Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India

Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India

Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India

Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India


The leading voices in science studies have argued that modern science reflects dominant social interests of Western society. Following this logic, postmodern scholars have urged postcolonial societies to develop their own "alternative sciences" as a step towards "mental decolonization." These ideas have found a warm welcome among Hindu nationalists who came to power in India in the early 1990s. In this passionate and highly original study, Indian-born author Meera Nanda reveals how these well-meaning but ultimately misguided ideas are enabling Hindu ideologues to propagate religious myths in the guise of science and secularism. At the heart of Hindu supremacist ideology, Nanda argues, lies a postmodernist assumption: that each society has its own norms of reasonableness, logic, rules of evidence, and conception of truth, and that there is no non-arbitary, culture-independent way to choose among these alternatives. What is being celebrated as "difference" by postmodernists, however, has more oftenthan not been the source of mental bondage and authoritarianism in non-Western cultures. The "Vedic sciences" currently endorsed in Indian schools, colleges, and the mass media promotes the same elements of orthodox Hinduism that have for centuries deprived the vast majority of Indian people of their full humanity. By denouncing science and secularization, the left was unwittingly contributing to what the author calls "reactionary modernism." In contrast, Nanda points to the Dalit, or untouchable, movement as a true example of an "alternative science" that has embraced reason and modern science to challenge traditional notions of hierarchy.


This is a book I had to write. I had no choice in the matter. For many years, I have seen modern science being “put in its place.” For many years, I have heard all the problems of the world we live in being laid at the doorstep of the Enlightenment. For many years, I have felt as if I'm drowning in platitudes about cultivating the “alternative sciences” of women, non-Western peoples, and other “victims” of the modern age.

I could never join the chorus, but nor could I shut out its jarring notes. Circumstances of biography had brought me into the humanities in the American academia at the height of its postmodernist fervor. the very fundamentals of what constitutes knowledge, how it is constructed and its impact on society were being questioned. It was simply not possible to remain neutral to these questions and just do your work—more so, if these debates were challenging your own deeply felt beliefs.

A microbiologist by training (Ph.D., Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, India), I came to America to study philosophy of science. For a variety of reasons, I dropped out after a couple of semesters at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. At that time, continuing with my chosen profession of science writing and journalism made more sense. But I soon tired of skimming the surface of things. My itch for books, ideas, and scholarship returned. I sought out the academia one more time. in 1993, I enrolled for another doctorate degree at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York, considered one of the pioneer programs in the field.

In science studies, I came face-to-face with a radical challenge to—even a denunciation of—all that I believed in. I found myself in a discipline whose very founding axioms I disagreed with. Using various nuances, science studies teach that modern science as we know it, down to its very content and criteria for justification is a construction of the dominant social interests of Western society. As a construct of power, modern science serves as a legitimator of Western and patriarchal power around the world. Many of my own compatriots from India had contributed to this literature, arguing that non-Western societies needed a “decolonization of the mind” that would come about by developing sciences that . . .

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