As in many parts of parts of the world, India is witnessing a hypernationalism on multiple fronts. Through five illustrative cases involving biological claims, Subramaniam explores an emerging bionationalism. The cases are varied, spanning the revival of Vaastushastra, the codification of “unnatural sex in IPC Section 377 (which the Indian Supreme Court recently struck down), the unfolding debates around the veracity of Hanuman and Ram Setu, debates on the geographic origins of Indians through genomic evidence, the revival of traditional systems of Indian medicine through genomics and pharmaceuticals, the growth of and subsequent ban on gestational surrogacy, and the rise of old Vedic gestational sciences.
Moving beyond a critique of India’s emerging bionationalism, Holy Science explores generative possibilities that the rich traditions of South Asian story telling offers us.
The following is an excerpt from the chapter Conceiving a Hindu Nation: (Re) Making the Indian Womb
New Biopolitical Imaginations of Hindu Nationalism
One of the central and ongoing projects that Hindu nationalists have embarked on is to “Hinduize” the nation. Since coming to power in the national government in 2014, they have poured considerable investment into these projects—taking over research institutions, rewriting school textbooks and curricula, and reshaping research and policy agendas. In the realm of biology, Hindu nationalists have sought to modernize and scientize Vedic sciences by reconstructing them in the language of modern genomics. The new Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy (AYUSH) has a separate budget and a higher status than any similar agency has ever had in India’s history. On its web-site, images of Prime Minister Modi in yoga asanas with a large group of followers fill the screen. Over the last year, several efforts at reproductive enhancements using Vedic and Hindu sciences have garnered international attention. These practices and claims have an older history. For example, Lucia Savary (2014) describes what she calls “vernacular eugenics” in India during colonial rule in the early decades of the twentieth century. Known as santati-śāstra (the “science of progeny” or “progeniology”), this emerging branch of knowledge bases its principles on Francis Galton’s “classical eugenics” but has adapted them to Indian eugenics, using Ayurveda or ratiśāstra (ancient texts that deal with conjugal love) as its knowledge base. During this time period, Savary (2014: 381) argues,“western science functioned as a legitimizing source in vernacular texts.” In the more recent projects, what is striking and alarming is the seamless melding of the ancient and the modern to reconfigure Vedic medicine as proven knowledge.
Let’s consider claims of the revival of the ancient Indian tradition of garbh sanskar, or education in the womb. Organizers claim that it “is a scientifically proven fact” and “an amazing way of teaching/educating and bonding with unborn baby in womb during pregnancy.” Its objective is to produce uttam santati, superior children (Sampath 2017). Parents are advised to follow “three months of ‘shuddhikaran (purification)’ for parents, intercourse at a time decided by planetary configurations, complete abstinence after the baby is conceived, and procedural and dietary regulations” (Ashutosh Bharadwaj 2017). Ashutosh Bharadwaj (2017) quotes a doctor as stating, “The shastras prescribe a specific time to have intercourse for pregnancy. Doctors tell couples when they should become intimate on the basis of their horoscope and planetary configurations.” The program involves “purification of the energy channels” (Gowen 2017) and following the religious scriptures. This project, launched in Gujarat a decade ago, has been promoted at the national level since 2015. Its national convener, Dr. Karishma Narwani, states, “Our main objective is to make a Samarth Bharat (strong India) through uttam santati [superior offspring]. Our target is to have thousands of such babies by 2020” (Ashutosh Bharadwaj 2017). Such training extends to Hindu nationalist camps called Arogya Bharati (Gowen 2017).
