a result, the very existence of life on the planet is beginning to face a serious threat. In his seminal work on the theory of evolution, did Charles Darwin overlook this possibility? Will the human race self-correct its role? Will nature come up with its own answers?
IAS; former Principal, Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad
SCIENCE IN SAFFRON: Skeptical Essays on History of Science by Meera Nanda. Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2016.
THIS book by Meera Nanda is an extremely powerful assault on the ‘myths’ propagated in the name of ‘scientific Hinduism’ as apparently confirmed by the ‘great wisdoms of the Vedas’ which for many Hindutva acolytes provides most, if not all, the answers to the scientific problems of contemporary times. This glorification of the Vedas is necessary to create a myth of a nationalist exceptionalism – the intrinsic superiority of an ancient Hindu civilization over all other historical civilizational-cultural entities! Nanda’s target is those who are involved in the ‘distortion of history of science for ideological ends.’ If the author’s own background as a science scholar and one-time activist in the popular science movements in India is a major spur to her writing this book, another is that there have been far too few responses by practising scientists to this distortion even as compared to the small number of rationalist groups and activists in this country.
Nanda courageously defends the principles of ‘universality’ and ‘objectivity’ of modern science from those who would ‘fit modern science into a Vedic framework’ and also from those obsessed by the need to put science in its place, as it were. In such circles this is presumed necessary, either because science is seen as but one form of rationality alongside (and no ‘better’ than) ‘alternative rationalities’; or worse, that it claims to be a distinctive ‘meta-narrative’ when respect for postmodernist advances in thinking [postmodernist opposition to all meta-narratives is itself an extraordinary meta-narrative – AV] should have put an end to such ‘scientific pretentiousness’. The author, however, is unimpressed by this and in this text positions herself against the saffronization of science and some of its key priority claims.
Three such claims are each given full chapter treatment – namely the supposedly Indian origin of the ‘Pythagorean Theorem’ and ‘Zero’, and the ‘Wonders of Ancient Indian Medicine’. Nanda’s stated goal here is to save the real Indian contributors in the fields of geometry, mathematics as well as physicians and craftspeople from both dishonest glorification of the Hindu Right and from the condescension of over-enthusiastic rationalists. In her fourth and concluding chapter, she takes on Vivekananda’s views on science and yoga. Vivekananda, in his famous address in 1893 at Chicago’s World Parliament of Religions, did not hesitate to declare that the latest discoveries of modern science were mere ‘echoes’ of Vedanta philosophy.
The Sangh Parivar in its rewriting of the past also does so with scant respect to the history of science. It did this during the first NDA term (1998/9-2004) by introducing degree courses in astrology as also in ‘consciousness studies’. M.Phil and Ph.D courses in the latter were started in the Birla Institute of Technology and Science which collaborated with the Bhaktivedanta Institute (the research wing of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). While ‘Cognitive Studies’ is a respectable and legitimate course of study that is offered in other countries, what can one say about the BITS course that starts with the fundamental premise that ‘consciousness is a preexisting constituent of matter’, i.e. not an open-ended inquiry but a study based on the unassailable presumption of Advaita!
History writing is never free from biases and errors, implying that corrective rewriting in the light of better evidence is always necessary. However, the Hindutva brigade is not interested in the proper writing of history but in what Nanda calls ‘heritage fabrication’ and ‘faith celebration’ – the profession of faith in the past tailored to present-day purposes. This is a form of ‘prejudiced pride’. What are the key characteristics of modern science? According to her, they are (i) mathematization of nature leading to the development of tools of measurement – clocks, compasses, thermometers and a host of other instruments; (ii) controlled experimentation; (iii) recognition of nature as matter in motion; and (iv) appreciating manual/craft work linking pure and applied sciences. This all-round Scientific Revolution (1550-1700), given the label of ‘modern science’, was made possible by a ‘multitude of earlier achievements of many previous civilizations – Greek, Christian, Islamic, classical Indian and Chinese.’ It was also a profound break, conceptually and methodologically, from that past.
