Hinduism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Modern science was brought to India during the 1800s by the British as a part of the colonization process. The goal of science in the colony was not the advancement of science but rather the exploration of natural resources, flora, and fauna to feed the needs and demands of Britain and its ongoing industrial revolution. In the colonial context of India there was also discrimination against deserving Indian scientists who were relegated to positions below their entitlement and paid half the salary of their British counterparts.
Scientists in modern India can be divided into three categories. First there were transplanted European scientists employed by the British government who served as "gatekeepers" of colonial science. In the second category were British scientific personnel called by the colonial administration to undertake specific tasks. They had no commitment to the advancement of science in India. When these scientists completed their assignments, they returned home taking with them their knowledge and experience. A third category was composed of Indian scientists who became prominent after the 1870s. They were supported by a small group of British settler scientists and Christian missionaries who devoted themselves to the establishment of professional science in India. They numbered a few hundred including such key persons as David Hare, Eugene Lafont, William Carey, Prafulla Chandra Ray, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, Meghnad N. Saha, and Mahendra Lal Sircar. While scientists in the first two categories were part of the colonial enterprise, it was the third group that struggled to transform colonial structures and create an indigenous and autonomous culture of science in India.
Within Hinduism, during the same time period, the Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda (1863902) was revising Hindu thought to accommodate European rationality and science. Among the Bengali intelligentsia of the late nineteenth century it was widely felt that science as a method of obtaining knowledge about humans and nature was the key to human progress. Therefore, all systems of thought, including religion, needed to be validated by reason and science. Following the lead of earlier Brahmo Samaj thinkers such as Keshub Chandra Sen (1838884), Vivekananda attempted to show the compatibility of Hindu Advaita philosophy with science. Continued efforts in contemporary Hindu studies to draw analogies between Advaita and science are evidence of Vivekananda's influence. Just as science allows for the discovery of physical laws through the application of the scientific method, so also said Vivekananda, the rsis or seers who wrote the Vedas are the discoverers of spiritual laws. Rather than depending for their authority on their status as revelation, the Vedas can be shown to be timeless impersonal laws (like the law of gravity) that one accepts not on the basis of faith but by testing out and proving for oneself in one's own experience (just as the scientist does in verifying, by experiment, the discoveries of others.) Thus, the Advaita teaching on the realization of knowledge of Brahman (brahmajña¯na) is, according to Vivekananda, a method, like the scientific method, for the discovery of spiritual facts. Although one must begin with reliance on the Veda, one must eventually go beyond such a faith basis and prove the truths of the Vedas in personal experience. For Vivekananda, this method of attaining one's own spiritual knowledge is based on the Yoga of Patanjali (c. 200 B.C.E00 C.E.), with its focus on the direct experience of truth, and is parallel to the process of attaining and verifying knowledge in science.
Following the lead of Vivekananda, Hindu philosophers and theologians typically see themselves as presenting an approach in which spiritual and scientific knowledge coalesce, and through which they can win back their selfhood. For Hinduism the European scientific and technological tradition cannot be ignored or rejected, but must be absorbed and "worked-through" until the heart of Hinduism is reclaimed. This "working-through" is manifesting itself in contemporary cosmology and applied sciences such as medicine, ecology, and genetic engineering.
Hindu thinkers approach the still unresolved mystery of the universe by looking back to Brahman (the Divine) as somehow associated with the creation or production of the universe. Scientific theory has speculated that the universe may arise from a quantum vacuum state, which is a peculiar mixture of emptiness and activity. Ancient sages, say Hindu thinkers, had similar thoughts. The Sanskrit concept of zero, when applied to Brahman, is identified with both fullness and emptiness. Zero also makes possible advances in mathematics and modern digital technology. The universe is ontologically characterized by the term Brahman from the root brh "to expand." The risis thought of the universe as an "expanding Brahman," which is consistent with contemporary cosmological thinking. The current idea of a Big Bang in which very dense matter explodes into an expanding universe is seen to be prefigured by the Upanishadic notion bindu dimensionless point that is a unity of both static and dynamic forces, the dynamic expressing itself as the universe of multiplicity while essentially remaining a unity or order (rta). Or, as cosmologists put it, about 100 billion stars, including the sun, make up the Milky Way galaxy, a spiral wheel-shaped structure. This galaxy is part of a group of galaxies that form a cluster, while clusters in turn form superclusters of many thousands of galaxies. Cosmologists suggest that this pattern of hierarchical clustering prevails throughout the cosmos with gravitational forces holding the whole thing together. This contemporary theorizing recalls the Upanishadic words of the rsi Yajñvalkya to his pupil Aruni: "This world and the next world and all beings and all natural phenomena are strung together by the thread, the Inner Controller, the Immortal, the Brahman." (Brhad-arañyaka Upanishad III:7:3).
