New Hindu nationalism erodes science in India

February 14, 2019 • 11:00 am

When I was lecturing in India a bit more than a year ago, I heard repeated complaints from scientists (in five cities) about how the Modi government and its Hindu-centric BJP Party was destroying Indian science. As was reported by the BBC in January (and in the article below from Science), some Indian scientists are beginning to claim that ancient Indians had stem-cell technology, airplanes, the internet, and so on (this is reminiscent of the “Afrocentrism” rife a while back, which claimed the same thing about ancient Africans).

The BBC reports that some Indian scientists attacked Einstein’s work at India’s most important science conference:

Hindu mythology and religion-based theories have increasingly become part of the Indian Science Congress agenda.

But experts said remarks at this year’s summit were especially ludicrous.

The 106th Indian Science Congress, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, runs from 3-7 January.

The head of a southern Indian university cited an old Hindu text as proof that stem cell research was discovered in India thousands of years ago.

G Nageshwar Rao, vice chancellor of Andhra University, also said a demon king from the Hindu religious epic, Ramayana, had 24 types of aircraft and a network of landing strips in modern day Sri Lanka.

Another scientist from a university in the southern state of Tamil Nadu told conference attendees that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were both wrong and that gravitational waves should be renamed “Narendra Modi Waves”. [JAC: Modi is India’s Prime Minister.]

Dr KJ Krishnan reportedly said Newton failed to “understand gravitational repulsive forces” and Einstein’s theories were “misleading”.

All over India, institutes are being set up to show that the products of the cow (milk, urine, dung, and so on) are “miracle cures”, which of course buttresses the Hindu view of cows as sacred. And even Prime Minister Modi himself got into the act, as the article below reports:


This is unbelievable:

. . . others say there is little doubt that pseudoscience is on the rise—even at the highest levels of government. Modi, who was an RSS pracharak, or propagandist, for 12 years, claimed in 2014 that the transplantation of the elephant head of the god Ganesha to a human—a tale told in ancient epics—was a great achievement of Indian surgery millennia ago, and has made claims about stem cells similar to Rao’s.

(The RSS is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement.)

Yep, a great achievement of Indian surgery. The Prime Minister thinks that! (Of course, maybe Trump could also get away with such nonsense . After all, a human/elephant head transplant is only a notch more ridiculous than denying anthropogenic climate change.)

And, of course, the teaching of evolution is endangered, since many Indians don’t buy it, as it’s not in Hindu scripture (see here for my earlier post on government interference with evolution education in India):

. . . in January 2018, higher education minister Satya Pal Singh dismissed Charles Darwin’s evolution theory and threatened to remove it from school and college curricula. “Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral [texts], has said that they ever saw an ape turning into a human being,” Singh said.

Now don’t think for a minute that most Indian scientists sign onto this madness. Everybody I met at the high-powered government-funded research institutes I visited in Bangalore (Bengalaru), Pune, Chandigarh, Delhi, and Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) were upset and angry about this kind of pseudoscience; and I’m confident that, in the end, real science will prevail. But it’s swimming upstream what with Modi and the BJP in power.

The Science piece above has a lot more details, but I want to single out one paragraph at the end:

Some Indian scientists may be susceptible to nonscientific beliefs because they view science as a 9-to-5 job, says Ashok Sahni, a renowned paleontologist and emeritus professor at Panjab University in Chandigarh. “Their religious beliefs don’t dovetail with science,” he says, and outside working hours those beliefs may hold sway. A tradition of deference to teachers and older persons may also play a role, he adds. “Freedom to question authority, to question writings, that’s [an] intrinsic part of science,” Ramakrishnan adds. Rather than focusing on the past, India should focus on its scientific future, he says—and drastically hike its research funding.

These factors may play a role, but it’s odd that these reasons for the spread of pseudoscience among Indian scientists don’t include religion, which is the main reason for this nonsense. Indian scientists know that religion is degrading their fields, but Science magazine won’t be very explicit about it, although you can tell what’s happening by reading between the lines.

