People holding placards at a ‘March for Science’ protest in August 2017. Credit: PTI
In October 2022, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology, in collaboration with other ministries and departments, announced that it would host a four-day conference called “Akash For Life” at a university in the northern Indian city of Dehradun.
“Akash” translates to “sky” or “spirit” in Hindi, and refers to one of five universal elements according to Hinduism. The event, according to its organisers, would integrate such traditional concepts into an academic sphere, and seek to “educate the youth of India to the wisdom of ancient science along with modern scientific advancements.”
But no sooner than the event was announced, it stirred furor in the Indian scientific community.
In a statement issued later that month, the Karnataka chapter of the nonprofit India March for Science wrote, “We reject the concept of Panchabhootas” – referring to the Hindu concept of the five elements. “The sky, earth, water are not elements. Such concepts have been deleted from science books a long time back.”
The West Bengal chapter was similarly clear in its disapproval: “Any attempt to belittle or trivialise humanity’s quest for knowledge through the scientific method has to be debunked and thoroughly rejected.”
The Ministry of Science and Technology did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Undark.
The “Akash” conference was just one of the latest events in India to face charges of pseudoscience as academics grow concerned about the country’s rise of conspiracies and falsehoods. Journalist Ruchi Kumar reported on this phenomenon for Undark in 2018, but experts say such discourse has only picked up in pace – and increasingly spread to institutions, where the next generation of scientists are being educated.
Aniket Sule, an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, noted that while fringe voices can be few and far between, they are still given prominence at conferences and meetings, which paints a wrong picture for the entire faculty.
“Now, what has happened is that these fringe right-wing sympathizers have been given prominence,” said Sule. “Even if, for example, out of a hundred people, if there is one right-wing sympathiser, then that one person would be called to all events.”
Many experts have tied the rise of pseudoscience in India to the Bharatiya Janata Party, a right-wing political party that came to power in 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected. Members of the party have repeatedly amplified scientific falsehoods – for instance, that cow urine can cure cancer, or that ancient Indians invented the Internet.
“It is clear that the government is propagating this sort of pseudoscience,” said Soumitro Banerjee, an engineering professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata.
Such claims often tout the superiority of traditional knowledge over modern science and cite ancient Hindu texts as evidence. In recent years, they have leapt over to academic circles.
In 2019, for example, G. Nageswara Rao, then vice chancellor of Andhra University, said that the Kauravas – who appear in the Hindu epic Mahabharata – were born of “stem cell and test tube technology“.
More recently, news came out that Laxmidhar Behera, director of the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, once claimed to have performed an exorcism with holy chants. When asked about the experience, Behera later told the newspaper the Indian Express, “Ghosts exist, yes.”
Scientific falsehoods have not only been espoused by academics, but have also made their way into course teachings.
In 2020, the Indian Institute of Technology Indore introduced a class to impart mathematical and scientific knowledge from ancient texts in the Sanskrit language. And in February of this year, IIT Kanpur – one of the country’s most elite universities – invited Rajiv Malhotra for a guest lecture. In the past, Malhotra cited an satirical article in denying the Greek civilisation’s existence and touted the spiritual concept of the “third eye” as a substitute for medical diagnosis.
The same month, a group of scientists and researchers criticized the National Commission for Indian System of Medicine – the regulatory body governing public medical institutions’ policies – for introducing medical astrology as an elective in the Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery program, which is offered at hundreds of institutions in India. The course material offers remedies in the form of mantras, amulets with protective powers, rituals, and counseling based on astrological calculations.
Ayurveda is a traditional system of Indian medicine that takes a natural approach to healing. Practitioners believe that diseases happen due to an imbalance in a person’s consciousness, and therefore, rely on a healing system that involves herbs, exercises, and meditation.
But Ayurveda is a topic of contention, and its claims can be at odds with modern medical science. Cyriac Abby Philips, an Indian liver doctor based in Kerala who regularly debunks pseudoscientific claims on social media, said the alternative Ayurvedic medical system is based on pseudoscientific principles.
