Thursday, 8 May 2014

Indian Science and Revivalism

G. Ramakrishna

While laying the foundation-stone for a planetarium in Bangalore recentlyi the President of India explained how the Vedic lore is replete with astronomical knowledge. He almost felt that the Vedic people seemed to know more astronomy than we do.

Shortly after the president's revelation about Vedic astronomy came Maj. Ahluwalia's analysis about the three-stage formation of the Himalayas. Giving the highlights of the book on his Himalayan, adventures, a news agency underline the rare eminence of this army officer who had discovered that Kalidasa was aware of the geological history of the Himalayas. The proof of this was traced to a particular stanza in the poet's Kumarasambhava.

Such research feats are registered by our intellectuals quite freely and frequently. A legislator in the Karnataka Assembly made an observation during the debate on the motion of thanks to the Governor in February 1982 according to which one has to go to Germany if, one wants to obtain a PhD on the Atharvaveda. Obviously, to him the Atharva­veda is the most mysterious ancient text by taking which away from India the Germans fabricated aircraft, while we remain backward as we don't understand our texts.

How many times has not Swami Chinmayananda declared rhetorically in his expositions of the Gita that Einstein's theory of relativity is nothing new because our ancient metaphysicians had posited it even more elaborately? No matter whether it is quantum mechanics or qualitative analysis, you have it in our ancient Sanskrit texts, especially the Vedas. There is precious little that you can discover anew in the world of knowledge. This is the kind of chorus, which we hear quite frequently.

If such opinion had been expressed merely by the laymen, there might have been no occasion for any alarm. But knowledgeable scientists, too, come up with such formulations, thereby demonstrating that they prefer to be greater saintists than scientists. Years ago a certain Mr. Curtis wrote a letter to Bertrand Russell saying that the more he read the scriptures, the more convinced he became that the fund of modern knowledge was all to be found in these ancient texts.

The following characteristic reply of Russell is well worth our attention: “I am afraid that I do no agree that contemporary events bear out scriptural prophecy except in the sense that virtually anything can be so considered if the inclination to do so exists. My own preference is to look upon theological writings as the slightly historical fantasy world of primitive tribesman, often savage and sometimes to interest” (Dear Russell, Allen and Unwin, P. 49).

Those of our scholars who fail to recognize the value of our ancient texts othen than by imposing modern knowledge on them are doing a disservice both to the texts and to science: to the texts because they fail to estimate the actual worth of these texts as the chief sources for our understanding of ancient society, and to science because they ignore the nature of science and its history. It is puerile to fear that the Veda might lose its value if some modern knowledge is not found therein.

For a keen student, the Veda is a storehouse of inexhaustible rich material about the evolution of our society. One does not have to mutilate it by superimposing either modern knowledge or transcendental wisdom on it. Secondly, how does knowledge grow or what is the nature of science? To put it in the simplest of terms, knowledge is cumulative and progressive. If we can see farther than our ancestors did, it is because we are standing on their shoulders. If mankind does not commit the folly of committing collective suicide through the employment of the nuclear arsenal, the horizons of knowledge may be expected to be extended still further in the ages to come.

There are quite a few questions about man, nature, and the universe that the present generation is capable of answering, many of them unanswered before: and yet there are several questions that even the present generation is unable to answer. The succeeding generations may answer many of them and in the process raise further questions, which will remain to be answered by their successors. For, the fundamental postulate of science is that there are several things unknown, but nothing unknowable.

What is unknown today is not something which can or will never be known. History sets a limit to the amount of knowledge that each given epoch knows and each epoch reduces the area of the unknown to the extent that is within its reach. To read the knowledge of a subsequent period into the treatises of an earlier period is, therefore, illogical and unnecessary. It is interesting in this connection to note that elements of modern knowledge are "discovered" in ancient texts by our pro­found researchers only after such elements have been added to the gamut of knowledge through other means and in other areas.

To wit, why did not our analysis of the ancient texts ex­pound the theory of relativity, say, during the 19th century itself through an analysis of the texts, albeit in a slightly different form than the one in which Einstein expounded it during the 20th century? Why did they have to wait till theore­tical physicist enunciated it through their studies during the present century? It is obvious that it is a clear case of min. placed enthusiasm and dogged romanticism. And it is achieved at the cost of the genuine scientific method.

The fact of the matter is that there has been no epoch in man's history when he made no attempts to come to grips with his surroundings. It is an inherent quality of man to enquire into the nature of things. He does it perforce when his survival itself depends on his ability to understand the law of the phenomena that he witnesses around himself. It is within man's experience that the level of his· sustenance is directly related to the power that he obtains to intervene in the happenings in nature through an understanding of its laws.

Naturally, man's grappling with nature provides him with ever-new problems for investigation, each of which when solved teaches him also the application value of that new knowledge. It is thus foolhardy to imagine that science is something absolutely new and modern. Science is coeval with man's confrontation and co-operation with nature. What is new in science at each successive epoch is its method and the application of knowledge accruing to man from generation to generation.

A crude dabbling with the phenomena of nature in the initial stages of primitive society places man at the food­gathering stage. Gradually he becomes a hunter, an agricul­turist, a metallurgist, a meteorologist, a physician, a surgeon, a technician and so on. At no stage is the unfoldment of his potentialities total and perfect. That, incidentally, is also why his knowledge at any given stage in history is neither total nor perfect; it is always a continuing process.

As time passes, this crude observer of himself and his surroundings takes to early magic as a possible means of imposing his will on the as yet un understood and therefore uncontrollable and unpredictable world of nature. Long after that, he follows the empirical method for increasing his knowledge before getting down to the theoretical experimental method, the method now generally accepted as characteristic of science.

