Wendy Doniger has an agenda
by B S Harishankar on 24 Sep 2018 15 Comments

On September 23, 2008 at the Mathematical Association of America’s Carriage House Conference Center, Professor George Gheverghese Joseph of the University of Manchester, spoke about “The Politics of Writing Histories of Non-Western Mathematics”.  He cited the example of the discovery of infinite series as one instance in which possible Indian and other Asian influences on European mathematics have been neglected in the past. Joseph disputed the reason behind the general laxity towards non-Western contributions in histories of science. He also questioned the immense dilemma for new evidence on non-Western contributions to become accepted and then get enlisted into standard histories of science.


Joseph focused on the nature of the evidence used to establish priority in mathematical discovery and the transmission of mathematical knowledge within the global network. He contended that the standard of evidence required to establish transmission from the Orient to the West was generally much higher than that required for conveyance in the opposite direction.


Joseph said European sources generally fail to refer to or to acknowledge transmission or borrowing of any kind, even when the “circumstantial evidence” may be compelling. He described it as the “problem of invisibility” for non-European mathematics. Western historians and writers need to recognise that they have imposed too broad a burden of proof on the East’s importance to the historical development of mathematics. Joseph is author of one of the best acclaimed international works, ‘The Crest of the Peacock: the Non European Roots of Mathematics’, by Princeton University Press.


At the UNESCO Special Programme on “Mathematics, Education and Society” at the 6th International Congress on Mathematical Education Budapest, 27 July - 3 August, 1988, Joseph emphasised the Eurocentrism in science with reference to mathematics. He said there is a widespread Eurocentric bias in the production, dissemination and evaluation of scientific knowledge. This is in part a result of the way many perceive the development of science over the ages. For many third world societies, still in the grip of an intellectual dependence promoted by European dominance during the past two or three centuries, the indigenous scientific base which may have been innovative and self-sufficient during pre-colonial times, is neglected or often treated with a contempt it does not deserve. The Eurocentric bias, Joseph highlighted, insists that the presentation of mathematical results must conform to the formal and didactic style following the pattern set by the Greeks over 2,000 years ago.


George Gheverghese Joseph is not a Hindu nationalist. He has held university appointments in East and Central Africa, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, and lectured in many universities in India under a Royal Society Visiting Fellowship (twice). In 1992, he addressed a special session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Boston. He has lectured in UK, Australia, US, Singapore, South Africa, Portugal, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, Germany and Norway, and has been on BBC Radio 4’s Programme on “Indian Mathematics.”


In his book, ‘The Man of Numbers,’ Dr. Keith Devlin, executive director, H-Star Institute, Stanford, points out that the Hindu numeral system was acknowledged as early as the 10th century, by the Spanish monk Vigila, who wrote of the “subtle talent of the Indians” and that “all other races yield to them in arithmetic and geometry”. Dr. Paul Ernest, University of Exeter, feels that one reason for the non-acknowledgment of the contributions of Indian mathematicians by the “traditional histories of mathematics” could be due to “the racial prejudice of Eurocentrism”. Ernest pointed out that a common feature of eurocentric histories of mathematics is to claim that it was primarily the invention of the ancient Greeks. Their period ended almost 2000 years ago, which was followed by the ‘dark ages’ of around one thousand years until the European Renaissance triggered by the rediscovery of Greek learning led to modern scientific and mathematical work in Europe.


Dennis F. Almeida has discussed eurocentrism in the history of Mathematics and its pervasive nature in the history of science in general. M. Bernal has argued that during the past two hundred years or so, ancient Greece has been ‘talked up’ as the starting point of modern European thought and the ‘Afroasiatic roots of Classical Civilisation’ have been neglected, discarded and denied.


Wendy Doniger, Professor of History of Religions at Chicago University, 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. Doniger hardly cares to analyse the observations or even mention the researches of these scholars on Indian mathematics. On the other hand, for her studies on the history of Indian science, she has picked up casual observations on textual context by some union ministers and some activists.