The Vedic and Chinese preoccupation to ‘unveil’ the existence of an underlying and, therefore, potential harmony between the natural, human and spiritual worlds is now replaced by a scientific world view which is essentially not a ‘revolution of knowledge’ but a ‘revolution of ignorance’, i.e. that humans do not know the answers to far too many important questions; that we can always be wrong even as we gain more knowledge which only throws up more questions to which we seek better, but always provisional, explanations or ‘truths’. This scientific revolution was more resisted than promoted by the teachings of world religions. It took place besides, not through, these religious teachings. But these religions in the hands of their best thinkers and practitioners learnt from modern science, and themselves helped to further develop religious thinking, beliefs and values.
The Pythagorean Theorem: At the Indian Science Congress of January 2015 at Mumbai, a government minister, Harsh Vardhan, supported by select academics, claimed that the Greek appearance of this theorem by Pythagoras (the last quarter of the sixth century BCE) was preceded by Bandhayana who wrote the formula in 800 BCE. Unlike the other more fanciful claims made during that Congress – of flying machines, cows turning grass into gold, and so on – this reference to the Pythagorean theorem, says Nanda, does contain a ‘substantial nugget of truth hidden in an Everest of hype.’ Ancient Indians had indeed mastered and applied this geometrical conjecture, but the first recorded evidence for the conjecture goes back to 1800 BCE coming from Mesopotamia (which may then have travelled to Egypt) while the first proof came from China pre-empting the Euclidian proof by a couple of centuries and the Indian proof (as distinct from conjecture) by at least 1000 years with Bhaskara providing proof in the 12th century CE.
Pythagoras was not the first to discover or prove the theorem, but he and his followers were the first to try and give a mathematical foundation to nature. The Greeks appear to have got the conjecture from Egypt and Mesopotamia while India and China appear to have discovered it independently. However, the main debt is to be paid to the unknown builders, land surveyors, accountants and scribes of Egypt and Mesopotamia sent out to measure farm land for tax purposes or for assessing shifting land alignments as river waters flooded and receded. The pyramids could not have been built without mastery of the right-angle rule, and more. Two clay tablets of the Mesopotamian civilization preserved at the universities of Yale and Columbia reveal that Mesopotamians had calculated Pythagorean triples and square roots and quite likely developed trigonometry as well.
This chapter ends with the following salutary message concerning European claims about the primacy of Greece and, therefore, of the ‘West’, which is also a self-serving arrogance that ignores both ancient geography and Greece’s intellectual link to Egypt and the Middle East. As Nanda says, ‘The correct response to Euro-centrism is not Indo-centrism of the kind that was on full display at the Mumbai Science Congress. The correct response is to stop playing the game of one-upmanship altogether.’
On Zero: An Indian readership may well be really startled, perhaps dismayed, by Nanda’s rejection of the claim that ancient India was where the notion of zero and the decimal numbering system (that together provide the foundation for contemporary mathematics) was born. Even the history of mathematics as a highly abstract subject must not be separated from its ‘counter-culture’ – the ‘practical manipulation of numbers using movable counters’, be these clay tokens, pebbles, sticks or beads. That is to say, in understanding the evolution of science all too often, indeed most of the time, it is invention that has preceded theorization. And practical forms of counting have existed everywhere from the earliest of times – for herding of animals, collecting taxes, building bridges, temples and all kinds of structures. This emphasis on prior practices of counting is crucial for examining how and where the notion of zero first emerged and what uses were made of it.
Nanda cites here the wisdom of another scholar of the history of ‘number-recording’, Reviel Nitz, who says ‘…in early cultures, the record and manipulation of numerical symbols precede and predominate over the record and manipulation of verbal symbols …in other words, in early cultures, numeracy drives literacy rather than the other way around.’ Nanda goes further pointing out that, ‘All the elements that went into the creation of zero – counting by powers of ten, decimal place-value, the concept of empty space in the decimal ranking – were well known for many centuries in many diverse cultures before they all came together in India in the form [Hindu-Arabic system of numeration] that we use today.’ Yes, Indian mathematicians made use of zero in arithmetic that further enhanced the global stack of knowledge which is certainly to be admired and appreciated. But India was not the only civilization to arrive at the concept of zero!