Religion poisons everything, they say, and it’s certainly poisoning science in India.

h/t: Greg

Two cases of blasphemy: Muslim boy cuts off own hand after a mistake, Indian comedian arrested for mocking guru

January 15, 2016 • 12:45 pm

1. From the Express Tribune and International New York Times.  This story, from Pakistan is unbelievable:

A 15-year-old boy cut off his own hand believing he had committed blasphemy, only to be celebrated by his parents and neighbours for the act, police told AFP on Friday.

Local police chief Nausher Ahmed described how an imam told a gathering at a village mosque that those who love the Prophet (PBUH) Mohammad always say their prayers, then asked who among the crowd had stopped praying.

Mohammad Anwar, 15, raised his hand by mistake after apparently mishearing the question.

The crowd swiftly accused him of blasphemy so he went to his house and cut off the hand he had raised, put it on a plate, and presented it to the cleric, the police chief said.

. . . Ahmed said that he has seen a video in which the boy is greeted by villagers in the street as his parents proclaim their pride.

Can you imagine what it would take for a kid to cut off his own hand? But it’s clearly an effect of Western colonialism. Nothing to do with religion, so move along, folks. . .

2. . . . to India, where, according to the BBC, popular actor Kiku Sharda was arrested for making fun of even more popular guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh in a t.v. sketch. It’s a crime in India for “hurting religious sentiments,” and so Sharda was taken in (he’s out on bail now). And it’s not like there’s nothing to make fun of!:

The controversial 48-year-old chief of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect dresses up in colourful clothes and has a rock star image.

He has published half a dozen music videos and regularly performs at rock concerts, which are attended by tens of thousands of followers.

In his 2014 hit number Highway Love Charger, which has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube, the guru is seen singing and dancing in multi-coloured pyjamas and a top that is embellished with glittering sequins and stones.

He’s also played himself in two films – Messenger of God and Messenger of God 2 – where he performed daredevil stunts, riding bikes and taking on villains.

Here’s the guru himself in “Highway Love Charger”. Are you telling me this guy is above mockery?

And you might remember this:

In recent months, the Dera chief has been mired in controversy, with allegations that he forced 400 followers to undergo castrations so that they could get “closer to God” and is also accused of rape and murder – charges a spokesman for the sect has denied.

Sadly, Sharda has apologized abjectly for his action, saying it was an “unfortunate coincidence,” and that he was deliberately mocking the the guru. All of this, of course, will have a chilling effect on India’s artists willingness to criticize the powers that be, including the extreme Hinduphilic and repressive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Would you castrate yourself for this man?


Hindu blasphemy: cricketer M. S. Dhoni in trouble for posing as Vishnu

January 8, 2016 • 8:45 am

We usually think of “blasphemy” as a crime committed against Islam, but it’s also a crime to mock religion in many places. Those include India, where people have been prosecuted for “insulting” Catholicism and Hinduism. And remember the three people jailed in Myanmar for advertising an event at a bar with a poster of Buddha wearing headphones? That violated that country’s laws against “denigrating religion.”

In fact, blasphemy laws are widespread. The Wikipedia article on “blasphemy law” gives this map of countries having such laws, and the possible punishments. Note that the death penalty is applied only in Muslim-majority countries, but even in Canada “blaphemous libel,” which mocks Christianity in a manner deemed not in good faith, is illegal, as it is in New Zealand, where you can be jailed for it. (In both places the laws are rarely enforced, but having them on the books is an offense to free speech.)

And while we’re on the subject of Canada, they still enforce “hate speech” laws that may incite “extreme feelings of opprobrium and enmity against a racial or religious group.” Finally, blasphemy, defined as “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” against religion, is still illegal in Ireland.

