Is Indian Superstition Replacing Rationality in Academia?

As Hindu nationalism continues to grow its influence in India, pseudoscience and falsehoods, often based on Hindu mythology and belief systems, are finding their way into the country’s top academic institutions, where the next generation of India’s scientists, doctors, and other experts are being educated.

For instance, the Indian Ministry of Science and Technology hosted a four-day conference called “Akash For Life” at the Uttaranchal University Campus in the northern city of Dehradun from November 4 to 7, 2022. “Akash” translates to “sky,” “space,” or “spirit” in Hindi, and it is one of the five universal elements in Hinduism, along with earth (Prithvi), fire (Tejas), wind (Vayu), and water (Jala).

According to the conference organizers, the event sought to integrate traditional Hindu concepts into the academic sphere and to “educate the youth of India to the wisdom of ancient science along with modern scientific advancements.” The scientific community in India condemned the conference, with the nonprofit India March for Science saying that “such concepts have been deleted from science books a long time back.

Many experts believe that the rise of pseudoscience in academic circles can be traced back to Prime Minister Narendra and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after they were elected in 2014. Since then, the government has given several figures a platform, despite peddling falsehoods to the public.

One example is G. Nageswara Rao, an Indian opthalmologist who served as the vice chancellor of Andhra University in Andhra Pradesh. In 2019, he said that Kauravas, which appear in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, were born of “stem cell and test tube technology,” even if such technologies were only discovered in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Another case of Indian educators and academics spreading pseudoscience and misinformation is Laxmidhar Behera, director of the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi. He once claimed that ghosts exist and that he could perform exorcisms by saying holy chants.

One of the country’s most prestigious universities, the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, invited Indian-American writer Rajiv Malhotra in February 2023 for a guest lecture. He previously mentioned a satirical article denying the existence of the Greek civilization and promoted using the “third eye” as a substitute for medical diagnosis.

Academic institutions and government agencies across India have also promoted or introduced course teachings and subjects, which often have no scientific basis. The Indian Institute of Technology Indore introduced a course about scientific and mathematical knowledge from ancient Sanskrit texts in 2020. The National Commission for Indian System of Medicine, the government body responsible for regulating policies of medical institutions across the country, introduced medical astrology as an elective in the Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery program, which hundreds of universities across India offer. Scientists and researchers in India criticized the move.

While pseudoscience is being promoted and placed on a pedestal, real science also faces attacks from the right-wing, Hindu nationalist government. Last April, the theory of biological evolution by Charles Darwin was removed from high school textbooks in India, earning condemnation from numerous scientists and educators.

Although many scientists, educators, and students are fighting back against this rise of pseudoscience in India, many experts noted that academics and administrators were quiet on the issue because of fear of retaliation or simple opportunism.

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