Science and reason in India

Another edition of the Indian Science Congress, another gift to the news cycle. The Congress, which is meant to be a premier forum for scientists to present and discuss their research, has in recent years become the stage for a series of blissfully evidence-free claims about Indian achievements in science through the ages. Added to the list in this year’s edition (January 3-7, in Jalandhar, Punjab), were claims about the existence of stem cell technology, test-tube babies, and fleets of aircraft in ancient India and Sri Lanka. The reaction was reassuringly swift. The organisers distanced themselves from the claims, prominent scientists denounced them, and protest marches were taken out.

We should, however, be asking a more fundamental question. What motivates speakers to say these things? If, as seems plausible in many cases, it is wilful demagoguery or an attempt to curry political favour, it is irresponsible and deplorable. But let us be charitable and assume for a moment that those who make these statements actually believe them. At the very least, it is clear that there exists a sizeable constituency which wants to believe such claims. What does this tell us about our relationship — as Indians — to science and to history?

Rooted in colonialism

A glance at the past confirms that this is a deep-seated anxiety rooted in the experience of being colonised. In his presidential address to the Institution of Engineers (India) in the early 1930s, Jwala Prasad, a top irrigation engineer in the United Provinces, referred to ‘the construction of the famous bridge over the sea at Cape Comorin’ and ‘the cutting of the Gangotri from a wonderful glacier through disinfecting rocks and land by [Rama’s] ancestor Bhagirath, before men knew how to dig a well.’ Prasad’s statements (unsupported as they were) may be read as a defiant assertion at a time when colonial stereotypes of Indians as unscientific were still prevalent. They were also made in the context of a time when Indian engineers were fighting to be recognised as competent members of a profession hitherto dominated by expatriate Britons.


Other Indian scientists went further, undertaking a serious study of the past. Indeed, historians have shown how the colonial encounter prompted among Indian intellectuals a project of ‘revivalism’, a quest to show that Indian traditions were not devoid of rationality, objectivity, and other characteristics of modern science. The pioneering chemist and industrialist P.C. Ray (who presided over the Indian Science Congress in 1920) wrote a two-volume History of Hindu Chemistry (1902, 1908), while the philosopher Brajendranath Seal contributed a study titled The Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus (1915). Although they were criticised at the time, both went through the hard slog of examining primary sources and were careful in the conclusions they drew.

Ray studied 14th century texts such as the Rasa prakasha-sudhakara, noting that they were based on experiment and observation. Seal (as quoted by historian David Arnold) cautioned that while the sages of antiquity may have had ideas compatible with the atomic theory of matter, they had depended upon a ‘felicitous intuition [resulting from] intense meditation and guided by intelligent observation’. This was a step removed from the modern scientific method, which relied on sophisticated experiments.


Stop the labels

More than a century later, there is little reason for us Indians to harbour an inferiority complex, and no excuse for tackling it through rash and unfounded claims. Science has never developed exclusively within national boundaries. Recent research speaks of the ‘circulation’ of scientific ideas, practices, instruments and personnel across regions and continents in different periods of history, while acknowledging that there were unequal power relations between those regions. What we often call ‘western’ science builds on the contributions of scientists from all over the world today, and draws upon sources ranging from the ancient Greeks to the West Asian civilisations of a millennium ago. Once we rid ourselves of the need to label science as western or eastern and shake off the obsession with priority (i.e. which society was the first to discover or invent something), we will liberate ourselves to think about the further development, practice, and application of science.

None of this should imply that exploring the history of science in ancient, medieval and non-European contexts is not worthwhile or legitimate. The solution is not to shut our eyes to the past but to engage in careful historical inquiry. This involves an emphasis on primary sources, on learning the relevant languages and preparing critical editions of texts, on peer review, and on viewing the past on its own terms, avoiding the pitfalls of what historians call ‘present-centredness’. It involves working with the insights of archaeologists, epigraphists, Sanskritists, Persianists, and metallurgists. It requires an open mind and a healthy scepticism. Such works have been undertaken, but many more are needed. The history of science, thus far woefully neglected in Indian institutions and university programmes, must be treated as a serious subject rather than a matter of speculation.

As for the Indian Science Congress, a venerable institution, measures are already being discussed to restore to it a sense of gravitas. One hopes they will succeed. For those who make motivated claims not only tarnish the institution’s reputation but also take the focus away from the legitimate efforts of other delegates. A body which has among its past presidents such personages as Ashutosh Mukherjee, M. Visvesvaraya, C.V. Raman, Birbal Sahni and M.S. Swaminathan surely deserves better.

Aparajith Ramnath is a historian of modern science, technology and business. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 5:45:23 PM |

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