Ayurveda has no basis in science, “but the whole aspect is that it has deep links to culture, tradition, and religion in India,” Philips told Undark. Yet, he said, the government is promoting Ayurvedic practices. A few years ago, for example, the National Health Mission, a government program that aims to improve access to health care, introduced a bridge course — designed to help students transition from one academic level to another — to allow Ayurveda doctors to prescribe treatments based on western medical sciences despite never studying it as part of their degree course. The move, according to the government, was to address the lack of doctors in rural areas, but the president of the Indian Medical Association has said there is no shortage. While the bridge course was ultimately dropped, some states have allowed Ayurveda doctors to prescribe and dispense medicines.
The National Health Mission did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Undark.
Meanwhile, the University Grants Commission, the statutory body responsible for maintaining the country’s higher education standards, asked all universities in India to “encourage” their students to take the Kamdhenu Gau Vigyan Prachar-Prasar Examination, a national-level test on “gau vigyan” or “cow science” — referring to research on the animal, which is considered sacred in Hinduism. The syllabus for the exam made claims including that earthquakes happen due to cow slaughter, and that cow byproducts are capable of curing a whole host of diseases.
The University Grants Commission did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Undark.
In India, higher education institutions are intricately tied to the national government. “Save for a few exceptions, almost every single academic institution is reliant heavily on government funding,” said Mohammad Nadeem, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Aligarh Muslim University.
Nadeem said that, while he believes it’s important to take pride in Indian culture and heritage, glorifying its past with false claims does not serve anyone.
Natesan Yogesh, an assistant professor of physics at the National Institute of Technology Calicut, noted that many professors at these prestigious universities believe in superstitions, but “it is not just a single faculty is approving and they come up with certain ideas. From the top itself, they are asking for proposals.”
In April, the exclusion of Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution from high school textbooks became national news in India. More than 1,800 scientists, educators, and community members signed a letter condemning the move, calling it a “travesty of education.”
But while some students and academics have been vocal in speaking out against the rise of pseudoscience and Hindu nationalism, experts noted that many are quiet, whether it be out of fear of retaliation – including denying funding and promotional opportunities – or simple opportunism.
According to Banerjee, higher-ups at Indian scientific institutes have tried to stymie anti-pseudoscience protests since they are nearing retirement. “These people have aspirations or ambitions of being vice chancellors somewhere,” Banerjee added.
In an email to Undark, G.L. Krishna, an Ayurvedic physician and a visiting scholar at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, wrote that dissenting voices are often “unnecessarily scared.” But according to Sule, the professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, even though those who actually believe in pseudoscience are a minority, such public statements can impact careers.
In universities and institutions “where promotions are in the hands of top authorities, there this political favoritism is happening a lot,” said Sule. He, along with other faculty members interviewed by Undark, said that political affiliations dictate progress in academic careers, so people often choose to stay silent.
Indeed, many heads of educational institutions in India have been vocal supporters of or involved in the national government. Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, for example, was named the vice chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University early last year, and has voiced support for the ruling BJP party as well as called for “China-style” persecution of left-leaning voices. Rupinder Tewari, a previous candidate for the vice-chancellor post in Panjab University, alleged that only BJP-affiliated candidates were called in for the interview.
The Panjab University did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Undark.
Some academics wonder what effect the pseudoscientific trend might have on India’s reputation among the international scientific community. “But in the long run, it’s these pseudoscience peddlers who are being watched and earning the ire of the international academia and science diaspora,” said Sule.
Still, dissenting voices such as Banerjee and Krishna are hopeful that more people will speak out, and that scientific methods will take precedence in Indian academic spheres.
“Reality-based thinking as opposed to belief-based thinking must carry weight,” wrote Krishna. “That’s the only way.”
Arbab Ali and Nadeem Sarwar are independent reporters based in Delhi, India.