- Temples of Modernity: Nationalism, Hinduism, and Transhumanism in South Indian Science by Robert Geraci
Robert Geraci's book is an ethnographic study of scientists and engineers at a premier Indian research institute—the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore (now Bengaluru)—and of hackers and technology professionals based in the city. It is an intriguing exploration of how religious thinking, customs, and rituals impinge on their worldviews and working lives.
Geraci stresses that studies of religion and science normally focus on "doctrines, texts, and beliefs," whereas he examines the realm of "everyday experience" (p. 1). But it is with texts that he begins, discussing the writings and speeches of nationalist intellectuals before Indian Independence. From this familiar terrain the author draws out a convincing argument about religion and science. Some thinkers, he shows, harked back to a supposedly golden past when ancient Indians possessed equivalents of the most modern technologies (the author uses the shorthand "Vedic technology"). Others, particularly Nehru, privileged science while imbuing it with a "religious aura" (p. 8). Both views, Geraci finds, have influenced contemporary scientists: some subscribe to the Vedic technology thesis, while others are guided by "a spiritual vision of science as service to the nation" (p. 8).
Against this background, Geraci describes the ubiquity of Hindu icons and rituals in Bangalore's IT companies and scientific institutes, which have shrines and prominently display idols of the deities Ganesha and Saraswati on their premises. Every year at IISc's workshops, scientists and staff celebrate Ayudha Puja, a festival for believers to venerate the tools of their respective vocations. They adorn their machines with sandalwood paste and flowers, invite a priest to chant prayers, and distribute food.
Many of Geraci's interviewees claim to practise "compartmentalization," seeing such religious ceremonies as a part of their lives separate from their scientific work. Others see these occasions as more cultural than religious. Either way, these events bring together "the many constituents of a laboratory or office, including a variety of occupations and social classes, [who] can see themselves as a unified community working towards common ends" (p. 123). Geraci's scientists thus show a high degree of comfort with religious symbolism and ritual in both the domestic sphere and the workplace.
The final chapter on transhumanism (the belief that humans will transcend [End Page 311] their bodily limitations and even mortality through technoscientific advances like 'mind uploading') sits uncomfortably with the rest of the book. The author, otherwise careful and reflexive to a fault, seems to lapse here into a diffusionist perspective, seeing transhumanism as moving inevitably from the West to India, although his interlocutors are yet to show much interest in it. Scouring his field for a pre-defined phenomenon, Geraci is left needing to explain its absence. This he does by referring to Indians' existing sources of religious myths and stories (so that they have less need for futuristic magical thinking) and their preoccupation with alleviating poverty in the present rather than building a fantastic future.
Geraci writes that other studies of religiosity in Indian scientists have concluded either that Hinduism is particularly conducive to scientific beliefs, or that Indians have essentially spiritual worldviews (p. 6). He succeeds in producing a nuanced portrait that does not rely on such explanations, stressing that science and religion need not always be studied through a "conflict-harmony axis" (p. 172). He makes forays into several other topics, including the meanings of Indian secularism and the differing worldviews of scientists and rationalist groups. In this sense it is an ambitious book (although that ambition is undercut by frequent disclaimers on the study's specificity). It would have been interesting to learn about the experiences of scientists belonging to minority religions too. Also, the extent to which religious thinking impacts the content of science—the experiments designed and theories formed—as opposed to the cohesiveness of the scientific community.
Temples of Modernity is a painstaking and sensitive work that engages deeply with the internal worlds of scientists in a postcolonial society. It makes interesting...