Post-truth is pre-fascist.
— Timothy Snyder, The American Abyss
It is twilight time for democracy.
In the world’s oldest and most populous liberal democracies, the United States and India respectively, a populist, majoritarian vigilantism is slowly but steadily snuffing out the promise of multi-religious, multi-ethnic societies enjoying constitutional protections of civil liberties and equality before the law.1 White Christian nationalists in the United States and their Hindu counterparts in India are tearing apart the secular and democratic fabric of their societies. The difference, of course, is that in India, it is the state itself that supplies a steady diet of Hindu-First nationalism, while Christian nationalism (“take America back for Jesus”) is still mostly an underground current that dares not say its name openly.2
What these faltering democracies share is that both have descended into a kaliyuga-type “post-truth” era – an era where asatya, untruth, alone wins. If the spectre of Trump’s Big Lie haunts the United States, India is in the grip of the Deep Lie of myths turned into certified facts of history and science.
Underlying the Big and the Deep Lies is a shared political impulse, namely, to bend reality to fit political agendas and religious dogmas, and to feed the populist passions that these agendas arouse. In the post-truth times, accepting the facts of the matter, and respecting truth-conducive methods of inquiry, come to be seen as matters of expediency; truth comes to be treated as if it were an optional add-on, or an “ornament” that we may choose to put on, or not, depending upon whether “it suits me. Is it a good thing to wear to the social party?” as Simon Blackburn put it in his 2003 book, Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed.
When factual truth ceases to be a constraint on power and becomes an artefact of power, an ornament to be worn, or not, depending upon what looks and feels good, we have entered the post-truth world.
This chapter sets out to chart the contours of the emerging regime of untruth in India. It will first distinguish the peculiarly Indian variant of post-truth, the Deep Lie, from the Euro-American variant, the Big Lie. What makes the Indian variant far more dangerous than its Western counterparts is that it not only disregards well-corroborated, objective facts of Indian history, modern science and history of Indian science, but that it rewrites the rules and background assumptions of what constitutes justified true belief in the first place. The state-sponsored push for introducing “Indian knowledge systems” in educational institutions – from primary schools to the IITs – is nothing less than a paradigm shift which will allow myths to pass as true history, the “spiritual seeing” of the rishis as a legitimate scientific method, and outdated metaphysics of Hindu shastras as certified “science”.
What is post-truth?
The word ‘post-truth’ was chosen by the Oxford Dictionary in 2016 as its ‘word of the year’. The dictionary defined ‘post-truth’ as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
As the Oxford Dictionary explains, the ‘post’ in ‘post-truth’ is not meant in the sense of the “time after” – a time after the idea of truth is dead and done with. If there was no concept of truth, would we even know that we are post-truth? If the idea of truth were to disappear, how would we even recognise a lie, or a half-truth, or a quarter-truth, or plain bullshit wherein some Trump-like figure says whatever he can get away with, with complete indifference to the facts of the matter?3
In the post-truth condition, truth still exists: two and two still make four; Trump did in fact lose the 2020 presidential election, and the Indian Constitution does in fact promise equal rights to all regardless of faith. The ‘post’ in ‘post-truth’ rather means a time when objective facts cease to matter, when they “become unimportant or irrelevant,” as the dictionary explains.
Truth-talk still goes on in the post-truth times, but truth itself is hollowed out; Satya is still supposed to be Jayate, but Satya itself is radically redefined. Respect for the facticity of facts backed by verifiable evidence is replaced by evidence-free “alternative facts,” or known facts are covered up by a flood of misinformation and conspiracy theories, or (as in India), “evidence” is manufactured at will from within the web of beliefs sanctified by Indic knowledge systems. Self-serving “facts” are put at the service of populist passions unleashed by nationalist agendas and religious zeal. Post-truth is “the triumph of the visceral over the rational, the deceptively simple over the honestly complex”.
A good description of the fate of truth in these times was provided by Rudy Giuliani, personal lawyer to Donald Trump: “Truth isn’t truth,” but rather someone’s version of it, “facts are not facts” but only look like facts in the mind of the beholder, Giuliani philosophised on national TV. Truth becomes not an objective description of the real world, but as someone’s perspective on it; evidence is still invoked, but not as something that can be checked independently and corrected for inconsistencies, but rather as evidence from one’s own personal/political standpoint.