Blasphemy_laws_worldwide.svg Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 7.32.51 AM

We don’t hear much about blasphemy in India, which is far away, but such cases will become increasingly visible since the right-wing and pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party came into power.  Famously, my Chicago colleague Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, An Alternative History, was banned, with all copies on sale in India ordered pulped, on the grounds that she denigrated Hinduism. (Needless to say, she didn’t.)

The present case involves a famous cricket player. I hardly know anything about cricket, but I have heard of M. S. (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni, the ex-captain of India’s cricket team and one of the best wicket-keepers and batsmen of our time. Dhoni appeared on this magazine cover:


According to today’s Hindustan Times, Dhoni’s in trouble for this again (he was previously let off by the Supreme Court for the same image):

A local court in Andhra Pradesh on Friday issued non-bailable arrest warrant against cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni in a case accusing him of hurting religious sentiments by appearing as Lord Vishnu in a magazine cover holding a shoe in his hands.

Dhoni, who is in Australia for a limited over series, was not available for comments but his lawyer and manager said the one-day captain was never issued summons in the case.

The case against Dhoni, 34, was filed by a VHP leader in Anantapur town for allegedly hurting religious sentiments of Hindus while posing as the deity in the cover of Business Today magazine in April, 2013. The magazine’s report titled ‘God of Big Deals’ was on the brand value of the former Test captain.

The court of the additional judicial first class magistrate has asked police to produce Dhoni on February 25.

Of course Dhoni’s holding products other than a shoe (this article is about his lucrative endorsements), but showing the bottom of your shoe to someone in India is considered rude and uncouth. When you sit on the floor, you always tuck your feet under, never pointing your soles at someone.  Once I was chased into an Udaipur post office by a cycle-rickshaw driver who tried to exort a big fare from me (he got lost and tried to charge me a whopping fee for the time it took to find the post office), with the driver taking off his shoe and waving the sole in my face. That, I suppose, is why the article singles out the shoe rather than the soft drink.

There’s not a chance in hell that Dhoni will see jail for this, for the Indian justice system is tilted in favor of the entitled, and how could a judge put away the star member of India’s cricket team?

But others haven’t fared as well.  Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku was forced to flee the country after exposing a supposed “miracle” of water flowing from a Jesus statue. The “miracle” involved seepage from a nearby toilet into the statue (people had drunk the water, too!), but the exposure of fraud wasn’t good enough: Edamaruku was still accused of violating blasphemy laws, and, facing death threats and a prison sentence, fled to Europe, where he is now.

PuffHo touts syncretism: a particularly loopy form of accommodationism

December 7, 2015 • 10:30 am

I mention syncretism in Faith versus Fact as one of the many varieties of accommodationism, but don’t devote much space to it because it’s loopy. What I mean by “syncretism” is the argument that there can be no disparity between religious and scientific “truth” (a conviction of some Christian fundamentalists, who see the “truth” of evolution as simply wrong), but also that scripture is a source of scientific truth: that you can find in the Bible or the Qur’an the very same truths that were later revealed by science.

I’ve seen this anticipatory exegesis of scripture before, but mostly among Muslims. Since many Muslims see the Qur’an as literal truth, but also want to be down with science, they simply amalgamate the two. A Muslim cab driver, for instance, once told me that the Qur’anic explanation for the creation of humans is precisely the same as that revealed from studies of human reproduction (you can also see that argument here). I was too tired to argue with him.

I didn’t dwell on syncretism in my book because it’s pretty dumb: you have to stretch scripture into unrecognizable forms to get it to comport with modern science, and it’s mostly the strict fundamentalists who do that.

HOWEVER, PuffHo is not beyond publishing this kind of drivel, as evidenced in a new piece by Samita Sarkar (described as a freelance writer and an animal-rights activist), “How studying science strengthened my faith.” In her case, since she’s a Hindu, she finds in Hindu scripture everything that science described millennia later. I won’t dwell on all her examples, but here are a few.

First, Sarkar’s thesis:

Many people think that science and spirituality will always be at odds, but true religion must be supported by science, and true science must be supported by religion.

