"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.

This explains why every time the Hindu nationalists come to power, the first thing they do is start revising history, with a special place reserved for the history of science. During their first stint from 1998 to 2004, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pushed for introducing degree courses in astrology, karma-kanda (rituals) and “consciousness studies” of the Advaitic variety in colleges and universities. Thanks to the policies put in place by NDA 1.0, any aspiring astrologer or priest can get a diploma from public or private institutions that have been given the status of universities. Now that the BJP-led alliance is back in power, revising the history of science is once again on the top of the list of educational “reforms.” NDA 2.0 has lost no time in extending its campaign rhetoric of “India first” to this discipline. Claims of India’s antecedence in everything from mathematics, medicine and surgery—to say nothing of nuclear weapons, spaceships and other Star Trek-style technologies—have been made by prominent people at prestigious national-level gatherings.

The ball was set rolling by none other than the prime minister in his inaugural address at the Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai in October 2014. This was followed by events at the 102nd annual Indian Science Congress in Mumbai in early January 2015. Other relatively high-visibility events where a seamless continuity between modern science and ancient sciences and myths was on the agenda include an exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi titled “Cultural Continuity from Rigveda to Robotics” and a seminar on Vedic chronology organised by the Sanskrit department of Delhi University, both in September 2015. Behind all these high-profile events, there are any number of “Shiksha Bachao” (save our education) activists who want this “history” to become part of school curricula.

Roughly four kinds of appropriations of modern science for the glory of Hindu sages-scientists can be discerned.

1. Making antecedence claims for ancient India for landmark discoveries in mathematics and medicine. The perennial favourites are the Pythagorean theorem and the zero in mathematics.

2. Erasure of lines of demarcation between myth and historical evidence. At the inaugural address at the Mumbai hospital mentioned above, the prime minister invoked the elephant-headed god Ganesh as evidence for plastic surgery, and Karna, a character from the Mahabharata, as evidence for “genetic science.”

3. Erasure of lines of demarcation between science and certified pseudo-sciences like astrology.

4. A higher kind of pseudo-science that is generated by grafting spiritual concepts like prana (or breath), prakriti or akasha (the “subtle” material substrate of nature) on to physicists’ concepts of “energy” and “ether”; karmically determined birth and rebirth on to theories of evolution of species; chakras with actual neural structures, so on and so forth.

We have to understand that the Hindu nationalists are not in the business of history writing, even though they may use historical evidence if and when it suits them. What they are doing is fabricating a heritage that we are supposed to kneel before in awe and wonder and feel special about. While no history is completely free of biases and errors, historians at least try to correct their narratives in the light of better evidence. Heritage makers, on the other hand, thrive on errors and biases.

The distinction between history and heritage highlighted by David Lowenthal in his well-known book, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, is relevant to the Indian situation:

Heritage is not ‘bad’ history. In fact, heritage is not history at all; while it borrows from and enlivens historical study, heritage is not an inquiry into the past, but a celebration of it; not an effort to know what actually happened, but a profession of faith in the past tailored to present day purposes.

And again:

Heritage is immune to critical reappraisal because it is not erudition but catechism; what counts is not checkable fact but credulous allegiance. Commitment and bonding demand uncritical endorsement and preclude dissenting voices . . . Prejudiced pride in the past is not a sorry consequence of heritage; it is its essential purpose.

What could be better than science itself—the modern world’s most prestigious knowledge tradition—as the centerpiece of India’s heritage? What better method for fabricating this heritage than “stitching historical traces” of science into myths and fables every Indian child practically learns on her mother’s knee? And what could be more potent than such heritage to foster “prejudiced pride” among people and rally them to the flag?

A case in point: Prime Minister Modi explained why he was invoking mythic figures (Ganesha, Karna) in the following words:

We have our own skills. Now, we are not new to medical science . . . We can take pride in the world of medicine. Our nation was great one time . . . What I mean to say is that ours is a country that once had these abilities [for advanced medicine]. We can regain these abilities. [. . .]

The notion of continuity between the sciences of antiquity—not just the sciences of Indian antiquity but any ancient civilisation in the world—and modern science is unwarranted and unproductive. It is unwarranted because it does not acknowledge the break from all earlier knowledge traditions that happened with the invention of modern science. The science that emerged after the Scientific Revolution through the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries was a very different enterprise from all earlier attempts to understand nature. Most historians of science agree on the following revolutionary transformations that marked the birth of modern science: a) the mathematisation of nature; b) enhancement of our senses through new technological tools such as telescopes, and enhancement of our reasoning abilities through new intellectual tools such as decimal point; c) fact-finding experiments, in addition to direct observations; d) development of a mechanistic world picture; and e) an uncommon appreciation of manual work.

Undoubtedly, this revolution was made possible by a confluence of a multitude of earlier achievements of many civilisations—the ancient Greeks, Christianity, Islam, and through Islam, the contributions of ancient and classical India and China. But the new science that emerged after the Scientific Revolution was most unlike any of the nature-knowledge traditions that went into it, including the Graeco-Roman and the Judaeo-Christian traditions that are the direct ancestors of the Western civilisation. This new method of learning about the natural world, to use David Wootton’s words, “was grounded in a new type of engagement with the sensory reality and systematically employed the test of experience.”

If one accepts this picture of the birth of modern science as a revolutionary new style of inquiry, it is simply oxymoronic to say that any pre-modern knowledge tradition had the answer to questions asked by modern scientists. Even when the ancients and the moderns looked at the “same” sky and stars, they “saw” different things; even when they seemed to talk of the “same” phenomena of moving or falling bodies, they meant different things; even when they evoked God and tradition, they approached them from different standpoints. Of course, there are nuggets of useful mathematical and empirical knowledge of pre-modern scientific traditions—the knowledge of useful medicinal plants or organic methods of farming, for example—that can be incorporated into the body of modern scientific knowledge provided they pass the stringent tests that all empirical claims must go through to be deemed “scientific.”

But beyond that, it is simply vainglorious to claim that modern science is only repeating what the ancients already knew. Not only is the insistence of continuity between ancient and modern sciences unwarranted, it is entirely unproductive. The conviction that we have always already known everything that is worth knowing, and that everything we knew is only confirmed—never rejected—by science, has prevented us from developing an ethos of honest inquiry. The compulsion to establish harmony with the core of the Vedic world view has held back the progress of science in the past, and will continue to hold us back if we keep going down this path.