Thursday, February 4, 2016

Science, Secularism and Saturn

Science, Secularism and Saturn
In Hindu mythology, Saturn is easily the most difficult planet to propitiate. It symbolizes death, disease, poverty and all that we abhor in life.
Rationality is an extremely useful state of mind. Alas, it is not the only state of mind. Somewhere between rational enquiry and irrational mumbo-jumbo lies the non-rational world of art, poetry, music, mythology and much else. Of course, the non-rational does have rational as well as irrational building blocks, the concept of harmony in music and skilful exaggerations or logical contradictions in story-telling for instance, but as a cognitive phenomenon, non-rationality refuses to be tied down to either rationality or its opposing binary.
In other words, the pleasant experience of listening to music or reading poetry has little to do with our knowledge of sound waves or neuroscience. In contrast, rationality becomes indispensable in scientific enquiry and in societal matters, where forming explicit consensus over issues of importance is unavoidable. Hence it finds an extraordinary, if not supreme, place in our collective imagination.
However, as proposed above, rationality ought to have its reasonable limits and not just in the fields of aesthetics or art but also when we ascribe meaning to our everyday existence. The legendary propensity of human beings to interpret the infinite expressions of a limitless Universe within the rigid constructs of reason makes us unrealistically optimistic about the success of this hopeless endeavour. On a more grounded, less speculative note, the reliance on reason alone as our sole moral compass is sure to lead to disastrous navigation in social life. It is worth considering that psychopaths mostly self-identify as impeccable rationalists. The ‘Rationalist Delusion’ , with its fair share of caveats, is an accurate description of the belief system of a large and diverse section of humanity, one that worships reason as a panacea for all moral ills whereas evidence indicates that the reasoning faculty actually evolved to help us win arguments and rationalize our choices in hindsight rather than arriving at some higher objective truth.
bookThe sacred privilege granted to rationality in contemporary society can be traced back to the European scientific revolution, when long held beliefs of an entire civilization were brutally humiliated under the penetrating gaze of reason and science, subsequently liberating the whole populace from the stifling grip of religious superstition and prejudice. Descartes famously proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am” directly undermining the legitimacy of emotional and spiritual states of being.
Ironically, this apparently radical statement was an inadvertent rehash of the ideas of Plato and other Greek philosophers, who made a name out of deifying reason, long before Christianity had come about. In terms of the philosophy of science, the privileging of rationality became the basis for positivism and empiricism, which hold that any knowledge must ultimately derive its authority from reason.
Predictably, the triumph of rationality had a massive political impact culminating in the French revolution, with its celebration of liberty, equality and fraternity. Earlier, the growing trust in rationality had gone hand in hand with the Protestant Reformation and had witnessed a rift between the Church and the state, giving currency to the concept of secularism, the formal separation of religion and state.
By the 20th century, as the authority of Christianity was taking a nosedive in many parts of the west, blind faith in Jesus gave way to an unlikely alternative, blind faith in reason, marked by the rise of ideologies like communism and atheism, which are essentially Godless versions of Christianity in their obsessive urge to reduce all of history to a handful of simplistic ideas and the promise of ‘deliverance’ from aeons of oppression. Another feature that these secular creeds inherit from Christianity is a compulsive need to define an enemy, a secular Satan.
Communists profess hatred for the bourgeois, capitalists abhor communists, atheists blame religion for all evils and so on. In the middle of the same century, India ceased to be a British colony and in the true spirit of a colonized people, the country adopted a secular constitution inspired by the cherished values of the colonizer, which would not necessarily be a bad thing if only enough number of citizens subscribed to those values.
To come to an understanding of the schism between what the Indian constitution upholds and what various sections of the society believe in, let us first take a rudimentary look at the religious demographics in India. Hindus form the majority, Muslims are the largest minority and Christians are a distant third, followed by numerous other groups, some organically connected with Hinduism and others not.
Hindus themselves are an incredibly diverse polylith that allows for decentralization of customs, rites and rituals, often based on local geography and environmental constraints. Regardless of which religion they currently belong to, as a consequence of their Dharmic past, most Indians are deeply religious in temperament and therefore, many laws that are derived from a secular constitution find few instinctively eager takers. This dichotomy, though, is brushed aside by deracinated, elitist intellectuals appealing to the authority of reason, which is deemed sacrosanct.
Nevertheless, in the real world of action, it creates irresolvable conflicts in legislation and law enforcement. Imagine the emotional turmoil faced by a devout Sikh cop being asked to supervise the demolition of a Gurudwara to make space for a flyover. To be fair to the constitution, it is not a static document and has been amended nearly a hundred times since independence already but in an adversarial political environment where an elected government cannot pass regular, non-controversial bills in the parliament, expecting serious constitutional amendments that can have political consequences is asking for the moon. Thus, in practice, Indians are condemned to live with whatever has been thrust upon them by their colonial past.
It could be argued that given the mindboggling plurality of Indian society, to which modern secularism can make no claims of contribution, it would be impossible to work out a common minimum program that functions equally well for all sections and therefore, a code has to be enforced ‘from the outside’ with or without the consent of the masses. In their defence, the secularists declare that in time, such laws would trickle down into the consciousness of people and within a few generations, their primitive religious intuition would be replaced by a humane and rational outlook. This hope, other than being a product of the rationalist delusion mentioned above, also turns out to be a non starter for Indian society, which has a by and large successful history of resisting such attempts of acculturation by the powers that be, the Islamic invader, the colonial empire or the modern state. For the people don’t identify with the events of another time and place (read reformation in Europe), in which their own ancestry had absolutely no role to play.
