"Yes, the Airplanes Too": Against the Hindutva History of Science

21 July 2016

Words Matter: Writings Against Silence is an anthology of essays by various writers, thinkers and intellectuals on the freedom of expression, which advocates for critical thinking as a way to combat discrimination. Edited by the Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan, the collection includes work by the historian Romila Thapar, the scholar Ananya Vajpeyi, the journalists Amrith Lal and Salil Tripathi, among others. The idea of this book, writes Satchidanandan in his introduction, emerged when several Indian writers, artists, scholars and scientists, alarmed by the silence of the government and its bodies, collectively rose in protest against what they believed to be “a growing culture of intolerance.” They returned their awards, resigned from their government posts, or issued strong statements. “The purpose of this book, then, was to collect sober, democratic voices that wished to speak out against these silences,” the poet writes. The collection opens with essays on the life and works of slain rationalists Narendra Dabolkar and Govind Pansare, as well as the scholar MM Kalburgi, clubbed with selected excerpts from their writings. It includes writing on the legacy of caste oppression, on the ideas of “tolerance” and “dissent,” on the decline of secular culture and on India’s tradition of dialogue and diversity. 

In the following excerpt from the book, from the essay titled 'Against the Hindutva History of Science,' Meera Nanda, an academic and a historian of science, examines the validity of recent attempts to locate modern science in ancient Indian texts.

The constant drumbeat of “we already knew the answers” has inured us to the dangers—to science as well as to history— of appropriating modern science for assertions of Hindu supremacy. Science is endangered when the real contradictions between scientific and the spirit-drenched Vedic world view are resolved not in favour of the critical method of science but, instead, science is turned into a cheerleader for the latter. History is endangered when the internationalist and crosscivilisational enterprise of modern science is distorted to fit into nationalistic frames. [. . .]

Claims to the effect that “it is all in the Vedas”—where “all” includes all known facts and artefacts of modern science and technology (yes, the airplanes too)—are not new. Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, had already proclaimed that as far back as around the midnineteenth century. Likewise, claims of there being “perfect harmony” between the teachings of Hindu shastras and modern science can be traced back to the New Dispensation of Keshub Chandra Sen in the late nineteenth century, and to his more famous protégé, Swami Vivekananda. In his famous address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893, Vivekananda proudly proclaimed the latest discoveries of modern science to be mere “echoes” of Vedanta philosophy.

Thus, the current craze for finding modern science in ancient religious texts is part and parcel of the history of modernity in India. It has been the dominant trope for accommodating modern science in the wider web of beliefs without destabilising inherited Hindu cosmology. [.  .  .] It is not considered particularly right wing or left wing, as elements of it can be found among people and parties of all political persuasions. However, the eagerness for scientific legitimisation of Hindu dharma is more actively and self-consciously fostered by Hindu nationalists and their allies. Attribution of great scientific discoveries to ancient Hindu rishi munis has been an integral part of the indoctrination of swayamsevaks (members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) since the very beginnings of the organised Hindu Right in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Surabhi Kanga is the web editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Hindu Hinduism science Vedas ancient text Ganesh surgery Words Matter freedom of speech