Temples of Modernity

Nationalism, Hinduism, and Transhumanism in South Indian Science

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Robert M. Geraci
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     2018.
     242 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498577748.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Building on earlier work exploring the intersections of science, religion, and technology in the context of Euro-American Christianity, Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism etc., in Temples of Modernity, Robert M. Geraci adopts an anthropological perspective informed by ethnographic study in order to explore interactions between Hinduism, science and technology in South India, specifically Bangalore. Geraci’s concern in the present work is to examine how such interactions play out in the context of “nationalist politics, scientific community structure, and the adoption/adaptation of transhumanism” (1), with a particular focus on how technology can be used to effect transcendence and re-enchant an allegedly disenchanted world, for as Geraci rightly points out, “disenchantment is the myth of modernity, rather than its reality” (4).

Geraci sets out his understanding of religion in the introduction, basing it on David Chidester’s framing of this phenomenon as “the negotiation of what it means to be human with respect to the superhuman and the subhuman” (2). In Chapter 1, Erving Goffman’s performance theory is identified as a suitable framework for theorizing such negotiation. It is here that Geraci articulates his anthropological and postcolonial commitments—situating himself in relation to his ethnographic site of study. In Chapter 2, the entangled role of religion and science in the forging of Indian nationalism is explored, and it is here that Geraci usefully contrasts the different enchanting/sacralizing attitudes toward science and technology adopted by anti-colonial nationalists such as Mohandas K. Gandhi (localism) and Jawaharlal Nehru (statism), both of whom espoused variants of ‘neo-Hinduism’ (50, 56).

Furthermore, in Chapter 3, Geraci goes on to investigate the intersection of science, technology and religion in contemporary postcolonial India, which he suggests should be understood in terms of the persistence of two trends—namely “(1) a Nehruvian spirit of service and (2) faith in the mythological witness of modern technology in ancient India” (67), the latter of which is exemplified best by proponents of Hindutva ideology such as the Indian RSS (that is, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organisation) and BJP (that is, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling right-wing, Hindu nationalist political party with close ideological and organisational links to the RSS). In Chapter 4, Geraci continues the exploration of this intersection, focusing on different ways in which Hindu iconography, imagery, and ritual are engaged by scientists and technologists in different settings and the various attitudes and practices adopted by the aforementioned. In Chapter 5, the narrative takes something of a “futurist” turn insofar as Geraci engages with the Indian reception, and possibly transformation, of transhumanism. In the final chapter, Geraci concludes with some reflections on how religion, science, and technological enchantment must be rethought as a consequence of the exploration of their intersection in non-Western spaces.

While there is much to commend about Geraci’s book, including its historical account of the role of science, technology, and religion in the Indian nationalist anti-colonial struggle, and exploration of the legacy of this struggle in the postcolonial era in both its Hindutva incarnation and transhumanist variant, I suggest that the work is marked by certain shortcomings. To begin with, Geraci ostensibly evinces a rather naïve technological-essentialist and normatively-progressivist view of technology in asserting that “obviously, technological progress visibly improves people’s lives” (72), a claim that obscures the differential benefits and harms associated with the rollout of specific technology.

There is also, arguably, a certain universalizing and essentialist tone at work in Geraci’s assertion that “all over the world, technology provides meaning, wonder, and enchantment for human beings” (5), although perhaps the clearest evidence of such a tendency is his framing of his study as “the particular within the universal” (23), which he explains in terms of his belief that “humanity has a predilection toward technologically enchanting the world” (23). Putting to one side the question as to how the human in “humanity” is to be understood (and by whom), this universal associated with humanity is derived “at least in part, from [his] research into Western technological communities” (23) which, I argue, points to a certain globalizing projection from a Western/Euro-American site to the rest of the world system—although it should be noted, to his credit, that Geraci appears somewhat cognizant of this tendency on his part (178).

I also draw attention to Geraci’s downplaying of the way in which national identity formation involves processes of marginalization, and possible erasure, of prior group identities. While Geraci is right to contrast the exclusionary politics of advocates of Hindutva to the inclusivist politics of post-Nehruvian nationalists, he fails to consider how the two orientations might be related as “dialects” operating within a single “language” (structuring logic), that is, the “neo-Hinduism” he attributes to Gandhi and Nehru.

Finally, Geraci’s suggestion that Indian transhumanism is “forcing” (Western) transhumanism to reconsider certain visionary commitments with a view to effecting a transformation in the conception of transhumanism per se (131–132) betrays a certain “postcolonial naiveite” to the degree that it fails to consider what might be required in political/power-relational terms to unsettle the discursive and socio-material hegemony of Western/Euro-American transhumanism. While Geraci might be correct in holding that Indian pop culture “offers new resources for global transhumanist inquiry” (150), it is not at all clear whether such an offer will be taken up into the dominant discourse, and even if it is, whether such an assimilation results in a transformative reconfiguration of the former or merely its colonial expansion; ironically, I would suggest that Geraci unintentionally lends support to this line of argument in stating that “the dreams of Western futurists become ever so slightly more plausible in the Indian context” (157).

Notwithstanding the above criticisms, I have no hesitation in recommending this work to scholars interested in exploring historical and contemporary entanglements of science, religion, and technology in non-Western contexts, and Geraci is to be commended for expanding the exploration of the reception of transhumanist phenomena to such spaces.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Syed Mustafa Ali is a lecturer at the Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

Date of Review: 
July 14, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert M. Geraci is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College.

Comments

Robert M Geraci

For a more thorough engagement with the ideas of the book (and more favorable review), I invite folks to consider this one composed by Aparajith Ramnath, an historian of science in India. Obviously, I'm rather biased; but I think Prof. Ramnath's reading offers a valuable perspective.  

Prof. Ramnath's review appears in Technology & Culture 62(1).

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.