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The god confusion

Thanks to Jel for the link.

Everyone told me I must go to Akshardham.

It’s a word that’s pronounced from the belly, almost booming, like the name of an ancient Indian warrior. The new Hindu temple on a scrubby wasteland on the outskirts of New Delhi, between the high-rise suburbs to the West and the traffic-jammed centre of town, is as vast as it is glorious.

I had first noticed it six years ago when I was crossing one of the city’s long flyovers to my uncle’s house. Back then it was little more than a construction site. Eleven thousand workers carved the ghostly white stone into soft statues of gods, goddesses and peacocks. Today it also has sixty acres of pristine gardens, a giant film screen and a boat tour. And now it’s completely finished, it gleams in the murky Delhi sunshine like a painting of a beautiful woman hung over a slagheap.

It’s difficult to pass Akshardham and not be impressed by the motivations of the people who built the place. In a poor country, it’s a sumptuous and expensive testament to faith. I’m still disappointed that I never found the time to visit it. Instead, on this particular journey, I happened to stay on my auto rickshaw, bumping over the flyover, until I reached the offices of the Indian Rationalist Association.

One of the puzzles of India for a science journalist like me is that, despite being gloriously nerdy and science-obsessed, this remains among the most religious and superstitious countries on earth. Atheists still haven’t managed to crack a double-digit proportion of the population (the Indian Rationalist Association has 100,000 supporters – less than a hundredth of a per cent of people) and the charm of temples is so undiminished that worshippers can’t stop building new ones. It’s a situation encapsulated in my own family – my dad is an unashamed Indian geek, rational to the core and thoroughly sceptical. My mum, meanwhile, believes her horoscope readings. How the tension between these two ways of life is being resolved is one of the questions I wanted to answer while I was writing Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World.

I’m not the first to explore this territory. There have been attempts to wean Indians away from irrational traditions for at least sixty years. After India won independence from the British in 1947, the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (who had studied natural sciences at Cambridge University), tried to inject a wave of modern thinking through the population. The constitution even includes a call for citizens to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform”.

Were he still alive, Nehru might be satisfied to know that science and engineering have never been more fashionable. But while churning out hundreds of thousands of geeky graduates, India does remain a country as seemingly attached to gods and goddesses as it was two thousand years ago. Indeed, the historian Meera Nanda in her book The God Market has argued that it’s only becoming more pious as it develops.

Some observers have said that enormously high levels of adult illiteracy make it inevitable that some Indians will fall under the spell of miracle-men, fake cures and lucky charms. Meanwhile others have suggested there’s something fundamentally fluid about Hinduism that makes it curiously able to absorb new ideas and survive the times.

It’s not just the case that a proportion of Indians are traditional and religious while the rest live separate, purely rational lives. The two do more than overlap: Sanal Edamaruku, the head of the Rationalist Association – and a rare breed here having been raised an atheist – describes India’s unshakeable religiosity as a sort of mental dualism, where everyday rationalism and age-old superstitions co-exist without being questioned. On the day I visited him in his office, past Akshardham, he was dealing with the bizarre case of a guru in the eastern state of Bihar who had claimed that by standing on the chest of an infant and reciting mantras, he could prolong the kid’s life. Stories like this arrive on Edamaruku’s doorstep every week.

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