Holy Science

The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism

In her new book, Holy Science:The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism, Banu Subramaniam dives deeply into five case studies of modern India and its diaspora — cases in which science and religion are not oppositional but tightly, uniquely, and locally interwoven. In order to do so she combines evocative, sensual prose with a biologist’s attention to the natural world and a post-colonial critical theorist’s attention to the way power shapes experience.

Her critique is genealogical in nature. It consists in an attempt to show how modern Hindu nationalism is being constructed through a tactic she calls “archaic modernity” — a phrase coined to capture the way that the ancient religious civilization of India is being read as prefiguring modern scientific techniques ranging from genomics to architecture. But, she shows, this archaic modernity often serves only to promote a constrained form of nationalistic Hinduism that consolidates pre-existing formations of power through the masked reassertion of caste and patriarchal structures.

It is her refusal to cede the meaning of Hinduism to these nationalists, to reduce Hinduism to Hindutva, that sparks the text’s constructive vision: the inclusion of six new techno-poetic myths; stories of particular avatars of possibility. Public Seminar was fortunate enough to be able to ask Prof. Subramaniam about these constructive myths, about her understanding of archaic modernity, and about a number of other topics contained in her new book.

Public Seminar [PS]: Thank you for your time, Professor. I thought we might begin by asking how you began to construct the concept of “archaic modernities.” Was there something you began to see in the modern Indian context that sparked your imagination or your concern? Can you help us understand the concept through its emergence in you?

Banu Subramaniam: Thank you so much for this opportunity to discuss this book. I’m delighted and honored. The concept of “archaic modernity” emerged during my frequent trips to India while living in the United States – the emerging nationalist politics in both countries presented a study in contrasts. In India, the rise of Hindu nationalism was unmistakable with each trip, as was a rising Christian white nationalism in the U.S. However, while science in the U.S was seen as oppositional and a Godless threat to humanity, in India it was comprehensively embraced in the nationalist vision. Yet, there was a resurgence and entrenchment of patriarchal and casteist power structures. It was striking how Hindu nationalism brought together the past and present, modernity and orthodoxy, science and religion into an “archaic modernity” that embraced capitalism, globalization, science, and technology as elements of a modern Hindu nation. In the western schema it seemed anachronistic, but within modern India, it was the reassertion of a very Indian modernity aptly captured in the slogan: “Be Modern, Not Western.”

PS: You are careful throughout the text to help your reader understand that religion and science have a much different relationship in the Hindu/Indian context than they do in the west. In India, you write, “science and religion are not oppositional. They are something else — tools, allies, synergies, partners, symbionts, challengers, colluders, or syncretic collaborators.” Can you help us see how that looks by giving us an example of a particularly provocative alliance or collusion between religion and science in India today?

Subramaniam: I am not a scholar of religion, and even though I did not grow up in a particularly religious family, working on this book has made me appreciate how central religion is to the cultural imagination. The various case studies in the book highlight the dense and intricate entanglements of science and religion — and what is most striking is how thorough this imbrication is at all levels and scales. For example, we see the exuberant consumerism of Vedic India today — ancient wisdom bottled into household products ranging from toothpastes, toilet cleaners, soaps, and insect repellents to the extolling of the use of Vedic sciences in architecture and medical technologies. Modern Indian gurus are thoroughly technologically savvy, with vibrant social media campaigns and bold scientific claims presented on a global stage. We have seen the repackaging of ancient Indian sciences as thoroughly modern and robust sciences such as Vaastushastra, Ayurveda, and Yoga — sciences that meld the best of the east and the west. At the same time, western scientific technologies have been thoroughly democratized, embraced and deployed by a varied set of actors — from grassroot struggles, activist organizations, and nationalist groups to the state. The five case studies I discuss in the book present an India brimming with such complex and dense entanglements.

PS: What are the particular dangers of the form of bionationalism that is being promulgated in India at the moment? What possibilities do you see being occluded or constrained?

Subramaniam: Coming from the field of Science and Technology Studies and Feminist Studies, what was most revealing was how our theories and vocabularies have not kept pace with political transformations. For example, the growing fear about “fake news” and debates about “facts” in the public imagination are most often resolved through a need for increased valorization of “truth” and “science.” The rise of the new atheists calls for a marginalization, and indeed opposition, of religion in favor of science. Yet, in India we see the vibrant growth of “vedic sciences.” So the question becomes: what is science and who gets to define it? Another response has been a call to mobilize the sciences in events such the recent “March for Science”, where “science” is the sole arbiter of truth claims and social progress. Yet histories of eugenics, never ending scientific claims of sex, race, class and sexual differences should give us all pause. The regular exposure of fraud and false claims in science necessitates a vigilant public. After all, science is a social enterprise, conducted by humans who are shaped by very particular social histories. The history of science reveals an enterprise deeply implicated in histories of sexism, racism, colonialism, heterosexism; ableism. Even an elementary perusal of history will tell us that science and religion are, and have always been, deeply entangled with structures of power (even in the West). As a third world woman, I am deeply cognizant that the very field I am part of once categorized me as incapable of rational thought. It is not that scientists are “bad,” but that science and scientists are always products of their social contexts. What we need are not facile slogans of fake/truth, science/pseudoscience but rather a reinvigorated public education on how to think critically and historically. The solution is not a retreat to the holy sites of science and religion, but rather in understanding how power has corrupted both sites quite thoroughly. We need to reckon with these histories.

