The pseudoscientific approach thriving under the BJP has its roots in British rule


Historian Wendy Doniger

In a new book, the scholar writes about the convoluted reasoning and origins of Hindutva’s love for ‘mythoscience’.

The spirit of dissent that was nourished first by the scientific temper of the Arthashastra and the Kamasutra and then by the Charvaka mythology of scepticism has now come up against a new incarnation of the forces of repressive dharma, now supporting pseudoscientific claims. Once again science, now the sciences of physics, aeronautics, and medicine rather than politics and erotics, has come into direct conflict with authoritarian aspects of dharma.

This, too, began back during the British Raj. By assimilating the same British Protestant judgments that inspired the Hindu reaction against kama, members of Reform Hinduism came to admire both British science (particularly as expressed in technology such as trains) and British moral codes, in essence British ethical and social dharma – progressive in opposition to aspects of Hindu social dharma such as suttee.

They accepted the idea of moral progress as an integral part of scientific progress. But then, in a kind of compensatory reaction against their uncomfortable admiration of their colonisers, many Hindus kept the foreign values but denied that they were foreign.

Just as they had reasserted their own “eternal” sanatana dharma in response to British moral codes, now they asserted that their own oldest religious document, the Veda, back in 1500 BCE, had already anticipated European science. They claimed that ancient Indian scholars had made major scientific discoveries not only in grammar and mathematics (which they had, though not in the Vedas) but in aeronautics (which they had not, ever). Swami Dayanand Saraswati argued that the incarnate god Krishna and the Mahabharata’s human hero Arjuna (Krishna’s close friend) had gone to America five thousand years ago, travelling through Siberia and the Bering Straits. And so, others insisted, since the Vedic people had discovered America long before Columbus, he was, therefore, actually right when he called the native Americans “Indians.” Confusion here hath made its masterpiece!

Those who made these claims referred to the Vedas for their authority, ignoring the far more scientific shastras, for two reasons. First, because it’s always easier to argue that something is “in the Vedas” than in a later text, since Vedic language is so archaic (it is to classical Sanskrit what Beowulf is to Shakespeare) that only relatively few priests and scholars know what’s in the Vedas well enough to contradict anyone who cites the Vedas as their authority. And second, because the Vedas, being much older than the shastras (indeed, even older than the Bible), have more authority – particularly, of course, religious authority.

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