The relativists and the religious

Science and the Indian Tradition
August 17, 2007

David Gosling, principal of Edwardes College at the University of Peshawar, Pakistan, and a former fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge, combines a background in nuclear physics with a commitment to ecology and a training in Christian theology. His earlier book Religion and Ecology in India and South East Asia explored the interrelationship of environmental and development issues in relation to Hindu thought and Indian culture. Here, he stands back from the detail of that discussion to explore the significance of the intellectual renaissance in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the effects of the introduction of Western science into India at that time.

Gosling begins with a survey of science in India - "the next knowledge superpower" - and embeds it in the themes discussed by Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, in the 1920s and 1930s: the nature of the divine, the relationship between religion and science, the nature of humanity, the concept of truth and scientific and religious methodology. These form the subject matter of his erudite study.

He explores the events and various people who shaped the conversations between science and religion in modern India, noting the work of Ram Mohun Roy, Debendranath Tagore, Keshub Chunder Sen and others in the 19th century, and then the growing development of science as English increasingly became the language of instruction, into the 20th.

Gosling explores the convergence of some of the sciences under common theories in relation to Vedantic, Islamic and Indian Christian thought. The fundamental Indian insight concerning the unity and interrelatedness of all things affected the work of many of the responses to Western science, notably those of P. C. Roy and Jagadish Chandra Bose. The introduction of Western education into India, with its philosophies and technologies, had a huge secularising effect.

This book offers a rather demanding summary of some of Einstein's key achievements, referring also to the work of Indian scientist S. N. Bose, whose correspondence with Einstein led to some refinements of relativity theory, and with a passing reflection on the dangers of linking philosophical or theological ideas too closely with specific scientific theories. Gosling then offers a summary of the work of a number of significant Indian scientists, many of whom interpreted their work as an expression of religious convictions.

Gosling includes results of a questionnaire in which he asked postgraduate students at five major educational institutions about the relationship of faith and science. He concluded that, while science does not have a negative effect on religious belief, there is an inverse correlation between the degree of perceived conflict between science and religion and the importance attached to religion. There were slight differences between Hindus and Christians.

The author finally returns to the Einstein-Tagore conversations, which he uses to illustrate his thesis that what has often been a narrow discussion of the relationship between science and religion benefits from being situated in a much broader inter-faith context that takes into account the internal debates within each field.

Let him have the last word: "All religions have important things to say about what it means to be human... but they need to dialogue more effectively with the scientists whose new discoveries are forcing the pace of change. And within that dialogue, representatives of the non-Western world must be invited to play a greater role."

David Atkinson is Bishop of Thetford.

Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein Met Tagore

Author - David L. Gosling
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 186
Price - £75.00
ISBN - 9780415402095

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