With his comments that we knew and practiced stem cell medicine in Mahabharata times, and Lord Ganesa obtained his elephant head through plastic surgery, Prime Minister Modi has raised a debate, and a necessary one, on the connection between imagination and mythology, history and science. As the physicist Vikram Soni and the historian Romila Thapar write in The Hindu (Nov 7, 2014):“of course imagination has been a creative force and continues to be. Such imagination, on occasion, turns out to be prophetic… (it) 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”. They further say: “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”.
In God we trust, all others must bring data Why is it incorrect to use mythology as proof that modern science was known to, and used by our ancestors millennia ago? Because we need proof. Science proceeds through logic, analysis of data, repeatability, falsifiability, proof and prediction. If one claims that the Harappan community were adept at city planning and architecture, we accept it since we see proof through archaeology and excavations. That the sages Baudhayana and Apasthamba discovered power series expansions in mathematics or came out with the “Pythagoras Theorem” before Pythagoras, we accept it because they left behind their writings which we use and find correct. The physicians Susruta and Charaka , who left behind texts (the latter so ably translated from the original Sanskrit into today’s English and medical terms by Professor M.S. Valiathan) which give us proof of the practice and how applicable and successful many of their suggestions are. As the American Professor William Doming remarked, “In god we trust, all others must bring data.” I am afraid we therefore cannot accept the suggestions about Kunti or Gandhari , nor of the birth of Jarasandha in Mahabharata, who was supposed to have been born as two halves and brought to life as a whole body by the demoness Jara , or that we had airplanes then.
The television commentator, Mr Karan Thapar, in his article in The Hindu (Nov 1, 2014) says that to his astonishment, no Indian scientist has refuted Mr Modi’s claims and that this silence is perplexing. This important point needs our attention. Indeed, some of the responses to Mr. Thapar’s piece, also published in The Hindu , are neither here nor there. But one of them by the scientist Sharath Ananthamurthy, is of some interest. He talks of three varieties of scientists in India. One type is too embarrassed to react. The second type is indifferent to any view aired by public persons, and who are comfortable in their labs as long as research funds flow uninterrupted. And the third type of scientists who go around giving speeches in schools and colleges on such “mumbo-jumbo” in their zeal to “recover our great Indian heritage.” And he rues, correctly, that in all this, we may lose sight of some of the achievements in ancient India in mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy and so on.
Let a hundred flowers blossom
What are the factors and causes behind this triad of reactions, and how do they compare with those in other countries, say the U.K. or the U.S.? Unlike there, science and higher education here are supported essentially by the government, often to the point of what the curricula should contain. Directors and Vice Chancellors are government appointees. The career graph of academics and scientists, their salaries and such too are largely government-determined. Research grants for science, technology, medicine, agriculture, social sciences — all are sarkar -funded. Just as in over 80 other countries across the globe, our science academies, at the national and regional level, too are supported by the governments, unlike those in U.K. and U.S., which do not depend solely on their governments. Given this “he who pays calls the tunes” type atmosphere, speaking out becomes a hesitant act. Note too that it does not matter which party or ideology the government belongs to; intellectual freedom is curtailed either suo motu or by hidden/perceived pressure. Is there even one private, non-governmental foundation (NGOs) in India, which we can compare with the Wellcome Trust of UK, Champalimaud Foundation of Portugal, or the hundreds of huge and small Foundations in the U.S.? As Mao Zedong said, “let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thoughts contend.” When will our business magnates (some richer than our government) think of these? They have the money, not the philosophy. Until such non-government foundations are set up to support scholarly activities, it will only be “retired” scientists like me, who no longer depends on the government for his paycheck or sops, who will make noise (maybe I spoke too soon, I still need research money!)