Science in Saffron

We live in times when an elected Prime Minister addresses an audience of trained doctors, and tells them ostensibly in all seriousness, that the existence of the Hindu god Ganesha is proof enough that Indians invented plastic surgery. Never mind the obvious fact that Ganesha is a mythological figure, the Prime Minister would have us know that fitting an elephant’s head on the human body is possible through ‘plastic surgery’.

It was in October 2014 that Prime Minister Modi made this confident ‘assertion’, also assuring his audience that Indians were indeed the pioneers in genetic engineering because Mahabharata’s well-known warrior figure Karna did not need the womb of a woman to be born. For serious practitioners and historians of science, it would be tempting to ignore these narratives, given their patent ludicrousness. In the present milieu, however, we can ignore these phenomena at our own peril.

The fact is that the highest offices of power, the institutions and structures of the State are now being used to promote these narratives. Dinanath Batra’s ‘text books’ are now compulsory reading for school children studying in government schools in Gujarat – text books where children are taught to believe in fantastic stories of Indians having invented almost everything ‘scientific’. The Indian Science Congress, meant to be a platform to discuss and deliberate upon science, technology and developments in these areas, is now yet another forum where myths are equated with scientific fact, and where no effort is made to provide well researched, verifiable, logically consistent information in the papers presented. Last year, a new session was added at the Science Congress, “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit”, where a speaker waxed eloquent about how Indians invented machines to fly in the air, and even between planets, before the Wright brothers did. This year we had one of the papers informing us that blowing the conch shell was a panacea to a long list of illnesses; yet another paper explained to us that the Hindu God Shiva was an environmentalist specialising in providing pure water. A member of Parliament from the BJP, Shankarbhai N has similarly informed the Rajya Sabha that cow urine could cure all forms of cancer, finding no need to substantiate his claims with any evidence. Clearly this conflating of myth with fact, of fantasy with confident assertion, is no aberration. It is no aberration because there is indeed a method in this madness. The RSS, with its dreams of a Hindu Rashtra wedded together by majoritarian notions of “cultural nationalism”, desperately needs to tell people a fantastic tale of the good old days of Hindu supremacy, where the Vedas ruled. It was, in RSS-speak, a Hindu world yet to be “tainted” by the dangerous influences of Islam and Christianity. This RSS narrative attempts to draw a poignant picture: this wonderful Hindu world of the glorious past, which had discovered and invented everything known to science, was derailed and its knowledge destroyed by the “foreign” invaders. It is precisely this underlying method that makes the madness even more dangerous and abhorrent. Meera Nanda’s Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science, published by the Three Essays Collective in January 2016, attempts to engage with this Hindutva narrative of the RSS, painstakingly drawing upon facts and logic to debunk several of the myths, some of which have unfortunately been elevated to the status of irrefutable scientific “fact” in common parlance.

Nanda begins by identifying the broad types of what she sees as “appropriations of modern science for the glory of Hindu sages-scientists”. One of the most commonly encountered “appropriations” of course is to credit Indians with landmark discoveries in science. There is then the erasure of the lines of demarcation between myth and historical evidence, and between established scientific disciplines and certified “pseudo-sciences” such as astrology, Nanda points out. Also, there is a careful attempt to accord scientific credence to largely spiritual concepts such as prana (breath) and prakriti (identified in spiritual discourse as the subtle material substrate of nature). After identifying these broad categories of “appropriation”, Nanda then proceeds to dwell in great detail on four specific areas: discovery of the well-known Pythagorean theorem, discovery of Zero, genetics, plastic surgery and ancient Indian medicine, and finally Yoga.

At the Science Congress last year, a Sanskrit scholar from Mumbai University claimed that the Pythagoras theorem was written by an Indian priest-artisan Baudhyana in 800 BCE, 300 years before Pythagoras, as he struggled to design complex Vedic altars. In patiently dealing with this claim, Nanda traces the different formulations and uses of the Pythagoras theorem in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as in ancient Greece, India and China. She correctly identifies the roots of the Pythagoras theorem in the evolution of geometry – literally measurement (metry) of the earth (geo) – in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia sometime between 2000 to 1700 BCE. As land-surveyors, accountants and scribes struggled to measure the land for taxation purposes, they ended up tabulating what we now know as “Pythagorean triplets” (numbers such as 3, 4, 5, and 5, 12, 13 for instance) as they worked out sets of whole numbers which will automatically generate a right angle.

