Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Scientific Attitude and Religion

DD Kosambi

In what follows, some social aspects of religion are considered in so far as they serve to keep India a backward country. The methods of cure suggested are by legislation, education and improved social conditions, with a brief example or two to bring out the basic idea in each case.

Reports by great religious leaders of the past show that they regarded their own experiences and revelations as the most exhilarating and profound happenings of a lifetime. But the details show that exactly similar and often-identical experiences may be had by the use of certain drugs, electrical stimulus of the brain, lesions of the cerebral cortex and in dreams. The trouble begins when people impose their views, on the basis of such experience, upon others.

Damodar Darmanand Kosambi
My treatment of the phenomenon is purely materialistic, no matter what the source of the revelation. Argument with men or religion on their own ground implies that their sacred books or some other sacred books have a peculiar intrinsic validity, not to be challenged by experiment or reason. I am not prepared to admit that religion cannot be understood or discussed by a man of no faith, This comes to saying that only a confirmed drunkard can be competent to deal with alcoholism. Whenever reform from within succeeded in India, the result was the addition of one more sect to the innumerable existing sects.

The figure of speech about alcoholism has been deliberately introduced. Not only wine but also mescaline and other drugs have formed the core of ancient or primitive modern religion. The potent soma of the sacred Vedas was a drink of this sort too. Hashish was a reward for and stimulus to the murder of inconvenient opponents, as used by a fanatical Muslim sect of the Middle Ages in Asia Minor. The drug and its use gave rise to the word assassin. The sect itself changed into the more innocuous one of the Aga Khan. Religions have recognized kinship and rivalry between the spiritual and the spirituous. Thus Buddhism and Islam banned wine. If such a ban can now be defended on grounds of social necessity and prohibition be made part of a democratic constitution, why should other hallucinogens not be treated on the same basis? And what more powerful hallucinogen than religion?

There is one difference that drugs can generally be relied upon to produce exaltation. Its purveyors are taxed and subject to regulation, while the individual who uses them has to observe public decorum and, is severely punished for breaking law and order. Curative treatment is given to addicts. We have been very slow and hesitant in dealing with the purveyors of religion on the same basis. Only the most gruesome malpractices have been banned: sati (widow burning; defended as ‘voluntary’ by many pundits), hook swinging, and the most obscene features of the holi festival are now forbidden. The last comes directly from prehistory; even Asoka had trouble with the institution.

But we have stopped halfway. Pilgrim taxes are levied by many places (Banaras) whether the visitor is a pilgrim or not. Why not tax all income from any religious source, including the ‘voluntary’ contributions from the pious? Why are temples and mosques not taxed on the same basis as many buildings reserved for the use of a special group? Marriage and divorce are now regulated to some extent by civil procedure; monogamy has become a legislative measure, regardless of religion. Why not secularize these social institutions completely and compulsorily?

Some people, although willing to admit that Indian religion has its harmful aspects, insist that education is the sole remedy. It is not, of course, but there is every advantage in educating people out of their superstition. That is one way of improving Indian education and social conditions, provided education is understood in a sense far wider than that of the schoolroom. The crudest of Indian superstitions is faith in astrology. Millions still bathe at a solar eclipse, not as a hygienic measure but to free the sun from a demon of darkness.

It is known, however, that there is no longer a risk of perpetual darkness if the ritual bath be omitted. The precise time and duration of the eclipse is predictable long in advance, not by the Brahmin’s stock in trade but by Newtonian theories of the universe. It is not enough to make this fact public, namely that the Indian almanacs surreptitiously borrow their information about eclipses from foreign sources, while retaining the tripe about planetary influences upon horoscopes.

The panchang almanacs sell by the hundred thousands all over, the country, each area having one or more of its own. Their very existence must be turned to good use by inserting useful information: first aid hygiene, element of legal rights for the citizen, possibilities of getting aid from sources other than the blood-sucking money lenders in time of need and so on. Let the planets stay, and give their positions by all means; but make the traditional almanac into a really useful educational document.

Here the modern educator is definitely at fault. He works through a bureaucratic mechanism originally imposed by a foreign government and allowed to continue by inertia. His own education has, more often not, consisted in learning foreign books by rote where his grandfather might have recited Sanskrit texts with as little understanding. Often, he can teach the latest scientific theories in school and maintain outside the classroom that his ancestors three thousand years ago could fly through the air by the power of yoga and see the atomic nucleus and viruses by their inner sight. He never turns scientific methods upon the study of superstition. Why did the superstition arise? Did the Indian almanac ever perform any useful function at all? If not, how can one account for its rise and spread?

The basic fact is that the whole of Indian agriculture turns upon the monsoon. The annual rains begin at about the same time every year in any given part of the country, but the land has to be prepared for the sowing well before then. Similarly, the harvest has to be taken in after the last normal rain has fallen. But the calendar is a very advanced scientific concept in primitive life, determined mainly by long observation of the positions of the sun, moon and planets. We know that these heavenly bodies merely mark time: for primitive man, they made the weather as the very word meteorology indicates. So, they also seemed to control man’s destiny. These all-powerful stars would have to be propitiated according to the priest’s instructions.

