Sunday, October 11, 2015

PERVEZ HOODBHOY: Jinns invade campuses // NAYANJOT LAHIRI: When Propaganda Passes for History

NB: These two articles summarise the assault on intelligible speech and mindfulness that is unfolding across the sub-continent. The establishment is now hell-bent upon fostering an authoritarian culture by destroying our capacity to think. In such an atmosphere, democratically inclined people (and not merely academicians) need to defend standards for reasonable debate. Democracy is dependent upon thoughtful speech. DS

‘Motivational speakers’ claiming paranormal knowledge are today’s rage in educational institutions here.

Last week, a workshop titled ‘Jinns and Black Magic’ was organised in Islamabad by the department of humanities at the COMSATS Institute of Technology (CIIT), one of Pakistan’s largest universities. The invited speaker, Raja Zia-ul-Haq, introduced as a ‘spiritual cardiologist’ is reputedly an expert on demonic possessions and evil spirits. He is popular: a press photograph shows no standing room left in the university’s main auditorium.

Interesting logic was used to prove the existence of jinns and black magic. The speaker first categorised all unseen creatures into three types: those that fly; those that change shape and appearance depending upon circumstance; and those that find abode in garbage or dark places. Why, he asked, would Hollywood invest in horror movies and paranormal phenomena if these didn’t actually exist?

But hang on! Doesn’t his argument force you to accept that Hollywood’s popular vampires, werewolves, and zombies are also real, not mere fiction? Surely this nonsensical claim could have been challenged by a single bold person in the audience. But, as at all such events, the organisers ensured that the preacher’s three-hour monologue would be uninterruptable.

What lies next is to be seen. Perhaps CIIT could go for creating a jinn-based telecommunications network. Another promising direction could be radar-evading jinn-powered cruise missiles. Jinn chemistry, a research subject activated in the Ziaul Haq era, could be another growth point. CIIT could also pursue a proposal from the 1970s, initiated by a senior director of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, to replace fossil and nuclear fuels with jinn power.

Actually, last week’s event was unexceptional. In schools, colleges, and universities similar ‘motivational speakers’ claiming paranormal knowledge are today’s rage. The Institute for Business Management (Karachi), for example, organised a meeting on ‘The last moments of a man’. The poster showed the grayed hulk of a man slouching through a graveyard. Students (again a full auditorium, I’m told) were given graphic glimpses into life in the next world. The source of this information, probably secretly SMS’ed from inside the grave, was not revealed by the speaker.
One might have thought that Pakistan’s super-elite universities would be different. Lums, the country’s most expensive private university, has a school of science and engineering built with American dollars. It appeared to have a serious mission but several Lums professors now openly deride scientific reasoning.

Quite accidentally, earlier this year I happened to attend a public lecture given by a professor of humanities at Lums whose specialty is science-bashing. While admitting he knew no physics, he went through the usual stale post-modernist critiques of science and then claimed that the Nobel Prize for physics, awarded to American physicist Robert Millikan in 1923, was undeserved since it was based upon a selective choice of data.

The distortions were clear to me, but when the professor poured a ton of scorn on Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc squared, my eyes nearly popped out and my heart stopped beating. What else could make an atom bomb explode, or a nuclear reactor produce electricity? Jinns, surely! But he is not alone in making such claims. The head of the biology department, in an email to the entire Lums faculty, excitedly claimed that reciting or listening to certain holy verses “can control genes and metabolites” and suggested that specially equipped audio-visual rooms be made in hospitals to treat terminally ill patients.

Perhaps to underscore its determination to shift away from Western science, last month Lums ousted Pakistan’s most highly regarded and respected mathematical physicist from his tenured position. Fortunately, he loses nothing since Harvard, Princeton, or MIT (from where he received his PhD) will welcome him with open arms.