Real religion is sanatana dharma, or eternal duty. It is based on universal truth rather than rituals or superstition. Real religion is about truth because God is truth. When religion is true, it is applicable to the material world and can be used to explain natural phenomena.

What are the scientific phenomena that Hinduism anticipated? Here are three (Sarkar’s words are indented):

The Big Bang:

When I started taking science courses a couple of years ago, I began with astronomy. We learned that our universe started with a bang, a sound vibration that expanded and continues to expand to this day. By studying scriptures (BS 5.48, BG 17.23-24), I learned that through Mahavishnu’s exhalation, our universe began to expand with the primeval sound vibration of “om.”

In fact, The Srimad Bhagavatam frequently refers to the universe as “the cosmic ocean,” with the planets as “islands.”

The strong force of physics. Surprise!: it’s Krishna! Physics hasn’t even found that yet!

My astronomy course also discussed the four types of universal forces: the strong force, the electromagnetic force, the weak force, and the gravitational force. The strong force is what binds the protons in the atomic nucleus together despite the fact that positive charges should repel each other. Although without this force, the universe would be chaotic, scientists have yet to explain how the strong force functions. As The Brahma Samhita (5.35) describes, Krishna, the controller of the universe, is responsible for the strong force. He maintains order through His energy, which pervades His material creation: “All the universes exist in Him and He is present in His fullness in every one of the atoms that are scattered throughout the universe, at one and the same time.”

I look forward to the discovery of the K particle.

Newton’s third law:

This brings me to my final point: Newton’s third law, which is also known as the law of karma, states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. What we eat has a direct and profound impact on our physical and mental wellbeing, which is why scriptures encourage an ahimsa (non-violent, vegetarian) diet for those that are serious about their spiritual development. Studying science only strengthened my conviction and commitment to this amazing, spiritual, and delicious diet. It also complimented what I’d been reading in various ancient scriptures and made my faith even stronger.

It’s not really science that’s made Sarkar’s faith stronger, it’s her own confirmation bias, which makes her to see everything as a reflection of Hindu scripture, able to force even the most recalcitrant text into the Procrustean bed of science. She gives other examples of scientific discoveries miraculously anticipated by ancient texts (intermediary metabolism, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and so on), but I needn’t go on.

Sarkar concludes with her beginning:

Unfortunately, there will always be people who misinterpret data and misquote scriptures. People who do this will always be questioning the validity of “the other side,” but in actuality, science and spirituality must always be aligned. Both are valid because both are based on truth.

It’s a sign of PuffHo‘s willingness to publish any sort of drivel (Sarkar’s post was in the “religion” section), and its unwillingness to pay these contributors for writing, that encourages the publication of this sort of wrongheaded junk. One might as well claim that all scientific discoveries were anticipated in the Beowulf story.

Hindu monks ask to be relieved of the burden of communicating with (or sitting next to) women on planes

February 28, 2015 • 1:45 pm

Here’s a letter that came into my hands; it is given out to airlines when these Hindu monks check in for their flights, and requests special treatment on the grounds of their faith. That treatment involves not sitting next to women (or girls, I suppose), and not speaking to them directly. Nor are the monks to be spoken to by female flight attendents, except through an intermediary male passenger. Have a gander:



This is similar to the actions of those Orthodox Jews I wrote about last December, who refused to sit next to women on planes, also on religious grounds. (As far as I know, they will deign to speak to women, though.) Three flights were involved, with the Jews’ request causing delays in every case.

To me this letter requests unconscionable sex discrimination, and the airline should refuse to honor any of these requests (including that for pre-boarding—why do they need to get on the plane before anyone else?).  It’s simply wrong to ask airlines to permit a group of passengers to discriminate against women, even if the passengers plead the dictates of their faith.  Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, which in this case is equal treatment of all people, regardless of gender, race, or creed. Imagine if a religious group asked not to sit next to a black person, or speak to one except through a white intermediary!

Is there anyone out there who will justify or defend this practice?

