Why Scientific Outlook Could not Take Root in India

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Narendra Dabholkar (1945-2013) was an Indian Humanist known for leading a grassroots movement against superstition, pseudo-science, religious intolerance, and caste-based discrimination. Because of his activism, he drew the ire of right-wing Hindu nationalists. On August 20, 2013, while on a morning promenade, Dabholkar was shot dead by two gunmen.

For Shuddhashar FreeVoice’s special ‘Belief’ issue, we decided to publish Dabholkar’s work to honour his legacy and highlight his incredible contribution to the global humanist struggle against bigotry and discrimination. We thank Hamid Dabholkar and Westland Books for granting us permission to publish this selection. – Editor

The following is an abridged version of Narendra Dabholkar’s essay ‘Scientific Outlook’.


Scientific Outlook is simply defined as ‘to understand the cause-effect relation of any incident or to examine cause-effect relation between two incidents’. However, by this simple definition, Indian society has remained unscientific even in the present age of science. One does not need to be a Scientist or a Science Graduate to assimilate Scientific Outlook. It only needs curiosity to know the natural laws with which the whole physical environment around us abides.

Renaissance stirred the social atmosphere of Europe, swept away superstitions there, and greatly cleansed the ordinary people’s mindset. We, in India, learned about this intellectual revolution only when the British came to power here. On achieving independence, engendering Scientific Attitude became the aim of universal education and was included in the constitution as one of the responsibilities of the Indian citizen.

However, in practice, the latest technology was utilized to provide all possible creature comforts and conveniences – individual and social; but educated and uneducated people neglected scientific principles behind the technological advance and did not change their age-old traditional behaviour.

Even after six decades of independence, the ridiculous condemnation of all that belongs to the West as useless, and extolling of our own great ancient traditions, which are claimed to be essential for eternal bliss and tranquillity, continues to be engendered in people’s psyche. It is heatedly argued that science cannot bestow everlasting tranquillity on mankind; spirituality is needed.

But spirituality has nothing to do with sublime humanism; it is a path of illogic, superstition or religious fanaticism. We, born in the Buddha’s land, have forgotten Buddha’s enlightening stories. One of these, ‘Jatak Katha’, tells us that each of us is given a key to open the doors of heaven; but the catch is that the same key also opens the door of Hell. Science is one such key; if we go to Hell using it, the fault is ours, not that of the key.

What we gain from science is not making human life more and more gratifying but the knowledge of properties of the non-living matter and laws of nature; it helps us increase our self-confidence, become fearless thinkers, develop a broad and positive outlook on life, and improve the quality of life by sharpening our intellect and sensitivity. This is of utmost importance for human progress, and we enjoy its fruits every moment of our life. Our society raises to sainthood those unremittingly searching for the “ultimate truth of human birth”,; but while we respect the search for truth at the spiritual level, we forget that trying to know the properties of non-living matter is also a search for truth.

The time and energy-consuming striving of the scientists like Edison, who did fundamental research on electrical energy and invented many gadgets to improve our life; the scientist who discovered the four blood groups; those who invented the mobile telephone and connected the whole of humanity; their striving is not less than any worship.

Richard Feynman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his fundamental research in nuclear power, was unhappy that the work of the scientists was not appreciated. He felt sad that many poets eloquently sing praises of springs, flowers, vales and hills, love and affection, and worship of the Lord; nobody writes poems on the beautiful truths about the universe’s structure.

The study of science, Feynman says, is much more exciting than any piece of literature. The truths hidden in nature are so astonishing that studying nature satiates man’s craving for ‘the miraculous and the marvellous’, and then he is no more interested in miracles, sorcery, black magic or even the forecast of his future.

Knowledge begets power, a vital material benefit, but every form of knowledge cannot be linked with some material benefit. Again, everyone can’t acquire knowledge in every field, yet everyone can develop the keen sight essential for it. Nurturing Scientific Outlook and acquiring knowledge helps build the capacity to accurately analyze all that occurs in our personal life and what happens around us. When one rationally investigates the incidents and events of his personal and social life, he is relieved of unwarranted fear and mental agony caused by it, as rational analysis will stop him from drawing wrong cause-effect relations and wrong inferences from them.

Today people are anxious because of the murky social atmosphere of political, religious and cultural terrorism. No doubt, we must fight this terrorism, but more serious is the terror that grips the mind. Unlike other terrors forced on us from the outside, the mental terror caused by superstition is forced by the individual himself. Moreover, he feels gratified in living under this terror. Superstition, refusal to reason, and fear of god’s wrath are all caused by avoiding deep thinking and discovering the real cause of all that happens. To overcome mental terror and to lead a fearless life, it is essential to develop logical thinking and Scientific Outlook on life.

Knowledge begets power, a vital material benefit, but every form of knowledge cannot be linked with some material benefit. Again, everyone can’t acquire knowledge in every field, yet everyone can develop the keen sight essential for it. Nurturing Scientific Outlook and acquiring knowledge helps build the capacity to accurately analyze all that occurs in our personal life and what happens around us. When one rationally investigates the incidents and events of his personal and social life, he is relieved of unwarranted fear and mental agony caused by it, as rational analysis will stop him from drawing wrong cause-effect relations and wrong inferences from them.


Why could Scientific Outlook not take root in India? 

During the 3rd and 4th centuries, Nagarjuna, the renowned chemist of those days, wrote two books ‘Rasaratnaakar’ and ‘Kaalkapura Tantram’ in chemistry. They contain information regarding chemical compounds made from sulphur, mercury, copper, silver, and gold and their use. Varahamihir, the well-known astronomer of India, also belongs to this period. His book ‘Brihadsamhita’ states that the sun is a star. He also gives information regarding other planets.