The vast collection of Hindu scripture leaves ample room for speculations as to ancient Vedic precursors of the latest thinking in India's strong scientific traditions in mathematics and astronomy, represented by the outstanding twentieth-century mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887920), and Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1888970), the 1930 Nobel prize winner in physics. As A. K. Bag shows, contemporary Indian excellence in mathematics and astronomy may be traced back to the Vedic concerns with the correct construction of strangely shaped altars and the correct astronomical time for the conducting of both individual and social events (p.186).
British colonization brought to India modern Western medicine, where it met Ayurveda or traditional Indian medicine, which traces itself back to the Vedas. Modern medicine, and its assumption of René Descartes's mind-body dualism, has often viewed the body as a mechanical object to be exercised, fed, and kept in order with drugs and the miracles of modern technology. By contrast, traditional Indian medicine sees the person as a sacred entity, a microcosm corresponding to the whole cosmological order. Consequently all Hindu thinking about the person and, to take an example, one's reproductive activity takes place within the larger context of the divine-human cosmos. To study the health of the Hindu bather who goes to the river at daybreak, one must include the mantras chanted, the purifying experience of the body in water, the vegetarian sattvic quality of the food eaten, and so on gestalt of human-withinnature/culture/religion analysis. The Western mechanistic view of the isolated body was held by British medicine to be the scientific replacement for the sense of the healthy person as a unity of body, mind, and environment as maintained by Hindu medicine. In the attempted superimposition of British ways upon India, the colonization of the body by modern Western medicine was a key strategy, especially when it assumed the right to define health and illness, and a monopoly to treat the latter. This particular colonization did not succeed, however, for many Hindus continue to practice Ayurveda and homeopathy alongside modern biomedicine.
A second colonization of the body is that of the patriarchal social order that has dominated Hindu thought and practice from the seventh century B.C.E. to the present. This colonization of women and their bodies, when combined with modern medical technology, raises serious ethical issues for contemporary Hindus. Since the patriarchal biasing of Hindu culture has led some Hindus to value boys more than girls, clinics have appeared in India and in Western diaspora communities where sonograms and amniocenteses are performed, and female fetuses aborted, even though this practice finds no justification in Hindu texts unless the life of the mother is in danger. Given the Hindu teaching of reincarnation, to engage in abortion is to commit murder.
In the realm of new reproductive technologies, the importance of popular Hindu notions of biological descent entail that artificial insemination with sperm other than that of the husband is not tolerated. But clinics that can help a childless couple conceive by implanting the husband's sperm are welcomed. In vitro fertilization (IVF), however, presents complicated issues for Hinduism. Fertility is important, especially the conception and birth of a son. Thus IVF is attractive to couples having difficulty conceiving and giving birth. Although modern India is using IVF enthusiastically, when considered by Hindu scholars IVF becomes a serious issue since the destruction of any embryo is considered murderhus all fertilized embryos are to be implanted. Hinduism has religious rituals that must be performed by a son if one's afterlife is to be secured, and the dowry practice makes sons a source of wealth and daughters a drain on family fortunes. Thus, the conflict between the desire for sons (and the possibility of ensuring them through the new technologies) and the proscription against abortion places severe moral strains on some families, especially upon the mothers involved.
Hindu texts speak of a close relationship between dharma (righteousness, duty, justice) and the ravaging of the earth. When dharma declines, humans take it out on nature. Modern science and technology, introduced into India during the British colonization and fostered by Jawaharlal Nehru's plans to industrialize India (undertaken after Indian attained independence in 1947), have led to serious pollution of the rivers, land, and air. This has been made worse by the country's population explosion and the desire of India's well-off classes (estimated at 200 to 250 million people) to consume conspicuously. This overpopulation and overconsumption has led to serious environmental degradation and an ecological crisis. The challenge for future science and Hinduism is how to use the resources of both to foster a sustainable future for generations to come. A key Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, offers a vision of the universe as the body of God towards which Hindus are to behave with respect. In addition, there are dharma texts in the Ramayana, Mahabharta, and Puranas that call for ecological action. The destruction of forests is condemned and the planting of trees encouraged. Temples such as the Tirumala Tirupati in South India, a famous place of pilgrimage, have established large nursery forests and, in place of the traditional food prasada (favor of the deity which gives one divine grace), have begun to give saplings to pilgrims to take home and plant. Hindu gurus have begun to cite previously obscure texts such as "one tree is equal to ten sons." When political officials visit the temple they are given a tree to plant as a symbol that all trees are worthy of respect as part of God's body.
