The Dharma of Technology
The first thing that might occur to any of us when confronted with a topic like this is the idea or feeling that there is a certain kind of dualism in it. There is a tension between the two phrases in the topic. They sit together in the same sentence very uneasily--one might say there seems to be a troubled relationship between the two. One might go a step further and say the opposition is inherent because they seem to belong to two different universes of discourse.
Old Dharma vs New Technology
Dharma seems to belong to a very old universe of discourse. It belongs to a world of ideas which is very familiar to us Indians--one might say that India is the original home of dharma. If you use dharma in a more specific sense, say “Dhamma,” and identify it with Buddhism, then definitely India is the home of Dhamma. It is from India that the Dhamma went outwards through Tibet to China, to Mongolia and to Korea and Japan; and southwards from Sri Lanka it went to Thailand (which practises Theravada, not Mahayana); it also went to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia--all over the East. It went westwards too, to Afghanistan, and to parts of what is now the CIS, which used to be the Soviet Union.
Even in the broader sense of the word, we in India have a very old and immemorial tradition of thinking about dharma. So if you were to reverse the topic for a minute and, instead of saying “The Dharma of Technology,” you said “The Technology of Dharma,” we might say that Indians have been talking, reading, writing, listening and trying to practise the technology of dharma for thousands of years.
Dharma belongs to a world of ideas that has to do with the cardinal ends of human life, which are called the purusharthas, which keep coming back in all classical traditions of India, and which are rewritten in one way or another in the subsequent traditions as well. There again dharma occupies a very important place. You have dharma, artha, kama and moksha. These are the purusharthas, the ends of life. Once again dharma occupies a centrality in the cardinal aims of life. We therefore have this very long tradition of talking of and theorising about dharma, and practising it, developing it and bringing in variations to it whenever required. There’s been a tremendous plurality in the pursuit of dharma. As the Vedas themselves said, “Truth is one but the wise call it by many names”--ekam sat / vipra bahuda vadanti. So this is one world of discourse, which is an old world.
The other term is “technology.” This word seems to belong to a much newer world of ideas. In fact the first uses of the word are quite recent, going back to the 17th century; its modern use is, of course, very recent, becoming prevalent only in this century. The first time that the word “scientist” was used was in 1840 in a book called The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences by William Wheel. Similarly, “science” began to be used in its modern sense not before the 18th century. If you look at the history of science, the word used before that was “natural philosophy.” But the ideas that inform modern science were in the making for probably another 200 years prior to that. You may start off with Bacon or Descartes, or a little earlier with Copernicus. But basically the notion of modern science is not very old, and the notion of technology in the modern sense of the word is also not very old.
So “Dharma” and “Technology” seem to sit uneasily together. Those who talk about dharma often don’t talk about technology; they bracket it off and put it in another world, as though to say, “Well, that is going on on its own, but we are going to talk about dharma and teach you ways of realising yourself or going inwards through some form of yoga, dhyana or meditation.” On the other hand, those who talk about technology very seldom talk about dharma at all. Even if they do, they don’t talk about the dharma of technology itself--this is usually left out. So, from one perspective one may even argue that the dharma of technology is the lack of dharma. That is, modern science tends to be value-neutral. It does not have an ethics built into it. It is axiologically neutral. This is something we have to bear I mind.
Before we proceed we should try to understand the two terms more. We all know that when we talk about technology we mean the application of the ideas of science to practical ends. But for our present purposes, by technology I also mean science, because there is a very deep connection between the two. Also, technology, in another sense of the word, can be taken as meaning the totality of the ways in which a society tries to govern its material conditions. If you look at technology this way, then the word includes something more than just modern technology.
Aspects of Dharma
As to dharma, the root of the word, “dhr,” has the sense of upholding, putting together, giving support, pointing a way--all of these are inbuilt in the notion of dharma. So dharma implies some kind of cosmic law, what rta was in the Vedic period. In the Vedic world there is always the conflict between the rta and the anrta, and later on it is translated into the conflict between dharma and adharma. Hence the great war of Kurukshetra, which itself was the dharmakshetra, the place where the fight between Dharma and Adharma takes place. In some sense we are not out of Kurukshetra as yet, because that fight is a perennial struggle. It takes on different forms and shapes, and its constituents may vary, but it is a recurring battle.
The notion of dharma is not a simplistic notion, because there are various kinds of dharmas. There are specialised dharmas for individuals which traditionally were called the varnashram-dharma, the dharma of occupations and stages of life. Varna, in modern terms we may translate, not as caste, but as your profession. So if you are a teacher, you have a certain dharma; if you are a policeman you have a certain dharma--for starters, not to break the law yourself--and if you do, that leads to a dharma-sankat, a crisis of ethics. Similarly a singer, a politician, a performer, all have their dharmas.
Then, a mother has a dharma, and so does a father. This is the second part of the varnashramadharma, the dharma of the different ashramas. When you are a student, you have a particular dharma, which is to study; then, when you become a householder you have another kind of dharma, you have to take care of other people, your spouse and children, and you have to contribute to society also. So there is this dharma of the householder which does not apply to students, who do not have to contribute to society in quite the same way as their parents. Then there are dharmas beyond that, like that of the vanaprasthashram and the sanyasashram. Both these signify a graded and progressive withdrawal and detachment from worldly activities.
Such are specific dharmas of varna and ashrama; but then there are dharmas that are even more specific. For example, what one might call svadharma, what you have to do yourself in a particular situation. This dharma is specific not to a group but to an individual. Then there is a thing called svabhava, which is your own nature, your propensities, proclivities, tendencies. If your dharma militates against your svabhava, a certain tension is created. When there is a violation of dharma the cause might be that the svabhava is going in a different way.
