Health Saw · December 20, 2021

Biotechnology Thrives in India

LONAVLA, India — In India, Hindu culture trumps all. And although India is a growing hub of technological and biological influence, Hinduism dominates even the sciences. India is ranked 37 among the 82 countries assessed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for the “state of their information technology system and its effects on economic growth and productivity.”

Roughly 300,000 engineers graduate from Indian colleges and universities each year. Multinational companies are taking advantage of the talent pool by making major high-tech investments, such as Microsoft’s plan to spend $1.7 billion and hire 3,000 employees in India over the next three to four years.

India’s biotech industry is also on the rise, with 500,000 doctors and nurses entering the workforce annually. Stem cell research in both the public and private sectors has grown considerably over the past few years in India, where politics or faith has not hindered its expansion. As a result, India is home to not one but three national stem cell research facilities.

In Western nations like the United States, however, stem cell research is a hot-button issue. Just a public discussion of the research has triggered furious protests and stirred up government officials. Not so in India, where the Hindu-influenced worldview pervades scientific progress and everyday discourse.

Hinduism, for its part, “doesn’t share the moral skittishness sometimes displayed by Western Christian thought,” said Arvind Sharma, the Birks Professor of Comparative Religions at Montreal’s McGill University. If no life is destroyed when taking stem cells from an aborted fetus, and the purpose is not evil, it would not disturb their morality, he said.

To keep things on an even keel, secular committees issue national directives. In 2004, the Central Ethics Committee on Human Research of the Indian Council on Medical Research circulated ethical guidelines on how to conduct stem cell research. The Draft Guidelines on Stem Cell Research/Regulation stresses that “termination of pregnancy for obtaining fetus for stem cells, research or for transplantation is not to be permitted.” Additionally, “no embryo can be created for the sole purpose of obtaining stem cells.” In 2000, a report on “Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research on Human Subjects,” which dealt with genetic screening, was released.

Recommendations such as these are totally in character for the general milieu, said Sharma. “Most moral issues don’t come into the public discourse but remain private.” Using the example of another bioethical controversy that is contentious in the West, he added, “People deal with issues like euthanasia in the context of their families.”

India is officially a secular republic, home to the largest number of Hindus and Muslims in the world. “Nearly every Indian, regardless of religion, is Hindu-thinking and lives according to Hindu culture and philosophy,” said Ram Surat, a Christian convert getting his divinity degree at the Union Biblical Seminary, Pune. For Hindus, this philosophy translates to a respect for all life, a belief in an immutable soul and the body as a vessel.

Even Christians — a growing population in India — do not have as strong criticisms of biotechnology as their Western counterparts. The reason is that Hinduism casts a long shadow even over other religions.

Few Christians in India talk about such issues, said Selva Raj, the Stanley S. Kresge Professor of Religious Studies at Albion University in Michigan. “Indian Christians are much more interested in how to live and coexist with people of other religions.”

“Life and death are not points in a line. It is a Möbius strip,” said Shridhar Venkatraman, an engineer in Chennai who lived for 10 years in the United States. “All living things work toward escaping this cycle,” and so life and death are personal issues.

The news describes discoveries in science as well as the furor they cause in the West. But in general, the discussion is digested silently. “Bioethics is only discussed by the very few elite,” according to Dhruv Raina, a professor at the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “In general, the well-being of people prevails over ideas of danger,” said Raina, who researches the relationship between science, societies, values and culture.

Hinduism, itself, is not a monolithic entity. “Unlike Christianity, Hinduism is not a codified religion with a single papal authority to pontificate on every subject,” said Jayanthi Iyengar, a practitioner of the Art of Living, in Pune. “You won’t find a position on these issues like the one the Catholic Church has on abortion or genetic modification,” Iyengar said.

“Hinduism has a fulcrum of pragmatism,” according to Lalitha Khanna, a researcher with a Delhi-based think tank. “What is good for making a better world is condoned, even eagerly embraced. Stem cell research, therefore, doesn’t bring out the fierce opposition that Christians in the West probably experience and evince,” she added. Religious mandates would be out of place here. “Every sect and subsect has a guru of its own and will not follow the religious directions of another,” said Khanna.

Cloning is also not a dirty word in India. “Hinduism will not have any major conflicts with engineered life forms of any kind because the tradition has always had multiple life forms and considers any and all of them as co-travelers on the Möbius strip,” said Venkatraman.

“We are culturally desensitized to the possibility of the existence of such things,” added Sharma. Case in point: The Hindu god of good beginnings, Ganesha, is human with an elephant’s head; the god Vishnu came to earth as a narasimha — half man, half lion.

Most Indian children learn these stories growing up, regardless of religion. “At the level of practice, I think Indian Christians are pretty pragmatic in their use of technologies,” said Rowena Robinson, an associate professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. “I am not sure if the ideological implications cause much wringing of hands,” she said.

It is wrong to think science and religion are in conflict in India, added Victor Ferrao, a doctoral student at the Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth seminary in Pune. In his hometown of Goa, Ferrao leads a community science-and-religion dialogue group. “Developments in science make the dialogue urgent,” he said, “but science and religion are correlational.”