feynman, cargo cults, dharmic rituals – notes

June 14, 2022

‘Athma’ has commented on the previous post – yo-yo ma on richard feynman – an extract.

“Many times when I perform rituals somehow his Cargo cult comes to my mind..”

Am sharing some quick notes, by way of this response, because the Q that has been raised is, in my opinion, important.

For the folks who are interested in Feynman’s idea of ‘Cargo cult science:’

“I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call Cargo Cult Science.  In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people.  During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. 

So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. 

They’re doing everything right.  The form is perfect.  It looks exactly the way it looked before.  But it doesn’t work.  No airplanes land. 

So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

Full essay, a delightful one at that, at a Caltech site.


I understand this point-of-view – and another quirky comment from Feynman is in order here:

“Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.”

The very fact that, one has self-doubts about one’s faith and is freely articulating them without fear of retribution, effectively saying, ~~’rituals… do make me feel cargo-cultish’ – expresses the fluidity, flexibility, openness to reason and a disarming vulnerability within the context of dharmic traditions.

That one can doubt, one can have faith, one is allowed to seek solutions, one can question – that one is allowed to think at all and the like (that we take for normal in Hindu/SanatanDharmic traditions) can only be appreciated by us, when we look around and see many a monotheistic context – including messianic & marxist religions – for which, this ‘free thinking & inquiry’ is an anathema.

In cargo-cults (for example, Islam) the grammar of everything is described. just a like a handbook.

Typically, there is no scope left for anyone to be imaginative at all; everything is in black and white. This goes to the level of prescribing how to wash one’s private parts – including how, only an odd number of stones/pebbles are to be used to clean the offending aspects of our anatomy.

However, as per Dharmic traditions – what one fervently seeks for from the Eashwar (you can call this aspect, ‘your personal God’), does not necessarily make one trust him/her to deliver it in-toto to oneself, on a platter.

Far from it, one’s Agency is assumed and he/she is expected to work on one’s own, regardless of Bhakti/whatever.

This ‘bias for Action’ or ‘doing one’s duty’ factor is very important, IMHO.

In fact, for many of the Indic systems of darshanas, or wisdom-wellsprings/philosophies if you will, even the concept of God itself is not there. Take for example a Nyaya or a Samkhya. They soar high without having a need to articulate an all encompassing / animating God entity. (and I am not even going to begin to talk about Advaita, the crown jewel… and the idea of Rta)


In cargo-cults (for example, 🤲🏾) as Feynman describes/metaphorizes them, this meaningful Agency is not there at all.

Mankind is expected to be just a pawn in the game of life, so to say. And, just by ‘going thru the motions’ rather mechanically, and appeasing their Gods, more likely mindlessly, one expects to be immensely rewarded.

And the reward is either Jannath (heaven – upon death or ‘judgement day’) or Jahannum (a veritable, terrible hell).

While the infidel – idolatrous, cow-worshipping & polytheistic (and atheist) Kuf’rs like us are automatically assigned to Jahannum, the faithful-Muslims go to Heaven to enjoy all kinds of goodies. Jihad merely speeds up the process. A special darshan tatkal ticket, so to say.


La illaha illallahu mohammed ur rasool-illaha as in shahada & all that.


I have discussed many of the aforesaid views with a few ‘open minded’ Muslims and many a rabid Jihadi, to the extent possible – because I know the limits of a civilized discussion. Once, I even received a ‘beheading’ threat but I did not bother to lodge a police complaint or proceed further because it was an young madrassa educated chap who got emotional and blurted out the threat; and all of us commit mistakes; there should be a scope for meaningful redemption of ourselves post atonement… or so my thought goes…

This is because, I would not blame the poor momin unduly, as one is born (by way of a biological event, that an yet-to-be-born individual has no control over at all!) into a family that practices a religion and a bunch of traditions. They did not have a choice then.

But now they have, or so I assumed (at least with respect to a bunch of my acquaintances/friends) – and then extrapolated that, they would see at least some reasonable reason – or at least, adopt a ‘live and let live’ attitude. But

I am also fully aware that, a person living now, cannot really be blamed at all for all the excesses committed by his/her ancestors.

