Science, History and Mythology: Hindutva Discovery of Ancient India

D.Raghunandan

A special symposium on science and technology (S&T) in ancient India
as gleaned through Sanskrit texts was organized as a side event at the 102
nd
Indian Science Congress held in Mumbai in January 2015. The symposium itself, with
an obvious Hindutva agenda, and the claims made there, generated headlines both
nationally and globally as the organizers may have hoped, but for very
different reasons. Far from highlighting important contributions in ancient
India, or uncovering
hitherto unknown facts, the symposium presentations proffered fantastic claims
showing a complete inability or disinclination to distinguish between science
and history on the one hand and mythology and sophistry on the other.

According to numerous press reports that were not contradicted, and
reports of press conferences addressed by paper presenters and symposium
organizers (copies of papers were not made available), one presentation claimed
that ancient
India
possessed advanced aviation technology as far back as 7000 BC, including huge
40-engined aircraft that could even undertake inter-planetary travel. In
response to subsequent objections that this was simply impossible, the
presenter said,
“Modern science is not
scientific.”
Another presentation claimed that futuristic surgical techniques
are recorded in the Susruta samhita “not later than 1500 BC,” and have also
been mentioned in the Rig Veda “
considered as
first text of universe (sic), created not later than 6000 BC.”
All this came after several other such
claims were made by Hindutva proponents on previous occasions (see HERE
 for a listing of many such hindutva claims). In his now
notorious speech at a hospital function in Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi
himself said ancient India knew advanced plastic surgery techniques as could be
seen from the god Ganesha having an elephant’s head attached to a human body,
and also knowledge of in vitro fertilization since, in the Mahabharata, Kunti
had given birth to Karna outside the womb. 
A storm of criticism in the media and from scientists in India (mostly
anonymous) and abroad to these and other claims, objected to unscientific
statements, mixing of history and mythology, and assertions being made without
proper evidence, the cornerstone of the scientific method and of the Indian
Science Congress itself. Anyone who thought the criticism would have
embarrassed Hindutva proponents was quickly proved wrong.
And to show that these were not stray comments by “fringe elements,” a
string of unapologetic comments followed by Union Government Ministers and leading
lights of various Sangh Parivar affiliates, directly or indirectly defending
the views expressed at the symposium, or making additional assertions along the
same lines, revealing a determined effort to reinforce what was evidently an
ideological campaign.
Former Minister in the Vajpayee-led NDA government and present
Governor of Uttar Pradesh, Mr.Ram Naik, in his valedictory address to the
Congress, felt the need to stress that ancient India had made huge strides in
sciences like medicine, astronomy, mathematics and astrology (emphasis
added), and that he “pitied those who are ashamed of our history,” which none
of the critics had said they were. Former BJP President and now Home Minister and
No.2 in the Cabinet Rajnath Singh said after the Congress that local pundits or
astrologists should be consulted rather than NASA scientists for astronomical
predictions on eclipses and such, making one wonder if the government would so
advise ISRO for the next launch to the Moon or to Mars!
The above developments make clear that this was a resolute attempt by Hindutva
proponents to put forward a specific point of view. It is argued here that
taken together, these different claims and assertions amount to a cohesive set
of formulations which, for want of a better term, may be termed the Hindutva
narrative on science in ancient India.
It is also perhaps a harbinger of a determined ideological campaign of considerable
significance for contemporary intellectual and political discourse in India.
The present essay seeks to unpack this narrative and examine its
implications. 
           