Doniger alleges that the Modi regime encourages “the by now entrenched bad habit of seeking scientific authenticity in religious texts” from the past. She says that the government has set up ministries of Yoga and Ayurveda and commissioned a number of revisions of textbooks mandated as supplementary reading for all government schools. She aggressively attacks Dr. Harshvardhan, Union Minister of Science and Technology, for claiming Indians discovered algebra and the Pythagorean Theorem has its roots in India. Citing Dick Teresi’s book, Lost Discoveries, Shashi Tharoor, MP, defended Dr. Harshvardhan, but Doniger has suppressed Tharoor’s stand in her work as she wants to confine ancient Indian science as nothing but outlandish claims by Hindutva brigades.


Doniger should know that Prof. Takao Hayashi of Japan, who edited and translated into English the Bakshali manuscript on mathematics from Peshawar, has extensively discussed bijaganita (algebra) as discovered in India. Prof. S.G. Dani of TIFR, Mumbai, contends that Bijaganita is an advanced-level treatise on Algebra, the first independent work of its kind in Indian tradition (The Hindu Dec. 26, 2011). S.N. Sen in The History of Science in India contends that although algebra has its crude beginnings from Vedic times, it appeared as a distinct branch from the times of Brahmagupta.


In The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics, George Gheverghese Joseph makes significant observations on the influence of the Upanishads on Pythagorean schools and the possible outflow of knowledge to Greece from India through Persia. Takao Hayashi vindicates the Indian roots of the Pythagorean Theorem in relation to the Sulbasutras. Doniger has unscrupulously neglected the observations of these eminent scholars in the debate on Indian algebra and Pythagorean schools. She has also sidelined the erudite Jaina contributions to mathematics in the Post Vedic Period.


Immanuel Wallerstein in his keynote address at ISA East Asian Regional Colloquium, “The Future of Sociology in East Asia,” Nov. 1996, at Seoul, Korea, opined that since 1945, the decolonization of Asia and Africa, plus the sharply accentuated political consciousness of the non-European world everywhere, has affected the world of knowledge just as much as it has affected the politics of the world-system. If social science is to make any progress in the twenty-first century, it must overcome the Eurocentric heritage which has distorted its analyses and its capacity to deal with the problems of the contemporary 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. His is not an isolated view. The Syrian astronomer-monk Severus Sebokht wrote in the 7th century of the rational system of mathematics of the Hindus, ‘and of their method of calculation which no words can praise strongly enough’. Intrigued by rules he discovered in an unnamed Sanskrit text, Reuben Burrow, a British mathematician posted in Bengal as an instructor in the engineers corps, wrote a paper in 1790 entitled: “A Proof that the Hindoos had the Binomial Theorem”.


Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, in a review of Kim Plofkers ‘Mathematics in India’, discussed the importance of Sanskrit texts which reveal a rich tradition of Indian mathematical discoveries for well over 2500 years. He argues that in the Early Vedic period, the decimal system of numbers was already established in India together with rules for arithmetic operations (ganita) and geometry (rekha-ganita). These rules were encoded into a complex system of chants, prayers, hymns, and other religious rituals.


A.L. Basham in his classic, The Wonder That Was India, observed that “Hindu civilization will retain its continuity” and discusses the world’s debt to India in the context of science. In A Concise History of Science in India, ed. D.M. Bose, S.N. Sen and B.V. Subbarayappa, published by the Indian National Science Academy, ancient science includes Vedic and later Vedic textual and archaeological sources, cosmology, astronomy, mathematics, physics,  atomism, chemistry, medicine, lexicography, metrics, grammar and epistemology. Professors B.V. Subbarayappa S.G. Dani and George Gheverghese Joseph highlight that it was carried ahead in the Post Vedic Period by an erudite Jaina scholarship which incorporated mathematics, medicine, astronomy, philosophy, grammar and lexicography. Buddhist sources were confined largely to medicine. Doniger barely mentions these classical works in Indian sciences.


