Hindu Pride or Hidden Agenda? How Vedic Science Stokes Nationalism
At an awards function instituted by India's technical education regulator last week, purportedly to recognize innovation among students, there was a suggestion from the chief guest, that those enrolled at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) be taught about the mythical 'Pushpak Viman'. As has been the case in the recent past, it was BJP's Satyapal Singh – who holds the junior HRD portfolio – that made the proposal.
It wasn't an inappropriate occasion, come to think of it, to jumble science and mythology into an untidy heap. The honour itself – the 'AICTE-ECI Chhatra Vishwakarma Awards' – in a painful irony, was christened in the name of a Hindu god.
Incomprehension in The Political Class
Propagating India's glorious scientific past has been a trademark project of the BJP government's Hindu revivalist agenda.
When he was the chief minister of Gujarat, he is even reported to have claimed in a foreword written for a book for school students, that Lord Rama flew the first plane, and that the primordial Indian was clued-up of stem cell research.
Gujarat's current chief minister, Vijay Rupani has put on view an even more vivid imagination. While addressing a gathering of engineering students in Ahmedabad this August, he is said to have drawn parallels between – hold your breath – the arrows of Lord Ram and the missiles fired by ISRO.
Such vacuous articulations display two disquieting truths:
- A blank incomprehension among our political class, of India's real (not imagined), and frankly, magnificent scientific history.
- A depressingly unscientific outlook towards a future which will in all practicality, be driven by science and technology.
History In Saffron
Meera Nanda, a philosopher of science with two PhDs to her credit, in her book Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science, observes that in today’s India there’s a “constant appropriation of modern scientific concepts and theories for the glory of 'the Vedas”. She says it’s “one, if not the central plank on which the myth of Hindu supremacy rests.”
“Prestigious scientific institutions”, she adds, routinely host ideologues with scientific credentials who make hyperbolic claims (such as about Hindu origins of zero) “backed by nothing more than Sanskrit shlokas, randomly selected and idiosyncratically interpreted.”
Comparative, interdisciplinary approaches utilised by any non-trifling historian, makes it difficult to provide conclusive evidence to popular nationalistic claims, over India having been the first to make key discoveries, such as the zero, the Pythagoras theorem or for that matter, genetic science in the Charaka Samhita, and plastic surgery in the Sushruta Samhita.
Nevertheless, AL Basham, whose seminal book The Wonder That Was India – arguably, a much recommended read for anyone vaguely interested in the subcontinent's history – bares testimony to the greatness of Indian scientific achievement. Mathematics and astronomy, according to Basham, transcended complex conceptions far quicker than any other nation of antiquity.
The Vaisesika school's atomic doctrines, meanwhile, were in his words 'par excellence'.
The historian who is now widely credited for decolonising Indian history, asserts that Indian surgery remained far ahead of European surgery until 18th century “when surgeons of the East India Company were not ashamed to learn the art of rhinoplasty from Indians.”
Since the book's publication in 1954, there have been further citations and research by historians and indologists that recognise these towering accomplishments.
Why then, do politicians still revel in making a mockery of our great thinking tradition by uttering untenable, even fantastical claims?
Validating Religion Through Science
Nanda contends that science is a tool being used by politicians to validate religion. Historian Romila Thapar, the ideological bête noire of the BJP (who interestingly earned her doctorate under Basham at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London) has argued further that fundamentalist politicians “may use religion to validate science, but do not use science to invalidate religion or religion to invalidate science.”
The history of science in India, Thapar complains, remains a severely neglected subset of history as a whole. There is, she says, a desperate need to study and write an authentic account of the logic, development, evolution and enunciation of the various debates that have shaped some of our most profound discoveries.
The country's investment in science and technology remains abysmal in comparison to countries such as China, South Korea and the US. We are laggards in R&D (Research & Development) which is an essential fuel for economic growth.
Channelising our national pride to uncover the cultural and technical filaments that encouraged some of the greatest breakthroughs in the past, rather than continually presenting ourselves as the singular repository for scientific discovery, could do a great deal to reignite a sense of inquiry and inform our future achievements.
(The writer is a freelance journalist and an author. He can be reached @Nik_Inamdar. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)