Science and technology should synthesise with spirituality and traditional crafts in order to preserve nature and the destiny of mankind, proposes Makarand Paranjape
If you look at the cover of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you see a spanner growing out of a corn bush. It is a striking image of the union between the natural world and the man-made world of modern technology. Pirsig’s rhapsody does not, however, take into account the untold destruction that the internal combustion engine has wrought upon the world. Lead poisoning, automobile deaths, depletion of fossil fuels, and many other ill-effects may be traced to this technology.
In this whole process of catastrophic cause and effect, not only does technology remain dominant, but, unfortunately, it remains largely unchanged. The problem, however, is not merely ecological or environmental, but ethical and moral. It is, in fact, a problem of dharma (righteousness). Modern technology seems to have given rise to a demonic civilisation wherein we have the capacity of destroying ourselves totally. Mother Earth seems to be asphyxiating because of our greed and recklessness.
That is why the crucial question: Does technology have a dharma? If not, should it have one? If so, what might its dharma be?
First of all, it is obvious that dharma and technology seem to sit uneasily together. Science claims that its concern is with truth, not with ethics. But can the two be separated? Is a nuclear bomb value-neutral? Modern scientists and technologists spend their energies in destructive pursuits and very little of it for constructive purposes.
At the heart of the problem lies the fact that technology has been the handmaiden of those who seek power or exercise it. This neglect of virtue means that dharmic considerations are neglected when it comes to technological planning and development.
The technology of Dharma
But what is dharma? Dharma comes from the root ‘dhri,’ and has the sense of upholding or putting together, giving support, pointing a way. It is universal like the laws of nature. The fight between dharma and adharma (unrighteousness) is a perennial struggle and takes on different forms and shapes. And technology seems to be on the side of adharma.
By technology, we mean the application of scientific ideas to practical ends. So there is a deep connection between the two. Technology, also denotes the totality of the ways in which a society tries to govern its material conditions. Hence, it ought to include the works of local artisans and craftsmen, but unfortunately, all these traditional occupations are never included in the fabric of modern technology.
The technology of the Empire
India, had very strong traditions not only in mathematics and pure sciences, but also in areas like metallurgy, shipbuilding, and agriculture. Now, we know that much of this traditional technology was not only eco-friendly but also labour-intensive.
There is a duality not only between dharma and technology but also between traditional technology and modern technology. In India, modern technology came to us via colonialism. The Roorkee University was started as a civil engineering college, to meet the engineering needs of the empire. No investments were made to help develop any original science in the colonies. ‘Pure’ sciences were discouraged, while practical projects like improving irrigation and dams were permitted. The colony became a vast laboratory, a field for experimentation and data collection. Basic or theoretical science was ‘reserved’ for London or Paris. This kind of dualism, in a way, has persisted even today.
While European science and technology (S&T) developed through constant interaction with artisans and craftsmen, in India, it was a by-product of colonial policies which worked to suppress social forces. Consequently, in India, one of the first things that the ideology of science did was to devalue the work of traditional craftsmen. Such a devaluation is still prevalent.
After Independence, there was a revolutionary change in India’s scientific policy. Jawaharlal Nehru’s idea was to usher in rapid development by synthesising the ancient culture of India with modern technology.
But there fell a shadow between the intention and the achievement. The attempt was bound to fail because both had a totally different set of underlying values. Either our ancient culture would be destroyed or else S&T would be confined to enclaves which have very little connection with the surrounding world. Today, we can clearly see both processes at work. For example, in any IIT campus, you have hi-tech gadgetry, but if you go just a few miles away, you still have a farmer with a bullock cart. In other words, post-Independence S&T under Nehru’s vision did not really transform India.
Moreover, within Indian S&T, the gap between the two cultures—the traditional and the modern—continues. As a matter of fact, traditional science still serves the needs of a large number of people. For instance, only a fraction of India’s population is served by modern hospitals and doctors, while the rest have to make do with vaids and hakims (traditional medicine practitioners).
The S&T that we are promoting is neither producing jobs for the graduates nor is it conducive to the upliftment of our country. We still lack a clear-cut technology policy, despite the technology missions. Much-touted successes like the Green Revolution or Operation Flood are really dubious, and our dependence on imports hasn’t changed. Problems like poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, etc., which S&T is specially equipped to handle, have probably been exacerbated, let alone solved.
Science in the West
In the West, though science emerged from within societies, its rise was not less violent. It had to wage a bitter struggle against the Church which did not want to relinquish its power and control over society. It viewed itself as the sole custodian of truth. Therefore, in the West, science became anti-religion. Gradually, it defeated and supplanted religion as the most powerful way of understanding, explaining, ordering, describing and, in some ways, constructing the world.
In this process of going away from religion, science had to dethrone God. Eventually, the leading thinkers of Europe came to believe that the universe could be explained, not by faith but by reason—by decoding the laws of nature. In this process, the pursuit of knowledge became divorced, as it were, from the pursuit of values.
Also, during this period, a new genre of writing arose. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein conveys the idea that what science creates may ultimately destroy us. The monster in the story, assembled from the stolen body parts of exhumed corpses and brought to life by passing an electric current through it, wants to be human. Its creator, Victor, runs away after the monster starts killing people. Eventually, both the creator and the created perish.
Science and spirituality
In India, a different story unfolded. Modern science did not have to overcome resistance from organised religions. A religious figure like Swami Vivekananda was passionately interested in science. He claimed that spirituality is as rational, as rigorous as science; only, its object of study is different. Nearly a hundred years later, the same view is being echoed in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. In other words, the idea of experimentation is as valid in spirituality as it is in scientific endeavours. What else is yoga but a process of continuous experimentation with the definite goal of self-mastery and self-transformation?
