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The Enchantment of Science in India

Author(s): By ShrutiKapila
Reviewed work(s):
Source: Isis, Vol. 101, No. 1 (March 2010), pp. 120-132
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society
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The Enchantment of Science


in India
By Shruti Kapila*

ABSTRACT

In critiquing methodologies of the global as a spatial unit of analysis or a receptacle for


influence across the planet, this essay positions India so as to assess the role and forms of
science in the modern world. By taking the mid-nineteenth century as a moment of
departure, it asks why, under what conditions, and to what effects Indians accepted
science, but not biomedicine, in the high noon of colonialism. Existing imperial histories
of science that are primarily fixated on the eighteenth century cast science as a site of
exchange and dialogue, thus replicating the narrative of European expansion overseas.
Instead, the power of science is here understood in the context of the politics of religion
and rationality. In a synoptic overview, the essay assesses the archaeology of science and
the blurred practices between religion and science, described here as insurgent. It argues
that science in India was a form of enchantment, while religion had become a form of
disenchanted but rational knowledge. Unlike in Europe, and contrary to orientalist positions, science in India neither declared the death of God nor became spiritualized via
religion. Instead, science inflected religion; and religion, in turn, facilitated a rational
mediation between science and man. This specific relationship accounts for the soft
landing of science in India and its usurpation in the service of an unapologetic national
modernity.

N THE FOOTHILLS OF THE WESTERN HIMALAYAS lies Chandigarh, the signature city of the twentieth centurys most celebrated architect, Le Corbusier. Situated as
it is on the site of a historical frontier, the citys location is a confident announcement of
Indias national modernity.1 Searching for a capital for the partitioned Punjab, Jawaharlal
Nehru seized this opportunity physically to inscribe the potential of science and planning
in the wake of the unprecedented violence and human suffering that had marked the
moment of decolonization. It is striking that several hundred villages were expropriated

* Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, Cambridge CB2 1RH, United Kingdom; sk555@cam.ac.uk.
I am grateful to Sujit Sivasundaram and other participants at the workshop held in Cambridge in May 2009
and especially to Simon Schaffer for his constructive comments on an earlier draft.
1 On Le Corbusiers life and work, including Chandigarh, see Stanislaus von Moos, The Art of Architecture
(London: Vitra Design Museum, 2007).
Isis, 2010, 101:120 132
2010 by The History of Science Society. All rights reserved.
0021-1753/2010/10101-0007$10.00
120

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Figure 1. Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the audience at the dedication of the new city of
Chandigarh, 1 January 1955. Photo by James Burke, Time-Life Pictures and Getty Images.
Reproduced by permission of Time-Life Pictures/Getty Images.

immediately after independence in this unabashed celebration of the baldly novel, with no
concession to the vernacular or the classical, the local or the historical. (See Figure 1.)
Given the powerful hold of historicism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and
Nehrus own fidelity to liberal historicism, the presence of Chandigarh as a living
metaphor for a postcolonial future requires explanation. As one of the richest cities in
contemporary India, it represents in its singularity a turning away from imperial pasts,
toward the experience of freedom as a promise of scientific modernity. The architectural
style, which planned everything from streets to neighborhoods to the powerful seats of
learning and governmentand indeed every pebble and plantaimed for a disciplined

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utopia.2 In short, the city compels us to reflect not so much on the layering of precolonial,
colonial, and modern continuities but, rather, on how and why the new comes to be
accepted as part of the present.
Chandigarh exemplifies the problematic concerning the question of science, the nation
of India, and the interpretative purchase of the word global to be appraised here.3 This
essay poses one fundamental question: Why, without much resistance, did Indians accept
science in the high noon of colonialism?
INHERITED QUESTIONS AND THE EVENTUALITY OF SCIENCE

