A misremembering

Two Indian scientists who passed away recently – Yash Pal and Pushpa Mittra Bhargava – spent a large part of their lives ensuring that lay people had access to bona fide scientific material and that our appreciation of science, and nature, stemmed from a realistic understanding of its inherent beauty.

When they died, we celebrated them and their efforts as if we were going to remember them for posterity, as if we were going to honour their legacies by committing ourselves to their advice. But, it seems, just for a day. Sample this Financial Express headline:

And here’s an excerpt from the ‘story’:

So, what is the ”logic” behind certain practices associated with the lunar eclipse among Hindus? The Hindus believe that the cycles of the moon have an impact on the human body. Renowned spiritual leader Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev has shared his insights on his blog regarding this.

“The cycles of the moon have an impact on the human system, physically, psychologically and energy wise. During lunar eclipses, what would happen in 28 days over a full lunar cycle happens subtly over a course of two to three hours…in terms of energy, the earth’s energy mistakes this eclipse as a full cycle of the moon. Certain things happen in the planet where anything that has moved away from its natural condition will deteriorate very fast. That is why there is a change in the way cooked food is before and after the eclipse. What was nourishing food turns into poison, it is better to keep the stomach empty at this time,” Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev has written on his blog.

There isn’t a shred of science presented in the article, which seems to have been put together to appease a section of the audience that is more concerned about following rituals than anything else. Eating during an eclipse, or any celestial event of any kind, doesn’t affect the body. This is not to say that fasting as an observance – whether for a day or a month, out of faith or in pursuit of some kind of ‘detoxification’ – does not have effects. It may. But to fast because the Moon or the planets will “affect” the human body is absurd. The responsible thing for the publication to do would have been to help people understand this. That neither are chemistries thrown out of whack nor are biological processes suspended.

In fact, the only things kicked out of their natural order appear to be the editors of Financial Express, their gullible readers and, of course, Jaggi Vasudev. Incidentally, the latter’s respect for allegedly natural forces hasn’t stopped him from illegally constructing over 125,000 sq. metres of real estate in Coimbatore – which a retired judge of the Madras high court has said will pollute the Noyyal river and affect the “entire western region of Tamil Nadu”.

A sad irony in all of this is that one of Yash Pal’s more famous contributions to the narrative of popular science in India concerned a solar eclipse. To quote from the obituary that Gauhar Raza wrote in The Wire:

In the early 1980s, when a total solar eclipse shadowed India’s north, Doordarshan had issued repeated warnings that people should not go out in the open. These warnings were based on half-cooked scientific knowledge and religious superstitions. Most cities and villages witnessed what could be called a total curfew. During the eclipse, many people were confined to their houses and performed religious ceremonies. But by 1995, things had changed largely thanks to the efforts of the People’s Science Movement – as had Doordarshan, thanks to Pal’s efforts.

For the first time, in more than 3,000 years of our history, people came out in large numbers and watched and celebrated total solar eclipses all over the country. I remember Pal had been on Doordarshan explaining the natural phenomenon, and at one point almost shouted at the cameraperson when he realised the camera was facing him when it should’ve been pointing at the Sun. Most people appearing on the national channel would have preferred their face for maximum time instead of any other image. But here was a committed scientist who wanted the nation to witness the eclipse, a beautiful natural phenomenon that people had missed for centuries due to superstitions.

Where are these “people in large numbers” today? Have they now transformed into the “2.7k shares” that the Financial Express article blares? Perhaps some shared it to ridicule it; either way, the article is a reminder of what Pal and Bhargava were up against in their lifetime and the unfinished agenda they left behind.

Twilight of rationalism

Between the murders of anti-superstition activists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare and rationalist M.M. Kalburgi, and the promotion of pseudoscience centred around cow-urine and other pet Hindutva themes, rationalism in India is clearly under strain. The Centre regularly interferes in the affairs of universities and colleges known to encourage contrarian thinking. The effect: many voices have been threatened into silence that could have otherwise spoken up against pseudoscience and superstitions that often only serve to cement Hindutva majoritarianism. The most harmful manifestation of this has been the glorification of cows and the demonisation of those who “harm” them.

