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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 15, April 8, 2023

Science as a Cultural Ideal | Ravi Sinha

Saturday 8 April 2023


by Ravi Sinha •


This talk was originally planned for the Science Day, but I hope what I am going to say will be relevant for all the other days too. On February 28, 1928, C V Raman (1888 — 1970) along with his student, K S Krishnan (1898 — 1961), discovered what is known as the Raman Effect. Raman was awarded the physics Nobel Prize in 1930 for the discovery. Since 1987, this day has been celebrated in India as the National Science Day.

Science in the Indian subcontinent experienced a remarkable awakening — given the millennial civilizational history of India we may even call it reawakening — during the half century prior to Independence and the creation of two sovereign countries out of British India. Starting with Jagdish Chandra Bose (1858 — 1937), who discovered wireless transmission of radio waves before Marconi and should have at least shared the latter’s Nobel Prize in 1909, and Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861 — 1944), father of modern chemistry in India, we had the second generation of pioneers in Raman, Meghnad Saha (1893 — 1956), Satyendra Nath Bose (1894 — 1974) and Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis (1893 — 1972). And, of course, we had the miracle called Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887 — 1920), one of the greatest mathematical geniuses ever. A third generation of scientific luminaries started its career in British India and continued to flourish in the post-colonial period, although some of them chose to work and live outside the subcontinent. Homi Jehangir Bhabha (1909 — 66), Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910 — 95), Vikram Sarabhai (1919 — 71), Har Gobind Khorana (1921 — 2011), Harish Chandra (1923 — 83), Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri (1923 — 2005) and Abdus Salam (1926 — 96) were among the prominent names.

All these scientists were born in a society that was far less educated and much less fed than it is today. All of them made lasting, even path-breaking, contributions to the world of science. It may be added that, with the exception of C V Raman, S N Bose, Srinivasa Ramanujan and A K Raychaudhuri, they were all trained abroad as scientists and mathematicians. The exceptions too were products of British education even if trained on the Indian soil. The life story of each one of them — some more than the others — is a fascinating one, and one could spend a great deal of time revelling in that. But my plan in this talk is not to take that path. This marvellous burst of scientific creativity in a subjugated society should encourage, among other things, considerations on the place of science in a culture and the role it has played in the history of civilizations. It should also inspire searching for pathways through which science can find a place in the mind of a civilization as one of its cultural ideals. I will use these scientists, who kindled a sense of awakening in the subcontinent to the powers and potentials of modern science, only as an opening gambit. My considerations, necessarily sketchy, will be focused on the civilizational and historical processes that aid or obstruct the seeping in of the cognitive values engendered by science into the cultural soil of a society or a civilization. I am primarily concerned with the fate of science in our own civilization, but it is a subject in which a comparative glance at other civilizations becomes unavoidable.


If one were to take a sweepingly broad view of science, it can be taken as a defining feature of the human species right from the time it walked out of the animal kingdom. Humans have always endeavoured to make sense of the world and make changes to that world in order to survive and flourish. But this story has not been one single story. Many distinct civilizations — large and small — and an enormous diversity of cultures have arisen in the long course of human history. They have all devised their separate, even if overlapping, worldviews for making sense of the world and for ensuring their own survival and success. Inevitably, human beings have simultaneously struggled to find their own place in this world which in the first instance appears to be externally given. For all we know, humans are the only medium through which the Universe begins to look at itself. Deep conundrums arise when mind arises from matter. This has given rise to an enormous corpus of philosophies and theologies. The mind that looks outside cannot avoid looking inside.

The complexity is not confined to the entanglement of the individual mind with the physical Universe. As I mentioned, humans have dealt with the Universe invariably as separate civilizations and societies. I will not go into the debates about how the species splintered into civilizations or whether the emergence of the species was from the beginning a multi-locational event spread across space and time and distributed in many separate instances. For our purpose it is enough to start with the premise that humans have dealt with the world always as collectives, and these have been, by and large, bounded collectives. Hence, the challenge of dealing with the Universe has always coexisted with the challenge of humans dealing with each other. Mind arises from matter and evolves in interaction with the Universe, but it evolves as much, if not more, through social processes. That is why there was that ancient aphorism of man being a social animal and that is why there is much modern discussion about all of us being socially constructed.

It appears, then, that the human gaze at the Universe is culturally tainted. All civilizations — at least all the major ones that we know about — have had their own cosmologies. In addition, the material processes of life — interactions with the Universe at the local levels including the practices necessary for survival and success — continually intermeshed with and gave rise to the processes of generating ideas, beliefs and traditions. The socially constructed and culturally refracted gaze at the external world also affected the eye that looked inside. The endeavour to understand the world co-mingled with the endeavour to understand oneself. In other words, the scientific part of the worldview — the part that dealt with the external world — was inseparably amalgamated with the social and the spiritual parts of the worldview. At least such was the case before the arrival of the modern era. Even in the contemporary intellectual atmosphere there exist attitudes and viewpoints that admire what appears organic and holistic in the pre-modern cultures and civilizations.

