New Delhi—The most widely discussed talk at the Indian Science Congress, a government-funded annual jamboree held in Jalandhar in January, wasn't about space exploration or information technology, areas in which India has made rapid progress. Instead, the talk celebrated a story in the Hindu epic Mahabharata about a woman who gave birth to 100 children, citing it as evidence that India's ancient Hindu civilization had developed advanced reproductive technologies. Just as surprising as the claim was the distinguished pedigree of the scientist who made it: chemist G. Nageshwar Rao, vice-chancellor of Andhra University in Visakhapatnam. "Stem cell research was done in this country thousands of years ago," Rao said.
His talk was widely met with ridicule. But Rao is hardly the only Indian scientist to make such claims. In recent years, "experts" have said ancient Indians had spacecraft, the internet, and nuclear weapons—long before Western science came on the scene.
Such claims and other forms of pseudoscience rooted in Hindu nationalism have been on the rise since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. They're not just an embarrassment, some researchers say, but a threat to science and education that stifles critical thinking and could hamper India's development. "Modi has initiated what may be called ‘Project Assault on Scientific Rationality,’" says Gauhar Raza, former chief scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) here, a conglomerate of almost 40 national labs. "A religio-mythical culture is being propagated in the country's scientific institutions aggressively."
Some blame the rapid rise at least in part on Vijnana Bharati (VIBHA), the science wing of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a massive conservative movement that aims to turn India into a Hindu nation and is the ideological parent of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party. VIBHA aims to educate the masses about science and technology and harness research to stimulate India's development, but it also promotes "Swadeshi" (indigenous) science and tries to connect modern science to traditional knowledge and Hindu spirituality.
VIBHA receives generous government funding and is active in 23 of India's 29 states, organizing huge science fairs and other events; it has 20,000 so-called "team members" to spread its ideas and 100,000 volunteers—including many in the highest echelons of Indian science.
VIBHA's advisory board includes Vijay Kumar Saraswat, former head of Indian defense research and now chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University here. The former chairs of India's Space Commission and its Atomic Energy Commission are VIBHA "patrons." Structural biologist Shekhar Mande, director-general of CSIR, is VIBHA's vice president.
Saraswat—who says he firmly believes in the power of gemstones to influence wellbeing and destiny—is proud of the achievements of ancient Hindu science: "We should rediscover Indian systems which existed thousands of years back," he says. Mande shares that pride. "We are a race which is not inferior to any other race in the world," he says. "Great things have happened in this part of the world." Mande insists that VIBHA is not antiscientific, however: "We want to tell people you have to be rational in your life and not believe in irrational myths." He does not see a rise of pseudoscience in the past 4 years—"We have always had that"—and says part of the problem is that the press is now paying more attention to the occasional bizarre claim. "If journalists don't report it, actually that would be perfect," he says.
But others say there is little doubt that pseudoscience is on the rise—even at the highest levels of government. Modi, who was an RSS pracharak, or propagandist, for 12 years, claimed in 2014 that the transplantation of the elephant head of the god Ganesha to a human—a tale told in ancient epics—was a great achievement of Indian surgery millennia ago, and has made claims about stem cells similar to Rao's. At last year's Indian Science Congress, science minister Harsh Vardhan, a medical doctor and RSS member, said, incorrectly, that physicist Stephen Hawking had stated that the Vedas include theories superior to Albert Einstein's equation E=mc2. "It's one thing for a crackpot to say something like that, but it's a very bad example for people in authority to do so. It is deplorable," Venki Ramakrishnan, the Indian-born president of the Royal Society in London and a 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry, tells Science. (Vardhan has declined to explain his statement so far and did not respond to an interview request from Science.)
Critics say pseudoscience is creeping into science funding and education. In 2017, Vardhan decided to fund research at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology here to validate claims that panchagavya, a concoction that includes cow urine and dung, is a remedy for a wide array of ailments—a notion many scientists dismiss. And in January 2018, higher education minister Satya Pal Singh dismissed Charles Darwin's evolution theory and threatened to remove it from school and college curricula. "Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral [texts], has said that they ever saw an ape turning into a human being," Singh said.
Those remarks triggered a storm of protest; in a rare display of unity, India's three premier science academies said removing evolution from school curricula, or diluting it with "non-scientific explanations or myths," would be "a retrograde step." In other instances, too, scientists are pushing back against the growing tide of pseudoscience. But doing so can be dangerous. In the past 5 years, four prominent fighters against superstition and pseudoscientific ideas and practices have been murdered, including Narendra Dabholkar, a physician, and M. M. Kalburgi, former vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi. Ongoing police investigations have linked their killers to Hindu fundamentalist organizations.
Some Indian scientists may be susceptible to nonscientific beliefs because they view science as a 9-to-5 job, says Ashok Sahni, a renowned paleontologist and emeritus professor at Panjab University in Chandigarh. "Their religious beliefs don't dovetail with science," he says, and outside working hours those beliefs may hold sway. A tradition of deference to teachers and older persons may also play a role, he adds. "Freedom to question authority, to question writings, that's [an] intrinsic part of science," Ramakrishnan adds. Rather than focusing on the past, India should focus on its scientific future, he says—and drastically hike its research funding.
The grip of Hindu nationalism on Indian society is about to be tested. Two dozen opposition parties have joined forces against Modi for elections that will be held before the end of May. A loss by Modi would bring "some change," says Prabir Purkayastha, vice president of the All India People's Science Network in Madurai, a liberal science advocacy movement with some 400,000 members across the country that opposes VIBHA's ideology. But the tide of pseudoscience may not retreat quickly, he says. "I don't think this battle is going to die down soon, because institutions have been weakened and infected."