Thursday, January 15, 2015

Shobhit Mahajan: Incredible Indians

It is a sign of the times that the PM asserts ancient Indians developed IVF and the minister for science and technology says they discovered certain mathematical concepts, though generously allowing the Arabs and the Greeks to take credit, and still scientists do not register a collective protest. .It is one thing when such remarks are made by some television yoga evangelist or a born-again-NRI-Hindutva-votary. It is quite another when the representatives of the state endorse such views.

In 2013, the Texas Board of Education took up a well-respected textbook on biology for review. The board felt that the book’s account of the theory of evolution was one-sided and did not give enough space for alternative theories like creationism or intelligent design. After criticism from scientists, the board approved the book, but the point was not lost on the publishers. The danger of losing a  large market like Texas was enough for them to fall in line and ensure that only “acceptable” books were published. Over the last few decades, religious activists in the US have exerted political and legal pressure to ensure that evolution is not taught in schools, or only taught as one possible alternative to explain life as we know it.

Closer home, we have recently seen a lot of controversy over the purported scientific advances of ancient India. A few months ago, the prime minister informed us while inaugurating a hospital that genetic and stem cell research, as well as plastic surgery, were prevalent in the times of the Mahabharata. He also mentioned that our ancestors had “displayed great strengths in space science”. Perhaps taking a cue from this observation, Anand Bodas and Ameya Jadhav presented a paper on “ancient Indian aviation technology” at the recently concluded Indian Science Congress. This paper was part of a symposium on “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit”.

The Indian Science Congress is not usually a forum where original, pathbreaking science is discussed. It is essentially a jamboree attended by several thousand science practitioners and teachers. The teachers, from universities and colleges all over the country, get an all-expenses paid trip to a new place every year. The congress organises plenary and invited talks by noted scientists and science bureaucrats, as well as parallel sessions for the humble mofussil lecturer to present her research.

The claims made in the paper on aviation in ancient India, that heavier-than-air machines were built thousands of years ago, were ludicrous, to say the least. They were based on a text, Vymanika Shastra, supposedly composed by Maharshi Bhardwaja but set down in the early part of the 20th century by Subbaraya Shastry. As has been reported in this newspaper, a team of aeronautical engineers at the Indian Institute of Science conclusively established in 1971 that the claims made in the text were completely bogus.

None of this seemed to have mattered to the organisers or the reviewers of the paper. What is more, as a commentator recently noted, there has been no public outcry from the community of scientists. It is a sign of the times that the PM asserts ancient Indians developed IVF and the minister for science and technology says they discovered certain mathematical concepts, though generously allowing the Arabs and the Greeks to take credit, and still scientists do not register a collective protest. 

It is one thing when such remarks are made by some television yoga evangelist or a born-again-NRI-Hindutva-votary. It is quite another when the representatives of the state endorse such views.

One has to make a distinction between private and public pronouncements and actions. In private, if the PM and Harsh Vardhan believe in Rahu kaalam, it is their own business. Just as, during the total solar eclipse in the 1980s, scientists at a preeminent institution in Mumbai were seen performing propitiatory rituals at home. But when the people who are responsible for making policy make such statements in their official capacity, we should think about the ramifications.

First, there is the minor issue of the Constitution. Article 51A(h) was added “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and spirit of inquiry and reforms” as a fundamental duty. It would be a stretch to say that the recent statements made by public figures conform to this injunction. It also doesn’t bode well for scientific research if policymakers hold such views. They will invariably be reflected in priorities in funding, directing resources towards kinds of research that could hardly be called science.

Of course, criticism of such a mindset is not criticism of the scientific heritage of our culture, or any ancient culture. For instance, we know that the traditional pharmacopoeia in Ayurveda or in Chinese medicine is rich in insights on natural products with curative properties. But what is needed is a scientific assessment and appreciation of our heritage, rather than a jingoistic recollection of some mythical golden age to which we are promised a return.

There are other very real dangers, of which we had a preview some years ago, when courses on Karmakand and Vedic astrology were introduced in the curriculum. Can we now expect courses in Vedic aviation and ancient genetics? It could get even worse. The focus of the present dispensation and its ideological backers has thus far been on rewriting history and social science textbooks. It is bad enough that a whole generation of children could be educated in Amar Chitra Katha history. It would be disastrous if, instead of learning the basics of science, they are forced to study this cuckooland version of physics and biology. The effect of the US’s growing creationist movement on its curriculum should be a warning to us. And it is more ominous here since the state itself would be promoting it.

The writer is professor of physics and astrophysics, University of Delhi


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