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Updated: December 7, 2013 17:23 IST
Armchair with a View

Move on with tradition

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Illustration: Satwik Gade
The Hindu
Illustration: Satwik Gade

There are umpteen things that do not require scientific validation.

Oscar Wilde says, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Beauty is a form of Genius — is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty.”

Having read that on my iPad, I suddenly was tempted to do a Google search for something that had been bothering me for a while. I typed “Scientific reason behind” in the search bar and Google auto-suggested terms like Diwali, Navratri, Sacred thread, Rangoli and so on. I was intrigued.

Like the quintessential troublemaker who needs to enter the room with a “Do not enter” sign, I clicked on the link for “Scientific reason behind Sacred thread” and I was not disappointed. The author began with a supremely confident “As you will be aware…”, an argumentative trick quite commonly used to establish intellectual superiority right at the outset by implying that those who may not be aware should automatically consider what is going to follow to be truth that does not need further verification. As you might be aware, Pluto has anaerobic cyanobacteria on its surface, for example.

This author continued, “The pituitary gland is responsible for generating hormones that aid in the functioning of our urinary system and reproductive organs.” Hmm, well, as it turns out, he is not wrong. He even proceeds to link to a reference site about the gland on a famous hospital/university’s website. Well done! True people of science do not link to Wikipedia. They link to peer-reviewed papers published in eminent journals. So far, so good. The reader is slowly starting to nod his head in appreciation of what is obviously backed by the solid foundations of science.

And that is when the author unleashed: “Now please refer to this other link that establishes the connection between applying pressure on one’s ears and its effect on the pituitary gland, which in turn affects our urinary system” and links to a slightly dubious website about auricular acupuncture. Now, I am not a doctor but I do know for a fact that most doctors are wary of alternative medicine (Homoeopathy, crystal therapy and deboorinazarificative lemons for instance) but I decided to temporarily silence the skepticism genies that were gathering to whisper into my ear and read on a bit more. A willing suspension of rational belief, I called it.

The author proceeded to link to several more acupuncture websites in drastically decreasing order of reputation to finally arrive at his stunning conclusion.  Sacred threads benefit our urinary system. It took me a little while to process that Q.E.D, but I did realise that ear lobe manipulations are part of the ritual ceremony behind sacred threads, among other things. The author signed off with a lament about the lack of more substantive historical evidence of our glorious scientific past due to Muslim invasions. If there is a cycle gap, an invading army will always squeeze through, it would seem.

By now, the scepticism genies were armed to the teeth, assembled on my shoulders, trumpeting scientific fact after fact into my ears, all ammunition for my soon-to-be-typed response to this blog post. Clearly, someone was wrong on the Internet and, more importantly, someone had misused science to make questionable connections between the unscientific past and the glorious techno-utopia that is modern day life. This shall not stand. Fancy GRE and GMAT words that subtly insult while sounding smart were being prepared. Knuckles cracked. Rationality delivered a rousing motivational speech and uttered a war cry.

And that is when, like Arjuna on the battlefield or a virus-infected Windows computer, I froze. Surely my superior science had real nuclear weapons compared to his mythological Brahmastra, but did we really have to fight? I reminisced on battles past, where the hammer of true science was used to quash pseudoscience on the interwebs. I wondered what it really meant. Did I convince peddlers of pseudoscience that they were wrong? Perhaps not. Did I do the civic duty of ensuring that other readers do not fall a prey to pseudoscience? I don’t know.

But I started to think about why so many of us have this compulsive and obsessive need to somehow retroactively force-fit traditions into a contemporary scientific framework. Is that more than any actual scientific relevance (or the lack of it), the real root of this pointless debate? We cherish festivals like Navratri or Diwali because they bring people together and it’s a whole lot of great food and good fun. A sacred thread ceremony is a coming-of-age milestone that marks the transition from childhood to early adulthood. It’s part of one’s identity. Rangoli is art. It’s beauty. It’s symmetry. It gives us joy. Bhajan music is rooted in faith and yet soars and expands into our consciousness like a million flowers in bloom. None of this requires  scientific validation.If someone does not enjoy classical music because the lyrics are religious, he is being ridiculous beyond belief.

Modern day science is largely a product of the industrial revolution even if several basic breakthroughs happened parallely in ancient civilisations. Our fastest mode of land transport was a horse since the dawn of its domestication to the 1900s and, in less than 100 years after that, Voyager left the Solar System. Ancient man had no comparable technological context in which to ground ritual, tradition or art. So why do we waste our time trying to use bad science to do it now?

As long as traditions don’t do us any harm, they don’t need scientific validation to be relevant. They will be relevant because we human beings take our roots and identity seriously.

We also love sunlight without knowing that it’s a product of a cataclysmic conversion of hydrogen to helium.


Cracking fingers is his forte July 3, 2014

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