Why the Indian Scientific Community is to Blame for the Lack of Science at the 102nd Indian Science Congress

An illustration of a Shakuna Vimana, one of the flying vehicles mentioned in Vyamanika Shastra, which was cited at the 102nd Indian Science Congress. Courtesy: Wikipedia
08 January, 2015

Amidst the noise that has surrounded the 102nd Indian Science Congress, with assertions and counter-assertions flying back and forth about our ancient heritage, it seems to have escaped our attention that the Indian scientific community has shown a complete lack of spine when faced with the manipulation of the truth by the proponents of Hindutva.

The media focus, by and large, has been on a few absurd papers presented at the Congress. What no one seems to be asking is how such papers were accepted and presented despite a screening process in place. Why have the office bearers of the Indian Science Congress failed to speak out against this mockery of the idea of science?

Consider the paper that has attracted the most attention—Ancient Indian Aviation Technology—presented by Capt Anand J Bodas, a pilot, and Ameya Jadhav, a lecturer. It was part of the symposium “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit.” The excessive media limelight on this particular paper was not out of some perverse desire to denigrate the conference, it was because the organisers of the Indian Science Congress and the political class had sought this focus. It was the only session on January 4 which was attended and addressed by a Union Minister, in this case Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change. He did so even as Nobel Laureate Ada E Yonath (Chemistry 2009) from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, addressed the undoubtedly less significant issue of "Ribosomes, Resistance to Antibiotics and Origin of Life" at the plenary session that was underway at the same time.

The contents of the Bodas paper were no surprise to the organisers. The Science Congress has an explicit procedure in place for accepting papers: “All papers submitted for presentation at a Session of the Congress shall be checked by the General Secretary (Membership Affairs), in regard to the standing of the authors of the papers as members of the Association. Each paper together with a copy of its abstract shall be sent by Sectional President concerned to the General Secretary (Membership Affairs), after screening and acceptance, if found suitable. All reports of referees shall be confidential. The decision of the Sectional President regarding the acceptance of any paper shall be final.”

The paper in question had been duly screened by referees and found acceptable. The paper claims that aviation technology in India dates back to Vedic times and had been documented in the Vyamanika Shastra, purportedly authored by Maharishi Bharadwaja. It should have not taken long for any referee to come across a 1974 paper, ‘Critical Study of the Work Vyamanika Shastra’ published in the journal Scientific Opinion in 1974, by HS Mukunda, SM Deshpande, HR Nagendra, A Prabhu and SP Govindaraju from the Indian Institute of Science.

The paper, discussed in a recent Indian Express report, is easily available online. It begins with a preliminary analysis that concludes, “The work 'Vymanika Shastra' was brought into existence sometime between 1900 and 1922 by Pandit Subbaraya Shastry by techniques unclear to us at the moment. The only evidence in favour of Maharshi Bhardwaja being the author is the textual statement and nothing more.”

It continues with a study of the actual machines described in the text and postulates, “Any reader by now would have concluded the obvious—that the planes described are at the best poor concoctions rather than expressions of something real. None of the planes has properties or capabilities of being flown; the geometries are unimaginably horrendous from the point of view of flying; and the principles of propulsion make them resist rather than assist flying.”

Simply put the Vyamanika Shastra is a modern day hoax that describes structures that could not possibly fly. The paper on ancient Indian aviation technology was neither about aviation technology nor was it dealing with any ancient technique, and it certainly did not belong in a session on ancient science. Any referee conducting even a cursory search through the literature should have found this out. Clearly then, the paper was not refereed, and if it was, the refereeing process was treated as a mere formality.

Even if this fact escaped the scrutiny process of India’s premier scientific gathering, it should now be evident. Ordinarily, abstracts of papers presented at the sessions are published in Part II of the proceedings of the Science Congress. The inclusion of the abstract of this flawed paper should now be considered unacceptable, but so far the only initiative against it has been a signature drivelaunched by California-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist Ramprasad Gandhiraman. Not a single office-bearer of the Indian Science Congress has spoken out against the selection of this paper; no prominent names of Indian science have taken any initiative to oppose this mockery of scholarship.

Consider what happens when this paper is part of the proceedings. The truth of Yonath’s paper, or for that matter the paper presented by Abhay Ashtekar, Director at the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos, Pennsylvania State University, on “The Very Early Universe Origin of Space, Time and the Large Scale Structure” would then rest on the same footing as the hoax of Vedic’ aviation, as far as the Indian Science Congress is concerned.

A copy of the proceedings that would include Bodas’ draft will only serve to confirm what the Islamic scholar Abu'l Raihan al-Biruni, writing almost a thousand years ago, had said about the state of Indian scientific knowledge: “I can only compare their mathematical and astronomical literature, as far as I know it, to a mixture of pearl shells and sour dates, or of pearls and dung, or of costly crystals and common pebbles. Both kinds of things are equal in their eyes, since they cannot raise themselves to the methods of a strictly scientific deduction.”

But even these harsh words would constitute a charitable view. The reason the proceedings may still end up carrying Yonath and Ashtekar’s pearls along with Hindutva’s dung is not because our scientists cannot distinguish between them, but because they choose to look away in the face of a new political dispensation. This lack of integrity and courage among scientists sets a dangerous precedent. The absurdities of "Vedic'' aviation are by no means the last we have seen of Hindutva’s pseudoscientific vision.

In the face of this capitulation, some of the ''liberal'' responses have been typically weak-kneed. When the very practice of science is under threat, with its process of the verification of truth subverted to ideological ends, it makes little sense for people like Shashi Tharoor to ask us to keep sight of our ancient heritage. The knowledge of our ancient heritage has been rather readily available over the recent past, as any Google search would show, to anyone who seeks it. But today this ancient heritage is being invoked as a weapon, not for the advancement of science but to suppress it. It has taken the form of a chauvinism that suggests we have nothing new to learn, we already knew it all.

When Harsh Vardhan, the Union Minister for Science and Technology says, “Our scientists discovered the Pythagoras theorem but we very sophisticatedly gave its credit to the Greeks. We all know we knew ‘beej ganit’ much before the Arabs, but very selflessly allowed it to be called algebra,” he is lying at every step. We did not very sophisticatedly give credit to the Greek for the Pythogoras theorem, nor did we very selflessly allow ‘beej ganit’ to be called algebra. Both these claims are means of framing a lie which seeks to bolster our chauvinism with a false sense of humility. The Greek and Arab have been credited with these concepts because we could not systemise our body of knowledge into the set of processes that today constitute science or mathematics. The key to this process is the development of experimental or logical methods that distinguish a truth from a lie, separate the real from a hoax. Today it seems that even those who call themselves scientists in India appear to lack the courage to fight for the very processes that underlie their quest for the truth.