The recent outburst by India’s leading rationalists over K Radhakrishnan’s visit to the famous Lord Venkateswara temple in southern India needs to be examined. Radhakrishnan is chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisationand the head of India’s space agency, in fact the man responsible for launching that nation’s mission to the planet Mars. It is said to send the wrong message to the world, that India is a modern scientific nation as evidenced by its burgeoning space programme. Therefore it is embarrassing and a contradiction in terms for the head of India’s space programme to be indulged in backward superstitious Hindu practices. But is it? In fact, let us look at whether it is the Indian rationalists who are in fact being inconsistent and following ideas which are themselves massively flawed.
Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, has criticised the head of India’s space agency and the man responsible for launching that nation’s mission to Mars. K. Radhakrishnan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), visited the famous Lord Venkateswara temple in southern India on Tuesday where he reportedly placed a replica of the Mars spacecraft at the feet of an idol. Later that same day, Radhakrishnan oversaw the successful launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission, known as “Mangalyaan” in India, which is on an 11-month journey to study the Martian atmosphere. In response, Nayak lashed out:
“It sends a wrong message to the common man who will think God can sort out all his troubles.”
He was joined in the verbal lynching by Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association:
“What sort of message are we sending out to the world? It’s a shame for our country that prides itself on its secular credentials,”
The Blind Faith of Science
This of course begs the question what message are these ‘rationalist’ exactly sending out to the world themselves? While they pride themselves on how they debunk and dismiss miracles, superstition and belief in the supernatural, their very ‘faith’ is based on these same elements. Yes I say faith, and use that word quite deliberately. To be rationalist, is to simultaneously be atheist, secular and have a ‘scientific’ view on life. The key word here is ‘science’. It is science which stands at polar opposite to religion and can lead us to a brave new world unshackled by the backward thinking of the past when ignorant human beings worshipped silly gods and forces of nature.
The problem here is that Nayak and Edamaraku have their own rather silly superstitions which they simply cannot shake off. Nayak is the Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the Centre for Basic Sciences, Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore. He is known for his contribution in the field of rationalism. Since 1976 he has been the Secretary of the Dakshina Kannada Rationalist Association.
He is also the Joint Convenor of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Organizations, which is an apex body committed to the development of scientific temper and humanism in the country. But were it not for the ‘silly’ science of alchemy, then Nayak’s very own subject of biochemistry would simply not exist. Indeed that scion of modern science, Isaac Newton, was heavily steeped in belief in not just an all-powerful deity, but occult, alchemy and astrology.
What goes by the self-serving faith of rationalism, science, secularism and atheism itself has religious roots in the convulsions and social tectonic plates that shaped modern Europe. Secularism was born from the need to stop half of Europe going into demographic self-destruct as Catholics and Protestants fought over the ‘truth’ in the Thirty Years War which devastated the continent. This unstable truce did allow for development of new ideas in what became the Enlightenment.
But humanity does not shake off the burden of previous generations by simply taking on shiny new labels.
The Enlightenment transformed ‘natural philosophy’ into ‘science’. Indeed the term ‘scientist’ was not employed until 1833, in Britain. Science won not because it is true, but because it brought results.
Natural philosophers such as Newton were men of books, the original ivory tower of theory. Getting one’s hands dirty through industry and technology was not for the ‘gentleman’ who was of higher breeding, was dressed by his man-servant, sat in Parliament, studied at Oxford or Cambridge and earned money through landed property which often included sugar plantations worked by slaves in the Caribbean.
What happened in the nineteenth century was that the ‘dirty hands’ began making serious money, enough to challenge aristocratic dominance of the political system so that in 1833 the franchise was extended to industrialists, entrepreneurs and factory owners : men of wealth and property. Commerce was made respectable. Capitalism was the way forward. Of course all this had its down side. Pollution, slums, and poverty. Even science itself could be irrational.
Laplace, the physicist who told Napoleon that his scheme of the cosmos assigned no role to god, used the centralised French state to promote his metric system. Hence the standardised form of measure we have today is known by its French acronym SI, System International. Important as this was, we forget Laplace’s other less distinguished and in fact quite laughable attempts to reorganise society on a rational basis. This included a ten-hour day and a ten-day week. Then again the physicist was only following the foundations laid by the Jacobins who tried to reorganise feudal France on a rational, secular and scientific basis.
Sanal Edamaruku is the president of the Indian Rationalist Association (IRA), is the founder president of Rationalist International, a body associated with the top international rationalists of our times like Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Paul Kurtz, Richard Leakey and Taslima Nasreen. He has been appointed an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association (RPA) of Britain and the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (NZARH) in 2000. Edamaruku describes his programme as “bringing about a social and intellectual climate change by strengthening reason, scientific temper, pursuit for knowledge and personal confidence and reducing the influence of superstition, irrational fear, blind obedience and hysteria.”
Now modern secularists, rationalists, humanists and atheists look back to their own religious prophets who they claim formulated ethical and moral ideas without recourse to any religious framework and slavish obedience to a deity.
