Obscurantism vs Science
Behind the milk-drinking `miracle'

T. Jayaraman
The Institute of Mathematical Sciences
C.I.T. Campus, Madras-600 113, INDIA

We in India are no strangers to the fact that unscientific and irrational beliefs have wide currency in society and on many occasions, we have been witnesses to this. But there is something to the latest manifestation, where large numbers of people believed that idols of Ganesha were ``drinking milk,'' that makes a working scientist like the writer pause to think. The utter impossibility of an idol drinking milk is obvious to any scientist worth the name and should be so even to a person with only a high-school education.

Indeed it requires merely an elementary sense of rationality to disbelieve the claim that idols drank milk even if one could not find an immediate scientific explanation for what was observed. But before we turn to this simple scientific explanation that underlies what was observed, there are some aspects of this mass manifestation of irrationality and obscurantism that make it particularly noteworthy.

The phenomenon, as it appears from accounts in the press and television, began in Delhi and spread rapidly throughout the country. Judging by media reports it had made its appearance in cities as far apart as Madras, Thiruvananthapuram, Bombay and Patna during the day. There were stray reports of similar 'miracles' in cities in England and North America.

While previous occurrences of this kind have been reported, where people have been gripped by an irrational belief bordering on mass hysteria, they have been relatively localised in their geographical spread. In the one case which was not localised, that of the last total solar eclipse, where there were widespread irrational reactions in a variety of forms, it was preceded by a lengthy period during which the print media gave uncritical publicity to a wide variety of pseudo-scientific theories. The current manifestation is unprecendented in its spread, in the speed with which it spread and the number of people involved. While I think there is a legitimate case here for wondering whether some people or group helped to promote the spread of incidents from city to city, the fact remains that large numbers of people believed that they were witnessing a `miracle'.

The other noteworthy feature of this manifestation was its distinctly urban character. The incidents spread to all major metropolitan centres and significant numbers of the educated middle class were definitely among those who allowed themselves to be carried away. These two features make this case rather special; they should make us pause to reflect.

The ``phenomenon'' itself, as it was observed by hundreds of thousands round the country, has a clear explanation. When water or milk or any other fluid is taken in a spoon or a suitably shallow container, it is a well-known fact that the surface of the fluid is not flat but slightly curved. This is due to the phenomenon of surface tension, whereby the fluid tries to minimise its surface area. If a spoon is filled with milk or water and taken to the mouth of an idol, or indeed any statue, then it is natural that the upper lip on the idol will touch the surface. In the case of a Ganesa idol without a lip, the gap between the underside of the trunk and the face would be the place used, and again some portion of the idol will touch the fluid surface. When the surface is thus punctured, then the fluid has a chance to flow out.

What happens subsequently depends on other conditions. If the idol is wet, as is frequently the case, then the water on the idol and the milk in the spoon form one fluid body and the milk flows out along the channel created by the water. Having begun to flow out in this fashion, the milk may then disperse itself in the water on the surface of the idol (if the quantity of milk is very small and the surface of the idol suitably large) or simply flow down along one of the channels by which the water on the surface itself has flown down.

In case the idol is dry, the milk in the spoon flows out along the crack between the two lips and then subsequently flows down the idol by any available crack or even a minute fissure on the surface of the idol. This tendency to flow out rapidly first along the crack is primarily due to the fact that it is the only surface at the same level as the milk in the spoon. It is also aided by the phenomenon of capillary action, whereby fluid in a narrow tube is pushed up along the tube by the effects of surface tension again acting on the top of the fluid column in the tube. Here the gap between the lips behaves like a narrow tube and the fluid flows out along the lips. Subsequently, the milk flows down to the base of the idol. Once the lips of the idol have been wetted in this fashion, a second attempt to feed it milk is even more successful as the surface of the lips have already been wetted by the first attempt.

There may be slight variants of this explanation required for some particular cases, but the basic idea will be the same.

But the key point here is that while one sees the milk slowly disappearing from the spoon, the milk does not vanish into the idol. The milk remains on the surface of the idol or appears at the base of the idol. There is of course a simple way to establish this fact.

One can take a measured quantity of milk on the spoon, place the idol on a plate and then go through the exercise of feeding the milk to the idol. Waiting for a little while for the milk to drain down, one can then measure the amount of milk collected in the plate and compare it with the amount fed to the idol. The amount will be the same, except maybe with a very minor difference due to a little milk remaining on the surface on the idol. The experiment will work better with a smooth, metallic idol made of silver, for instance. Indeed in most television pictures of this``miracle,'' the fact that the milk flows down in substantial quantities is immediately visible and must have been visible too to those who were standing next to the idol and cared to look.

Most of the basic scientific points made here are high- school physics accessible to any school boy or girl. A careful look at the television pictures that appeared on this phenomenon is more than enough to draw these conclusions. I witnessed an excellent demonstration prepared by T.V. Venkateswaran of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum, a leading popular science organisation in Tamil Nadu. All other ``eyewitness accounts'' associated with this phenomenon, such as stories of Ganesa consuming large quanties of milk, making loud sucking noises, and subsequently stopping the drinking of milk, must be put down to sheer fantasy.

It is clear that in India where there are vast numbers of people who are either illiterate or have had very little access to any kind of science education, the scope for fooling people educated also taken in by this ``miracle''?

The cause for this,of course, is to be sought at least partly in the dismal state of teaching in a major section of our education system, especially when it comes to the sciences. The essential aspect of science - the development of a rational, critical spirit of enquiry - is often missed in the teaching, reducing the process of learning science to one of learning by rote some phenomena and sets of rules. Students do not learn to apply the scientific method to phenomena for which prior explanation has not already been given, which simply do not come out of a textbook.