Concerted Hindutva narrative        
Several distinct yet interconnected propositions are discernible in
this narrative.
First is the claim to antiquity, the idea that Vedic (or Sanskritic)
Hindu civilization and its later evolutionary manifestations, seen as congruent
Indian civilization, is the oldest civilization in the world, that knowledge of
science and technology here pre-dated and was far in advance of that in other
civilizations, and that key breakthroughs in these fields were achieved here
much before their appearance elsewhere. Second, as this antiquity itself shows,
knowledge creation in ancient India
was a purely indigenous process and other civilizations borrowed knowledge from
India,
often without acknowledgement, thus establishing the inherent superiority of Hindu
civilization compared to all others. Third, that India would have retained this
superiority had it not been for loot and suppression by alien cultures with
other faiths, but can reclaim its greatness now by regaining and reasserting
Hindu cultural supremacy. Fourth, that modern historical and general intellectual
understanding in India and elsewhere with regard to science and technology in
ancient India is a distorted, pro-Western and secularized creation, which has
underplayed and deliberately belittled Vedic Hindu civilization’s contributions
to science, and which has been propagated particularly in India by a westernized,
mainly Leftist, elite who have internalized the colonial mindset. Hence,
evidence advanced to contradict Hindutva claims on science in ancient India is
intrinsically suspect and reflect precisely those anti-biases that the Hindutva
narrative seeks to overcome. The latter two propositions are often presented as
sub-texts, and their full-throated articulation in the form of a campaign is
probably yet to come.
It is argued in this essay that the claims and evidence advanced in
support of each of these propositions violate accepted disciplinary principles
and practices in both history and science. It is further argued that, while
some of this could be attributed to naivety or ignorance of these disciplines
and of earlier work done in them, the cohesive messaging and assertiveness of
the Hindutva narrative suggest that Hindutva forces believe, and will sooner or
later explicitly and concretely insist, that these propositions are true regardless
of any evidence to the contrary, all such evidence being presumed to be a
product of the very biases which are sought to be countered by the Hindu
nationalist narrative.
                       
