The Infiltration of Pseudo -Science in Science Through Myths and Miracles
NEW DELHI: The Sangh Parivar has always tried to project a revival of the ‘glorious ancient Hindu past’ as the way forward for our country.
For them, to wax eloquent about Hindu India’s past scientific achievements is the hallmark of true nationalism. At the same time, they talk about development and economic growth, aided by modern science and technology, for India to become a great and powerful nation. “The most crucial components of a modern worldview – rationality and the practice of critique – are ignored and rejected in favour of blind faith in Sanatana Dharma and a revival of a supposedly Vedic past.”
The ball was set rolling in late 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself who declared at the opening ceremony of a hospital in Mumbai that modern medical achievements – plastic surgery, cloning and in-vitro fertilisation – were all practised in India’s ancient past, that Lord Ganesha’s elephant head is proof that advanced transplant surgery existed, and that the way Kunti conceived in the Mahabharata was evidence of the practice of in-vitro fertilisation.
His Sangh Parivar colleagues followed with a slew of similar claims about ancient Indian science.
The Indian Science Congress held in early 2015 saw several such instances:
- An IAS officer started his presentation by blowing a conch shell for 2 minutes and claimed that the sound could cure many human disorders.
- An invited lecture sought to project Lord Shiva as the ‘greatest environmentalist in the world’.
- At the symposium on Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit, ‘evidence’ was laid out that sophisticated flying vehicles existed in Vedic times : as large as modern-day jumbo jets, with radar and advanced guidance and tracking systems; their pilots wore magic suits and they were capable of interplanetary travel. The authors claimed that their work is based on the Maharshi Bhardwaj Vaimanika Sastra, a text they say was written around 400 BC. But scholars at the IISc in Bangalore say it was actually written between 1900 and 1922.
It is therefore not surprising that 2009 Chemistry Nobel laureate V Ramakrishnan described the Congress as a ‘circus’ and vowed never to attend one again.
Noted biologist P M Bhargava, founder of CCMB, Hyderabad, also exasperatedly said that the event had deteriorated over the years and was now ‘an absolute waste of money’.
The claims of interplanetary spaceships so incensed Dr. R P Gandhiraman, a NASA scientist, that he collected hundreds of signatures from other scientists around the world on a petition demanding that the session be cancelled. “We as a scientific community should be seriously concerned about the infiltration of pseudo-science in science curricula with the backing of influential political parties …Giving a scientific platform for a pseudo-science talk is worse than a systematic attack that has been carried out by politically powerful pseudo-science propagandists in the recent past. If we scientists remain passive, we are betraying not only the science, but also our children.”
An exhibit was inaugurated by the Minister of Culture, Mahesh Sharma, in Delhi’s Rabindra Bhavan, entitled Cultural Continuity from Rig Veda to Robotics.
Here was a display of plastic placards decorated with calendar art and tele-serial imaginings of the Mahabharata, coupled with crude info-graphics informing us that by correlating references to the planets and stars in the Sanskrit epics with astronomy software, the historicity of Lord Ram, and the narratives of the Ramayana and Mahabharata had now been firmly established. To wit: the “fall of Duryodhan in mace battle” occurred at 06:50 on November 14, 3139 BC. Ram himself was born on January 10, 5014 BC. “Around 12 to 1 noontime.”
We do not by any means wish to imply that glorifying the scientific achievements of ancient India is simply communal Hindu propaganda, to be disdainfully dismissed. On the contrary, we should be proud of our ancient scientific heritage.
However, we have to carefully sift genuine and legitimate science from mythology and imaginative speculation. ”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….”
“There is a conflation of myth and superstition with the scientific advances of the past; and then a spurious equivalence is sought to be created between ancient myths and modern science. The technological products of the Enlightenment are eagerly sought, while the critical methods of science, which lead us to question every assumption and belief, are firmly shut out. Science as a vehicle for rationality and as an expression of reason is something that Hindutva strongly opposes, even as it seeks the credibility of science for its myths. This explains why the Hindu nationalists ruling India today celebrate technology while constantly seeking to undermine scientific methods.”
