Meera Nanda, The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva (Gurgaon (Haryana), India: Three Essays Collective)

The three essays comprising this book are (1) Secularism without Secularization: Reflections on the Religious Right in America and India, (2) Hindu Ecology in the Age of Hindutva: The Dangers of Religious Environmentalism, (3) Making Science Sacred: How Postmodernism Aids Vedic Science. In her introduction Nanda is gratified that the Hindutva party in India recently suffered an electoral setback, but is now worried by the 1984 U.S. election, which “woke me out of my intellectual complacency about the country that I have called home for many years.” Nanda had not imagined the American wall of separation of church and state to be so fragile. Herein lies a problem: how could Nanda have been so naïve about her adopted homeland for so long? Could India be so bad it makes America look good?

The first essay is a comparative study of Indian and American secularism and religiosity. Both countries have official secular governments and highly religious populations. Indian and American secular governments are founded on entirely different principles. The Indian approach is based, not on separation of government and religion as in the United States, but on the principle of equal treatment of all religions. The state may subsidize religious institutions as long as it doesn’t play favorites, and it also has the right to intervene in the practice of religion.

Secular government in the U.S. resulted from an alliance between politically disadvantaged churches and the supporters of the Enlightenment they otherwise disdained. American Protestantism was split. Those with a modernist bent gravitated toward more liberal, deistic, rationalist and scientific thinking. This tendency had political impact; however, it tended to be limited to highbrow, well-educated, and well-off congregations. Today, the fundamentalist Right leads a backlash against them.

Indian secularism was born of the need to keep the peace among rival religious groups, neutralize the caste system, and reform barbaric social practices associated with a variety of religious practices. The state took on the role of religious reform. The downside is that state interference in religion has made religion a battleground for political manipulation and power plays.

Hindu revivalism outmaneuvered the secular forces within the Indian independence movement. Hindu ideologues sanitized the past, proffering a ‘purified’ Hinduism as consistent with modern needs. This is reactionary modernism: the incorporation of modernizing impulses into an atavistic anti-modernist ideology. Secularization amounted to an endorsement of Hinduism, compounded by the hypocritical claim of essential Hindu ‘tolerance’. As in the United States, a rupture with the past was passed off as continuity with the past. India’s trajectory was far worse. The secularist, deistical, naturalistic and scientific tendencies of the American Enlightenment at least had some institutional impact, but there was no counterpart in India. No ‘disenchantment of nature’ took root among a decisive contingent of Indian intellectuals; instead, modern science was incorporated into Vedic superstition.

Nanda argues that the pragmatic maneuvers establishing secular states prior to the formation of secular cultures created the conditions for the right-wing religious populism that menaces both countries today. Secular states cannot ultimately survive without the secularization of their inhabitants.

Why do some countries engender religious fundamentalist movements while others at a comparable level of social development do not? Nikki Keddie sees the explanation in a fusion of high levels of religiosity and nationalism. Traditional religiosity has mushroomed in the United States, accompanied by political conservatism and increasing activism. Incredibly, Nanda sees Hindu nationalism as even worse. While American nationalism is at least in theory non-ethnic and universalistic, all you have to do is scratch the veneer of Hindu liberal tolerance and you will find blood-and-soil ‘Aryan’ nationalism. Secular Indian intellectuals can absolve Hinduism from reactionary Hindutva all they like, but they are digging their own graves; good, liberal Hinduism is a fiction.

Conservative religiosity goes hand in hand with aggressive nationalism: “societies with higher levels of religiosity and nationalism have tended to reinforce each other.” Why is this trend growing in the United States? Nanda provides a hint: “it is quite likely that this intensification of religiosity coincides with the intensification of poverty and insecurity in America in recent decades.” (51) Yet there is a glaring omission in her summary of American religious and political trends (49-52): the religion and politics of black America. The black population partakes of a fundamentalist religious culture as culturally conservative and dangerously authoritarian as that of their white counterparts, yet their political instinct for self-preservation disposes black Americans towards overwhelming support for the Democratic Party. Clearly, a more refined explanatory model is needed.

Another minor quibble: In her final plea for the Enlightenment and scientific reason, Nanda also cautions the secular left to respect religion. (57) I find her effort to give faith its due weak and unconvincing given the unequivocal condemnations of religious superstition in the rest of the book, including a scant two pages later. What is faith due? The answer would seem to be: nothing. The only tolerable religion seems to be a liberal religion so watered down there’s little left of it to interfere with rational processes.

In the second essay Nanda documents how Indian environmentalism taps into Hindu religiosity (which habitually sanctifies every aspect of nature), and argues why social movements should not do this. The dangers of religious environmentalism are: (1) nurturing Hindu nationalism, (2) relinquishing secular spaces in public life, including the spaces of social movements themselves, (3) perpetuating the irrational, inegalitarian aspects of tradition. Further danger lurks in an alliance of Hindu nationalists with Western neo-pagans and the infiltration of right-wing organicism and traditionalism into the left. As Nanda sees it, all eco-spirituality shares these characteristics: (1) localism, anti-universalism; (2) nondualism, anti-humanism, reenchantment of nature; (3) anti-anthropocentrism. There is already a significant collusion of Western New Age, pagan, and deep ecology environmentalists with Hinduism and other manifestations of ‘eastern’ spirituality. Apologists in East and West alike gloss over the dark side of nature mysticism—its support of social hierarchy, with the implication, sometimes overtly stated, that egalitarianism is unnatural.

