Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fly Me to the Deity

An interesting opinion essay by Tunku Varadarajan in the New York
Times about Chandrayaan below--

"An unmanned spacecraft from India — that most worldly and yet
otherworldly of nations — is on its way to the moon. For the first
time since man and his rockets began trespassing on outer space, a
vessel has gone up from a country whose people actually regard the
moon as a god.

The Chandrayaan (or "moon craft") is the closest India has got to the
moon since the epic Hindu sage, Narada, tried to reach it on a ladder
of considerable (but insufficient) length — as my grandmother's
bedtime version of events would have it. So think of this as a modern
Indian pilgrimage to the moon.

As it happens, a week before the launching, millions of Hindu women
embarked on a customary daylong fast, broken at night on the first
sighting of the moon's reflection in a bowl of oil. (This fast is done
to ensure a husband's welfare.) But reverence for the moon is not
confined to traditional Indian housewives: The Web site of the Indian
Space Research Organization — the body that launched the Chandrayaan —
includes a verse from the Rig Veda, a sacred Hindu text that dates
back some 4,000 years: "O Moon! We should be able to know you through
our intellect,/ You enlighten us through the right path."

One is tempted, in all this, to dwell on the seeming contradiction
between religion and science, between reason and superstition. And
yet, anyone who has been to India will have noted also its "modernity
of tradition." The phrase, borrowed from the political scientists
Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, might explain the ability of devout Hindus
— many of them, no doubt, rocket scientists — to see no disharmony
between ancient Vedic beliefs and contemporary scientific practice.

The Hindu astrological system is predicated on lunar movements: so the
moon is a big deal in astrology-obsessed India. That said, the genius
of modern Hinduism lies in its comfort with, and imperviousness to,
science. A friend tells me of an episode from his childhood in
Varanasi, the sacred Hindu city. Days after Apollo 11 landed on the
moon, a model of the lunar module was placed in a courtyard of the
most venerable temple in the city. The Hindu faithful were hailing
man-on-the-moon; there was no suggestion that the Americans had
committed sacrilege. (Here, I might add — with a caveat against
exaggeration — that science sometimes struggles to co-exist with faith
in the United States in ways that would disconcert many Indians.)

Of course, the Chandrayaan is also a grand political gesture — space
exploration in the service of national pride. This kind of excursion
may provoke yawns at NASA, but judging from round-the-clock local
coverage it has received, the mission has clearly inflamed the
imagination and ambition of Indians. Yes, even moon-worshipping ones."

Read this essay at the NY Times Website at--

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