‘False historical claims make us look like idiots’

Scientist Mayank Vahia hopes to convince people that one does not need to falsify history to feel proud as an Indian

Updated - March 05, 2016 11:38 am IST

Published - March 05, 2016 11:37 am IST - Mumbai

Is it possible to take pride in your history without fabricating a glorious past, to celebrate your culture’s achievements and still retain healthy scepticism?

Professor Mayank Vahia thinks it is. He’s a scientist with the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and this evening, he’ll talk on ‘Negating the Genuine: Exaggerated Claims On The Past’.

“Two years ago, when the Indian Science Congress was held in Mumbai, there were people presenting papers about how planes were being flown in the Vedic period, and how there is evidence of kings from ancient India having travelled to Mars,” says Vahia. Having spent 30 years making telescopes, which studied high energy particles reaching the Earth, for space missions launched by the US, Russia and India, he finds it annoying to know that unscientific claims are being passed off as having the backing of science.

“I am very proud of my Indian heritage. I have the greatest respect for what Aryabhatta, Charaka, and many others accomplished at their time,” says Vahia. “They made some phenomenal scientific and philosophical contributions. When we have so many spectacular achievements to celebrate, why should we make false claims? In fact, such claims make Indian scientists look like idiots. And even genuine work gets negated because of these baseless ideas.”

The talk is part of Junoon Theatre’s Mumbai Local initiative, which aims to bring a variety of interesting ideas and speakers to diverse neighbourhoods in the city. While Sameera Iyengar and Sanjna Kapoor, co-founders of Junoon, are primarily arts curators, they consider it important to involve scientists in their programming. Iyengar, who went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study mathematics, returned to India with a qualification in theatre. She says, “The arts and the sciences exist in two separate spaces in our education system but they are both about exploration, research and discovery..”

Iyengar was introduced to Vahia by Professor Arnab Bhattacharya at TIFR, who helps Junoon curate all their science-related programming. Distressed by the blurring lines between mythology and history in popular discourse, Iyengar was thrilled to learn about Vahia’s work.

“I love mythology, and I love science too,” says Iyengar. “They represent different truths, and each one is valuable for the function it serves. However, mixing the two diminishes both. And it is a dangerous confusion to propagate.”

Vahia’s article titled, ‘Evaluating the claims of ancient Indian achievements in science’, in the June 2015 issue of the journal Current Science , speaks in a similar vein. “Clearly, the very fact that irrational ideas hold sway over such a large group is a major failure of our educational system,” he writes. “When a medical doctor specialising in sex change operations quotes the example of Shikhandi, a transgender in the Mahabharata, as an example of sex change operations in that period, it raises questions about the scientific temper of the Indian psyche.”

Vahia says Indians have a lot to cherish in terms of scientific advancements credited to their ancestors; for instance, the Nyaya-Vaisheshika school of thought, Varahamihira’s work in astronomy, the complex knowledge systems of yoga and Ayurveda, the Kerala school of Mathematics, and much else. However, he maintains it is futile to claim that quantum mechanics and aerodynamics originated in India because the steps required to lead up to them had not been attained.

Vahia, who leads India’s Astronomy Olympiad programme, hopes a big take away for audiences at his talk would be the idea that one does not need to invent false histories to feel proud as an Indian. “The false claims being made are not new,” he says. “They have been around for a long time, but it is only now that they are getting the oxygen of government support, and encouragement from aggressive Hindu revivalist groups supported by the government.”

Venue: MCubed Library, Bandra (West). Day: Saturday Time: 5pm. Entry: Free.

The author is a freelance writer

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