And should airlines even try to honor this practice? Should they ask women to change places with men so these monks won’t be “polluted”? On the flights with Orthodox Jews, flight attendants tried to find seats that would satisfy those men. It’s not clear whether they asked people to move or simply pointed out empty seats that were suitable. I suppose the latter practice is okay because you are permitted to occupy any empty seat in your class after the plane takes off. But I don’t think flight attendants should be in the business of catering to sex-discriminatory religious practices by asking people to switch seats.

It’s heartening that on one of the flights I described in the earlier posts, it was the passengers who, incensed by this kind of request, refused to accommodate the Orthodox Jews by switching seats.

Finally, a reason to have “belief in belief”

November 10, 2014 • 12:23 pm

This is the best reason I’ve seen yet for promoting religion even if you don’t accept it yourself. It stops people pissing on the walls! Or so say Ranjani Iyer Mohanty in a piece in the The Atlantic, “Only God can stop public urination.”

If you’ve been to India, and I have (many times), you can’t help but notice the prevalance of public defecation and urination, for private toilets aren’t ubiquitous (almost nonexistent in villages), and public excretion has become a noxious custom, even in the large cities. How do you stop it? As Mohanty describes, you put up tiles or murals depicting the gods on walls customarily used for male urination.

I suspect it won’t work.  If you gotta go, you gotta go, so you’ll just move your outdoor activities to another place.  But here are some photos of the urination-preventing devices:

Janny McKinnon/Flickr
A pee-proof wall in Mumbai painted with images of Jesus Christ and the Hindu guru Sai Baba, along with the slogan, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” in Hindi (Reuters)

Mohanty has other suggestions:

My daughter, a firm believer in national integration, has suggested that these god tiles also include Muslim, Christian, and Sikh iconography. After all, if there’s one thing Indians have in common, it’s their god-fearing—or at least god-respecting—nature (pollsreveal that roughly 90 percent of Indians view religion as an important part of their lives). I wonder what would happen if I placed a few god tiles around my daughter’s room; after all, messiness cannot be next to godliness.

In fact, the concept has already expanded to several faiths. In documenting how tiled Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Sikh gods arrived in Mumbai’s streets (they replaced or supplemented written messages ranging from the polite “please do not sully the wall” to the more aggressive “son of an ass, don’t pee here”), the Indian photographer Amit Madheshiya recently marveled at the “harmonious existence for the gods” in such “cluttered and messy spaces”—especially in a predominantly Hindu country that “is often irreversibly divided along the coordinates of religion.”

Unfortunately, panaceas are rarely perfect. The other day, as I was leaving my neighborhood, I spotted a man on the same road urinating against those same walls. I was shocked. Who could be so bold as to disregard the presence of all those gods? And then it dawned on me: He might be an atheist.

Yes, we have here something rare: a completely novel critique of atheism!

h/t: Brian ~

Daily superstition: Indian woman marries a d*g

September 4, 2014 • 2:23 pm

From the Torygraph’s “Pictures of the Day” section, via reader Roo:

An 18-year-old Indian girl has married a stray dog as a part of a tribal ritual designed to ward off an evil spell. Village elders hastily organised the wedding between Mangli Munda and the canine as the teenager is believed to be bringing bad luck to her community in a remote village in Jharkhand state. Mangli’s father Sri Amnmunda agreed and even found a stray dog named Sheru as a match for his daughter. And while Mangli was a hesitant bride, she believes that the ceremony will help ensure that her future human husband will have a long life.Picture: Barcroft India.


A cat would have made a better husband. No walkies required.  If you want verification, the story is also at PuffHo, with the addition that the marriage isn’t really legally binding, so she can also have a human husband.

Oh, and there’s a video:

I’m sure there are many puns here, but I’ll leave that up to the readers—and keep ’em clean!