There are also more general dharmas. For example, there is a manav-dharma, which applies to all humanity and makes us different from, say, animals. If you look at our texts, then the yardsticks of manav-dharma themselves are very high. Manavadharmas include truth, nonviolence, not stealing, etc. That’s why you have a statement like “ahimsa parmodharma,” which is like a commandment. The Christians say “thou shalt not kill,” which is a great thing, but qualified by other things like “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Then there is also a thing called yugadharma--the dharma for a particular epoch or age. For instance, we may ask what do we do now, when we are coming to the end of the century, in fact the end of the millennium, is there a special dharma for us? There is also something called the apatkaleendharma, the dharma for an emergency, that is, what you do when you are in deep trouble. In such times, you are permitted to lie, to do all kinds of things you are not permitted to do under ordinary circumstances when there is an emergency, when life is threatened. For example, though satya is one of the great values you are supposed to inculcate to practise self-realisation, certain concessions are made for the apatkaleendharma. So, the question arises, are we now actually at a point in time when the apatkaleendharma is the samanyadharma--so that what is happening is that we are living through a critical period, in some kind of crisis, and from a normal dharmic framework we have got into a apatkaleen framework.
In defining and trying to understand the concept of dharma, we have to be able to look at it at many different levels, to allow for a tremendous complexity, even variation, and still let the dharmic framework exist. What happens when a notion like dharma comes into contact with a different way of life, which is modernity, is that the whole dharmic framework comes into question, and is sometimes abandoned.
Aspects of Technology
To come back to technology, as I said earlier, if you look at technology in its widest sense, as the sum total of all the ways and practises of a society to affect and control the material conditions of life, then obviously there is a lot of technology which is not in the modern sector, which is not taught in universities and in the IITs. There is a lot of technology that the ordinary people of India are using. This technology emerges in the work of local artisans and craftsmen, people who are running the karkhanas, people who make and design the bullock cart wheels, the potters, the farmers, the weavers, and so on. When archaeologists start digging up the remains of a civilisation, they look for things like pottery, because that is a sign of how technologically advanced a civilisation was--they look for the tools that they were using.
The Karma of Technology
After this clarification of the term used, let us go back to the initial issue. As I said earlier, inherent in the topic is a set, or a series, of dualities--that between dharma and technology on the one hand, and the duality between traditional technology and modern technology on the other, the duality between a traditional society that is going through a process of modernisation, and the influx of modern values that are coming in, and so on and so forth. One can add to this, saying there is a duality between the metropolis and the countryside, between Bharat and India. So, there are these series of dualisms running through the topic which one would like to address, negotiate and possibly see ways out of at the end.
My strategy to understand the dharma of technology is to try to ask, what is the karma of technology? When we see the karma of technology we will also see its dharma. Here, I want to use karma in at least two senses of the word. Karma in terms of what technology has done, what its history is, and karma in terms of what the results of this karma are, what its legacy is. Some people say that the word should not be karma but karamat, all the marvels of technology. The other is the sense in which a poor peasant, when some misfortune strikes him, says it is the fruit of his karma. In other words, karma means a chain of causality, which has a certain predictability--that is to say, because you have done certain things, certain other things will follow. Because of what has happened in the past, what will happen in the future--that is karma. So, in the karma of technology we would speak of what it has done and what it is likely to do.
We can do this very briefly by looking at the evolution, as it were, of technology and modern science both in India and the West. If one were to start with India the first thing one has to understand is that modern technology in India comes to us through imperialism, through colonialism. For example, take the Roorkee University, which was started in 1846 as a college, with its main focus on Civil Engineering. This very little pointer can reveal a lot about the way imperial science used to work, what its aims were. This college was started to meet the engineering needs of the empire, hence was intimately connected to the task of empire building.
Think about what imperialism was meant to do, and you will begin to see that science had a dual mandate in the empire. One was, of course, to help and secure British rule. Yet the mandate did not extend to helping Indians progress to the extent that they could overthrow British rule. So there was a dual, contradictory mandate. In other words, you were going to bring in the railways so that the hinterland and its raw materials could be easily accessed, brought to the metropolis and products exported; you had the telegraph system so that communications could improve and you could control the native population better. But the investments were not made so that any original science could develop in the colonies. This kind of dualism, in a way, has persisted even today.
English Education and the Colonial Agenda
For a moment let us look at a connected issue, the conditions under which English education was established in India in the first place; because the progress of science in any society is intimately linked to the nature of its education system. We may recall the series of events that led to the British conquest of Bengal--1757, the Battle of Plassey, then 1764, the Battle of Buxar, then the assumption of the Diwani or revenue administration of Bengal. After that, there was a British Act of Parliament in 1803 which earmarked a sum of Rs. I lakh to be spent on the improvement of the natives of India, for their education.
At that time there was a big debate that was going on in Bengal about what kind of education to give to the Indians. Obviously, the British did not think it fit to consult the Indians, so certain Indians who were more progressive than the others, and in the forefront of the so-called Indian Renaissance, took the trouble to actually write to write to the Governor-General, who then was Lord Amherst. It is a beautiful piece of writing, the address of Raja Rammohun Roy to Lord Amherst, written on the 11th of December, 1823. He begins by saying: “Humbly reluctant as the natives of India are to obtrude . . .etc.” There is a good deal of submerged sarcasm here, perhaps, but also a very touching admission of the powerlessness of the governed, in the face of the imperatives of empire. Rammohun says: “We are filled with sanguine hopes that this sum would be laid out in employing European gentlemen of talents and education to instruct the natives of India in mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, and other useful sciences.” Isn’t it remarkable that in 1823, Rammohun was saying that we need “natural philosophy,” the older word for science, and mathematics, chemistry, anatomy and other useful sciences?
