Nalin de Silva and his world: Intellectual contribution in search of South Asian identity against Western hegemony

The common conception that has been viewed as the grand narrative is that Western Science reflects the triumph of mankind over the past five hundred years. The ideas from the heliocentric model to gravity and the most advanced quantum model emerged after the relativism of Einstein arose from the scientific endeavours of the West. From the Copernican revolution to Stephan Hawkins’s theories on black holes were generated in the minds of the Western scientists whose contributions have been revered by the scientific community, wherein the non-Western scientists seem to have embraced those discoveries beyond dispute. Given such an unequal hegemonic monopoly held by Western science, very few from the East, mainly from South Asia have come forward to question the objectivity and the rationality of Western science. One of the biggest obstacles undermining such an effort stemming from a non-Western perspective is that the entire scientific nexus in the non-Western states have gained their training from Western universities. Secondly, any possible inquiry emanating from non-Western space is likely to get refuted by Western scholarship and its acolytes as pseudo-science under the guise of a Popperian theory of falsification.

The above-mentioned reasons provide legitimacy to South Asians admiring and re-read the works of Prof. Nalin de Silva a Sri Lankan polymath whose ideas have questioned certain aspects of Western science. Notwithstanding his initial training as a theoretical physicist at Sussex, Prof Silva began to question the hegemony of Western science as a discourse built under the light of certain civilizational influences from the West. The name adopted by Nalin de Silva to describe the Western epistemology is called “Greco-Jewish Christian sciences” and it may appear to be a paradox as Western science stands as anathema to deistic concepts of those Abrahamic faiths. Nonetheless, Silva’s aphorism denotes how the ideological apparatus of the West was constructed by the Greco -Jewish Christian tradition. Silva comes with a strong contention proposing that knowledge is constructed by society, in the sense that people living in society construct knowledge. In that context, knowledge gets heavily influenced by the thinking of society. For instance, it is rather conspicuous that the Atomic bomb would not have been created by the ancient Chinese even if they had constructed the basic knowledge essential for the creation of the gun powder and did not proceed from there to construct guns and other weapons. Eventually it was left to the Europeans to construct weapons based on knowledge of gunpowder that they had received from the Chinese.  In Nalin de Silva’s seminal work “ Mage Lokaya ” (My World) Silva argues the knowledge is an illusion created by individuals relative to the sense organs, mind and culture.

Nalin de Silva has aptly described the knowledge-seeking process as a mechanism akin to “string hoppers”, connected by each element. The notion of “I” is just one factor in this long entanglement and we tend to generate knowledge relative to the “I” by creating various concepts. The knowledge that resembles a string hopper has derived from the senses where the culture plays an important role in caring the sensory perception.  In his criticism of the Western conception of the Cartesian wall, which affirms the independence of the observer from the observation, Silva points out that the whole gamut of the observation depends on the observer. The position propounded by Prof. Nalin de Silva has been a moot point for Western scientists over decades. In Copenhagen’s interpretation, Neil Bohr explained there is a static relationship between the observer and the observation.  Contrary to this position classical physicists were adamant in relying on aged long Cartesian position that affirms the distinction between the observer and the observation as two different independent entities.

In developing his theory on how mind affects the knowledge creation, Prof. Nalin de Silva applies his stance on the intrinsic relationship between the observer and the observation to the whole sensory world. In explaining this anomaly, Prof. Silva gives prominence to the cultural tradition that generates the knowledge. The Indic and Buddhist traditions that prevailed in South Asia provided no ground for the construction of knowledge devoid of mind. According to Prof.Nalin De Silva, South Asian Tradition has positioned man along with nature as a fellow being. It certainly lacks man’s agency as an independent observer freed from the observation.

Thus, there is no scope in the south Asian tradition to form natural sciences in the West under Greco-Jewish Christian influence. Nevertheless, Silva’s analysis on cultured as a key factor in the key structure of knowledge does not either propose or indicate that all those sciences that emerged in the West acknowledged the Abrahamic faith in Judaism the contrary, Prof.Silva brings Greco-Jewish culture as the paramount factor that influenced the thinking system of the western scientist.

In his categorisation of sciences Prof.Silva divides natural sciences into three categories as Primary Sciences, Secondary Sciences, and Territory Sciences. under Secondary Sciences he highlights the entire scientific developments that took place in the West from Galileo to Einstein, where classical physics continued to be triumphant. Undoubtedly, those scientists were nourished by the Greco-Jewish two-fold logic and they further relied on the independent existence of the observer from the observation. However, Prof.Nalin De Silva explains how territory sciences that arose to eminence in the mid-twentieth century through Quantum Physics, and Environmental Science were influenced by Eastern mystic traditions stemming from Buddhism from Vedanta. When classical physics excluded the unity of observer and observation, later generation Quantum Physics like Neil Bohr, Hessen Berg tried to comprehend the Quantum concepts by bringing Eastern or South Asian mystical traditions into it. It should be noted that they were compelled to embrace Eastern mysticism as Greco-Jewish tradition provided no concrete foundation to ascertain the Quantum reality and this paradigm shift finally led to disrupt the Cartesian wall.

Despite his extra ordinary contribution in unfolding the construction of Western Sciences, Prof.Nalin De Silva has been given less significant attention in the South Asian Academia. In his own country Sri Lanka, he has been often lampooned by his critics as Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist or someone similar to Putin’s eccentric genius Alexander Dugin. His intellectual contribution in search of Sri Lankan identity has been viewed by his critics as a rhetorical quibble, but ironically the recent Nobel prize winner for Physics Anton Zelinger shares the same view as Prof. Nalin de Silva regarding the unity of the particles in his further explanation on the quantum entanglement. Perhaps, those who are interested in seeking the South Asian identity challenging the Western hegemonic position in science should reread Nalin de Silva by reaching beyond his mere depiction as a nationalist.

Punsara Amarasinghe
Punsara Amarasinghe
Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD candidate at Institute of Law and Politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa Italy. He held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and obtained his Masters from International Law at South Asian University, New Delhi. He served as a visiting lecturer at Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo Sri Lanka and author can be reached at punsaraprint10[at]