How did truth become so debased? How did the public, including (especially?) the educated among them, become so cynical about the truth content of their beliefs? There are many layers of this crisis of truth which will become clearer as we go along. But ironically, it is the intellectuals themselves, marching under the banner of postmodern and postcolonial theory, who have led the assault on the very idea of objective truth. What is taken as a scientific fact, they have argued, does not become a fact because it captures some feature of the world that exists out there independently of us; rather, facts are constructed out of social interests, identities and cultural values of scientists. There is no way to step out of the web of cultural, subjective meanings to access the world as it is: all we can have are my truth, your truth, our own tribe’s truth but never the objective truth, for such a thing does not exist.
Indian and Indian-origin intellectuals have led the charge against scientific claims of objective, universally valid knowledge as a colonial ploy to establish the superiority of “Western” sciences over alternative knowledge traditions. Postcolonial theory, which has now spilled over from the left-leaning elite intellectuals into the rabble-rousing Hindu right, is premised on the postmodernist assumption that all claims to objective knowledge are disguised assertions of (colonial/Orientalist) power.
It would be giving academics and intellectuals too much power to suggest that they have single-handedly brought about the current crisis of truth, but it cannot be denied that their scepticism of the possibility of objective knowledge has contributed to it. The academic cynicism about facts as made up through “social negotiations,” and scientific rationality as “mental colonialism,” has broken free of the ivory towers; what used to be a topic of abstruse debates carried on in academic journals has now become the working assumption of the anti-institutional populist revolts that are breaking out all around the world.
Case in point: the current zeal for introducing Indian ways of knowing in educational institutions is justified by its advocates as a necessary step for “decolonising” the Indian mind. Postcolonial theory has found a welcome home in Hindu nationalism.
Before we examine the paradigm shift toward Indic ways of knowing that is already under way, it will be helpful to spell out what distinguishes India’s post-truth condition from the garden variety post-truth malady that has become pandemic in the rest of the world.
Two routes to post-truth
There are two ways in which truth is hollowed out and made irrelevant in the post-truth era.
The first takes the form of outright, boldfaced lies, repeated over and over again, with complete disregard of publicly available, verifiable and verified facts. Big Lie is simply a denial of factual truth and takes the form of bullshitting, wherein self-serving statements are made with complete indifference to whether they are true or false. This kind of subversion of truth has become widespread in the age of social media and the internet, which have made it possible for just about anything to pass as “fact”.
Lies and bullshit are obviously corrosive to democratic order, which cannot function without a sufficiently well-informed public that can agree upon basic facts about the world they live in. Corrosive though they are, outright lies and fabrications are relatively easy to debunk – though not that easy to dispel – by due diligence using standard procedures of evidence and logic. Let us call this variety of post-truth “Big Lie”. The second variety of post-truth is more akin to religious fundamentalism that erases all distinctions between factual truth and dogma, between history and mythology, between truths backed by empirical evidence and ‘Absolute Truth’ revealed by God or spiritually-endowed ancestors. This kind of post-truth is different from the Big Lie variety because it relativises what is taken as real and what is accepted as rational to the background cultural-religious traditions. It is also harder to debunk because it refuses to play by the accepted secular-rationalist procedures of evidence and logic, denigrating them as “reductionist,” “secular” and, in the postcolonial world, “Western” to boot. Let us call the second variety “Deep Lie”.
Big Lie is simple fakery; Deep Lie is deep fakery. Both subvert objective truth, both deny science, but their motivations and modes of operation are different. Both varieties are at work everywhere, but to different degrees in different parts of the world.
A rough map of the post-truth world falls along the following lines, with one caveat:
- The entire world now has access to the internet-enabled disinformation machinery ready to serve any ideology, any cause, any tribal emotion, any grievance big or small. Fake news is now a forever-pandemic.
- The Big Lie variant is the more common form of post-truth in the older democracies of Europe and North America, where the institutions of the state and civil society have gone rickety and sclerotic. These societies are suffering from a breakdown of social trust in established institutions, in political parties, in scientific experts and, increasingly, in each other. With a globalisation-led export of industries to lower-income countries, declining living standards and increasing income inequalities, more and more working people in Western societies are losing faith in their market-driven political institutions and the elites who run them. The breakdown of social trust goes hand in hand with the breakdown of trust in facts, for once you come to see everyone, from top to bottom, as self-serving liars, it becomes easier to pick and choose the truths (or lies?) that affirm your interests and your worldview.