To counteract this, education is the best method. Just as eclipses can be predicted, the onset and strength of the monsoon can also be predicted. Not as accurately as astronomical phenomena, but much better than the varsha-phala (‘yield of the rains’) given in every Indian almanac. It is easier to send out storm warnings by radio and much quicker too. With radios in every key village, the farmer could be advised - given an efficient weather bureau - when to sow and to harvest. But this means leaving the panchang almanac alone.  If we do this, superstition will survive much longer, and may be perverted to strange uses by some interested people.

The best way is to have a reasonably efficient long-range weather forecasting system. This is now well within our reach with air-mass analysis and observation satellites. The information must then be put into every almanac and the basis of calculation carefully explained in simple language. The peasant will see for himself that the stars have nothing to do with the weather or the monsoon and will be willing to listen when other bits of really useful scientific information are given.  Even now he knows that fertility rites are much less effective than the proper use of fertiliser. But we must not throw away the magnificent chance of utilizing an old institution like the almanac to cut down the very superstition it promotes.

The last section says in effect that tout comprendre is by no means equivalent to tout pardonner. Let use try the method on the most obscurantist of all Indian religious and social institutions, caste.   The evils of the caste system are known, but no one asks himself why the system originated and why it has held on in spite of so ·great a change in Indian life. Why should the Brahmin’s pretensions be believed when he puts his sons to work in an office, which uses only English, not Sanskrit, and is perhaps headed by a beef-eating sahib?

The answer is quite obvious. Caste was socially useful at one time, when production was at a much lower level. It was the one way of keeping people together in co-operative effort rather than have every man strike out for himself with the common ruin of all. The village was the firm basis of caste, because land was generally held by a kinship group. Tenure of land and membership of the group went together. Whoever was outcast could no longer survive in the village. With feudal tenure, caste was still powerful as a common bond against unlimited oppression. Whole villages would desert en masse if the baron bore down too hard. Their caste-fellows were bound to help these peasant strikers in distress. Further, the village need for a potter, blacksmith, carpenter or barber was fulfilled by artisan castes when the level of commodity production was low.

Today, factory production, overcrowded cities, road and rail transport have changed all this. Caste persists only because some people gain from it, namely, those who possess land, hold the priesthood, and so on. Caste disabilities persist in spite of legislation and-in many places-mass conversion as to Buddhism. The root cause is the abysmally low economic status of the lowest castes and their total lack of opportunity. Neither legislation, nor conversion, nor schoolroom education can remove this. The sole possible cure is more efficient production and distribution of the product in a manner equitable for all; most people call this socialism. But equality on paper and the adult franchise will not be enough, when politicians can use caste for vote catching and distribution of patronage.

To take an allied but smaller point: most economists see no future for India without birth control. The national income and production are not rising at a faster rate than the population, so that the net gain is virtually nil. But why do people want children in a poor country? The usual answer is, ‘superstition’. A son is essential so that the parents may go to heaven and be given the annual oblation to keep them there.

Silly as this is, it contains an ancient historical truth. Archaeology tells us that it was a tremendous and extremely rare achievement in the older Stone Age for any human being to reach the age of forty years. Food production instead of food gathering made it possible for a substantial number of people to live longer. This only meant that some people lived to an age where they could no longer fend for themselves and had to be fed by others as in childhood. The offering to the manes (pinda) is simply an extension of this practice, when the ancestors have entered upon the long sleep of the grave.

If, now, birth control were by some miracle enforced, it would mean that every person who reached a certain age and physical condition would have no one to feed him in the present social set up. Children are necessary precisely because Indian parents have no other means of subsistence in old age. Insurance, savings, landed property, pensions or other means of income would not suffice, at a guess, for as much as five per cent of the population. So, the birth control expert is in fact asking people to starve to death in old age so that some other people will be better off.

Most of us are not likely to listen to the argument. Where food was very scarce, e.g., in Rajasthan until the last century, a dreadful form of population control was affected by female infanticide. Today, population control will be successful only if people are convinced that there would be enough for them to live on in their old age even if they have no children.

The real stupidity lies with the ‘planners’ who try to regulate the total numbers of the people by theory, without assurance of a reasonable livelihood for the people in existence. The expert who talks of epidemic and famine as natural checks upon the ‘population explosion’ himself runs to consult the doctor the moment he has a fever; and never goes without a full meal if he can help it. There are modern superstitions in the guise of science, quite as deadly as those of religion.

The need is less for reform or even the abolition of religious superstition than for basic changes, which can only be described as revolutionary. Unfortunately it is possible to have a revolution without its promised benefits, but never the benefits without a revolution.

This essay is taken from Science, Society & Peace (15 essays by Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi) published by The Academy of Political and Social Studies, Pune


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