I just came from a dinner at a neighbor’s where a small group of Nepalese intellectuals had a lively discussion about modern western science VERSUS traditional eastern wisdom on the subject of health. Mainly, a scientist entertained the guests with his interesting medical explanations of traditional folk wisdom/practices about health. If you have wondered about the “medical” reasons for men putting their janai over their ears while passing their bowels, you would love to hear this scholar.
In spite of the “interesting” quality of medical explanations, I was disturbed by the binary oppositions our scientist created between science and wisdom, west and east, and even modern and traditional. I found this disturbing because it is typical of a lot of Nepalese intellectuals to use AND reject science at the same time, to try to argue that science does not belong to us but “them”… this danger to the advancement of our own local epistemology is my issue here.
I find it disturbing when a scientist or scholar starts by CLAIMING that modern science belongs to the west (as if the east hasn’t been contributing to the development of scientific medicine or scientific knowledge throughout the last century), that the wisdom of the east is infallible (shutting the shit off from being updated and communicated to the rest of the world), that wisdom cannot be used to make sense of science (as if “our” old wisdom hasn’t been the basis of a lot of modern science), that we should use modern scientific “reasons” to “prove” rather than test all our ancient beliefs and practices (as if the ancients had to be right at all costs and if we find errors it is we who are stupid), that our duty is to speculate and impose explanation backward (and not use systematic methods of scientific inquiry to discover usable ideas and present/promote them to the intellectual society of the world today/tomorrow), that scientific inquiry is incapable of understanding wisdom because it only understands ideas or facts (shutting the door to everything including a lot of bullshit and saying it is all holy because grandpa couldn’t be wrong). I find it disturbing when people in the field of hard sciences say “I believe because I believe” (this is called “belief by tenacity”) because I can’t help thinking that THESE are the people from whom our society should be hoping for work and leadership for showing the world that our local social and cultural knowledge has substance too, that we don’t have to continue to look barbaric in the eyes of the rest of the world. I find it disturbing to hear scientists talk like a pundit because I hold the rigor of their discipline with tremendous regards.
The binaries disturbed me. Our scientist said that the ancient medical wisdom of the East is something that Westerners are just finding out today, and they will take another thousand years to even understand the high-end of the ancient Oriental “achievements” in medicine and science. To this, a nice lady, who had joined us for a few moments, added a nice example: god Krishna’s “chakra” is a wheel that has just been reinvented in the form of a powerful thing we call the computer “disk”! (I don’t like the exclamation point but this time I have to admit I don’t have any words better than that thumbs-down looking dumb graphic signal). Our nice friend added a few examples. Men (not women, we should remember) are told to put their janai upon their ear while passing the bowels because, as “they” are just finding out, a neural vein that supports digestion ends on the upper side of the ear. Old men told you to sprinkle water into your mouth after moving your bowels because they secretly wanted you to make extremely sure that you have washed your hands properly enough before doing the water sprinkling (which which hand I didn’t ask). Ravan is said to have built an airplane (pushpak biman) about five thousand years ago (he said), and now they are just making the airplane. Squatting with heels against your butt makes your blood run up the body and helps digestion. In short, he insisted throughout the evening that “these people” are just understanding “our” old ideas now and they are getting them patented and selling them back to us.
My frustration came not from a simple desire to defend science, because I don’t think that the most serious issue here is whether to promote or dump folk wisdom. My point is that we should give folk wisdom the chance to participate in the process of global knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing, that we should give meaning to our local epistemologies through processes which larger communities of world intellectuals will accept as reasonable. This is a mind-numbing kind of situation not because you might be seen as a killjoy in that spiritual talk about science but because it seems impossible to argue in favor of scientific inquiry and against superstitious support of received wisdom WITH OUR SCIENTISTS, forget about communicating anything like scientific outlook to average Ramu.
Nonetheless, I, a mere student of education, had the cheeks to ask some questions of the medical scientist. Why on earth did our “old men” normally never tell others “why” the janai must go over the ears while evacuating the bowels? If putting the janai over the ears during that process helps the digestive system of adult men, should we now do some investigation on women and children and give them janai? Maybe in the first phase of the study, the holy thread should be given to 1000 women and 1200 children (200 might lose them in the process) and see if they too had a better time digesting a controlled amount of sel roti—compared to adult men. Then, if the holy thread does work, we would have to find some “holy” way to start a janai revolution in our society, and perhaps get an international patent and establish a multinational janai pharmaceutical industry (we could invest the revenue in hydro power generation or something like that).
It’s interesting that people were prevented from not washing their hands properly after going to toilet by forcing them to sprinkle water into their mouth immediately afterward. But, I said, what if people stopped cleaning their anus altogether in favor of having cleaner water to sprinkle into their mouths? Why the heck don’t we prevent children who are statistically far likelier to be unhygienic in that regard? Adult women can be trusted, I grant that.
As for the idea of the chakra, how come Krishna didn’t just manufacture the disk three thousand years ago and stop us from waiting that long–plus allowing the “mlekchhyas” to do it for us? Well, maybe he was too busy raping 1600 women–which I didn’t tell the nice lady, who is a scholar with multiple degrees.
Has anyone found any archaeological evidence of Ravan’s plane?–well, if they could document all the other mythical stories so well, there is no logic in saying that we lost all the evidence about the airplane thing to the culture of non-documentation. Maybe we too could say what other religious zealots say about dinosaurs–God put their fossils on earth to test our faith!