Nanda not just provides us with empirical proof (in the form of a reproduction of Plimpton 322, a well-known and properly dated archaeological exhibit showing us various Pythagorean triplets), but also explains the logical and material basis for the evolution of the Pythagoras theorem. Nanda points out that Pythagoras himself was not the original discoverer of what is known as the Pythagoras theorem. It is a well-recognised fact, she reminds us, that Pythagoras got the idea for the theorem from the Mesopotamia and perhaps Egyptians amongst whom he spent many years as a young man. Even stranger is the fact that there is no clear-cut evidence that Pythagoras offered proof of this well-known theorem; it was in fact Euclid who provided the first proof. Yet, for some reason, this theorem got Pythagoras’s name, an indicator perhaps of the Eurocentric bias of western historians. Nanda sees Pythagoras’s real contribution, not in his discovery of the Pythagorean theorem (which he did not), but in the use to which he put it. It was Pythagoras who used the Pythagoras theorem to discover irrational numbers as well as the amazing relationship between music and numbers.

So is there any material basis at all to claim that Indians had anything to do with the Pythagoras theorem? Nanda then points out the fact that Indian artisans knew and indeed were the first to specifically articulate the Pythagoras theorem. In other words, in the sulvasutras, we find the first place where the entire theorem and not just the existence of Pythagorean triplets is stated and put down on paper. The crux of Nanda’s detailed journey to trace the Pythagoras theorem is simple. She states, very convincingly, that science evolves and coevolves in several civilisations, independently and most often driven by material requirements such as the need to measure land or construct structures. She warns against what she sees as an unproductive attempt by historians to figure out who “came first”. Nanda recognises the pitfalls and fallacies of the tradition of Euro-centricism in history-writing, a tradition which tends to attribute anything of value to ancient Greece, and essentially sees Europe as the “sole Giver” and the rest of the world as a “passive Receiver”. An Indo-centric history-writing would however be equally flawed, Nanda argues. Far more productive is for historians to trace the complex trajectories of various scientific discoveries made in different social and economic contexts.

Next Nanda comes to the question of the discovery of Zero, something which most Indians are taught is quintessentially an “Indian” (and now exclusively claimed to be “Hindu” by the Sangh Parivar) contribution laying the foundation for counting, the decimal system and modern mathematics. Nanda argues here that historians need to shift their exclusive and obsessive focus on written number-records, and concentrate equally on histories of actual practices such as measuring, weighing and computing that are an integral part of societies. She then marshals records and facts to point out that all elements that went into the creation of the Zero - counting by powers of 10, decimal place-value, and the concept of empty place in the decimal ranking - were well-known for many centuries in many diverse cultures before they all came together in India in the physical form of the Zero that we use today. In doing so, she makes two important points. To quote Nanda, “ideas evolve through a give-and-take between civilisations... civilisations build upon ideas and practices that travel back-and-forth across trade routes, pilgrimage circuits and political relations”. Secondly, she points out the close connections between material practices and mathematical concepts, arguing that the historicity of mathematics needs to take into account the histories of human practices which ultimately lead to written mathematical concepts.

In another significant chapter, Nanda engages with the conflation of myths in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas with scientific fact, particularly in the fields of genetics, plastic surgery and ancient Indian medicine. Working with a well-established historical method, which warns against reading the past with the lenses and the vocabulary of the present, Nanda sets out to examine the evidence. She points out that the concept of a “gene” as a discrete unit of heredity was not known until the beginnings of the 20th century when the work of Gregor Mandel was discovered; even Charles Darwin working as he was in the 19th century believed that traits are inherited through the process of blending of tiny particles that are shed into the blood by all cells in the body. It was Mandel’s work which debunked the “blending” theory and established that genes are passed on as discrete units known as DNA and do not blend. In the Caraka Samhita, ancient Indians puzzled (as human beings of most civilisations have) over the idea of heredity. This ancient Indian volume sets out a “theory”: it stated that the birth of any living being involves not two, but three partners, i.e. the mother, the father, and the soul (atman) which is attached to its subtle body and is always looking for a new body after death. At the time of death, this atman is supposed to attach itself to a particular womb depending on its karma, and then combine with blood of the mother and semen of the father to form a new life. In other words, this theory of human birth is grounded within the classic Vedantic understanding of the human person and what happens at the time of death. The ancient Indian conceptual universe therefore had no understanding of the very idea of “heredity” and intergenerational passing of traits from parents to children, in the sense that we now understand it. In fact, all human qualities are sought to be explained not by the modern concepts of heredity, but by the atman (the eternal soul) and karma of the individual.

Dealing with the question of plastic surgery in ancient India, Nanda examines the ancient text Sushruta Samhita, and explains to us that describing Sushruta as the “world’s first plastic surgeon” is not entirely out of place. Sushruta does describe surgical procedures for the reconstruction of the ear, nose and lips for defects; congenital, or acquired. With our knowledge of ancient India, we know all too well that there were ample chances for acquiring these “defects”. Cutting off of the nose and ears was after all a common enough feudal punishment in ancient India, a punishment that was even accorded religious sanction. Sushruta thus deals with the inevitable consequences of this feudal practice, and develops a detailed procedure for reconstructive surgery. Apart from reconstructive surgery, there are also descriptions in the Sushruta Samhita to treat dislodging of the lens of the eye, cutting for stone in the bladder, and removal of arrows and splinters. However well-advanced this knowledge was, it would indeed be a complete travesty of the existing evidence to state that ancient Indians had the capacity to attach an elephant’s head onto a human body, Nanda points out.

Nanda however asks a pertinent question: how was it that this detailed knowledge of surgery actually disappeared for several centuries? It was only centuries after Sushruta’s text was written that we have any evidence of Indians performing surgery. In the 18th century, a British journal finally mentions how a brick-maker performed a nose transplant. Nanda calls it a classic case of “hand-brain un-coordination”, a scenario where the brick-maker surgeon and his working-class brethren are ignorant of what was written in Sanskrit texts, while the Sanskrit-trained vaidyas had forgotten how to wield a scalpel. This palpable disconnect between the theoretical and practical was what led to the decline of progress in the field of medical surgery and anatomy, Nanda argues. In caste-divided ancient Indian society, with its obsession with notions of purity and pollution, the anathema attached with manual labour and touching dead bodies led to a gradual decline in knowledge related to surgery and anatomy. Manusmriti, for instance, grouped doctors with those whose touch was “polluting”. Drawing upon this line of argument, Nanda points out that the world’s most well-known medcial treatise, the Corporis Fabrica, came into being only then Vesalius “came down from the podium, took the knife from the barber, and did the messy work of cutting open the body himself”.

In the final chapter of the book, Nanda deals with the evolution of Yoga in India. With the state-sponsored public “celebration” of Yoga in the backdrop, this is indeed an area which has assumed a particular significance. How, after all, can we frame our response to Yoga as a personal practice in a manner which recognises that Yoga has been employed as an overtly political tool, a marker, even, of “Indianness” “Hinduness”? Nanda attempts to provide the answers. She sees the appropriation of Yoga as part of a sophisticated erasure of demarcation “between spiritual practice of yoga and scientific empiricism, and between metaphysical concepts (such as prana and chakra and the like) and precisely defined and experimentally verifiable and quantifiable concepts like energy, ether and nerve centres”. She argues that this second kind of erasure was pioneered in India by Swami Vivekananda, who notably did not use age-old myths for this purpose. Rather he “grabbed hold of the cutting-edge physics of his time and simply laid it on top of the millennia-old guide to spiritual enlightenment, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras… He kept the conceptual framework of the Yoga sutras – complete with occult powers and all – but simply re-described it in terms borrowed from 19th-century physics”. Nanda sees this as a process of creating “pseudoscience and cognitive illusions”.

Others, too, have gone into the vexed question of the spiritual and material dimensions of yoga and the processes that went into creating these dimensions. In an article written in the Caravan magazine, Navtej Johar argues that the Vedanta philosophy and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (as well as the samkhya philosophy the latter is based) are essentially at odds with each other ( Johar points out that the Yoga sutras keep the door wide open for a distinctly non-theist intellectual world and practice, the samkhya philosophy on which it was based is after all deeply materialist. The Vedanta world, on the other hand, is surely deeply theist, requiring a surrender to God.

In times when we face a state-sponsored project of obfuscation and rewriting of history, especially the history of science, Science in Saffron is extremely timely and important. This book will hopefully open the space for further readings of the dynamics of science in technology not just in India, but elsewhere in the world.

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