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Mythology, science and society

“On reading Arthur C. Clarke, we are swept into the era of the space odyssey,even if the spaces are distinctly different.” (From top clockwise) two stills from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey; actor Mark Hamill posing with the figure of a Star Wars character; and ‘Star Wars’ creator George Lucas with his creation Darth Vader.  

Some people believe that modern scientific inventions were known to the ancient-most Indians. That there is little scientific evidence to support this may be understood by raising the possibility that the required knowledge may have existed five thousand years ago but has not been preserved, or that we cannot categorically deny the existence of such knowledge. So we thought it might be useful to review this view.

Magic realism

Mythology is magic realism in the sense that there is some realism and a lot of magic in the fabric of mythology, woven into legendary tales with supernatural objects and supernatural powers. Myths also show the extremes of human behaviour, dilemmas, attitudes and paradoxes. Take out the imagination and the tale slackens into humdrum homily.

Now, imagination we have aplenty with aerial vehicles, multiple heads and arms, all kinds of yantras (contraptions) that can, at one remove, be claimed as sci-fi or hi-fi apparatus, all invented by fecund imagination rooted in a mythological past. In this we are no different from other societies with an ancient past. Can we, on the basis of this, say that modern inventions existed in that past? This takes us, with another sweeping flight of imagination, into the belief that all imagined objects were actually part of the material inventions of the past. And when the myths enter into people’s beliefs, mythology gets entangled with religion.

Of course, imagination has been a powerful creative force and continues to be. And we have myths today that encapsulate our current imagination. If we read Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clarke we are swept into the era of the space odyssey, even if the spaces are distinctly different. Or if we take George Orwell’s 1984, we are taken into the era of an authoritarian system of robot-and-computer-like people taking over and ruling us. Such imagination, on occasion, has turned out to be prophetic. But there is a substantial difference. This imagination sometimes makes a link with reality as projected for the future, whereas in India today the claim is that it connects to a reality from our past. So where is this to be placed in time — in the future or in the past?

Mythology should be read as mythology, and therefore with a rich, and separate identity. Ancient myth-makers, among the Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, Chinese and others, saw myth as involving gods and the supernatural, so it is perhaps sensible not to confuse it with history or science. Myths are old legends; history is what is thought to have happened, of which science is a part. To replace the latter with the former is incorrect and, some would say, rather fanciful, as illustrated by the comments made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently in which he connected ancient mythology with contemporary science by claiming that present day inventions had already been materially invented in our ancient past.

> Read: The two faces of Mr. Modi by Karan Thapar

Dream vs. reality

Science is based on information and accumulated knowledge. It requires that this information and knowledge be analysed methodically and logically. The reliability of the evidence, before it can be accepted as proof, has to be rigorously tested. This procedure obviously does not apply to imagination.

Inventions are not just momentary leaps of imagination. They have a long gestation period; they go through many different stages and iterations before they evolve into a viable end product like an aeroplane. For the mythical creations of the past, there is no recorded evidence of such a development. It is true that both science and its discoveries and technology draw on creative inputs from imagination and invention. However, they are not based solely on imagination or they would remain dreams and not become reality.

In the present climate this propaganda, which is now going official, would take us one step further than George Bush and those Americans who deny evolution and replace it by Intelligent Design, not altogether divorced from notions of divinity. Even the Pope, who is considered to be closer to God, has recently acknowledged evolution.

People are often naïve about their beliefs, since beliefs by their nature are generally not questioned. It is easy to exploit the susceptibilities of such people. Such pronouncements are likely to turn those who believe in them ultra-nationalistic, irrational, anti-Science and imprinted with a particular view of the past. This is one way of dismissing the validity of science — by stating that a scientific invention existed when there is no context for the scientific knowledge required for the invention. And mythology and religion mix easily. Everyone is concerned about the explosive mix of religion and politics. We are going further than Molotov, in making an explosive cocktail of ideas by adding mythology to science, religion and politics. This is not where we want to go.

(Vikram Soni is Professor, Centre for Theoretical Physics, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi; Romila Thapar is Professor Emeritus in Ancient History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)



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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 7:40:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/mythology-science-and-society/article6571525.ece

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