“We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realise that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb.
We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
–Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi
“Aero planes were invented by a Hindu sage 7000 years ago. The planes could travel from one planet to another, halt in mid air and move sideways”.
–invited speaker at Indian Science Congress in Mumbai, 2015
Such beliefs about great deeds of ancient Indians of Vedic period is wide-spread in Indian society. It’s propagated mainly by Hindutva based organisations who are working to make India a Hindu nation. Theists of other religions and even some sceptics are taken in by this propaganda.
It is to prevent this myth propagation that Meera Nanda has come out with a brilliant book titled “Science in saffron – Skeptical essays on history of science”. Meera Nanda is a renowned science historian. Her previous well acclaimed books include “Prophets facing backward” and “God market”.
I believe that constant appropriation of modern scientific concepts and theories for the glory of “the Vedas” is one, if not the central plank on which the myth of Hindu supremacy rests. It is thanks to this myth of scientific Hinduism that our preeminent national figures, past and present, habitually sneer at the “superstitions” of Abrahamic religions. It is thanks to this myth that we think of ourselves as a “race” endowed with a special faculty for science.
Such myths of national exceptionalism and supremacy are dangerous. Nothing but evil follows when such myths manage to take hold of a nation’s imagination.
On the aim of the book she said :
The goal of the book is to save the ancient Indian geometers, mathematicians, physicians and the unknown artisans-craftsmen/women from both the glorification at the hands of Hindu Right and the condescension at the hands of rationalist fundamentalists who see no value in whatsoever in anything that predates the Scientific revolution.
Meera Nanda analyses four subjects related to history of science in India to ascertain the veracity of claims by Indian writers on “glorious’ achievements of ancient Indian science. Two are from mathematics, Pythagoras theorem and invention of concept of zero. Third subject is on ancient Indian medicine, while the last one is on works of Swami Vivekananda claiming modern scientific discoveries are only echoing Vedanta philosophy.
Many Indians, including those in top position in academia and Government believe that the real inventor of Pythagoras theorem were ancient Indian mathematicians. Nanda does an exhaustive review of evidences available on this. She agrees that Pythagoras was wrongly attributed to be the inventor. But that do not mean Indian mathematicians gifted it to the world. The answer Nanda arrives at is that the geometric relationship described by the theorem was discovered independently in many ancient civilisations. There is nothing unique in what Indians did.
Invention of concept of zero was always unquestionably accepted to be unique contribution of ancient India. Nanda looks critically at this and also at the claim that decimal system was also an Indian invention. Here she utilises the method of comparative history. She compares the history of development of mathematics in various civilisations. She concludes that the concept of counting by powers of ten, decimal place value, and concept of empty space was well-known in many societies including India. What Indian mathematicians admirably did was to consolidate it and develop zero as a number like any other number. Nanda reminds us here that history of science is a wonderful example of history of inter civilizational exchange of ideas.
Ancient Indian medicine is highlighted in India as a wonderful gift to the world. Many in India believe even now that Ayurveda has answers to most of the health problems of humans. Nanda acknowledges the fact that Susrutha Samhita, the Ayurvedic classic compiled between 300 BC and 500 CE is the first surgical text to describe reconstructive surgery of nose and ear and also many other surgical procedures. At the same time she argues that history of those procedures in India were dismal with no records of them being continued to be practiced in India. She asserts that it was the Hindu concept of purity and pollution which made the upper caste Sanskrit learned physicians to stay away from dissection and surgical procedures. That is why she says that even 17th century works of Ayurvedic physicians betrays lack of knowledge of basic functions of heart and lungs,, which was very well-known to the world by then.
She concludes that chapter like this :
The history of medicine ( indeed the history of all natural sciences in India ) is less of a source of inspiration than a cautionary tale regarding the evils of social hierarchy legitimised by superstitions.
In the last chapter Meera Nanda criticise Vivekananda’s thoughts as classic example of resemblance thinking, and as a source of pseudo science. She accuses him of deliberately erasing the boundaries between legitimate science and ideas pretending to be scientific with complete disregard of evidence and logic.
In this well researched work Nanda takes apart almost all claims of uniqueness of ancient Indian science. She reminds us that though there are important contributions that can be admired, it is vainglorious to claim that modern science is only repeating what ancients already knew. “Like every other sister civilisations we were givers and we were takers, with no monopoly on giving.
Meera Nanda’s work which uses research and reason, is an important tool for fighting hindutvaisation of science history in India.
PIc 1 courtesy Amazon and pic 2 courtesy NDTV