Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bird's Eye View of the Kolkata Conference and Some Reflections - by Professor V.V.Raman.

The three day conference on The Culture and Philosophy of Science in India, held at the Ramaksrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Kolkata from April 4-6, 2009, was a most rewarding experience for me. It is difficult to think of a more ideal place for a conference on this theme: The RMIC is an eminent center of learning and spirituality, of culture and scientific outlook too. Swami Vivekananda would surely be proud of an event of this kind held at the premises which is graced by a majestic statue in white stone of the swamiji in his loving memory.
The facilities of the attendees at the center itself were comfortable beyond expectation, with spacious rooms, cooled by fans and air-conditioning, morning tea with the day’s newspapers, caring service, and such. The breakfast and meals were sumptuous, although I myself would have preferred the Bengali shingada to the British vegetable cutlet to go with my coffee in the morning. But that is a minor unfulfilled desire compared to so many other satisfactions that were offered to all of us.
The deliberations appropriately began with the chanting of Upanishadic hymns. The serenity of the hymns and their sublime content put a stamp on the conference as being essentially Indic in spirit and approach. Then Swami Sarvabhutananda gave a warm welcome to the participants which made us all feel at home at the Center. This was followed by some brief and thoughtful introductory remarks by the young and dynamic organizer and director of the conference, Professor Makarand Paranjape. This was followed by a very insightful analysis of the demarcation between science and spirituality by the eminent Indian psychologist Professor Ramakrishna Rao who is known for his pioneering work on parapsychology and on Indian psychology. In his talk, Professor Rao voiced and elaborated on the post-modernist challenges to science’s claim for objective knowledge, and its occasional degeneration into scientism. Then we were treated to some erudite reflections by Swami Jitatmananda on the striking parallels between some of the findings of current quantum physics and Vedantic visions on the nature of ultimate reality.
[The keynote address by V. V. Raman analyzed culture in terms of its three components: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the worldview, of which the last one relates to two orthogonal aspects: the understanding and interpreting of the world of perceived reality (science) on the one hand, and insights and visions on the nature of mind and consciousness based on deep experiential probes (spirituality).]
Professor R. P. Singh explained that with all our advances in science and technology, there are inherent the conceptual difficulties in coming to universal standards on matters of value and meaning that would be applicable to all cultures. This was one of the few papers that addressed issues from contemporary perspectives.
Professor Bijoy Mukherjee examined the writings of Dwijendranath Tagore and Jagadish Chandra Bose to make the case that they had, from indigenous roots, laid the foundations for what we now call consciousness studies.
Father Job Kozhamthadam brought out the great transformations occurring in the world where India as an emerging nation is playing a role of ever-increasing importance. He also suggested that in the contexts of the new world order Indian thinking should also change its attitudes on certain traditional issues if we are to be relevant and contribute more meaningfully.
Professor John Bosco Lourdesamy took us on a science-spiritual tour of Kolkata by recalling the works of Mahindralal Sircar. J. C. Bose, and P. C. Ray who were all spiritually inclined. He then showed how scientists of later decades, like S. N. Bose and M. N. Saha, turned to science as instruments for development , rather than for spiritual fulfillment. He argued that this was due to the impact of the Western framework, and wondered if development could also be made to include spiritual development.
Professor Piyali Palit presented a technical paper on a methodological approach to Advaita Vedanta view of pratyaksha expounding on the thesis that it is possible to found an Advaita Vedanta theory through Vaisheshika formal ontology.
Professor Madhumita Chattopdhyay’s analysis of kinematics (which she called dynamics) in the metaphysics of Nagarjuna (with a reference of Zeno’s paradox) was carefully articulated. But it did not draw the conclusion that excessive preoccupation with metaphysics and views to the effect language is inadequate for describing ultimate reality may have played a role in impeding the emergence of positive sciences in the Indian context.
So concluded the discussions of the first day.
The next day began with a fascinating talk by Swami Prasannatmananda on Swami Vivekananda and Modern Science, bringing to light writings of the great Swamiji on matters relating to the then currently emerging science, such as Darwinian evolution.
This was followed by a clear presentation by Professor Indrani Sanyal of some of Sri Aurobindo’s difficult writings on Yoga and his interpretations of the Upanishads in which extreme materialism as also pure spiritualism were challenged.