Those who are interested in both the scientific temper and spiritual values believe that what is needed is an integrated world view. P L Dhar and R R Gaur, both professors at IIT Delhi, believe that modern science need not be rejected altogether, but its orientation needs to be altered radically. In the West, Albert Einstein, who was also a pacifist and a socialist, said that science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.
Possibilities for S&T in India
It is widely believed that India, the Dharmakshetra, the land of dharma, has the potential to point the way. Sri Aurobindo said that India must rise to play its role of the Jagatguru, the world teacher. If this is to be taken seriously, then S&T must have some possibilities in India, because the possibilities of dharma here are much richer than elsewhere.
We need to spiritualise S&T. In this direction, the first step is to bridge the gulf between traditional science and modern science. Artisans and craftsmen should collaborate with the most advanced scientists and technologists, so that we don’t have these two different worlds: one very hi-tech and the other very low-tech.
There are other organisations working on similar lines. Auroville, for instance, is a futuristic commune which harmonises hi-tech and spirituality. It has an interesting and dedicated group of people who are trying to evolve holistic ways of living. Similarly, there are several experiments in natural farming all over India, inspired largely by the work of Fukuoka. One of these, Navadarshanam, near Bangalore, is led by a Stanford-trained engineer, Ananthu, and his sociologist wife, Jyothi. Development Alternatives, directed by Dr Ashok Khosla, is another well-known NGO which has been working on indigenous technological alternatives for development.
But to bring about a lasting change, we shall have to correct our education system. In traditional societies, you had to follow certain codes of conduct, and only then were you considered fit to handle a particular vidya or knowledge system. But modern technology flourishes upon a dissociation between the ethical base and the knowledge system. Responsibility towards human welfare and that of the planet is not included in our science syllabus.
What is encouraging is that there are many movements and people who are turning away from established ways (which have failed) to bring about social change. Bhopal-based NGO called Ekalavya and the mass movement Bharat Gyan-Vigyan Samiti in Kerala are working in the area of science education,.
But we must remember that all this is not the mainstream, it’s the alternative. What we need is that, ultimately, the mainstream itself changes. Rather than piecemeal changes, which are temporary and often relapse into confusion, we need to rise to a higher level of consciousness. When that happens, the technology which we produce will also change automatically, and our world will be transformed.
So, if we agree that rich possibilities exist in India for a dharmic technology, then Indian scientists and technologists can take the initiative by practising and understanding dharma themselves. The dharma of technology should be able to uplift the most wretched sections of society, to make the fruits of wealth available to the largest number of people, and with the least damage to ecosystems. Every village should have the technological wherewithal to shape its own destiny.
Towards a new Indian S&T initiative
So the main question is, can we develop such a different, dharmic science in India?
Mahatma Gandhi wanted a technology which is people-oriented—which empowers, not cripples them. That is why he promoted khadi, which is much more cost-, energy-, and labour-efficient.
We need a science where; we can start from scratch with simple things, less capital, less energy, and without fancy equipment. Moreover, the benefits of such a scientific practice should be visible and available immediately, not deferred for another 20 years. This is likely to be dismissed as a foolish and impractical proposition, but a few people have already taken it seriously and are actually producing such alternative technologies.
Similarly, we need institutes of rural science or traditional science. If you want to make steel the modern way, in a huge mill, you need very big investments. But people in our villages have been making a kind of steel in earthen ovens for hundreds of years.
But can it work?
A final question remains. Can a ‘low-tech’ India survive? What about national security? You cannot fight missiles with bows and arrows, the argument goes.
So, let’s concede that we need a certain sector which will be modern, which will have armaments and some forms of modern technology. If we have to survive as a nation, maybe we will have to make such compromises with modernity and the ideology of power, domination, and control. But we have to set our priorities right, to decide what is primary and what is secondary.
We have to be a part of the global technology, but up to a point. To sustain the American lifestyle, we shall have to strip the earth like locusts, as Gandhiji said. Which is precisely what is happening. We need to move in the opposite direction—from conspicuous consumption to sustenance, and, ultimately, from sustenance to subsistence. Medha Patkar, said that the most technologically advanced nations of the world should learn to subsist on little—little energy, little food, little clothing. This is a great skill. If we don’t learn it, we will be destroyed as a planet.
We have to integrate the various sectors of our society and culture, tradition and modernity, the city and the country, India and Bharat. And through all of this, find our own path. That is the goal.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The present system flourishes because we support and encourage it, either directly or indirectly, as individuals. That is why the most revolutionary act that each of us can perform is to change our lifestyle.
Here’s what each one of us can do:
Whenever you can, walk, don’t drive
This will not only conserve energy and reduce pollution, but improve your health.
How often do we leave the room with the fan, TV, light or AC on? We forget that ‘negawatts’ (what we save) are as important as megawatts (what we produce).
Shut that tap
What gives us the right to waste water, by routinely and keeping our taps running while we brush or shave?
Waste not, want not
The food we waste could feed those who are hungry. We should not waste anything—bottles, paper, time, energy, and so on.
Let’s pay more attention to substance and less to appearance.
Conservation should begin in cities, not in forests
Conservation, like charity, should begin at home. The root of the problem is in our cities, so it is here that our efforts at conservation should begin. If we stop the wastage in our cities, our forests and wildlife will automatically be preserved.
Remember not to overdo any of these injunctions to the point that you make yourself or your loved ones miserable. The whole idea is to radiate well-being while trying to change the world.
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