Is Narendra Modi a moderniser or a traditionalist? Is he forward-looking or trapped in the past, however glorious? Does he aspire to lead India into a brilliant new future, or bring back “Sone ki Chidiya” (the golden sparrow) fantasy? I know the answer to all three questions from his many followers: he is a forward-looking moderniser who wants to lead India into a great future. He loves technology, he celebrates science. He took the cue on using social media for political campaigning from Obama and improved on it greatly. He takes selfies with fellow heads of state (Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in this case) and tweets them, and when a glamorous, star struck Bollywood leading lady, towering a foot over him, bends over his shoulder to take a selfie he looks back in debonair style to ask, “Got it?” In more ways than one he comes across as India’s most modern prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi. At which point, we need to ask yet another question. Will his government reflect his own modernism or RSS nostalgia?
The two cannot go together. Modern thinking is about science, technology, curiosity to discover what hasn’t been discovered yet and humility to accept that the human race has to reach new frontiers, that what we may know yet is a fraction of what we don’t. The traditionalist RSS view, on the other hand, is that whatever mankind may be hoping to imagine, discover or design in the future had already been perfected in Vedic times. All you need to do in that case is a close but open-minded reading of the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads. We had lost it because the Hindu empire and heritage suffered with the decline of the Gupta and Mauryan dynasties and with the arrival of invaders from the west, leading to subjugation by Muslims and then Christians. Modi’s rise, therefore, is India’s first chance in a millennium to leapfrog backwards and connect with that past. Or, to put it more rudely, set the clock and calendar back.
This is a serious issue to raise at a point when the new government seems to be settling down. A crucial Parliament session is beginning. It needs to be raised because it is a key mainstream issue and not a mere distraction from the entertaining fringe of true believers with degrees from Dina Nath Batra Vidyapeeth.
It will be delusional to dismiss Dina Nath Batra as a lone maverick and merely the slayer of Wendy Doniger’s scholarship. He represents a new force in our political and intellectual discourse even if it is a force of old think. His power over the BJP’s HRD ministry is now evident. This week a new precedent was set in New Delhi as German Ambassador Michael Steiner called on Batra, reasoning with him to calm down on his opposition to German language classes in schools. But you can see Sanskrit winning, in spite of all his diplomatic charm. At a moment like this, a gentle intervention was needed from a modernising prime minister. Something like, why should it be Sanskrit versus German? Sanskrit is a wonderful classical language and should be made attractive to all (and liberated from its pandit ji stereotype), and why just German, Indians must have a choice of many important foreign languages, French, Spanish and even Mandarin included. This is a globalised world, a globalising India and Modi is our most outgoing prime minister since Nehru. This is no time to go back to the depths of the old trenches of cultural and linguistic insecurities. This young India wants to go out and embrace the world, just as Modi does with his global peers. (Note meanwhile that the government of Haryana has already decided to seek Batra’s advice on “modernising” its education system.)
This argument is not about an individual, but about a state of mind. Where you confuse rationality with tradition, curiosity with scripture. It gets more complicated. In 2001 I was among the many senior journalists on Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s entourage to Iran. And it was every bit worthwhile, particularly as we all reached Persepolis, the ancient city wrecked by Alexander the Great. As we surveyed the ruins, an eminent RSS intellectual in the group started “educating” all of us on “history”. He said, see, what a terrible man Alexander was. This is precisely what he wanted to do to India. But he was defeated by a minor Hindu king, Porus, whose real name was Paurush (manhood). He was fleeing India in fright, his army disintegrated, and died a forlorn man. At which point I tried to intervene saying that history was quite different, but was ignored. My much wiser friend, and strategic affairs pundit, C. Raja Mohan tapped me on the shoulder and said, don’t argue with them, they confuse history with faith. His words come back to me often these days.
Because history has been a political and ideological football in India for long, you can probably understand why RSS intellectuals now want to get even with those of the Left, who reigned all these decades and brought in their own loaded, secular distortions. History can still survive robust disagreements and debate, even if it is often as irrational as arguing that the Taj Mahal was a Hindu temple. But a much bigger challenge arises when not just history, but even science is confused with faith. Which is the provocation for this week’s National Interest.