These include the Charvaks of India in the sixth century BC. Contemporary to this is China’s Confucius. But most of all it is to the ancient Greek philosophers that they look. Yet these thinkers were part of societies that were pagan and steeped in ‘superstition’. There was never a society based on the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, or even Euripides, Pythagoras, and Democrates. In fact there was never any society based on the ideas of one philosopher.
The first attempt was in 1789 by the Jacobins who followed their prophet Rousseau. This is remembered for its popular refrain of liberty, equality and fraternity. Revolutionary France mocked religion and replaced the Church with the Cult of
Reason. Its goal was the perfection of mankind through the attainment of Truth and Liberty, and its guiding principle to this goal was the exercise of the human faculty of ‘Reason’.
This was replaced in 1794 by Robespierre with the Cult of the Supreme Being. He believed that reason was only a mechanism to achieving a civic-minded public ‘virtue’. In reality this degenerated into the Terror with mass killings of anyone suspected of being ‘counter-revolutionary’. It would be a scene that would re-enact itself many times.
The Enlightenment brought forth new ideas which would change society irrevocably for the worse. Watching the grinding poverty Charles Dickens penned novels such as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. But this only encouraged the view that certain ‘undesirable’ peoples were reproducing too rapidly and should be limited; just as Dickens himself wanted Indians to be wiped out in 1857, ex-slaves to be denied the vote, and savage races to be annihilated.
This was known as eugenics and was pioneered by Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin. Eugenics was mainstream science from the end of the nineteenth century, right up until the time of the Holocaust gas chambers which it had inspired. Germany was the leading scientific nation in this period. Yet it was here that race science became academically obligatory, not just respectable, in its dismissal of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and indeed theoretical physics in general as ‘Jewish’ before the Nazis actually took power. Shocking as this is, it was in France, that pioneer of secularism and ‘reason’ that Arthur de Gobineau wrote ‘Inequality of the Human Races’, that sacred text of anthropology at the time.
The God of India’s Secular Elite
Never mind, the scientific and rational mindset so beloved of Nayak and Edamaruku would have another go at recreating society afresh. In fact it would have several as a result of nineteenth century scientific and rational thinking. Sitting comfortably in England as he scrounged off the earnings of his factory-owning (in other words ‘capitalist’) friend Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx observed the poverty around him much as Dickens had done, as the country’s burgeoning working-class formed the basis of his ideas for a system that would serve this proletariat.
Marxism has always been in vogue for India’s elite chattering classes, especially those that parade their secularism and ‘modernity’ like some badge of honour. To belong to this top brass is the equivalent of membership of the Bullingdon Club, that caste of expensive fee-paying school educated ‘toffs’ who dominate Britain’s political system.
Now Marx got his big posthumous career break when Lenin seized power in 1917. The Bolsheviks would create society on a break with the past. It would be scientific and rational. Atheism was the core of this cult. So let us see what rationally took place. The picture is far from rosy. Despite all protestations that this was a scientific rational empire, the USSR actually denounced genetics as bourgeois and fascist. Instead Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko claimed he could grow wheat in the Arctic by specially cultured seeds. The result of course was mass crop failure.
Perhaps I am being a bit pedantic by just conflating one issue? Well actually I am being rather generous. The rest of this inhuman experiment includes genocide, mass deportations, a reign of terror, pollution, food shortages, slave labour camps, medical experiments on human guinea pigs in Lubyanka Prison, and the doomed attempts to create the perfect Soviet killing machine by cross breeding humans with gorillas. Wherever the Marxist scientific and rational temperament went it was the same dystopian nightmare. In Romania, Nicolae Ceacescu dealt with AIDS by banning it as a capitalist disease. The result? An explosion in HIV infections.
In protest I am sure the Indian rationalists will say I am taking this all out of context. Well if that is the case then what of their hysterical reaction to K. Radhakrishnan’s visit to a holy shrine. Would they have found it better if he had prayed at the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery? But this whole ‘scientific’ rationalism is massively flawed. By espousing secularism these ‘rationalists’ are importing an idea born out of the killing fields of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century. The eternal conflict that they see between science and religion is a product of the nineteenth century, much like capitalism and Marxism.
It has itself been taken out of context. The aggressive rationalists and evangelical atheists such as Richard Dawkins, so beloved of the British Humanist Association themselves harbour a dark secret. Their Greek prophets were not the paragons of rationalism and virtue. Plato’s ideas formed the basis of totalitarianism. Aristotle believed that the Sun orbited the earth.
When Galileo was taken to task by the Catholic Church for postulating a heliocentric view of the solar system (in which of course he was right) it was a challenge to the cherished view formulated by Aristotle, which was then adopted by the Church. Socrates listened to his ‘inner voice’. So how was that in any way rational? Pythagoras used mathematics as a spiritual exercise. It is also asserted by Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic writers subsequent to the time of Apollonius, that Pythagoras received his mathematics from India.
Interestingly, the earliest known mention of Pythagoras’s name in connection with the theorem actually occurs some five centuries after his death, in the writings of Cicero and Plutarch. Because of the secretive nature of his school and the custom of its students to attribute everything to their teacher, there is no evidence that Pythagoras himself worked on or proved this theorem at all. For that matter, there is no evidence that he worked on any mathematical or meta-mathematical problems. In fact both ancient Babylonians and Indians used the Pythagoras Theorem long before the ancient Greek sage supposedly came up with it.
