By Makarand Paranjape
It is necessary to formulate an ethical code for science and technology and synthesize it with traditional crafts in order to preserve nature and stop technology from playing havoc with the destiny of mankind
It is necessary to formulate an ethical code for science and technology and synthesize it with traditional crafts in order to preserve nature and stop technology from playing havoc with the destiny of mankind
If you look at the cover of the paperback edition 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. Indeed, throughout this contemporary classic, Pirsig tries to overcome the alienation that most of us feel when we deal with technology, Pirsig’s rhapsody over the ‘classical’ beauty and ‘quality’ of his Harley Davidson, the precision and artistry of its engine, 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, oil price wars, crowded and polluted cities, clogged highways, ceaseless roar of traffic, disrupted lifestyles, extravagance—these and many other ill-effects may be traced to this technology. Now that we seem to have come to the end of the tether, another technological solution is proposed—solar or electricity powered transportation. But, of course, that is not likely to happen until we run out of oil.
In this whole process of catastrophic cause and effect, not only does technology remain dominant, but, unfortunately, it remains largely unchanged. The problem that Pirsig does not address adequately is not merely ecological or environmental, but really ethical and moral. It is, in fact, a problem of dharma.
Modern technology seems to have given rise to a demonic civilization wherein, for the first time in human history, we have the capacity of destroying ourselves totally. Even if we don’t do so in one big nuclear explosion, the process of slow death is definitely underway. Our beautiful planet earth, the mother of all life systems, seems to be asphyxiating because of our callousness, greed, and recklessness. And modern technology seems to be primary agent of this destruction.
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. Those who talk about dharma don’t talk about technology. They bracket it off, consigning it to another realm, and go about teaching yoga , meditation , or some other method of self-realization. On the other hand, those who talk about technology seldom talk about dharma at all. In fact, the divorce between the two appears so irrevocable that we may even conclude that the dharma of technology is the lack of dharma. A more flattering way of phrasing this proposition is that technology is value-neutral. Its proponents claim that it is the users, not the technology itself, which should be blamed for the ill effects of technology. But to say that something is value-neutral is itself value-loaded, because it implies a certain kind of value.
Science claims that its concern is with truth, not with ethics. But can the two be separated? When you devise a nuclear bomb, can you get away by saying that it is value-neutral? Or by invoking it’s many useful fringe benefits?
Much of the present-day scientific research is funded by the arms industry. Modern scientists and technologists spend most of 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.
Today, the index of a country’s greatness is not necessarily its moral strengths or cultural traditions, but the degree of its technological advancement. Technology, in turn, confers wealth and power. To use the ancient Upanishadic distinction, today’s world seems to be seeking preyas (that which is pleasant), as opposed to shreyas (that which is good). This neglect of virtue means that dharmic considerations are left aside when it comes to technological planning and development.
THE TECHNOLOGY OF DHARMA
In India, we have an immemorial tradition of the theory and practice of dharma. So instead of ‘dharma of technology‘ if you say ‘technology of dharma‘, it is clear that Indians have been trying to practice it for thousands of years.
Dharma belongs to a world of ideas that has to do with the cardinal ends of human life, which are called the purusharthas: dharma, artha (social security), kama (fulfillment of desire) and moksha (liberation). These keep reappearing in all classical traditions of India.
But what is dharma? Dharma comes from the root ‘dhri‘ and has the sense of upholding, putting together, giving support, pointing a way. So, there is nothing sectarian about dharma; it is universal, like the laws of nature, though it might have individual interpretations. Dharma implies some kind of cosmic law, what ‘rta‘ was in the Vedic period.
The fight between dharma and adharma (opposite of everything that dharma stands for) is therefore a perennial struggle: it takes on different forms and shapes, and its constituents may vary. And technology, right now, seems to be on the side of adharma, of falsehood and evil.
If dharma belongs to a very old universe of discourse, the term ‘technology‘, in comparison, arises from a much newer world of ideas. In fact, the first uses of the word are quite recent, going back to the 17th century. Its modern use, of course, becomes prevalent only in this century.
Similarly, the word ‘science‘ was used for the first time in 1840 in a book called The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences by William Whewell. Their earlier word for science was ‘natural philosophy’. Even the ideas that went into the making of modern science are comparatively recent. You may start off with Descartes or Francis Bacon or a little earlier with Copernicus.
When we talk about technology, we mean the application of scientific ideas to practical ends. So there is always a deep connection between the two. But technology in its wider meaning 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, people who run karkhanas (old-style factories), the potters, farmers, weavers, and so on. Unfortunately, all these traditional occupations are never included in the fabric of modern technology.