But, if there is a need to talk great about the Mughal heritage and claim ownership for it, then one should take their terrible murders, rapes, robberies, usury and mayhem also as part of the same ‘Mughal’ pride. That’s all. But typically, am yet to bump into even one liberal Muslim who would think along those lines. They think, Mughals are Allah’s own gift to Bharat, yeah right… while whitewashing all the terrible things done by them.

Again, this is all bleddy cargo cultish.

Because, ill-treating Kuf’rs is an ACCEPTED and even RECOMMENDED way to Jannath. What a typical Islamic/Jihadi does is to merely adhere to the grammar of Islam, which is incidentally, deeply disrespectful of other people, non-Muslims. This hate of the other is a basic feature of that faith, and not a bug. Kuf’rs may think that it is bad, but for a Momin it is a perfectly normal cargo-cult ritual, or even a recommended character trait. Fast track to jannath.

It goes without saying that various denominations/churches of Christianity are also mainly cargo cults of various intensities & dimensions.


Cargo cults are to be taken seriously & approached cautiously. Because they also have this raw power that stems from them being very close to our evolutionary urges; what can now be construed to be about gory violence, about subjugation, about othering, about unlimited sexual urge, about misogyny – with no mitigation or sublimation possible anytime soon. They are primarily about belief systems that do NOT place a premium on human agency. They are primarily attuned towards guiding their believers towards ‘after death, what?’

They consider the current life as sinful and that human beings should atone for their sins and seek deliverance by doing certain cargo-cultish thingies . Nothing significant otherwise about ‘here and now’ (and the joy of living, sat chit ananda).

…at the same time, I also see a sweet bunch of young and articulate ex-muslims (and sometimes even practicing muslims, who restrict their practices to their homes) rising up – though I do not know most of them personally – and some I know, would prefer to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons, poor things. Understandable. In any case, may be should I try to actively get in touch with them, to restore my faith in humanity, so to say?

Anyway, all power to them and may their tribe increase!


To summarize – there is no need for a dharmic to feel that one is cargo-cultish just because one is doing his puja connected rituals.  One does not need to think about Rituals as meaningless and/or useless rote. Also, as I had written earlier – rote learning is NOT harmful, but actually is a sine qua non for our dear lives.

Of course, Rituals are important at various levels for our species – for signalling, social cohesion, celebrations, mournings, relating to things beyond one’s own grasp of reality, for a sense of wonder, for respecting the hoary, meaningful traditions of the past, to feel a part of the great continuum, to have some humility as opposed to unmitigated hubris etc etc. (many of these are associated with a dharmic‘s puja and his veneration of his murti and ishta devatas to start with, including ALL those life-cycle ceremonies or samskaras)

BTW, when we participate in elections, we could be in a cargo-cult kind of a situation. Because we are into many rituals associated with it. But our deed is not done merely by exercising our franchise by voting. We can’t just vote and wait for promised results.

We have agency.

Therefore,  as a voting population, proud of our democratic, dharmic traditions, we also have to keep up a meaningful pressure for keeping our civilizational goals/lives alive, to keep our genuine pride staying afloat etc – by continued meaningful & long-term persistent actions, so that, what we vote for becomes a reality.

We vote for a  fine, progress oriented transparent governance that works for the upholding of bharat’s sovereignty – but work for a dharmic civilizational state.

At least this is what I tell myself – or this is the way, I see it.


YMMV, of course.

2 Responses to “feynman, cargo cults, dharmic rituals – notes”

  1. tamil Says:

    அன்புள்ள சின்ன ஆசானுக்கு ,

    கார்கோ கல்ட் பற்றிய தமிழ்க் கதை https://www.jeyamohan.in/130399/ .

    சடங்குகளைச் செய்யும் போது ஏற்படும் ( அல்லது வாய்ப்பிருக்கும்) உச்சநிலை பற்றி பேசுவது .

    மற்றபடி சேரமான் ஜோக்ஸ் /ஊகங்களும் இதில் உண்டு.


  2. Aathma Says:

    Thanks for the extensive reply.

    For to seriously and cautiously, it’s very true. Multitude of fools very powerfull and lethal..

    Bhalam greater than vigyanam as upanishad says

மேற்கண்ட பதிவு (அல்லது பின்னூட்டங்கள்) குறித்து (விருப்பமிருந்தால்) உரையாடலாமே...

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