Nature of evidence
Let us first examine
the nature of the evidence adduced as basis for these claims and assertions. The
paper on aviation in ancient India
presented at the Mumbai Congress by one Captain Anand J. Bordas, said to be a
retired principal of a pilot training facility, may be taken as an illustrative
case. Capt. Bordas’ passion for proclaiming the superiority of ancient Hindu
civilization clearly exceeded his knowledge of both aeronautics and historiography. 
According to Capt
Bordas, the claims about aircraft in the Vedic period were based on Sanskrit texts
by the sage Bharadwaja, the putative progenitor of the gotra or clan by
that name, “at least 7000 years ago.” The text in question, “Vymanika Prakaranam,” turns out to be one familiar to
Indian scholars. It was seriously studied for over a year in 1974 by a team of
scientists, engineers and Sanskrit scholars including renowned aerospace
engineer Prof.H.S.Mukunda of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. The
IISc study found that the text in Sanskrit and its translation into English
authored by one G.R.Josyer, published around 1920, was written in contemporary
rather than Vedic-period Sanskrit. As stated by Josyer in the book, the Sanskrit
verses themselves had been dictated by one Subbaraya Shastry, who was given to
similar flashes of inspiration, who had claimed in turn that they had been “revealed”
to him by Sage Bharadwaja. After scrutiny of the different descriptions and drawings
in the book, the IISc team concluded that the text showed “complete lack of
understanding of the dynamics of the flight of heavier‐than‐air
craft,” defied all principles of aerodynamics, and “none of the planes
[described or drawn] has properties or capabilities of being flown.” (Report of
this IISc study is available with its authors)
Captain Bordas basing his entire presentation on a single text stated to
be a “revelation,” whose provenance itself is suspect or at least indeterminate,
and which was not assessed critically, is a fatal flaw. To be taken seriously, historiography demands not only textual
references, that too from multiple authenticated sources,
but also requires
support from other kinds of evidence such as artifacts, archeological finds and
so on. In as complex a subject as aviation, there should surely also be some evidence
from the period in question of knowledge and practices in aerodynamics, materials,
manufacturing techniques and so on.
The Hindutva champions, however, appear not to have any conception of,
or to care much about, what constitutes acceptable evidence or how to assess evidentiary
value. Hence the leap from the imaginative notion of god Ganesha having an
elephant’s head to the inference that this “proves” knowledge of advanced
cosmetic surgery in ancient India, and the leap from the legend of Karna’s
immaculate conception or the birth of the Kauravas from parts of Kunti’s
discarded womb to the conclusion that ancient India “must have known” of in
vitro fertilization or stem-cell research. Half and half making one-and-a-half
which is said to be four!
Stories of immaculate conception abound in myths and legends across
civilizations, and mythical half-man half-beasts too are very common in other
ancient civilizations, for instance the Minotaur (head of a bull on body of a
man), the Centaur (human face and neck, horse’s body), the Chimera (with a
lion’s head and body, a goats head arising from the torso, and a snake for a
tail). Did all these civilizations too have knowledge of cosmetic surgery? Was
in vitro fertilization a universally known technique?  
The issue of antiquity
When challenged thus, the
Hindutva narrative skirts the question by asserting that whatever other
civilizations may have known, India knew it first, among other reasons (such as
the outstanding brilliance and far-sightedness of the ancient Hindus) because ancient
Vedic civilization is the oldest in the world. The claim to antiquity of the
Hindu civilization is in turn based on a far earlier date being ascribed to
Vedic-Sanskritic texts without substantiation, and sometimes to taking
literally the periodization claimed within the great epics, myths or legends, even
while refuting the dating arrived at by historians.
In the papers presented at the Congress, as well as in numerous other
articles, books and Hindutva literature, the period 6,000-7,000 BC is
frequently cited, in turn based on the Rig Veda or other text being ascribed to
such a historical period. The dating of the Sushruta Samhita to “around 1500
BC” by the ayurvedic physician Dr.Sawant at the symposium, while most
authorities put it at around 500-600 BC, also has no reasoning other than mere
assertion.
Most academic historians date the Rig Veda to roughly 1,200-2,000 BCE,
which Hindutva proponents simply abhor, with Prof.Romila Thapar being their bête
noir
in this regard. Hindutva arguments in favour of dates several thousand
years earlier, are mostly founded on suppositions and assertions, circular
arguments such as dating Rama’s or Krishna’s time periods based astrological
references in relevant epic literature, deducing a very early date from these,
often taking literally a yuga-based age, and thus “showing” that the Rig Veda
“could not possibly have been later” than this date and hence “must be” several
thousand years before that! (Just google “Rig Veda date Romila Thapar” and see
the Hindutva websites and blogs tumble out, full of assertions and vituperation
against her and anybody else with a differing viewpoint!) It is way beyond the
scope of this essay to delve into the dating question more thoroughly. Suffice
it to say that the real issue is not the date itself but what methods are used
to arrive at one, what evidence is used and whether this stands up to scrutiny
according to accepted historiography.
Let us turn our attention to the motivation for insisting on maximum
antiquity for Vedic-Sanskritic Hinduism, particularly as gleaned through
Sanskrit texts, and especially as regards science and technology and knowledge
creation in general. Three major promptings may be identified and are briefly discussed
here.


Firstly, there is the familiar Hindutva project to galvanize “Hindu
pride,” overcome past “humiliations” in the form of conquests or subjugation by
outsiders of different faiths, and re-build confidence for the future, by
projecting Vedic Hinduism as the most ancient, advanced and knowledgeable of
all civilizations. But this Hindutva endeavour itself is not a new one, and harks
back more than a century and a half to the early stages of the national
movement in India
against colonialism. These early efforts by intellectuals in India, and by several
abroad, aimed to uncover and translate into European languages ancient Indian,
mostly Sanskrit, texts in philosophy, metaphysics and the sciences so as to
showcase the greatness of Indian civilization. Rediscovering ancient Indian
knowledge and capabilities had an important role in the struggle against
colonialism. (Franz Fanon’s brilliant essay ‘On National Culture’ in The
Wretched of the Earth eloquently discusses this, and its pitfalls.)
However, as so often happens in the midst of such revivalist fervour
in India, there was also much myth-making, pseudo-history and “unearthing” of a
mythical golden past with a common thread of placing all these events in an
improbably ancient past. So pervasive and noticeable was this phenomenon that
sociologists even coined a term for it: “ancientization”!