The eighteenth century has long held the position of privilege in the historiography of
science, especially in relation to the life of science outside the province of Europe.
Whether expressed in James Cooks voyages or in the painstaking collections of curiosities, herbariums, or insects of the European gentleman overseas, exploration, travel, and
encounter have formed the colorful canvas of the global nature of science. Imperial and
national history, together with the history of science, have embalmed this chronology as
an explanation and as evidence of the global nature of science itself.4
One of the main emphases of the more recent imperial histories of science has been to
critique and overthrow George Basallas tripartite model of the diffusion of science
from the West (or the core) to the East (or the periphery). Basallas model, informed by
modernization theory, further viewed non-European societies as passive recipients of
science, a circumstance that was explained in terms of a chronological lag. Moreover, the
enterprise of science in those societies was interpreted as a mutant of its original
European version.5 The critique of Basalla has taken three dominant directions. Pushing
the chronology back to the late eighteenth century, one method has privileged encounter,
travel, and contact zones. The second approach of the new imperial and global histories
of science takes mobility, circulation, networks, and exchange as the central frame of
reference. In this approach, more often than not, cities (be they Calcutta or London) and
the periphery are singled out as sites of the making of science.6 These two are not
contradictory approaches but deeply related ones, since the focus of inquiry tends to be
either the clash of, or the accommodation between, science and cultural difference,
while the issues of governance and control are elided. In the shadow of Edward Said, the
acrimonious contours of debate in such studies revolve around the relative agency of
Europeans and others.7 Finally, the question of the instrumentality of science for empire

2 Consider the counterexample of modern Britain, which harks back to the imagined past as an architectural
utopia for industrial and capitalist society. See Peter Mandler, The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home (New
Haven, Conn./London: Yale Univ. Press, 1997). Strikingly, Le Corbusier chose a low-rise building style for
Chandigarh, unlike the high-rise concrete buildings that became dominant in postwar Europe.
3 For a robust and critical appraisal of Nehrus ideas about planning, science, and nationalism see Srirupa Roy,
Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 2007).
4 For a critical appraisal of this issue and for the distinction between the global and the universal see
Simon Schaffer, Enlightened Knowledge and Global Pathways, paper presented at the British Academy for a
conference on Writing the History of the Global, 2122 May 2009.
5 George Basalla, The Spread of Science, Science, 1967, 156:611 622.
6 Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Scientific Knowledge in South
Asia and Europe, Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2006).
7 For two opposing positions see John Mackenzie, Orientalism: History, Theory, and the Arts (Manchester:
Manchester Univ. Press, 1995); and Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation
(London: Routledge, 1992).

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and the colonial state has been an enduring field of inquiry.8 In summary, the last two
decades have accounted for science in terms of its power either minimal or at its
maximum beyond Europe.
While much new material has been brought to bear here, there are several unresolved
problems in the current global narrative of science that privileges circulation and dialogic
exchange while it seeks to counter narratives of science as histories of power. Exchange
and circulation are concepts that emanate from the examination and study of capital. It is
strange, then, to identify dizzy connections and nodal points in the traffic of ideas while
omitting the history of capital from consideration entirely.9 Moreover, it remains unclear
how networks and the exchange of ideas, knowledge, or science relate to the coterminous
centralization and statization of national and imperial politics within which science itself
became dominant. The drift of time surely cannot be an adequate explanation. It is
insufficient and teleological to posit the late eighteenth century as a period of exchange
that was followed by racial and colonial inequalities in the nineteenth century. On the
contrary, the late eighteenth century wasto take one examplemarked by the systematization of race theory precisely in the context of the circulation of ideas, networks of
imperial institutions, and the inequity of power relations.10
The hold of the late eighteenth century on historical thinking has been salient because
it intersects with changing representations of the chronology of the nature of imperial
expansion overseas. This period has been interpreted as one of relative openness that
facilitated a context of exchangewhether of knowledge or of commercefor a range of
actors, including scholar-officials, missionaries, and merchant-entrepreneurs who were
dependent on local informants and intermediaries. Conversely, the mid-nineteenth century
has been viewed as a time of the entrenchment of exclusive imperial policies that
overthrew earlier relations, with a view to recasting colonial societies along more strictly
European lines. In the British-Indian context, this transformation is associated with the
imperial ideological shift from orientalism to Anglicism.11 In this sense, recent
historians of science have simply restated and worked strictly within the existing chronology of empire.
The synoptic survey offered here will focus instead on the mid-nineteenth century as a
critical moment of departure, with the aim of disrupting the given chronological framework. There was a dramatic shift in political and economic contexts in this period. Since
at least the reform decade of the 1830s, the institutional relations of power in India were
fundamentally recast in favor of a distant government that stripped off the residual powers
of Indian intermediaries.12 Further, the Mutiny of 18571858 in India was the single
largest and most violent episode of anti-imperial resistance in that century. Beyond the
political landscape, social and economic processes bore little, if any, resemblance to those

8 See, e.g., Daniel R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth
Century (New York/Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981). On the debate about the command of science see
Mark Harrison, Science and the British Empire, Isis, 2005, 96:56 63.
9 But see Richard Drayton, Natures Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the Improvement of the
World (New Haven/London: Yale Univ. Press, 2000).
10 Shruti Kapila, Race Matters: Orientalism and Religion, India and Beyond, Modern Asian Studies, 2007,
41:471510.
11 Thomas Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994); and Jennifer Pitts, A
Turn to Empire: The Rise of Liberal Imperialism in Britain and France (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press,
2005).
12 Sudipta Sen, Distant Sovereignty: National Imperialism and the Origins of British India (London:
Routledge, 2002); and C. A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989).