Another writer of the same period has meticulously compiled information regarding plants and animals, their characteristics, habits and reproduction. He has even tried to classify them. The ‘zero’ too was invented in India. In the books written by Aryabhatta and Bhaaskaraachaarya, important theories in Mathematics and Astronomy are discussed. However, by the end of the 8th century AD, the investigative urge for knowledge gave way to a tendency of utter obedience, blindly following elders and authorities. The understanding of traditional trades was on the wane. But nobody was really perturbed about the deteriorating situation. The next thousand years or so did produce some exceptionally capable kings. Some philosophical tomes were written. However, not a single scientist was created during this period.

The central discourse of this era was: with whom should one dine or not dine; should one eat onion in the Monsoons — four rainy months called ‘Chaaturmaas’; should the strip of sandalwood paste on the forehead be vertical or horizontal; how many strains should a sacred thread have; does drinking cow urine emancipate the soul and such senseless puerile issues. In the empty fuss of the worthless rituals, senseless traditions and exploiting religion, the social psyche lay enervated and apathetic.

This apathetic attitude continues even after independence and can be noticed in the education imparted to the populace. The condition of those millions deprived of education is still worse. But for those who go to school and colleges, what values and culture are they exposed to? They are taught science, but it lacks critical examination and inquiry. Unscientific concepts like auspicious time, pooja, blessing, god and destiny, incarnation, boon and curse, sin and merit, this world and the one beyond, heaven and Hell, prayers and worship, previous birth and rebirth, accumulated sins and values of prior births and above all caste hierarchy are entrenched in the minds and cultural upbringing of our teachers.

They transmit these unscientific concepts to their students unwittingly. They teach the students that Monday is meant for worshipping lord Shankar, Tuesday for Devi and so on. Vishnu prefers white flowers, while Ganesh wants red ones, and the flower of the student’s curiosity about scientific truths shrinks with such detailed knowledge of gods and their idiosyncratic likes and dislikes.

Another reason is the Caste system is strengthened by vested interests. Women and Dalits were banned from education. Other castes had the right to acquire and use only that knowledge pertinent to their caste and its internal dealings. Toiling masses were considered lesser humans. The process of observation-investigation-inference-experimentation that develops Scientific Outlook was not allowed to operate.

The knowledge that the so-called knowledgeable people had was obtained traditionally from scriptures and from those in authority and was not to be scrutinized logically. The caste system itself was based on a most illogical presumption of superiority or inferiority decided on in what family the individual is born. In such a society, it was impossible to develop Scientific Outlook. The philosophy in this country was ‘Brahma is Satya and Jagat is Maya’, i.e. the material world we see and experience every moment, the joy or grief that emanates from it, is all illusion and therefore worthless. This is deeply rooted in our social psyche.

We were told that Brahma is our real being and existence without having any clue as to what this Brahma is. ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ became our guideline. The ‘Parabrahma’ of the universe- the universal soul or the soul that pervades the universe (whatever it means) and the ‘Brahma’ and the soul in me are very closely related, and their reunion means emancipation and the ultimate goal of life. No wonder; our thought process remained devoid of Scientific Outlook.

The third reason is our unchanging system of education wherein we are not taught to ask ‘why’. Asking a question is an insolent affront to the teacher; curiosity for knowledge is discouraged. The questions ‘why’ and ‘why so’ are paramount for learning. Children’s minds burst with innumerable doubts and questions. They curiously observe their surroundings and question why things happen the way they do. The response to their questions by the teacher is, ‘Shut up, and remain still like an idol (of a deity)!’

The god of this culture teaches human beings to shut up. The students’ wide-eyed, inquisitive tendencies alone can build the nation’s future. But to inculcate this attitude, it is necessary that, first and foremost, the child should get an education. 30% of our children do not go to school at all. Only 8 to 9 % enter college. So lack of education and neglecting the development of curiosity in our little education is another reason Scientific Outlook does not take root in our society.

The fourth reason is our family system. An individual grows up in a family, and his mother and father are the essential partners in his growth till he becomes independent of them. But the atmosphere in our families is autocratic. All the decisions are made by the father. The mother and others wait on the father to decide, not only for critical and important decisions but even for trivial ones.

We tend to equate autocracy with discipline and open-minded discussion with confusion and disorder. A friendly and amicable family atmosphere where all the family members are welcome to participate will have to be intentionally created. There is a saying in Sanskrit that means ‘even a child utters insightful words’. Even the family’s youngest member should get a chance to voice his opinion, and his advice, if applicable, should be considered. Families, where such discussions take place will be enriched and strengthened.

The fifth reason is the deification of individuals. In our society, self-respect is displaced by vanity, pride and egoism and criticism is deemed to be a deliberate belittling of the concerned individual or his thoughts. Society has become over-sensitive and aggressive concerning any criticism of religion. Everybody has his own distinct deity. Therefore, any critical examination of individuals or other issues involving faith is avoided to avoid controversy. Wherever individuals, thoughts, and incidents get deified, Scientific Outlook cannot develop.

One important reason is the absence or lack of political will of those who want to reform the social system following their progressive thinking and are in power. If the progressive forces actively examining, evaluating and then reforming social life at all levels are solid and practical, then Scientific Outlook can spread quickly. But religion, customs and traditions have already become so sanctimonious, sacrosanct and potent that even if the custom is senseless and the tradition involves exploitation, the social psyche does not like or allow that custom or tradition to be examined.

The celebration of the festival Holi destroys wood and good food, and sanctions shouting obscene abuses at women will not have, otherwise, continued here in modern times. Our society remains in the tight grip of untoward customs and traditions. It keeps us away from developing Scientific Outlook. Moreover, the reactionary forces want to gain political mileage, pander to people’s adherence to customs and traditions; and seats of faith grow from strength to strength, making propagation of Scientific Outlook all the more difficult.



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