Through Ayurveda, the program argues, you can produce superior offspring: “The parents may have lower IQ, with a poor educational back-ground, but their baby can be extremely bright. If the proper procedure is followed, babies of dark-skinned parents with lesser height can have fair complexion and grow taller” (R. Mishra 2017). A perfect example of an archaic modernity, the claims originate in both Indian mythology and modern biology. Garbh sanskar (education in the womb), for example, draws on the Indian mythological tale of Abhimanyu. In the Mahabharata, Abhimanyu is described as having learned the art of breaking the “chakravyuh” (a circular trap) inside his mother’s womb as his father narrated the method (Ashutosh Bharadwaj 2017). Alongside this mythological insight, the project introduces bioscientific language. Repeatedly in the numerous projects that have proliferated, one sees the mingling of Indian mythological stories alongside bioscientific language that often proves nonsensical if one examines it carefully. For example:
Garbh sanskar enables “genetic engineering in vivo or inside the womb.” (Indiatimes 2017)
This procedure “repairs genes” by ensuring that genetic defects are not passed on to babies. (Ashutosh Bharadwaj 2017)
Ayurveda has all the details about how we can get the desired physical and mental qualities of babies. IQ is developed during the sixth month of pregnancy. If the mother undergoes specific procedures, like what to eat, listen and read, the desired IQ can be achieved. Thus, we can get a desired, customised baby (Ashutosh Bharadwaj 2017).
Often the personnel have a mixture of traditional and bioscientific training. For example: “Narwani and Jani hold Bachelor’s degrees in ayurveda, medicine and surgery, and Varshney obtained a PhD in biochemistry from Allahabad University in 1986” (Ashutosh Bharadwaj 2017).
All of the projects share a few features. The primary advice seems to be the control of the pregnant woman—making her a happy, docile, accommodating individual. They promote being “good” and religious, reading religious scriptures, listening to the Ramayana, and following austere Hindu values such as eating vegetarian food. The recent trend of violence against meat eaters is significant given that vegetarianism is a cultural practice of only a minority of India’s population (Natrajan and Jacob 2018). The advice is decidedly puritanical in its prohibitions against desire and passion (albeit not against sex!).
Pregnant women have been advised to stay away from “desire or lust”, avoid non-vegetarian food and have spiritual thoughts. . . .
Pregnant women should detach themselves from desire, anger, attachment, hatredness [sic], and lust. Avoid bad company and be with good people in stable and peaceful condition always. . . .
The [government-funded] booklet has also suggested that expecting mothers read about the life of great personalities, keep themselves in “peace” and hang “good and beautiful pictures” in their bedrooms for a healthy baby. (Times of India 2017) The programs and website make grandiose forecasts, including a higher IQ, fair skin, and tall stature for the baby and an easy labor for the mother, as one of the other quotes suggests: “If the mother chants shlokas and mantras, it helps in the mental growth of the baby . . . if she leads such a life, there will be no labour pain and the baby will gain up to 300g more weight” (Ashutosh Bharadwaj 2017; Gowen 2017).
Lest we think these are a few fringe groups, it is important to remember that promotional materials and information are often government funded and featured on government websites. For example, the government-funded Central Council for Research in Yoga and Naturopathy produced a booklet released by the minister of state for AYUSH that contained much of this information (Times of India 2017). Information to produce uttam santati (superior children) has made its way into textbooks in some states. Controversial teachings on how to produce a “superior male child” through diet and melted gold and silver have found their way into the curriculum for a Bachelor of Ayurveda, Medicine, and Surgery (a five-and-a-half-year degree) third-year textbook in the state of Maharashtra (R. Mishra 2017). While these ideas have long circulated in India, with a Hindu nationalist government at the helm promoting such knowledge as Vedic science, these projects are increasingly finding national reach.
The projects and their goals are ambitious. One claims to have already ensured the delivery of 450 “customised babies,” and its target is to have a Garbh Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra (a facilitation center) in every state by 2020 (Indiatimes 2017). They have also begun to incorporate garbh vigyan sanskar (pregnancy science rites) into college curricula.
Most alarming are the hopeful claims linking their projects to the successes of Nazi Germany. Several organizers have repeated the narrative that the project was inspired by the advice a senior Hindu nationalist (RSS) ideologue received over forty years ago in Germany from a woman he called the “Mother of Germany.” The woman is quoted as telling him, “You have come from India, have you not heard of Abhimanyu (the son of Arjuna in the epic Mahabharata)?” Varshney commented, “She told him that the new generation in Germany was born through Garbh Sanskar and that is why the country is so developed” (Ashutosh Bharadwaj 2017).