The incompatibility of religion and cricket

June 26, 2014 • 9:52 am

Reader Tom called my attention to a report in the sports section of the Sydney Morning Herald, which combines our current interest in sports with our constant interest in religion and its malfeasance. According to the report, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, captain of the Indian national cricket team, has been issued an arrest warrant for “hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus.”

Now I don’t know from cricket, and I doubt I’ll ever be able to work up any interest in it, but it is the most popular sport in one of the world’s most populous countries, as well as in much of the world. Tom called Dhoni  “captain of the most influential sporting team in the world”; I don’t know what that means, exactly, but perhaps readers can enlighten me. And Dhoni is noted in his Wikipedia article as “widely regarded as one of the greatest finishers in limited-overs cricket.” I have no idea what limited-overs cricket is, or what a silly mid-on is.  I’m happy to be ignorant: soccer fully fills the “sports module” in my brain.

At any rate, the Herald reported:

The case was filed last year against the 32-year-old after the cover of an Indian magazine carried a picture of him portrayed as a Hindu god.

The bailable warrant was issued after Dhoni failed to appear before the court despite three summons. The next date of hearing has been set for July 16.

Dhoni is currently touring with the Indian squad in England, where the team will play five Tests, five one-day internationals and one Twenty20 international.

Yerraguntla Shyam Sunder, a member of the right-wing Vishva Hindu Parishad party, filed the petition in March this year objecting to the picture of Dhoni.

“The court’s move was necessitated as Dhoni did not accept the summons sent previously. These warrants are only to make him accept and appear before the court,” Gopal Rao, the advocate representing Yerraguntla Shyam Sunder, told the Hindustan Times.

Roa also told the Hindustan Times that if Dhoni refused to appear before the court an arrest warrant which did not allow bail could be issued.

Here’s the offending magazine cover:


Now how can Dhoni be prosecuted for that? It surely wasn’t his decision to be portrayed that way.

Dhoni has been slurred before, in accusations of corruption. My Indian friends tell me that cricket in their country is deeply corrupt: both in the betting and in the teams themselves, who can either throw games or even mis-hit balls, since bets are placed on individual batters as well as game outcomes. Nevertheless, the man is enormously popular and rich: $30 million US is an absolute fortune in India:

A fortnight ago [Dhoni] was listed by Forbes magazine as the 22nd highest paid athlete in the world, and the only cricketer in the top 100, with earnings of $US30 million in 2013. The magazine said $26m of Dhoni’s earnings had arrived through endorsements.

The wicketkeeper-batsman is due to lead India in Australia this summer, when they will play four Tests against Michael Clarke’s No.1 ranked team and then take part in a one-day tri-series with Australia and England in the lead-up to the 2015 World Cup.

Since the rise of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its Hindu-centric philosophy, India has become more religiously intolerant, with Hindus crying about hurt feelings nearly as often as Muslims. Author Wendy Doniger, (a Chicago colleague) had her recent book about Hinduism (The Hindus: An Alternative History) pulled by Penguin from Indian booksellers and pulped (I wrote about this February) because a few Hindus complained that it presented their religion in a poor light.

And it’s not just Hindus: rationalist Sanal Edamaruku is facing arrest in his country for exposing a “miracle statue” of Jesus in Mumbai (which supposedly produced water) as a case of faulty plumbing in a nearby loo. For that he faced prosecution under India’s outdated blasphemy laws, and is now in exile in Finland, afraid to go back to India.

India is the world’s largest democracy. I love the country and its people, although the increasingly virulent strain of religious fervor scares me.  If they want to keep setting an example of how a democracy can function when it encompasses such a diverse people, they need to get rid of those stupid blasphemy laws. I don’t know about Dhoni’s honesty in playing cricket, but he doesn’t deserve prosecution for being portrayed as Krishna.

