Learning from the scientists: Big step on moon cannot be accompanied by smallness of mind

No one in ISRO said ‘I’ did it. The ISRO leadership gave full credit to leaders, past and present. They showcased the team spirit that is so crucial for the mission. In the words of the ISRO chief: “This is not our work alone. It is the work of a generation of ISRO leadership and ISRO scientists … This is incremental progress.”

Jagdish Rattanani Aug 30, 2023
ISRO chief, Dr. S Somanath visited Pournamikavu Bhadrakali temple in Thiruvananthapuram (Photo: Twitter)

India is over the moon, having landed its craft on the south pole and becoming only the fourth country to land on the lunar surface. There is understandably a sense of euphoria, pride and sheer joy at what the nation has achieved.  We have travelled far. But Indian thought and spiritual traditions teach us that we learn a lot more when we look inside. It is the ISRO chief, Dr. S Somanath who touched on this lightly during a visit to the Bhadra Kali temple in Thiruvananthapuram days after the successful touchdown on the lunar surface. He said: “I come to many temples, I read many scriptures, try to find the meaning of our existence and our journey in this cosmos … I am an explorer. I explore the moon. I (also) explore the inner space.”

Inner space is where all journeys begin and end. Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1930-2015), one of the foremost exponents of Vedanta, a revered scholar and teacher whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi respected, taught this with telling effect expounding on the very first line of the Bhagavad Gita. The holy book begins with the blind King Dritharashtra asking Sanjaya, his witness: Gathered on the battlefield, desiring to fight it out, what did “my people” and the “sons of Pandu” do? His sons are his people; his brother Pandu’s sons are not, and this is where the battle begins. All battles are on the inside and our body and its actions form the battlefield of Kurukshetra where dharma will be tested, Swami Dayanand Saraswati teaches, in a manner and style that remains unforgettable.

Evidence-based practitioners of science

In bringing up inner space at a time of outer pride, Dr. Somanath stands out among a rare set of evidence-based practitioners of the scientific method who have at the same time made a place for exploring the idea of spirituality in their lives. The ISRO chief’s high performance in space exploration is rooted in his love for the methods of science, as indeed it must be. But instead of turning this into a tool to use the language of domination and control, or to torture nature to force it to reveal its secrets, as the father of the scientific revolution Francis Bacon (1561-1626) put it, the Indian tradition is to respect nature, to worship nature and to learn from it.

Without the approach and tools of science, blind belief runs the risk of listening to and promoting backward and superstitious thoughts of the kind Jawaharlal Nehru railed against. This is the very approach some of the ruling elite and their minions have brought back in the name of rediscovering our roots. On the other hand, without reverence for nature and all that it has provided us, the enterprise runs the risk of becoming an exploitative model that has brought us the age of the Anthropocene and the climate crisis that confronts humanity today. The crisis is global and its answer comes in the form of various ecological movements that are raising new questions on the idea of progress for mankind. These challenges are completely alien to the ruling elite and the minions who speak the language of domination and in the process go about destroying natural systems in the mindless hope that this is how India can grow and become a superpower in the new order.

Success in the moon landing has come at a time of political turmoil when the temple has become a weapon, spirituality has been turned into militant saffron and scriptures are cited carelessly or to lend an aggressive tone to texts that are known for communicating and celebrating oneness. As Rumi put it: “We carry inside us the wonders we seek outside us.” Equally, we may argue, the divisions that break the nation today are the divisions that we carry inside us. The simple antidote to this is to endeavor to understand both sides. Or as the ISRO chief put it, “It is a part of the journey of my life to explore both science and spirituality. It’s a part of the culture we have built to explore the inner self as well as the outer self.”

Spirituality triggers deep inquiry

Needless to say, spirituality is not religiosity. A person practicing any religion, or indeed practicing no religion at all, can be as or more spiritual than a mantra-spouting believer. Spirituality connects myriad strands and triggers deep inquiry that resonates across timeframes, geographies, and religious belief systems and celebrates a million approaches to it.

The current crisis facing India today is brought by a leadership that understands neither the inside nor the outside and does a disservice to both. It does no justice to the scientific approach when theories are propounded of how surgery was invented in India or how we had airplanes and ‘pushback-vimanas’ thousands of years ago. It does even more injustice in its mindless quest for faster GDP growth by careless and thoughtless plunder of nature, by politics that divides and makes one group fight the other, by growing inequality and by the preferential treatment to a select super-rich.

If everything is reduced to the immediate profit-and-loss kind of thinking without long-term visionary thinking, then it is no surprise that India’s important big step on the moon has also been accompanied by the smallness of the mind.

Penchant for drawing political mileage

The row over how the PM  Modi diverted to Bengaluru to meet the scientists at ISRO, and asked Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah not to receive him or travel with him as protocol dictates, is unseemly. The nation would have stood taller with double the joy if the two leaders of the two parties had stood side by side as they congratulated India's scientists who made it happen. This was clearly no occasion for “barring” the Chief Minister or his deputy D K Shivakumar. Modi should have known that his explanation that he did not wish to “disturb” the state leaders would not wash, given the celebratory popular mood over the success of the moon mission, the upcoming 2024 national elections and the BJP’s penchant for drawing political mileage.

The episode will hopefully be soon forgotten as the nation basks in the glory of its scientists and how they work. We can learn from them on this front, too. No one in ISRO said ‘I’ did it. Team members were invited to face the cameras. The ISRO leadership gave full credit to leaders, past and present. They showcased the team spirit that is so crucial for the mission. In the words of the ISRO Chief: “This is not our work alone. It is the work of a generation of ISRO leadership and ISRO scientists … This is incremental progress.”

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press) 

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