On August 2, a Dalit woman was lynched in Agra by a mob that accused her of being a ‘witch’ (or a ghost, according to another report) who wanted to cut off the braids of young women. Hindustan Times reported, “In rural parts of Agra, people are making hand impressions of henna and turmeric at the entrance of their houses, while others are putting up lemon and chillies ‘to ward off the evil barber’.” Since then, allegations have surfaced of a ‘malevolent barber’ being on the loose from Aligarh and Delhi. In Jodhpur and Bikaner, WhatsApp messages about a group of ‘shapeshifting’ godmen intent on cutting the braids of young women for their rituals made the rounds a month before four people were lynched to death by a mob in Jharkhand. The victims were accused of attempting to kidnap children for similar rituals; they weren’t doing any such thing.

Some Hindu superstitions hold that shaving off a woman’s hair can bring ill-luck or bereavement, and that growing it out can help “emit Shakti waves”. And because we’re worried about losing them, we’re creating demons out of thin air.

Indian ministers have since 2014 made various dubious claims about the feats of “ancient India” and the supernatural abilities of bovine (let’s call them for what they are) shit and piss. This includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well. With such brazen disparagement of scientific thinking prevalent in the corridors of power, it is no surprise that government initiatives have been mooted to promote untested forms of medicine and healthcare, against such devastating diseases as diabetes and cancer.

In April 2017, the Department of Science and Technology even proposed that a ‘national steering committee’ be set up to “scientifically validate” the effects of consuming panchgavya – a five-part concoction of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd and ghee. The committee will have no less than 19 members working over three years. Meanwhile, the funding for eliminating tuberculosis, which India has promised to do by 2025, was cut by Rs 13 crore earlier this year.

Rise of doublespeak

As Modi’s star has risen, it has also elevated the fortunes of Baba Ramdev, a yoga guru turned FMCG player. The company he leads, called Patanjali, purchased a series of newspaper ads in 2015 that made many unrealistic claims about the quality and provenance of its products. Bhargava had written at the time for The Wire:

The ad says, “After an intense research of 25 years, and conducting tests on over 1 crore people, our Ayurveda Mission is to give a healthy lifestyle to the people of the country successfully.” If “intense” research has been carried out for 25 years, it must have been done by research scientists in an institution and the results put in public domain – for example, by publishing them in respected periodicals as is the practice universally. No such publication is mentioned in the ad or is known to exist. In the absence of any such publication, one may legitimately ask: who were these scientists and what were their qualifications? What was the name and location of the institute? What was the research methodology used? Even if you have all the test results of one individual recorded on one page, for one crore individuals you would need at least one crore pages of recorded data; with 300 pages per volume,  the number of volumes of data would be well over thirty thousand. Where are they? Will Ramdev answer these questions? In fact, should not answers to at least some of these questions have been provided in the ad to make it credible, especially when the claim that is being made would seem to be extremely unlikely to be correct on the face of it?

Whatever lessons we claimed to have learnt from rationalists is rendered hollow in the face of the monumental doublespeak that India has been confronted with, and our seeming inability to surmount it. On the one hand, the political establishment promises growth and development by leveraging space applications and information technology – both of which rely on cutting-edge advancements in the likes of physics, mathematics and computing. But on the other, it promotes irrationality and pseudoscience. Nowhere was this hypocrisy more evident than in a recent Mann Ki Baat episode, when Modi soliloquised that “man should revere nature” and “be one with it” – even as he has led his government’s efforts to reduce environmental impact assessments to “a mere formality”.

Just paying lip-service to Pal and Bhargava is pointless, even counterproductive. It is at best a cheap pass to be able to claim that we remember their teachings when in fact we have nothing to show for it. The best way to remember them by would be to emulate their sensibilities and, at every opportunity, to extricate our senses from the fevered grip of ignorance and blind faith.

The WireAugust 8, 2017