- The Deep Lie variant is the more common form of post-truth in the postcolonial world, where the driver is not as much the breakdown of trust as a deep hunger for a new story, a new metanarrative about their nation’s history, culture and destiny. In order to feel authentic, the new story must be rooted in one’s own authentic cultural-religious traditions, freed from the Western-colonial biases. India is a prime example of a postcolonial nation-state that is aggressively redefining itself as a civilisational-state.4 The assertion of civilisational uniqueness, if not outright superiority, is what is driving the state-sponsored push for Hinduisation of schooling, with the ultimate goal of reshaping how we see the world, how we reason, how we define what is true and untrue, what is rational and what is irrational. India is following the lead of China and Russia, which oppose liberal democratic norms in favour of their own distinctive civilisational values. When it comes to Hinduisation of education, however, India is going down the rabbit-hole that a number of Islamic countries have gone through with the “Islamisation of knowledge”.
- One-party states like China, Russia and North Korea have always been post-truth in the sense that it is the party that decides what truths are fit for public consumption. The objectivity of these truths is entirely contingent on the interests of the party.
Let us now see the Big and Deep Lies in action.
The Big Lie
The prototype of the Big Lie is Donald Trump’s big lie that he was the real winner of the 2020 presidential election, and that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president who “stole” the presidency with voter fraud. There is not an iota of truth to this outrageous claim – multiple audits of votes and numerous law courts have found no evidence of vote fraud. And yet, not only did this lie lead to an armed assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, but nearly one-third of Americans also continue to believe that the election was ‘stolen’.
Trump’s big lie comes straight out of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where he accuses the Jews of fabricating a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously”.5 In other words, a lie so big, so consequential, so brazen that no one in their right mind would believe that anyone would lie about that. A lie so big that it couldn’t possibly be a lie, and hence, there has to be some truth to it. A lie so grand that it feels true.
Big lies, however, can’t take on a life of their own without a culture that has become accustomed to small and medium-sized lies, a culture that has become careless about sorting facts from fabrications. As Timothy Snyder, a historian of authoritarian movements, put it in a New York Times article, an essay he penned just days after the January 6 attack on the US Capitol,
“The force of a big lie resides in its demand that many other things must be believed or disbelieved. To make sense of a world in which the 2020 presidential election was stolen requires distrust not only of reporters and of experts but also of local, state and federal government institutions, from poll workers to elected officials, Homeland Security and all the way to the Supreme Court.”
The Big Lie, in other words, requires as its precondition a post-truth culture in which trust in institutions, the media, scientific experts and the courts has drained out and the currency of truth has lost its purchasing power. Trump and his henchmen both created and exploited this culture: according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site Politi-Fact, 69% of Trump’s statements during his presidency were ‘mostly false’, ‘false’ or ‘pants on fire’-grade false. These lies, and the fact that he could get away with them, paved the way for the Big Lie.
The United States may be post-truth’s poster child, but the phenomenon is now worldwide. The internet-mediated social media have made it possible for fake news, doctored videos, conspiracy theories and all varieties of disinformation to ricochet around the world at lightning speed. From the “leave” vote for Brexit in the UK to the COVID-19 pandemic, “alternative facts” and conspiracies have driven out facts.6 That these “alternative facts” get accepted so readily is a symptom of the breakdown of trust in public institutions in advanced liberal democracies. Lack of trust prepares the ground for weeds of lies to take over the public square.
India has its own share of Big Lies, some with potentially genocidal implications. The infamous ‘Dharm Sansad’ held at Haridwar in December 2021, where open calls for killing Muslims were made, was premised upon the Big Lie of a Muslim takeover of India. This hate-fest, whose theme was ‘Islamic Bharat mein Sanatan ka Bhavishya’ (“The Future of Sanatan Dharma in Islamic India”), was premised on the Big Lie that Muslims in India are growing in population at a rate faster than all other groups and that India will soon become “Islamic”.