What is most interesting about our “intellectuals” is that the development of an epistemology, an entire “culture” of scientific methods and a body of knowledge now accumulated and applied to the comfort of humanity across the cultures/world is completely given up as belonging to “them”: in the system of the extremely unintellectual binaries between “we” versus “them,” “wisdom” versus “science” and so on “we” is “old” (and timeless) and therefore infallible and “they” is “new” and necessarily silly (like young people whom we never respect). What stuns me, dazes me, disconcerts and disturbs me about all the binaries underlying all this talk about the ancient us and the modern they is that “we” thereby disavow any stake in the development of knowledge, knowledge systems, or at least knowledge camps in the world today. We give up the skepticism, the tools of doubt and curiosity, and the beauty of admitting fault or owning weakness in the interest of the advancement of knowledge to THEM. It stuns me to realize that these intellectuals of the east have degrees; our intellectuals have been sufficiently exposed to scientific methodology of investigating any beliefs, practices, and even systems of learning in order to come up with more refined and relevant ideas and solutions that as a part of the world community of scientists/intellectuals they should then be debating, refining, and advancing–no matter whose society or culture the beliefs, practices, or systems of learning belong. I humbly proposed to the scientist that he should either study the ancient/traditional medical wisdom by using scientific/medical methodologies that are acceptable to the larger community of world’s medical professionals OR if necessary he should develop and present appropriate methodologies for studying and understanding “our” knowledge to THEM. But I was only further dazed to hear that our scientist doesn’t like research, that some western medical scientists are doing research of the ancient medical wisdom in India, etc. As the talk takes a natural detour of issues, I begin to see that our scientist is not interested in reading about the findings of modern medical research because no such findings will ever match the value of our old wisdom. We heard about the gods another half hour, during which I as a subscriber of scientific outlook had nothing to contribute–since religion is such a personal and sensitive issue, any advocacy of science in this kind of situation could “prove” me a social failure. That is why religious crap wins all debates with science–win in the sense that the loser gives up out of shame and pity for the winner who has the power of insanity on his or her side.
More disturbing than the fear of being seen as a stupid killjoy when you show your resistance against unfounded claims of legitimacy of myth and “wisdom” (no one doubts that the human creature has always survived better than other animals precisely because of a lot of wisdom) is to think about our scientists’ love of the binary of we/they, the way our scholars, scientists, and wise young men and women put it clearly that “science” is not the answer to the biggest problems in human history. No, every dumbass can tell you that science cannot solve ALL the problems of life and society–but it is sad that you can’t communicate the idea that scientific outlook should NOT be given up in all areas of learning and life for that one reason. The beauty of science lies precisely in that it teaches you to keep learning, it teaches you to refine your methods of learning, and it teaches you that you should NOT kneel before the unknown and give up learning just because you know you won’t find answers to every question through science. But you are talking to these pseudo-scientists and you sit there amazed by the childish fundamental opposition they create between science and wisdom. Predictably enough, they then bring up Devkota the poet: “wisdom dies smiling and science lives crying.” This abuse of poetry and philosophy sends a chill down your spine. You listen to these scientists of your country who have got so much opportunity to study hard sciences and do research and even teach them in the most prestigious universities of the world, and you don’t hear anyone complicating or challenging any of the childish binary-touting talk. It sounds as if you can replace science with wisdom, as if one is an alternative to the other.
You shouldn’t try to say in these situations that it’s stupid to favor “wisdom” against science because science doesn’t have a set of full and definite answers for everything, that science is by definition a method of investigating the yet unknown and a method of continuing to doubt and better understand what seems to be certain, that science has to deal with the unknown without guaranteeing answers. Scientists will continue to say “we don’t know that yet” to a lot of things, and both the “purets” and our scientific advocates of wisdom will continue to prove their ancient myths as superior to science, with all the force of their prestigious titles of scientist and researcher. Indeed, our scientists have substantial proof that people of faith tolerate pain better, live longer, and have stronger will power.
Don’t be silly in such situations by saying that you will not accept anything as alternative to skeptical outlook and the the self-revising pursuit of scientific method simply because something else promises you the comfort of unfounded certainty. Don’t try to say that there is a difference between the illiterate villagers’ expediency of comfort in superstition and your duty to pursue scientific inquiry at the cost of pain or frustration that comes from knowing that we continue learning because we don’t have all the answers we want or need. Don’t even point out the difference between the ethical imperatives for learning and educating the society that are vested in a Nepalese scientist in a Nepalese, American, or German university compared to the helplessness you see in the illiterate old woman going to the temple to ask shivaji to save her grandson from AIDS. No, never ever say that it chills your spine when you see a scientist using his modern medical knowledge for making bizarre explanations of the “our” folk medical wisdom and then going on to insist that there was value in keeping the cures in secret. Even if you think that it is bizarre for a modern scientist to insist that old folks had valid medical reason that we don’t today when they stopped giving fluid to a baby with diarrhea, or even if you think it is bizarre for a modern scientist to insist that every single thing that old folks did MUST have valid medical reasons behind them (by “old folks” you should only understand those of the East, especially Hindus, in this context).
Don’t tell no one that such refusal to question and explore, filter and update our social “wisdom” in the service of our society developing or contributing to the development of science and the culture of scientific inquiry is making us more and more powerless against the sweeping destruction of local epistemologies in the world.
Just enjoy the chicken legs and ride back home.
Or write a blog to try to discharge the confusion.