Last week Home Minister Rajnath Singh nearly stole the headlines from Modi in Australia with his statement (in a speech on Hindi Divas) that physicist Werner Heisenberg had learnt his famed Uncertainty Principle from the Vedas. (It is a different matter that some over-enthusiastic spin-master in his ministry had not heard of Heisenberg and issued a press release calling it Eisenhower’s Uncertainty Principle instead.) This is a tricky pattern of thinking.
It fits in with the larger, enduring mythology that anything being discovered by the Western world now had been developed in Vedic times already. Lord Ram returned with Sita and Lakshman in Pushpak Viman from Lanka to Ayodhya, so see, we had airplanes then. You talk about ICBMs with multiple warheads, Patriots which intercept incoming missiles, Strategic Defence Initiative, what were the “Shakti-bans” that Ram and Ravan traded routinely in the battle for Lanka? Or Arjun with his awful Kaurav cousins? Ramanand Sagar worked so hard to remind you of this “heritage” in his endless tele-serials. Never mind that today we can’t even put together a reliable assault rifle for our troops.
Nobody is denying that our scriptures (Vedas, Upanishads) and epics (Ramayana, Mahabharata) are truly ancient, and also brilliantly capacious in their imagination and wisdom. It is likely that we imagined mechanised flight much earlier while our intellectual rivals, the Greeks and Romans, were still fitting giant bird wings to human forms, from Icarus to Phoenix. Of course Aryabhata and disciples visualised, debated and documented many astronomical facts and ideas for which wise Europeans were burnt at the stake or poisoned hundreds of years later. Possibly, someone even imagined plastic surgery, animal to human organ transplants, stem cell research, surrogate motherhood. But to say we already “had” all of these is not just funny, it is dangerous. We are a country steeped in tradition and superstition. Our missile scientists perform pujas and break coconuts before test-firing a new Agni. Our space scientists take a model of Mangalyaan to Tirupati to be blessed by Lord Balaji before the launch. If you also tell them they are simply replicating, if not reverse-engineering, what we already had millennia ago, it will be dangerous. Because many of them may not even contest it.
This is Modi’s big challenge going ahead. He does have a modern, even a techie mind. But he and the ideological/cultural juggernaut propelling him also have delusions of ancient grandeur. The two, scriptural mythology and quest for modern new discovery, cannot co-exist. If there is one leaf Modi needs to take from Nehru’s book, it is scientific rationalism.
MEANWHILE in Pune, at the feet of Aryabhata: I had the privilege last week to spend a few hours with Prof Jayant Narlikar, by far the most eminent Indian astrophysicist today and co-author of the Hoyle-Narlikar theory questioning Big Bang. He had built the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) at Pune University and his central garden has large statues of the greatest of all times: Newton, Einstein, Galileo and, most certainly, Aryabhata.
Narlikar is also among India’s bravest and most thick-skinned rationalists. Even at 76, his eyes light up when you mention superstition and ancient beliefs. Nothing irritates him more than people confusing his science with astrology. The Pune phone book usually lists IUCAA as a centre for astrology.
To make a point, he says, he collected a couple of hundred horoscopes of the most brilliant student achievers and mentally-challenged children and gave them to India’s most eminent astrologers. None was able to pick the right ones.
Narlikar says astrology is bunkum and that to call it Vedic is a travesty. In Vedic tradition, he says, there was no astrology, no Mangal ruining marriages, no Brahaspati spreading beneficence and no Shani messing it all up unless you presented the tribute of mustard oil and cash every Saturday. All of this, he says, came from Greece. Alexander had also brought along many “wise” men with his army, some stayed back and spread astrology, to which our ancestors, Hindu or not, Porus or Paurush, took so warmly. So whatever else, let’s at least not blame our Vedas for the faults in our stars.
Follow the writer on Twitter @Shekhar