On Meera Nanda, Aryabhata and Ramdev

Thanks to Rajeev Srinivasan [1] for providing in his blog a link [2] to an article “Spirited away” by Meera Nanda [3] in the New Humanist [4]. Simply put, the article by Nanda is a verbose tirade against (a) the Dharmic systems (particularly Hinduism) and (b) Sam Harris [5] [6] for his sympathetic views towards Hindu and Buddhist spirituality in his book “The End of Faith”.

For those unacquainted with Meera Nanda, this is what the indomitable Koenraad Elst had to say in reply to her hysterical polemics some years back. [7]

It is not contrived to describe Meera Nanda as a Marxist scholar.  She works within a Marxist conceptual framework, relies on Marxist sources, and speaks of leftist authors as belonging to a collective “us” as opposed to a hated right-wing “them”

Coming back to Nanda’s article on Sam Harris’s book, along expected lines true to her ideological moorings; as aptly pointed out by Dr. Elst; Nanda indulges in unabashed anti-Hindu polemics. Selected excerpts are reproduced here. Emphasis in bold has been added my me.

An idealistic, spirit-centered metaphysics continues to structure the worldview of ordinary people, while intuitive and certain knowledge of the ‘absolute truth’ of ‘pure consciousness’ is still the culturally hegemonic paradigm of knowledge and truth.

Moreover, the notion that such knowledge is rational and scientific is routinely used by Hindu nationalists to assert the superiority of Hinduism over Islam and Christianity, which they condemn as being superstitious in terms not dissimilar to those used by Harris. A rationalist endorsement of mysticism could have dire consequences for the development of a rational scepticism adequate to the challenge of fundamentalism.

The ever ubiquitous Hindu nationalists invariably pops up whenever those from the left seek to sell their fare. And what does Meera Nanda provide to back her purported views on Hindu nationalists? Nothing except her own ideological predilections. The much maligned Hindutva or Hindu nationalism not doubt seeks to imbibe in all Hindus and in fact in all Indians a strong sense of belonging, pride and patriotism towards the country. And why is this wrong? Sadly, the question of right or wrong is always construed by the Marxists and secularists from a myopic ideological viewpoint. And when ideology is used to construct parochial postulates, truth invariably suffers.

Now consider this other quote by Nanda from the same article.

My experience of the deep connections between Hindu metaphysics and Hindu nationalist politics underpins my scepticism and naturalistic world view.

Left unsaid, Sam Harris is now; what Nanda and her ideological bedfellows like to call; a Hindutvavaadi.

While perusing the New Humanist site, I came across another article by Nanda, “Rush hour of the gods” [8]. And yes not very surprisingly it is another voracious tirade on Hinduism. What really struck me however was Nanda’s stridently haughty and foolish dismissal of ancient Indian scientific contributions and particularly her crass belittling insinuation towards Aryabhata [9], the ancient Indian mathematician and astronomer who is credited with many momentous contributions. Excerpt below. Emphasis in bold has been added by me.

The theme of the superiority of ancient Hindu science was taken up a week later when the president of India, Abdus Kalam, came down to the temple-ashram complex to inaugurate its “science museum”, which highlights ancient Hindu discoveries in astronomy/astrology, medicine (ayurveda), architecture (vastu) and such. Without ever questioning what validity the Earth-at-the-centre astronomy/astrology of Aryabhatta has in the modern world, the nuclear physicist president went on to claim not only the greatness of antiquity but also the continued relevance of the ancients for “enriching” modern astronomy.

If there was any doubt about the extra-academic agenda and ideological predilections of Meera Nanda, her insidious insinuation on Aryabhata clears it. It is true that scholars have divergent views on interpretations of Aryabhata’s model of the solar system. David Pingree, Noel Swerdlow believe it is geocentric. While Otto Neugebauer, Hugh Thurston, Naturforschenden Gesellschaft, van der Waerden, Dennis Duke believe it to be heliocentric. His sighrocca (in Sanskrit) model is cited by most as evidence for being heliocentric. Notwithstanding this academic debate, Meera Nanda’s dismissive polemics and foolish sarcasm regarding ancient Indian scientific contribution and specially her belittling insinuation towards Aryabhata is particularly distasteful given his irrefutable contribution to science and mathematics. Be it in trigonometry, algebra, explaining eclipses, sidereal periods, earth’s axis, etc. Aryabhata did some really seminal work. Among his many accomplishments, Aryabhata is credited with postulating the movement of earth around its axis and approximation of the value of pi. So, clearly either Nanda has never read any of Aryabhata’s work, or worse is willfully allowing her perfidious predilections to propound a consummate travesty.

