Saffronization Threatens Science
Who controls the past, controls the future….. . Who controls the present controls the past.- George Orwell.

Concocting past ‘glories’ does injustice to the real scientific achievements of ancient India, and makes India look ridiculous in the present. The bid of the present political regime in India to saffronize Indian science and history presents this very danger.

An Italian politician claims that ancient Italians knew how to fabricate a bio-mechanical device on human shoulders which flew in air. Did not Cupid, the god of love, do so hundreds of years ago with the wings firmly attached to his shoulders? A Greek right-winger jumps in to present his indigenous aircraft of antiquity. Eros was our first pilot, says he. A man from China feels challenged by the recent Indian claims of mastery in aviation thousands of years ago. He showcases Yinglong, the dragon who could not only fly but could also make the clouds rain in ancient China. Let us stop before it becomes too comical to digest!

Any rational person would scoff at the absurdity of the above arguments. But if the Prime Minister of a country claims publicly that the snout of Lord Ganesha implies knowledge of plastic surgery in ancient India, that Karna’s birth proved mastery of genetic engineering by our ancestors, it can no longer be a subject of mere recreation. Things get worse when in the recently organized 102nd Indian Science Congress (ISC), claims were made about aircrafts that could fly 7000 years ago between planets on the basis of some slokas mentioned in the Vedas.

How are we to respond to these proclamations? Should they just be ignored, ridiculed, pushed under the carpet, or taken at face value? Should there be a sweeping generalization that all ancient Indian science was bogus and not worth giving a thought to, or would the other extreme be the correct choice - all of ancient Indian science was glorious and sacrosanct and hence, not to be subjected to criticism. Most importantly, do these claims originate from an ideological-political premise or can they be dismissed as innocuous expressions of human fantasy, deriving themes from a mythical past.

Writing about science, the well-known British astronomer Sir Hermann Bondi said “… Science is the most human of endeavours because it depends on co-operation, it depends on people testing each other’s work and it depends on people taking notice of each other.” The history of development of science is replete with examples of people like Bruno and Galileo who challenged the authority of the Church. They risked their lives for the cause of science, which, for them, was also a defense of their convictions about empirical truth. The practice and achievements of science inculcate a scientific temper in society at large. People then begin to analyse their lives and miseries in this “earthly” world and therein begins a search for a just and humane society. Perhaps, realizing the need for instilling a scientific temper in the people of the country, the Constitution of India in Article 51A says “... it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.

Let us come back to the proclamations of the Hindutva brigade. A person with a scientific temper would demand evidence in support of the claims made. In science, by default one adopts the position of a sceptic: "Give me proof and I believe" and not "Give me disproof and I stop believing". Captain Bodas, who presented the paper in ISC, refused to give a copy of his paper to the media or the scientific community for review. Why hide the achievements of our ancestors from the world? It becomes obvious that forces of obscurantism and reaction feel threatened when they have to breathe in an environment permeated with scientific temper.

The issue to be addressed is- we should discover our past, not invent it. Scientific study requires hard labour and perseverance. Even before these claims about flying machines made headlines, our topmost scientists meticulously studied flying machines of ancient India, with a serious intention of using the results for modern day applications.“A Critical Study of the work - VYMANIKA SHASTRA” was published by a team of scientists of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore in 1974. Disappointed with the findings, they concluded “... the planes described above are the best poor concoctions, rather than expressions of something real. None of the planes has properties or capabilities of being flown; the geometries are unimaginably horrendous from the point of view of flying; and the principles of propulsion make them resist rather than assist flying. ”We have also heard similar claims being made about Vedic mathematics by people who have hardly bothered to seriously study it. A rigorous study of such claims was made by Prof. S. G. Dani, a mathematician associated with Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

The point to note is that is requires hard work to conduct scientific enquiry but it costs nothing to rattle incessantly about concocted notions. The proclaimers are lazy, not interested in testing their theories rigorously in a scientific manner. One must ask on what basis Bodas reached his conclusions, whether he had a rigorous method of evaluating his sources, and whether he conducted this inquiry in connection with an institution of science research anywhere in the country or elsewhere.

A serious study of ancient Indian and Persian texts and archaeological findings has shown that ancient India did produce great minds in varied disciplines long before the advent of the Greeks. Aryabhatta’s contribution in Mathematics is recognized all over the world. Sushruta, in circa? the 6th century BC, did pioneering work in surgery and medicine. Development of an Indian medicinal system (Ayurveda) owes a lot to the contribution made by Charaka. Ancient Indians had a fairly advanced knowledge of processing metals. The iron pillar in Delhi is a living example of our prowess in metallurgy. It is one thing to acknowledge and respect the scientific feats of our ancestors but to buy every claim made by charlatans is simply making a mockery of science and our great scientists.

Why and when was this science lost? How can we rejuvenate and impart fresh impetus to research in Ayurveda? How can a public health system be developed which uses clinically tested ‘desi’ medicines to serve the poor of the country? The solutions to these problems requires a society which promotes scientific temper and above all a polity which represents the interests of the vast majority of the working masses of the population.

It is well acknowledged that right-wing Hindutva forces have an agenda which includes baseless glorification of the past. They want to prove that “Bharat” was once the world leader in everything under the Sun, including language (Sanskrit), jurisprudence, and science and technology. This “greatness”, they claim, was destroyed by foreign invaders (read Muslims). So the task these forces have set for themselves is to cleanse the country of the pollution caused by the invaders, their progeny, and Christians. The list also includes secularists, rationalists, democrats, communists – all those who challenge their agenda.

With a BJP government in power, revivalist shrillness has become a deafening din. The dream of a resurgent India is being championed in the slogan “Make in India”. It is proclaimed that the lost glory of the past will be recovered and the country will become the manufacturing hub for the world market. India will supply to the foreign manufacturers a docile labour force, cheap land, no holds barred, due to environmental clearances. Many of us tend to forget that a similar campaign was launched by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s and the newly launched Maruti-Suzuki car became the poster-car of the Congress. It is a different story that Suzuki which owned a minority 26% share in the company in the beginning, is now a majority share-holder and in the last 3 decades of this ‘Make in India’ type syndrome, not a single Indian company, including Tatas and Mahindras, could develop the capability to design and manufacture cars indigenously.

The current political dispensation in Delhi is heavily reliant on foreign capital to boost the local economy. This capital would prefer to take the stock market route and earn super-profits without adding to our national production. Technology transfer is ruled out in the whole paradigm of “Make in India”. Our own experience has shown that with state support, our space programme has been technically successfully without relying on foreign technology. With the government giving permission for foreign capital in defence-related production, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it has decided that the existing capabilities of Indian scientists and technologists will no longer be harnessed beyond a point. As the haze around the “Swachh Bharat” type gimmicks clears, the pro-corporate, pro-finance capital nature of the BJP government will become more evident before the masses. At present, the “nationalists” have lost faith in the nation and its people. Perhaps this is why fanciful ancient science in their glorious past is their last refuge.

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