A couple of papers being presented at the Indian Science Congress in Mysore is generating heat for all the wrong reasons. On 5 January, IAS officer Rajeev Sharma, an Additional Commissioner-level officer in Kanpur, held a symposium on 'Blowing of Shankh – an Indigenous Tradition for Fitness and Wellness'. The other is Akhilesh K Pandey’s lecture on Lord Shiva as an environmentalist on 6 January. Pandey is the Chairman of Madhya Pradesh Private University Regulatory Commission.
As usual, these have all the makings of the type of ugly controversy that was generated at last year’s science congress in Mumbai, where an entire session was devoted to Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit. An editorial in a national newspaper thundered, “If the Indian Science Congress had long lost its eminence as a forum where results of serious science being done in the country are presented and discussed in most sessions, the inclusion of Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit has only lowered its standing further.”
Thus, last year’s congress was painted as a farce, and worse, a farce propagated by the BJP government at the centre. No doubt, the so-called intellectual front will quickly come together to term this year’s congress another farce. Given that this year’s congress was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi himself, it is reasonable to predict that he will be asked for an explanation. Fortunately, parliament is not on session or this would be just cause for disruption.
Actually, the editorial is wrong. The Indian Science Congress has not lowered its standing. If that was the case, it would have been avoided by the scientific elite, including several Nobel Prize winners and one really eminent Fields Medal winner, Indian-origin mathematician Manjul Bhargava. But they have turned up. It was also wrong, as the government’s opponents did, to suggest that the science congress was appropriated by the Hindu right to promote agenda.
The science in the ancient Indian texts, especially dealing ayurveda, yoga, and mathematics, has always attracted international attention. Sometimes, overseas scientists have latched on to other curiosities. At the 1988 International Astronautics Congress, held in Bangalore, an Italian astrophysicist presented a paper on the knowledge of flight among the ancient Indians. The paper postulated that, going by Hindu religious texts, ancient Indians had an advanced knowledge of aerodynamics and propulsion. Whether they actually flew could be disputed, but there was little doubt that they knew a lot of things that was discovered by western science only over the last 100 years.
The hall at Bangalore’s Hotel Ashok, where the 1988 Astronautics Congress was being held, was packed with scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, and astronauts. I reported it for the Indian Express and it was duly carried in all editions, many even according Page 1 status to the story. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister of India, the Congress was in power. So, no one accused the organizers of the conference of trying to saffronize space science. Newspapers did not write editorials saying that the standards of the congress had been lowered.
It doesn’t take great intelligence to see that any opposition to the two papers being presented at the Mysore congress is purely political. If the Congress was in power, these interesting papers would probably end up as boxed items on page 3 of our newspapers. But, with the BJP in power, everything acquires a new sinister dimension. Judging by the reports appearing in some dailies and news portals, this is just another attempt to promote Hinduism by the state.
Which is rubbish. To understand why, take a deeper look at the two papers being presented.
First, the symposium on Shiva as an environmentalist. The title is somewhat misleading. What Akhilesh K Pandey, the author, is saying here is that the way in which Shiva is described and perceived shows that ancient Indians were very aware of ecology and sustainability. The paper details how Shiva is pictured. For instance, the number of beads on his rudraksha necklace signifies the number of elements. Similarly, other symbols associated with him signify many other things, some of which having environmental significance. The takeaway here is that the description of Shiva in the ancient texts shows that Indians who wrote the texts understood the need for conservation. But Pandey’s main crime seems to be that he is a civil servant from BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh. In the eyes of Modi’s critics, this makes his bona fides very suspect.
Second, is Rajeev Sharma’s contention that blowing a conch can actually improve your health. It’s strange that this is even being questioned as any pulmonologist will tell you that this is indeed the truth. It’s also true that there are health benefits from blowing balloons or playing wind and brass instruments. Patients who have undergone bypass surgery will tell you that their closest friend, post-surgery, is a toy comprising three tubes and three coloured balls that they need to blow into many times a day to improve lung capacity. But, since the shank is connected to Hindu rituals, some people feel that its name should not to be mentioned with science in the same sentence. This attitude is worse than politics, this is bottom feeding. If anyone has a problem with this, they must attend the session and ask Sharma if there are alternative things that they can blow!
The problem with the criticism that the Indian science congress has been attracting over the past two years is that most of it is not coming from scientists. It’s fueled mainly by non-scientists and a hyperactive media, which sees controversy in every page of our ancient texts. There is a lot of science in old Indian scriptures and digging it out need not always be pseudoscience. Scientists recognise bad science when they see it, if they are not interested they won’t attend. They don’t need the help of armchair intellectuals and the media to show them the way.