Nanda accepts the view put forward by the great historian of ancient China, Joseph Needham and his collaborator Wang Ling, that zero as a number originated in China and travelled via Southeast Asia to India thereby acquiring its contemporary form of representation. Professor Lam Lay Yong, the famous historian of mathematics at the National University of Singapore and a winner of the highest honour (the K.O. May Medal) for science historians, supports the Needham thesis which is now increasingly accepted worldwide, but not in India. To understand why there is this growing consensus, one has to recognize that the three crucial concepts of zero, decimal counting and decimal place-value did not evolve together, and that though knowledge of decimal place-value must precede the evolution of the notion of zero, this does not itself indicate definite knowledge of decimal counting.
A number is an abstraction expressed either in ‘words’ spoken or written or through symbols which can be of two kinds – numerals or marks representing numbers. But these markings have, geographically speaking, varied greatly. In India there are no written records of Sanskrit numerals as distinct from ‘number words’. The first recorded numerals are in Karosthi and Brahmi dating back only to 300 BCE. While ‘number words’ can be recorded, versified and memorized, one cannot compute with them. Decimalization based on ten almost certainly originated from humans having ten fingers though the Mayan civilization used twenty (fingers and toes) as their base for counting large numbers. This counting by the base ten did not originate in Indian civilization but was widely used before and beyond it. Decimal counting which is universal does not need zero but decimal place-value or ‘positional notation’ must precede the emergence of zero being necessary but not sufficient condition for zero’s emergence. This notational form simply means that the ‘position of a number symbol determines its value’ and thus huge magnitudes can now be expressed with just a few number marks.
The ancient Greeks never developed place-value notation, while in India it emerged during the time of Asoka around 300 BCE. To have a zero means ‘something’ must represent nothing! And only when one has a positional order for grasping magnitudes does the need for a zero arise. The ancient Chinese made computations using counting rods which, says Nanda, was a decimal place-value system. There is concrete evidence that in 1500 BCE if not further back, the Chinese used nine unit signs plus a series of power signs for tens, twenties and subsequent ‘power of tens’ to express any magnitude however big. In India, the numericals in Brahmi lack place-value while those in Sanskrit showing place-value date much later from 200 CE to Aryabatha’s work around 500 CE. There is, says Nanda, a 900 year gap between Brahmi symbols without place-value to the Nagari place-value numerals. Why is there this delay if pre-CE India discovered zero?
The use of concrete symbols for numbers is unique to India. But a decimal place-value system of enumeration for practical purposes was widespread in China by 400 BCE and it alone had a system in which not only did the position of a number decide its value but there was also an ‘empty space’ signifying the absence of any numeral. This empty space was repeatedly left by counting rods otherwise laid out for the purposes of calculation and was called kong which means ‘empty’ like the later term sunya used by Hindus. The portable rod-numeral system of China was used by its traders and others who travelled far and wide familiarizing others with this system. This system from China was the first decimal place-value system. Only the shape of Hindu-Arabic numerals dates back to Brahmi, then evolving via Devanagari. Nor does the fact that certain civilizations could name large numbers (common to Greece, China, India) mean that these regions would as a matter of course establish a decimal place-value system and then a zero in the computational sense of ‘marking’ a void rather than as a metaphysical or philosophical notion expressing an ‘emptiness’ of being or existence.
Sunya-bindu as a numeral represented by a dot first emerges and separates itself from the metaphysical notion of sunya or void around 600 CE. But the earliest surviving evidence of this sunya-bindu as part of a numeral is found on pillar inscriptions first in Cambodia in late 7th century CE and then found around the same time in Sumatra, in both cases some two centuries before its appearance in India in the mid-9th century. Given that China conceived and used an empty space for computation from 400 BCE, it is at this Southeast Asian intersection of Hindu/Buddhist and Chinese cultural exchanges that the Indians adopted the nine unit system of numbers but wrote it using their own symbols and put a dot (later a circle) to define the empty space. And it is this system with its Arabic refinements that then becomes universal and is applied in China as well. In short, it is not the ‘purely’ Indian or Chinese or European that is important but the ‘civilizational interplay’ of practices and concepts that one must focus on. Since the modern numeral system is not just Hindu but Arabic, one should also study the pre-Islamic Arab-Chinese cultural exchanges to develop a deeper history of evolving numeracy.