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of the prior period. The 1840s witnessed an unprecedented worldwide crisis in the
economy. This crisis of free tradeindeed, of capitalism itself both in the center and
in the colonial peripheries coincided with the disappearance of meta-organizing concepts
in imperial science and politics. If the beginning of the nineteenth century was mesmerized by tropicality, exploration, travel, and Smithian political economy, then by the end of
the same century race, evolution, and economic materialism had emerged as key organizing principles. The 1840s and 1850s, rather than the eighteenth century, offer a critical
juncture in the mutual enchantment of science and empire.
This intermediate period witnessed two divergent social and ideological processes in
the Indian context. While the colonial state became potent but distant from Indian society,
there was an explosion of the power of the printed word. The printing press, which arrived
late on the Indian scene, had become a powerful site for dissemination and debate in
various vernacular languages. The widening gap between the colonial state and the
public sphere from the mid-nineteenth century onward was reflected in the divergence
between the lives of biomedicine and of science in India. In short, the argument here is
that, in contrast to biomedicine, science held a considerable power of enchantment for
Indians.
Unlike biomedicine, sciencein the sense of the abstract, experimental, or pure
scienceswas accepted without much resistance.13 The sphere of biomedicinewhether
it found expression in vaccination programs at the beginning of the nineteenth century or
in the sanitized practices of bubonic plague management at its end became a site for the
eruption of social, cultural, and political contestation around the Indian body. From the
1830s, even Western-educated liberals rejected biomedicine; in the 1890s and 1900s, there
were riots against its application; Gandhi and many Indian public men up to the present
day have denounced it. Despite the fact that some Indian elites were sympathetic to
biomedicine and colonial officials propagated modern hygienic measures, biomedicine
failed to achieve hegemony, let alone dominance.14 This is not to assert that there was no
adaptation or internal debate within disciplines such as chemistry, physics, psychoanalysis, and astronomy. Yet the critical point of distinction remains that these debates were
internal to bodies of scientific knowledge, which were already entirely accepted and
increasingly normalized within Indian public and academic life.
To clarify: there is a negative explanation for the divergent fortunes of science and
biomedicine in India that has been investigated thoroughly by historians in the last two
decades. It notes, first, that the entrenchment of the colonial state, both prior to and after
the mutiny of 18571858, required efforts to create a body politic by controlling the
productive and deviant aspects of the Indian body. Prior to the mutiny, the issue of white
death and the health of the East India Company army necessitated many biomedical
policy interventions to direct and segregate Indian bodies from those of the Europeans. An
equal concern was the prospect of European colonization of Indiathe success of which,
it was thought, could be guaranteed only through a vigorous implementation of colonial
biomedicine. This legacy was enduring, though its emphasis and theoretical foundations

13 While I am cognizant of the difficulties of the term, pure science is here simply a shorthand for disciplines
such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry. For a critical appraisal see Paolo Palladino and Michael Worboys,
Science and Imperialism, Isis, 1993, 84:91102.
14 David Arnold, Colonizing the Body: State, Medicine, and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India
(Berkeley/Los Angeles: Univ. California Press, 1993). On the nature of colonial power see Ranajit Guha,
Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press,
1997).