The organiser of the event, Yati Narasinghanand, the priest of the Dasna Devi temple in Ghaziabad, openly encourages Hindus to have at least five children or see their lineage destroyed.7 The myth of Muslim population explosion is contradicted by all available data (see below), and yet, this baseless claim has become India’s equivalent of Trump’s big lie, a monstrous, reality-changing, boldfaced lie repeated over and over again. It is this big lie that fuels anti-conversion laws and the many campaigns against the so-called “love jihad,” “land jihad,” and such.
Big lies are both fragile and resilient: fragile because they can be exposed by setting them against the actual facts of the matter, and resilient because the liar and his public in a post-truth culture come to believe in the lie as truth. No amount of debunking can dislodge a lie once it becomes part of a larger narrative that seems believable because it addresses some deeper existential anxieties and political interests.
Trump’s Big Lie has been debunked soundly and repeatedly. Biden’s electoral victory was certified by all 50 states in the United States, 60 lawsuits have been dismissed due to lack of evidence, and multiple audits of the ballots have found no fraud. Yet, these lies about rampant vote fraud live on because they fit into the white panic over demographic changes in the US, where non-white minorities are expected make up more than 50% of the population by 2050.
The demographic panic feeds into the Republican party’s fear that non-white immigrants will vote for the Democratic party. The Republican party needs the Big Lie of voter fraud to push for stricter voter laws if it hopes to win elections. Factual truth becomes powerless in the face of this narrative.
A very similar logic is at work in India’s Big Lie of India becoming “Islamic” and living under sharia law in a decade or so due to” explosive” demographic growth of Muslims and their “love jihad” aimed at swelling their ranks through luring Hindu women. Loud genocidal cries about India turning Islamic are coming at a time when the Muslim population is showing the steepest decline in fertility rates since Independence.
In a careful analysis of India’s National Family Survey 2015 data, a Pew Centre report titled ‘Religious Composition of India’ concluded that:
“Every religious group in the country has seen its fertility fall… Among Indian Muslims, for example, the total fertility rate has declined dramatically, from 4.4 children per woman in 1992 to 2.6 children in 2015… Muslims still have the highest fertility rate among India’s major religious groups, followed by Hindus at 2.1… But the gaps in childbearing between India’s religious groups are generally much smaller than they used to be. For example, while Muslim women were expected to have an average of 1.1 more children than Hindu women in 1992, the gap had shrunk to 0.5 by 2015.” (emphasis in the original)
The bogey of Muslims deviously converting Hindus into their fold is equally bogus. Another Pew Centre survey of 30,000 Indians found that 98% of them were practising the same faith that they were raised in. The miniscule number of Hindus – 0.7% of respondents – who drop out is exceeded – 0.8% – by those who were not raised Hindus but who now claim a Hindu identity. Conversion is by no means depleting the Hindu fold, and yet there is near-hysterical push for enacting anti-conversion laws and facilitating ghar-wapsi (return to the Hindu fold).
Facts on the ground have become irrelevant to public opinion and public policy alike in India. The Big Lie of Islamisation, repeated brazenly, repeatedly and menacingly, by ministers and monks alike, has become a part of the mental furniture of the majority Hindus, many of whom are already predisposed to Islamophobia. Like the Republican party in the US, Hindu nationalists need the Big Lie of Muslim takeover for their majoritarian agenda of making India a Hindu nation.
The Deep Lie
Here is one telling difference between a Big and a Deep Lie. Trump’s Big Lie in the United States was not accompanied by state schools boards and education departments starting Trumpian courses in how to bullshit and how to spin alternative facts. While it cannot be denied that the cultural wars fuelled by Trump’s xenophobic, nativist politics continue to reverberate in American educational institutions, with many states enacting laws that would limit what teachers can say regarding race, sexuality and history in classrooms, there is also a resurgence of critical thinking, accompanied with re-reading of Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis, Vaclav Havel and other critics of totalitarian regimes’ distortions of truth.
In India, in contrast, the Big Lies are being supplemented with state-sponsored academic programmes in “Indian Knowledge Systems” (IKS) aimed at rewriting the rules of reasoning that would not only justify some sundry big or small lie, but an alternative narrative of history and science that would be valid from within the parameters of these ancient Hindu knowledge systems.
