Ironies of India: A scientific temperament as a prelude to conversion?

by Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover

Today, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of a (lack of a) scientific mindset among the Indian people is omnipresent in the media. Almost everything that goes wrong in handling the crisis has been blamed on the absence of ‘scientific temper’ and ‘rationality’ in functionaries and uninformed folks. There is a hidden irony here.

During the 19th century, conversion crystallised as a theme of discussion in colonial India within the framework of a massive missionary-cum-educational project. The kind of debates about religion that the British missionaries, officials and orientalists were familiar with — e.g., conflicts about true religion between Catholics and Protestants in the post-Reformation era, disputations between Christians and Jews during the Middle Ages and later, controversies about heresy and apostacy — proved to be of no help as models in India. Missionaries soon began to admit that converting the heathen into the true religion did not happen as quickly or thoroughly as anticipated.

Regularly ‘surprised’ or ‘baffled’ by the arguments of Indian scholars, the British made sense of their experiences using the only way they knew: “The heathens lacked the right way of thinking about religion”. They believed that the deficient state of ‘the Hindus’ made the latter blind to the falseness and corruption of ‘Hindu religion’ and ‘superstition’. Neither explicit proselytising and preaching nor debates about religion had generated the desired result, namely, removing this blindness and creating openness to Christianity.

British missionaries and scholars identified a specific deficiency even among ‘the most learned of Hindus’ — a defect in the latter’s reasoning on matters religious. The gist of their analysis consisted of the following points: the ‘Hindus’ have not studied their religions well; they do not consider conflicting opinions about religion as problematic; they fail to see that Christianity and Hinduism are incompatible and that different religions cannot be true at the same time; they merely accept the words of their parents and priests on their say-so and do not critically assess arguments based on oral testimony and tradition; they do not ask for — or even appreciate — evidence of various kinds (e.g., historical, geographical and scientific) in matters of religion; they cannot think rationally, logically or morally about their traditions, deities and texts; they never test the credibility of traditionally-received histories.

This deficiency in the ‘Hindu’ had to be addressed to find a way of making Indians ‘see’ the falseness and corruption of their traditions. Indians needed to be taught to think the right way. And that is what missionaries and colonial officials set out to do.

From reason to religion…

John Muir (1810-1882), a civil servant and orientalist, wrote an important work called Matapariksha  that compared Hinduism and Christianity in a series of Sanskrit shlokas to point out to learned Indians the inadequacies of the former and the truth of the latter. In his introduction, Muir noted that his line of reasoning ‘will seem familiar and natural to the Christian reader’, but not to the ‘learned Hindus, who are not accustomed to see such rules and principles applied to test the credibility of traditionally-received histories, and the merits of theological doctrines’. In his book he developed a dialogical model where the opponent is slowly and patiently countered and convinced. Before gaining the ability to reflect and debate about religion, the Indians should first learn to reason in a specific way.

Another figure, the missionary John Wilson, believed the Hindus and Parsis had not studied (their) religion well and were far removed from true learning. From Wilson’s perspective, then, the problem was clear: the natives never asked for ‘evidence’ and simply accepted the claims of their elders and priests. Hence, he was convinced that the dissemination of true learning and evidence (not only religious but scientific also) would prove to be the death of the local religions. According to him, science would have the impact of showing to the Indians that their sacred texts are incompatible with true and superior knowledge and, therefore, must be false and could not be divinely revealed. This way of reasoning entailed an obvious solution to the ‘problem’, also promoted by Wilson: true learning “is doing much to overturn the Hindu religion”.

Via the route of education

One of the significant results of the 19th-century interaction was a fixation on the need for instruction, education and reform of the Indian population. Whatever the specific motives and contexts of individual authors, whichever their preferred terms and descriptions, the 19th century saw the percolating of the idea that the deficient situation of the Indians was related to their ‘religion’ and needed to be remedied by education and reform.