The post-modern phase in the method of science might be of consultation with and guidance from the computer brains and the robot mechanics. This does not mean that science has developed its methods only m its current phase; it has had varying methods earlier, too. And ancient science might have differed from its modern counterpart only with respect to the methods.

But the credibility of ancient science is not lost simply because its methods are different from the ones adopted by modern science. Science of any given epoch develops its own ethos and method; they may be considered outdated in subsequent period, but not irrelevant. To assess the claims of ancient science with objectivity and not with any romantic fervor is thus a highly desirable thing.

It is only to be expected that ancient India, too, should have evolved a scientific method and apparatus to grapple with nature and enhance the degree of its freedom with the knowledge thus gained in its struggle with nature. Nobody can undermine the importance of the systematic work done in this direction by the ancient Indian scientists whose quest was sincere and whose limitations they recognized ungrudgingly.

What, however, is unfortunate is that some present day enthusiasts of ancient Indian science ignore these limitations which our early scientists themselves recognized and acknowledged. Our current enthusiasts seem to believe that science had been developed fully and perfectly by our ancient seers and they go a step further even and declare that science was developed intuitively by our ancients and not so much on the basis of observation and analysis. They unhesitatingly advocate the view that a nearly complete mastery had been established on nature by these intuitive ancient scientists.

The extremes to which the misplaced enthusiasm could go is best illustrated by an amusing interpretation of a passage in the Rigveda where the words "Vrishabho roraviti" occur. An enterprising scholar took this as scientific proof for the existence of tractors in the Vedic period. The onomatopoeic "roraviti", according to him, would be appropriate only in the context of a tractor metaphorically referred to as a "vrishabha" by the highly imaginative Vedic poet.

This kind of adulation of the past leads us nowhere. It is a sure indication of an attitude, which sacrifices science at the altar of romantic eulogy. This is a none too worthy pursuit of those sections of our contemporary society which hope to perpetuate the value system and the hierarchical social gradation of the past by justifying them indirectly. Their "respect" for ancient Indian science stems from the fact that they are defenders of the status quo, or even retrogression. If they can convince us that ancient India had evolved science to a perfect degree, then it will not be long before they come up with the next basic assertion that those who had developed science thus must have also designed a social system along right lines. So accept both!

This is no slander on ancient Indian scientists themselves. It is only an indictment of the contemporary impostors of ancient Indian science, the revivalists, whose interests lie elsewhere than in genuine science. The meticulous care with which the scientific temper and method were fostered by our early contributors to science can be partly understood if one is conscious of the struggle they had to wage to carryon with their scientific work in the face of almost insurmountable hurdles that the vested interests placed on their path.

The case of the medical practitioners illustrates this point amply. They were treated as outcastes by the orthodox law­givers as they, more than any other section of society, broke the barriers of the strictest caste stratification of society. Are our revivalists prepared to appreciate the integrity of these ancient medical men of our society who stubbornly resisted the onslaught unleashed on them by the orthodox lawgivers? And what dictum did the medical men enunciate as the fundamental axiom for their science?

The Caraka-samhita says among other things that "any success attained without reasoning is as good as sheer acciden­tal success" (vina tarkena ya siddhih yadriccha siddhireva sa). And yet our revivalist champions portray ancient Indian science as a complete and perfect body of systematized knowledge! This raw opinion is repudiated by the ancient methodologists themselves when they confess to their short­comings and limitations. "The little known and the vast unknown" is what beckons them to renewed scientific activity, but our all-knowing savants among the revivalists turn a deaf ear to all their warnings' about the scientific discipline.

Yet another factor that the revivalists conveniently forget is that ancient Indian science had a firm materialist basis. This "forgetfulness" is because of their bias for the idealist school of philosophical thought. The dual personality of the revivalist of today consists in his pretentious professing of the illusory nature of the world and the disgusting manner in which he goes about amassing wealth all the same.

Our ancient Indian scientists were singularly free from this blemish as they posited the reality of the objective world as something independent of the subjective consciousness of the perceiver and they squarely stood up to the wrath of the spiteful orthodox law-givers instead of meekly submitting to their dictates for the sake of comfort and money.

In cases where they displayed a dual personality, they did so consciously as the only means of propagating their scientific conclusions. They knew how orthodoxy would mercilessly trample upon their alleged heretical views, and hence they couched their findings in a language acceptable to the orthodoxy. Their devotion to science and perseverance in the face of heavy odds thus remain an inspiring chapter in the history of Indian science.

The inescapable question faced by the revivalists of today is whether they are courageous enough to follow in the footsteps of the great masters of ancient India by eschewing romanticism and by braving the monster of vested interests in its own den. If they dare not do it for any reason, then it does not lie in their mouth to sing panegyrics to ancient Indian science. One who renounces the principles, method and objectives that the ancient Indian scientists so deeply cherished, has no right whatsoever to show himself off as their trusted follower. A dishonest reverence for ancient Indian science is worse than a pronounced anti-science bias. And that is precisely what the revivalists are guilt of.

i This essay was first published in Deccan Herald, April 17, 1982

This essay was first published in  Deccan Heralad, Bangalore, April 17, 1982
It also appears in The Living Marx, Ma-Le Prakashana, Bangalore, 1983 (Page 67 - 74)

Dr. G Ramkrishna is the Chief Editor of Hosatu, a progressive periodical in Kannada. He was Professor of English at National College, Bangalore and a Visiting Professor at Kannada University, Hampi. He is the author a number of books in Kannada and English including The Strange Culture of M.S. Golvalkar,  The Living Marx, and Philosophy in China (in English), The features of the Anti-Fascist Movement, RSS – A Poisonous Tree, On Hindutva (Kannda)
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