The Multiple Cultural Modes of Science and Religion in the Indian Context

Tiatemsu Longkumer

As a domain of academic inquiry in India, the intersection of science and religion has been studied by philosophers, sociologists, and historians. But in recent years, other social scientific studies have taken an interest in the area as well. Anthropology is one such discipline in India that has not dealt with science and religion but has methodological potential and conceptual resources to do so. In this book, “laboratory ethnography” is used to study everyday religious practices in scientific institutions. The book takes the laboratory and its practices as an object of inquiry and site of knowledge production. It has five chapters that start with Jawaharlal Nehru’s idea of postcolonial India and ends with a discussion on caste in the laboratory.

Chapter 1 delves into a historical discussion on how certain understanding of science, religion, and rationality shaped modern India. The author elaborates on how the “Nehruvian project of scientific modernity and rationality” (p. 12) gave supremacy to science and scientists. For Nehru, development – a process for which the independent India had an immediate need – was attached to promoting modern science over Indian knowledge and tradition. Consequently, science and religion were not only put in opposition; the idea of “scientific temper” or “scientific attitude” was proposed as a solution to India’s supposed “primitiveness” and “superstition.” The author suggests that Nehru’s context should be put into consideration while trying to understand his view on science and scientific modernity. In doing so, the actual problem emerges as a debate about science and non-science.

Chapter 2 is an inquiry into the religious lives of scientists. Through ethnographic discussion and readings of (auto)biographies, the author argues that the idea of “disenchantment” is a myth among Indian scientists. Not only do scientists openly declare their views about God in their autobiographies; such writings also explain their religious experience in detail. Some Indian scientists go a step further by pointing to the limits of science in understanding miracles and proving God. Thus, the author argues that scientists “keep their spiritual domain, cultural practices, and beliefs separate from science without prioritising one over the other. For them, their inner domain (culture, religion), and outer domain (science) are not in conflict, as both are two different ways of dealing with life” (p. 74).

Chapter 3 is a continuation of the previous chapter, which problematizes the idea of “scientist-believers.” The author argues that the scientists make a distinction between “religious” and “cultural,” where certain Hindu festivals are seen as cultural and others as religious. Due to such distinction, scientist believers distinguish themselves from non-scientist believers by addressing them as ritualistic and superstitious.

Chapter 4 deals with atheism(s) and unbelief among Indian scientists. It brings out the multiple ways of being an atheist in India, informed by historical and cultural context. The author starkly differentiates Indian atheism(s) from Western atheism(s) as propounded by scientists like Richard Dawkins. He further asserts, “The scientists who claimed to be atheists still led a life based on their religious or cultural ethos. They participated in various religious festivals and celebrations and perceived it as cultural. The usage of ‘cultural’ in the Indian context is never independent of its religious and caste affiliations” (p. 126). In this regard, both Indian atheist scientists and scientist believers embrace the same notion of culture, whereby the author identifies atheist scientists as “believers without belief” (p. 132). Further, the author argues that atheist scientists distinguish themselves from laypersons and scientist believers by ascribing to themselves the identity of a “true” scientist.

Chapter 5 describes the aspect of caste and its cultural connotations in Indian institutions. This chapter portrays the shaping of the institution by Brahmanical cultural space created in scientific institutions through expressions like music, dance, and food. The author asserts that although scientists mostly identify themselves as liberal and casteless, they do so by translating caste as culture. Consequently, the aspect of caste permeates into the scientific institution through religious beliefs and practices expressing its majoritarian culture. Thus, the author argues that science and religion have an intimate connection with caste in the Indian context, whereby science is seen as the vocation of the Brahmins.

This book argues clearly against the notion of disenchantment in the Indian context and brings out multiple modes of existence. In doing so, it prompts the reader to see the beyond science/religion binary in the Indian context. The book is a valuable contribution to the anthropological understanding of science and religion in India, as it brings out some pertinent contextual questions. “Laboratory ethnography” not being a popular method of anthropology in India, it has opened the door for more discussion on the issue of insider and outsider perspectives in the institutional milieu. It has also opened up a space for discussion on the politics of science and religion regarding cultural nationalism in the Indian context. Lastly, the book sheds light on problematizing the location of culture and the space it shares in different sites. This book, which is a case study of “Science” in the Indian context, is not only anthropological but also historical, sociological, and philosophical. Thus, this book is recommended for people from diverse disciplines who want to understand and conceptualize science and religion in India.