The Chipko movement provides an example of religious environmentalist (and feminist) apologetics in practice. Supportive intellectuals generated a rosy mythology of traditional spirituality as exemplar of ecological consciousness, which entailed a monstrous rewriting of history, eclipsing the evils of the caste system connected with religion. However, researchers have shown that the Chipko movement was motivated by material interests having nothing to do with high principle or the assertion of traditional values. In addition, ecological protection was used as a pretext by government officials for the funding of Hindu institutions.

Meanwhile, neo-paganism in Europe, proselytizing the re-enchantment of nature, harbors localist, particularistic, chauvinist proclivities. Here, the danger of cross-fertilization of ideas between the European new right and Hindutva intellectuals is manifest, especially as both have learned to camouflage themselves with the language of pluralist tolerance and multiculturalism. Egalitarianism, materialism, and ‘Semitic monotheism’ are excoriated in these circles. This is fascism with a pluralist face, and the left should have no part of it.

Finally, Nana notes that studies show that “nature worship plays a highly ambiguous role in how people relate to nature.” Traditionally religious people do not take better care of nature, and poor people involve themselves in environmental movements for secular reasons.

“Making Science Sacred” is a powerful essay that effectively exposes the mendacity underlying the euphemistic language of pluralism, diversity, and localism. Nanda works a central theme of her previous book Prophets Facing Backward: the malignant collusion of western postmodernists, feminists, and anti-imperialists with reactionary Hindutva.

While there are at least voices within the mainline liberal churches as well as scientists in the West who speak out against creationism, a comparable presence is lacking in Indian public life to oppose the superstitious deceit of Vedic Science. Worse, government agencies have subsidized all kinds of traditional pseudoscience, while Vedic Science credits itself for fostering modern discoveries such as quantum mechanics. Reactionary modernism is at work: ideologues champion science while condemning secularism, naturalism, reductionism, the disenchantment of nature, the West, and even the Semitic mentality. Incredibly, Nanda sees this as even worse than American Christian fundamentalist support for creationism. “But while Christian fundamentalists in America indulge in creationism primarily to get past the First Amendment, Hinduization of science in India is motivated by a deeply chauvinistic nationalism.” (97) Surely Nanda once again sees the U.S. in a more favorable light than it deserves.

Postmodernism plays into this agenda with its condemnation of Enlightenment rationality, universalism, and objectivity, and hence the universalism of modern science, in their stead proffering social constructivism, standpoint epistemology, and local and situated knowledges. Deep ecologists and prominent feminists rail against the bias of the western scientific world view. All this has been a great boon for the panderers of Vedic Science. Not only can the history of ideas be rewritten, but secular Indian modernizers can be accused of succumbing to mental colonization.

Now comes the crux of the argument. While Christian and Islamic conservatives are manifestly exclusionary of external ideas and beliefs, Hinduism tends to be ‘inclusive’, with a great deal of pluralism and eclecticism, wherein lies the deception. Hinduism possesses non-negotiable core beliefs, but there is much play for relativism. In contradistinction to Western liberalism, Hindu relativism presupposes innate human inequality, and hence different paths to truth are hierarchically ranked. “The inclusiveness of Hinduism is a mask of its hubris and self-aggrandization.”

Nanda compares Hinduism to Christianity by comparing Manu to St. Augustine. (106-108) While Augustine condemned pagan knowledge, he nevertheless admitted pagans into the realm of rational discourse and even allowed for the revision of scriptural claims via metaphorical re-interpretation. By contrast, Manu denied the rational unity of mankind, and not only defamed heretics but compared them with lower castes and animals. Other sacred Hindu texts were just as vicious towards materialists and rationalists. All manifestations of Hindu relativism and its cardinal epistemological principles were predicated on the hierarchical logic of caste, and the condescending tolerance granted others was predicated on the unquestionable eternal truths of the Vedas guarded by an exclusionary elite. (108-109)

When the Hindu renaissance encountered modern science via the British empire, its thinkers eclectically incorporated it as a lower grade knowledge. Thus the Enlightenment bypassed India.

If local knowledges are valid within their limited contexts, Vedic ideology dovetails quite nicely with social constructivism, the advocacy of ethnoscience and other alternative ‘ways of knowing’ among women and non-western cultures. The language of relativism endemic to postmodernism, postcolonialism, and bourgeois feminism is also the duplicitous language of Hindu metaphysics, and there is growing collusion between the two camps.

In her zeal to criticize India’s deplorable ideological heritage, Nanda seems here to be overly generous towards Augustine as she often seems to be towards the West. This is a minor objection. Her overall argument is solid, particularly her analysis of what is dangerous about the Hindu exploitation of pluralism and how its logic meshes with the logic of postmodernism. Relativism is no cure for absolutism; it is a manifestation of the same disease. When you reject universalism, however it has been misused in the past for exclusionary purposes, you open up the door to the worst despotism. Nanda convincingly argues that there is nothing edifying about the enchantment of nature, polytheism, pantheism, or syncretism, and thus strikes an effective blow against New Age ideology in the West. She demonstrates that New Age thought, neo-traditionalism, and relativism pave the road to fascism, and thus she condemns the ‘treason of the intellectuals’ against universality and reason. That’s why you should own this book.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1