This resentment is further accentuated by the glaring historical facts that point to a remarkably more harmonious social order in their own civilization. So, a relevant question to ask in this context is, if Hindu society never faced conflicts between the ruling class and the clergy, obviously due to its non-ecclesiastical make up, why should it accept a false consciousness imposed via hazy platitudes of secularist discourse? The most common answer is that Indian society is not entirely Hindu and it has to fulfil the aspirations of the minorities as well and secularism ensures that. Never mind the self referential circularity of secularist logic, let us now examine how secularism indeed provides a breath of fresh air to the minorities by effectively suffocating the majority.
bensonA secular state can choose to interact with religion(s) in the following ways as defined by Iain Benson, a Canadian-British legal philosopher:
  1. Neutral secular: No support to any religion in any way
  2. Positive secular: State creates general conditions favourable to all religions without favouring beliefs of anyone
  3. Negative secular: State not competent in religious matters but does not inhibit religious manifestations
  4. Inclusive secular: State not controlled by a single religion but works in the widest interest of different faith groups including non religious
It would be interesting to find out which of the above is the accepted definition of secularism in India. As the word was added to the preamble hastily at the time of 1975 emergency, it is unlikely that Mrs. Gandhi or her colleagues would’ve had the time to delve into such intricacies. But it is never too late to get to the bottom of a conundrum that is an inexhaustible source of sensationalism for the Indian media. From the above definitions, it is clear that in the Indian experience, putting a finger on one of the four variations turns out to be a near impossibility. It appears that our secularism is a ‘contextual’ secularism that changes its function as per political convenience.
The state turns positive in relation to Hajj subsidies and negative regarding issues such as large scale conversion by Christian missionaries. When it comes to Hindu issues, it becomes a neutral secular state, expressly suppressing facts through proxies and poking its nose into issues it has no business to be worried about. In states like West Bengal, the state adopts another form of secularism, that is, criminal secularism because it refuses to link appalling acts of crime to a ‘particular religion’.
Evidently, secularism in India is a false construct that only applies to the majority religion, whether it is in the form of the government control of temples or an unwarranted interference in educational institutions run by the majority community. This contextual secularism has serious repercussions for the Hindu society as it reopens the wounds that it has endured under a thousand years of largely exploitative rule by outsiders and alienates its various sections into becoming self loathing anglophiles, hardliner reactionaries or indifferent, apolitical and uninformed bystanders.
Hindus, under the influence of the dominant secularist discourse, are fast forgetting the art of speaking of their own Dharma on their own terms and it is getting increasingly common to find well meaning Hindus getting embroiled in inane debates about the ‘right’ to worship according to rules created in 16th century Europe.
Shingnapur, a relatively unknown village of Maharashtra, was dragged into one such duel between reason and ‘superstition’, when a group of self proclaimed feminists declared their intent to offer oil to the murti of Shanidev (Saturn) at the temple, a practice traditionally restricted to only males.Keeping with the arrogant trend of rationalist interventions, it was decreed that the practice was an expression of deep-seated patriarchy prevalent in Hindu society and how such discriminatory practices must end.
As expected, this was followed by a one sided assault on the temple and its unique tradition, with even Sri Sri Ravishankar, a popular Hindu religious leader throwing his weight behind the ‘activists’. No one seemed inclined to remind him that he had no authority over matters related to this temple or any other such temple in India because there is no central body that all Hindu temples align with through which he could have exercised his influence.
The Shani Shingnapur Temple technically belongs to the Shri Shaneshwar Devasthan Trust and more broadly to the residents of this village, whose many generations have adored and worshipped the deity in a particular way. Further, there is no evidence of these unique customs originating from social compulsions or tyranny of any kind. They belong to the realm of the esoteric and must be spared the jibes of secular rationality. Most importantly, the arrangement works for the locals, whose faith in the power of the deity’s presence inspires them to do away with doors for their houses and locks for their valuables, an ideal worth emulating for outsiders.
In Hindu mythology, Saturn is easily the most difficult planet to propitiate. It symbolizes death, disease, poverty and all that we abhor in life. It brings about great hindrance in self-expression and self-manifestation but only through these finite obstacles does it offer a gateway to infinite potential. The state of Hindu society for the last one thousand years also seems to have been strongly afflicted by Saturn, characterized by widespread poverty, subjugation, self-pity and exploitation by external forces beyond its control.
Reasoning (Yukti) has been a phenomenal asset for the Indian civilization, yet it has never been worshipped or put on a holy pedestal. Experience (Anubhava) has always superseded reason as far as its proximity to the truth is concerned. Saturn is the planet that grants us Anubhava. Let us not permit petty political reasons to overrule the spiritual experience of our diverse communities, who’re anyway suffering the tyranny of secularization for no fault of theirs. Let Saturn be our guide to self discovery, in Shingnapur and elsewhere.
Ashish Dhar, a Mechanical Engineer and an entrepreneur, lives in New Delhi. He is co-founder of, an e-learning portal dedicated to Indic knowledge systems.

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