PS: One of the things that struck me in reading your book was that you seemed dissatisfied with only offering a genealogical critique of the efforts to create an archaic modernity in India today. And this dissatisfaction seemed to lead to what is perhaps the most innovative and distinctive aspect of your book: the composition of new techno-poetic myths. Can you help the reader who has not yet experienced these stories to understand what they are and what you were hoping to do by including them in your text?

Subramaniam: One of the greatest powers of fiction, especially speculative fiction, is the power to make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. The interspersed mythological stories from my childhood and the speculative mythological stories I’ve created are attempts at presenting an “elsewhere” – contrasting narratives of what else is possible, of other worlds that could have been. The architecture of the book and the Avatar stories highlight key elemental nodes of evolution – form, chemistry, geography, temporality, elegance, innovation – and ultimately celebrate the value in their synthesis. The techno-poetic myths are stories that accompany each chapter. While each chapter presents a contemporary analysis of bionationalism, the Avatar stories contrast this narrative with a different fictional retelling of biological evolution on the planet. So for example, while a chapter chronicles the obsession with purity and nativist claims in our contemporary world, the fictional piece makes a case for why impurity is actually the key to biological evolution. These Avatar stories are inspired by the mythological studies I grew up and highlight alternate structures, forms and politics, and futures.

PS: You note near the conclusion of the text that you are unwilling to cede Hinduism to those Hindu nationalists who are attempting to promote an analogous form of the “politics of purity” that is on the rise in many nations today. How do you resist this? How, in other words, do you read the Hindu scriptures such that they open up toward a “politics of impurity” rather than simply reinscribing a new version of the friend-enemy relation? Do you think they can be used to tell the story of science, religion, or the nation otherwise today?

Subramaniam: Yes, I honestly do. As someone who was formally trained in the sciences, my forays into the history of science have been revelatory – I have been struck by the vibrancy of scientific thought in most historical periods I’ve studied. This is also certainly true about religion in the multi-religious contexts of India. Both Hindu nationalism and the often-internalistic scientific histories present a very linear genealogy – as if the past was bound to inevitably lead to the present. In contrast, a deep engagement with history of the present reveals a vibrancy of thought. The book chronicles how we find ourselves actively and deliberately at crossroads between different pasts, presents, and futures. Understanding these as temporal and genealogical “constructions” was both a startling and comforting lesson of this project.

PS: Is there an analogy between your creation of the six techno-poetic myths interspersed throughout the book and this way of (re-)reading of the Hindu holy texts? Did you see yourself as writing something like “new scriptures” in the imaginative stories you tell of the avatars of possibility?

Subramaniam: Definitely not “new scriptures”! The idea was not to create new fundamentalist scriptures but about opening up more dynamic and imaginative readings of playful and creative possibilities. In many ways, this was the mode of Indian storytelling I grew up with – stories that morphed each day with new characters and plots into endless variations. It is that spirit that I have tried to recreate here.

PS: As a scholar who lives and teaches in the United States, are there any parallels you are seeing between current efforts to create an Indian bionationalism via the tactics of archaic modernity and the situation here in the States?

Subramaniam: Indeed yes! The U.S. and India at times seem hauntingly similar and other times startlingly different. These contrasting visions fueled my growing analysis. There is a deep and fervent nativist politics in both countries, yet they play out differently. The claims of a dominant state religion, hatred of minorities, growing violence against the “other,” nativist and protectionist policies, the obfuscation of truth and falsity, and the rise of authoritarian and dogmatic leaders are similarities found in both countries. But there are also strong differences. For example, as an evolutionary biologist and feminist I’m struck by the volatile politics against evolution and abortion in the U.S. Yet, neither evokes similar sentiments in India. Christian fundamentalism evokes such strong politics against science and medicine, yet Hindu nationalism embraces science in its own inimitable and strategic way. Religion and science, thus, are not universal or monolithic institutions or fields, but are shaped by the social contexts they find themselves in.

PS: It has been a pleasure to learn from you about your new book Holy Science. What’s next for you? Do you have other projects in the works?

Subramaniam: I am primarily trained as an evolutionary biologist, and biological training inevitably presents “nature” as a site that is removed from culture. Once introduced to feminist studies and science and technology studies, I’ve been so struck by their entanglements — not natures and cultures but rather naturecultures. In Holy Science I encountered first hand how, rather than a universal enterprise, science is always inflected by the local. Today, I think of my biological training as so impoverished! In my new work, I’m trying to re-imagine what a naturecultural view of the world would look like. My new project draws on the genealogical work in the first book, and colonialism in the second book to re-think the biological sciences, in particular, to rethink botany. How have the histories of colonialism shaped how we characterize and theorize plants? Historians have demonstrated how central colonialism has been to restructuring the biota of our planet (it is in many ways the original bio-invasion!), yet the sciences have theorized the natural world with little context of the histories that shaped them. In short, I’m trying to think about how we might decolonize botany.

Banu Subramaniam is Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Trained as a plant biologist, her research now focuses on the social and cultural aspects of science. Her 2014 book on these topics, Ghost Stories for Darwin, won the Ludwik Fleck Prize for science and technology studies. Her newest book is Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism.

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