But civilizations do not leave each other alone. In the long span of history, no civilization has been completely shielded from external interventions and influences. Much as the anthropologist would like to find a pristine culture or tribe that can be studied as a neat example of how worldviews arise and how beliefs and practices cohere to make an organic cultural whole, all cultures and civilizations in real life are contaminated. The world does not seem to have been custom-made for the anthropologist. The rise and fall of civilizations have happened invariably in interaction with other civilizations. Such interactions have seldom been benign, collaborative or respectful. Humans have been rather rough with each other.

The fact, that competition and conflict among civilizations have been major factors behind their rise and fall, makes comparisons among them unavoidable. The historian must uncover relative strengths and weaknesses of civilizations if she aims at explaining, or at least making sense of, the long wave of history. Comparing civilizations, on the other hand, is a troubling subject and it can create much unease in a civilized mind. Who can say that power and prejudice have not been implicated in such comparisons? Who can say that those who were vanquished were necessarily less evolved and less civilized than the victors? We on the subcontinent have had our own taste of it. Didn’t the British, who had managed to colonise us, and had colonised us for obviously other reasons, also claim that they had come to civilize us? There was much irony in this as they also reminded us that we were once a great civilization. We ourselves had forgotten about that.

Of course, civilizational comparisons are not needed for explaining every episode in history. Just as a brute ruffian can beat up a thoroughly civilized gentleman, relatively evolved cultures have many a time suffered at the hands of ferocious warrior hordes. But rise and fall of entire civilizations are a different matter. They happen across a much longer span of time in which many generations and many centuries are involved. They cannot be explained by one accident or one battle. The rise of a civilization must be understood in terms of the long-lasting successes of its way of life and its worldview, and its fall, which at times can be triggered by historical accidents, must be understood as a result of internal decay or due to confrontation with other civilizations.

The question I am concerned with in this talk is about the role and the relative weight of science in the make-up of a civilization. In the sweepingly broad understanding of it that I mentioned earlier, science emerges from the external gaze humanity casts at the Universe, both in the local as well as in the cosmic arena. This can be conceptually separated from the horizontal gaze through which humans look at themselves as a society and also from the inner gaze, often described as spiritual, in which mind looks inward at itself.


Our task would become a whole lot easier if we limit ourselves to the case of modern science. In that case we will be dealing with just one variant of science that arose through the Scientific Revolution in 17th century Europe. In any case, this is the variant that is dominant now and has attained a singular status in the modern world. Should we so readily accept the hegemony of one specific version of science and relegate all others to the margins? There are controversies galore on that count. I think we have very good reasons to steer clear of those controversies. However, let me briefly touch upon two major critiques that strive to challenge the all-pervasive hegemony of modern science. This would offer some contextual clarity to the arguments I am going to make about the civilizational role of modern science.

The first one can roughly be described as the postmodernist critique. Its arguments straddle across multiple academic disciplines including philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, even literary theory. At the most basic level this critique challenges the claim of science to have any special access to external or objective reality. At best, as the argument goes, modern science can merely be one example among many equally legitimate systems of knowledge. We may call it the epistemological relativist position that does not doubt the existence of objective reality outside the human mind, but accords equal status to all different knowledge systems. The argument gathers evidence from history, anthropology, sociology and many other fields to show that modern science had a very unclean birth; that it arose out of religion and theological debates, superstitious practices such as alchemy and voodoo curative techniques. Right from the time of its birth it has been implicated in the social structures of power and greed. And, on the top of it all, the pioneers — fathers of modern science in the early modern era and later — were themselves no models of scientific rationality. They were mired in prejudices and superstitions like everyone else. How can modern science claim any unique access to objective knowledge?

But the buck did not stop with epistemological relativism. There came upon the intellectual scene that strong programme of sociology and philosophy of science which had no hesitation in marching all the way to ontological relativism. It put under question mark the existence of objective reality itself. How we see a thing creates that thing. The Universe comes into being through our act of looking at it, and hence, there are as many universes as there are ways to look at it. At the least, every civilization creates its own Universe and its own reality. If the whole gamut of ontology is reduced to an epistemology that is entirely and fundamentally relativist, then what hope and what need for comparing knowledge systems of different civilizations? They are incommensurable, to borrow a famous phrase from Thomas Kuhn who was no postmodernist but who has been forcibly and illegitimately roped into the postmodernist project. As for the subject at hand, the rise and fall of civilizations that we are concerned with would be nothing more than the creation of our own concerns.

The other such stream is that of the postcolonial theory. It adds historical and political muscles to the philosophical bones of the postmodernist attitude. Modern science is seen as nothing more than a handmaiden of capitalism and imperialism and an accomplice in the colonial project of the West to subjugate the rest of the world. All tenets of modernity are suspect in the eyes of the postcolonial theorist. I can do no better than quoting a few excerpts from Ashish Nandy who is among the global gurus of the postcolonial theorists. In his famous “Counter-statement on Humanistic Temper” written in opposition to the “Statement on Scientific Temper” that had been issued by famous scientists and public intellectuals in 1981, he says,

“ today is big business and modern Indian scientists are mostly a new class of compradors, that to be the subjects of such scientists is to be doubly subject to the national and international structures of oppression. The resistance to science in the ‘laity’ is based on an unconscious awareness of this fact. The common man is not that common after all.