The man who actually helped to push the decision through, Thomas Babington Macaulay, in a famous minute, written on the 2nd of January, 1835, said: “A single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” So this is where he is coming from, and you can see both the imperial naiveté and the imperial arrogance implied in this remark. And what did he plan to achieve through this education system? He said: “we must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” If you have heard of the phrase “WOG,” now you know how it began--Westernised Oriental Gentleman. Macaulay is the putative progenitor of all WOGs.
The Agenda of Colonial Science
You can see from its imperial context that this was the function of colonial science, that it created a certain environment which, by its very nature, does not encourage or even allow for original thinking in science and technology to take place in India. Most of our work here is derivative; it is second-hand and it is second-rate. The beginnings of all of this go back to imperialism, where the whole colony was seen as a vast storehouse of information, with its flora and fauna, a site for experimentation, and for only practical--and in that sense technological--projects, like how to improve irrigation, how to have better dams, but again, not something which would cost too much money. So again, everything was connected with the profit motive because the empire, after all, was meant for profit, and the British had the mentality as much of the landlord as of the shopkeeper. So whatever was profitable was encouraged. Basic science was restricted to the metropolis, in the learned societies there. Only practical things were done in India, and basic research was done over there.
When you examine this question further, you will also notice that much of the original impetus for science in India came from the army. Even now, the anthropologists are talking about the “genome project,” to map the various genes of the different tribes that we have, and the army has much more ethnographic information that anybody else, and most of it is classified. So you can see how scientific imperialism creates, on the one hand, colonial science which is always subordinate to metropolitan science, never independent of it, never free to ask its own questions, and on the other a science which is always subservient to the military, the state.
So already we begin to see a split between science’s method and its ideology. In Europe, science developed in a manner in which it was constantly interacting with artisans and craftsmen. It was directly connected with what was happening in society, whereas modern science in India developed in isolation from traditional craftsmen. There, it emerged from social forces, here, it intervened to suppress social forces. So two different cultures of science were created.
In India, one of the first things that the ideology of science did was devalue the work of traditional craftsmen, and we can see how that is done. If you just looked at a xerox operator, you can see he is a very unskilled person--all he has to do is push a set of buttons--whereas if you looked at somebody who is making a basket, or somebody who is making a Madhubani painting, or a traditional plough, or even an earthen pot, you know that these require much greater degrees of skill and also an aesthetic sense. A man who is pushing buttons on a xerox machine does not require any aesthetics. But because he is manning the xerox machine he becomes much more important in the social hierarchy than a traditional artisan or a craftsman. The more expensive the machine, the more important the operator of the machine, by a kind of reflected glory, regardless of the skill required to operate the machine. So from a xerox machine if you go to a CT Scan operator, then he will be an even more important functionary in the kind of society that we have. You can take this argument to its logical conclusion and you will see that it is just like how a man who is driving a Mercedes Benz becomes much more important than a person who is driving a Tempo, because the machine he is handling is more important, and it is much more expensive--it doesn’t mean he needs greater skills to drive a Mercedes Benz; he probably needs less skills than the man who runs a Tempo, because it is not as advanced a machine, and it is likely to be temperamental, the steering wheel may have too much play, the brakes may not respond, etc.
So there is a schism--the imperial moment introduces a schism in the manner in which science and technology are naturally evolving in a society, and gives rise to a modern science and technology which has been imposed from above. The motto of the Imperial College in London says: “Scientia Imperia Decus et Tutamen,” which means “Science is the pride and shield of Empire.” Even today you can see that science and technology is an index of how much power you have in the world. That is the whole struggle over the CTBT, and how the nuclear weapon states are trying to discipline India, contain our capacity through all kinds of means. You also know that the most advanced country in the world, the United States, is the greatest exporter of armaments and weapons of destruction, and they are playing the policeman of the world, trying to tell everybody to disarm. They are at the forefront of both proliferation and disarmament: proliferation for themselves, disarmament for the others! And we have not seen the end of it. After CTBT the next treaty is going to be about missiles.
So, if you looked at what happened after Independence, then obviously there was a great change in science policy--remember Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement that dams like the Bhakra Nangal were the temples of modern India. If you looked at all our earlier plan documents, the attempt is to synthesize modern technology--which would be engine of rapid progress and economic amelioration, in which case we already have a sort of dharma for technology, which is to improve the living standards of the majority of people in the country, and the ancient dharma of India, trying to bring about this synthesis.
In 1968 in an important book, Science and the Human Condition in India and Pakistan, edited by Ward Moorhouse, Ainslie Embree wrote a paper called “Tradition and Modernisation in India,” (this paper has been reprinted in a recent book of his called Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in India, published in 1992). In it he made an astonishing remark. He said that that the famous notion that India can synthesize everything is based on a misunderstanding; actually speaking, if you looked at Indian society and its traditional values, they create a world which is self-sufficient in itself. Embree says that India doesn’t synthesize--India encapsulates. That means things are put in enclaves; there’s a fence around them and they are separated from other things that are going on around them. So that, in fact, he was hinting that the attempt of Nehru and other planners to synthesize technology and the ancient Indian traditions was bound to fail. He said that either the ancient culture will be destroyed, or else science and technology will be confined to enclaves which have very little connection with the surrounding world. Today, we can clearly see both processes at work.
