Shelley once claimed that poets were ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. In the decades and centuries since he said this, it has been scientists rather than poets who have been the world’s legislators, and acknowledged ones, too. The power and prestige of modern science is colossal indeed. The prestige comes from science’s manifest successes in augmenting human welfare, the power from its even more striking ability to perfect ever more deadly means of warfare. It is scarcely an accident that the best scientists usually live and work in countries that are rich as well as strong. Here they enjoy an extraordinary veneration, symptomatic of which was Time Magazine’s anointing of Albert Einstein as the ‘Person of the Century’, ahead of other contenders from the worlds of politics, social service, literature, and the arts.
However, modern science has not been without its critics. Even as it has grown in influence and strength, an array of writers, scholars and—yes, poets—have arraigned it for its intellectual arrogance, its lack of ecological sensitivity, its willingness to put itself at the service of the state. Modern science, it is argued, is a totalizing philosophy that brooks no dissent, which dismisses out of hand non-modern and non-Western systems of thought. Modern science gives birth to technologies that wilfully destroy the environment—as for example large dams and nuclear power plants. And many scientists themselves have been ready to justify and legimitize the destructive deeds of nations and politicians.
Within India, by far the best-known critic of modern science is the sociologist Ashis Nandy. Nandy worries that science ‘is threatening to take over all of human life, including every insterstice of culture and every form of individuality’. He believes that scientists are amoral and opportunistic, prone to claim credit for the good done in the name of science, while hastily repudiating the evil. They try to ‘sell the idea that while each technological achievement marked the success of modern science, each technological perversity was the responsibility of either the technologist or his political and economic mentors, not that of the scientist’. At one place, he goes so far as to write that ‘science is the basic model of domination in our times and the ultimate justification for all institutionalized violence’.
Notably, in his own attacks on modern science Ashis Nandy invokes the support of Mahatma Gandhi. Nandy claims that ‘Gandhi rejected the modern West primarily because of its secular scientific worldview’. He further writes that ‘Gandhi’s rejection of modern science is by far the best known theme in his attack on the West’. Characteristically, there are no attributions for these statements, no indication of where and when Gandhi said the things Nandy claims he said.
In fact, Gandhi did not reject modern science. But he certainly sought to humanize it, to make it non-violent and of relevance to the lives of the poor. Perhaps the best summation of his views on science (and scientists) is contained in a speech he delivered to a group of college students in Trivandrum in March 1925. Here, Gandhi observed that
It is a common superstition in India, and more so outside India—because that is what I find from my correspondence in Europe and America—that I am an opponent, a foe, of science. Nothing can be farther from the truth than a charge of this character. It is perfectly true, however, that I am not an admirer of science unmixed with something I am about to say to you. I think we cannot live without science, if we keep it in its right place. But I have learnt so much during my wanderings in the world about the misuse of science that I have often remarked, or made such remarks, as would lead people to consider that I was really an opponent of science. In my humble opinion there are limitations even to scientific search, and the limitations that I place upon scientific search are the limitations that humanity imposes upon us.’
Gandhi went on to say that he appreciated the urge that led scientists to conduct basic research, to do ‘science for the sake of science’. But he worried that scientists and science students in India came overwhelmingly from the middle class (and upper castes), and hence knew only to use their minds and not their hands. His own view was that it would be ‘utterly impossible for a boy to understand the secrets of science or the pleasures and the delights that scientific pursuits can give, if that boy is not prepared to use his hands, to tuck up his sleeves and labour like an ordinary labourer in the streets’. For only if one’s ‘hands go hand in hand with your heads’, could one properly place science in the service of humanity. As Gandhi put it to those students in Trivandrum:
Unfortunately, we, who learn in colleges, forget that India lives in her villages and not in her towns.
India has 7, 00, 000 villages and you, who receive a liberal education, are expected to take that education or the fruits of that education to the villages. How will you infect the people of the villages with your scientific knowledge? Are you then learning science in terms of the villages and will you be so handy and so practical that the knowledge that you derive in a college so magnificently built—and I believe equally magnificently equipped—you will be able to use for the benefits of the villagers?’
Perhaps the most authentic advocate of a ‘Gandhian science’ in contemporary India is the Garhwali social worker Chandi Prasad Bhatt. As a pioneering environmentalist—it was he who started the ‘Chipko’ movement—Bhatt has critiqued the ways in which science has both centralized power and led to environmental degradation. He has been in the forefront of the opposition to monocultural forestry and large dams, state schemes which have claimed the mandate of science. Yet, like Gandhi, Bhatt also understands that technical knowledge can and has been put to humane use, when informed by an ecological sensibility and attention to social deprivation.
Because he lives on a remote Himalayan hilltop, and because he writes little and this mostly in Hindi, Chandi Prasad Bhatt is far less well known than he should be. But from the odd things he has published one can discern a perspective on science that is truer to the spirit of Gandhi than the ideas attributed to the Mahatma by Ashis Nandy. Bhatt has written insightfully on forest conservation, urging a creative synthesis between the ‘practical knowledge’ of peasants and the ‘latest scientific knowledge’ of the state. He has called for a decentralized approach to planning, and has himself pioneered the dissemination of ‘appropriate’ rural technologies such as biogas plants and micro-hydel projects. While keen to listen to and learn from the ‘people’, he doesn’t always romanticize folk wisdom either. It is not just science which has to be reformed, he argues; but also local practices which, in an altered ecological and demographic context, have become unsustainable. He has thus noted that in the hills, terracing on very steep slopes and free-range grazing are no longer viable for either society or for nature.
I think it very unlikely that Chandi Prasad Bhatt has read the speech that Gandhi made to students in Trivandrum in 1925. Yet, through his wanderings in the world, and his deeply developed moral sense, he has arrived at an understanding of modern science that is congruent with Gandhi’s. In his own, more modest way, Bhatt has also influenced the direction of scientific research and application. One of his early efforts was to persuade a young engineer to work on upgrading the indigenous water-mill, or gharat. Traditionally used to grind grain, this device, suitably refined, was now able to generate electricity enough for local needs. Reporting this experiment, Bhatt remarked that ‘the hills want exactly this type of technology. But to produce it, engineers and scientists would have to first become rustics and devote themselves to the Himalayas to understand exactly what they want’.
How strikingly similar, in intent, are Bhatt’s words to the exhortation by Gandhi previously quoted, for the science students to make sure their ‘hands go hand in hand with your heads’, since it would be ‘utterly impossible for a boy to understand the secrets of science or the pleasures and the delights that scientific pursuits can give, if that boy is not prepared to use his hands, to tuck up his sleeves and labour like an ordinary labourer in the streets’.