Professor Suhita Chopra Chatterjee made some critical sociological reflections on the culture and philosophy of biomedinice in India, referring to some moving personal experiences. She deplored the framework of Western medicine that was blindly applied to the Indian context without any sensitivity for local conditions, and pleaded for “Indianization of biomedicine.”
Dr. Anuradha Veeravalli compared and contrasted Charaka’s Sarirasthanam and William Harvey’s The Circulation of the Blood, the former based strongly on concepts such as the purusha and the mahabhutas, while that latter rested on purely materialistic worldviews. In this context she also referred to Mahatma Gandhi’s little known book Key to Health in which he did his own experiments on the matter.
Dr. Sampadanand Mishra brought out some new insights into classical Indian taxonomy of plants. The botanical studies of ancient Hindus show their meticulous observations, imaginative nomenclature, and rich interpretations on the world of plants and trees. But the sheer variety of names of the same species, often given arbitrarily, it would seem, by different investigators, also reveals the non-institutionalized character of ancient science which was not conducive to the growth of systematized science.
Dr. Joy Sen gave a very interesting paper on a scientific approach to the study of Indian culture in which he stressed the need for a holistic framework for studies of culture and philosophy of science in India. While rightly articulating the limitations of the reductionist view and echoing the call for more holistic approaches, he also reiterated the apprehension of many modern Indian intellectuals who philosophize on science without practicing any hard core science (such as quantum physics, neuroscience, nuclear physics, biochemistry, mathematics, etc.) that the objective of science is “to serve a colonial-industrial paradigm.”
Fr. Binoy Pichalakkatu gave a brief review of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and went on to extrapolate the notion of incompleteness in other (Indian) contexts as well. He reiterated the post-modernist notion that science is a cultural context: a view that is gaining ground, perhaps not in the interest of culture and civilization at large, whether in India or elsewhere.
Professor Amita Chatterjee discussed the Ânivîkshukî culture which is said to have been dominant in India for a long time, but which was repressed during the colonial period. This culture was conducive to the development of the sciences, while being spirituality-friendly. The thrust of the paper was to show that science flourishes in a typical culture and that the so-called Indian science is actually an alternative to modern science.
Professor Nirmalya Guha’s paper on Indian deductive systems explored the theoretical basis for Indian sciences. It contrasted the Indian from the Western system, noting that in the former one does not start with first principles (meaning perhaps the major premises of Aristotelian syllogism).
This brought to a close the deliberations of the second day.
The third say began with a paper from Professor Nilanjana Sanyal on Perfectionism, exploring whether it was a boon or a peril to spirituality. It considered specific psychiatric case histories in which the obsession of parents to see their children score a 100% at school often caused serious disorders, let alone serious impediment to spiritual growth.
Professor Probal Dasgupta’s paper showed that what geometry was to the Greeks, grammar was in the Indian context. Our view of science would be considerably altered and enriched if we approached it from the classical Indian grammatical perspective.
Rev. Augustine Thomas Pamplany’s paper dealt with the Libet finding of the 1990s by which our conscious decisions are preceded by unconscious processes in the brain, and the implication of this to the notions of freewill and determinism. In this context, he went on to suggest, Indian philosophical and scientific views on consciousness have the potential making significant contributions.
Then we had a brainstorming session on a proposal submitted by V. V. Raman to establish an Indian Association for Science, Spirituality, and Society. After some lively debate the proposal was unanimously voted upon, and a committee (of volunteers) was formed to explore and actualize the idea further.
Finally, after lunch, there was a Valedictory session in which Professors Godabarisha Mishra and Debabrata Sensharma reflected on the general theme of Indic thought and modern science. This was followed by some inspirational reflections by the eminent scholar and distinguished thinker Professor Ramaranjan Mukherji.
Some Personal Reflections
I have attended several meetings and conferences in India on Indic themes during the past fifteen years. This was certainly one of the most interesting and personally rewarding of them all. One reason for this was the intimate atmosphere and the camaraderie among the scholars that permeated the conference. Another was the ease and complementing manner in which discussions were conducted with hardly a confrontational stance on any of the serious issues that were discussed. There were also a few non-participants who attended one or more of the sessions. One of them (Ms Ann Banerjee from London) shared some of her impressions, profusely thanking the speakers for the knowledge they had given her.
I was enriched by the range, variety, and depth of the papers which were based on considerable research and reflection. I too would like to express my profound gratitude to one and all whose papers I had the opportunity to listen to.