‘Evangelism, education and salvation’, Mark Chapman suggests, ‘came to be understood as aspects of the same process, which did not necessarily require explicit acceptance of Christian doctrines’. The preoccupation was to teach Indians how to deal with religion and related aspects of society in a better way. Writings on this subject repeated a specific set of ideas: true learning and evidence will counter the attitude of simply accepting the claims of parents and priests; teaching science will show the incompatibility between scientific facts and ‘facts’ postulated by Indian scriptures; true learning is needed to overturn the ‘Hindu religion’ and teach ‘the Hindu’ how to question and then to reject his religion; Indians should be trained in historical consciousness so as to distinguish between myth, fiction and historical fact; they should also gain proficiency in basic skills of reasoning and the rules of evidence. As some authors explicated, knowledge, including the sciences, would thus function as the handmaiden of true religion. 

One fervent advocate of this approach was James Ballantyne, the Scottish orientalist and principal of the Government College of Benares for many years. He was known for his respect for the best in ‘Hindu thought’ and was critical of the methods used by Christian missionaries, who, too eager to multiply conversions fell into the ‘imprudences which attend an unenlightened spirit of proselytism’. In his Christianity Contrasted with Hindu Philosophy (1859), he proclaimed that one should pin one’s hopes on the dissemination of knowledge. Pondering upon the goals of the British educational efforts in India, Ballantyne described the process as follows:

“Shall our absolutely ultimate end, then, be the production of a first-rate engineer, or of a valuable revenue officer, or of an accomplished native magistrate? With this I am not prepared to be satisfied. My proposed end is the making of each educated Hindu a Christian,on principle and conviction. This end, as I propose here to indicate, implies everything that the amplest course of education can comprise. Let us trace the assertion backwards, — as thus. That a Hindu should on principle and conviction, embrace a religion which, like Christianity, bases its claims on historical evidence, presupposes not merely an acquaintance with historical assertions, but a cultivation of the critical faculty, so as that the force of the historical evidence may be intelligently felt. The immediate preparation for a critically intelligent study of history, is the study of Physical Geography.”

James R. Ballantyne, The Bible for the Pandits (London and Benares: James Madden and E.J. Lazarus & Co., 1860)

The goal of education in India was not to simply train the Indians in a profession, but also to make them Christian in ‘principle and conviction’. But embracing Christianity presupposes an acquaintance with ‘historical assertions’ and a ‘cultivation of the critical faculty’, so that ‘the force of historical evidence may be intelligently felt’, Ballantyne said, and this requires knowledge of a range of sciences.

This is the irony referred to in the title: in Europe, ‘religion’ and ‘science’ opposed each other. Locked in a seemingly endless battle, they allegedly became ‘mutually incompatible’. The irony in India is that the missionaries had to take recourse to science to convert ‘the pagans’ to Christianity. Thus, something strange occurs when Christians meet the pagans. (See Balagangadhara’s “The Heathen in His Blindness…”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion (2nd revised edition, New Delhi: Manohar, 2005).)

Scientific temperament

Let us finish by briefly indicating some continuities from 19th-century colonial India to the Indians of today. Most notably, English-educated Indians adopted a new way of looking at their traditions, texts and practices, as the colonial educators had intended.

First, they accepted terms such as ‘idol worship’, ‘religion’, ‘superstition’, ‘cruelty’, and ‘priesthood’ as valid terms to describe and denounce traditional practices. The implication was that these practices required reform. This situation is so extreme that some Indians now ask ‘why should we cede control over the word religion?’ ‘Religio’ is a Latin word and ‘religion’ is its English translation. These are the terms the Europeans used to describe Indians. Who holds which control over what?

Second, sections of the Indian intelligentsia learned to view the content of traditional texts in a particular manner:

  • The texts were seen to comprise factual claims about the world. Some derided them because of their incompatibility with the facts of science and history; others defended them by looking for historical, archaeological, geographical, and scientific ‘evidence’. Here also, the attempt of the colonial educational project to make Indians see the conflict between ‘the facts of science’ and ‘the claims of Hinduism’ appears to have borne fruit.
  • The texts were also seen to found actions and beliefs. Indians accepted the Christian notions that actions embody beliefs and are ‘prescribed’ by ‘religious’ texts, which the Europeans feverishly translated and interpreted. The hysteria that surrounds Manu and his smriti is a good example.

