Hyderabad: The eerie Madanapalle double murder that sent shock waves across the country this week continues to get spookier with new details emerging every day. Videos of one of the accused, Padmaja Naidu, throwing bizarre delusional fits and social media posts of one of the deceased girls containing hateful and radical views are being shared widely on social media.
Although there is no concrete evidence of who is responsible for the horrific incident, several people are wondering how a so-called educated and illustrious family holds such dogmatic and prejudiced views.
The media often presents the idea of superstition mostly in cases of subaltern animistic rituals and goes on to blame them on illiteracy. But there is an elite kind of superstition that won’t cross your mind. The kind that is polished with English repackaged as spirituality and brought to you by modern, self-styled godmen and global spiritual organizations.
They borrow words from scientific theories, link them to ancient texts, and present you with half-baked philosophies that appeal to an elite, urban, English speaking audience. They discuss quantum physics and relativity on their YouTube channels with as much vigour as actual scientists.
Their audience comprises well educated, mostly upper-middle-class people who actively consume their unscientific claims. For a country that prides itself in being a mass producer of STEM graduates, it really is underwhelming how rare rational thought in India is. Not just this one family in the news, but several academically illustrious people actively believe and spread similar irrational ideas.
How did we get here?
India, during and before colonialism was home to several dogmatic and pseudoscientific beliefs. Post-independence, the Nehruvian idea of scientific temper sought to change the situation but the current conditions prove that we are still failing to implement it.
One of the reasons for this is how science is taught in India. It has been reduced to a subject “needed” to crack competitive examinations, completely devoid of the scientific method and observation aspects of it.
The adverse effects of this only started showing in the later years. With a huge section of the population still uneducated and most of the educated population lacking any kind of critical thinking, India became a breeding ground for superstition.
Several post-colonial Indian scholars, belonging to upper castes, tried to provide a scientific basis to Hinduism in their attempts of decolonization. These works have been later used to justify and legitimize several irrational beliefs.
Ever since the late 1980s, the rise in majoritarian Hindutva fundamentalism started gaining mainstream traction. Historical revisionism, coupled with pseudoscience has become the major tool of radicalization. Past governments didn’t act upon curbing it in any way.
This phenomenon has only gotten worse in the past few years in what looks like a well-planned assault on science and scientific temper. The idea of tying back every new scientific invention to mythology has been normalized.
At the Indian Science Congress in 2019, G Nageswar Rao, Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University claimed that ancient India had stem cell research and test-tube technology because a character in Mahabharata gave birth to 100 babies. Not a week goes by without a right-wing leader or a director of an institute making an absurd, unscientific claim.
The attack on science is even more visible in the form of cuts to the funding of scientific research and diversion of expenditure towards pseudoscientific research. There are funded research programs being carried out to study the benefits of panchagavya (five bovine derivatives) and find sanjeevani booti (medicine mentioned in Ramayana). A 2018 report shows that there has been a significant decline in the growth rate of scientific publishing in India.
Godmen in the public sphere
The famous spiritual gurus and their global foundations have taken it upon themselves to actively participate in the task of spreading pseudoscience. They tell you they don’t associate themselves with any religion and that their only goal is to focus on spirituality as a way of life. But a closer look into what they actually propagate demystifies all their claims. They give a new shape and form to the prejudices of their audience, in a way no political party or fringe group can. They present discriminatory practices in the form of life lessons. They participate in state-sponsored propaganda to mislead the public and invalidate dissent.
They are normalized in the public sphere by being allowed to conduct workshops at legislative assemblies and government organizations. The situation is so abhorrent that they are now invited to speak at the supposedly eminent institutions of scientific learning like IITs and IISc.
Celebrities and politicians publicly endorse these godmen and their foundations, giving them further legitimacy.
Science communication in mainstream media has also been dreadful, especially in the past few years. Emphasis on propaganda and sensationalism is dominant on TV and social media. Religious leaders and proponents of pseudoscience are often given significant air time.
On the other hand, people fighting superstition have been targeted by fringe groups in the country. The man behind Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) and the Anti-superstition and Black Magic Ordinance, Narendra Dabholkar was murdered in 2013 by unknown assailants who were later linked to the right-wing organization Sanatan Sanstha.
This was followed by the murders of rationalists Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and journalist Gauri Lankesh, all of which have been found to be linked. This is a clear indication of how rationalism threatens the idea of religious nationalism while superstition and dogma are its necessity.
Attempts to normalize pseudoscience have been made by legitimizing it through politics, public sphere, academia, popular culture and media. With no visible attempts to impart rational thought, the future looks bleak.
The Madanapalle family’s beliefs of superstition and blatant hatred for minorities may look extreme because of the gruesome incident, but the same exact views are also held by the majority of this country, even by the most educated citizens. This should serve as a wakeup call for anyone who still believes in pseudoscience and irrational ideas propagated in the garb of science, to recognize and reject it for what it really is.