Rancour towards our knowledge traditions
by B S Harishankar on 07 Nov 2018 9 Comments

The German philosopher Hegel observed that India existed for millennia as a wonderland in the European imagination due to its treasures, both intellectual and natural, which have lured people over the ages. Yet mainstream Indian historiography, especially of the Left, has  adopted a policy of ‘outright  rancor and omission’ towards our knowledge traditions such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, metallurgy, agriculture, forest management, town planning and architecture, water management, shipping, textile manufacturing and dyeing, and the manifold crafts. These are part of India’s millennia-old heritage of knowledge systems. An important aspect regarding such studies of our knowledge traditions is that they are not just confined to few textual sources as alleged by Left historians. There is abundant evidence from archaeological remains.


UNESCO in its ‘Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainability’ report highlighted that ‘people’s knowledge’, ‘traditional wisdom’ or ‘traditional science’ is passed on through generations, usually by word of mouth and cultural rituals, and has been the basis for agriculture, food preparation, health care, education, conservation and the wide range of other activities that sustain societies in many parts of the world.


Studies on our knowledge traditions received global impetus in 2003 when UNESCO proclaimed the tradition of Vedic chanting a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In 2007, 30 Rig Veda manuscripts belonging to the second millennium BC were included in UNESCO’S Memory of the World Register, a compendium of documentary heritage of exceptional value. In 2008, the Vedas were also inscribed by the UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Earlier in 1967, Prof. A.L. Basham, writing for UNESCO ‘Courier,’ observed that the religious and cultural life of India and much of Asia has been deeply influenced by the two great epic poems of Hinduism, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The urge to displace India’s legacy of Vedas and make it a culturally secluded and vulnerable civilisation persuades the Left and allies to constantly raise the Aryan migration theory.


India’s role in transmission of knowledge traditions to the west has been highlighted by scholars such as E.J. Rapson, H.G. Rawlinson, A.L. Basham, Donald F. Lach, Heinrich Zimmer, Jean Filliozat, Kapil Kapoor, S.G. Dani, Edwin J. Van Kley, B.V. Subbarayappa, Helaine Selin, Roddam Narasimha, Takao Hayashi, Wilhelm Halbfass, George Gheverghese Joseph, Susantha Goonatilake, Keith Devlin, Fritjof Capra, Michel Danino and Helmut von Glasenapp. None of these scholars belong to the Hindutva movement. But it has become the customary obsession of the already waning Indian Left to conduct ludicrous debates on ‘fictionalizing science’ based on casual comments of ministers at public functions.


Unable to directly counter recent advances in India’s knowledge traditions, Left lobbies adopt indirect attacks as a mask of intimidation. K.M. Shrimali and his colleagues from Aligarh Muslim University and Jamiia Millia Islamia charge that Hindutva people believe myth is history and champion a fairy-tale past. They allege that Hindutva folk are anti-knowledge, anti-debate and anti-dialogue. D.N. Jha said, “to say we had made great scientific progress before the Muslims are part of the larger anti-Muslim propaganda.” (Frontline, Age of unreason, June 23-July 6, 2018)


Following such manufactured debates, Meera Nanda makes two allegations. Modern science was born in the West and came to the rest of the world through Western exploits which are resented by Eastern civilizations, especially India. She argues that there is a strong Indo-centrism in contemporary India which claims scientific inventions flowed out of the country to the west (Frontline, Hindutva’s science envy, September 16, 2016). ‘Mythologizing medicine’ and ‘Vivekananda’s Scientized yoga’ are some topics in Nanda’s recent work, Science in Saffron. Earlier, she said one of the most ludicrous pieces of Hindutva propaganda is that there is “no conflict” between modern science and Hinduism (Postmodernism, Hindu nationalism and Vedic Science, Frontline, Vol. 20, Issue 26, December 20, 2003 - January 02, 2004).


Meera Nanda was a John Templeton Foundation Fellow in Religion and Science (In defense of secularism, The Hindu, November 21, 2006). Guillaume Lecointre of the French National Center for Scientific Research states that the Templeton Foundation has links with fundamentalist Protestantism, funds projects throughout the world whose aim is to unify science and religion, which would be “disastrous for the autonomy of scientific research”. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion vehemently criticised the Templeton Foundation for corrupting science. Scientists such as Chris Mooney, Donald Wiebe and Jerry Coyne have also criticized the Templeton Foundation in this context.


Meera Nanda cannot produce any historical evidence of conflicts between faith and reason in India. There exists no discord or antagonism in India between para vidya or knowledge and apara vidya or material knowledge as contemplated in the Mundaka Upanishad. Rather, it is a synthesis that took place in India. There was no blasphemy, heresy and Inquisition in India. The Inquisition was a religious court established during the Middle Ages in Europe to suppress heresies which threatened the Roman Catholic faith. In the modern age, this barbarism was directly inherited by communist regimes in Russia and China.


In 2015, The Hindu wrote an editorial that the 102nd Indian Science Congress would be remembered for all the wrong reasons. It stated that the Science Congress had a session on “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit,” which lowered its status (Mythology and Science, June1, 2015). Vikram Soni and Romila Thapar jointly charged that recent trends to mix myths and science could turn those who believe in them into ultra-nationalistic, irrational, anti-science, with a particular view of the past (Mythology, science and society, The Hindu, November 7, 2014).


