- Ramachandra Guha
It was SB Talpade who first flew a machine in 1895, according to the abstract of a paper to be presented at the 102nd Indian Science Congress in Mumbai on January 4. Another talks about advanced surgeries in 6000 BC.
In the early years of this century, people — within and outside India — began speaking of our country emerging as a ‘knowledge superpower’. The proximate reason for this was the country’s then rising software industry.
As that sturdy bellwether of the conventional wisdom, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, wrote in 2005, India, once ‘known as a country of snake charmers, poor people, and Mother Teresa’, was being ‘recalibrated’ as ‘a country of brainy people and computer wizards’. This ‘recalibration’ was eagerly lapped up by the Indian press, with mass-circulation magazines running cover stories entitled ‘Global Champs’ and ‘On the Way to Number One’. It was argued that while Chinese growth depended on sweated labour, the Indian miracle was driven by knowledge and hence of greater worth — as well as more sustainable in the long run.
I heard this talk with some bemusement. I was living in Bangalore, presented as the ‘centre’ of the ‘knowledge revolution’ allegedly sweeping my country. But I suspected that writing code was not necessarily the same thing as producting original scientific knowledge. And I knew for a fact that Bangalore itself did not have a single decent library, while the city’s main university had not produced much original research in the past three decades. To be sure, there were isolated examples of excellence. In my city, we had the Indian Institute of Science and the National Centre for Biological Sciences, both reasonably well-functioning centres of scientific research. Elsewhere in my country, there were such places as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad. And both Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University had some fine social scientists and historians on their faculty. Yet in the aggregate, the quality and quantity of cutting-edge research was woefully meagre for a country as large as ours. The talk of India becoming a ‘knowledge superpower’ was not just premature. It was, frankly, absurd.
My long-standing skepticism in this regard got a renewed boost when I read a recent report in Hindustan Times about the annual Indian Science Congress, held this year in Mumbai. For the first time, the Congress had a session on science in ancient India. This in itself was welcome, for the history of science is a somewhat undeveloped field in this country. And in certain areas, such as medicine and mathematics, our ancestors had elaborated sophisticated methods of analysis — later surpassed, but in their time often in advance of what was happening in other parts of the world.
Unfortunately, the contributions to this session were not by scholars who had carefully studied the evidence, but ideologues who extrapolated from ancient myths to make extravagant claims about their veracity. So one speaker claimed that the sages Agastya and Bharadwaja had invented aeroplanes which flew not just forward, but backwards and sideways as well. A further, and even more fantastic claim was that these planes were piloted by men for whom had been designed ‘virus-proof, water-proof, and shock-proof’ jackets.
While inaugurating a super-modern hospital in Mumbai some months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of how the existence of Lord Ganesha proved that the ancient Hindus had invented the art of plastic surgery. Some thought he was speaking jocularly. But these speakers at the Science Congress were in deadly earnest. Plastic surgery had indeed been invented in ancient India, they insisted. The ancient Hindus even knew how to conduct nuclear explosions.
As it happened, shortly after I read these news reports about the Science Congress’s most interesting (and most controversial) session, I came across an interview in the Chennai magazine Fountain Ink with Y Sudershan Rao, the new Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Here, Professor Rao dismissed modern methods of historical enquiry — based on evidence from manuscipts, inscriptions, and artefacts found through detailed archaeological explorations — as ‘Western inspired’. He said that historians should instead treat texts such as the Vedas as ‘the best evidence’ for reconstructing the past.
Professor Rao’s appointment as head of the ICHR was widely criticised at the time, for he has published not a single scholarly paper in a peer-reviewed journal. This interview does reveal him as a rather special kind of ‘historian’, whose own models are (in his words) ‘people like Valmiki [who] were scholars documenting their lives. We believe that they are rishis, who know the past, present and the future’.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that the Mahabharata should be seen as allegorical rather than a work of history. Most Indians take this as a sensible approach to what is a gloriously detailed epic, rich in poetry, allegory and moral teachings, but not necessarily history as we know it. But Professor Rao is in little doubt that the incidents described in the Mahabharata actually happened. He hopes that the ICHR, under his leadership, will make the Mahabharata the ‘anchor for the History of Bharat’.
Such are Professor Rao’s ambitions for the ICHR. As for his own intellectual interests, these are best captured in the title of one of his research projects, namely: ‘Proposed application of Pendulum Theory of Oscillation between Spirituality and Materialism based on the Cosmic Phenomenon and Indian Yuga (Epoch) Systemic Approach, to the Historical Research’.
The Republic of India is not becoming a scientific superpower any time soon. We may however console ourselves that we are already the myth-making superpower of the world.