...We must learn to reject the claim to universality of science. Science is no less determined by culture and society than any other human effort. The problem of science springs not merely from its context but also from its text or content. There is a direct correlation between the claims to absolute objectivity, inter-subjectivity, internal consistency, dispassion and value-neutrality, on the one hand, and violence, oppression, authoritarianism, killing uniformity and death of culture, on the other...” (Mainstream Weekly, October 10, 1981, New Delhi, pp. 17-18)

One can have a lot of issues with the approach and attitude implicit in such critiques of modern science. There is no doubt that science was born out of religion, but does an unclean birth ensure growing up into an undesirable adult? If you pre-decide that looking for the essence of anything is always an illegitimate exercise, and if every conceptual analysis separating the components and disentangling the causalities of a mutually entangled multi-component whole must be disallowed in principle, then of course you may succeed in implicating science in everything that has been happening in the world including all the crimes of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism. You may even succeed in convincing some, or many, that modern science must be forsaken. But what do you gain? What do you propose as an alternative way of life that can do away with modern science altogether?

Richard Dawkins once said, “Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I will show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work.” One might look around and see if any alternative science is flying planes, stories about Pushpak Viman notwithstanding. I will readily accept that the “unconscious awareness” of the ‘laity’ has successfully resisted the seeping in of scientific values into the cultural soil of the subcontinent. But has that been a good thing for India or for anyone else? The surprize is not about the ‘laity’. It is about those high intellectuals who manage to excavate deep wisdom from every traditionally held belief, prejudice or superstition.

Even if one were to accept all the normative critiques of science, ill-founded as they are, the questions about the rise and fall of civilizations, and about the role of science in them, would not go away. Would it be enough to criticise colonialism and imperialism for what they did and not try to understand why the West became dominant and hegemonic? If we were a more evolved and an ethically superior civilization, how should we have protected it from a few thousand ferocious horsemen or a few thousand clever seafarers? Or shall we just plead that all civilizations, howsoever they may be, should be left alone?

There is a story, probably apocryphal, about Archimedes, the great geometer and inventor of the 3rd century BC. When the Romans sacked Syracuse in 212 BC, a brute Roman soldier killed him despite orders to capture him alive. Archimedes was busy brooding over a geometrical figure he had drawn in the sand. He is supposed to have said to his killer who was ready to strike, “Do not disturb my circles”. If, aided by science, the brutes prevail, shall we tell them, “Do not disturb my civilization”?


The start date for the western domination of the world can be put in the middle of the 19th century, but the causes behind it were long in the making. The phenomenon which is known as the Great Divergence started rather suddenly around 1850. Before that all the major civilizations and the economies of the world had remained, for more than a millennium, roughly at par with each other in terms of average income, prosperity and living standards. India and China had been the two largest economies on the planet for nearly two millennia till the beginning of the 19th century. Around the year 1700 both these countries accounted for roughly a quarter each of the total world GDP. But the situation turned around in the 150 years after 1820. Around 1970 western Europe and United States together accounted for nearly half of the world GDP. The shares of India and China had plummeted by then to less than five percent each. Since then, China has climbed back to 16.1 percent (2018) just behind the United States that is at the top with 23 percent of the world GDP. India continues to languish at a little over 3 percent (2018).

The Great Divergence is variously explained through a combination of factors such as the Industrial Revolution, discovery of the New World, colonial exploitation of India and other countries in the non-West, and internal factors such as innovation, capitalist drive, role of markets as well as of state intervention and so on. Such explanations depend on finer weaves of causalities about which one can continue to ask the question, “And why did that happen?” Large phenomena such as the Great Divergence can afford large explanations based on macro-level causations, which in turn can provide contexts for micro-causalities and shed light on their origins and sources.

The macro-causation of the Great Divergence, in my reading, happened through the advent of two large-scale phenomena — Modernity and Capitalism. Other factors such as Industrial Revolution, Colonialism or Imperialism were, relatively speaking, derivative phenomena. One cannot say that they all flowed compulsorily from the emergence and unfolding Modernity and Capitalism. Even the long wave of history is not entirely deterministic and it cannot be explained by large causes alone without taking help from smaller causalities and even historical accidents. But my aim here is not to write a history of Europe or to explain why the Great Divergence came about. I am taking the example of Great Divergence merely as an indication or a sign that something deep and epoch-making was happening in western Europe during the half millennium between 14th and 19th century, which, in turn, unleashed a long-lasting civilizational transformation on a global scale. The whole world is still in the middle of that transformation.