Why did the great scientific achievements of ancient India not advance further through succeeding centuries? The cheerleaders of Hindutva give a simplistic and historically wrong argument is that invasions by Muslims and later the British wiped out these glorious achievements, and they have now set forth to revive them.
Historian Romila Thapar has argued that early achievements in ancient and medieval science, such as astronomy and mathematics, were never consolidated in India because of opposition from religious orthodoxy; and philosophers who believed in reason and science had to encounter opposition from dominant religious authorities. “It is an irony that the upholders of a monistic version of Brahminical Hinduism are today claiming the achievements in ancient Indian science for a political project whose lineage can only be linked to those who opposed that very scientific endeavour.”
The Modi government has shown scant regard for the development of a scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform [Article 51A(h) of the constitution].
Appointment of saffronised but otherwise incompetent persons to key posts of scientific and educational institutions, rewriting of school textbooks to inculcate unscientific, irrational and historically inaccurate knowledge in our younger generation, the ‘unsolved’ murders of rationalists Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi … the list grows longer with each passing day.
Yoga has been promoted by Narendra Modi, and endorsed by his pet godmen Ramdev and Ravishankar, as the greatest gift of ancient India to humanity and the cure for the ills afflicting humankind. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, PM Modi had even suggested that climate change can be mitigated by the practice of yoga. International Yoga Day is coming soon and will be observed with enormous pomp and show. Yoga is being forced upon all religious and minority groups as a token of their ‘deshbhakti’.
Nobody says that Yoga is not beneficial. But there are many millions engaged in walking, running, cycling and weight training than those practising yoga and reaping equal or better benefits. But there is no brand that unifies them as yoga does, and there is no allure of spirituality and “5000 years” of heritage behind what they do.
A comprehensive study by a Karnataka-based researcher-consultant, Dr Srinivas Kakkilaya, has said that “all the available evidence as of now, and the systematic reviews and meta-analyses, indicate clearly that yoga does not cure or prevent, or significantly alleviate, any ailment, that affects humans.”
The study refutes the claim that yoga is the oldest contribution to the world from India, that it is the greatest contribution from Hinduism, that it has helped Indians with health and vitality for millennia.
Pointing out that yoga was “never a part of Indian systems of medicine”, Kakkilaya says, “Indian medical texts such as Charaka Samhita or Ashtanga Hrudaya do not mention yoga as a method of prevention or treatment of any disease”, adding, “The credit for entwining the so called yoga with health and fitness must go to Manibhai Haribhai Desai, also known as Shri Yogendra (1897-1989), and Jagannath Ganesh Gune, also known as Swami Kuvalayananda (1883-1966).”
Based on an analysis of more than 3000 papers over the last 100 years, the study concludes, “The proponents of yoga therapy have failed to find any conclusive evidence for the efficacy of yoga in treating any illness. They have not even been successful in standardizing the so called yoga therapy.”
Apprehensions have been raised that yoga being foisted upon the armed forces, with the chiefs meekly following the Modi government’s directives, may well lead to politicisation of the military.
How have the scientists of India reacted to this trend of growing irrationality and unscientific claims ? Sadly, by and large the ‘leaders’ of the scientific and technological establishments in India have a very poor record of rational and scientific thinking and attitude.
Take ISRO, perhaps the most successful Indian establishment in terms of its track record of raising Indian space science and technology to international levels.
For several decades, before any space launch from Sriharikotta the ISRO chief has taken a replica of the space launch vehicle to Sri Ventakeshwara temple in Tirupati to seek divine blessings for the success of the mission. Do they have more faith in divine guidance than in the scientific and technological prowess of their own scientists and engineers? It appears so.
As someone sarcastically asked the ISRO chief : “Have you ever considered blaming your gods (and claiming damage recovery from the temple trust authorities) when some of the earlier Indian rockets failed?” Dr. Radhakrishnan, the then chief of ISRO, carried out the same exercise in the case of the hugely successful Mangalyaan.