Once, at the end of a lecture by J. B. S. Haldane (the eminent British biologist who had taken up Indian citizenship in the mid-1950), there was a thunderous applause. During the question and answer period one heard only praise after praise from various members of the audience. Dr. Haldane said something to the effect that unvarnished praise at the end of a talk without critical comments would not be taken as a compliment by the speaker in the scientific/scholarly circles of his former country.
Recalling that as an explanation, not an excuse, I will now take the liberty of making some frank general reflections.
That India is rich in practically every facet of culture is beyond any doubt. That her contributions to humanity’s heritage are of significant proportions is also well known. And that modern India is poised to play a major role in the century that has dawned, and will be making still grander contributions in the decades to come is a prediction based on scholarly analyses of data and trends, and not on planetary configurations and astrological charts.
With all that, I sometimes detected during the conference (and have sensed in other contexts as well elsewhere, in articles, books, email postings, and conversations) a deep sense of cultural insecurity among many Indians/Hindus which manifests itself in different ways. Its more positive expression is the conviction – often repeated by Hindu thinkers – that our ancient worldviews have the key to the solution of all the problems the world is facing today. Its less healthy manifestation is the fear that the outside world, especially the West which oppressed and exploited us for well over two centuries, continues to do so in overt and subtle ways, and that we ought to be every vigilant about this.
There is more than a grain of truth in such beliefs on the political and economic planes. But when serious thinkers argue that modern science is an imposition by the West with a colonialist agenda – a thesis that had its origins in certain Western leftist circles and has been embraced by non-scientist Indian commentators - I for one am not very thrilled. Indeed, I am concerned about this because if modern India were to abandon modern science (which I trust she will never do for practical reasons) that would catapult the country back to an age that is far more rosy in the recalling than probably was in actuality. The more we harp on the idea that modern science is a Western colonialist construct, the more harm we do to our own progress and prestige in the complex and transformed world in which we live.
In this context I am reminded of a similar predicament in ancient Roman history, except that it was the abstract thought of the Greeks that frightened the practical-minded Romans. By about the first century BCE the Roman Empire had full sway over most of the Mediterranean region and the Greek world. That empire introduced a cultural and governmental unity among a variety of peoples stretching from Egypt to Great Britain. Remarkably, the Romans did not produce great scientific thinkers. Their most prolific writers on scientific questions often borrowed or reformulated ideas that had already emerged in the Greek world. Indeed, it was from Greek scholars trained in the schools of Plato and Aristotle that Roman thinkers received their first nourishment in philosophy.
Amidst the imperial successes and material prosperity of the Roman Empire there was little need for, and less interest in abstract thought and abstruse metaphysics such as had been pursued by the Greeks. Not unlike government bodies and the public at large in our own times, the Romans felt that only matters that were “relevant” to the practical needs of society deserved attention and support. Besides, Roman aristocracy was only superficially interested in Greek intellectual ac­complishments, and it did not really care much for ideas and speculations which were of no immediate value.
In this context, some of them looked upon Greek influence with fear and suspicion, if not contempt, not unlike how some Indins view “Western” science. There is a striking parallel between their attitudes and those of some well-meaning cultural patriots in today’s non-Western world vis-à-vis Western science.
One of the most eloquent of such thinkers was Marcus Porcius Cato, the great writer and senator who instigated the Third Punic War. Cato had as much paranoia of Greek philosophy and culture as some modern Non-Western cultural chauvinists have of “the decadent West.” He warned: “You may take my word for it that when this people (the Greeks: read the West) bestows its literature (read: science) upon Rome, it will ruin everything.” He was convinced that the Greeks (the West) had “conspired among themselves to murder all barbarians (non-West).”
This does not mean that the Romans were not capable of abstract thought, for, even if the society was based on much inequity and slavery, the enunciation of principles underlying Roman Law called for much clear and conceptual thinking. Nor were their technological accomplishments modest: their impressive aqueducts and the basilicas continue to be admired to this day. But they simply felt insecure vis-à-vis the more prolific and powerful Greek thinkers.
During Roman times their language itself (like Hindi) did not have too many technical words in it. Lucretius lamented in the first century BC:
I know how hard it is in Latin verse
To tell the dark discoveries of the Greeks,
Chiefly because our pauper speech must find
Strange terms to fit the strangeness of the thing.