Third, there is a firm conviction among educated layers that the Indian people lack something essential: the spirit of inquiry and reforms should throw off the stifling hold of tradition and superstition. As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India (1946), ‘the scientific temper’ and its ‘refusal to accept anything without testing and trial’ should become ‘a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellowmen’.

This is even enshrined in Article 51A of the Constitution of India which declares it the fundamental duty of every citizen ‘to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. In other words, the stance that British missionaries and officials sought to introduce as a necessary step towards dissolving the hold of ‘Hinduism’ and civilising and Christianising ‘the Hindus’ has been declared a constitutional duty in post-Independence India.

Today, almost every educated Indian connects the impact of the pandemic on India with a lack of a ‘scientific mindset’. This pandemic has brought the absurdities and foolishness of all countries and people to the surface. There is not a single country that can claim to have handled this situation perfectly. India is no exception. Europe has seen absurd protests against mask-wearing, a fixation on going on vacation abroad, and scepticism about vaccinations almost on par with American stupidity. Yet, it is only the Indians who constantly shame each other as people ‘lacking in scientific temperament’. With generous help from the media and its fondness for sensational and salacious stories from the exotic East, peppered with tired tropes of funeral pyres, cow-urine and gatherings of half-naked sadhus.

As Balagangadhara put it:

“Colonization was not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues. It was not a question of us aping Western people and trying to be like them. It was not even about colonizing the imagination of a people by making them ‘dream’ that they, too, would become ‘modern’, developed, and sophisticated. It goes deeper than any of these. It is about denying peoples and cultures their own experiences; of rendering them aliens to themselves; of actively preventing any description of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonizers.”

S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing India Studies (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012)

[Based on excerpts from a forthcoming book Religious Conversion: Indian Disputes and Their European Origins, under contract for publication with Routledge.]

How to Think about the Consequences of Colonialism? An example

S.N. Balagangadhara on June 2, 2021

Replying to the question: “(a) Do you mean Islamic colonial rule affected our attitude towards knowledge (how we learn)? And (b) How do we fix the colonial era bureaucracy?”

To begin answering these huge questions, we must look at the world in terms of “tendencies” (both social and cultural) at a high level of abstraction. An example of what it looks like.

What did Islam do? It destroyed native intellectuals in India (the Gurus, the prajnajivis) and replaced them with Pundits (as the Buddhijivis of India). The colonial rule forced the culture to go into a defensive mode: protect, preserve, and transmit the traditions and not allow a disintegration of the culture. The pundits succeeded in doing this through their ‘shastric’ ways of teaching, which, among other things,  consisted of building layers of walls that prevented the impingement of forces from the outside world. Neither of the two colonialisms destroyed our culture because of what our ancestors did and how our pundits conserved what they inherited.

But this conservation, which turns inwards in the process of protecting a culture, also inhibits emergence of novelties. All research introduces novelties and ‘the shastriya’ prevents this. While this was necessary during the colonial rule, today, it is a big hindrance. We need, to use a phrase current today, lateral insertion here: an insertion of questions and stories from the western intellectual traditions into a process of the shastric education that bows down to Saraswathi, the embodiment of knowledge. Without it, the ‘shastriya’ will go the way of all has-beens, sooner or later. The British colonial administration introduced its education system into this defensive attitude against the Islamic colonial aggression. It failed: not spectacularly but with a whimper. Our current education system sustains itself as a social parasite that generates more parasites upon the organism that our body politic is. When an organism is overwhelmed by parasites, the way it is today, the organism dies. So will the parasites. That is the future for India without changes.

