Scientific temper vs faith

In 1893, Swami Vivekananda took a voyage, along with Jamshedji Tata, in the same ship from Yokohama, Japan to Vancouver, Canada. Vivek-ananda was going to attend the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago while Tata was going to participate in a technology fair. During the long voyage, they had discussions on a wide range of topics including the need for science and technology for India.

The Swamiji reportedly told Jamshedji that technology can be imported from another countries but scientific temper has to be built within a country through proper education  – it can not be purchased from outside.  Without scientific temper, a nation may materially prosper but it can not get rid of superstitions.

How true and prophetic were Vivekananda’s words! India is now boasting of being the fastest growing big economy of the world, even surpassing China. But, if we look around, we see that unscientific beliefs, superstitions and faith are on the rise, instead of diminishing with economic prosperity. Dozens of TV channels are devoted  to advertising  products like ‘Dhan Laxmi Yantra’ or ‘Hanuman Lockets’ for thousands of rupees a piece which are guaranteed to bring  prosperity to individuals buying those products.

This is in addition to 24x7 astrology channels promising cures for all kinds of ailments and personal problems of the clients against appropriate fees. Some activists and crusaders against superstitions have recently been physically assaulted and even killed by goons. The governments (both at the Centre and in the states) which should be regulating false ads and misinformation, is looking the other way while such ads are duping gullible people.

Most interestingly, the advertisers of these dubious products only provide their telephone numbers, without disclosing any address or location of their offices which makes it more difficult to trace these criminals. Unfortunately, the government agencies do allow them to get away and there is no hue and cry in parliament or state legislatures to bring them under proper laws and regulations.

Increasingly, unscientific temper is proliferating in many other areas. For example, consumption of beef is being banned in many states. Even if one grants that cow is a very useful animal in the Indian context, this does not justify a blanket ban on cow slaughter or consumption (specially when a cow has become socially unproductive or beef is being imported from outside). 

Some people may consider cow to be like ‘mother’. But that is not reason enough to force others to share the same sentiment. The personal sentiments of some social, political or religious groups can not be imposed on others in the form of national laws, unless it is scientifically proved to be of net social benefit for the nation. Beef is the cheapest source of animal protein for many poor people.

If healthy useful cows need to be protected, enough legal safeguards can be built into the laws, without imposing a blanket ban on cow slaughter or consumption. People who preach that banning cow slaughter is a part of Hindu tradition, conveniently forget that many Hindus do not mind others eating beef, and there are instances in Hindu texts where young calves used to be sacrificed by rishis/hermits to treat the revered guests when they visited their ashrams. Swami Vivekananda – considered one of the most respected interpreters of Hindu religion – has himself written that he ate beef. 

Another example. Very recently, some BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh - have started to withdraw eggs from the mid-day meals of primary school children on the ground that this is against the sentiments of vegetarians, specially those belonging to some Jain communities. Then again, egg is considered by scientists to be the food which has the highest absorption rate among all the sources of protein including milk and pulses for young children.

Advantage of consuming eggs

Egg has the further advantage that, compared to milk, it is more easily storable and transportable (in boiled form) and more difficult to adulterate, in addition to being fairly cheap (compared to fish or meat). Hence, there is no rational justification for banning eggs in school meals where mal-nutrition among small children is a very serious problem. The argument that vegetarians, too, can live healthy lives, presupposes that they are to able to get protein from other sources like milk.

But, as already explained, it may not be possible to serve milk in sufficient quantities in healthy unadulterated way in most of the schools. If some vegetarians do not want to eat eggs, alternative arrangements should surely be made for them but there is no justification to deprive others  of the most convenient form of protein just to ‘honour’  the sentiments of some groups.

Moreover, once such things are allowed, there is no end to extending this kind of argument on the basis of the sentiments of some group or other. For instance, consumption of pork is against the sentiments of many Muslims. But can that be an argument for banning it for others? Banning or withdrawing a food is to be allowed only on scientific grounds, like banning even an innocuous food item like ‘Maggi’ is justified,  because, on the basis of available scientific evidence, it  is harmful for health in its present form.

The same argument may apply for any other food items like GM foods, beef, pork or egg but ‘sentiments’ can not be a ground for banning or withdrawing. Our politicians, instead of devoting their energies to these ‘sentimental’ pursuits, should focus on regulating the promotion of unscientific beliefs, devices and practices. But it is easier said than done as the politicians do benefit, financially or electorally, by promoting non-science, while having the name of Swami Vivekananda on their lips as their spiritual idol.

(The writer is former Professor of Economics, IIM-Calcutta)

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