Dawkins’ Provocative Ignorance

Dawkins’ Provocative Ignorance

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First things first. The theory of evolution, along with genetics and cell theory, constitutes the bedrock upon which the worldview and research of biology rest. Moreover, the theory of evolution lends an easy opportunity to understand the power of evidence-based reasoning in unravelling the mysteries of nature. Denying high schoolers this opportunity would be a grave undoing. This point is beyond dispute.

Richard Dawkins, the well-known science writer and biologist, has hastily concluded that the subject of evolution was dropped from school syllabus in India because of its supposed incompatibility with Hinduism. He wrote in a tweet, “Modi’s BJP is a tragic affront to India’s secular beginnings. Hinduism is at least as ridiculous as Islam. Between them, these two idiotic religions have betrayed the ideals of Nehru and Gandhi.”

Dawkins’ view that Hinduism is incompatible with science is, of course, baseless. Science is basically the intellectual attitude of valuing experience and evidence over trendy opinions and scriptural authority. Indian thought has always emphasised the importance of this attitude.

Sureshwara, the great disciple of Shankara, memorably wrote in his Brihadaryanka Vartika – “Na cha vedoktito vedah shraddheyartha iheshyate”. Nothing needs to be believed on the sole basis of scriptural testimony. It is this feature that makes Hinduism’s Vedantic core an evidence-based system and not a belief-based one. As such, Hinduism can have no issues at all with the conclusions of evidence-based enquiries.

In modern times too, this fact has been repeatedly clarified. Vivekananda said rather pointedly: “The question is: Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason, through which every other science justifies itself? Are the same methods of investigation that we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to science of religion? In my opinion this must be so… If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition, and the sooner it goes the better. I am thoroughly convinced that its destruction would be the best thing that could happen.”

Incidentally,  Jawaharlal Nehru — Dawkins’ hero in the tweet — himself clarifies on this point in The Discovery of India: “The essential basis of Indian thought for ages past, though not its later manifestations, fits in with the scientific temper and approach, as well as with internationalism” (p. 573).

Speaking more specifically on the compatibility of the theory of evolution with traditional Indian thought, Nehru explains:

“In India, because of the recognized freedom of the mind, howsoever limited in practice, new ideas are not shut out. They are considered and can be accepted far more than in countries, which have a more rigid and dogmatic outlook on life. The essential ideals of Indian culture are broad-based and can be adapted to almost any environment. The bitter conflict between science and religion, which shook up Europe in the nineteenth century, would have no reality in India, nor would change based on the applications of science bring any conflict with those ideals. Undoubtedly such changes would stir up, as they are stirring up, the mind of India, but instead of combating them or rejecting them it would rationalize them from its own ideological point of view and fit them into its mental framework. It is probable that in this process many vital changes may be introduced in the old outlook, but they will not be super-imposed from outside and will seem rather to grow naturally from the cultural background of the people” (The Discovery of India, p. 577).

Before making sweeping comments, Dawkins should have cared to study better. To be sure, Nehru knew more about Indian thought and culture than he does!

On Gandhi too,  Nehru would disagree with his admirer’s provocative ignorance. Hinduism, that Dawkins calls idiotic, was a most essential aspect of Gandhi’s personality. “Gandhi was essentially a man of religion, a Hindu to the inner-most depths of his being, and yet his conception of religion had nothing to do with any dogma or custom or ritual…Proud of his Hindu inheritance as he was, he tried to give to Hinduism a kind of universal attire…” (The Discovery of India, p. 397).

Identifying himself as an Advaitin, Gandhi called the Bhagavad-Gita his “eternal mother”: “I confess to you that, when doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I run to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me, and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow,he famously said.

Dawkins’ angry tweet is thus weak on facts and weak on logic. Excellence in one field does not ipso facto confer upon anyone the licence to denigrate other fields. The temptation for fifteen minutes of fame in the world of social media is perhaps enough for even the most learned to stoop to base levels. They ought to know that “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

G L Krishna

G L Krishna is an Ayurvedic doctor practising in Bengaluru. His interests include Vedanta, Ayurveda and Life Sciences. He is also a Homi Bhabha Fellow and visiting scholar at the Indian Institute of Science.