Left historians are adamant not to acknowledge India’s scientific accomplishments and also recent studies on India’s scientific heritage by scholars outside India. Even after reprints have been published, D.N. Jha still argues that Varahamihira’s Romakasiddhanta referred to the Roman system and Paulishasiddhanta refers to Paul of Alexandria (Ancient India in Historical Outline). The same approach was adopted by R.S. Sharma when he argued that Varahamihira utilized “several Greek works” (India’s Ancient Past) though Sharma could not highlight a single Greek work referred to by Varahamihira. Romila Thapar contends that contact with the Hellenistic world helped India to incorporate new systems in Indian astronomy (Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300). She is unable to state which Hellenistic systems were borrowed by India.


Maurice Bloch argues convincingly that the perspectives of Marx and Engels were strongly influenced by Greece and Rome. It is quite natural that their Indian disciples identify Greco-Roman imprints in anything and everything found in India.

Noted Indologist Michael Danino states that books on classical India by D.N. Jha and Romila Thapar are almost completely silent on Indian scientific achievements. Jha briefly mentions Aryabhat (whom he has clearly not read, as his statements about him are factually incorrect) and Varahamihira, but never Brahmagupta or Bhaskaracharya, classical India’s finest mathematicians, or their many peers from Bhaskara I to Sridhara, Mahavira or Narayana Pandita. Romila Thapar also limits her discussion of Indian science to a couple of paragraphs on Aryabhat and Varahamihira, conveying little of the former’s real breakthrough, according to Danino (Neglect of knowledge traditions, The Hindu, January 04, 2015).


The Left lobby finds a patron Wendy Doniger who, in her recent work, Beyond Dharma: Dissent in the Ancient Indian Sciences of Sex and Politics, discusses the mytho-science that emerged after Narendra Modi became prime minister. Like her Left allies, she relies on casual comments by some Union ministers and activists for her studies on the history of Indian Science.


Karl R. Popper, noted Austrian British philosopher of science, argued that Marxism is a pseudoscience. He said a Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history, not only in the news, but also in its presentation. The Left historians are unable to critically review Eastern and Western scholarship in Indian art and cosmology, as discussed by Stella Kramrisch and Ananda Coomaraswamy. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan drew a metaphor between the cosmic dance of Shiva Nataraja and the modern study of the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles. In 1980, Carl Sagan featured it in his seminal PBS series, Cosmos. In The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra drew parallels between Nataraja symbolism and the revelations of quantum physics.


In 2004, a 2m tall statue of the Hindu deity, Shiva Nataraja, was unveiled by Director General Dr Robert Aymar, K.M. Chandrasekhar, ambassador (WTO-Geneva) and Dr Anil Kakodkar, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics, in Geneva. The statue, symbolizing Shiva’s cosmic dance of creation and destruction, was given to CERN by the Indian government to celebrate the research center’s long association with India.


Jawaharlal Nehru in Discovery of India, quoting E.B. Havell, observed that Nataraja is a majestic conception and an embodiment of titanic power. Nehru enthusiastically quoted Epstein in interpreting Siva Nataraja whose rhythms “conjure up vast eons of time and his movements have a relentless magical power of incantation”. The Left historians and their followers are perhaps unaware of the Nataraja icons of the Chola Period, which constitute the epitome of bronze technology in the world.


In his recent work, Indian Mathematics, George Gheverghese Joseph says it is tempting to use the term “Hindu Mathematics” to describe the mathematical tradition of the subcontinent. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Professor of Physics, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, titles his review of Kim Plofkers ‘Mathematics in India’ as “Hindu Mathematics: How Original Was It?” Discussing Indian science and technology in the eighteenth century, historian Dharampal presents H.T. Colebrooke’s dissertation on ‘Hindu Algebra’. Interestingly, it was Karl Marx who first coined the term ‘Hindu Civilization’ as synonymous with India (New York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853).


At the birth centenary of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Indian Marxists presented the Left view of Indian science. Prakash Karat pointed out that Chattopadhyaya’s works continue to be a powerful weapon against the Hindutva movement (Peoples Democracy, October 07, 2018). The Indian Left continues to blindly follow Marx’s perspectives on India: “India could not escape the fate of being conquered (by England), and the whole of her past history, if it be anything, is the history of the successive conquests she has undergone. Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history”. (New York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853) Marx emphasized “England’s double mission of annihilating the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of western society in India”. The Indian left still dream of wiping out India’s knowledge traditions and laying the foundations of western Marxism.


Edward Said’s Orientalism, a classic in the field, accuses Marx of a racist orientalization of the non-Western world. He criticizes Marx: “in article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution”.


James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology, has written how genetics played a central role in ugly political episodes, especially in communist regimes. The pseudoscience ‘Lysenkoism’ flourished in the erstwhile Soviet Union and represents the most egregious incursion of politics into science since the Papal Inquisition (DNA: The Secret of Life).


Indigenous knowledge traditions are currently gaining attention from the Western world. Abdul Karim Bangura reviewed George Gheverghese Joseph’s globally acclaimed work, The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics. Collin Scott noted that with the upsurge of multidisciplinary interest in traditional ecological knowledge held by indigenous people, their Western counterparts are paying increasing attention to dialogues with local experts who are better informed and have more practical knowledge of the environment.

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