Dhoni at bat (if that’s what you call it)





Orthodox Church patriarch blesses a t.v. studio with a paint roller

June 19, 2014 • 5:24 am

This is funny, but also, I think, a good sign. According to the BBC, Patriarch Daniel of Romania’s Orthodox church has used a paint roller dipped in holy oil to bless a new broadcasting studio. The church, however, calls the roller a “sanctification rod”:

The ceremony did not go unnoticed by Romania’s press and internet humorists, with altered versions of the photos being widely circulated, Adevarul news website reports. One popular blogger posted an image showing the Patriarch apparently endorsing a brand of paint.

As reader “lantog” posted in the comments below, ‘Does that make the guy a holy roller?”

“Father, I think you missed a spot.”

The good news is that a lot of people made fun of this ludicrous demonstration, even in Romania:

The ceremony did not go unnoticed by Romania’s press and internet humorists, with altered versions of the photos being widely circulated, Adevarul news website reports. One popular blogger posted an image showing the Patriarch apparently endorsing a brand of paint.

Since Romania is pretty religious, with 81% of its people self-identifying as members of the Romanian Orthodox Church, and only 0.2% as atheists, that’s a good sign.

Here’s the breakdown from Wikipedia:

Screen shot 2014-06-19 at 7.15.15 AM

Sanctification rod, indeed!

The blessing of modern scientific technology by religious figures and ceremonies always amuses me. I learned yesterday, from my friends who are visiting from India, that their space agency always seeks Hindu blessings before launching a satellite. And, sure enough, that seems to be true.  This is from the Times of India on Feb. 24 of last year (my emphasis):

TIRUPATI: Ahead of the launch of the Indo-French satellite ‘SARAL’ onboard Isro’s workhorse rocket PSLV from Sriharikota, Isrochairman K Radhakrishnan on Sunday offered prayers at the hill shrine of Lord Venkateswaranear here.

Radhakrishnan offered prayers on Sunday morning for the successful launch of PSLV-C20 on Monday, temple sources said.

An ardent devotee, Radhakrishnan visits the shrine to seek divine blessings ahead of every satellite launch and makes another trip after its success, the sources said.

Radhakrishnan was accompanied by his wife Padmini. Since the last two decades, heads of the space agency have made it a practice to visit the the over 2000 year-old Tirumala hill temple to seek divine blessings before every satellite launch, the sources said.


No free speech in India

February 17, 2014 • 6:55 am

India is one of my favorite countries in the world: it’s filled with friendly and ambitious people (whose poverty often stifles their aspirations), it’s beautiful, diverse, and, of course, the food is wonderful.  I’ve been there half a dozen times, and will return this next winter.

India is also is supposed to be the world’s largest democracy, but that monicker is getting a severe trial. For India is retrogressing due to conservative ultra-Hindu elements that are taking over the government.

It is likely, for example, that soon the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) will take over the government. The BJP is a conservative party based on Hindu nationalism and the philosophy of Hinduvata, an ideology that wants, in effect, to create a Hindu theocracy. Its advocates have destroyed mosques, built Hindu temples on those sites, and attempted to enforce Hindu morality and ideology on other groups. This is a disasterous policy in a country that is largely multicultural, with many religions including Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism.  Right now the more liberal Congress Party controls the Indian government, but it’s predicted that the BJP will win the next election.

The latest misdeeds of the BJP and its right-wing adherents—but something that speaks badly for all of India—is the country’s attempt to censor books in a way that would be unheard of in, for instance, the U.S. Indian law allows prior censorship if someone claims that an upcoming publication may damage then, and it also allows books to be censored if they offend religious feelings. Further, litigation about censorship is difficult, for, as everyone in India knows, even simple court cases about more trivial issues can drag on for years.

That is why Penguin Books (now merged with Random House) has decided to pulp and withdraw from publication in India a scholarly book by my Chicago colleague Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History.  Doniger is an immensely respected scholar of religious history, and well known at my university. Her book was published in 2009, and a legal notice was filed buy a right-wing Indian a year later. The complaint, according to a New Yorker piece “Why free speech loses in India“,

. . . alleged that the book “is a shallow, distorted, and non-serious presentation of Hinduism … written with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in a poor light … The intent is clearly to ridicule, humiliate, and defame the Hindus and denigrate the Hindu traditions.” Citing a passage in which Doniger refers to Sanskrit texts written “at a time of glorious sexual openness and insight,” the complaint declares that her “approach is of a woman hungry of sex.”