Paranormal and conspiratorial ways of thinking dovetail well with each other. Hence it should not surprise that the current vice chancellor of Punjab University, Pakistan’s largest public university, has written a book asserting that 9/11 was an inside job. Further, according to a newspaper interview, he says that the world’s entire economic system is controlled by Jews huddled together in the town of Monte Carlo. Conspiracy buffs can expect even more delights now that the famous Zaid Hamid, having successfully dodged his sentence of 1,000 lashes, is back from his months of incarceration in Saudi Arabia. This fiery orator is expected to soon resume his popular campus speaking tours across Pakistan.

The all-pervasive anti-reason, anti-science attitude on our campuses might seem difficult to understand. No, it’s not hard, just think for a moment. To spit venom at science and pillory its epistemological basis is easier than falling off a broken chair. Rejecting science means you are spared the required toil, effort, and exacting mental discipline needed for learning hard stuff like math and physics. Besides, you might not even have the talent for it. It’s far easier to curse science than to woo it.

Consider the advantages: mental disorders like epilepsy can be understood and cured without bringing in neurosurgeons or clinical psychologists since, of course, it’s the jinns at work. A good resident pir or exorcist would do fine. You don’t have to learn the messy science of meteorology because jinns make winds. And seismology is useless since earthquakes happen because of our bad deeds.

As for toys and trinkets like computers and cellphones we can, like our Saudi brothers, always buy the best from Apple or Nokia. Some money-hungry Zing-Zang-Zong company will happily run the cellphone networks for Pakistan. The dirty business of technology and inventing things can be safely left to the Chinese, Americans, and Europeans. Their jinns know their job so well.

Pakistan’s universities should have been beacons of enlightenment, open inquiry, and bold new thinking. Instead they are sheep farms. A legion of intellectually lazy and ignorant professors wants a breed of students who will submit to authority, not question or challenge. Knowing that an invented bogeyman subdues five-year-olds effectively, they hope the spectre of unworldly creatures and fear of death will suitably frighten 20-25-year-olds. The newly launched jinn invasion of campuses means that Pakistan’s cultural and intellectual decline will accelerate.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Why is the Culture Ministry sponsoring exhibitions that no serious historian will do anything other than guffaw over?

When does good archaeology become pure propaganda? And what does it tell us about what is passing for history and culture these days? Seeing the exhibition which described itself as a ‘Unique Exhibition on Cultural Continuity from Rigveda to Robotics’ certainly made me ask these questions and think about the motivations in putting together this display. The exhibition, organised between September 17–23 at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi , was the brainchild of the Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas whose director, Saroj Bala, is a retired member of the Central Board of Direct Taxation. With support from the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture, its message was that ‘Vedic Culture provided the foundation on which the superstructure of Indian civilisation is being laid till date’.

The message was writ large in the various panels that presented a great deal of ancient India within the Vedic framework. It is Vedic people, for instance, who set up advanced centers of learning like Takshashila, Ujjain and Nalanda. If weaponry was found in sites stretching from Haryana to Uttar Pradesh, these are seen as part of the Ramayana references to weaponry. And yes, dates on the basis of astronomical observations in Vedic texts and the epics were shown in the exhibition as a sure fire way to predict, among other things, the exact birthdate of Ram – which is said to be January 10, 5114 BCE. In fact, from Balochistan to the Ganga plains, archaeological sites from 7000 BCE to 2000 BCE were presented as supporting a cultural continuum which represents ‘Vedic culture’.

Obsession with dating: Preparing water-tight calendars of the past on the basis of astronomical years has a long history that goes back to Biblical scholars such as Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th century. It was he, for instance, who provided a date of the biblical flood as being in the year 2348 BCE. On the basis of biblically based estimates, he provided an even more precise one for the creation of the world. This happened around 6 PM on a Saturday which was October 22 in the year 4004 BCE.

