Is Hinduism a ‘scientific religion’, or not?

A meme with a fantastic claim.

“Hinduism is a scientific religion”, claims the average Hindu, juxtaposing himself with people of other faiths who have made similar claims about their faiths. Numerous posts, memes, pictograms, and videos on the internet claim, with varying degrees of accuracy, about how Hindu scriptures contain “scientific facts” related to a multitude of subjects – botany, obstetrics, aeronautics, physics, chemistry, astronomy among the most frequent ones. The problem with this approach to Hindu Dharma is manifold, as we will elaborate now.

First, it impedes the Hindu’s spiritual growth. All the scriptures and the numerous Rishis and Gurus that we are blessed with, have emphasized on Śraddhā (श्रद्धा) as a prerequisite for studying the scripture, as well as getting the ‘Anugraha’ or grace of Guru and the Lord. Given that in a globalized world we are forced to approach science and other secular subjects through western lenses, the Hindu is undermining the importance of Śraddhā in studying his religion by seeking to find concepts such as botany, aeronautics etc. in the scriptures,. Study of scriptures is reduced to a “cultural curiosity”, limited to liking and sharing posts that claim, “Hinduism is scientific”. Ironically, even this cultural curiosity is superficial, as can be seen from the number of factually incorrect memes that go viral.

The translator of the seminal work “Hindu Dharma” by the erstwhile Shankaracharya of Kanchi, laments thus in his introduction of the book –

“More than 20 years ago, I said in an article in The Illustrated Weekly of India that “Hindus know less about their religion than Christians and Muslims know about theirs”. Wanting to verify the statement, my editor Sardar Khushwant Singh asked my colleagues (most of them were Hindus), in schoolmasterly fashion, to name any four Upanishads. For moments there was silence and it was a Muslim lady member of the staff who eventually responded to the editor’s question by “reeling off” the names of six or seven Upanishads.

Why are “educated” Hindus ignorant about their religion? Is it their education itself that has alienated them from their religious and cultural moorings? If so it must be one of the tragic ironies of the Indian condition.

~Translator’s note, “Hindu Dharma”, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
No, he did not!

Second, in taking this approach, the Hindu has often abandoned entire books that upon superficial reading do not appear to stand the scrutiny of science. Take Manusmṛti, for example – we often come across statements from Hindus such as “Manusmṛti is highly interpolated”, “Nobody reads the Manusmṛti anymore” etc. because it articulates the Varna Dharma, which is a favorite punching bag of Hinduphobes masquerading as liberals and social justice warriors. The dangers of this approach are quite self-evident – if we are to abandon all the scriptures that articulate Varna Dharma or any other concept that is not compatible with “science” or modern sensibilities, what will we be left with? After all, the śrīmad Bhagavadgītā articulates Varna Dharma, the Puranas and the Itihāsas elaborate on it, and the Vedas are the source of it. Also, it can’t be the case that we can pick and choose verses from scriptures as per our likes and dislikes. After all, a person, or for that matter, society, is to adhere to Dharma, and Dharma is not suppose to be moulded as per the whims and fancies of a few.

Third, the purpose of studying Hindu scriptures is different from the purpose of studying the aforementioned secular subjects. Our scriptures have clearly stated their own objective and purpose for existence – be it the Vedas, the Puranas, or the Itihāsas. To conflate these two clearly distinct areas will do justice to neither, and the need of the hour is to clearly differentiate between the two. The purpose of the scriptures is to lead the Hindu to Moksha or liberation, the ultimate goal every Hindu must dutifully pursue. The Mahābhārata clearly elaborates both on the topics it deals with, as well as on the breadth it covers:

धर्मे चार्थे च कामे च मोक्षे च भरतर्षभ |
यदिहास्ति तदन्यत्र। यन्नेहास्ति न तत् क्वचित्॥

dharme cārthe ca kāme ca mokṣe ca bharatarṣabha| yadihāsti tadanyatra। yannehāsti na tat kvacit॥

“O King! In matters pertaining to Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha, whatever has been said here may be found elsewhere, but whatever is not found here does not exist anywhere else!” ~Mahābhārata

The Matsya Purāṇa clearly states its purpose thus:

धर्मश्चार्थश्च कामश्च मोक्षश्चैवात्र कीर्त्यते|
सर्वेष्वपि पुराणेषु तद्विरुद्धम् च यत्फ़लं

“All the puranas elaborate upon the four Puruṣārthas such as Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha, as well as the fruits of walking in the opposite or forbidden path Adharma)”. ~Matsya Purāṇa

Commenting on the “Apastambiya Paribhasha Sutra”, Kapardi Swamin has defined the meaning of the “Veda” as that which talk about the rituals that lead to liberation or Moksha. The Taittirīya Upanishad advises us –

सत्यं वद। घर्मं चर। स्वाध्यायान्‌ मा प्रमदः।

Satyam vada; Dharmam chara; svãdhyãyãn mã pramadaha

 ‘Speak the truth. Abide by your Dharma. Never be idle in your studies’ – Taittirīya Upanishad

This leaves us with one unanswered question: “What about the ‘science’ found in them”?

The scientific facts mentioned in the scriptures are incidental to the core message contained in them, similar to the strengthening of the legs or flattening of the abdomen whence one practices the 8-limbed Yoga. They are neither the means nor the ends according to the scriptures, which exist for the sole purpose of emancipation of Man, by exhorting him to walk the path of Dharma., rendering the question in the title of this piece, moot.

Does this mean we give a carte blanche to those who claim that Hindus had no idea about science until the advent of the western civilization? No – these are secular interests that are best carried out by experts in the respective fields. As we pointed out elsewhere, the need of the hour is to dehyphenate science from our scriptures, and for Hindus to follow the above advice given in the Taittirīya Upanishad in both letter and spirit.

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