Ancient Indian Medicine: There was not and could not be ‘genetic science’ before the concept of genes was invented, though there has long been intelligent speculation about heredity. Indian medicine can at best be said to have a very partial and limited theory of heredity. Anatomical and surgical knowledge did have a start in Vedic rituals of animal sacrifice but by the time of Sushruta Samhita (a work of many hands over time; hence not possible to date precisely) this moved away from its earlier religious-mystical frame to a more rational-empirical form of investigation into the human body and its medical treatment. But the practices of dissection and the study of the human cadaver were divided between those who only observed and studied, and those who did the actual dissection.
In a comparative perspective, this separation of functions based on the strictures of purity and pollution hampered further learning in ancient India. Alexandrian Greece, through more systematic dissection, made significant advances in anatomical understanding and this was further advanced by physicians during the period when learning flourished in the Islamic era and then in the early modern period in Europe. Nanda’s explanation for these advances outside India up to, during, and beyond the era of the Scientific Revolution, is that given the dominance of Brahmanism ‘the lowering of the barrier between scholar and craftsman never happened in India.’
On Scientized Yoga: Swami Vivekananda introduced Patanjali’s yoga sutra to the US and the West. This yoga was not of bodily postures, but the meditational yoga of the first century CE. For Vivekananda what made Hinduism a ‘religion of science’ was yoga, its ‘scientific method’ as a method of verification. Hatha yoga improved health but it did not promote ‘spiritual growth’. The Swami’s yoga, says Nanda, provided ‘empirically verifiable knowledge and control of the material world’ via access to the spiritual world lying behind it. This yoga was about controlling the ‘vital energy’ of the cosmos. It is this ‘pairing of spirit with energy, and Hinduism with modern science’ says Nanda, that justifies the ‘scientism’ of Hindu supremacists, and which makes modern science an ‘echo’ of Vedanta. This ‘hybridization of yoga and science’ by Vivekananda and those who follow him is based on what Nanda calls ‘resemblance thinking’ or analogical reasoning which in the philosophy of science is seen as a major source of pseudo science.
So where Romila Thapar has pointed to the ‘Semitization’ of Hinduism in modern times, Nanda points to its ‘Theosophization’. Neo-Vedantism is highly Theosophical and concerned with the ‘harmonization of ancient cosmology of Hinduism with Darwinian evolution and with scientific laws of physics as applied to energy.’ This is Vitalism, a doctrine that believes living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities in having a non-physical element governed by different principles than those applied to inanimate matter. While Vitalism has no credibility with professional biologists it does survive in all kinds of ‘new age’ practices and forms of healing.
Unfortunately, postmodernist and postcolonial theorizing about hybridity has provided legitimacy to this kind of knowledge gathering as in its own way having equal value and pertinence to the scientific method of arriving at provisional truths through careful experimentation. Forms and standards of rationality are deemed to be internal to cultures and not universal or objective, terms that are themselves to be considered dangerously misleading. The rest of this chapter on ‘scientized yoga’ provides a more general dissection and critique of postmodernist understanding of science which valorizes what Nanda calls pseudo science. Western and Indic religions differ and this has affected the scientific pursuit. Where the Abrahamic faiths separate the divine from matter, allowing more space for an independent scientific authority to emerge, ‘the Vedic tradition provides a complete metaphysics to make rational sense of resemblance relations.’ In such relations, similarity is taken to indicate causality. As an example of resemblance thinking – take the metaphorical similarity between the sun and gold. This is then taken to justify the claim that wearing gold next to the heart attracts beneficial energy of the sun to the heart.
Strands of Theosophy, western Esotericism, and Vedantism all merged to form a ‘spiritual scientism’ that would shape the thinking of Indians from Rammohan Roy to Debendranath Tagore to Keshub Chandra Sen to Vivekananda to Mahatma Gandhi and many others.
This is a rather long review for two reasons. First, this reviewer sees this book as a major work of great value in the political and intellectual struggle against Hindutva ideology, but also in the defence of science as a distinctive and uniquely powerful form of rationality whose potential use for good or evil is also distinctive. Second, it is a standing disgrace that this text has not been reviewed more widely or engaged with more seriously even by scholars who would strongly disagree with it. But such critics, be warned! They would have to meet the same standards that have been presented here – a careful and scrupulous ordering of arguments; repeated provision of evidentiary support wherever needed; clarity of exposition; and accurate unravelling of the logic of the opposing claims that she has taken upon herself to interrogate.
former Professor, University of Delhi