By Andreas Nehring
In my lecture I have been reflecting on a specific form of epistemology and on the use of science in a globally engaged field where tools of academic natural sciences are integrated with religious beliefs, practices, and traditions. I am concerned with a critical reflection on heterogeneous forms of knowledge production and their interactions with local livelihoods, practices, and policies. The flow of knowledge between societies goes in more than one or even two directions. It goes—and has gone for a considerable time—both from the West to other parts of the world, but also from non-Western parts of the globe to the West, and between non-Western societies. I attempt to elaborate on this by focusing only on the example of a fire ritual, called Agnihotra, that is performed and used for scientific research in India today.
In the course of globalization, cultural contact has led to the exchange of epistemologies that influence each other, as well as various forms of criticism of the dominance of Western epistemologies. Epistemic differences between cultural expressions, however, not only challenge the self-understanding of a global movement, both politically and socially but increasingly connect to macro scientific developments and discourses. The existence of societies whose own epistemologies are firmly embedded in and informed by their institutions and cosmologies calls for a critical revision of the global application of one “rationality.”
The world is facing global challenges such as climate change, food security, public health, and sustainable energy. Challenges like these, alongside those of peace, justice, and economic equality, require critical reflection on knowledge, on the multiple sides of knowledge production, and on the diversity of knowledge. In this context, religious studies is called to engage more fully with issues of global knowledge production and alternative forms of knowledge that often remain on the periphery of mainstream epistemology. I became aware of the importance of this challenge for religious studies when I met two professors from an Indian University who argued that: “Indian ancient Vedic science … has become more relevant in the 21st century because of other global crises and threats.” (Chaturvedi & Rastogi 2022, 1).
Despite the unidirectional implications of colonial and postcolonial theories, the dominance of sciences developed in the Western hemisphere has been questioned or even rejected in post-and decolonial approaches to epistemology in recent years.
Yet another implication of the recent awareness of the ambivalent role of epistemologies is that science is being used creatively to validate cultural and even religious practices and convictions as relevant to counter the various global challenges. This is what interests me for my lecture in which I examined a recent development that has been called Vedic Science in India and in the Indian diaspora. I do not intend to cover the broad range of Vedic Science that has emerged in recent years but will limit myself to attempts to provide scientific evidence for the effects of Vedic fire rituals. The background to this attempt is that there is a growing discoursive field in India where there is a need to rejuvenate the sciences that are claimed to be already grounded in the ancient Vedic texts, and to allow this scientific knowledge to reach society at large, and to provide opportunities for this science to even be exported to the world. One argument is that the Vedas, recognized by Western orientalist scholars as early as the 19th Century as the most ancient literature of the world, express principles based on the “eternal laws of nature” and therefore should be considered applicable in all times and places.
According to these descriptions, Vedic science includes a dimension of reality, that with the help of so-called “modern science” can be demonstrated to be valid and measurable, and it can contribute to the improvement of living conditions.
My interest in studying Vedic Science was ignited when I encountered the subject some time ago at a conference at an Indian University in Dayalbagh/Agra. What prompted me to explore the role of Vedic Science in India was my understanding that such a subject would be considered “esoteric” or a “superstitious belief” with no rational foundation in the Western-informed intellectual paradigm, while it can be considered rational in another paradigm of thought where it is supported by such hegemonic institutional status that it is taught and researched in universities.
My encounter with scholars at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, a putative college belonging to the Radhasoami Satsang in Dayalbagh, lead not to the question of whether or not the claimed results of their research on Agnihotra are true, but to my further enquiry about the value of truth attached to this knowledge in Indian society and the genealogy of this thinking.
I try to view research on the Agnihotra ritual neither as irrational belief nor as superstition, but as a field of knowledge production, and I attempt to understand the rationality with which this knowledge is endowed in the context in which it is practiced.
What has struck me is the growing number of scientific publications documenting the efficacy of this ritual, particularly for health and the preservation or even improvement of the environment. Not only in India but also in other parts of the world, the ritual is performed by a growing number of practitioners who celebrate Agnihotra or Homa, thereby referring to an ancient Vedic ritual.
Although Agnihotra and other fire rituals have never completely vanished from the Indian scene, it is safe to assume that Vedic fire rituals have lost their relevance to daily practice in Hinduism in the course of history. Therefore, it is all the more astonishing that today, not only in India but in many parts of the world, the Agnihotra ritual is performed regularly, and that new meanings are associated with this ritual.
Agnihotra experienced a revitalization in the context of the neo-Hindu reform movement, whose goal was to halt a supposed decline of Hindu culture caused by the British colonial government. The rationality and authenticity of the traditions had to be proven in the shadow of Western power.
Hindu reformers invoked earlier Orientalist research to try to show that in ancient India, long before the Europeans realized it, achievements had been made in fields ranging from mathematics to medicine, and they declared that their ancient texts contained scientific truths only recently discovered by Europeans. In fact, they claimed that science was originally Hindu and that the “irrationality” of contemporary Hinduism was the result of the loss of ancient Hindu wisdom due to the corruption of Brahmanical mythology. After India’s independence in 1947, numerous Hindu nationalist organizations invoked these early reformers and set out to fight the secular state and revive a “golden age” of Hinduism. Research on Agnihotra in India shows that the contemporary intention is to invest the ritual with meaning by linking it to global environmental and health issues and giving it significance beyond the Indian context. The ancient Agnihotra ritual has not been displaced from Indian society, as one might assume in light of numerous theories of secularization. Rather, it has been modernized and adapted to a contemporary theme.
Prof. Dr. Andreas Nehring is a Director at CAS-E. Until recently he was also the Professor of Religious Studies and Intercultural Theology at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg. His research project at CAS-E is titled “Alternative Rationalities and the Reinvention of Tradition: The Case of Vedic Science.
Chaturvedi, Devendra Kumar & Rastogi, Rohit. 2022. “Scientific Aspects of the Indian Vedic Sciences and Their Effect on Stress”. International Journal of Reliable and Quality E-Healthcare 11, no.1: 1-20.
Image credits: Image 1: Agnihotra Aktuell. 2019, Nr.8, p. 3. Image 2: https://agnihotra.pl/en/how-to-practise/
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