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Don't mock India's scientific past!

February 27, 2020 18:03 IST
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It is important to approach the belief of people in ancient India's achievements with a sense of proportion, balance and empathy, argues B S Raghavan, the distinguished civil servant.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/


Ever since the National Democratic Alliance, in name, and the Bhartiya Janata Party, in reality, came to power in 2014, party stalwarts and BJP ministers have managed to keep the elitist liberal intellectuals in India and abroad in a constant state of jitters and furor with their claims of ancient India having been the foremost in the world in advances in science and technology.

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi himself got the ball rolling within a few months of taking over at the Centre, when he spoke at the inauguration of the Nita Ambani-run Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai in October 2014.

He suggested that ancient India must have been skilled in plastic surgery as was evident from the mythological story of Shiva having grafted an elephant head on Ganesha after having beheaded the boy.

Modi added that ancient India must also have been aware of genetic science, which helped Karna of the Mahabharata being born outside his mother Kunti's womb.

Since then, similar claims have been extending far afield beginning from the powers of panchgavya, a fermented mixture of cow dung, cow's urine, milk, curd and ghee, used in rituals from ancient times and in Ayurveda to cure and heal almost all kinds of ailments.

A sampler:

Avionics: The use of Pushpak Viman by Rama in the epic Ramayana by Valmiki showed the ancients's mastery of this domain.

Shivakar Babuji Talpade was the first to invent the airplane eight years before the Wright brothers. (Satya Pal Singh, Minister of State for Human Resource Development)

Darwin's Theory of Evolution: There are validations and documentary evidence to prove that it is scientifically wrong and 'ancestors were not apes'. (Satya Pal Singh)

Newton's Laws: Certain 'mantras' in Vedas codified the laws of motion much before they were discovered by Isaac Newton. (Satya Pal Singh, according to the Minutes of the 65th meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education)

India's Brahmagupta II, a seventh century astronomer, gave the law of gravitation 1,000 years before Newton. (Then Rajasthan education minister Vasudev Devnani)

Architecture: Vaastu compliance of educational buildings was important for learning (Satya Pal Singh, Minutes of the 65th meeting of the CABE)

Nuclear Science: An ancient sage, Kanad, who lived around the 2nd century BC, had conducted a nuclear test during his time. (HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal 'Nishank')

Television and Internet: Devices akin to these must have existed at the time of the Mahabharata enabling Sanjaya to give a running commentary of the happenings in the Kurukshetra war to King Dhritarashtra miles away from the battlefield. (Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb)

Google: Narada Muni was the original Google as the sage 'was a man who had information of the whole world as part of his dharma for the betterment of humankind'. (Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani)

Veterinary Science: India's ancients were the first to find and propound that cows could both inhale and exhale oxygen. (Then Rajasthan education minister Vasudev Devnani)

Cancer: Yoga can cure cancer. (Minister of State for AYUSH Shripad Naik)

Life-threatening diseases like cancer are 'divine justice' meted out for sins committed in past lives -- Assam Health Minister and senior BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma)

Farming: Yogic farming can help boost agriculture (Then agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh)

Theory of Relativity: Stephen Hawking, the renowned cosmologist, has acknowledged that the Vedas might have a theory superior to Einstein's e=mc2. (Harsh Vardhan, Union health minister)

It goes against the scientific temper to hold the claims to be all absurd based on superficial impression.

For one thing, those making such statements are nor crackpots.

For instance, I know Satya Pal Singh very well: He and I were for three years together on the governing board of the MOP Vaishnav College for Women of Chennai, an autonomous institution ranked first in Tamil Nadu, to which he was nominated as the representative of the University Grants Commission when the Congress-dominated United Progressive Alliance was in power.

He is a former IPS officer who had a very good reputation for public service and did very good work as police commissioner, Nagpur.

Besides, he is a science student and has got a PhD in chemistry.

I found him to be an intellectual of high order.

Likewise, Harsh Vardhan is a reputed ENT specialist.

Take Modi's reference to plastic surgery.

Leaving aside Shiva and Ganesha, I learn from an article by Mridula Chari in Quartz India that in Sushruta Samhita, there is a description of one of the world's first plastic surgeries by Sushruta.

In his treatise, Sushruta writes about grafting a piece of skin from the cheek to the nose around 600 BCE.

He also lays out instructions for reconstructing a nose with a flap of living skin carved from the cheek, treating it with liquorice and sandalwood.

Europeans did not perfect rhinoplasty until the 19th century.

Sushruta was not the first Indian physician to detail his treatments.

Shalihotra, perhaps the world's first recorded veterinarian, wrote a long treatise on the care of horses some thousand years before that.

He not only recommended what medicines to give to horses when they were ill, but also detailed surgical procedures such as eye operations and bloodletting.

Or, take Harsh Vardhan's reference to Stephen Hawking.

According to a Facebook post of the Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas (I-SERVE), Stephen Hawking made the statement on November 10, 2011.

I-SERVE is an adjunct of Vigyan Bharati, established under the aegis of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, run by scientists of the highest international credentials such as K I Vasu, former professor of metallurgy at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru; G Madhavan Nair, former chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation; Anil Kakodkar, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission; Vijay Kumar Saraswat, former director general, Defence Research and Development Organisation; Sibaji Raha, professor of philosophy, Bose Institute, Kolkata; Dr S Satheesh Chandra Shenoi, currently director, Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services; Vijay Pandurang Bhatkar, best known as the architect of India's national initiative in supercomputing where he led the development of Param supercomputers.

VIBHA itself is said to be the largest scientific movement in India with a massive 20,000 member strong team, along with over 100,000 active volunteers covering 5,000,000 civilians and having units in 23 states in India, working in 14 different areas through autonomous institutions, independent organisations and project entities.

According to an op-ed in The New York Times, even in the West which the elitist liberal intellectuals adore, thinkers are coming up against what they call the 'demarcation problem', the issue of what separates good science from bad science and pseudo-science (and everything in between).

They have begun to realise that there is no sharp line dividing sense from nonsense, and that doctrines starting out in one category may end up in the other.

Some of the statements that I had listed may look to be nonsense at first sight, but scientific temper demands that they should not, for that reason, be dismissed out of hand.

Not many may know that in the USA, technologically and scientifically the most advanced country, in 2018, the allocation ($115 million) made for complementary and alternative medicine was many times larger than made for cancer research ($55 million), heart, lung and blood disorders ($26 million), diabetes, digestive and kidney diseases ($36 million), child health and human development ($20 million) and mental health ($11 million).

The US department of defence has earmarked some millions of dollars for funding research on aspects of extra-sensory perception.

Against this background, to my mind, it is imperative for elitist liberal intellectuals and their ilk to approach the belief of people in ancient India's achievements with a sense of proportion, balance and empathy.

Elitist liberal intellectuals must learn not to allow themselves to become hapless victims of their own perverse irrationality, if they are to develop a genuine scientific temper which quintessentially means being open-minded, inquisitive and willing to explore any and every theory or hypothesis without shocked abhorrence simply because it is unfamiliar.

B S Raghavan is a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service. He was formerly a US Congressional Fellow, Policy Adviser to UN (FAO) and chancellor, Jharkhand ICFAI University.

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