“Religion and science in India are not like in your country. I don’t think religion and science have anything to do with each other here, but if you really want to talk that would be fine.”
That’s an amalgamation of what dozens of Indian scientists and engineers said to me (an American) when I invited them to interviews about the relationship between religion and science in contemporary India. Of course, that was before Prime Minister Modi publicly promoted the belief that ancient Indians possessed modern technology, a belief that I came across in my fieldwork and was thus unsurprised to see become politically relevant in 2014.
My new book, Temples of Modernity: Nationalism, Hinduism, and Transhumanism in South Indian Science (Lexington 2018) was born out of an interest in finding out what ethnography could add to the study of religion and science in India (and elsewhere), with a particular interest in twenty-first century scientific and technological themes. Thanks to a Fulbright-Nehru research award, I spent five months in 2012-13 as a visiting scholar at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and interviewed nearly 100 scientists and engineers from academia, industry, and hacker culture. I wanted to know what I could learn by sitting down with them and talking about science. Much of what I learned was about funding priorities, international travel, and the Indian educational system. But, despite the claims of non-interaction between religion and science with which scientists responded to my inquiries, I also learned about a great number of things that pointed toward rich and interesting intersections of religion, science, and technology.
I learned that during the anti-colonial efforts of the 19th and 20th century, some Indians attacked British pretensions toward cultural superiority by arguing that ancient texts revealed Indians had already discovered advanced technology. I learned that such beliefs remain alive in a variety of ways in contemporary India.
I learned that anti-colonial nationalists had dreams of science as religious work in the salvation of the nation that were crucial to early nation-building. I learned that those beliefs continue to hold sway (at least in discourse, and often in practice) among contemporary scientists and engineers.
I learned about Hindu rituals and divine icons that remain present in laboratories, corporate offices, and state institutions. There is, for example, a festival whose name is generally translated as “worship of the machines” that is celebrated annually in many, if not most, scientific establishments. I learned why almost all scientists and engineers encourage or at least accept these practices and images as part of their professional lives.
I learned that most Indian scientists reject the visions of transhumanist scientific salvation that I investigated early in my career (such as the belief that we might one day upload our minds into machines and live forever), but that young Indians are inquiring into such claims. I learned that India is poised to make substantial contributions to the transhumanist blending of science, technology, and religion.
These issues became the primary data points in my study of religion, science, and technology among south Indian scientists and engineers, although other considerations could have occupied me. Given the nature of ethnographic data, my observations cannot be easily or simply extrapolated to refer to all Indians or all Hindus (Hinduism was, as the book’s title indicates, the primary point of intersection with traditional religion in my work). They offer a glimpse, however, into how many Indian scientists and engineers currently see the world.
The opportunity afforded me—to study in a foreign land—reinforced for me the importance of thinking about the politics of our work. Colonial history has a profound influence on the relationships between religion, science, and technology in India. Of course, ethnographers now attempt a self-critical stance, one that (however imperfectly) acknowledges power and privilege, and seeks to mitigate the power imbalances between themselves and those they study. My previous books clearly identify ways in which westerners…I am aware that I keep using complex and politically naive words whose meaning deserves unpacking: westerners, Hinduism, religion, etc., but I’m going to keep doing it and hope I end up somewhere useful…in any case, ways in which westerners combine technology with religious interests. So, I certainly reject any absurd orientalist claims that by finding religion and science moving together I’ve identified something unique about Indians. I’ve identified local versions of global trends.
Among the many fascinating intersections between religion, science, and technology, I am particularly interested in strategies of enchantment and desire to see these identified in their cultural incarnations. That is, I investigate how technology, in particular, is used to produce religious or quasi-religious outcomes and I’ve committed to an empirical approach that relies (primarily) on interviews and observations (and sometimes surveys). With this latest book, I hope I’ve described some fascinating ways in which religion, science, and technology intersect and I simultaneously hope that my method—hinging, as it does, upon awareness of postcolonial realities and empirical data of what people really do and what they really say—offers some ground for other investigations around the world (in places labeled “west” and “non-west,” “developed” and “developing,” “global north” and “global south”). Indeed, I hope we can make new and greater efforts to produce parity in scholarship. As interested as I am in what Indian scientists and engineers say and do, I’m equally interested in what an Indian ethnographer would think about what U.S. scientists and engineers say and do. The global imbalance in power and profit make intellectual parity look impossibly distant; but I hope that this latest book of mine not only illuminates previously uninterrogated ground in India but also provokes readers to consider what we would learn if people come to our own countries—whichever those may be—and help us understand what we, ourselves, have been doing all along.
–Robert M Geraci, Professor of Religious Studies, Manhattan College