Quoting Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee (JNU), Doniger charges that revised textbooks in India makes outlandish claims on history of science in India. But she is silent on the international project patronised by JNU historians Romila Thapar and K.N. Panikkar to unearth the bones of Apostle Thomas in Kerala, when he never came to India!


In, Beyond Dharma, Doniger lambasts Vedic mathematics and quantum mechanics. Eminent scientists such as Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), one of the founders of thermodynamics and Prof. Hermann von Helmholtz, director of the Institute of Physics in Berlin, who developed the first mathematical analysis of the principle of conservation of energy, were much impressed by Swami Vivekananda’s lectures on Sankhya cosmogony. They were fascinated by the Sankhya theory of matter, energy and modern physics. On the Time-Space Continuum, Vivekananda gave a contemplative lecture in December 1899 at the Southern California Academy of Sciences - “The Cosmos of the Veda Concept of the Universe”.


In 2004, Shiva Nataraja arrived at the European Center for Research in Particle Physics, Geneva. The image of the Lord of Cosmic Dance was unveiled by the Director General, Dr Robert Aymar, His Excellency K.M. Chandrasekhar, Ambassador (WTO-Geneva) and Dr Anil Kakodkar, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. It symbolizes Shiva’s cosmic dance of creation and destruction, a gift by the Indian government to celebrate the research center’s long association with India. At the unveiling ceremony, Dr Kakodkar expressed satisfaction that “the Indian scientific community is part of the quest for understanding the Universe”. It was not a Modi-fication syndrome, as interpreted by Doniger.


One of the greatest astrophysicists, Carl Sagan, drew a metaphor between the cosmic dance of Nataraja and the modern study of the ‘cosmic dance’ of subatomic particles and featured it in his seminal PBS series, Cosmos, in 1980. In The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra drew parallels between the Nataraja symbolism and the revelations of quantum physics.


Indologist Michel Danino, in a lecture on Cultural Specificities in the History of Indian Science at the India International Centre, New Delhi (September 12, 2011) in honour of the late Govind Chandra Pande, said that in astronomy and mathematics, Indians showed great skill at developing efficient algorithms, whether it was to solve Diophantine equations (for solutions in integers only) or to predict the occurrence of eclipses. Many of those algorithms were later transmitted to Europe through the Arabs.


Penguin India withdrew Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, from the Indian market following an out-of-court settlement with Delhi-based complainants who moved the court alleging “distortion” aimed at “denigrating Hindu traditions” (The Hindu, February 11, 2014). Article 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which helped ban the book, was imposed by the British on the Hindus to shield Islam from criticism.


Doniger should understand that sex in India extends beyond the western apprehension of lust, passion and obsession. It has manifested in tangible cultural heritage such as art, architecture and monuments as well as intangible cultural heritage such as oral traditions, performing arts, local knowledge, and traditional skills. It has divine status in numerous Sanskrit and regional textual sources as well in manifold tantric traditions.


Scholar Koenraad Elst was removed from RISA (Religions in South Asia) list by Vijay Prashad and Biju Mathew, seconded by Michael Witzel and Robert Zydenbos, and Wendy Doniger who controlled RISA did not come out in his support. He observed that people who clamour loudly for “freedom of expression” are very selective in their love of freedom. (Koenraad Elst, December 2, 2014, Banning Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus”) RISA is a unit within the American Academy of Religion which was formed in 1909 for scholars of Biblical studies to stimulate scholarship and teaching in Christianity. In 1922, this was changed to National Association of Biblical Instructors, which later became American Academy of Religion.