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were reoriented after 1857. That is, the discovery of the germ theory and a more
sure-footed colonial state together made the association between biomedicine and the
governmental increasingly imperative. As David Arnold has forcefully argued, the connection between the colonial state and biomedicine created a context for cultural, institutional, national, and indeed physical resistance to the expansionist realm of colonial
biopolitics. In short, biomedicine was deeply associated with control and colonial governmentality. The neighboring disciplines of psychiatry and psychoanalysis illustrate the
division of the Indian reception of biomedicine and science. It is a striking historical fact
that the birth of psychiatry in India was coterminous with that of its British counterpart,
and the first institutional and legal measures in India paralleled British processes of
institutionalizing this new science. During the colonial era, Indians rejected psychiatry
altogether. Conversely, they were enchanted by psychoanalysis and psychology, intervening in their intellectual construction and also, significantly, bringing these disciplines
into the public discourse of modernity.15
By contrast, the positive explanation for the acceptance of science, as opposed to
biomedicine, is related to the nature of knowledge and intellectual life in India itself. The
presence and persistence of a powerful and systematic rational tradition, both Hindu and
Muslim, facilitated the deepening and refashioning of Indias ecumenical tradition. In
other words, this was a tradition that was incorporative in its approach to new ideas.16 By
contrast, practices of exclusivity defined the boundary-drawing exercise of much scientific
and professional activity, which was then territorialized as separate scientific disciplines
in the West. Such exclusivity had few, if any, existing parallels in the Indian context,
where knowledge was accumulated and aggregated rather than hived off into competing
sections.17 By the mid-nineteenth century this ecumenical tradition was reformulated in
the public, though competitive, new world of the print media.18 This arena proved to be
productive for debating the fundamental nineteenth-century question of the relationship
between science and religion. However, the relations between religion and science in
Europe and India were mirror images of each other.
The emergence of science in Europe was an Event, in that it was a rupture in the
preexisting arrangements between knowledge, religion, and authority broadly construed as
the Enlightenment tradition. The Event of science was not constituted simply by its
ritualized contestations over disciplinary exclusivity; rather, the specific eventuality of
science in Europe was ultimately constituted by a confrontation between man and God.
Whether this involved his death or his exile, science had led, despite the dissenting
tradition within the Enlightenment, to a categorical disenchantment with God.19
By contrast, in India science was no Event. As a newspaper correspondent remarked in

15 On the perceived importance of biomedicine for European colonization of India see Mark Harrison,
Climates and Constitutions: Health, Race, Environment, and British Imperialism in India, 1600 1850 (New
Delhi/New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999); on the place of psychoanalysis and psychology see Shruti Kapila,
Freud and His Indian Friends: Psychoanalysis, Religion, and Selfhood in Late Colonial India, in Psychiatry
and Empire, ed. Megan Vaughan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
16 Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries (Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
17 Sheldon Pollock, ed., Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (Berkeley/Los Angeles:
Univ. California Press, 2003); see esp. the essays by Pollock, Muzaffar Alam, and Sudipta Kaviraj.
18 Seema Alavi, Islam and Healing: Loss and Recovery of an Indo-Muslim Medical Tradition, 1600 1900
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
19 Akeel Bilgrami, Occidentalism, the Very Idea: An Essay on Enlightenment and Enchantment, Critical
Inquiry, 2006, 32:381 411.

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1907, In India, the discoveries of modern science never had to run the gauntlet of pious
prejudice.20 The acceptance of science in India, in fact, defied the European terms of
reference. Neither the exile nor the death of God could ever be declaredthat is to say,
it was never part of the possible. This is not to assert the orientalist position that has
posited the inherently spiritual nature of Indian civilization in contrast to the materialism
of the West. Instead, the argument here is that the work of science was to reformulate
religion and to bring man back into converse with God, though on an entirely new footing.
In other words, while the exile or death of God may not have been inevitable, even in the
European world, the inevitability of science did not have the same political or religious
consequences outside Europe and, specifically, in India.
The perspective here is, of course, primarily that of, and from, India. I have chosen this
perspective on the global not merely because perspective must come from somewhere
(as opposed to everywhere and nowhere), but mainly because India has been pushed and
pulled into the globalizing world of empire and capital. Historians, sociologists, and
anthropologists, however, have sought to insert the global perspective as either a postnational stage in human history or as a way of circumventing the imperial order of things.
Contrary to approaches advanced by Arjun Appadurai and C. A. Bayly, who have posited
the global as a dominant historical and cultural process, much of the recent literature has
taken the global as a unit of space and as a self-evident category.21
As opposed to the methodology of the global as a spatial rubric or as a receptacle for
the spread of influence, be it science or political thought, the argument here is that India
gave a specific salience to the global in that the two were historically and mutually
co-constitutive.22 While it is stating the obvious, it is nevertheless pertinent to remind
ourselves here that the long nineteenth century was the British imperial century, with India
as its centerpiece. Arguably, in the first instance, Britain was made complete by India. At
the economic level, historians such as Adam Tooze have recently argued that modern
economies were continental in scale and imagination, thus fueling imperial competition.23
To extend Tooze, a small island state such as Britain needed India to make a continental
empire economically, conceptually, and, indeed, scientifically. From the works of the
early orientalists to latter-day nineteenth-century political and scientific writings, historicism emerged as a central concept. Historicism made India into a civilization that
exemplified the range of humanity, whether to be decried or celebrated. More often than
not, though, this historicist preoccupation was recanted in the universal framework that
nourished the confidence and promise of science to transcend cultural difference. The
slippage between the global and the universal has proven to be notoriously difficult to
disentangle. Yet, as recent works have argued, the issue of cultural difference and its
reification emerged as an outcome of and operated within the historical logic of the
ascendancy of universalism and an expansive capitalism.24 As I will discuss, religion in

