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Common Sense, Rationality and Social Progress

Sukumar Muralidharan

By Meera Nanda
Permanent Black, Delhi, 2004, pp. xv 305, Rs. 695.00


In a context of polemical excess about science as an instrument of oppression, Meera Nanda enters an impassioned plea for a traditional common sense of rationality in the cause of social progress. Her case is especially powerful, because she manages to bring on board the aspirations of those at the lower end of the scale of status and wealth, in whose name the postmodern critiques of science purport to speak. The critical study of science, Nanda observes, began in a relatively healthy environment. But it then went tragically astray in pursuit of the beguiling chimera of the cultural determinants of science. In the process, the historical role and future potential of science as an agency of human liberation were forgotten, and its role as an adjunct of colonial oppression and exploitation given an undue prominence.   Postmodernism has in the bargain raised “tradition”— a loosely defined and rather fancifully reconstructed ensemble of cultural practices and beliefs—to a higher pedestal than science, and invested it with powers it sorely lacks. “Tradition” says Nanda, has a certain appeal when invoked in the abstract, but when viewed as actual social practice, it is all about enshrining inequalities and gender biases in their various disguises. It is a terrible irony, in her estimation, that the critique of science has been advanced in the name of the disadvantaged, by various privileged strata who have drunk their fill from the fount of progress and suffered a late awakening of conscience at their cloistered existence.   Nanda’s views are strongly held and she is especially persuasive in pricking the pretensions of the new religious nationalism in India, which claims for itself a tradition of inquiry and discovery equal to and even excelling all that modernity has produced. But this is a relatively easy bubble to deflate, without serious expenditure of intellectual capital. What is perhaps most worrisome about her work is that in the passion of her advocacy, she occasionally gives an impression of misdirecting her attacks. Thus, she locates a part of the ideological inspiration for modern-day religious nationalism—or Hindutva as it is called—at the doorstep of “neo-Hinduism”. The latter in turn, she characterizes as an ideological creation of late-19th century India, a part of the political and intellectual coming of age of the “middle-class, English-educated Hindu”. As a rough approximation, “neo-Hinduism”, she says, is that variety of spiritual hucksterism preached by Mahesh ...

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