Science as a Cultural Ideal
Despite frequent misgivings about universal claims of modern science and despite it being taken often as an accomplice of western imperialism, it is impossible for any culture or civilization to avoid science or to create a culturally distinct version of it. And yet, how does science seep into and reshape a culture would have as many answers as there are cultures. The example of the West is invariably taken as canonical wherein science appears as a key factor in triggering the Great Divergence catapulting Western Europe in pole position ahead of far advanced civilizations such as China or India. It is far more tractable to draw some approximately generalizable lessons from this example than to comprehensively answer the famous Needham Question about why the rest of the world missed out on the Scientific Revolution and the subsequent percolation, even if partial and fragmentary, of the cognitive values promoted by science into the layers of cultural values.
Yet, the fact remains that the cultures and the civilization on the Subcontinent are irreducibly distinct from the West and also from the rest of the world. It is not possible to draw out serviceable prescriptions just from the western example for cultivating science in the cultural soil of the Subcontinent. It will be necessary to cast a bird’s eye-view on the civilizational contours of this vast land to have some idea about what have been the obstacles in the past and what possible pathways to future are available in the present.
While the right-wing of the Hindutva kind seeks glory in ancient India and considers the arrival of Islam as the despoiler of a great civilization, the left-wing, both of the liberal and the leftist kinds, puts all the blame at the doors of colonialism. Both miss out, in their respective ways, a very large fact. The thickest layer of the mass cultural soil on the subcontinent was deposited during the millennium between the 7th and the 17th century and in this the Bhakti Movement played the most important role. If in Europe the theological debates and religious wars led to modern philosophy and modern science, in India the philosophical debates, such as in the Upanishads and between the Buddhists and the Sanatanis, led to devotional movements of mass religions and theologies.
After sketching out these broad contours I will conclude this talk by making some tentative suggestions about how to seek pathways to a future in which science can attain the status of a cultural ideal, which in turn may facilitate emergence of an Indian modernity worthy of a glorious civilization.
About the Speaker :
Ravi Sinha is an activist-scholar who has been associated with progressive movements for nearly four decades. Trained as a theoretical physicist, Dr. Ravi has a doctoral degree from MIT, Cambridge, USA. He worked as a physicist at University of Maryland, College Park, USA, at Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad and at Gujarat University, Ahmedabad before resigning from the job to devote himself full time to organizing and theorizing. He is the principal author of the book, Globalization of Capital, published in 1997, co-founder of the Hindi journal, Sandhan, and one of the founders and a leading member of New Socialist Initiative.
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