The advent of Capitalism, of course, is a much-discussed phenomenon that is considered as the prime cause behind the western domination of the rest of the world. Modernity is mostly discussed as an attendant phenomenon of Capitalism. Many would go much farther and consider Modernity as a superstructural consequence or an ideological tool of Capitalism. Of course, a lot depends on how Modernity is defined. But it is never a good idea to first pick your definition and then proceed to make your argument according to the chosen definition.

What is at stake here is to comprehend the entire beast that emerged from the long-drawn process in the western Europe during that half a millennium. That beast is sitting in the world today as the proverbial elephant in the room. Emergence of Capitalism was a large part of that process but that does not exhaust it. If one tries too hard to derive from Capitalism everything else that happened in Europe during those centuries, it will require too much of theoretical gymnastics. Far more plausible is the thesis that something else too emerged during those centuries that was as important and as powerful as Capitalism. This can be comprehended as a constellation of major developments such as the separation of Modern Philosophy from its theological roots during the 16th and 17th centuries, the advent of the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century and the emergence and consolidation of the cognitive, cultural, normative and political values of 18th century Enlightenment. All these put together represent something that I would call Modernity.

Such a conception of Modernity cannot be contained within an understanding of it as an outcome and as an ideological equipment of Capitalism. Capitalism is an example of a System. In the Marxist terminology, for example, it is a mode of production. If you abstract away the System part from the social totality, it is not true that there is nothing left. It is also not true that whatever is left as the rest of society can be derived merely as a consequence of the System. In any case, by the time Capitalism came in a position to be able to employ in its service a truncated and deformed version of Modernity, we were already into the 19th century. Even if we acknowledge that tender sprouts of capitalist relations were beginning to grow in parts of Europe in 15th or 16th century, Capitalism was in no position at that time to shape Modernity in accordance with its needs and plans. It could not have employed a Bacon, a Hobbes, a Galileo, a Newton, a Lock or a Leibniz in its service. A Kant, or a Rousseau, or a Diderot, or a Laplace were yet to emerge on the scene, but when they did it is not at all clear that all they said was suitable for the Capitalism, which was yet to come into the driving seat of the world.

An obvious doubt can be raised at this point. Are we not reducing the deep-plough epochal transformation in the political, social and civilizational arena in which hundreds of millions of people participated through the long centuries, to the acts and genius of a select and elite band of philosophers, scientists and thinkers? This question arises naturally when one tries to deal with large phenomena in history. The key question is — can we identify a large phenomenon clearly enough. It is always a given that everything in history happens through struggles, movements, politics, and campaigns, all arising from the clash of interests. All these generate ideas and strategies for actual transformations. It is a part of the same process of understanding history and drawing lessons from it that one attempts to look at the big picture and decipher deeper and larger causalities. References to ideas, breakthroughs and pioneers are markers for identifying larger phenomena and deciphering deeper causalities. It is often said that things were already in the air before a Newton, Darwin, Marx or Einstein appeared. That of course may be true. But it is also a fact that there is always someone who first points to a thing and then everyone realises that the thing was always there.

Even after the argument is made that Modernity cannot be comprehended merely as a superstructure of Capitalism or, for that matter, of any other one mode of production, the relative weight of Capitalism and Modernity in the making of what is known as the western civilization remains an open question. Capitalism, relatively speaking, is a far more a tangible entity and its role in shaping the history of the modern world is rather obvious and easily comprehensible. Modernity, in comparison, appears abstract, intangible and nebulous. But that does not prove that it cannot play a role in shaping history, especially in the Longue Durée. It does not prove that it cannot inaugurate and steer a long-lasting and wide-ranging civilizational transformation.

In some ways Modernity is akin to Religion, although in most ways they are antithetical to each other. Religion has existed in all societies and across varieties of polities, systems and civilizations. It has always played important role in the dynamics and the flow of history. And yet, most of the times, this role cannot be identified as clearly and as definitely as that of the economy, the nation, the state or the king. Modernity, by comparison, is very young. It was born out of Religion and yet it has grown to challenge it at philosophical, ideological and political levels. But, despite the antinomies, it also resembles Religion. It too has claims to universality, although of a different kind, and it too promises to live like a soul in many different bodies. It too carries potentials for spreading into diverse cultures and societies across the globe, although the same seeds of Modernity may yield very different harvests in the different cultural and historical soil. Variations on this theme appear in many scholars who talk about what they call Multiple Modernities.
It has been rather difficult to find what is the essence or the seed of Religion. The task may be easier in the case of Modernity, but only relatively. A more tractable path may come into view by looking into the role Religion has played in major civilizational transformations and how Modernity is trying to accomplish something similar in the contemporary world. Let me make use of one such window which has been called the Axial Age. Civilizational transformations of that age have often been dubbed as Axial Transformations.


