Please welcome this month's Scicurious Guest Writer, Roshan Karki!!!
Kathmandu: A city with a great sense of rumor
"It is a miracle! Ganesh is drinking milk!"
The exclamation came from a frenzied crowd gathered near the temple. Pushing my way through the disoriented mass, chanting hymns and carrying milk-offerings, I finally made it next to the shrine of Ganesh - a revered Hindu deity with its characteristic elephant-head. People were frantically hustling each other to offer milk to the statue in spoons, often spilling each others' expensive commodity. The impatient devotees were simply pouring milk indiscriminately from above. The statue was already wet, and a small milk-puddle had begun to form near its concrete base. Nevertheless, devotees claimed that the statue was magically siphoning off their milk-offerings. Chants of “divine miracle” from the crowd grew louder and fervent.
I was confused and curious. Something seemed amiss here. Was the milk really disappearing off the statue? It was pretty difficult to tell in that chaos. Who would I ask? As a middle-school student, I did not dare to question the adults in that crowd who were already sold on the miracle.
(Statue of Ganesh- the Elephant God. Shared under CC license)
Around the world, Nepal conjures up images of the majestic Himalayas, exotic flora and fauna, trekking and river-rafting adventures, and timeless traditions shrouded in mystery. In the midst of this natural splendor, it is easy to overlook its severe socio-economic challenges; tough geographic terrain, low literacy rate, growing population, and almost non-functioning government have stymied Nepal’s development. It is a country barely larger than the state of Arkansas, crammed with 30 million people from 60 ethnic groups that speak over hundred different languages. Within this complex scenario, myriad superstitions - some harmless, some illogical, some fascinating, and some dangerous, have also emerged and lingered for generations.
Superstitions permeate every aspect of life, even in the capital city of Kathmandu. In the most educated of families, it is customary to find menstruating women, who are deemed to be impure, being barred from coming in contact with other family members. Astrologers are routinely consulted to match horoscopes between potential marriage couples, to project the success of a business venture, or to simply avoid an upcoming calamity. Then, there are modern day hoaxes that capture public imagination: statues of deities magically manifesting sacred ashes, a ghost spooking citizens in broad daylight at the heart of the city, and state officials sacrificing an animal to fix an electrical glitch in an airplane.
(Patan Durbar Square: This UNESCO heritage site is in Patan, one of three satellite cities of Kathmandu Valley. Shared under CC license)
Worse, innocuous family astrologers and gurus, who orchestrate family rituals and festivals, are losing their clout to a new breed of self-proclaimed god-men, who profess to have divine powers; predicting natural disasters like earthquake, curing diseases from common cold to rare cancers, or using mysterious powers to heal disabled people. Some are also responsible for inciting violence against poor and marginalized women, accusing them of practicing witchcraft. Not surprisingly, none of these so-called gurus have predicted anything significant, let alone any disaster except for causing panic in the community. Instead, they have preyed upon the poor people and ailing patients, worsening their illnesses.
One would expect such charlatans to be derided, but instead, they are revered and enjoy a respected following in society. Doctors, bankers, teachers, government officials, community leaders, and politicians (and sometimes foreign tourists) often visit these pseudo-gurus for regular advice and blessings. These gurus are rumored to have “divine and mysterious powers”, which cannot be explained by science.
Cultural attitude towards questioning: a cardinal sin
As evening wore on, my neighborhood went into a raucous celebration as news channels trumpeted the phenomenon of the concrete Ganesh statue magically siphoning off milk. Reports from other parts of the country, neighboring India, and all over the world also confirmed this milk miracle. The King paid homage to the Ganesh Temple, and the Royal Priest made a cameo on the radio explaining the miracle is an auspicious sign for Nepal. People from all walks of life gathered in our alley and began to make way towards a revered Guru, who lived in our vicinity. Supposedly, he would help people make some sense of what was happening. I did not get to go to this exclusive get together. But the Guru had apparently indicated that the miracle was the beginning of a prophecy foretold in ancient times that the Gods would descend down upon earth to rectify human’s misdeeds.
Critiquing and inquiring might be at the heart of science communication, but in Nepal, it feels like a cardinal sin. From a very young age, you are to absolutely respect your elders - parents, teachers, relatives, or the gurus. Even when someone braves cultural displeasure and finally asks the questions, the answers are far from satisfying. For instance, many superstitions are simply derived from ancient myths, which are still revered blindly today even if not taken literally. When young people are not encouraged to inquire and critique about every day life, they risk being the same authoritative adults in the future, who will suppress critical thinking of the subsequent generation.
Despite this, there is a high premium on science education in Nepal. Scientific professions, notably doctors and engineers, are regarded with utmost respect due to the likelihood of financial security they provide, and these professions are the perennial dreams of parents in cities and villages alike. Parents sacrifice, financially and otherwise, to make this dream a reality and push their children very early to do well in science. But scientific learning is to be limited to books, and scientific questioning in everyday life is not encouraged. Even in school classrooms, teachers love authoritative teaching, where asking too many questions or critiquing a lecture in class is highly discouraged. A student’s indicator of success depends upon memorizing the subject matter (sometimes down to the prepositions and conjunctions) and being able to write it again during exams. The lack of problem-solving skills and creativity is widespread among adults and affects the labor market severely in the long run. Science encourages one to ask tough questions, identify problems, and evokes curiosity and innovation. Such innovation is necessary to bring change in the society and facilitate development in impoverished nations like Nepal. Unfortunately, this version of science is currently non-existent in the public discourse.