20

Anon., Secular Education in India, Bengalee, 4 Jan. 1907.


Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis/London: Univ.
Minnesota Press, 1997); and C. A. Bayly, Birth of the Modern World (London: Blackwell, 2004).
22 Andrew Sartori, Bengal in Global Concept History (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2008); and Ritu Birla,
Stages of Capital: Law, Culture, and Market Governance in Late Colonial India (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ.
Press, 2009).
23 Adam Tooze, Statistics and the German State, 1900 1945: The Making of Modern Economic Knowledge
(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001).
24 See Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), for a critique of the global from
a more recent philosophical tradition. For Zizek, the global is subordinated to the question of the human.
21

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India did not emerge as a site for the reprieve or critique of science, nor was it that science
was spiritualized. Rather, religion became the site of a disenchanted rationality.
The intermediate, mid-nineteenth-century conjunctural period of crises forced the
enchantment of all manner of relations anew and cast a long shadow well into the
twentieth century. The reenchantment of relations between Britain and India that was built
in the context of unprecedented economic extraction was transfixed by the revision of
religion and the promise of science.
THE BODY OF SCIENCE

Two illustrations of scientific disciplines in the colonial period will enable us to specify
the work of science in India. My aim, though, is not entirely to displace the normative
power of science, through either relativism or social constructivism. The object of
studynamely, science as an authoritative body of knowledgemust be held in firm
view; otherwise we run the risk of collapsing the history of science into cultural history.25
While historians have been focused on the power of science, less attention has been given
to the complex and variegated archaeology of knowledge that mediated the presence of
science in India. It is the set of relations between the normative or coercive and the
persuasive or consensual power of science in relation to society, culture, or politics that
require attention from historians. Examining distinct disciplines and their relationship to
religion will help address the question of the politics of rationality that engulfed the world
in the nineteenth century.
Astronomy and psychoanalysis are two disciplines at the furthest ends of the historical
arch of scientific enterprise. While astronomy was central to pre-European empires and
knowledge systems, psychoanalysis is very much a discipline born after the hegemony of
European science and empires had begun to be challenged. Psychoanalysis is the quintessential twentieth-century discipline that, among other things, has had a vexed and
defensive career in terms of its status as a science. The relatively easy and uneventful
transition of astronomical knowledge between the precolonial, colonial, and national
epochs points both to the virtuosity of Indian intellectual life and, at the same time, to the
nature of social and cultural debate that such profound transformations necessarily
entailed. At the other end of the spectrum, Indian psychoanalysts and psychologists
engaged early, directly, and critically with these new disciplines of the mind. The effect
was that psychoanalysis and psychology became hermeneutic and public sites for a deep
and necessary reconnection between religion and science.26
The relative abstraction of astronomical knowledge in terms of agreed mathematical
theorems and common astronomical observations meant that, at one level, a high degree
of consensus could be achieved between the Indo-Muslim gentry and the colonial practitioners who were scouring India for precisely that kind of knowledge and information in
the mid-nineteenth century. Here, the example of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, the figurehead
of nineteenth-century Muslim reform who was himself drawn from a Delhi ashraf (gentry)
family versed in astronomy, is significant but by no means atypical.27 Equally, at Queens

25 Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
Univ. Press, 1999).
26 Kapila, Freud and His Indian Friends (cit. n. 15). More generally, see John Forrester, Dispatches from the
Freud Wars (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997).
27 C. Troll, Sir Sayyid Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology (Delhi: Vikas, 1978).