Apply this to this very institution, the University of Roorkee. If you walk one kilometre outside you will see a totally different world. You may have hi-tech gadgetry here, you may have the latest computers and communication equipment, e-mail, what-have-you. But, if you go just a few yards away you still have a farmer with a bullock cart. So that’s why the University of Roorkee, or the IITs, and most of the science and technology institutions are high security places also. As soon as you enter you are made to experience the sensation that you have crossed from one world into another. There is a threshold, a liminality which you have to overcome. It is like going for an American visa--as soon as you enter the embassy building you are absolutely sure and are never allowed to forget the fact that you are in a different country--literally, everything works in a different way: it is the “follow the yellow line,” culture. So you know you are no longer in India.
Science and technology is also a bit like that. If you go to ISRO, DST, BARC or any of the DRDOs, what do you find? The more efficient they are, the more exclusive and detached they are from the rest of the world in which they function. A big, barbed-wire fence atop a high wall demarcates them from their surroundings. As soon as you go in, you feel the air-conditioning, it’s a different atmosphere. If everything is filthy outside, inside everything is clean, if everything is disorderly outside, inside everything is orderly, and so forth. So, aren’t these enclaves in the sense Embree predicted?
What I’m trying to say is that post-Independence science and technology under Nehru’s vision bureaucratised science; it centralised science and technology, and science and technology is still not a part of the lives of everybody. As to the benefits of science and technology--one might argue that instead of science and technology’s fruits reaching the rest of the country, the fruits of the rest of the country are feeding science and technology. Instead of being the servant of the people it has become the master of the people. Science has become a reason of state. It consumes enormous amounts of funds, and its appetite is insatiable.
Then within science and technology there are these two cultures--there is the traditional science which is still going on, because it still serves the needs of a large number of people. Take a thing like medicine. Only a fraction of India’s population is served by modern medicine, and even that fraction is now coming to realise that most of the medical practitioners are quacks. We all know about this--how they give you medicines when you don’t need them, how they give you antibiotics when you have viral colds, how a patient is subject to endless tests, how hospitals and drug companies fleece patients, and so on. This is endemic, the extent of ignorance in the name of science. Science, which was started, in a sense, to fight superstition, has itself become a superstition in a way, and yet everyone is asked to inculcate a scientific mentality. That last bit is a part of our constitution, by the way.
There is another thing, again, that we must come to terms with--the centralisation of science, its bureaucratisation, the isolation of scientists, the fact that it is mostly unconnected with industry even today, and with the people, and the devaluation of traditional cultures and craftsmanship and artisans, and finally, the brain drain in the advanced sectors. That is to say, the science and technology that we are promoting is apparently neither producing jobs for the graduates, nor is it conducive to the upliftment and amelioration of our country. What it is conducive to is for training very good people to fit into the establishment over there. We have become exporters of trained manpower, of made to order skilled labour for the metropolis.
We still have a lack of a clear-cut technological policy, despite the technology missions. There have been successes and we can enumerate them, like the Green Revolution and the Telecom Revolution. But our dependence on imports hasn’t changed--in some sense, science, one may even argue, has become a tool of exploitation. To keep it going, a lot of people are being deprived--it is taking from the country more than it is giving.
Then, what about the innumerable problems that plague our society, to cure which science and technology was given as the answer--the watchword of Nehru. Poverty is still there, so are unemployment, illiteracy, unrest and violence. If you were to travel by road or by train in India, you will find that not a single river is unpolluted, not a single pond is unpolluted. Environmental degradation, floods and droughts--the problems which science and technology was supposed to solve have probably been exacerbated, let alone solved. Perhaps science is not to blame entirely, but we have to understand this whole thing. Otherwise, we will continue to blunder along or, worse, hurtle towards an inevitable catastrophe.
Science in the West
We have talked about science and technology in India. Now we will go a bit wider now, and look at what happened in the West. When science came up in Europe it met opposition from religion. What happened there was that religion was the custodian of truth, and when science began to challenge and question some of the dogmas of religion, there was a big tussle, and eventually, of course, science won. But in this tussle, something was also lost, and this is very crucial to remember when we start talking about the dharma of technology. For example, if you look at the original documents that Copernicus wrote, they are very moving things. If you look at what Francis Bacon wrote, some of that is very moving, because he tells you the human mind has been enslaved by centuries of false information and he asks, when are we going to break out of it? In other words, religion in the West was very dogmatic and did not want to relinquish its power and control--remember what happened to Galileo, he was forced to recant his theories. This is a part of history which all of us know.
Therefore, in the West, science developed in a manner that it became anti-religion. Gradually, it defeated and supplanted it as the most powerful way of understanding, explaining, ordering describing and, in some ways, constructing the world--functions which religion used to perform. Today, the picture of the world that science constructs is the picture that we accept, not the picture that religion constructs.
In this process of going away from religion, what science had to do, among other things, is that it had to dethrone God. You have to look at the progressive deification, as it were, of rationality, of instrumental rationality, in Europe. You start with something which is very dogmatic like Calvinism, and slowly you move into Deism, where God becomes, in the famous Newtonian metaphor, the clockmaker, and the clock is a perfect device, a perfect mechanism which is ordered in such a manner that if you simply understood its laws, you would understand the clock. The clockmaker doesn’t have to interfere on a day-to-day basis. That was the analogy that was given then--that the universe can be explained, not through faith, but through reason, by decoding the laws of nature, and these laws were amenable through observation, which is empiricism, and rationality, which is inference. As Descartes said, “Give me extension and motion, and I will construct the universe.”
So you see, God is dethroned and science is enthroned. In this process, in the West especially, through this conflict between science and religion--which goes right into the nineteenth century and is not yet ended even in America, where you have to make a law to teach evolution in schools, because people are still teaching creation, and the controversy is still not over, something unbelievable especially from an Indian perspective--all the so-called limits, checks and balances were removed, and the pursuit of knowledge became divorced, as it were, from the pursuit of values.