The term Axial Age was coined by philosopher Karl Jaspers. Through this he intended to draw attention to a remarkable period in world history spanning half a millennium from 8th century BC to 3rd century BC. This era can be identified with emergence of major world religions and of major civilizations spread across Asia, Middle East, Levant and the Graeco-Roman West. China of Confucius and Lao Tse, India of the Upanishads and Buddha, Zoroastrian Iran, Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece and even early Christianity are usually counted among the Axial civilizations. Islam was born later, but it too carries characteristics of the Axial religions. To contrast, Japan and Korea have been seen as major examples of non-Axial civilizations. Christianity proper has also been largely excluded from this category.

There have been many controversies around the concept of Axial Age. Later scholars have raised questions about the timespan, about the historical accuracy of what has been assumed about personalities and events, and about supposed commonalities among the civilizations included in the list. A few scholars of Christianity and of Christian theology have been especially critical. One scholar, for example, titled his book, “Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was”. I suspect there are religious and theological dimensions to many of these controversies. Even within the Graeco-Roman part there are differences in emphasis on the Graeco and the Roman components in different scholars. These controversies are not very relevant for my purpose. I am flagging them only to indicate that my arguments do not depend on a very hard thesis about the Axial Age. I will stay at the level of qualitative analogies and that will suffice for my arguments.

Two core propositions about the Axial Age caught my attention and they appear plausible to me. First, all these large and organized religions separated themselves from the earlier local, native, tribal or ‘pagan’ religions by envisioning a transcendental order separate and removed from the mundane order. In the pre-Axial small religions, the transcendental was inseparably mixed up with the mundane — the life world was also the religious world and religious practices by and large overlapped with the life practices. The Axial religions made a break from that kind of philosophy and practice. The transcendental was envisioned as an entirely separate realm that was irreducibly different from the mundane. And yet the project was to re-order the mundane in the light of the visions about the transcendental.
The second defining feature of the Axial Age was the emergence of a small elite that rose above the masses. This elite — the prophets and the wise men — claimed to have visions of the transcendental and they led the ‘revolutions’ to re-order the mundane world on this earth. Let me give a longish but illustrative quote from one scholar of this subject, Shmuel Eisenstadt,
“The development and institutionalization of the perception of basic tension between the transcendental and the mundane order was closely connected with the emergence of a new social element. Generally speaking, it was a new type of elite which was cited as the carrier of models of cultural and social order. Examples would include the Jewish prophets and priests, the Greek philosophers and Sophists, the Chinese Literati, the Hindu Brahmins, the Buddhist Sangha, and the Islamic Ulema.

It was the initial small nuclei of such groups of intellectuals that developed the new ’transcendental’ conceptions. In all the Axial Age civilizations these conceptions ultimately became institutionalized. That is, they became the predominant orientations of the ruling elites as well as of many secondary elites, fully embodied in their respective centres or subcentres.
Once such a conception of a tension between the transcendental and the mundane order became institutionalized, it was associated with the transformation of political elites, and it turned the new scholar class into relatively autonomous partners in the major ruling coalitions and protest movements.” (Shmuel Eisenstadt, “The Origins and the Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations”, SUNY, Albany, 1986)

For my purpose, I will pick up just these two defining features of the Axial Age civilizations — religions with grand philosophies and prophets and philosophers as the supreme ideological leaders. The point to note is that overarching civilizational transformations arose from rather abstract philosophical revolutions that were carried to the masses in accessible forms by the intellectual elite comprising of prophets, philosophers and other religious leaders. From here one can return to the question of Modernity and the kind of civilizational transformations it is unleashing. There are affinities and homologies that can be discerned. It is not surprizing that some scholars consider Modernity as the harbinger of a second Axial Revolution.


Staying with the Axial Age analogy, one may ask, what constitutes the core or the innermost content of Modernity. Remember that we have already separated it from Capitalism. Remember also that the emergence of the western civilization was a combined handiwork of both Modernity and Capitalism. Emergence of Capitalism in western Europe and its subsequent march on the world are much discussed subjects and here we are not dwelling on those. Having extracted an abstract Modernity from the history of the West, we would like to identify its core content and decipher the processes through which this content got embodied in what is usually identified as the Western Civilization.

We have identified Modernity’s birth and consolidation through the three successive phases of what Jonathan Israel has called The Revolution of the Mind. Actually, Israel uses this phrase only for the period of Enlightenment, but I am deploying it in describing the entire period of the Modernity Revolution. As I have already mentioned, these three phases were — separation of philosophy from theology (16th century), the Scientific Revolution (17th century), and the Enlightenment (18th century). The secularization of philosophy prepared the intellectual atmosphere in which the Scientific Revolution became possible. Some of the philosophers were themselves scientists (although this word came into usage much later; scientists at that time were called natural philosophers), mathematicians and inventors. Bacon, Descartes and Leibniz can be taken as prime examples. John Locke famously declared himself as the philosophical under-labourer of Mr. Newton, and a little later Voltaire valiantly combatted the intellectual atmosphere in the early 18th century France that was stubbornly against Newton. This happened when the era of Enlightenment was beginning to rise largely and primarily on the French horizon, although the Scots, the Germans and a few others too contributed significantly.