  
Secondly, in the Hindutva version, this traditionalism is not just
about nostalgia and projecting a past with great achievements, but also about
promoting uncritical acceptance of the Hindutva version of Indian history. In
the Hindutva narrative, most historians come with euro-centric baggage if they
are Western or are “Macaulay putra,” sons of Macaulay. You don’t need
evidence because we say it was so. Remember the debate on the historicity of
the Ram Temple in Ayodhya? It is our faith that Rama
was born at this very spot, therefore it MUST be so. Are the Hindutva forces
heading in the same direction regarding science in ancient India? Is scientific
evidence considered irrelevant in the face of belief, just as historical evidence
is?
Vedic-Sanskritic Exclusivity
Thirdly, a little noticed aspect of the emphasis on Sanskrit texts. The
obvious motivation here is that Sanskrit texts from ancient India would almost exclusively focus on Vedic or
early Hinduism, not allowing any scope for distractions about what Indian
thinkers learned from Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Persians and from Central Asia or China
in the late ancient or medieval periods. The Hindutva narrative has no place for
composite culture or even for cultural exchanges. And it speaks of Indian
contributions to what was even in ancient times a global knowledge creation
process, with all cultures learning from each other, as if others had stolen
Indian knowledge as Dr.Harsh Vardhan alleged with regard to Algebra. Al
Khwarizmi himself, who brought algebra to world attention and who is therefore
often mistakenly credited with the innovation, generously acknowledged the Indian
primacy. Similarly, the Arabic translation around 800 AD of the Sushruta Samhita
is named Kitab-i-susrud.  
The exclusive attention paid to Sanskrit texts also completely ignores
writings in Pali and Prakrit in ancient India, thus excluding epistemological
and methodological streams from Jaina and Buddhist traditions. Reputed mathematics
scholars and historians (see for instance S.G.Dani {Prof at TIFR, Mumbai}, “Ancient Indian mathematics: a conspectus,” available HERE and “Mathematics in India: 500 BCE-1800 CE” by Kim
Plokfer, Princeton University Press, 2009; a highly instructive extract is
available HERE
) have argued that this would mean leaving out of
consideration important knowledge and mathematical traditions since Jaina and Buddhist
scholarship had several concerns that were significantly different from those
of the Vedic Brahmins, such as a lack of interest in if not antipathy towards
ritual performances which were major promptings for so much of Vedic
mathematics. Whether deliberate or stemming from ignorance, this certainly
echoes the insularity and arrogance of the eurocentrism that Hindutva forces
love to decry. Of course, Hindutva proponents are fully capable of turning
around and arguing that Buddhism and Jainism are after all part of the larger
Hindu family, that all indigenous faiths are but Hinduism in different forms,
never mind the bitter doctrinaire disputes and sometimes bloody rivalry between
supporters of these different religions.
                       
Science in ancient India not unknown
One of the key organizers of the special symposium at the Science
Congress, Dr.Gauri Mahulikar of the Sanskrit Department, Mumbai University,
which also vetted all the papers presented, stated that “so far, Sanskrit is essentially considered a language of religion
and philosophy, but the fact is that it also talks about science including
physics, chemistry, geography, geometry etc. There is a lot of scientific
information available in these texts and historical documents that we want to
explore.” (Times of India, 3 Jan
2015).
           