As a part of this conflict, several dystopian visions started emerging in the nineteenth century through a genre called science fiction. Think about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1817. What is the symbolic meaning of the whole story of Frankenstein? Isn’t it the fear that what science creates may ultimately destroy us? This “thing” in the story is created in a clandestine and unlawful manner by assembling the stolen body parts of exhumed corpses. Then it is brought to life by passing an electric current through it (not all that much different from how the embryo of Dolly was created!). But the creature wants to be human. Its creator, Frankenstein, runs away after the monster starts taking people, and eventually both perish. Frankenstein tells us how alienating the discoveries and products can be. We see similar fears in a sci-fi classic like 2001: A Space Odyssey where there is a fear that the computers are taking over. In the Terminator I & II again, it is a battle between man and machine, who rules whom, when the slave is threatening to become the master. This is the dystopia, the flip side of science, which artists and writers have always been voicing; the deep anxiety within the project of modern science to control nature. That which has given them untold power over nature now threatens to destroy them. So something was disconnected over there, in the West.
Science and Indian Spirituality
You look at India, even at modern Indian science, you will see a different story being played out. Look at a figure like Vivekananda. Did you know that he was passionately involved in science? He was saying that the Vedantic world view is in absolute consonance with the discoveries of science, that spirituality is as rational, as rigourous as science is, only its object of study is something different. We don’t study nature, we don’t study outer reality, we study inner reality. But it is the same experimentation, the same laboratory. Nearly a hundred years later, the same view is being echoed in famous books such as Fritzjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Vivekananda, of course, made his observations before Quantum Mechanics began to construct a different Physics for subatomic particles. I would like to suggest that the idea of experimentation is as valid in spiritual pursuits as it is in scientific. What else is yoga but a process of continuous experimentation with the definite goal of self-mastery and self-transcendence? Why, even Gandhi called his autobiography--My Experiments with Truth. The word “experiment” here is used in a modern, scientific sense. This, from a man who stood for tradition, is truly remarkable.
I’m suggesting that the kind of inherent clash that took place in the West where issues of ethics which were dissociated with science did not take place in India. Over there, you had to have great scientists like Einstein who said that science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind. But even then, the issues have not been really resolved in the West. There is still no integration between value and fact, between ethics and science, between wisdom and knowledge. And the results of this split have been terrible.
A Mixed Legacy
Look at the legacy of the world in the wake of our great technological revolution. The twentieth century has seen more organised slaughter with weapons of mass destruction than ever before. The slaughters of all the centuries put together do not match what has happened in the twentieth century, the most advanced century of the world. Not only Hiroshima-Nagasaki, not only the Holocaust of the Jews, the genocides of Cambodia, the concentration camps in the Soviet Union, in China and elsewhere, the horrors of Partition, 600,000 people dead and 6 million displaced, and so on. But never before has humanity had the capacity, through its own inventions, to destroy itself. I’m talking about the invention of the nuclear bomb. Human beings never had this choice before, that they had so much power, that they could destroy themselves. Never before have we come to a pass when the very ecology of the planet is threatened. So if there is any issue that cuts across all boundaries of religion, race, nationality, community, language, it is the environment. No wonder every child today knows how important it is to preserve the environment.
So if this is the karma of technology, it is, to say the least, a mixed karma. It has so much of the bad mixed up with the good. If so, what is going to be the future? It seems to me that basically, without a dharmic component, technology cannot either save the world or itself. Without a dharmic component you will have an asuric technology. Look at how science and technology are fuelled and funded in the world today. There are two main sources--one is the armaments industry, all over the world. Pentagon is one of the biggest sponsors of research projects in the USA. The other is the commercial industry, which creates and spreads the consumer culture, which is also propelling a certain kind of technology and science. One is directed at increasing the weapons of destruction, the other is aimed at increasing consumption, one way or another. So if science and technology is being fuelled, funded and controlled by these two types of powers or establishments, then what is its future going to be? This is a question that all of us must confront today. What hope does it have?
What I’m trying to suggest, in fact, is that possibly, because of this history of disconnections, there is an inherent violence in technology, that what technology breeds is not co-operation so much as competition. If this is the karma of technology then how are we going to change it--this is the question.
India, the Dharmakshetra
I will speak a little about the possible ways out. What is very important to remember when we come back to the issue of dharma, come back to India, that is, is that India as the dharmakshetra, as the place where Dharma is located, has the potential to point the way. Buddhists even today believe, as the Reverend Samdhong Rinpoche, head of the Tibetan parliament in exile says, that if the world is to be saved the direction must come from India. Many others have also said this earlier. For instance, Sri Aurobindo said that India must rise to play its role of the jagatguru, the world teacher. Nowadays, we never take these things seriously because our own self-esteem is at a low. We are a defeated civilisation, our back is broken, as it were, and we are hopelessly poor, backward etc. That is why we are always looking elsewhere for approval. Our sights are always set on America--we imitate them in every which way. That is why SPICMACAY is important. Virasat means trying to see what you have in your own backyard, to appreciate its riches, and to see if some alternatives are available.