The Hindu tradition emphasizes bathing in rivers as a way to be morally cleansed and to acquire spiritual merit. Thus rivers, especially the Ganges, are seen as sacred. Rapid industrialization, however, has led to the release of toxic wastes into India's rivers. Overpopulation and the lack of basic sanitary facilities have resulted in the rivers being used as latrines despite the injunctions of dharma texts against such practices. Rivers that are supposed to be a pure part of God's body, and to be able to ritually purify people, stand stagnant due to dams and are polluted with wastehe results of adharma or unrighteous behavior. The Hindu view of rivers as nurturing goddesses is under severe challenge due to contemporary environmental degradation, which is linked by some scholars, such as Vasudha Narayanan, with the denigration of women. A comparison can be made between the plight of rivers and the plight of women, both being targets of greed and power. Yet it is women, as in the Chipko (hugging trees) movement, that are leaders in the protection of forests and the stopping of dams. Women are also involved in communicating the tragedy of ecological disasters using traditional religious art forms of song, dance, and story. The challenge for science is to join forces with such ecological movements within Hinduism so as to respond to the current crisis.
In hopes of responding to India's overpopulation and the attendant need for increased food production, both government and industry have turned to genetic engineering for help. Science in India has responded quickly with research ranging from genetic studies of the human population to various agricultural and medical applications. Such studies raise ethical questions for Hinduism. Pharmaceutical companies use the traditional genetic knowledge of village and tribal peoples, and then engineer and patent products for which the local people receive no credit and for which they have to pay. Similarly the genetic altering and patenting of seeds takes them out of the hands of ordinary farmers and places them under corporate control. For example, Monsanto in partnership with Mahyco (a seed company in India), has genetically engineered hybrid cotton seed to produce the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) enzyme, so that chemical insecticide sprays will no longer be needed for pest control (e.g., bollworms). While this may be beneficial for the preservation of insect diversity, more problematic has been the activity of Monsanto in India in testing the "terminator gene," which allows plants to grow but not produce seed for future crops. This led to protests by farmers' groups, ecofeminist activity by Vandana Siva, and charges of biopiracy against Monsanto. In the face of this protest the Indian government reversed its position and declared that the terminator gene will pose a serious threat to Indian agriculture. The government implemented regulations to cover every phase of genetic engineering from laboratory research to field trials and final release.
Such regulations, however, may not cover the important ethical questions that an application of Hinduism will raise. For example, given that all of nature is God's body, are there moral limits that genetic engineering must respect? Or do the requirements of dharma allow for the patenting and commercial (for profit) ownership of forms of life? And is the crossing of species in genetic engineering acceptable? Hindu answers to these questions may well differ from responses of the Western religions given the strong Hindu view (karma-sam-sara) that there is no radical separation between humans and other forms of life, which from a Jaina perspective extends from humans to animals, plants, air, water, and molecules of matter. Instead, a radical continuity is proposed that has ethical implications for much genetic engineering. Hindu reverencing of plant and animal life offers an important corrective to tendencies in modern science and technology to view the results of genetic engineering strictly from the perspective of the benefits that will accrue to humans. Although medical therapeutic uses of genetic engineering may, at first glance, seem more defensible, they are open to similar ethical examination. Although therapeutic goals seems more clearly good than enhancement goals (e.g., more intelligence, better memory), once one begins to make genetic modifications, one is unsure of the biological and social consequences for the individual and for the collective ecosystem of which the individual is but a part. While the government of India still looks to genetic engineering for help in feeding India's population of 950 million and growing, the Hindu peasant farmer still plants his seed with the prayer, "Let the seed never be exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year." The challenge to science is to help feed the hungry and heal the sick while still respecting the requirements of dharma or righteousness in which the farmer trusts.
See also ECOFEMINISM; ECOLOGY; SPIRITUALITY
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