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Science, scientific method and rationality: Nehru's engagement with Ayurveda

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This paper, through detailed archival work looks at Nehru’s engagement with Indian knowledge systems. It looks at various ways in which Nehru tried imposing the identity of tradition/religion/superstition to knowledge systems such as Ayurveda. He makes a clear distinction between tradition and modernity, wherein western medicine is seen as modern, and Indian as traditional.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was a spokesperson of modern science and technology and saw elements of emancipation in it. For him, scientific method through laboratory work was the only way to ‘validate’ any systems of knowledge. The massive institutionalization of modern science and technology invited anger from some politicians and leaders as these projects had totally ignored Indian systems of medicine like Ayurveda and Unani. To become ‘modern’ the existing knowledge systems were asked to prove their scientificity. There were politicians who thought Nehru lacked an understanding of the ‘Indian knowledge system’. Nehru responded to the advocates of Indian systems of knowledge by saying that the Government will not support non-scientific, religious and superstitious beliefs and practices. Indian systems such as Ayurveda was perceived as religious by Nehru, wherein he clearly made a distinction between science and religion; western system as rational and scientific, and Indian systems of knowledge as religious. While one must be conscious of the right-wing Hindutva version of Indian systems of knowledge, one needs to also look critically the way in which modern science and medicine was used to marginalize Indian systems such as Ayurveda during Nehru’s time.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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