THE TECHNOLOGY OF EMPIRE
The error that follows from this view is that we have never had any science and technology (S&T) to speak of in the past. India, it is well known, had very strong traditions not only in mathematics and pure sciences, but also in areas like metallurgy, ship building, and agriculture. Now, we know that much of this traditional technology was not only eco-friendly, but labor intensive, rather than, capital intensive, and also socially harmonious. There is a duality not only between dharma and technology but also between traditional technology and modern technology.
This is best seen in a traditional society such as ours, which is going through a process of modernization. To these two dichotomies, we may add a third: the duality between the metropolis and the countryside, between the developed and the developing nations, between the rich nations and the poor nations, between the north-west and the south-east in short, between the colonizers and the colonized.
In India, modern technology comes to us via colonialism. The Roorkee University in India was started in 1846 as a civil engineering college, to meet the engineering needs of the empire, and hence was intimately connected to the task of empire building. Similarly, our modern universities are also a product of imperial educational policies.
Science had a dual, contradictory mandate in the empire: to introduce progress but only such progress as would secure British rule. The railways, for example, were used to access the hinterlands and their raw materials for the purpose of export; and the telegraph to improve communications for better control of the native population. But no investments were made to help develop any original science in the colonies. Usually, ‘pure’ sciences were discouraged, while practical—and in that sense technological—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. Significantly, much of the original impetus for science in India came from the army. Even now, Indian anthropologists working on the Genome project to map the genetic pool of the different ethnic groups of India, have discovered that the army has much more ethnographic information that anybody else—most of it classified.
While European S&T developed through constant interaction with artisans and craftsmen, in India it was imposed from the outside, as a by-product of the colonial policies. There, it emerged from social forces, here, it intervened to suppress social forces. So two different cultures of science were created. 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.
A Xerox operator is an unskilled person—all he has to do is push a set of buttons. A basket-maker, or somebody who is making a Madhubani painting, or even an earthen pot, requires a greater degree of skill and also an aesthetic sense. But a person manning the Xerox machine has higher status in the social hierarchy than a traditional artisan or a craftsman. The more expensive the machine, the more important the operator of the machine—by a kind of reflected glory—regardless of the skill required to operate the machine.
There is a constant attempt by technologically advanced nations not only to stay ahead, but to ensure that the ‘wrong’ kinds of technology do not get into the hands of the less developed nations. That explains the American obsession in trying to bamboozle India into signing the iniquitous Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Ironically, the US not only has the biggest nuclear arsenal and has conducted the largest number of nuclear tests, but is also the greatest exporter of armaments and the weapons of destruction. No wonder, they are playing the policeman of the world, trying to tell everybody else to disarm. The US is at the forefront of both proliferation and disarmament—proliferation for themselves, disarmament for the others. Fortunately, many Americans themselves want to change this situation.
POST INDEPENDENCE SCIENCE
After independence there was a revolutionary change in India’s scientific policy. This is best exemplified in Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement that dams like the Bhakra Nangal in Punjab are the temples of modern India. Nehru‘s idea was to usher in rapid development through science. Yet, traditional ideas about spirituality or dharma were not given up entirely. The plain documents themselves show that the attempt was to synthesize the ancient culture of India with modern technology. Such was to be our indigenously designed engine of rapid progress and economic amelioration. But there fell a shadow between the intention and achievement.
In Science and the Human Condition in India and Pakistan, edited by Ward Moorhouse, Ainslie Embree wrote a paper titled ‘Tradition and Modernization in India‘ where he hinted that the attempt of Nehru and other planners to synthesize technology and the ancient Indian traditions was bound to fail because both had a totally different set of underlying values. He said that either our ancient culture will be destroyed, or else S&T will be confined to enclaves which have very little connection with the surrounding world.
Today, we can clearly see both processes at work. Apply this, for example, to any Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus. You may have hi-tech gadgetry here, but if you go just a few miles away you still have a farmer with a bullock cart. Similarly, if you go to any major S&T establishment, you realize that you have entered a different world. There is a threshold, a liminality which you have to overcome. ISRO, DST, BARC, or any of the DRDOs exemplify this. They are all high-security zones, totally cut off from and unrelated to their surroundings. The more efficient they are, the more exclusive and detached they are from their contexts. As soon as you go in, you feel the air-conditioning. If everything is filthy outside, inside everything is clean. If everything is disorderly outside, inside everything is orderly. Aren’t these enclaves in the sense Embree predicted?