The bureaucracy is a structure on which society has been built. If it is not destroyed, our society will disintegrate and fall apart. One cannot destroy a social structure through a ‘lateral entry’ of individuals and groups of individuals into that structure. It will absorb and crush such insertions in no time, as people are discovering only now. To use a biological metaphor, such a structure must be (a) destroyed through necrosis (by starving it of its lifeblood) and (b) by building an alternative structure at the same time (in the same place) as the necrosis itself. As the corrupt and inept bureaucracy begins to die, a healthy and new structure must begin to take over the functions of holding the society together. To understand how this is to be done, we need people who have made it their ‘job’ to study the structures and institutions in societies and cultures. Such people exist (a few in India but mostly abroad). We must draw in such people, make them do the research and feed their results to those capable of initiating such changes in the society. They exist too. The problem is to bring these people together, which, given the current state of Indian society, is next to impossible. We will continue to produce “mouse charmers” (instead of “snake charmers”) long after the world does not need people to write independent mouse drivers to use a mouse. Today, already, the OSes take care of using the mouse to navigate. But we are still busy creating IT institutions that teach our students to write bad mouse drivers and shout about our “soft power”.

The Paradox of Indian Students

S.N. Balagangadhara on June 2, 2021

Responding to the statement: “Indian culture lacks free independent thinking and discourages innovation.”

In order to think in a serious fashion about the current Indian situation, you better begin taking the comment seriously (with some nuance about ‘culture’ though).

In the first place, this is what the British discovered about Indian students a century after they introduced the English university education in India. By the time they left India, they concluded that the university education had failed here. Indian students, they discovered repeatedly, were interested in acquiring a piece of paper (the degree certificate) and not in knowledge or research. (Please read the book by Sashikala Srinivasan, Liberal Education and Its Discontents: The Crisis in the Indian University, Routledge 2018, where she talks about the British experience, among other things.) It would be correct to say that the education system of India (of the last 200 years) “lacks free independent thinking and discourages innovation”.

The problems, however, do not begin with the British: they encountered this when they introduced scientific education. It was there for almost 700 years before that: the Islamic rule generated and cemented this over centuries. In this sense, it is now a part of Indian ‘culture’, even though our culture is intrinsically inimical to this tendency. How do we know this? Almost every Indian student who goes abroad is capable of doing (and does) original and interesting research. Had they stayed in India, they would have been unable to do this. You need to look at the number of Indian researchers in industries abroad (or in scientific institutions abroad) to understand and be amazed by this.

Those small groups of individuals (small in percentages but huge numerically), who are forced to go abroad because of the twin problems of the inept bureaucracy and reservation system in India, flourish and do research abroad. Those who are forced to remain in India (mostly) are either third rate researchers (not all but most) or stop doing research because of how India has developed since her independence.

Thus, a thousand years of “lacking free independent thinking and discouraging innovation” weighs on Indian students. Most industries do not invest in R&D: think of the auto industry before the so-called liberalisation of Indian economy when every few years Ambassador and Fiat cars would change front grills and present them as ‘new’ models or what happened to the Indian smartphone industry when the Chinese, the US and the Koreans entered the Indian market. Indian managers, ex-students from the Indian education system, find that R&D reduces profit and is inimical to quarterly results. (But they talk the management bullshit of doing R&D.)

Researchers, who remain in India, become n-th rate business ‘managers’ and follow the IAS bureaucracy that leads research institutions in India. Illiterate and corrupt people become ministers of education and slavishly follow the clerks (namely, the IAS) because that administration shows the way to become rich for these politicians. Neither scientific education nor the Sanskrit education goes beyond the strict limits drawn by 1000 years of colonization. (Yet, Indians excel when they go abroad for higher studies.) That is why Indian education will soon resemble Black Africa of the 1920s and 1930s.

This degeneration of Indian education system (that began under colonialisms) also seeps very deep into society. Most business firms want to make a quick buck: Indian business has the reputation of being dishonest, cheats, liars, etc. abroad. (Contrast this with how the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. business is known.) Because it is the dream of the youth to become entrepreneurs and begin start-ups, the ‘astute’ businessmen are being overrun by people who want to make a million by beginning a start-up with a “‘game-changer’ business plan”. I have lost count of engineers setting up SMBs, sending good products in their initial batches but sending cheap and defective products once they got the contracts. Most also have gone bankrupt.

Just when China and others (even Vietnam) are following the path of growth, India is very rapidly retrograding. In both classical and scientific education, we are producing incompetent people. If we do not change these processes urgently, we will only be left with loudly shouting ‘make in India’ and cheering the reservation system on. Every other good and beautiful thing will begin to disintegrate.