Mangalyaan + Unlucky Tuesdays

Chetan Bhagat

Few Indian achievements have led to instant national pride as much as the success of ISRO’s Mangalyaan or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) to Mars. Media gushed, Twitter and Facebook celebrated while every politician and celebrity congratulated ISRO for days. The last comparable Indian gush was the cricket World Cup victory in 2011.
Make no mistake, to place a satellite in Mars orbit at the first attempt is no small feat. That it was done on a $75 million budget, the cheapest Mars mission so far, makes it even more remarkable. The zeal of ISRO staff along with cutting-edge science made the mission successful. India’s pride at MOM’s success is justified. However, even as the media machine moves us to other topics, it is worth asking — has MOM made us Indians appreciate and respect science a bit more?
Indians have a schizophrenic relationship with science. On one hand, we want our kids to take science subjects in school. Exams to get into top engineering and medical colleges are among the toughest in the world. Our students get top scores in science and mathematics, pushing cut-offs higher and higher. If some alien from say Mars were to see this, he would think India is a land obsessed with science. And yet, in many ways we are completely unscientific.
More superstitions exist in our country than any other. I am sure many of you have been fed curd and sugar right before a science exam, as a sign of luck. As if some audit department of God above is noting who are the kids who ate it and hence makes them deserving of a simpler exam. Babas, astrologers, horoscopes abound. Temple visits are associated with guilt, and often include some sort of a transaction. Place some money in front of the idol and in return some luck will come your way, implying that is how God thinks about us.
Religious ceremonies spill out on the road, leaving behind a trail of filth and noise pollution. As if that is what a God above wants — make the city filthy, bother others, cause traffic jams, make parents reach home to their kids later and then i will be touched by your love.
We also have gods for rain. If a crop suffers due to lack of rain, it is obviously an act of the rain gods. It is not the fault of the irrigation department, which may have had decades of funding but couldn’t stabilise irrigation in the area. If there are floods in Uttarakhand it is God’s wrath, and doesn’t have anything to do with poor environmental planning and unchecked construction.
If I believe in one God and somebody else in another, the other person is separate from me. If people who believe in my God die, it is more terrible than if people who believe in the other God do.
I don’t want to go on and on. All I am trying to say is, do we take the greater message from the ISRO mission? Do we change anything about ourselves?
When sick, we pop pills developed over decades by scientists. We use phones made by scientists to communicate. I type this on a computer made by scientists, and you read this on a screen or paper made with technology. And yet, would you say we Indians have a scientific temperament?
The answer is no, we don’t. We want our kids to study science, because it enables them to do professional degrees that will help them get a job. We want to use science for our selfish interests, but want the option to reject it when it doesn’t suit our purposes. For example, gay rights have a scientific basis. However, we don’t like those findings and so we bring all sorts of other arguments against them.
If you broaden the definition of science to logical thinking, we fail even more. Almost any argument of tradition, morality, culture and even misplaced patriotism is considered superior to science, if the latter rocks the boat.
Still, we want to celebrate ISRO and MOM. Well, if we really do want to congratulate ISRO, the best contribution we can make is to give science a little more respect in our lives. At its core, science involves logical thinking and a questioning attitude, until a logical and rational solution is arrived at.
We do not have to shun religion. Religion and science are in conflict sometimes. However, given how deeply religious we are, it is unlikely we can switch over to becoming a purely scientific nation. We have to make both coexist. And in most cases, making science and religion coexist simply involves having a sense of faith to guide you on the path of positivity and goodness; while at the same time using common sense and reasoning to do what is best for you and society.
If India wants to belong to the modern world — which I think we do given the delirious joy we feel when the developed world acknowledges us — we have to become more scientific. Let the successful mission to Mars be a turning point in the way we look at our world. Let there be God in our hearts. But let there also be science in our minds.

Courtesy: Times of India