Zero Contribution to World Civilisation
The Sulbasutras are appendices to the Vedas which give rules for constructing altars. If the ritual sacrifice was to be successful then the altar had to conform to very precise measurements. The Baudhayana Sulbasutra gives only a special case of the theorem explicitly:
The rope which is stretched across the diagonal of a square produces an area double the size of the original square.
The rope which is stretched along the length of the diagonal of a rectangle produces an area which the vertical and horizontal sides make together.
So the supposedly superstitious ancient Hindus used precise measurements to construct altars, predating the very mathematics which our rationalists and scientists use as an essential tenet of their ‘faith’. In fact at every level the kind of creed propagated by the likes of Nayak and Edamaruku looks increasingly like a laughable concoction of conflicting ideas which are themselves based on the very superstitions which these and other rationalist evangelists claim to reject.
Nowhere is this more poignant than with respect to the very Hindu culture which they reject, and even more so with the mathematics which forms the basis not just of science but our entire global civilisation. It was in India that decimal numbers were first formulated. The Syrian bishop Severus Sebokht wrote in the mid-7th century CE about the “nine signs” of the Indians for expressing numbers. In the first century AD, the Buddhist philosopher Vasumitra says this of merchants :
“When [the same] clay counting-piece is in the place of units, it is denoted as one, when in hundreds, one hundred.”
The names of Aryabhata, Varahamihira, Brahmagupta and Bhaskara are among the many pioneering mathematicians of ancient India which stand out. The Indian scholar Pingala (circa 5th–2nd century BC) used binary numbers in the form of short and long syllables. He and his contemporary Indian scholars used the Sanskrit word sh?nya to refer to zero or void. But it is the Jain mathematicians which should most interest us in this regard. This is because of their fascination with the enumeration of very large numbers and infinities, led them to classify numbers into three classes: enumerable, innumerable and infinite.
Not content with a simple notion of infinity, they went on to define five different types of infinity: the infinite in one direction, the infinite in two directions, the infinite in area, the infinite everywhere, and the infinite perpetually. In addition, Jaina mathematicians devised notations for simple powers (and exponents) of numbers like squares and cubes, which enabled them to define simple algebraic equations (beejganita samikaran).
The oldest known text to use a decimal place-value system, including a zero, is the Jain text from India entitled the Lokavibhâga, dated 458 AD, where shunya (“void” or “empty”) was employed for this purpose. Now the Lokavibhaga is a Jain cosmological text originally composed in Prakrit by a Digambara monk, Sarvanandi. Interestingly the first known use of special symbolism for the decimal digits that includes the undeniable appearance of a symbol for the digit zero, a small circle, appears on a stone inscription found at the Chaturbhuja Temple at Gwalior, dated 876AD.
Hindu India means a Scientific India
This leads us to some very interesting conclusions. If Nayak and Edamaruku are so emphatic that the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation was sending out the wrong signal by visiting the Lord Venkateswara temple, what sort of message are these ‘rationalists’ sending out by basing their ideas on a mathematics which is the result of that very ancient spirituality they so vehemently denounce?
For Radhakrishnan there was no conflict between religion and science. Like ‘secularism’ that conflict is the result of social and cultural clashes from a time when Europe was undergoing severe demographic and intellectual dislocation.
If India’s smug rationalist elite see this as an inspiration then that is their choice. But how does this square with them using ideas firmly rooted in Hindu philosophy such as decimal numbers and zero which even the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, so beloved of the British Humanist Association, did not have. No zero, no binary. No binary, no modern computing. No calculus. No modern algebra. No modern astronomy.
No NASA. No moon landings. So that is quite a huge chunk of modern science consigned to the dustbin in this alternative universe where humanity has dispensed with silly ideas such as a mathematical notation first found on the walls of a Hindu temple in Gwalior.
After all, the ‘zero’ is not rational. You cannot symbolise nothing with something. Rationally nothing is nothing. If it is not there it cannot be just invented. The zero was only possible because the idea of shunya came out of the idea of moksha and nirvana; the escape from the endless cycle of rebirth from which the individual can transcend physical existence and enter eternal peace. No doubt Nayak and Edamaruku will laugh this off as backward superstition. But then can they so easily dismiss why ‘zero’ came about? If not they should at least do the decent thing by being consistent and dispensing with the modern science on which it is based.
For India’s rationalist and secularist crowd, the unthinkable truth is that it is because of India’s ancient spirituality that modern mathematics, and the science on which it is based, even exists. By visiting the Lord Venkateswara temple before the launch of the Mars probe, Radhakrishnan was not being inconsistent with this scientific calling. In fact it is because he was a scientist that he should of gone. This was consistent with his science being based on the very civilisation and belief system which is not just symbolised by the Lord Venkateswara temple, but every time we use anything that needs zero and decimal numbers. As can be imagined, that is quite a lot, including the modern technology so freely utilised by the Indian Rationalist Association and a host of similar cults.