Yet, during the 16th and 17th centuries Latin became the lingua franca of modern science. How things can change in history!
None of this is to say that modernity has been a blessing without any blemish. All of us know, and know only too well, the havoc caused by the technological rampage initiated by the industrialized West, and now mimicked mindlessly by the rest of the world. That modernity has made us lose some precious dimensions of being fully human – such as our capacity to be enthralled by the magic of myths and the poetry of puranic tales – is true also. Most seriously, the spiritual experience of life has been immeasurably diluted – not to say obliterated – as a result of the so-called modernist/materialist worldview. Given all this, it is understandable that many thoughtful people all over the world (not just in India) are not very thrilled by the catastrophic onslaught of maddening modernity. Unfortunately, however, all the negative side-effects are the price that all cultures (and that includes the West) have paid, and are paying, for quite a few non-trivial compensations that modernity has also provided: ranging from the elimination of superstitions and epidemics and famines to ease of communication and travel, uplifting the quality of life of the masses in societies, and much more. The evils of modernity cannot, alas, be filtered out through a choice-sieve to make only the benefits flow through.
However, it is important to distinguish the modernity and the industry that have resulted from the emergence of modern science from the science itself, exactly as it is important to distinguish the evils (superstitions, casteism, and suttee) that resulted from some ancient Hindu beliefs from the core of Hinduism itself. Science is a collective effort by the human mind, irrespective of class or creed, nationality or skin color, to unravel the complexities of perceived reality through systematic study in order to provide a coherent, consistent, rational, and universally acceptable interpretations of the phenomenal world. There is no Hindu or French, Islamic or Chinese, African or Japanese science per se, only varying degrees of opportunities and interests in different nations for pursuing different branches of science. Scientific understanding is accomplished with the aid of meticulous observations, ingenious experiments with sophisticated instruments, and (when possible) mathematical analysis. To say that all this is part of a colonialist agenda may soothe our historical rancor, but it never sat well with the pioneers of science in India, from P.C. Ray and S. N. Bose, and M. N. Saha to C. V. Raman, S. Chandrasekhar and Homi Bhabha, and such who brought name and honor to India. Nor will such a view be taken seriously by any practicing Indian scientist today anywhere in the world, including India.
A major psychological, emotional, and cultural problem that all groups face in our own times more than ever before pertains to one’s cultural identity. Whenever a group is a minority in a society (Bengalees in Assam, Tamils in Maharasthra, non-Hindi speakers in India, Koreans in Japan, Blacks in White America, Muslims in the Netherlands, ….) the ethnic identity problem crops up, mildly or in stark terms, out of an understandable fear that the majority might some day subdue the minority. Therefore, this cultural identity crisis often tends to find expression not so much in legitimate pride in one’s culture as in animosity towards the (more powerful majority). In the current global context, every nation is a minority vis-à-vis the hegemonic West/America. Therefore, the suspicion of a colonialist agenda (especially given the history of the past three hundred years) is perfectly understandable, if not warranted. However, it would be wise not to be swept away by those feelings in matters pertaining to science proper.
What is one to do under these conditions? It seems to me that, aside from making oneself strong as a nation (army, navy, air-force, espionage, economic productivity, technological breakthrough, scientific advances, mass education), one should cultivate the aesthetic aspects of one’s culture and refine its ethical aspects by erasing its anachronistic and unconscionable elements. India’s uncommonly rich cultural heritage in art, music, poetry, philosophy, sculpture, costumes, greeting modes, and cuisine have always provoked enthusiastic recognition from people who have come to know about these. We would do well to propagate these with greater vigor. The respect India enjoys, and will enjoy even more, from these aspects of our culture will be far greater than any prestige she may have gained from her status as a nuclear power or even by launching a rocket to the moon, both by acquiring the so-called Western scientific knowledge (not that these should not be done). Likewise, Indian scientists (and through them India) are gaining respect by the contributions they make to world science much more than to Hindu spirituality. India could certainly teach the world about the value of cultivating and nurturing spirituality for our psychological wellbeing. (Yoga is already becoming more popular among students and professionals in the U.S. than they probably are in India.) The wisdom and subtleties of Indian philosophy deserve perennial exploration also.
Another aspect of these discussions that stuck me was that the majority of the papers dealt with or were tied up with ancient Indian thought; few, if any, referred to current thinking on any of the issues. While we should rightly be proud of the visions and achievements of our ancestors, we may not be paying them homage in the most appropriate way by not generating any new visions or insights on the considerably different and enormously more complex problems that the world in general and India in particular are facing now, much less by claiming that the results and accomplishments of modern science and technology were already known to our ancient thinkers. This may be satisfying to some of us, but by and large the outside world does not attach much weight to such claims. Similar claims are made by Muslim and Christian thinkers also, provoking similar indifference.
Our future will be better served, it seems to me, if, even while being firmly anchored to some of our past visions and affirming the very best in India’s dynamic culture we also bring in fresh perspectives and new points of view, as inheritors of a great tradition; but also as independent thinkers who can say things beyond what may be found in Sanskrit and Tamil texts of by-gone centuries. In the age we are entering, people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, even while cherishing and remaining proud of and faithful to their respective heritage, must join hands as members of the human family and strive to find universal solutions to the problems that we are all facing as fellow travelers on the only space ship have: one whose physical and moral status seems to be fast deteriorating.

V. V. Raman
April 9, 209


Blogger Brian Barker said...

I think the modern World needs a lingua franca as well.

Barack Obama wants everyone to learn another language, but which one should it be? The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves both Mandarin Chinese and Arabic out of the equation.

I think its time to move on and decide on a neutral non-national language, taught worldwide, in all nations?

I would personally prefer Esperanto. An interesting video can be seen at

Evidence can be seen at

April 26, 2009 at 10:38 AM  

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