Many luminaries throughout history, unburdened by ideological baggage, have made famous quotes on the many contributions of ancient India to science and civilization. Of these many famous quotes, Einstein’s comes to mind.

We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.

A good collection is available at Hinduism.about.com [10]. However, Meera Nanda with an arrogant haughtiness adamantly refuses to acknowledge any of ancient India’s contribution to humanity be it scientific, spiritual or otherwise. A result perhaps of viewing everything with parochial ideological lenses. While not at all surprising, it is a very sad reality that has however become staple offering from the Marxist-secularist stable.

In her book “The God Market” Nanda pompously avers to Swami Ramdev’s Yoga propagation as

a paradigm case of the seamless merging of state, business, and religious-cultural elites and the openly communalist, xenophobic Hindu right

Swami Ramdev [11] is singularly responsible for a revival of the ancient Hindu tradition of Yoga in modern India. In fact Ramdev has even tried to include hardline Islamists from the Deoband into his Yoga mission [12].

Ramdev was the first non-Muslim cleric to address the annual convention of Islamic seminaries under the auspices of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind at the seminary, known for its influence over bulk of the Sunni Muslims across the country.

Emphasising the need for promoting communal harmony, he contended that the unity between Hindus and Muslims was the strength of the nation. “It was high time people realized that ‘Ishwar’ and ‘Allah’ were two names of one and the only god,” he said.

Sadly this inclusiveness has almost always been a one way street with only Hindus walking the way. But for the likes of Nanda their ideological postulates dictate that they very perfidiously call this inclusiveness “openly communalist, xenophobic”.

Moreover, Yoga; and hence Swami Ramdev; being an inseparable part of Hinduism is undoubtedly anathema to the likes of Nanda. In fact any attempt at imbibing into Hindus a sense of pride and belonging towards its more than 5000 year old cultural heritage is construed by the secularists as communalist. If this is communalism, then every person on this planet with a sense of pride and belonging for his/her faith and/or country is a communalist. The pope is communal, the church going President of the United States is communal, as are the millions of Muslims going for Haj.

In the same book, “The God Market”, Nanda defensively says that her work is not “of polemics or ideological argumentation”. That’s right! And Pol Pot was a gentle caretaker of an orphanage for abandoned children.

Incidentally, Meera Nanda is closely associated with the Marxist den, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. In 2009, she was made a fellow at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute for Advanced Study, in the Jawaharlal Nehru University for research in Science, Post-Modernism and Culture [13]. She also happens to have received a major fellowship from the John Templeton Foundation [14] to support her research on defining, debating and teaching science in India [15] [16] between 2005 and 2007.

The Templeton Foundation has been criticized by many for its alleged agenda of trying to reconcile religion and science. An American science journalist and author John Horgan [17], in 2006 wrote in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education [18] of his “misgivings about the foundation’s agenda of reconciling religion and science”. He claimed that a conference he attended favored scientists who “offered a perspective clearly skewed in favor of religion and Christianity

The article by Horgan can also be found in [19]. Horgan also says in the same article

A devout Presbyterian born and raised in Tennessee, John M. Templeton launched the extremely successful Templeton mutual funds in the 1950s and became a billionaire. He started spending serious money to promote his religious values in 1972, when he established the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities.

I will leave it to readers to judge the John Templeton Foundation’s; that provided a generous fellowship to Meera Nanda; religion of choice.

Koenraad Elst in the same paper referenced earlier in this post [7] made the following observation about Nanda. Emphasis in bold has been added by me.

There are more points in Ms. Nanda’s paper which are worthy of further discussion, but for now I will conclude with an observation on what seems to be her sincere declaration of interest.  Among the points that “worry” her, she mentions this as the final one: “The more prominence Hinduism gets abroad, even for wrong reasons like the new age and paganism, the more prestige it gains in India.”