In other words, post-independence S&T under Nehru‘s vision did not really transform India. Instead, a bureaucratization of S&T took place. As to the benefits of S&T, one might argue that instead of S&T’s fruits reaching the rest of the country, the fruits of the rest of the country have definitely been appropriated by S&T. Moreover, within Indian S&T, the gap between the two cultures¾the traditional and the modern¾continues. As a matter of fact, traditional science still serves the needs of a large number of people.
For instance, take medicine. Only a fraction of India’s population is served by modern hospitals and doctors, while the rest have to make do with traditional vaids and hakims. The S&T that we are promoting is apparently neither producing jobs for the graduates, nor is it conducive to the upliftment and amelioration of our country. It is just training few talented people to fit into job markets overseas. We still lack a clear-cut technological policy, despite the technology missions. There have been the much-touted successes, some of which like the Green Revolution or Operation Flood, are really dubious, but our dependence on imports hasn’t changed.
In one sense, science has actually become a tool for the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Then, what about the innumerable ills that plague our society, which S&T was supposed to cure? Poverty is still there, so are unemployment, illiteracy, inadequate nutrition, lack of drinking water and sanitation, not to speak of social problems like continuing unrest and violence. Environmental degradation, floods and droughts¾the problems which S&T is especially equipped to handle—have probably been exacerbated, let alone solved. The few posh areas in a few privileged cities are also beset by urban problems like pollution, overcrowding and lack of infrastructure.
SCIENCE IN THE WEST
In the West, though science emerged from within societies, often from an interaction between scientists and craftsmen, its rise was not less violent. It had to wage a bitter struggle for survival against the Church. Eventually, of course, science won. But in this tussle, something more was lost. For example, if you look at the original documents that Copernicus wrote, they are enormously moving. So are some of Francis Bacon‘s writings. He talks about the need to free the human mind of its enslavement to various kinds of falsehood.
Religion in the west was very dogmatic and 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, what science had to do, among other things, was to dethrone God. There was a progressive deification, instead, of secular rationality.
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. As Descartes said: ‘Give me extension and motion, and I will construct the universe.’ So, God was dethroned and science was enthroned. In this process, in the West especially, all the so-called limits, checks and balances were removed, and the pursuit of knowledge became divorced, as it were, from the pursuit of values.
In his seminal book, Science and Culture, J.P.S. Uberoi points out that there were two traditions in European science, the hermetic and the positivist. Of these, it was the latter which triumphed. The reductionism, centralization, economy of scale, mass-production, and materialistic world view, all of which have come to characterize modern S&T, can be traced to this victory of positivism. It was this modern S&T which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, and forever changed the nature of European society.
The Industrial Revolution was accompanied by an unprecedented assault on traditional lifestyles and occupations. Large numbers of impoverished peasants and artisans flocked to the big cities and industrial towns in search Of jobs. Society became divided into two predominant classes, the owners of the factories and their allies and the workers. These were the conditions which leadKarl Marx to formulate his theory of Communism. Also, during this period, a new genre of writing arose. Basically, it articulated the fears and dystopian visions of a society undergoing technological transformation.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) conveys the idea that what science creates may ultimately destroy us. The monster in the story is engineered in an unlawful manner by assembling the stolen body parts of exhumed corpses. It is brought to life bypassing an electric current through it (not all that much different from how the sheep Dolly was cloned recently!). But the creature wants to be human. Its creator, Victor Frankenstein, runs away after the monster starts killing people. Eventually, both the creator and the created perish.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, there is a fear that the computers are taking over. This happens when one computer HAL 9000 goes berserk because it is given contradictory commands. In Terminator I & II, again, it is a battle between man and machine. Who rules whom, when does the slave start becoming the master? Such are the anxieties voiced in these dystopias.
SCIENCE AND SPIRITUALITY
In India, a different story unfolds. Modern science did not have to overcome resistance from organized religion. A religious figure like Swami Vivekananda was passionately interested in science. He claimed that the Vedantic worldview is in consonance with the discoveries of science, 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 Fritzof Capra‘s The Tao of Physics.
In other words, the idea of experimentation is as valid in spirituality as it is in scientific endeavors. What else is yoga but a process of continuous experimentation with the definite goal of self masterly and self-transformation? Why, even Gandhi called his autobiography My Experiments with Truth. The word ‘experiment’ here is used in a modern, scientific sense. This, from a man who unequivocally condemned modern civilization!
