Looking Back at the Festival of Festivals: Idea of India Part 6

Idea of India Part 6

The Idea of Cognitive Dissonance

By Harish Alagappa, Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger

Every Indian family has that one member, whose standard response to any new development in science and technology is to claim that India knew about it all along. The question of why Ancient India chose not to capitalize on their millennia-old technological advantage if they already knew all about computers, nuclear power, the theory of relativity, aviation, and genetic engineering, is patronizingly dismissed. Obviously, there is a global conspiracy where hundreds of thousands of people — scientists, administrators, educators, academics, and even students — unite in effective secrecy with the sole intention of denying India’s contributions across every known field of study.

The idea of such a conspiracy is laughable. We live in a world where governments and multinational corporations have had their deepest, darkest secrets splashed across the internet for all to see, and where even a President of the United States was forced to resign due his inability to cover up a rather simple breaking and entering case. In the West, conspiracy theories like the one mentioned above are usually the domain of a small but vocal minority of people. In India, the idea that India is the fount of all knowledge that has ever been discovered and will ever be discovered — is accepted without question by a very large percentage of the population.

Paradoxically, many of the staunchest believers in this come from academically distinguished backgrounds. For example, there was the infamous paper claiming to prove that Indians had invented and flown aircraft during the Vedic Age over two and a half thousand years ago, which were more technologically advanced than those existing today, This paper was presented at the 102nd Indian Science Congress in January 2015, and the co-authors were Professors from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, a premier university. How can a society that puts an infamously large emphasis on scientific education also accept such seemingly unscientific practices?

On closer examination, it might have something to do with India’s long and complex history with the phenomenon of Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual holding two contradictory thoughts in their head at the same time. For example, a rational person might have a certain belief in a certain idea, say, that climate change is not happening. When confronted with irrefutable evidence, that person would find their mind occupied by two ideas (‘climate change is a lie’ and ‘this evidence shows climate change is happening’) that are mutually exclusive, and solves the problem by blocking out or rationalising away one of the ideas. India, though, doesn’t seem to do that.


ISRO Chairman


Indian physics students would have no problem solving the equations showing that symmetry-breaking in the early universe led to the separation of the grand unified force into the four fundamental forces we know today, and an Indian anthropologist would have no problem differentiating Homo ergaster from Homo habilis based on differences in the anatomy of their skulls. Yet these same people might still perform religious rites in praise of Brahma as the creator of the universe, or believe that we are currently in the seventh Manvantara, an age of humanity defined as being equivalent to around 306 million years, equivalent to a day in the life of Brahma. Indians, including Indian scientists, often embrace a spiritual foundation and connection to their religion that is almost completely absent in their western counterparts. According to research being conducted by Rice University, 65% of UK scientists identify themselves as nonreligious, compared with only 6% of their Indian counterparts.

Many religious people around the world view any scientific advancement as a threat to their theological foundations. Fundamentalist Christians in the United States are expected to deny the existence of evolution, as it contradicts the six-day creation story of the Bible. Fundamentalist interpretations of Islam reject science entirely, such as the West African terror organization ‘Boko Haram’, whose name translates to ‘Western education is a sin’. Hindu fundamentalism has also exhibited similarly anti-academic tendencies with the social sciences, but physical sciences are, so far, held as sacrosanct in the eyes of even the most fanatical Bajrang Dal hardliner.

This ability of Indian society to compartmentalize, to accept two apparently mutually exclusive spheres of human endeavour as equally true, despite the existence of very basic disagreements between the two, is an almost unique phenomenon. Pluralism is one of the most quintessentially Indian ideas out there. The Hindu religion is replete with Gods who have sinned and demons who have done virtuous deeds. Vedanta philosophy features the core belief in multiple paths to achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth, even if they are mutually contradictory. These ideas, which to many define India, set the foundation for a national ability to use cognitive dissonance as a skill rather than a weakness.

We live in a world of polar opposites; our education system, the media, and society at large try to force us into seeing the world as a series of dualities. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” is one of the most famous quotes from a twenty-first century world leader in the West. Yet, the ability to find sense in cognitive dissonance and use it to advance with global civilization, without losing out on the mythology, beliefs, and customs that have shaped and continue to define India, is a highly underestimated skill. At a time when the narrative of ‘the clash of civilizations’ is overtaking the zeitgeist, the idea that cognitive dissonance might not need to be so dissonant after all is an Idea of India that truly could make a profound contribution to the world.

© Harish Alagappa 2016. All rights reserved.


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