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College in Benaras in the 1850s1860s there was a relatively easy convergence between
Sanskrit-trained pundits and their orientalist paymasters.28 The nature of this convergence
was determined by the existence of rational and testable hypotheses, on the one hand, and
an emergent Indian historicism, on the other. The latter made it possible for Indian
intellectual elites to claim priority in astronomical science in India. Prior knowledge was
a claim to authorship. The orientalist aim was to classicize and freeze this knowledge in
Oxbridge and London libraries. This, however, was an invitation to a heated debate
because of the nature of astronomy as a discipline dependent on observation in the
present.29 Equally, the claim to original and prior Indian authorship was proleptic and in
turn announced a claim to a rational future.
There was, however, another equally potent level on which astronomical knowledge
operated in the Indian world. This was the quotidian aspect in which marriages, births,
deaths, and indeed the anointing of kings and declarations of war and peace were
understood as announcements from the heavens. It was in this everyday arena, particularly
in the second half of the nineteenth century, that the expanded world of cheap print media
found its expression. In contrast to its more scholarly counterpart, this arena witnessed
conflict, contestation, and adaptation of the differing means for the validation of authoritative astronomical knowledge. It is in this context that astrology, that shadowy and dark
twin of astronomy, reemerged as jyotish-shastra, or what I have called, following Michel
Foucault, an instance of insurgent knowledge.30
In the colonial public sphere of print, it was not only an ambivalent attitude to science
that informed jyotish, samudrik, and other such practices, but the fact that these practices
were also widely deployed to forge a relationship between the realms of spirituality
(adhyatm) and science (vigyan). An eclecticism of approach informed these popular
reinterpretations of established debates. Indeed, this reconfiguration at times collided
directly with elite or established disciplines. Such knowledges, and the practices that stood
between science and religion, were not ordered into particular disciplines, nor were they
institutionalized. Critically, they belonged to the popular politics of rationalism and the
making of modern identity. They could not easily be incorporated into either the domain
of science or that of religious reform. On the contrary, these practices were fundamentally
unstructured and thus posed a challenge for liberal and reform-minded publicists and
elites. They were insurgent precisely because that term captures the range of ideas that
were related to, but could not easily be disciplined into, the established and normalizing
domains of science, religion, or nation. These practices interrupted and intersected all
these domains but were imperatively not constitutive of them. Moreover, reformist and
liberal thought alike had an ambiguous if not hostile relationship to them. Not only were
they popular; at the same time these practices traversed and shared the agenda of a rational
modernity. Insurgent practices, then, did not merely coexist with reformist and scientific
ideas but shadowed them and, like quicksilver, spilled into domains not necessarily
contained by them.
The main argument at stake here is not that Europe failed to experience a like
fascination with such blurred disciplines as mesmerism, astrology, and, indeed, theosophy

28 Michael S. Dodson, Orientalism, Empire, and National Culture: India, 1770 1880 (Basingstoke: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2007).
29 C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India,
1780 1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996).
30 Kapila, Race Matters (cit. n. 10).

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itself. It is instead that the difference remained at the level of the perspective of the
intellectual and scientific elite, which in Europe by this time had generally come to despise
or denigrate these so-called pseudo-sciences.31 It is significant that in the Indian context
the dismissal and disavowal of these insurgent forms of knowledge came predominantly
from leading religious reformers rather than from the emergent Indian scientific elite.
To reiterate, in this sense the assumption of modern science in Indian public and
domestic life was seamless and indeed Event-less compared with the raging controversies
seen in nineteenth-century Europe and America. Schematically speaking, the reestablishment of astronomy, for instance, under scientific modernity did not kill off astrology in
India or drive it underground. Rather, astrology and other insurgent knowledges exploded
within the print media, much to the consternation of religious reformers, including the
iconic Vivekanand, who wanted to disassociate from them and purge modern Hinduism
of such practices.32 Instead, for Vivekanand and other religious ideologues, the rational
temperament of science became the cornerstone for the reform of religious practices.
Science was to nourish and condition the transformation of religion, an agenda that was
effected through vigorous propaganda in the latter half of the nineteenth century and
beyond.
RELIGION REDUX; OR, THE POLITICAL LANGUAGE OF SCIENCE