So, if the traditional belief in India’s unique destiny is to be taken seriously, if India is indeed the Aryabhoomi--not in the sense of the land of white people, not as a racial term, but Arya as someone noble--if it is really Aryabhoomi, and you think about the word Bharat, it doesn’t only mean we are the children of Bharata, but bha means “to shine”--if we are all this, then science has certain possibilities in India which it doesn’t necessarily have in the West, just as Islam has certain possibilities in India which it doesn’t necessarily have in Arabia, just as Christianity has certain possibilities in India which it doesn’t necessarily have in Europe or North America. You will be surprised, but even in this day and age, people are being excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. A priest in Sri Lanka has been excommunicated for writing a book on Virgin Mary. In India, because of our plural traditions, because many kinds of truths can co-exist, and because texts and traditions, especially religious ones, are not meant to be taken literally, but poetically, (for if you mistake mythology for history in the modern sense, you will conclude that Indians are gulls)--the possibilities of dharma here are much richer than elsewhere, as also the co-existence, in fact, even of opposites.
So, if you think about the spiritual dimensions of Islam, which are dying out in most parts of the world, then you have only two kinds of Islams and there is a fight between them--you have a modern Islam, and you have a fundamentalist Islam which is another mirror-image because it is a distorted version which is also modern. This is happening all over the world--look at Algeria--there is a bloody fight, and the middle portion is being squeezed. For Christianity too, the possibilities in India are different. The only person who is seen and recognised worldwide as a living and breathing demonstration of what Christianity is, was in India--Mother Teresa; and it is not an accident. You don’t find this example anywhere else, really living the Christian life, thinking about the poor and the most abandoned people and thinking of them as Christ. Similarly, the sheltering of the Dalai Lama and of the Dhamma by the modern Indian state is no accident.
So I believe that science and technology has certain possibilities in India which, perhaps, do not exist elsewhere. If science and technology were to be spiritualised, that re-positioning will be very beneficial to the whole world. How is this to be done? That is the most important question. The very first step that must be taken is to bridge the gulf, the schism, the dualism, between traditional science and modern science. It is a big error to think we have never had any science and technology. India has had very strong traditions not only in mathematics and pure sciences, but in things like metallurgy. There must be a reconnection between modern science and technology and traditional science and technology. Artisans and craftsmen should be the ones, partly, who are talking to the most advanced scientists and technologists, so that we don’t have these two different worlds, one very hi-tech, and the other one very low-tech. In fact, our hi-tech worlds which we have created, in their basic things are very low-tech. For example, the windows will not shut, the flush doesn’t work, the roads are bad, the fans make a noise. The most hi-tech establishments have these anomalies right there under your nose, because there is no connection between the two. And this recognition and reconnection is a par of the agenda of a group like PPST (Patriotic Peoples Science and Technology Front).
So, if we agree that possibilities exist in India which don’t exist anywhere else, then perhaps it is for Indian scientists and technologists to think about the dharma of technology. That you can do by practising and understanding dharma yourself, but also thinking deeply about what the technology of dharma should be. The technology of dharma, if nothing else, should be to uplift the most wretched sections of society, to make the fruits of affluence and wealth available to many people, and to do this as non-violently as possible, with the least damage to people’s eco-systems--not necessarily by building huge dams which will displace millions of people, submerge their homes, and send the same electricity to the city where the same poor oustee, from some small village in Madhya Pradesh, will go and work as a domestic servant in the house of a man who has fifteen air-conditioners! That is not going to solve our problems, and as we have thought very deeply about this, the first step is to bridge the gulf, end the dualism. That can only be done when some technologists will go and actually live in the villages. In a certain vision of what India should be, every village will have one or two technologists. Every village will have an advanced communication centre, one or two good doctors--and you don’t need very high technology for this. Every village will be able to shape its own destiny and future, and have the right kind of technology, and people will spend time trying to figure out what that village needs as opposed to what a Tata or Birla needs in the city.
This, to say the least, will be the Dharma of Technology. And with more and more serious thought on this vital issue, perhaps a new kind of science, a new way, at any rate, of doing science may be born in this land. A new science, which when coupled with a new humanism will help create a new world order, an order in which human beings, regardless of their colour, nationality, religion, class or gender will have the opportunity to live in peace and prosperity, devoting their energies to realize the innate divinity within which is the best definition and hallmark of this as yet intermediate and unfinished species called homo sapiens.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q. There is a certain amount of power that is associated with knowledge. However in propagating knowledge, what we call as the past India, the Vedic period, they estimated the worthiness of a person on the ethical front on the capacity to handle such knowledge. That was an altogether different society. The way we live right now is totally different. It is the result of so many things which probably we now know better. So, don’t you think the talk should have been about the dharma of Technological Education or Propagation rather than technology in its abstractness itself? In its abstractness it’s not the cause of anything, it’s not a bane for anything at all. The technology is developed in whatever way it might be, in a secluded enclave, whatever it might be. It is the application of this sort of technology which is more important. It would have to be more user-friendly--that is what I would stress.
A. The question has two parts, and the second part raises a very old debate, and there are two views in that debate, which are basically these: one, that technology is value neutral, it depends on who is using it, so technology itself should not be blamed (and that is a very old argument); the other view says that technology in fact is not neutral, and to say that something is value neutral itself is not neutral, because it implies a value of a certain kind. That is, to say that I have no values is itself a set of values, which is of a very dangerous kind. Value neutrality is insufficient for human well-being--this is the counter argument. Let me illustrate. When you devise something like the nuclear bomb, it can’t be value neutral. It’s an engine of destruction. You can’t escape that by saying that it has many possibilities, you can have nuclear power, wonderful things can come out of it, etc. What I’m trying to say is, that much of the time and energy of the entire scientific and technological community in the world, about 60% of it at a rough estimate, is directed to things which will destroy us. For the sake of argument, if all this 60% were to be directed at something else . . . and that brings me to the first part of the question, which is about power. Please think about this carefully and try to see that certain things have an inherent tendency in them, they are not necessarily value neutral. When you make or invent certain things, by the very act, the way you put them together, it’s difficult for them to be value neutral. Certain things are inherent in them, in their construction.
