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Reviewed by:
  • Clifford Geertz (bio)
Meera Nanda, Prophets Facing Backwards: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 288 pp.

Meera Nanda, an Indian microbiologist now living in the United States, is extremely angry at a very great number of apparently quite different things: "Hindu nationalism," "Vedic science," "postmodern critiques of science," "eco-feminism," "agrarian populism," "India's new social movements," "the Hindu [End Page 143] left," and "the Hindu right." Fortunately for her, but tragically for India, they all coalesce into a single negative force stunting and distorting the country's intellectual life and turning it toward "reactionary modernism." Carried forward by a band of Counter-Enlightenment intellectuals, both indigenous "neo-Gandhian" mystagogues and foreign "post-Kuhnian" relativists, they have led India away from the search for universal values, substituting faith for reason, ideology for science, backward-looking cultural defensiveness for forward-looking self-critique.

Nanda's book, which was published in 2003, was written when Hindutva, "Hinduness," was riding high in India—its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) forming the government (it fell in 2004)—and when the combination of attacks on the Ayodhya mosque and the development of the Indian bomb shook society. Nanda's scorn for this complex of traditional caste-bound Hinduism, violent communalism, and high-tech militarism "that displays all the marks of fascism" is profound and eloquently expressed: "These events mark a fork in the road. For most of the 55 years of independence . . . India has tried to combine . . . secular-liberal cultural modernity . . . with technological modernization. With the Rama temple agitation and the building of the bomb, India is making the classic choice of all reactionary modernists: Modern technology without the ideal of modernity, 'Vedic sciences' without the ethos of science . . . bombs with dharma."

When it comes to explaining this fatal turn, however, and suggesting how it might be countered, she is much less persuasive. Seeing it wholly in terms of bad ideas and misled intellectuals (and tying together vastly different idea systems, within India and without, into one enormous destructive whole), Nanda leaves the social roots of these developments unremarked. In the end, there is just a celebration of modern science as mentally liberating and a plea to Indians to straighten up and think right. But matters are more complicated than that.

Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz's books -which include The Interpretation of Cultures, Local Knowledge, Works and Lives, After the Fact, Available Light, Islam Observed, Negara, The Religion of Java, and Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society-have received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prize, and awards from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Sociological Association, the Association for Asian Studies, and the Royal Anthropological Institute. He is Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Clifford Geertz by His Colleagues, edited by Richard Shweder and Byron Good, was published recently.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4578
Print ISSN
0961-754X
Pages
pp. 143-144
Launched on MUSE
2007-03-05
Open Access
No
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