The Sciences

Dear Minister: For Heaven's Sake, Stop Peddling Pseudoscience

Pokhriyal isn't alone in fabricating bits of our history. He is only the latest in a long line of ministers who have claimed ancient India was the source of all the world's knowledge and achievements.

On August 27, at the 65th annual convocation of IIT Kharagpur, Union human resource development minister Ramesh Pokhriyal said that the Ram Setu – the supposed bridge between India and Sri Lanka that Lord Ram crossed in the Ramayana epic – was built by Indian engineers.

Will anyone have two opinions [as to] how advanced this country was in the field of technology? What was the quality of engineers in the country? If we talk about Ram Setu – was it built by engineers from America, Britain or Germany? Ram Setu was built by our engineers, which has surprised the world (source).

Then he asked members of the audience whether he was right to make such a claim. Apparently, none of the PhD scholars or professors sought to disabuse him of his mistaken belief.

This is a bizarre statement – made more so coming from the mouth of the senior minister overseeing higher education in the country. Other than some oblique scriptural references, there exists no evidence that the Ram Setu, a.k.a. Adam’s bridge, was built by Indian engineers. In fact, there is no proof that it was built by humans.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) noted in a September 2007 report, later withdrawn under political pressure, that the Ram Setu is not a human-made structure but a natural formation of shoals and sandbars and possessing the shape it does as a result of several millennia of sand action and sedimentation. Between 18,000 and 7,000 years ago, the area between Rameshwaram and Sri Lanka was above sea level and which humans and animals could have used to migrate on foot between what are today India and Sri Lanka. The ASI also attested that there are no human remains at the site of the formation. It reached these conclusions after undertaking bathymetric and sonar studies, drilling and sampling surveys at several locations.

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The government had constituted a 10-member committee in 2008 to examine these issues in connection with the planned Sethusamudram Project. The committee agreed with the ASI’s findings, and said in its own report, drawing from studies undertaken by the Geological Survey of India, that the Ram Setu was a natural formation.

There are other examples of natural shallow platforms that older generations of human migrants are believed to have used to cross oceans. For example, the Bering land-bridge could have allowed humans to journey from Asia to North America about 20,000 years ago, at a time when the sea level was at its lowest in Earth’s recent geological history. Closer home, a land bridge between Myanmar and Andaman Island on India’s eastern seaboard could have facilitated human migration into South Asia from Africa.

Pokhriyal isn’t alone in fabricating bits of our history. He is only the latest in a long line of ministers who have claimed ancient India was the source of all the world’s knowledge and achievements. In 2015, the historian of science Meera Nanda wrote in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective:

… the current craze for finding modern science in ancient religious texts is part and parcel of the history of modernity in India. It has been the dominant trope for accommodating modern science with the Hindu belief-system. In the hundred plus years that separate Swami Dayananda and Swami Vivekananda from us in the 21st century, this style of accommodating science and Hindu beliefs has become a part of the common sense of most Indians. It is not considered particularly right-wing or left-wing, as elements of it can be found among people and parties of all political persuasions. While it cuts across political affiliations, the eagerness for scientific legitimation of Hindu dharma is more actively and self-consciously fostered by Hindu nationalists and their allies.

In another part of her essay, she writes:

Indian Firsters routinely claim that by highlighting the scientific accomplishments of ancient Hindus, they are actually trying to promote a culture of science and scientific temper. This is how the argument unfolds: Indians are heirs to a great civilization which promoted reasoned inquiry, which then led to scientific ideas which are only now being “rediscovered” by modern science. As the beneficiaries of this great civilization, we ought to be inspired by it, reclaim its scientific spirit and produce world-class science again. While they would not put it so starkly, even some secular historians of science have bought into this business of promoting “cultural ownership” for the goal of doing good science.

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Shorn of the wider political context, this narrative reflects a noble intention to render India an intellectually great nation. However, would we really foster any confidence in our culture among current and future scientists by glorifying the past? No. Not only is there no continuity between our traditions of knowledge and modern science but harping on it even should it exist would be unproductive. There are no connections between modern science and its methods on the other one hand and our ancient knowledge systems on the other – at least not to the extent that they would illuminate anything useful.

And by attempting to make our traditional knowledge, as archived in the Vedas and Puranas, compatible with modern science, we will only do a great disservice to our scientists and philosophers, encouraging them to serve only the orthodoxy and encourage conformity. Pokhriyal would be well served to listen to his own prime minister, who reportedly told his ministers in a recent internal meeting, “Don’t say things you can’t prove.”

C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.