Those who are interested in both the scientific temper and spiritual values believe that what is needed is an integrated world view. Such is the argument in Science and Humanism, a textbook written by P.L. Dhar and R.R. Gaur, both professors at IIT Delhi. The duo have been teaching a course by the same title attempting to bridge the gulf between modern science and ancient spirituality. They believe that modern science need not be rejected altogether, but its orientation needs to be altered radically. Several prominent western scientists have also expressed this opinion. For instance, 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 as the dharmakshetra, the land of dharma, has the potential to point the way. Even today, Buddhists believe, as the Reverend Samdhong Rinpoche, head of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile says, that if the world is to be saved the direction must come from India. Sri Aurobindo said that India must rise to play its role of the jagatguru, the world teacher. But if the traditional belief in India’s unique destiny is to be taken a little more seriously, then S&T must have some possibilities in India which it lacks elsewhere. After all, ‘Bharat‘ doesn’t refer only to the king whose descendants we are, but bha means ‘to shine’— if we can live up to all this, then we have to work to transform science. Because the possibilities of dharma here are much richer than elsewhere. What needs to be done is 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. In fact, the hi-tech worlds we have created are in the basics very low-tech.
For example, the windows will not shut, the flush doesn’t work, the metalled roads are potholed, the fans make noise. All this because there is little connection between the hi-tech and the lived realities. And this recognition and reconnection is a part of the agenda of a group like PPST (Patriotic Peoples S&T Front). There are, of course, several other organizations working on similar lines. Auroville, for instance, is a futuristic commune which harmonizes 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 to correct our education system. In traditional societies, you had to follow certain norms, certain codes of conduct, and only then were you considered fit to handle a particular vidya or knowledge system.
For example, Patanjali Yoga prescribes a strict moral code before you take up meditational practices. The Buddha taught that dharma consists of three things: sheel, samadhi, and pragna. In both these systems, sheel, or a set of moral injunctions, was the base. But modern technology flourishes upon a dissociation between the ethical base and the knowledge system. Even Pascal, who was a devout Catholic, once said: ‘ I leave my religion with my hat, outside the laboratory when I enter it.’
What is encouraging is that there are many movements, traditions, trends and people full of curiosity who are turning away from established ways which have failed. People are moving away from the traditional curriculum and looking for supplements like value-based education, integral education and free-progress learning. The change is taking place in a two-pronged manner. One by bypassing the system, learning from outside the organized structures of education or politics.
That is how alternative ways of learning, thinking interacting come up. For example, there is a Bhopal-based NGO called Ekalavya working in the area of science education, and the mass movement Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti in Kerala. Thousands of people are devoting their time and energy to try and improve things. But we must remember that all this is not the mainstream; it’s the alternative.
What we need is that ultimately, as Mao said, the countryside encircles the city, though perhaps not in the sense he meant it. That is, the mainstream itself changes. That is what the New Age is about. 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. Only then, the curriculum will change, the systems that control S&T will change, and ultimately, our world itself will be transformed.
So, if we agree that rich possibilities exist in India for a dharmic technology, then perhaps it is for Indian scientists and technologists to take the initiative. To begin with, they can do so by practicing and understanding dharma themselves. The dharma of technology, if nothing else, should be to uplift the most wretched sections of society, to make the fruits of affluence and wealth available to the largest number of people, and to do this as nonviolently as possible, with the least damage to people’s ecosystems.
This can happen only when technologists will go and actually live in the villages. Every village should have an advanced communication center, a good doctor, an agricultural scientist—in other words, the technological wherewithal to shape its own destiny.
TOWARDS A NEW INDIAN S&T INITIAVE
So, the main question is, can we develop such a different, dharmic science in India? The notion of the universality of science is Eurocentric. Given that the needs of various societies are different, the kinds of science required should also be different. In other words, all development projects should be grounded in a certain cultural matrix if they are to succeed. Otherwise they will only alienate and oppress the people for whom they are intended.
When Europeans invaded America, millions of natives were killed! Do we want a technology which is going to wipe out millions of our own tribals in India? Mahatma Gandhi wanted a technology which is people-oriented, which empowers, not cripples them. That is why he promoted khadi. Just look at the technology, in terms of costs, energy, and labor inputs, and compare it with what is required to produce yarn, just to bleach yarn requires millions of liters of water, and to bleach cotton yarn, to clean and wash it, requires less water than to bleach synthetic fibers. Each machine which makes yarn costs thousands of chores of rupees.
On the other hand, Chad can be made in every home. India is probably the only country left in the world where you can still wear a piece of cloth which somebody has spun and woven by hand. So, obviously we need a technology which is not capital intensive, which does not require too much energy or pollute the environment. It follows, then, the way S&T functions in India will have to be changed. We need a science where we stand up and say: we don’t need anything from anybody: we can start from scratch with simple things, less capital, less energy, without an air-conditioned lab and 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. Let’s first accept that we won our freedom through a nonviolent struggle.
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