This strand of the Hindutva narrative
that contributions of ancient India
to science were totally suppressed or unknown until Hindutva proponents “discovered”
them is bizarre. Like Columbus “discovering” America
with numerous indigenous peoples already inhabiting it! One may just forgive
Hindutva activists who perhaps learned everything on this subject only from shakhas
or in books written by one of their own mentors. But surely those engaged in
supposedly scholarly work, and eminent leaders, Ministers no less, should be more
aware of, and at least not deny, the extensive work done by scholars in India and abroad on science in ancient India.
This work, especially from the second
half of the 20th century onwards, has been based on carefully
evaluated evidence of different kinds from multiple sources, including texts in
Sanskrit and other classical Indian languages, both in original and in
translations in Arabic, Latin or other languages.
The assiduous research
reflected in the exhaustive work by D.D.Kosambi, D.P.Chattopadhyaya,
J.D.Bernal, Joseph Needham (incidentally all Marxist scholars) and numerous
others are too well known to need repetition.
The first thing expected from serious scholars
is a study of extant literature on the subject, and to begin where others have
left off. To claim originality where none exists is the worst kind of academic
and intellectual dishonesty.
Is this the kind of thinking or scholarship
that Hindutva leaders want to encourage? Or an example they wish to set for the
country, especially the youth?
If the Hindutva goal were simply to
highlight achievements in ancient India, there is no shortage of real, pioneering
knowledge creation, such as the orbital motion of the planets relative to the
sun, the inclination of the earth’s axis, the place value system, early
estimations of the value of π, the decimal system including the zero, algebra
and different aspects of trigonometry and early forms of calculus, advances in
medicine, metallurgy and so on. When all these exist and can be proudly
proclaimed, regardless of childish me-first games which beyond a point do not
further the understanding of either history or science, what is the need for
Hindutva votaries to search for and assert fictitious or imaginary claims? Such
fantastic claims only serve to devalue real achievements by reflecting
scepticism from the former to the latter. Far from adding to the glory of
Indian civilization, Hindutva advocates are embarrassing the nation and doing a
huge disservice to its great contributions to science in ancient times and to
the work Indian scientists are doing today.
 
A couple of important aspects may be touched upon in conclusion.
The very act of organizing the symposium at the 102nd
Indian Science Congress portends bad days ahead for science in India. It shows
that, contrary to the forward-looking development-oriented outlook that they
proclaim, Hindutva forces do not mind causing immense damage to knowledge
creation and to major scientific institutions in pursuit of their real
ideological agenda. Truly worrying too is the silence of the Congress
organizers, of scientists present there, and of premier scientific bodies, on
this abuse of the Science Congress and the misuse of governmental power to
impose this regressive agenda. People in India, especially the poor in rural
and forest areas, have in the past few decades become resentful of various
developmental programmes or projects that have adverse impacts on their lives,
such as large dams, nuclear power plants, GM crops and foods, pesticides and
other hazardous chemicals. People have also become deeply suspicious of what
they regard as “sarkari (official) scientists” who are fielded by
government to defend such projects and claim they pose no dangers, even when
evidence and the opinion of other experts strongly indicate the opposite. This
is leading to mounting distrust of science itself. The symposium at the Science
Congress, the litany of unscientific comments by Ministers and other Hindutva
leaders, and the mute response of establishment scientists towards these
developments only add to the growing perception that scientists owe less
allegiance to unbiased evidence-based findings and work than to tailoring their
opinions according to the wishes of their political masters and kowtowing to
them.     
The key point at issue about science in ancient India is not whether
the Hindutva proponents are right or not about this or that claim. Such questions
are not difficult to study and to answer, provided one follows well-known
scientific procedures for conducting research, testing a hypothesis or floating
one, and arriving at conclusions. Science and history are serious subjects,
calling for rigour, openness, scrutiny by peers, and finally acceptance,
rejection or modification of hypotheses. Mythologies are not the same as
history, and can never have the same ontological status as science. In fact,
one should not expect them to. Anthropologists have long argued that
mythologies have a different social function, and their significance is not to
be assessed by their historical “truth” value. 
Finally, the battle underway is not just science versus mythology, false
claims against historical fact, but a battle for academic and intellectual
rigour, for the method of science and of historiography, and ultimately for a
scientific attitude and critical questioning, as against blind acceptance of
authority whoever that may be or howsoever exalted. That last is the
authoritarian road, which leads to a very bleak future, however glorious our
past.

The author is with Delhi
Science Forum &
President, All India Peoples Science Network
([email protected])