In, On Hinduism, Doniger argues that Christianity contributed new approaches to Hindu movements for social action in defense of human rights for weaker castes. She claims in an interview with Vikram Zutschi that Hindutva has come to stand for the oppression of Muslims and Dalits (Contemporary India is an uneasy, volatile mix, The Hindu, December 16, 2017). But she is unscrupulously silent on dalit Christians who have been denied even access to public roads and burial grounds, and keeps away from numerous incidents such as Eraiyur in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu, where churchmen armed with weapons, attacked scheduled caste homes and damaged nearly 80 houses (Frontline, Vol. 25, Issue 08, April 12-25, 2008). Doniger turns a blind eye on reports released by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front on April 2018 alleging that the practice of caste can be found in the formation of parishes, denial of share for Dalit Christians in the administration of the parish, construction of separate chapels in the same village for Dalits and orthodox Christians, discrimination in facilities provided on caste considerations, denial of employment opportunities and priesthood. (The Hindu, April 10, 2018)


At Harobele, Karnataka, more than a hundred scheduled castes were forced to spend a night in the fields to hide from a rampaging mob of Catholics. Four SC priests from Karnataka complained to Pope Francis accusing the Indian Catholic church of being casteist, but his response was disappointing (The Hindustan Times, August 2, 2015). Doniger who responds to all alleged Hindutva oppressions hardly responds to such notorious incidents in India.


Is Doniger aware that SC Christian converts filed a complaint in June 2015 with the United Nations accusing the Vatican and the leadership of India’s Catholic Church of caste-based discrimination? A delegation of 22 persons from the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement and Viduthalai Tamil Puligal Katchi (a collective of human rights activists) submitted the complaint to the UN Information Centre for India and Bhutan, in Delhi.


In, On Hinduism, Doniger argues that Christianity contributed new approaches to Hindu movements for social action in defense of human rights for women. She argues that Hindutva has come to stand for the oppression of women. (Contemporary India is an uneasy, volatile mix, The Hindu, December 16, 2017). 


Is she aware that numerous catholic sisters in India have raised manifold allegations against church priests and other male clergy of sexual exploitation and murders of nuns? Sex crimes come tinged with holy terror when clergymen prey on the laity (Outlook, January 20, 2017: The Sins Of Our Fathers). Currently, in September 2018, a group of Indian catholic sisters broke ranks with the church by openly protesting in the streets of Kochi, Kerala’s commercial capital, against Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar, Punjab, for allegedly raping a nun 13 times. The Missionaries of Jesus, headed by him, hit back accusing the protesting nuns of whipping up a “conspiracy.” (Mulakkal has since been arrested – Ed.)


Wendy Doniger should read Sister Jesme’s Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun (Penguin India, 2009), on the illicit relationships, sexual harassment and bullying in the church. Then there is Sister Mary Chandy’s autobiography, Swasthi, which also reveals shocking facts of sexual exploitation of women within the church. In this context, Doniger must explain how the church stood/stands in defense of human rights for women in India, and especially against the oppression of women by Hindutva forces?


Doniger literally disappeared in 2012, when Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association, was targeted by the Catholic Church for debunking the mysterious dripping statue at a Vile Parle church in Mumbai. The Association of Concerned Catholics challenged Edamaruku, and there was a hectic encounter between him and Bishop Agnelo of the Archdiocese of Bombay. The Catholic Christian Secular Forum accused Edamaruku of blasphemy and the Archbishop of Mumbai asked him to apologise in exchange for dropping charges. This animosity with Edamaruku goes back to his criticism of Mother Teresa, her sainthood, and the ‘miracle’ cure of Monica Besra. The church’s evidence is based on a written testimony in English by Besra, an illiterate woman, claiming a cure by a meditation by nuns. Edamaruku attributed her cure to treatment received in a government hospital in Balurghat and the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital. On investigating her medical record, the former health minister of West Bengal, Partho De, vindicated her recovery as a result of medical care. However, Edamaruku received death threats and ultimately left India; he now lives in exile in Finland. So much for freedom of expression.

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