The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 crafted by the Modi government has the mandate to incorporate “the rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought … [whose] pursuit of knowledge (jnan), wisdom (pragyaa), and truth (satya) [aims for] not just the acquisition of knowledge as preparation for life in this world … but for the complete realisation and liberation of the self ” throughout the school curriculum” and in institutions of higher learning (NEP 2020).
“Realisation and liberation of the self” is clearly a religious-salvific Vedantic goal, and yet, NEP has no qualms about incorporating in school curricula of secular schools. The NEP (para 4.27) also champions ancient sciences, ranging from Ayurveda, vastu to yoga, to be incorporated in school curricula. The difference from the earlier BJP attempts to introduce astrology and karma-kanda courses is that this time around, ancient, falsified sciences will be introduced along with their worldviews, rationales and methodologies. The incorporation of IKS will begin at school level and continue into colleges and universities, including institutions of science and technology.
Here is one recent example that should give us a foretaste of how deep lies will be crafted against the background of IKS. On December 18, 2021, a Centre for Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems was inaugurated at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. The first publication of this centre was a calendar for 2022 entitled ‘Recovery of Indian Knowledge Systems’ which produced “twelve evidences,” one for each month, for “Reinterpretation of the Indus Valley Civilisation” and “Rebuttal to the Aryan Invasion Myth”.
What was the nature of the so-called evidence? Bulk of the “evidences” – eight out of the 12 – are no evidence at all; they are the tired old rants about colonial distortions of Indic knowledge and Orientalist construction of the myth of Aryan Invasion, interspersed with quotations from Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. The four pieces of evidence reinterpret archaeological artefacts from the Indus Valley – female figurines, the swastika, the unicorn seals and the so-called pashupati seal – as representing Vedic/Hindu ideas (cyclical time, reincarnation) and Vedic/Hindu divinities and sages (Rishi Shringa of Ramayana; Shiva; the twin horse-men-demigods, the Ashwins).8
The point of this exercise is simple: If evidence can be produced to show that the Indus Valley civilisation was Vedic, it can be established that it was the original homeland of the Aryan people that composed the Vedas and “brought civilisation to the rest of the world,” as the crackpot ‘Out of India’ theorists never cease to claim. If the Indus Valley civilisation that flourished between 3000 BC to about 1900 BC can be shown to be Vedic, then the dates of the composition of the Vedas can be pushed back by a few millennia from the currently accepted date of 1500 BC. Above all, if the Indus Valley civilisation can be proved to be Vedic, then the Hindu descendants of the Vedic/Aryan people can be shown to be the true sons of the soil.
In other words, enormous civilisational baggage hangs on finding – or inventing? – evidence of Vedic origins of the Indus Valley civilisation. The IIT calendar is only a minor, albeit remarkably audacious and high-profile, contribution to the nearly century-long campaign of Hindu nationalists to re-read the Indus Valley as a Vedic civilisation.
To see the mechanism of Deep Lie at work, let us see how the creators of the calendar interpret the iconic unicorn seals found in Harappa as representing Sage RishyaSringa from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. What we have here is myth heaped upon myth and labelled ‘evidence’.
The first myth is the mysterious unicorn, a one-horned, antelope or ox-like animal, that the inhabitants of the Indus Valley have left behind for us to puzzle over. The motif of the unicorn is not reported from any other contemporaneous civilisation in antiquity and appears to be unique to the Indus region, especially the settlement in Harappa. The unicorn seals that have been found date from around 2600 BC to 1900 BC, after which they disappear from the archaeological record.
What this strange animal represents has been a great puzzle: John Marshall, who oversaw the excavation of Indus Valley sites as the director general of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to 1931, believed that the seals represented a “fabulous animal,” while Ernest MacKay, an early excavator of Mohenjo daro, thought that the unicorn was only a bovine in profile, with one horn showing. No one really knows what the ancient Indus people had in mind, but Jonathan Kenoyer has made a case that the “Indus seal carvers and clay modellers intentionally depicted a one-horned animal,” and that this fabulous animal had some “symbolic meaning … linked to Indus ideology, and that it was not simply a clan or official symbol”. (Kenoyer, 2013: 121).