But, coming back to the question of power, this is it, here is where you have come to the heart of the problem. Technology has been associated with power. That, more than wealth or anything else today, is the index of the self-image of a society. So, it’s like a student in IIT who’s got a very low CGPA, so he’s got a terrible self-image, so he might do something else to make himself popular, and India is a bit like that. Since our “CGPA”, our science and technology development, is pretty low, we spend so much time and energy applauding Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen. That becomes a way for us to enhance our prestige in the world community, or through our Sachin Tendulkars, as it were. In the world in which we live, the index of your greatness is not necessarily your moral strength or your cultural traditions, it’s only how powerful and rich you are, how developed you are. And the counter argument may say that it’s not poverty you should be ashamed of, but depravity. But that’s not the prevailing value system. You can be depraved and rich, but you can still be good! So that is why they say that what is wrong with the West is that it’s a depraved society, it’s decadent. Look at how people amuse themselves, how they spend their spare time. What are their leisure activities? Look at the widespread use of recreational drugs in that society. Every Utopian conception, whether it’s Brave New World or whatever, has always had a space for these drugs there, because how are people going to get away from themselves, since they don’t have God or whatever?
But, coming to the question about education, you are right that everything had a caveat in traditional societies. You had to do certain things and then you were fit to handle a particular technology. For example, you had to practice yama, niyama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and then you could go to samadhi. There was a process, whereas today we have completely dissociated that. Pascal, who was a devout Catholic, once said, “I leave my religion with my hat on a peg outside the lab when I enter it.”
The question that you have asked is, shouldn’t the talk be The Dharma of Technological Education? Yes, it can be that, because education is only a part of the larger framework of how you conceive of technology. If you conceive of it in a value neutral way, and if you think of it as being for a certain purpose, then you will teach it like that also. The models of teaching it will also have a continuity from that framework of understanding. So, if you re-think technology in a dharmic way, then you’ll have to re-think technological education also in a dharmic way. What I’m trying to say to all of us here is, what is it that we’re all doing today? What we’re doing is like vitamin supplements. Our diet is deficient; it should make us strong, but it’s making us anaemic, so what do we do? We take vitamin supplements. We have reached a stage in India where we believe we can’t change the diet, it’s not up to you and me to do it. We can’t change the way in which our curriculums are designed, not much. So, what do we do? We are supplementing. SPICMACAY is a supplement.
If I were to sum up, what is happening in India now is that there are many, many movements, traditions, trends; people are full of curiosity, they are trying to find a way, and what they are doing in the process is that they are turning away from those ways which ought to have led them to the goal, but which have failed. These ways may be politics--people are turning away from politics, for instance, and going to something else, other movements are coming up. Similarly, people are going away from the curriculum, as it were, and looking for supplements, like we are today. In other words, if we are not getting it directly, we have to get it indirectly, but we have to get it all right.
So, the change can be in a two-pronged manner. One is, you bypass the system, you learn from outside the organised systems of education or politics or this or that which are leading to something we don’t want in our society. So were going other ways--your learning, thinking, reading, you meet some people, something starts--that’s one way, like the NGOs. There’s one called Ekalavya, another in Hoshangabad, they are trying to have science education in Kerala, there is the Bharat Gyan-Vigyan Samiti. There are many things happening. So don’t think we are in a mess--no! Thousands of people are devoting their time and energy to try and improve things here. So, don’t be disheartened. But I’m saying, that’s not the mainstream, that’s an alternate thing. What we are hoping is that ultimately, as Mao said, the countryside encircles the city. We are hoping that at some point all these things will enter the curriculum. We should officially go in a certain direction which we have probably failed to.
Q. You made an interesting point that India as a country has an advantage because of its tradition, especially its contribution to dharma, and we have to go to a technology base. Technologists and scientists from India have gone all over the world and they are doing world-class work in computer science or whatever field they are in, and we often read in magazines that some Indian in the USA is in this company and is an expert in that field. We have all that. But what we do remaining here in India? Can you pinpoint what sort of contribution you are looking for?
A. At the back of your question is a very important notion of how science and technology functions. You must have heard phrases such as “comparative religion,” “comparative literature,” “comparative politics,” which implies that there are different kinds of cultures, and different religions, and so you need to compare. Have you ever heard the word “comparative science,” or “comparative technology?” You never hear it because the way modern science was designed, the way it came up in the 18th century, its whole ideology was that it was universal. It’s the same science, whether you are doing it here or there, in China, Japan, Buenos Aires, Dar-e-Salaam or where have you. There is a notion that science is universal. So, what kind of science can we do in India which is different from other science?
But, if you really think about it, this whole notion of the universality of science is itself a Eurocentric notion. If we go into this very carefully, you will see that the needs of various societies are different, their cultures are different, their values and orientations are different. When these are different, naturally the kinds of science that people do should also be different. In other words, all development projects should be grounded in a certain cultural matrix for them to succeed. Otherwise they will only alienate the people, as some high tech has alienated people, and begins to oppress them because they can’t function in that high tech. And it ends up destroying them, just as, say, what happened when the invaders came to a country like America. Everyone thinks it was a virgin country, there was nobody there. No--there were millions of people there, they were all killed! So, do we want that type of technology which is going to wipe out millions of people? We are supposed to have 80 million tribals in India. Some of these people are badly being threatened by what’s going on.