At the heart of Modernity reside the cognitive values generated by the Scientific Revolution. These values consist of a realist ontology, that there is a Universe out there which exists independent of the human ideas about it, and an epistemology, that human mind can comprehend objective reality. It can gain objective knowledge through empirical as well as theoretical investigations of the objective world, successively eliminating in the process the contamination of objective knowledge by subjective factors.

Easy as it may appear, there was an enormous struggle before these cognitive values could get off the ground. It took a long time before natural philosophy could liberate itself from the ecclesiastical prison-house. Some scholars locate the beginning of this intellectual-philosophical churning as far back as the Investiture Controversy that started around 1050 and ended in 1122 when the Concordat of Worms was agreed upon by the Pope and the Roman Emperor. The controversy was about who had the authority to appoint the bishops — the Pope or the Emperor. The Worms agreement gave the power to appoint to the Pope but the bishops had to swear allegiance to the Emperor. This was perhaps the first step in the eventual of separation of the Church and the State. The Church became a separate sovereign entity but it lost its direct political role. Of course, all this took several centuries to take a final shape. We do not have time here to go into the details. For us the important thing to note is that a clear division emerged between the ecclesiastical and the natural-philosophical. The Pope had authority over matters related to Revelation (even that he lost over a large part of Christianity after Protestantism came into being) and the natural world became the domain of the natural philosopher. For a while Aristotle, who had been accepted by the Church as a part of its efforts to claim classical Greek philosophy as its own, mediated when controversies arose between the ecclesiastics and the natural philosophers. But he was dethroned from the mediating chair by both the sides. Eventually natural philosophy was able to claim complete monopoly over the knowledge about Nature.

Modernity’s claim to universality can be defended to the extent that the cognitive values generated by the Scientific Revolution can claim to be universal. This claim arises from the fact that we all are dealing with the same Universe. Modern science has hit upon a systematic way to continuously update itself. When new aspects or properties of the Universe come into view, modern science immediately gets on with incorporating the new facts into its framework and occasionally it makes big changes to its own existing framework in the process. On the account of these two large facts — that everyone is dealing with the same physical reality and the same Nature and that there is an open-minded, systematic and rigorous way to gain knowledge about Nature and to continuously upgrade that knowledge — modern science has gained acceptance across cultures and across civilizations. No one has come up with a better alternative.

Scientists and other intellectual pioneers of the modern era resemble in some ways the prophets of the Axial era who were the recipients of Revelation. Nature reveals its secrets first to these modern-day prophets — let me call them prophets of the mind. But these prophets are ineffectual in taking their message to the society at large. In the ancient times the same prophets who received the revelation were also good at taking it to the masses. At least that is how the story goes. Instead, the prophets of the mind nowadays need the prophets of culture to spread the secrets and the knowledge to the world at large. The cognitive values must be turned, at least partly, into cultural values. Science cannot itself become culture but in some distilled form it must seep into the layers of culture. That is how modern civilizations have come into being.

This is the reason I have used the phrase “Science as the Cultural Ideal” in the title of this talk. This phrase I have borrowed from the Norwegian-American thinker, Thorstein Veblen (1857 — 1927), who wrote in 1906,

“The making of states and dynasties, the founding of families, the prosecution of feuds, the propagation of creeds and the creation of sects, the accumulation of fortunes, the consumption of superfluities—these have all in their time been felt to justify themselves as an end of endeavour; but in the eyes of modern civilized men all these things seem futile in comparison with the achievements of science. They dwindle in men’s esteem as time passes, while the achievements of science are held higher as time passes. This is the one secure holding-ground of latter-day conviction, that the ‘increase and diffusion of knowledge among men’ is indefeasibly right and good . . . and no other cultural ideal holds a similar unquestioned place in the convictions of civilized mankind.” (Thorstein Veblen, “The Place of Science in Modern Civilization”, 1906, as quoted in Stephen Gaukroger, “Civilization and the Culture of Science: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1795-1935; OUP, 2020, p.1)

In western Europe if Galileo, Newton, Locke, Leibniz and others like them were the prophets of the mind at the time of the Scientific Revolution, the fortunate thing for Europe was that they were soon followed by the philosophes and other public intellectuals and thinkers. They were the prophets of culture who inaugurated the European Enlightenment in the 18th century.

It is important to note that while the cognitive values of modern science are universal — at least as universal as any knowledge system can be — the same is not true for the cultural values even after they get modified or permeated by the scientific values. That is why it is possible to transmit modern science and its cognitive values across cultures and civilizations. But the European or western cultural values cannot be imported. In a metaphorical way we can say that modern science as a seed can be planted in any culture but the cultural harvest that it will yield will be modified by the cultural soil. The fortunate thing for Europe was that the seed was first discovered or engineered there, and that was also the cultural field where it yielded its first harvest. That is the secret behind the success of the Western civilization resulting in the Great Divergence and in its domination and hegemony over the world.


As we move towards the end, let me spend some time with our own culture and civilization. My intention is to try to identify the main barriers to scientific and cultural advancements expected of a civilization that has had such a glorious past. In attempting this, however, I will be even more sketchy than I have been so far.