The New York Times adds that the complaint alleges that Doniger’s book was “written with a Christian missionary zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light.”

The main complaint, then, seems to be that Doniger presents part of Hindu history as a time of openness about sex: something offensive and, I suppose, “colonialist” to advocates of Hinduvata.  And the publisher, Penguin India (presumably following the instructions of Penguin/Random House worldwide headquarters), agreed not only to remove the book from bookstores and pulp the remaining copies, but signed an agreement that “includes a bizarre clause requiring Penguin to affirm ‘that it respects all religions worldwide’.”

That’s simply too much, for Penguin is my publisher (they put out WEIT in the U.S. and will also publish my next book), and I am appalled. Doniger herself and Penguin India blame Indian law, which would tie up Penguin in expensive litigation for years, but really, there is an important principle at stake here. The world’s largest democracy should have a free press, not one in which people are censored for offending those of other faiths. Let us not forget that The Satanic Verses is still banned in India.

And that’s not all: there are several other cases of censorship in recent years.

“In January, Bloomsbury India withdrew copies of ‘The Descent of Air India’ [a book about the national airline] against its author’s wishes, and published an apology to a Congress-allied government minister who came in for heavy criticism in the book. In December, the Supreme Court granted a stay of publication of ‘Sahara: The Untold Story,’ an investigation of the Indian finance and real estate conglomerate Sahara India Pariwar, until a lawsuit filed by Sahara Group’s chairman was resolved.”

  • As the New Yorker reports, “In December, the Indian finance conglomerate Sahara—whose founder, Subrata Roy, is barred from leaving the country while courts resolve a series of legal and regulatory challenges against his firm—obtained an order from the Calcutta High Court blocking the publication of a book about the company. Sahara had filed a thirty-million-dollar defamation suit against the book’s author, Tamal Bandyopadhyay, the deputy managing editor of Mint, India’s most respected business newspaper.”

There are many to blame here. Doniger generously faults not her publisher, but the Indian legal system, which bans books offending religious sentiments.  There is also the Indian court system, which, if you know India, is the worst flowering of the famously labrythine bureaucracy of that land.  And Penguin/Random House should have fought this out to the end, or, if they had decided to fold, at least not agreed to sign some ridiculous statement that they won’t “respect all religions worldwide.” That’s an unwarranted privileging of religion, something that no secular publisher should ever do.

Indian authors have fought back (read Vikram Seth’s letter in The Hindu, or the letter to the Times of India by Arundhati Roy, another Penguin author. Roy’s letter, called “A letter to Penguin India (my publishers),” mirrors my sentiments exactly:

Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are? You are part of one of the oldest, grandest publishing houses in the world. You existed long before publishing became just another business, and long before books became products like any other perishable product in the market—mosquito repellent or scented soap. You have published some of the greatest writers in history. You have stood by them as publishers should, you have fought for free speech against the most violent and terrifying odds. And now, even though there was no fatwa, no ban, not even a court order, you have not only caved in, you have humiliated yourself abjectly before a fly-by-night outfit by signing settlement. Why? You have all the resources anybody could possibly need to fight a legal battle. Had you stood your ground, you would have had the weight of enlightened public opinion behind you, and the support of most—if not all—of your writers. You must tell us what happened. What was it that terrified you? You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least.

I will of course also protest to Penguin, for this decision was made at the highest levels, but my protests will be futile, as the agreement is a fait accompli. I am certain that my Indian academic friends are embarrassed, for this stuff should not be happening in a country I almost see as my adoptive land.

With the BJP’s election imminent, things are only going to get worse, and there are dark times ahead in India—at least for free speech, which is, after all, the soul of a democracy.