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Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India

November 2, 2009

As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote of his native land but as a stranger in the process of discovery, “India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by invisible threads.” These invisible threads were the spiritual beliefs of the people, the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita and the Manu Smriti. The sacred Ganges was a symbol of India’s life blood, as much for the Indian people as for the British colonialists, that, as Rudyard Kipling described in his story “The Bridge Builders,” was a natural force that needed to be conquered if the British were to successfully impose their hegemony. In this way “Mother Gunga–in irons” became a metaphor for the use of Western science in conquered lands. Princeton historian Gyan Prakash, in his survey of science in colonial India, seeks to show that science was both a means of expanding British control over the region and was a conflict zone that the nationalist elite of India sought to reimagine as an indigenous concept in order to reclaim their land.

Another Reason, as Prakash describes it, is a story of “science’s cultural authority as the legitimating sign of rationality and progress” (7). The colonial state used European science to conquer and exploit India and Prakash reveals how the history of science and the history of Western hegemony are akin to the two snakes intertwined around Hermes’ Caduceus, a symbol of reason and authority that seeks to heal but also to control. This can be seen in the early anthropological studies incorporated as part of the 1869 General Industrial Exhibition that sought to celebrate Western science in conquered lands. George Campbell, ethnologist and governor of Bengal, emphasized the importance of studying the “wild tribes” of the land under his purview because “Of all sciences, the neglected study of man is now recognized as the most important.” The racial politics were very clear, as Campbell explained.

“The world is becoming more and more one great country; race meets race, black with white, the Arian with Turanian and the Negro; and questions of miscegenation or separation are very pressing” (28).

As part of the exhibition, various “biped specimens” were to be collected (by force or through payment Campbell does not specify) and “classified according to races and tribes,” after which each would be placed in their own stall “and submit to be photographed, printed, taken off in casts, and otherwise reasonably dealt with, in the interests of science” (28).
However, as part of the growing opposition to colonial rule, those Indian elites who had received a Western education sought to co-opt the power and authority of science and to refashion it as an Indian concept. In this way, colonial scientific knowledge was reshaped and turned against the colonizer. Indian scholars sought to show how the ancient wisdom contained within indigenous religious knowledge was a precursor to Western science, suggesting that the Indian people merely needed to reclaim their sovereignty in order to return the nation to its former glory. For example, a professor at Lahore Government College, Pandit Guru Datta Vidyarthi, sought to show how the writings of the Vedas were not spiritual metaphors but were scientific descriptions of the natural world. In his translation from the Sanskrit he argued that the Vedic term vayu was actually a treatise on the atmosphere, a “gaseous envelope” that he said the ancient Indians understood as molecules of air charged with energy.

“Is not, then, a light, mobile, tremor-communicating, effluvia-carrying medium a better and more exact appellation for this masterly creation of the Architect of Nature than the ugly, unmeaning, inexact and half-articulate word air[?]” (97).

Prakash makes clear that the “hybrid” science that emerged from this project was no more objective than was the British obsession with racial impurity. Both the British and the Indian nationalist elites used the language of science and reason to justify their own control over India’s masses, the latter of whom sought to establish “nothing less than the right of Indians to autonomy, authority, and universality of their national culture” (120).
While Another Reason is a powerful example of how science and politics have often intertwined, what would’ve been useful to include in Prakash’s history was a more thorough description of what this hybrid Indian science looked like and whether it was ever implemented. He discusses the great fame achieved in elite circles by the scientist and professor Prafulla Chandra Ray with his 1902 History of Hindu Chemistry. However, while Prakash states that the book was “a work of immense sophistication and erudition that assessed the achievements of Hindu alchemy from the point of view of modern experiments and observations” (102) he never describes what those achievements were nor what they were used for. But Prakash isn’t so interested in the what of science, but rather how the very ideas of science stood for authority and power in a conquered land. Science was a cloak of modernity and the Indian nationalists wanted to strip the colonialists of their vestments in order to adorn themselves.

“To possess a scientific tradition of one’s own not only meant that one had existed as a people long before the British set foot in India, but also that one’s existence as a community was irreducibly different” (230).

When India entered the nuclear world after testing their atomic bomb on May 11, 1998 the Hindu nationalists as part of the Bharatiya Janata Party announced that the tests were to be called Shakti (after the Hindu goddess of strength). Some leading members of the ruling party called for a temple to be erected and for sand near the explosion to be distributed throughout India as a devotional offering. In this hybrid view of modern science and ancient symbolism a window is opened into the legacy of India’s colonial past. As India today promotes its scientific mastery of nuclear weapons and its sophisticated space program, it’s clear that the desire for scientific authority with a distinctively Indian heritage is an ongoing development and one that Prakash powerfully reveals through it’s origin in British colonialism.
ResearchBlogging.orgGyan Prakash (1999). Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India Princeton University Press

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