The irony is that ancient India did have real achievements in science and math
The 103rd Indian Science Congress met in Mysuru this month from the 3rd to 7th. Like last year, this session too was not without its controversies. In 2014, one of the presenters made the claim that there were planes in the Vedic age that could make trans-continental flights.This year, controversy was generated when one of the invited lecturers sought to project Lord Shiva as the `greatest environmentalist in the world’. Another esteemed panelist, belonging to the IAS, began his presentation by blowing a conch for a full two minutes; he followed this up by claiming that the sound of the conch could eliminate key disorders afflicting humankind.

Not surprisingly , 2009 Nobel laureate Venkat Ramakrishnan pithily dismissed the Congress as a `circus’ and vowed never to attend one again. Noted biologist P M Bhargava, founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, also exasperatedly said that the event had deteriorated over the years and was now `an absolute waste of money’.

There is no doubt that an ancient tradition of excellence in science existed in India. Scholars believe that the Indus Valley Civilisation, that flourished 2,500 years before the Christian era, used a system of weights and measures based on an awareness of the decimal system.It is clear too that the cities of this civilisation could not have been built without knowledge of simple geometry .

In later times mathematics emerged as the single largest contribution of India to the world of science. The term ganita, meaning the science of calculation, occurs with great frequency in Vedic literature.

As far back as possibly 500 BC, the Jyotish Vedanga used sophisticated methods of calculation to fix the position of the new and full moon and other astronomical inferences. A group of 16 sutras or word formulae were used widely in Vedic times to solve arithmetic and algebraic problems, and attempts are now being made to resurrect this science under the rubric of `Vedic math‘.

In later times Hindu astronomers and mathematicians, of whom the most famous were Aryabhata I (5th century), Brahmagupta (6th century), Mahavira (9th century) and Bhaskara (12th century), made groundbreaking contributions to the development and elaboration of mathematical concepts, unknown to the West until the Renaissance or even later.

Aryabhata I, for instance, had calculated that the earth revolves around the sun about a thousand years before Galileo was persecuted for the same claim. It is well known that the concept of the zero, called the shunya, and the decimal system, originated in India, and reached the West through the Arabs, who for long called mathematics Hindsat, the `science of India’.

The Syrian astronomer-monk Severus Sebokht wrote with awe in the 7th century of the rational system of mathematics of the Hindus, `and of their met hod of calculation which no words can praise strongly enough’. A L Basham, the worldrenowned historian of ancient India, writes that the `unknown man’ who devised the decimal system `was from the world’s point of view, after the Buddha, the most important son of India’.

Given this lineage, why is it that today , self-styled evangelists of `Hindu India’ attempt to glorify our past in such jejune and puerile terms? Are outlandish claims, such as `jumbo planes’ fitted with `ancient radar systems’ that have no basis in either history or science and rely solely on mythology , the only way to pay tribute to our scientific heritage?
Lord Shiva is the central pillar of Hindu philosophy’s audacious leap into the realm of metaphysics. Must he be devalued by projecting him as the `world’s greatest environmentalist’? There could, perhaps, be a discussion on how even Vedic sacrificial altars were built to precise scientific specifications. But, is the blowing of a conch the only way to trumpet such and other path-breaking achievements?
Under the section on Fundamental Duties, article 51A (h) of our Constitution enjoins every citizen of India `to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of enquiry and reform’. Is this purpose served by Prime Minister Narendra Modi (who inaugurated this year’s Congress) when he proclaimed in 2014 that Lord Ganesha’s elephant head is proof that advanced cosmetic surgery existed in ancient India, and that the way Kunti conceived in the Mahabharata was evidence of the practice of invitro fertilisation millennia ago?
The tragedy is that the evaluation of our remarkable scientific past has fallen prey to a double jeopardy . On the one hand we have right wing Hindutva evangelists who confuse mythology with science and make a mockery of our legitimate scientific achievements. And, on the other hand, we have `reflex’ secularists who see in any reference to our ancient refinements a communal conspiracy .

Alas, such an attitude of disdainful dismissal is often rooted in ignorance, mistaken too long for `modernity’. A random survey could well reveal that many in the metropolitan salons of India, who believe that any reference to ancient India is tantamount to communalism, are so culturally rootless that they cannot even render a line-by-line meaning of the national anthem! The Indian Science Congress, and much of modern India’s cultural discourse, will need to find a sane middle ground between these two extremes, in order to do true justice to our civilisational heritage.

The writer, a former diplomat, represents JD(U) in Rajya Sabha. Views are personal