The recent past, particularly after the BJP-led NDA government came to power at the centre in 2014, has seen dubious claims being made from government supported forums and public platforms with regard to institutions, food habits, lifestyles that prevailed in ancient India and, most prominently, our achievements in the areas of science and technology. This is part of a project of cultural nationalism that seeks to establish hegemony of the majority through literal, uncritical and selective reading and interpretation of our ancient texts, folklore, mythology, etc. Thus, the argument goes: all that the modern world has to offer in the realm of human endeavour, social and political institutions of liberal democracy, scientific and technological attainments, etc., had already been discovered by our sages, seers and writers and were actually in practice in ancient India. What is at stake is the very sense of history that should inform the general populace about desirable social and political institutions, our tryst with Western modernity, important place that our very rich cultural heritage occupies in the history of human civilization and, above all, our otherwise legitimate and remarkable achievements in the areas of mathematics, astronomy and medicine. It is regrettable that except a few stray refutations collective outcry from public intellectuals, academics and scientific community against this project has been conspicuous by its absence.
Modern science with all its splendour, remarkable successes in explaining natural phenomena, alleviating human suffering and bringing material comforts to us on an unprecedented scale is still grappling with innumerable mysteries of nature and several aspects of human life, including those pertaining to human body and mind. Where science has failed, cosmology and worldview of different religions has guided the mankind when torn by conflicts and moral dilemmas. And it is possible, most probably true, that many of the mental capabilities of our sages and seers that they attained through rigorous disciplining of body and mind, as also capabilities of modern-day shamans and mystics, remain baffling to modern science. Romain Rolland, while writing of Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s trances, posed the following question for “physicians both of the body and of the mind”: “There is no difficulty in proving the apparent destruction of his whole mental structure, and the disintegration of its elements. But how were they reassembled into a synthetic entity of the highest order?” More recently, Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, a leading German physicist, writing in the 1980s about experience of an Indian yogi, Gopi Krishna, rued: “His kundalini experience concerns especially the physical realm, and it is painful that Western medicine has not yet taken notice of this. I assume that for today’s science to be able to recognize what is experienced here it has to take the detour of physics.” It is only of late that scientific research is finding irrefutable evidence of link between faith, acts of kindness and compassion and our overall well-being and happiness. Nevertheless, claims of material and technological advancements in ancient India, for example existence of various types of aircraft, know-how of stem cell biology, etc., are bizarre in nature and are an affront to human intelligence.
Let us briefly consider some of the claims in question. In 2002, B. G. Matapurkar, a surgeon at the Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi claimed that description of the birth of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata proved that “they not only knew about test-tube babies and embryo splitting, but also had the technology to grow human foetuses outside the body of a woman – something unknown to modern science.” In October 2014, the PM, while inaugurating a hospital in Mumbai, maintained that the god Ganesha’s elephant head proves that plastic surgery was known in ancient India; he also speculated on the prevalence of genetic science and stem cell research in the times of Mahabharata. The PM also boasted of our ancestors displaying “great strengths in space science.” More recently, Biplab Kumar Deb, CM of Tripura, claimed that Sanjay narrating the happenings of the battle-field to Dhritarashtra proves that internet existed in the age of Mahabharata. Such utterances are an insult to creativity and imagination of our poets and authors who might have employed metaphors and symbolism to convey their message.
Perhaps emboldened by the PM’s observations at inauguration of Mumbai hospital, Anand Bodas and Ameya Jadhav presented a paper on “Ancient Indian aviation technology” at 2015 Indian Science Congress. This paper was presented in a session on “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit.” The paper ridiculously claimed that highly advanced aircrafts hitherto unknown to modern science existed in ancient India. In line with this trend, G. Nageshwar Rao, Andhra University Vice Chancellor, claimed at the recent 2019 Indian Science Congress that test-tube babies were there in the times of Mahabharata and that Ravan not only had Pushpak Viman, but also various types of aircraft.
Adding to these claims and utterances, there has been a systematic attempt to rewrite history and social science textbooks and incorporate bogus science in our curriculum. Last year, Satyapal Singh, Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, despite protest from Indian scientists, repeatedly claimed that Darwin’s theory of evolution was wrong. In January 2018, he had claimed from a public platform: “Darwin’s theory of evolution is wrong. It has already been rejected by scientists some 30-35 years back. It is wrong to say that humans evolved from monkeys and such references should be removed from the science and history school textbooks.” Theological opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution is not new; it has existed in the West since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. This has been known as ‘creationism’ and the adherents of this opinion believe in the biblical account of creation. After legal intervention in the USA in the 1980s, the creation movement rechristened itself as ‘intelligent design.’ In this context, it is to be noted that recent scientific studies have reaffirmed evolutionary process at work in the development of organisms. Earlier, courses on Karmakand and Vedic astrology have been introduced in the curriculum. Reportedly, now All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) is mulling over teaching engineering students courses on ancient Indian scientific achievements (‘Past perfect and a future tense’, Rajesh Kochhar, The Indian Express, October 31, 2018).
Such pronouncements by leaders holding important public offices and people from academia and such measures by the government disparage Indian science, makes the efforts of our scientists suspect in the eyes of the world community and will bring derision to our country. The task is cut out for us. The scientific community needs to vociferously rebut such claims. And for us, social scientists, the task is to explode the myth of Aryan supremacy and the ancient Indians inhabiting a golden age of material and technological advancement, and to provide a counter-narrative found in the writings of Jyotirao Phule and B. R. Ambedkar and in the lived experiences of the masses.
- Prof. Ganeshdatta Poddar, Associate Professor – Political Science & Spanish
The article was originally published in EPW under the title Disparagement of Indian Science.