Between the endpoints of astronomy and psychoanalysis on the arch of the scientific
enterprise lay the very wide ground of evolutionary theory. I will briefly discuss the uses
of Darwin and Spencer in Indian public debate in the late nineteenth century. Spencer
(especially) and Darwin (often only by allusion) became central to social and political
debates about civilization and nationality in the Indian context. Evolutionism was highly
hospitable to late nineteenth-century Indian social, religious, and political thought. In
accepting evolution, Indian public intellectuals generally played down or ignored the idea
of natural selection, creating thereby a kind of Comtean Darwin. This explains the
importance of the thought of Herbert Spencer for both conservatives and radicals. Spencers notion of organic evolution from the simple to the complex could be used to
reengage religion with science and also to appropriate and domesticate science as a
dimension of Indian civilization.33
The selective mining and appropriation of the Sanskrit classical tradition in the search
for origins of science was a peculiarly later nineteenth-century phenomenon that has
been dubbed Hindu science by David Arnold and the play of another reason by Gyan
Prakash. These interpretative moves and the turn to the classical emerged from a deeper
desire to encompass and domesticate or even provincialize Europe. The aim in seeking
prior originality or earlier status was, in effect, to stake a claim to the futurea future that
was to realize an Indian and national hegemony. We should not be surprised, then, that

31 Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1998).
This is not to say that religion and science were not consistently opposed to each other but to emphasize the
difference in the degree of relative conflict in the European as opposed to the Indian context. On this see Bernard
Lightman, The Origins of Agnosticism: Victorian Unbelief and the Limits of Knowledge (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987).
32 See, e.g., Swami Vivekanand, Hindu-dharm ke pakh mein [In Defense of Hinduism], 8th ed. (Benaras,
1921), which chastises practices such as mesmerism and astrology.
33 Shruti Kapila, Self, Spencer, and Swaraj: Nationalist Thought and Critiques of Liberalism, 1890 1920,
Modern Intellectual History, 2007, 44:109 127.

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national modernity both befriended science and made it purposive as an emancipatory


ideology for society and the state under Nehru.34
The fascination with the classical as part of a deep historicist claim is not so much about
the original content and veracity of science; rather, as C. A. Bayly has recently argued,
historicism was the modus vivendi by which a specifically Indian language of politics
emerged.35 Above all, historicism was deployed to great effect in cultural nativistic claims
and cultural nationalism. Yet the liberal disavowal of cultural nativism took the form of
an emphasis on the universality of the Human. This viewpoint focused on analogous
traditions of civilizational knowledge in which Western science was not so much a threat
as it was the latest entrant in a long series of forms of authoritative knowledge. It is in this
context of historicism that science was understood as a new but necessary form of
knowledge. In short, while they fully recognized attendant issues of inequity and the loss
of control, for the colonized intelligentsia in India these knowledge systemsSanskrit,
Persian, Arabic, and Westernwere established as analogies in a broader historicist
context. Nehrus Discovery of India was thus a celebration of this historicism that looked
forward rather than backward and paved the way for the nationalist embrace of science.
The real problem for the absorption of evolutionism and historicism within the religious
context was the abandonment of a personal savior and atonement necessitated by the
theory of natural selection. But Indians, by downplaying natural selection, found it easy
to accommodate the idea of God as an evolving omnipresent Being. It is precisely in this
context, as it has been argued, that Vedanta emerged as the central message and form of
neo-Hinduism, pointing as it did to the Universal. This development did not lead to a
simple divide between the orthodox and the reformist because radical nationalists (B. G.
Tilak, to take one example) employed evolutionary thought to position Hinduism within
the natural and scientific unfolding of the history of mankind itself.36 The acceptance of
science under imperial rule was easily transformed into a political consensus around
science in the nationalist era, encompassing liberals, radicals, and neoconservatives alike.
The soft landing that science experienced in the high noon of colonialism in India had
specific consequences for the life of religion. One simple implication is that neither the
divorce of God from man nor the death of God was necessary for the hegemony of science
in India. This is not to say that science did not emerge as hegemonic. The dominant
emerging religious traditions might appear to be forms of romantic spiritualism and
legatees of orientalist scholarship; yet my claim here is that the dominant emerging
religious forms in both Islam and Hinduism became highly rational. They became overtly
textualized, were made predictive, and were disciplinary and exclusivist in their practices.37 To a considerable extent this was a world of disenchanted religions. Keep in mind
that the Arya Samaj, the key reformist rationalist religious movement, reduced the
variety of Hindu practices to a starkly simple ceremony around a single flame, a Bunsen
burner in the laboratory of religion. Meanwhile, in the stridently reformist Hindu canon of
34 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999); and Jawaharlal
Nehru, The Discovery of India (Calcutta: Signet, 1946).
35 C. A. Bayly, Indian Thought in the Liberal Age, Wiles Lectures (2007), www.s-asian.cam.ac.uk/
wiles.html.
36 B. G. Tilak, Orion; or, The Arctic Home of the Vedas (Poona: Kesari, 1903). On the emergence of Vedanta
see Brian Hatcher, Bourgeois Hinduism; or, Faith of the Modern Vedantists: Rare Discourses from Early
Colonial Bengal (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007).
37 Kenneth Jones, Arya Dharma: Hindu Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century Punjab (Delhi: Manohar, 1989).

