The tale of a NASA intern trolled for showing up with her Hindu identity markers with pride

The trolling of NASA intern Pratima Roy  for her overt display of her Hindu identity has raised serious issue about the dangers of  creating false dichotomy between science and religion, a clear instance of Western universalism. On the other hand, as reflected by Pratima Roy, Hindu dharma segues seamlessly between the two and views them as complementary.

As a professional who works in the space of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, I was delighted when I saw the NASA (National Aeronautics Space Administration) advertisement calling for  prospective applicants  to apply for internships in this premier space research agency.

The four-square  collage advertisement featured a balance of diversity and equity—a White man and woman and women of colour (African American and Indian). All  people featured had interned at NASA or are currently interning there. In a refreshing move, Pratima Ray, a US citizen of Bharatiya origin, was featured in a NASA sweatshirt, sporting a bindi on her forehead and her workspace  framed by photographs and murtis of the deities in the Hindu dharma pantheon,  foregrounded by her laptop.

The Indian woman featured in the ad was Pratima Roy, a young Indian American woman interning at NASA Glenn Research Center and a senior at New York City College of Technology majoring in Computer Engineering Technology. Pratima and her sister Pooja Roy are working on missions that ties into the Moon to Mars mission and the Artemis program to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024.

“My project ties into the Moon to Mars mission because I am learning about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Biomimicry and AWS Web services. Our work can tie into this by having robots or tasks completed at Moon to gather data and labelling. I know that when the Astronauts go to the Moon, they will need many data collection and research from Moon to Earth. This made me think about how my project ties into this because when going to the Moon we will need information from Moon and other planets. Then we can have that information on Earth. The scientists and researchers can work on implementing more strategies and devices to gather and collect in order to reach Mars safely and smoothly,” says Pratima Roy, in an interview on the NASA blogs page.

“I am currently working on the same project “Converting Java Applets to JavaScript for web-based Aeronautics Simulations” which I have been working on during Fall 2020,” says Pooja. “This STEM project ties into the Moon to Mars mission and the Artemis program because it is an extensively popular site that receives high traffic views and consists of lesson plans, projects, and interactive simulations to explore the theory and practice of flight in space,” says Pooja Roy.

Anyone reading this needs no further evidence of Pooja and Pratima Roy’s “scientific” sensibility and credentials. Yet the young intern  was trolled for wearing  her Hindu marker identity and self-professed piety unapologetically by the rag tag army of pseudo secular liberals,  so-called intellectuals, atheists, rationalists and Neo Amdedkarites, whose reactions smacked of blatant Hinduphobia. It is obvious that they would not have responded similarly if the  issue concerned religious symbols of other faiths. Ironically, the Pratima Roy episode highlights the fact that much of the Hinduphobia spewed came from Hindus themselves!

Ashok Swain, well known academic and Professor  of Peace and Conflict,  Department of Peace and Conflict Resolution, Uppsala University,  wondered “Why does a Hindu kid needs gods and goddesses? Can’t we do anything without them?”  This is a  NASA ad. The question to NASA is: “Why have you selected this photo?”

Mission Ambedkar,  a New Delhi based forum to spread Ambedkarism internationally, whose motto is “Clutch the power; crush the caste, ” claimed that “NASA ne science ka nash kar diya!”  (NASA has destroyed science!”).  A few rationalists/atheists  used the opportunity to take a dig at the Ramayana  and  questioned the veracity of events mentioned during Shri Ram’s   era. Another trolled that the “intern (Pratima will send an email saying “Rama built a bridge” and sanghis will use that email to say “NASA  accepted Ram  as real and the blue guy built that bridge!”

Yet for each of these Hinduphobic trolls, there were several sensible voices that countered their narrative. Rashmi Sawant, Hindu Human Rights Activist at Oxford University remarked,  “What a beautiful ensemble of photos. More power to each of them and a shout out to the beautiful Hindu woman for proudly representing her culture!”

Prof. Anand Ranganathan, well known scientist at JNU, called out the bigotry. He quoted the iconic mathematician S. Ramanujan, who said, “I owe everything to the Goddess  Namagiri   who leaves the formulae on my  tongue.”  He added, “I am sure all those bigots abusing NASA intern Pratima Roy would have also cancelled the great Ramanujan.”

Another Twitter handle accused her of “lying on her resume  by describing herself as a  science enthusiast and till get the job?”

The pervasive Hinduphobia is clearly a result of using the incompatible lens of Western  universalism to decode  religious customs, beliefs and faith  of a  non Western  religion and culture.  In the Hindu dharma tradition, science and religion are complementary; two sides of the same coin and not  mutually antagonistic.  Etymologically, the word science   is from the Latin word scientia which meant knowledge, a knowing, expertness, or experience. Science, then is a pursuit  of truth.  The Samskrit word for science Vigyan refers to a pursuit of  true knowledge.

So is religion and spirituality a  movement towards  the transcendental Truth. Bridging the material and transcendental knowledge, the two converge at Infinity.  Deconstructing science and religion in terms  of mutually exclusive polar opposites ( as in the abusive trolls) simply miss the woods for the trees!

Albert Einstein famously said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”  His warning sounds ominous today.

Is anyone listening?

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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.