The famous Needham Question becomes relevant in this context. Joseph Needham (1900 — 95), the British biochemist who became much better known as a sinologist and historian of science, was intrigued by a question asked by a Chinese student in 1937, “Why did the Scientific Revolution happen in the western Europe and nowhere else?” The question gave a decisive turn to Needham’s career and his project — Science and Civilization in China — became his lifelong project. Between 1954 and at the time of his death in 1995, 15 volumes had been published. The project continues even now and altogether 27 volumes have been published so far. History of science of no other country — not even of the countries in Europe where Scientific Revolution happened — has been subjected to such extensive and thoroughgoing investigation.

It is difficult to answer the negative part of the Needham Question — “Why didn’t it happen elsewhere?” It is easier to describe something that happened rather than something that did not happen. China, India and the Muslim World were the three prime examples where scientific revolution could have happened. China is the best-known example, not only because it found a Needham, but also because it was the most advanced non-European civilization, scientifically and technologically, until the onset of the modern era.

Our concern, however, is with the Indian subcontinent. Ancient India has had its scientific and mathematical achievements extending up to the beginning of the second millennium. Even though India is yet to find its Needham and much of the treasure of its accomplishments may yet to be excavated, one can still marvel at its civilizational precociousness and remarkable achievements.

We have, for example, the Nasadiya Sukta in the 10th Mandala of Rigveda composed perhaps around 1200 BC, a marvellous example of deep, open-minded and sceptical wonderment about cosmology and the origin of the Universe. It opens with the famous line, “Then, there was neither existence, nor non-existence, there was no air then, nor the space beyond it.” (नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत् |)

On the more mathematical side, we have the Shulva Sutra from the 9th century BC that contains, among other things, the Pythagoras Theorem. This was centuries before Pythagoras. Irrational numbers were known to ancient mathematicians, including the value of π (pi) to five decimal places. Diophantine equations were known to those who wrote the Baudhayan and the Apastambha Sutras of the Krishna Yajurveda around 1000 BC. In the classical age, of which the Gupta period in the first half of the first millennium AD was the pinnacle, we had Aryabhata who had the heliocentric theory almost a thousand years before Copernicus. Romila Thapar writes,

“Aryabhata, in AD 499, was the first astronomer to tackle the more fundamental problems of the new studies. He calculated pi to 3.1416 and the length of the solar year to 365.3586805 days, both remarkably close to the recent estimates. He believed that the earth was a sphere and rotated on its axis, and that the shadow of the earth falling on the moon caused eclipses.” (Romila Thapar, “Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300”, Penguin 2002, p. 307)

One could go on and on. There is much in our history to be genuinely proud of. But all this further underlines the question — why did we miss out on the Scientific Revolution? We had the gems — the scattered accomplishments of our ancestors — but why didn’t we have the crown, that is, a full-bodied Scientific Revolution that could continue ever after? We have a few gems here and there in the post-classical period, but largely there is darkness, scientifically speaking, for more than a millennium. Suddenly the modern pioneers appear in the late colonial period about whom we talked about at the beginning of this talk.

As I said, we need our own Needham to answer that question. But we can notice one conspicuous coincidence. The thousand years between the 7th-8th century and the 17th-18th century is also the period of the Bhakti Movement. This movement charted out a plebian road to God consisting of numerous pedestrian paths of divine love, devotion and surrender — paths that reverberated with the enchanting devotional songs of Bhakti poets. These saint poets composed and sang in the local vernacular languages. They came from all castes and there were notable women poets too. These devotional streams inundated the religious and cultural mindscape of the entire subcontinent.

This millennial phenomenon had its origins in the Tamil region in 7th-8th century with the Alvar and Nayanar saints and saint poets such as Nammalvar and Andal (a woman saint poet). The philosophical foundations for the Bhakti Movement were offered during 11th and 12th centuries by philosopher saints from the Vedanta school of Hinduism such as Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha and Nimbarka, all of them descending from the Advaita Vedanta school of Adi Shankaracharya (9th century) and all branching out with philosophical and theological differences. Over a period of nearly a thousand years the movement spread to all parts of the subcontinent. Basava and Akka Mahadevi in Kannada (12th century); Ramanand (14th century) who came from South but lived in North India and created his own sect; Namdev and Tukaram (17th century) in Marathi; Kabir, Surdas, Ravidas, Mirabai, and Tulsidas in Hindi dialects (15th-16th century); Nanak, Dadu and Nabhadas (15th-16th century) in Punjab; Jayadeva (Sanskrit poet from 12th century) and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (16th century) in Bengal — the list is a very long one.