However, there is something more to be said here apart from the obvious critique of education. It is a basic requirement of modern society that explanations for physical and social phenomena are sought for in rational terms - not in terms of ``miracles'' wrought by a higher power which can suspend the laws of nature at will. One tends to assume that such an attitude, a fundamental prerequisite to the development of a scientific temper, is widespread among the educated. They certainly cannot claim they have had no access to the knowledge required to understand the phenomena in scientific terms. The point is that on the phenomenon of "idols drinking milk," in significant numbers they chose to suspend the search for a rational explanation. Either that or they did not have the courage to stand by a rational explanation which must have occurred to them.

One can sympathise with an educated person if he or she has failed to find the right scientific explanation. That is entirely possible. What is inexcusable is the obscurantism that overrides their education and knowledge. It is this readiness of the educated to believe in miracles that points to the distance we still have to travel in developing a scientific temper in society.

That something as preposterous as stone or metal idols drinking milk was not dismissed out of hand and ridiculed by large numbers of people points to the extent to which a certain primitive obscurantism can still sway people. Fortunately, the phenomenon was short-lived: "Ganesha drinking milk" was a one day wonder.

Who benefits from such obscurantism is clear from the attempts of sections of the saffron brigade to make political gains out of the phenomenon.These forces have a well-established track record of anti-science. The irrational and obscurantist attitude of Hindutva forces to history is well known: it reached its high point in kar sevak archaeology before and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque, when fraudulent "finds" as well as fragments from the demolished mosque were sought to be used as archaeological evidence. Another case was the thrusting of ``Vedic Mathematics'' into school curricula in BJP-ruled states and the general promotion of this 'discipline' as part of the Hindutva propaganda campaign. This ``Vedic Mathematics'' turned out to be a set of aphorisms in Sanskrit, which had nothing to do with the Atharva Veda as claimed. The aphorisms had often no substantial meaning either. Essentially they were a set of arithmetical tricks with no mathematical value whatsoever - except as mnemonics for mental arithmetic.

These are two noteworthy recent examples on which much has already been written. No wonder spokesmen for some Hindutva communal organisations, notably the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, greeted the ``milk miracle'' with triumphant cries of the coming of a Hindu century and a Hindu age, showing once again that all obscurantism is grist to the fundamentalist mill. This is essentially political mobilisation of what is fraudulently sought to be promoted as Hindu religious sentiments and identity.

It is clear that there can be no complacency in the fight against obscurantism and superstition in Indian society. Nor can there be, as appears to be fashionable in some sections of academia and the media, a position of studied neutrality between science on the one hand and superstition and obscurantism on the other. (In contrast to important sections of the press which took a pro-science attitude, some major television channels and programs adopted an ambivalent stance towards the 'milk-drinking wonder in their coverage.) Obscurantism of this variety will make nonsense of any effort to build a modern society.

Among the educated who believed in the ``miracle'' were several political leaders and persons holding (or who have held) high constitutional office and senior government positions. Several of them issued statements to the media welcoming the ``miracle''. However, the Chief Election Commissioner T. N. Seshan, in a shocking defense of obscurantism, chose to directly attack the scientists who sought to explain what was observed. In a statement where he abused them as ``pseudo-scientists'' and ``bogus scientists'', he claimed that a fundamental principle of science was, `` I shall believe what I see''. This is a proposition that may perhaps be welcomed by the Flat Earth Society or similar pseudo-science organisations, but would otherwise be knocked down even by school children.

Apart from a few notable exceptions, Governments were for the most part silent spectators to what was going on. According to the Indian Constitution (Article 51-A(h)), "it shall be the duty of every citizen of India...to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform." The other side of the coin is the duty of the State to help inculcate and promote a scientific temper. But we have a long way to go before we can say this duty is taken seriously by State and Central Governments. For a start they would do well to investigate whether there was any kind of conspiracy behind the rapid spread of reports of these ``miracles'' from city to city.

As I write these words, the reports of `milk miracles' have stopped and the subject is off the headlines. But I do not think we can wish away the deep-rooted problem that has been presented to us once again in such a dramatic fashion. The word that many of my colleagues used to describe their reaction to this mass hysteria was `frightening'. There is no need to be alarmist, but their deep concern seems justified. If people in large numbers can be made to believe something so obviously false and absurd as idols drinking milk, what about the more complex and subtle issues in society on which people must make up their minds? Will they make the right choices in a critical, rational direction? Or will they be deluded by obscurantist forces, even if for a relatively short period of time, to their own detriment?

Box (to go with article)

Two simple experiments anyone can do

There are two simple experiments that can be done by anyone to see for themselves a demonstration of the basic science involved in explaining the `miracle'.

Take a glass of water and fill it gradually. If one pours very slowly, even as the glass fills up to the brim, the water does not spill over immediately. Instead it forms a bulge which at the centre of the glass is higher than the sides of the glass itself. This phenomenon is due to surface tension, the property whereby fluids like water tend to minimise their surface area. This is also why water drops on a flat surface are bulged on top, not uniformly flat. A more careful way to do this experiment is to fill the glass to the brim and then drop in gently small objects like coins or pins to raise the water level.

The second experiment is to pour a small drop of water on a smooth flat surface. If one punctures the surface of the drop with the tip of a finger and draws a line on the surface to the nearest edge, then water flows down the channel created by drawing the finger and does not spread all over the surface. One can now proceed to feed milk, water or tea to any idol, statue or object. It works best with a small, shallow spoon , a statue or idol with a reasonably sized mouth (not too wide or too small), and if one begins `feeding' from one corner of the mouth. The experiment works best under such conditions. Enjoy yourself while trying to improvise. Various inanimate objects and a variety of images of non-religious, secular persons can be made to "drink" the milk.