Here, she really lays her cards on the table.  It is very good that, unlike many other “secularists”, she does not try to be clever and claim to speak for “true Hinduism” against a “distorted Hinduism” of the Hindu revivalists. Instead, she clearly targets Hinduism itself, deploring any development which might make Hinduism “gain prestige”.  Let us see if I can translate that correctly: wanting something or someone to suffer rather than to prosper is what we call “hate”. She hates Hinduism, and her academic work is written in the service of that hate.

As Dr. Elst has aptly noted, Meera Nanda’s scholarship is born out of a hatred for Hinduism. This hatred and its resultant mendacious polemics is shared by many of her ideological bedfellows. Thanks to a cartel being successfully formed by these ideological bedmates and their Eurocentic associates in the west, their drivel is being passed off as scholarship. Another blogger wrote an erudite post a while back on a different paper by Nanda where he rightly made a very pertinent observation. [20]

The tone and content of Nanda’s piece only stops short of giving a public call to destroy Hinduism.

I really couldn’t agree more.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajeev_Srinivasan (twitter handle: @RajeevSrinivasa)

[2] http://rajeev2004.blogspot.com/2010/12/according-to-this-woman-atheists-are.html

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meera_Nanda

[4] http://newhumanist.org.uk/973

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Harris_(author)

[6] http://www.samharris.org/

[7] http://koenraadelst.bharatvani.org/articles/politics/bogey.html

[8] http://newhumanist.org.uk/1731/rush-hour-of-the-gods

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aryabhata

[10] http://hinduism.about.com/od/history/a/indiaquotes.htm

[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swami_Ramdev

[12] http://www.topnews.in/swami-ramdev-promotes-yoga-deoband-gathering-2231953

[13] http://www.jnu.ac.in/JNIAS/Scholars_invited.htm

[14] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Templeton_Foundation

[15] http://www.metanexus.net/conference2006/speakers.asp#Nanda

[16] http://www.threeessays.com/authors.php?id=4

[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Horgan_(American_journalist)

[18] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chronicle_of_Higher_Education

[19] http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/horgan06/horgan06_index.html

[20] http://www.sandeepweb.com/2009/04/08/meera-nandas-proudly-struts-her-ignorance/


8 thoughts on “On Meera Nanda, Aryabhata and Ramdev

  1. “… the nuclear physicist president went on to claim not only the greatness of antiquity …”

    Kalam is an aerospace/aeronautical engineer.
    People who cannot distinguish between aerospace/aeronautical engineering and nuclear physics as disciplines are among the eminent “philosophers of science” in our country. What a shame!

  2. Here is a better version of Nanda’s article.

    While you have addressed most of the points made by Nanda, I’m afraid that you did not address her main point – that eastern mysticism and spirituality are irrational and do not have a better understanding of reality. It is from this that the other arguments follow. You also need to address her arguments taking into consideration that she is a naturalist and not on the assumption that she is a marxist or anti-hindu. She may well be those, but that does nothing to diminish the validity of her central argument.

    1. Anir,
      Thanks for the link. This article however as you might note is not a response to Nanda’s piece on Sam Harris’s book. It is rather some observations on remarks made by Nanda (not including what you consider to be her main point) in multiple pieces on different “forums”. A response to Nanda’s purported views on eastern mysticism and spirituality being irrational and not having a better understanding of reality, would go into a different article. I will consider writing that at some point.

      I have no doubts about Nanda’s ideological predilections and I have been quite clear about that in my post. I have however at no point based my rebuttal to any of her points solely on her said ideological predilections. If you feel I have done so, feel free to point that out to me with specific references to my post. Furthermore, Nanda is better known as a philosopher of science not a naturalist. That said, I’ll keep your point in mind if and when I choose to write a specific rebuttal to Nanda’s aforementioned views.

      I looked at the article that you linked to, and even on a very brief and cursory perusal found many incorrect assertions. Consider this for instance:

      He indulgently turns a blind eye on the “spiritual” teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which have a proven track-record of justifying nationalistic wars and ethnic cleansings.