The IIT scholars claim that this mysterious animal represents RishyaShringa from the Ramayana and therefore counts as evidence for Indus Valley as the ancient home of the composers of the Vedas. Who was this Shringa rishi? According to the Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend:
“Rishyashringa, ‘deer-horned’ or Ekashringa ‘unicorn’ [is] a famous rishi whose name derives from his being born of a doe and from the slight protuberance on his forehead. Rishyashringa possessed magical powers that he used when a terrible drought struck the kingdom of Anga. Lompada, the king, decided to give his adopted daughter Shanta in marriage to Rishyashringa, provided he could end the drought. The marriage took place and shortly afterwards the rains came. Rishyashringa was the chief officiant at the great sacrifice instituted by Dashratha which resulted in the birth of Rama.” (Dallapiccola, 2002).
How does this clearly mythic figure – a horned man born of a doe with miraculous powers – become the intended meaning of the mythic unicorn? The obvious anachronism – the Indus Valley seals date back to 2600 BC to 1900 BC, while the Ramayana and Mahabharata, where this makes his first appearance, were composed only around 200 BC – does not deter the desperate evidence-seekers. The obvious connection is the horn: the rishi is horned, as is the unicorn.
But the authors of the calendar find a “deeper” meaning in the horn: the horn is no bodily protrusion, but a “spinal column of light, a sword from the forehead” which is the “inner trunk of Yoga that shoots above the eyebrow,” representing, apparently, “power” generated through yogic tapasya. The physical structure in these two mythic creatures – the unicorn and the rishi – is interpreted as mental/spiritual power awakened through yoga and thus the unicorn becomes the symbol of the rishi and “evidence for the Vedic-Hindu lineage of the Indus Valley”.
This deeper interpretation raises even deeper questions regarding the “Indian Knowledge Systems” that this “centre of excellence” that produced this calendar aims to cultivate: It is only within the knowledge traditions of ancient India that make no distinction between myth and facts, and between physical matter and spiritual “columns of light” that such an interpretive exercise is even thinkable.
For all their hair-splitting scholasticism, Indian knowledge traditions do not counterpose myths and factual truths, or between accounts of the really real and the really made-up, to borrow from Joanna Overing’s (1997) felicitous expression. Vedic and post-Vedic philosophical schools never drew the kind of distinctions between the category of the fictional and the fabulous – mythos – and reasoned discourse that can be justified by rational arguments and evidence that was humanly possible to obtain – logos – that the Greek historians, philosophers and Hippocratic physicians insisted upon, loudly and publicly, around the same time period (6-4th centuries BC) when Vedic ritualism began to give way to philosophical speculation in India (Goody, 1968; Lloyd, 1990).9
Not one of our astika philosophers – or the nastika Buddhists and Jains for that matter, the Charvakas being the sole exception – ever asked if the stories of gods, demons, demigods and supermen-like rishis were really real or really made-up. Handed down stories involving gods and supernatural powers were allowed as shabda pramana, authoritative testimony, as legitimate evidence for rational thought.
As a consequence of the failure of traditional Hindu thought to cultivate a critical distance from the fictional and the fabulous, myths continue to have a stronghold on Indian imagination. Stories of gods and goddesses from the numerous, everyday retellings of Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata serve as “a warrant, a charter and even as practical guide” that legitimates social structures and religious rituals, as Malinowski famously theorised (Strenski, 1992).
But mythic thought not only serves as a charter for the moral universe in India, it also provides the reality postulates about the natural world. Almost universally, the Indian knowledge traditions – medicine, astronomy, architecture, grammar and history among others – claim to derive their teaching from divine revelations which by definition are beyond human abilities to verify. This has had serious implications for growth of science in India as, to quote David Pingree, the eminent historian of Indian astronomy, “the belief that the origin of knowledge lies in revelation [leads to the belief] that the theory underlying the text so received must be correct; it is only the practical details that can be improved upon.” (Pingree, 2014: 220).
A critical distance between myth and reason is a necessary first step for development of natural science anywhere: “Science is the critique of myths; there would be no Darwin had there been no Book of Genesis,” as the poet W.B. Yates put it (quoted from Goody, 1968: 46).