Institutions and the media: A well-rounded apathy for science
(Un)fortunately, the next evening, after the magical phenomenon of Ganesh statues drinking milk, RONAST (Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology - now NAST), an autonomous apex body established to promote science and technology in the country, had a special broadcast on television, a first of its kind. The scientists, using household porcelain cups, demonstrated how the mechanism of "capillary action" and NOT any miracle was responsible for giving the illusion of siphoning off milk by concrete statues. Capillary action and surface tensions were two most recent subjects taught in our science class, and I was excited to go back to school the next day. In the school bus, few students seemed interested about the busting of the miracle; instead many retold their tales of family pilgrimage to all Ganesh temples in the city to offer hundreds of liters of expensive milk. Much to my dismay, the science teachers did not even bring up the subject. Unlike many religious nations, religion in Kathmandu is casual at best. Thus, the discussion of a milk miracle in the class would not have hurt anyone’s sentiments. But it was never discussed. Compared to the hysteria the milk miracle generated, the actual science behind seemed dull. As always, the teachers went about their daily business: reading aloud the class notes from pre-prepared scripts while students dictating the notes word-per-word, as fast as possible.
In general, authorities in Nepal are doing little to promote science communication in the country. Despite national rhetoric of making science synonymous with economic development and investing about 0.5% of national GDP in science and technology, rampant corruption and lack of vision and leadership have severely stemmed the potential of science investment. Many scientific organizations, government and internationally funded, have been established to promote science in the country, but the majority of them are virtually non-functional. Apart from organizing and hosting occasional seminars, which are dominated by speeches and rhetoric, these institutions are pretty stagnated. While NAST (National Academy of Science and Technology) must be commended for leading many original research studies, its engagement with the public is scant.
In the mainstream media, science simply doesn’t find dedicated space. There are no shows on science or related material that may trigger excitement in young kids and adults. Instead, the media often sensationalizes any hysteria, hoaxes, or superstitions around Nepal without thorough reporting, understanding, or responsibility. Sure, western media might also have a bias and prefer entertainment news to scientific discoveries. However, there are enough entities and people dedicated to science communication giving public a choice to follow science. In Nepal, there’s no such channel available.
The silver lining: The beer at the end of the road
A few days after the milk miracle, I got off the school bus to a deserted Ganesh Temple. The mass hysteria had died down completely. This miracle might have been busted, but another hysteria or hoax, just as gripping, was probably brewing in some other part of the city. All that was left were a couple of unruly teenagers from my neighborhood, sitting, chatting, and smoking away. Without much ado, one of them took out a spoon and a bottle of cold beer he'd brought along, stooped down to the statue, poured the beer on the spoon, and made contact with the statue. Within no time, the beer was gone and he exclaimed in excitement:
"WOW! It’s not only milk. It also drinks the beer. Let's try what else it drinks!"
All is not lost in Nepal. The literacy rate in Nepal has steadily increased over the last few decades. The new generation, equipped with better education and unprecedented access to information technology, are more inquiring and critical of social problems than their predecessors.
Comprehensive reform in education might take years, but newly established schools, along with support from international organizations, are adopting innovative teaching methods and limiting rote learning. While medicine and engineering are still sought after, interest in basic sciences and research has spiraled up among students, both studying in Nepal and abroad. Data published by IIE (Institute of International Education) in 2011-12 indicates 48.6% of all Nepali students at US colleges and universities are pursuing STEM majors. As these US trained Nepali students learn, they will communicate science and inquiry to their family and friends back home.
Within Nepal, there is evidence of further scientific effort. Through continued efforts at education, grass roots campaigns, and communication, conservation of biodiversity in Nepal has been hailed as one of the success stories in the world. There are biotechnology centers being established, which are using state-of-art technology to conduct research relevant to Nepal's ecology. Research on agriculture, environment, geology, and biodiversity are beginning to gain traction.
As Nepal transitions in its quest of social, cultural, and political identity, its economy will ultimately hinge on scientific and technological innovations. It is NOT enough to conserve biodiversity, heritage, culture, customs, and endangered languages of Nepal. It is also imperative for the society to stand up to and break the silos of taboos, superstitions, and traditions that are discriminating in nature and dangerous to society. The onus is on everyone, the government, educational institutions, and individuals to make a concerted effort and take responsibility in promoting scientific inquiry.
It might have been unintended, but the sight of Ganesh having a beer was the first original scientific experiment I had witnessed in Kathmandu. Surprisingly, it had come from teenagers deemed to be disrespectful and distasteful in our neighborhood. Perhaps this innate inquiring and questioning ability is not as elusive as I had imagined. Perhaps it is ubiquitously present in all youth and adults alike, who are simply waiting for the right environment or the tacit approval from the society to unleash their scientific minds.
Roshan Karki (@roshancarkey) is a cancer researcher at Western Connecticut Health Network and a scientist advocate for the start up Science Exchange Inc., an online marketplace of scientific services. Previously, he earned his Ph.D. in Experimental Pathology from Yale University. Born and raised in Nepal, Roshan is passionate about disseminating the importance of science, technology, and innovation in developing nations.