The Sciences

Towards a Less Xenophobic Appreciation of India's 'Ancient Knowledge'

Once we appreciate that India was one among a globalised network of civilisations, a newer, saner and less xenophobic appreciation of our ancient knowledge will begin to take shape.

When Swami Vivekananda made a passing comment in his speech in the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 that “from the high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy the latest discoveries of science seem like echoes”, little must he have anticipated that the wild claims of primacy would become a permanent fixture of Indian discourse of the 21st century.

As a civilisation, India has had a tendency to be xenophobic at the slightest provocation and declare that our ancient counterparts were endowed with a special faculty for science, the arts and literature. This has been especially true for science. Our politicians of late have been pointing to the earliest Indian religious scriptures, including the Vedas, as the source of all facts that modern science stands to represent, including some modern technological marvels like airplanes, television, satellites, surgery and robotics.

Even more recently, the Union minister for science, while speaking at the 105th edition of the Indian Science Congress at Manipur University, asserted that Stephen Hawking had said that an ancient Hindu text might have had a “theory” superior to the idea of mass-energy equivalence, which is rooted in Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

Although Hawking had never said such a thing, I like to imagine that the minister – Harsh Vardhan – must have made his statement with good intentions. It can be argued that it is one way of promoting the scientific temper in the country: that modern Indians are descendants of a great intellectual culture that promoted critical inquiry and developed many ideas, many of which are now simply being rediscovered by modern science. That we must reclaim this lost world’s scientific spirit.

But the bigger question is whether such claims, and half-truths, can actually help or if they are counterproductive. Rather than encourage scientific temper, looking for a continuity between ancient and modern science will only strengthen the cause of orthodoxy in India. Further, it encourages an uncritical acceptance of ancient scriptures and traditions, both of which allow an unhindered path to pseudoscience.

Scientific inquiry can’t begin with the conviction that we have always known everything and that whatever we knew was all defined in our scriptures. As the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman put it,

It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.

New traditions

The Persian scholar Al-Biruni, who had come to India in the 10th century to study Indic science, had been among the first one to comment on a growing insularity and an unrealistic sense of superiority as the reasons for the decline of science in India. This is where medieval Europe scored over other inward-looking ancient societies, and ultimately became the ostensible birthplace of modern science.

The intellectual history of India shows that its dominant philosophy, as it evolved, essentially negated the objective world and emphasised the relation of self with an unknowable and unmeasurable cosmic “Brahman”. The ancient Greek had realised that there was an objective outside of human consciousness and that it was amenable to testing and observation. The Europe of the fifth to 15th centuries absorbed this Greek tradition, and in turn led to a scientific revolution whose features were radically different from those of the ancient sciences. It met with three conditions:

1. The realisation that there exists an objective world outside the human consciousness, a la the Greeks

2. Two, this objective world is governed by natural laws, and

3. The objective world can be understood through rational methods of investigation

Science can’t develop in isolation. Like the world of today, the ‘old’ world was also interconnected, and our civilisation exchanged goods, peoples and ideas with the rest of the world. Greek, Vedic and Chinese mathematicians and astrologers/astronomers had opportunities to meet their counterparts in Persia and Alexandria. It is a known fact that Mesopotamian science was a predecessor to both Chinese and Indic sciences and influenced both in the study of astronomy and mathematics.

Part of a globalised network

The Śhulbasūtra and the Āryabhatīya are indebted to contributions from Babylonia, Egypt, China and Greece. Euclid had already written his Elements almost 800 years before the Āryabhatīya (476-550 CE) with rigorous proofs that still provide part of the foundation of mathematics 23 centuries later. For that matter, it was the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus (220-143 BCE) who presented the heliocentric model for the first time, and was also able to calculate the distance between the Sun, Earth and the Moon based on elementary geometry.

In his book Discovering the Vedas (2008), Frits Staal discusses these ancient paradoxes very sympathetically and suggests that ancient science can only be understood if the Eurasian continent is treated as an undivided unit – which in turn implies that “Indic science does not stand alone and cannot be studied by isolating it artificially from the remainder of the Eurasian continent”.

We have to realise that ours was not a standalone culture – ‘a shining city upon a hill with a beacon light’, to adapt Ronald Reagan’s words – guiding others. Once we appreciate that India was one among this globalised network of civilisations, a newer, saner and less xenophobic appreciation of our ancient knowledge will begin to take shape.

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