Our much vaunted Indian knowledge traditions failed to take this necessary first step towards rational thought and Indian sciences and society continue to pay a price for this failure. And yet, it is these knowledge traditions which derive their ultimate authority from gods and sages that the students in Indian schools and colleges will be studying, reverentially and uncritically. That an IIT should be perpetuating this mindset and actually using myths as historical “evidence” is a sign of capitulation of India’s premier academic institutions to the forces of unreason and chauvinism.
An even greater danger is that an IIT is giving its stamp of approval to a mode of thinking which has become the operating principle of RSS-run outfits like Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojna, which seek to rewrite Indian history from a Puranic perspective.
To sum up, in the zeal to declare itself a “civilisational state,” a Hindu cultural zone, India has taken a turn toward religious fundamentalism. It is the hallmark of religious fundamentalists to treat their sacred stories as infallible and eternally true words of God. It is the hallmark of religious fundamentalism to find “evidence” for the truth of their fundamentals, regardless of how many norms of scientific inquiry have to be violated, and how many Deep Lies have to be invented.
- Blackburn, Simon. 2003. Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Allen Lane.
- D’Ancona, Matthew. 2017. Post-truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back. Ebury Press.
- Dallapiccola, Anna. 2002. Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legends. New York: Thames and Hudson.
- Frankfurt, Harry. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.
- Goody, Jack and Ian Watt, 1968. “The Consequences of Literacy,” in Jack Goody, ed. Literacy in Traditional Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Kenoyer, Jonathan. 2013. “Iconography of the Indus Unicorn: Origins and Legacy.” in Shino Anna Abraham et al, eds, Connections and Complexity: New Approaches to the Archaeology of South Asia. California: Walnut Creek.
- Lloyd, Geoffrey. 1990. Demystifying Mentalities. Cambridge University Press.
- Mcintyre, Lee. 2018. Post-Truth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Overing, Joanna.1997. ‘The Role of Myth: An Anthropological Perspective on the Reality of the Really Made-up,” in Geoffery Hoskins and George Schopflin (eds.), Myth and Nationhood, NY: Routledge.
- Pingree, David. 2014. Pathways into the Study of Ancient Sciences: Selected Essays by David Pingree. NY: American Philosophical Society.
- Strenski, Ivan. 1992. Malinowski and the Work of Myth. Princeton University Press.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty/The Wire
Meera Nanda is a historian of science.
The rise of right-wing populism has become a worldwide phenomenon. See Walden Bello, ‘Understanding the Global Rise of the Extreme Right’. I concentrate here only on India and the United States because these are the two countries I have a sense of belonging to, the first by birth and the second by citizenship.↩
The mob that attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, included many Trump supporters bearing Christian symbols and flags. See Thomas Edsall, ‘The Capitol Insurrection Was as Christian Nationalist as It Gets’. This nationalist strain of Christianity is however denounced even by evangelical churches which have been the biggest supporters of Donald Trump. For a Christian condemnation of Christian nationalism, see ‘The Dangers of Christian Nationalism in the United States: A Policy Statement of the National Council of Churches’. Hindu condemnations of Hindu nationalism do exist but have not been able to stem the saffron tide.↩
In his 2005 classic, On Bullshit, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt distinguishes a lie from bullshit. To lie is to knowingly make a false claim, i.e. a claim that you are aware is not true. To bullshit is to not to care one whit whether your claim is true or false. A liar hides the truth, a bullshitter is indifferent to the truth value of what he says, as long as he can get away with it. A liar knows he is lying, a bullshitter doesn’t care if he is or not.↩
The Nazis used the big lie to accuse the Jews and the socialist left for the “stab in the back” that led to Germany’s defeat in the First World War. For parallels between Germany and Trump’s “stop the steal” campaign, see Jochen Bittner, ‘1918 Germany has a warning for America’.↩
For excellent overviews of how post-truth works in the US and Europe, see Lee Mcintyre (2018) and Matthew D’Ancona (2017).↩
For a brief critique of this calendar, see my ‘The Age of the Unicorn brought to you by IIT-Kharagpur’.↩
Jack Goody ascribes the flourishing of critical thought in ancient Greece to the introduction of alphabetic writing in the 8th century BC and the flowering of a literate culture starting around the 6th century. Geoffery Lloyd, on the other hand, foregrounds political democracy in Greek city-states for the flourishing of critical thought.↩