Dr. Madhavan Nair, former ISRO chief, has joined the ‘glorious ancient Indian science’ bandwagon. Some of his statements:
- Some sholkas in one of the Vedas say that there is water on the moon but no one believed it. Through our Chandrayaan mission, we could establish that and we were the first ones to find that out,” Nair said, adding that everything in Vedas could not be understood as they were in chaste Sanskrit.
- “We are really proud that Aryabhatta and Bhaskara have done extensive work on planetary work and exploration of outer planets….Even for Chandrayaan, the equation of Aryabhatta was used. Even the (knowledge of) gravitational field… Newton found it some 1500 years later… The knowledge existing (in our scriptures).”
- “The Vedas had a lot of information in the field of space and atomic energy. We were fine until 600 BC. Then came the time of invasions till the independence. Since then we are growing. We deciphered the atoms for peaceful use.”
DRDO, which has the responsibility of developing state-of-the-art arms and ammunition systems for the Indian armed forces, has not been far behind. The director of the Research and Development Establishment, Pune, has allegedly spent over Rs 5 crores of its funds and energies in developing a pure silver hi-tech chariot and ‘donated’ it to Alandi Temple in June after a bullock was killed during the 21-day annual palki yatra to Pandharpur.
A senior scientist, who rebelled against this ‘absurd’ venture and filed a complaint with the Central Vigilance Commission, had to pay for it. The DRDO not only stripped him off his ongoing projects, but also transferred him out of the Pune centre to a post where he was left to waste.
We all know about the Narendra Modi government’s order to DRDO to collaborate and assist the Patanjali Yogpeeth enterprise of Baba Ramdev, for manufacturing and marketing some of the herbal supplements and food products developed by DRDO. The defence minister, army chief and DRDO chief endorsed this collaboration. It is common knowledge that most of Ramdev’s products have not been certified by the national food safety authorities and their purity and efficacy are suspect.
India may be close to entering a phase of ideology-driven science. “Most important is creation of atmosphere in which rational scientists are being projected as agents of the West out to undermine the glory of ancient Indian past,” said Mayank Vahia, an astrophysicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Eminent scientist P M Bhargava, agrees, “There is no doubt that with the present government at the centre which is the political front of the RSS, fringe elements have started squeezing Indian science including mainline science and science policies.
This is clear from the appointments made to crucial scientific posts.” Vahia says, “Rationalist Indian scientists are willing to study past achievements based on principles of logic and evidence, but the fringe nationalistic groups … try to forcefully occupy the mainstream dialogue on India’s past and are not willing to accept limitations imposed by logic. The great seers of the past were supposed to be all-seeing and all-knowing, period.”
The consequence of such approach could be disastrous. “The rationalist scientists will find their own work space squeezed as they deal with a government that is influenced by parochial considerations. Pure excellence will give way to committed excellence … Most mainstream scientists get overwhelmed by the beauty and elegance of nature in a few years and a fair fraction of them have strongly religious backgrounds … they become convinced about the gods as entities who supervise our lives and give up the rationalist approach to life and existence. These scientists then become supporters of irrationality”.
Vahia wants rationalist scientists to take on fringe elements by educating people about real achievements of the past. “Scientists will have to arm themselves with a better understanding of the true achievements of the past, and then step forward and take on the fringe groups who are well-organised, well-funded, shrill and increasingly tolerated, if not encouraged, by the powers that be …The battle is for the soul of the nation, no more, no less. A battle is not far, and it will be brutal, hard and long.” However, given the fact that most Indian scientists are “career-conscious” and depend on government grants for research, it is doubtful if many would join Vahia in his campaign.
In conclusion, it is imperative for all democratic-minded, rational-thinking and freedom-loving people to close their ranks, irrespective of their political or ideological beliefs and inclinations, and oppose the increasing attempts of the saffron brigade to impose its narrow, communal and bigoted Hindutva agenda on the people of our country in the name of ‘nationalism’.
(Dr Amitabha Basu is scientist, having worked with the Space Applications Centre (ISRO) and the National Physical Laboratory (CSIR))