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the Arya Samaj, science was completely absorbed into the notion of an originary spiritual
big bang.38
Equally, the dominant Deoband school, as Barbara Metcalf has shown, effectively
purged Islams mystical dimension, stressing instead the rationality of the Koran. Thus the
argument is deeply antiorientalist. Rather than science becoming a spiritualized religion or
faith in India, Indian religions became forms of disenchanted or scientific knowledge. To
return to the earlier figure of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan: we know that Sir Sayyid had an
overtly reformistsome would argue a liberalagenda for Islam. This took the form
of his ambition to create a uniquely modern scientific institutionmodeled on Trinity
College, Cambridgein the agrarian heartland of northern India at Aligarh. The aim was
to educate young Muslims in the dominant scholarship of Western scientific practices in
the English language. Ironically, but quite tellingly, Sir Sayyid failed to win a social
mandate for such a curriculum from his co-religionists. By contrast, the emerging and
supposedly conservative ulama (jurists) of the Deoband seminary a few miles away from
Aligarh had no difficulty in integrating a rigorous scientific education into their curriculum, though the material was taught in Urdu and Arabic.39
CONCLUSION: POSITIONS OF POSTCOLONIALITY

This essay has sought to decenter the late eighteenth century as the moment of the arrival
of science in India. While it is undeniable that science and empire were mutually
co-constitutive, the emphasis here has been to ask why, under what conditions, and to
what effects science came to be absorbed within the Indian context. By the end of the
nineteenth century, it has been argued, science serviced religion by effecting a wholesale
transformation of practices and dispositions. Thus science became the mode of enchantment for an Indian modernity without banishing God. This was not, as orientalists had
proclaimed, because India was spiritual rather than rationalist but, rather, because
religion itself became disenchanted. Gandhi and Nehru, the best-known icons of
Indian modernity, point to the divergent receptions of biomedicine and science.
Gandhi, as we know, made the Indian body the center of his political project of
anticolonial and antistate resistance. This stance has been caricatured and subsumed
as his supposedly wholesale rejection of science and of modernity itself. In fact,
Gandhi made the body into the fundamental resistance trope both against the Raj and
against what he saw as the inhuman civilization of science that he believed the empire
embodied. This was the central message of his seminal tract Hind Swaraj (1909).Yet
nationalist and postcolonial Indians followed Gandhi only up to a point. In general,
Indians have remained skeptical of the hegemony of biomedical science. At the same
time, however, they have remained enchanted by the promise of science, rejecting in
their turn Gandhis characterization of it as inhuman.
During the interwar period, Nehru commandeered science in the service of the
national state. It was an element in a developmental project for the emancipation of
Indias history both from political enslavement and from backwardness in general.
Gandhi aimed to rupture history, whereas Nehru remained faithful to the liberal

38

On the racial origins of Hinduism see Tony Ballantyne, Orientalism and Race (London: Palgrave, 2001).
For a critical appraisal of Sir Sayyid see Faisal Devji, Apologetic Modernity, Mod. Intellect. Hist., 2007,
4:6176. On the Deoband seminary see Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India, 1860 1900 (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982).
39

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historicism of the nineteenth century. Nehru took science as a tutelary discipline for
the newly free citizenry of the Republic of India. As such, the city of Chandigarh
displays the arrogance of an unapologetic national modernity. Nehrus acceptance of
science was part of the continued, non-Eventful, and ever-renewable acceptance of
science in India that has been going on since at least the early nineteenth century. In
more recent decades, however, science in India has become a spectacular Event. The
display of scientific prowesswhether in space missions, in secret nuclear chambers,
or through the newly empowered Silicon Valley nabobsis but an announcement
of the competitive and confrontational epistemes and practices that now enchant not
just India, but the Global.

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