      She makes this assertion in reply to Sam Harris’s alleged “venom against the Koran” (to quote her words). What exactly is she saying here? That spiritual (whatever her quotes mean) teachings of dharmika systems have historically been guilty of extolling ethnic cleansings! And what does she provide to substantiate this claim? Nothing except for pompously claiming a “proven track-record”. I don’t wish to go into the details of the sort of violence and injustice that holy books of some exclusivist, supremacist religion(s) extol against disbelievers. In dharmika systems there is absolutely none of that sort of religious totalitarianism. On the contrary dharmika systems espouse inclusive universalism. Anyone with even a basic familiarity with Hindu scriptures can tell you that. A dharmika bhAratavarSha has always been inclusive and provided a refuge for the oppressed. In this regard, Dr. Nathan Katz, Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University has made a very apt observation.

      The Indian chapter is one of the happiest of the Jewish Diaspora. The study of Indian Jewish communities demonstrates that in Indian culture an immigrant group gains status precisely by maintaining its own identity. Such is the experience not only of India’s Jews, but also of local Christians, Zoroastrians, and recently, Tibetan Buddhists.

      Bear in mind, this inclusiveness is undeniably derived from dharma systems, be it Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Sikh. Yet Nanda finds it fit to make wild mendacious concocted accusations of spiritual teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism having a proven track-record of justifying ethnic cleansings. Sad. Really sad.

      Given that Nanda’s essays have been aptly deconstructed multiple times, I am loath to spending more time on dissecting her polemics in the immediate future. I recommend you read Elst’s paper and Sandeep’s post (links in my article) for more on this eminent philosopher of science.

  3. @Manas,

    Thanks for responding. I’m in no position to evaluate Nanda’s claims that fall outside of philosophy of science. The way I see her arguments is that one cannot claim superiority of ancient scriptures over modern science and worldviews based on it. I don’t see her disparaging ancient Indian contributions to science.

    For example her statement on Aryabhata questions the unconditional praise of his work as it relates to the modern world. The only valid reason I see for praise is that in a historical context, Aryabhata’s work was an impressive achievement and should be celebrated as such. But his work is also used to justify the psuedoscience of astrology by way of an argument from authority, i.e. Aryabhata was one of the greatest ancient astronomers, so astrology is true. That is the context in which I see Nanda’s statement.

    My intention is not to say that your article only addresses the ideological stance of Nanda, but that it doesn’t address what people like me, who reject dharmic worldviews, find as her central argument. I see her basing her arguments in naturalism, a worldview which holds that there is only the natural as informed by science, and not the supernatural and the natural. Her being a philosopher of science goes well with naturalism as science is the epistemology of naturalism.

    I have read Sandeep’s article and Elst’s paper, but I don’t find them convincing as I feel they miss the point. To completely invalidate Nanda’s arguments, you’d have to invalidate naturalism first, as its epistemology contradicts that of the the Dharmic worldviews.

    1. Anir,
      Your comments have added value to this post, so they are appreciated. Your remark on Aryabhata is rational, but thats your interpretation of Nanda’s line. She didn’t exposit the difference between astrology and astronomy in her argument. Instead she chose to put-down Aryabhata’s monumental contributions in one fell swoop. Which is what rankles me.

      As I said in my earlier comment, this article doesn’t deal with the other “naturalist” view that you aver to. As I understand neither does Sandeep’s post. The issue is that Nanda chooses to use rank mendacity in her essays (an example of which I provided in my earlier comment). I suspect that is a result of her ideological predilections. At this point I am more concerned with refuting that mendacity. I do however see how analyzing the “naturalist” view that you hold would be worthwhile. I will certainly consider writing something on those lines in future.

  4. Even if we grant the validity of Nanda’s “naturalist” view (whatever that means), on what basis does she refer to Sam Harris’s argument as “venom against the Koran”? Does Nanda’s “naturalism” validate whatever is in the Koran or prove that Islam is a benign faith with no history of bloodshed, or that intolerance is not part of Islam’s DNA? She could very well have agreed with Harris’s views on Islam while disagreeing with those on Hinduism.

    But then, that kind of position would have made her persona non grata among the Indian pseudo-seculars – her peers and mentors.

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