Scientific Temper and the New Education Policy 2020

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Scientific temper is an idea to be scrutinized in the NEP.

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A cursory reading of the New Education Policy 2020 document gives a very progressive impression as it takes into consideration all the criticisms — both academic and popular- of the present Education system and proposes an overhaul in light of those criticisms. Several commentators have pointed out the salient problems like privatization, curtailment of academic freedom, closure of schools and colleges etc. But, here I would like to discuss a few intriguing concepts – related to each other — which find several mentions in the document but whose ethos goes against the kind of worldview that has been propagated by the ruling party and their vast network. Also these concepts are related with the long term Hindutva project of saffronization of education.

Those intriguing concepts are:

  • development of scientific temper (mentioned four times) 
  • related concept of scientific temper with evidence based thinking and
  • scientific method with critical thinking 

These concepts are progressive and reflect constitutional values but before reaching to any conclusion we must understand that any policy document must be understood in the broader context of the ideological leaning of the ruling party. Therefore we must look into how the above mentioned concepts are understood in the ideological framework of the ruling party and how they will play out (or already have played out) in the real world.

In the last six years, a range of BJP leaders and top Government ministers including the Prime Minister and the current Minister of Education (earlier called the Human Resource Development Minister) have made bizarre claims related to science and technology. In 2014, the PM, during his address to doctors of a Mumbai Hospital, claimed that ancient Indians had the knowledge of ‘genetic science and cosmetic surgery’. The PM cited the examples of Karna from Mahabharata and elephant headed God Ganesha as ‘evidence’ to support his claim. Similarly, last year the current Education minister claimed that Indians discovered gravity much before Newton and as ‘evidence’ cited Indian Scriptures. Another most bizarre claim came from the stages of Indian National Congress in 2019 when a geologist claimed that “before anyone else in the world, it was Lord Brahma who discovered dinosaurs’ existence on earth”, and again as ‘evidence’ cited some paragraphs from the Vedas. A range of similar such claims can be cited here which will only make it repetitive.

In the past few years we have seen the rise of the spiritual guru Jaggi Sadguru who constantly evokes ‘science’ to explain various Hindu rituals and practices. Then there is the curious case of Swami Nithyananda who employs a lot of scientific terms in his discourses which makes them both laughable and confusing. I am sure a lot of readers would have watched them and likes and would have thought of banging their own heads against the wall!

The Covid-19 pandemic has further shown how ‘Science’ has just become a handmaiden in the Hindutva Project. When the PM appealed to the nation to make sound by banging plates or ringing bells as a show of gratitude to healthcare workers, social media was afloat with ‘scientific’ rationale of the appeal by mentioning scientific concepts like vibration, resonance etc. etc. and how the collective sound will kill the virus. Same was the case with PM’s next appeal of lightning candles or diyas which was explained in social media as light theory of killing the virus!

A simple google search with keywords like ‘science in Hinduism’ or ‘scientific basis of Hinduism’ yields millions of search results. There are innumerable links on ‘scientific basis of Hindu rituals’, ‘scientific basis of Hindu worship’, scientific basis of worshipping pipal, tulsi, cow etc. The Darwinian theory of Evolution is explained through the concept of dasavtar; ancient weapons like Bramhastras are explained as nuclear weapons and missiles; 101 kaurava siblings are explained as test tube babies; pushpak viman is cited as proof for the existence of airplanes etc.  Then there is a special genre of literature concerned with topics like Vedic mathematics, Vedic Physics, Vedic chemistry and Vedic Biology, we also have a subgenre which deals with Quantum theory and Hinduism!

That Hinduism is a scientific religion and the discoveries of modern science and technology were known to the people of ancient India is a belief which has been long propagated by the Hindu right. It is like a movement whose genesis lies in the experiences of colonialism in the 19th century. In light of severe criticism of Indian religion and culture by Christian missionaries and White Imperialists, the early Indian intellectuals decided to make friends with ‘Science’, which had discredited Christianity since European Enlightenment. Indian intellectuals started to re-interpret Hindu concepts and practices through scientific lexicons to prove superiority of Hindu culture and religion. This line of argument found its profoundest expression in works of Swami Vivekananda who announced in Chicago that “all discoveries of modern science to be mere “echoes” of Vedanta philosophy”, and Swami Dayanananda who claimed that ‘Vedas contains all truth of science’ and all here means literally all i.e. from dark matter to big bang to black holes; from atoms to sub-atomic particles; from nuclear missiles to airplanes to televisions and satellites etc.

In this view, the science and technology contained in the Vedas and other Sanskrit literature is continuously unfolding which basically means there is a constant back-reading and re-interpretation of these literatures in light of modern scientific discoveries. So if tomorrow alien life is discovered or some new technology is discovered, the modern day ‘Vedic Scientists’ will reopen their books and search for verses and stories which can help them explain those new discoveries. Those verses, stories and symbolism will then be cited as ‘evidence’ for their claims! 

So we must ask ourselves, what counts as ‘evidence’ in the NEP’s vision of “inculcating scientific temper with evidence based thinking”?  Can the ancient literature’s full abstract concepts and symbolism count as evidence? If yes, then the ‘scientific temper’ mentioned in the NEP is nothing but a hoax and will only promote Hindutva’s agenda of cultural supremacy and saffronization! We need to think and rethink what meaning ‘Scientific temper’ will acquire when our elected leaders, spiritual leaders, academicians, ruling party and its affiliates peddle pseudo-science as Science. ‘Science’ in this Hindu right framework is not a method of inquiry and mode of knowledge production or a philosophy, but merely an empty concept whose meaning keeps changing in light of new discoveries and analysis, and therefore it can be applied anywhere and everywhere. ‘Science’ in Hindutva imagination is a ‘mumbo-jumbo’ of scientific vocabulary.   

The Hindutva brigade has claimed for a long time that Indian Education system and curricula structure does not reflect Indian ethos, it does not cultivate pride in Indian culture and ignores or diminishes the greatness and contribution of Indian civilization in every field. The NEP has been envisioned to undo all the so-called historical mistakes. In its own words the document says that ‘the vision of the NEP is to instil among the learners a deep-rooted pride in being Indian’ and inculcate ‘national pride’. The claims to this ‘pride’ lies in the ancient Brahminical culture expressed in Sanskrit literature and that is why perhaps the NEP has made Sanskrit (the most scientific language according to the Hindutva brigade) a compulsory language and that is why RSS is happy with the NEP as it accommodates 60% of their suggestions. 

In the contemporary modern world the authority of Science is paramount and ‘being scientific’ is a marker of superiority and source of pride. The Hindu right has claimed since long that Hinduism is “Scientific” and hence superior, and therefore exists a serious possibility of pseudo-science being taught as Science under the NEP, which in the long term will only prove to be detrimental for the society and nation.

Featured Image Credits: Roman Mager on Unsplash

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