So, to answer your question--what kind of technology can we do in India--well, the first thing is we need to do a science and technology that, to start with, we should think out differently. We have to reconceive of what Indian science and technology can be and can do. There have been attempts to do it, it’s not that it’s never been done. For example, Gandhi thought about this. His whole notion of science and technology, its place in society, what it should do, requires some understanding. What he was trying to say is that you should have that kind of science and technology in India which is people oriented, which helps the people, which empowers them and not disempowers them.
For example, he invented khadi. Just look at the technology in terms of energy, and see the kind of energy required to produce yarn, and the kind required to produce khadi--just to bleach yarn requires millions of litres of water, and to bleach cotton yarn, to clean and wash it, requires less water than to clean synthetic. Each machine which makes yarn is worth thousands of crores. Look at the capital, the investment, the energy required. India is probably the only country left in the world where you can wear a piece of cloth which somebody has spun and woven by hand. Obviously we need a technology which is not capital intensive, which does not require too much investment, for instance. I’m not saying all of us should be doing that. I’m saying that a good number of us should devote our time and energy to work out technologies of this kind which are helping the people and are less violent.
You know how science and technology functions in India. You need a grant. It all starts with that. So you have to write a project. So you read up the latest journals and say: “Bhai, problem kya chal raha hai aaj kal?” whether it’s relevant or not! So you read it up, write a project here, and there’s a competition to get the money, and then you know how projects go and how much equipment lies rusting here and there! That’s not going to help us. We need a science where we stand up and say: I don’t need anything from anybody--so to speak, start from scratch with simple things, less capital required, less energy required, and whose benefits are visible and available immediately, not deferred for another twenty years. Obviously you need a new orientation. You need to re-think the question of what science and technology should do.
That’s all I can say. There are guidelines, ways, approaches, but we don’t have institutes of rural science or of traditional science. People are learning from their ustaads, as it were, how to make steel in a village! If you want to make steel the way it’s made in the mill, you need very high temperatures. But people are making steel in villages where they cannot get those temperatures, in earthen ovens. And some Japanese people have come to study it. One has to go into it more deeply and see whether some of the things you are learning can be applied to wherever you are.
Q. You said that science has so far been propagated as the imperial ideology. Do you think it is feasible for a country like India, given the neighbours and given the present situation, to thrive with science as it originated, as it should have been, science as a method?
A. You see, now India is entering its 50th year, and we hope we’ll have something to celebrate. But you’re right. When we started out we won our freedom through a non-violent struggle, and one of the first things they did when we became independent was change the function and position of the army. If you read General Sundarji’s memoirs you’ll see that the pay under British rule for commissioned officers was much higher. So one of the first things that happened was they had to take a pay cut. The army was devalued, as it were, because we were supposed to be a peace loving nation with panchsheel. Even today, if you compare the salary of a General in India with a General in Pakistan (and the Pakistani rupee is almost on par with India), the Pakistani General’s pay is Rs.25,000, and the Indian General’s pay is Rs.9000. You can see the tremendous gap, but you see who is ruling Pakistan, it’s by army, it’s a proxy thing.
But coming back to your question, we were supposed to be non violent, we were supposed to have the courage to stand up to violence. But that was tested. We had an invasion in Kashmir and even Gandhi said, yes, send the army. Which means that at the state level non violence has failed in some sense. We cannot protect our borders through non violence. Maybe we haven’t reached that stage of evolution where we can be warriors of non violence--what they call shanti sena. We haven’t been able to do that. We haven’t been able to make shanti sainiks yet. Maybe, in a future time we will evolve more as human beings.
Now this is the point. We need a certain sector which will be modern, which will have these armaments, which will have some forms of technology. I’m not denying that. If we have to survive as a nation maybe we will have to make this kind of compromise with modernity, and with the whole ideology that comes with it, which is the ideology of power, domination, control. I concede that. Now, the question is, how much? I’m not advocating an ostrich-like burial of one’s head in the sand and saying, well, forget it, it’s impossible, so go back to tradition. It’s not possible. But the question is, how much? Like now we are talking about globalisation and liberalisation. Yes, we can’t avoid it, otherwise we’d go broke, like we did with the Chandrashekhar government, and we had to send our gold to the Swiss Bank as a guarantee. Yes, we have to yield up to a point. We have to be a part of the global market up to a point. We have to be a part of the global technology thing up to a point. But up to what point? Can we go the whole way?
Obviously we can’t. We know it, everybody knows it. If the suburban dream, the American dream, what people are peddling on TV, is to be sold, obviously it’s not for everybody. Somewhere it has to stop. And that is where, it seems to me, that all of us can actually learn. Medha Patkar once said something which I found extremely interesting. She said, it is our turn, the turn of the most advanced nations of the world, and technology-holding nations of the world to learn from the tribals. What do we learn? We learn how to survive on little, to subsist on a little. Little energy, little food, little clothing, see how they survive. Can we do that? We can’t, we have to learn, this is a skill, a great skill. And if we don’t learn it, we will be destroyed as a planet. Because what Gandhiji said at one point, that to create one England, you had to exploit so many countries of the world, applies to the world. If you want to make the whole world an England, at that level, then the whole world will be stripped of all its resources. That’s why we now talk about sustainable development, appropriate technology. What does it mean? It means that certain levels of consumption cannot be supported by this eco-system.
So, to answer your question, yes, up to a point you need those systems. But at every level these systems should be integrated with the rest of our country and culture. So the point that I’m trying to make, what I started off by saying about the dualism, is that dualism can only be curtailed and overcome through integration. We need integration, not disintegration. We have to integrate the various sectors of our technology, culture, tradition, modernity. So, not to reject modernity, not to reject tradition, but to see how they can be integrated, and talk to one another. And through all of this, find our own path. That is what I’m saying.