Bhakti Movement has been credited with numerous grand achievements. It was a massive resistance against Vedic, Brahminical, Sanatani, Varnashrami, Sanskritist and elitist Hinduism. It was a veritable social and cultural rebellion against the caste system. It devoured the remnants of Budhism in India, incorporated the Jains, Sufis and many other smaller religions and sects into its fold, and most importantly it spread over the entire subcontinent as a very thick carpet of a plebian religiosity. All the saints, poets and leaders of the uncountable sects were not untouched by the politics, but their devotees and followers lived their life immersed in the rivers and the seas of devotion largely detached from the politics of the day. The roving saint poets singing in dozens of vernacular languages stitched the innumerable cultural patches of the subcontinent into a quilt of one civilization. Even when the subcontinent was politically fragmented, which most of the time it was, the cultural-civilizational unity was never in serious question. Bhakti Movement had played a stellar role in bringing this about. Even after the era of Bhakti poets came to a gradual close during the 18th and 19th centuries, Bhakti maintained and it still maintains a strong presence on the subcontinent. Even the anti-colonial national movement adopted Bhakti-based cultural integration of the subcontinent as an argument for a unified and sovereign nation-state. As one scholar of Bhakti Movement puts it,

“The British largely told the story of their country’s rise to power in India as a benevolent alternative to a weakened Mughal state. Both regimes were foreign in origin, imposing themselves almost necessarily over the weak, balkanized mass that was India itself. Nationalist historians could not accept this. They required a sense of the medieval that gave indigenous coherence to this crucial period, even if its political impact was less than clear. Not only must it serve as a realm that could be interpreted as resisting a rule that was ultimately foreign (some granted that the Mughals eventually became quite domesticated), it had to have sufficient internal coherence to give birth at the same time to a distinctly indigenous modernity. It had to presage the independent Indian state and prepare its way. Appropriately narrativized, bhakti could do this job— and without overly alienating Indian Muslims, many of whom could be seen as forming part of the broader bhakti domain. After all, it was India— and specifically Indian bhakti— that made Indian Islam so different from what was to be seen in the Middle East.” (John Stratton Hawley, A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement, Harvard University Press, 2015, p. 14)

All this may be true. And yet, there is need to look, or re-look, at the big picture of the Bhakti Movement. What have been its millennial consequences and what kind of impact has it had on the modern history of the subcontinent? Here I am not talking of the conflicts and strife that had internally plagued the movement. I am not engaging with the differences between the Nirgun and the Sagun streams. I am not raising the question whether the entire Bhakti Movement can be seen as a progressive movement against caste and patriarchy and against religious sectarianism and fundamentalism. My concerns are about the overall persona of the Indian civilization which does have some imprints of classical Hinduism and also of the rigid structures of other religions, but which has been largely constructed after the end of the classical period. In this Bhakti Movement has played the most important role.

In my opinion, Bhakti Movement can be seen as an example of a counter-Axial counter-revolution. It put an end to the great theological-philosophical debates of the Upanishadic, Buddhist and the Classical era and stifled the chances of emergence of rigorous and robust philosophical tradition from the womb of religion and theology. It completely road-blocked what was known as the Jnan Marg (the Knowledge Road). The prophets of cognition resembling the ancient prophets of revelation could not have been born in a land permeated by Bhakti, and the prophets of culture who took the message to the masses were mostly preachers of devotion, faith and mystic experiences. Those who think that the oppressions by the caste-system, patriarchy and other archaic social systems survive only because of Vedic Brahminism and classical Hinduism, would also need to look at the what Bhakti Movement has accomplished for these struggles and what kind of civilization it has bequeathed us.

I do not claim to have an answer to the Needham Question for India. But it appears plausible to me that Bhakti Movement has been the largest obstacle to the process of the cognitive values of science seeping into the cultural soil of India. Science cannot be accepted as a Cultural Ideal in a society and in a culture that is so steeped in Bhakti.


It may appear as if I am concluding on a very pessimistic note. What does a farmer gain by cursing the soil? We are a civilization that has thick cultural layers deposited over centuries and millennia. If one points to the hard subterranean plates which are not welcoming to the seeds of science and modernity, isn’t this equivalent to throwing one’s hands in despair?

But I hope you will see that what I am saying is not pessimistic at all. Realistically and honestly analysing the past to deeply understand the present is essential for visionary and creative plans for the future. India is not the only country that is beset with the kind of problems I have touched upon. The whole world including the western world, where science and modernity were born, are in the middle of this second Axial Revolution. No body is out of the woods yet.

It is the same India that had the early pioneers of modern science whom I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. It is the same India that gave rise to someone like Jawaharlal Nehru — a rare example of a leader and statesman so clearheaded about science and modernity and also about what India is as a civilization. It is the same India that successfully defeated colonialism and established itself as a modern republic.

Perhaps I may also clarify that what I am saying is not a substitute for the critique of capitalism and of the current system. Those oppressed and exploited by the system will continue to fight and continue to devise strategies for that fight. What I have discussed here is complementary to the discussion about how to fight capitalism and its political and economic structure. Actually, the Axial kinds of revolutions are the overarching umbrellas under which political revolutions against existing systems can take place, as and when they do.

I think I should stop here and see what you have to say.

March 26, 2023

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