Fly Me to the Deity

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.

Tunku Varadarajan, a professor of business at New York University, and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.