Snickering at Hindutva science: Why it feels good, and why it's self-defeating

Jumbo planes capable of inter-planetary travel. Lord Ganesha’s elephant head as incontrovertible proof of plastic surgery. It’s impossible not to laugh out loud. Fantasy parading as fact often has that effect.

But now that we've all had our chuckle at the ludicrous claims made at the Indian Science Congress, let’s take a time out for a wee bit of introspection. Why do we feel compelled to not just laugh but deride — and at length — every such instance of Hindutva delusion? Wherefore that delicious feeling of self-satisfaction that descends upon us when any such story becomes front page news?

 Snickering at Hindutva science: Why it feels good, and why its self-defeating

Perhaps we should debate not just whether Sanskrit should be taught in schools, but also how it is taught to our students.

Many people believe many foolish things. For instance, the position of dead planets at a person’s time of birth determines their fate. And yet astrology, ever present in tedious horoscopes that pop up in almost every newspaper, evokes no such pleasure until Smriti Irani is caught visiting a panditji in Rajasthan. Oh but she is a cabinet minister — a spurious reason given that most prominent Indians, be it in business, Bollywood or government are no less gullible (including, apparently, the late, great Jawaharlal Nehru himself). Why not jeer at them, or our neighbor or parent or friend?

Let's be honest. We pounce on bizarre claims about ancient India not because they are stupid, but because they confirm that the stupidity of those who make them. It’s our ‘I told you so’ moment. What greater satisfaction than to prove that your ideological opponents are not just wrong but also unintelligent.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? All is fair in love and politics, after all. At a time when name-calling passes for debate, a little well-earned trash-talking is hardly a cardinal sin. But it isn't particularly useful, and in the long run, such a cheaply earned sense of superiority can prove expensive in unexpected ways.

Michael Danino makes this very point in his Hindu op-ed where he lays at least part of the blame for Hindtuva myth-making at the feet of the Indian intellectual establishment.

...if our history books did justice to genuine, well-documented and well-studied scientific and technological accomplishments, there would be no room left for the fantasisers. And it is not just mathematics, astronomy or medicine that have been blanked out by mainstream Indian historiography: chemistry, metallurgy, agricultural and veterinary science, water management and irrigation techniques, textile manufacture and dyeing, construction and transport technologies, perfumery and cosmetics, numerous crafts, and a few intriguing technologies from ice- making to weather prediction and water divining, are all equally worthy of study. They are part of India’s considerable heritage of indigenous knowledge systems, beside an equally extensive intellectual field ranging from grammar, prosody, philosophy and logic to literature, plastic and performing arts.

It may then be more useful to take a moment midst great hilarity to ask why we know so little of our own civilisation, why ancient Indian texts are not staple to an Indian education much as ancient Greek authors are to a Western one. Perhaps we should debate not just whether Sanskrit should be taught in schools, but also how it is taught to our students – as a purely rote subject stripped of all history and beauty. And it may be worth pondering how and why ancient India and our shared civilisational history has become the sole preserve of the Hindutva camp.

While all those claims about ancient aviation may be funny, less amusing is our inability to differentiate between that kind of foolishness and Dr Harsh Vardhan’s remarks on the Indian roots of the Pythagoras theorem. That both were reported as equally fantastical is a measure of our own ignorance, and bias.

As Aravindan Neelakandan points out in Swarajya magazine, then President of India Pratibha Patil made much the same observation as Vardhan back in 2010, and without much public comment. The Science and Technology Minister’s remarks are well-founded in peer-approved research – which may be debatable but is hardly fantastical:

In the ancient world there were frequent cross-fertilization of ideas – from the Hindu to the Babylonian to the Greek to the Chinese. Science mostly did not evolve in isolation. However there has been a remarkable Euro-centric approach in presenting the history of science. So calling Pythagoras theorem Baudhayana-Pythagoras theorem is no wrong. Or calling Fibonacci numbers Hemachandra numbers is no wrong.

Neelakandan betrays his own penchant for myth-making when he suggests that paper on aviation at the ISC was “slipped in” to embarrass the government – and susceptibility to bias when he describes critics of its absurd claims as “Stalinists.”

Even the most careful responses in this current climate cannot escape that slip into the vituperative. And perhaps that is the real problem. We are less interested in contributing to the sum of public knowledge than smacking down our opponents.

Caravan’s political editor Hartosh Singh Bal tweeted of the Vardhan controversy, “Harsh Vardhan's problem here is not of content, but tone.” I could say much the same of the heckling that went on this weekend. When the only tone liberals take on matters related to ancient India is that of derision and disbelief, it’s no cause for amusement. As Shashi Tharoor pointed out, “To mock the credulous exaggerations of the Hindutva brigade, you don't need to debunk the genuine accomplishments of ancient Indian science!” Yes, let’s not throw the baby out with the dirty bath water – especially when , as in this case, it happens to be our shared civilisational history.

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Updated Date: Jan 06, 2015 10:01:04 IST