The Ussher chronology, incidentally, was consigned to the dustbin of history around the middle of the 19th century because it did not fit in with the archaeological indications of human existence much before that time. While biblical chronology still has some die-hard adherents, it would be an embarrassment for any archaeologist worth her salt to be engaging seriously with it. To put it another way, it is part of the prehistory of modern archaeology. The creation of modern archaeology, in fact, is based on the assumption that artefacts and monuments have a history that goes beyond textual sources, and very frequently, they do not illustrate the lives and deeds of people and events mentioned in religious literature like the Bible. Evidently, the organizers of the Vedic exhibition do not have any such reservations. Their motivation is very much in a mould that the 17th century Ussher would have completely approved of. It is another matter that no scholars in their right minds will go anywhere near their travesty of Indian civilisation.

More seriously, the organisers have not considered the implications of astronomical calculations on the basis of which precise dates for epic heroes and events have been offered by them. Dates do not exist in isolation. They have to be seen in relation to each other, offering a connected and continuous chronology. So for instance, what does all this mean for the date of the Buddha or that of the Maurya dynasty? The implications of the textual chronology would result, for instance, in placing Ashoka hundreds of years before the 3rd century BCE. This doesn’t make any sense in the light of the contemporary rulers in Asia and beyond that are mentioned in Ashoka’s inscriptions. That is why a scholar as recently as 2014 wrote that ‘It would be irrational to ascribe specific chronologies to the various dynasties that one encounters as early as the Rigveda and the later Vedic literature and as late as the epics and the Puranas’. Significantly, this is not the opinion of a left-wing historian but the widely respected archaeologist Dilip Chakrabarti – who wrote this in a series that is supported by the Vivekananda International Foundation.

Immaculate conception: The other motivation that stands out is a determination to squeeze archaeological cultures of diverse lineage and region into an all encompassing womb, that of the ‘Vedic civilisation’. Interestingly, this only includes societies whose subsistence pattern is strongly agricultural. That there are early agricultural societies in north and northwest India and Pakistan is well accepted but, unlike what the ‘unique exhibition’ states, we are looking at different cultures here. Mehrgarh in Balochistan with an 8th millennium BCE antiquity of wheat and barley cultivation is qualitatively different from what can be seen at Lahuradeva in the Gangetic plains in the 7th millennium BCE. Within the Gangetic plains itself, there were distinctive yet interacting lifeways. Around the time when Lahuradeva flourished, there were scores of hunter gatherer societies around meander lakes and streams in the central Ganga plains. Such hunter gatherers, though, don’t figure in this Vedic story at all.

There are, at least, two other major problems with this story. First, the subsistence pattern of such agricultural societies is selectively presented. Cattle bones, for instance, are the most common animal remains at places like Mehrgarh and in Harappan times. Why was this fondness for cattle consumption missing in the mounted exhibits? The image of our ancestors wolfing down vast quantities of meat is obviously not congenial to those who feel that the past must serve the prejudices of the present. The second problem is that in their enthusiasm to rewrite history, the organisers seem to have ignored the arguments of archaeologists who turned up this evidence. Lahuradeva’s copper objects are an instance in point which have been pushed back to 5000 BCE in the exhibition – completely ignoring the unambiguous manner in which the excavator placed them in the 3rd millennium BCE. This is how good archaeology becomes bad history.

While many more pages can be filled up with the fictions and fallacies that I saw masquerading as history in the Lalit Kala Akademi, it is not my purpose here to catalogue them. What needs reiteration is that this was an exhibition whose design told viewers that the Rigveda and the epics are thinly disguised accounts of an actual sequence of historical events. It also put forward a fantasy in which all agricultural societies in north India over four thousand years, regardless of their differences, could be viewed as the archaeological interface of Vedic civilisation. All this is so misleading and manipulated that it does not even deserve the label of bad history.

May I add that it is ironic that while the Prime Minister is spending millions trying to bring Silicon Valley to India, we already have a Silly-Con valley in the shape of a bunch of people who are trying to con us into believing their self-serving myths via futile exhibitions that no serious historian will do anything other than guffaw over.
Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi