History

Breaking Down the ‘Jagat-Guru Complex’: India, a Giver of Science, Never a Taker

The conviction that we have always known everything that is worth knowing has prevented us from developing an ethos of honest inquiry.

The cover of 'Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science' by Meera Nanda, Three Essays Collective (2016).

Meera Nanda
Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science
Three Essays Collective , 2016

At a time when ministers declare that saffronisation of education is for the ‘benefit’ of the country and the Indian Prime Minister is stressing on the worth of ‘health assurance’ (read: yoga), it is critical that myth busting books like Meera Nanda’s Science in Saffron: Skeptical Essays on History of Science provide a robust opposition, laying emphasis on the use of scientific analysis and logic in interpreting the history of science.

With increasing saffronisation and cultural domination of every sphere of our lives, it becomes necessary for both the health of public discourse, and for science itself, to critically examine the claims of government functionaries. This book can be seen as a step in that direction. In the introduction to her book, Nanda is critical of the silence of academic historians of science and calls it, “worrisome, symptomatic of postmodernist malaise that continues to afflict the humanities and social sciences in India”.

She sets out to examine certain headline events where the Prime Minister and his compatriots have misrepresented the history of science, by projecting India as the sole repository of global scientific knowledge and wisdom. Her inspiration for the book stems from the events of the Indian Science Congress held in January 2015 and the PM’s address at Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, Mumbai on October 25, 2014 where the Prime Minister made claims on behalf of ancient India, having knowledge of plastic surgery and reproductive genetics.

The Prime Minister’s comments build upon a mythology we have already built up about ancient Indian scientific achievements. This storytelling about Indian scientific achievements has become a part of the national psyche, without any foregrounding in facts or scientific inquiry. This book critically tests those fragments, while asking the simple question ‘Were we Indians really the first ones or the only ones to discover that?’(question framed by reviewer). The book goes on to test these fragments through four different chapters dealing with (i) the discovery of the Pythagorean Theorem, (ii) the discovery of zero, (iii) the wonders of genetics and plastic surgery in ancient Indian medicine and lastly, (iv) the scientisation of yoga.

A history of science in India

Nanda begins with the Pythagorean theorem, scrutinising the archaeological evidence left by the Mesopotamian clay tablets, as well as Chinese and Egyptian scrolls. With meticulous referencing she takes us, step by step, through the journey of the discovery of the Pythagorean Theorem, she states that, “the first recorded evidence for the conjecture dates back to 1800 years BCE and it comes from Mesopotamia, the present day Iraq. The first proof comes from the Chinese, pre-empting the Euclidean proof by a couple of centuries and the Indian proof by at least a 1,000 years”. The reader is exposed to a detailed comparison with what she calls the ‘sister civilisations’, situating Indian discoveries in a comparable context and timeline, and placing India as one among other sister civilisations.

Besides being a detailed analysis of Indian scientific achievements and the Pythagorean Theorem, this chapter is interesting for anyone who wishes to understand the man Pythagoras himself and how the discovery of irrational numbers led to a spiritual crisis for him and his followers. Any critique from those claiming that India was the first to discover and use the Pythagorean Theorem, would be difficult to hold on to, since the chapter also comprehensively discusses the Indian origin of the Pythagorean Theorem found in the Sulvasutras. The answer to the scientific inquiry she undertakes in this chapter is that the proof to the Theorem was found independently in many ancient civilisations and the Indian Sulvakars were merely one among their peers to have discovered this geometric relation. This actually should be a way to understand science more generally; there are parallel enquiries, and nobody ‘owns’ a scientific achievement.

A commitment to comparative history and attention to counter cultures are the basic principles that guide the author in her next chapter. Using these principles, the author concludes that a new perspective emerges in examining the evolution of zero. She writes, “(i) When the Indian evidence is placed alongside the evidence from other civilisations of comparable development, it becomes clear that the Indian contributions were neither unique, nor without precedent and (ii) when the sources of evidence are widened beyond metaphysical speculations to include every day, practical counting and computing practices of ordinary people, a new window opens up which faces East of India, to China and South-East Asia.” This chapter is a valuable guide in understanding the relevance of difference between ‘zero’, ‘place value’ and ‘decimal counting’, and how it is quite common (though erroneous) to give all three an Indian birth certificate.

Nanda begins her next two chapters with a trenchant attack on pseudoscience and dependence of Indians on the science supplied by mythological texts such as Mahabharata and Ramayana. These chapters can be read keeping in mind Imre Lakatos’ lines that she quotes: “the problem of the demarcation between science and pseudo-science is not merely a problem of armchair philosophy, it is of vital social and political relevance.”

In the third chapter, the author delves into genetic science in the Charaka Samhita, plastic surgery in the Sushruta Samhita, comparative history of anatomy and why, despite the promising start in anatomy and surgery, we fell behind our sister civilisations. And quite unsurprisingly, the answer to the last question lies in the age old practice of division of work along caste lines, which ended up holding back progress not just in surgery but of anatomy as well.

This chapter also provides a comparative history of European advancements in the field of anatomy and surgery, where barriers were broken between Latin speaking university-trained professors and lowly surgeons who had the status of barbers – leading Andreas Vesalius to literally come down from his podium and to take the knife himself in order to dissect and observe the human body. This methodological innovation gave us the De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Fabric of the Human Body), the first ever book studying every bit of the human body in 1543.

Whereas, in India, at the time of the beginning of the Common Era, the science of dissection was based on the ‘see but don’t touch’ model, due to which many organs remained unknown to the Indian physicians. For example, virtually nothing was known about the brain and the spinal cord; and the heart, not the brain, was understood to be the centre of sensation, intelligence and consciousness. Additionally, as pointed out by the author, it was unimaginable that a learned Sanskrit speaking Vaidya would do what Vesalius did without losing his caste, being excommunicated and having to undertake many rituals of atonement and purification, and thus leading to a stagnation of genetics and anatomy.

The final chapter of the book exposes the formulation of yoga as some form of ‘scientific religion’ or ‘rational mysticism’ and is an interesting read for those who would like to understand the progression and domination of yoga worldwide. In this chapter, she looks at the erasure of demarcation between spiritual practice of yoga and scientific empiricism, and between metaphysical concepts such as prana, chakra and akasha and verifiable concepts such as energy, ether and nerve centres. Nanda unmasks our collective national assumptions of there being ‘no conflict’ between science and Hindu beliefs. She answers important questions such as ‘How is the language of specific scientific theories of physics and biology appropriated by yoga?’, and ‘How is yogic meditation made to appear “just like” scientific empiricism, but only better?’.

Nanda is not alone in her quest to remind us that ‘heritage-makers thrive on errors and biases’. In 2014, Sidin Vadukut wrote a book called The Sceptical Patriot: Exploring the Truths Behind the Zero and Other Indian Glories, where he separated facts from fiction and the truth from the email forwards. Vadukut also dedicated a few chapters to the history of zero and Sushruta.

The ‘jagat-guru complex’

The common theme throughout the book is the endeavour by Nanda to unravel the myths of ‘scientific Hinduism’, national exceptionalism and supremacy. It is her argument that “the current craze for finding modern science in ancient religious texts is part and parcel of the history of modernity in India and this style of accommodating science and Hindu beliefs has become a part of the common sense of most Indians.” It is no doubt then that such attributes of national identity and memory provide impetus to the growing Hindutva agenda of the government.

According to her, it is a belief in the fabrication of suitable heritage and cordoning off the nation’s history from the rest of the world, which prevents us from developing an attitude towards honest scientific inquiry. Her use of the words to describe this phenomena are quite amusing and something that every Indian would probably identify with. She calls it the ‘jagat-guru complex’, where India invariably appears to be the giver of science, but never a taker. She warns that “the conviction that we have always known everything that is worth knowing and that everything we knew is only confirmed – never rejected by science, has prevented us from developing an ethos of honest inquiry.”

However, are we alone in this endeavour? We can look at the work of David Pingree in Hellenophilia Versus the History of Science (1992) to understand that this is not entirely an Indian phenomena. Pingree states, “A Hellenophile [love for Greece and Greek culture] suffers from a form of madness that blinds him or her to historical truth and creates in the imagination the idea that one of several false propositions is true. The first of these is that the Greeks invented science; the second is that they discovered a way to truth, the scientific method, that we are now successfully following; the third is that the only real sciences are those that began in Greece; and the fourth (and last?) is that the true definition of science is just that which scientists happen to be doing now, following a method or methods adumbrated by the Greeks, but never fully understood or utilised by them.”

In his book Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics (1991), George G. Joseph highlights the technological achievements India, China and Africa long before incursions of Europe into these areas; and he emphasises that, “In the minds of some, scientific progress becomes a uniquely European phenomenon, which can be emulated by other nations only if they follow a specifically European path of scientific and social development”, and thus it was the intention of the author to show that “the standard treatment of the history of non-European mathematics exhibited a deep-rooted historiographical bias in the selection and interpretation of facts, and that mathematical activity outside Europe has as a consequence been ignored, devalued, or distorted.”

Finally, Nanda stresses on the utility of the discipline of ‘history of science’, and as she so eloquently puts it “History of science is a wonderful example of history of inter-civilisational exchange of ideas. Confining it within nationalistic frameworks can only lead to a tunnel vision, and there is no reason why we should accept such a limitations on our ability to see the wider vistas that encompass the whole world.”

Thus, a combination of careful scrutiny of evidence, logical exposition and a caution regarding the consequences of a closed minded reading of Indian history of science, make this book a wonderful and educative read.