By Dushyant Shekhawat May. 11, 2017
India has plenty of achievements in science and mathematics that are worth celebrating, but when rational scientists are thrown out of events for questioning bogus theories, as happened today at the Bharatam Reawakening event, then the pursuit of technological innovation gets thwarted by the need to celebrate mythology as fact.
India’s glorious contributions to the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics are worthy of celebration. Yet, for some reason, enemies of 21st century knowledge, like the group known as Bharatam Reawakening, choose to instead peddle lies and deception. They held an event in Mumbai called Viman Shastra, to highlight how ancient aircraft powered by donkey piss and mercury were found in India. The only problem was that their theories were backed by absolutely no concrete evidence. When three city scientists who attended the event raised questions, they were removed from the venue by the angered audience. It’s tragic that rational voices were drowned out by those who choose to believe a fact only because it comforts them.
Of late, instead of focussing on future advancements in science and tech, the trend has been to cling to myth and declare it as fact. Case in point: Satyapal Singh was the chief guest at a function marking the occasion organised by two of India’s top science academies. Normally, the Union Minister for Education would be a fine choice for the role, but Satyapal Singh is no friend of science. The man has shown an alarming fascination with tinting modern advances in knowledge with a Hindutva flavour – first rejecting Darwin’s theory of evolution, and then claiming Isaac Newton’s laws of motion are based on Vedic mantras. In doing so, he does a disservice to the many past and present scientists and thinkers who have made a valid contribution by overlooking them in favour of his grandmom’s bedtime stories.
Mythology is fascinating. Through the lens of their vivid imaginations, ancient civilisations envisioned epics and legends that future generations could make blockbuster movies out of. From Beowulf to the Mahabharata, the finest stories of heroes and gods of yore have provided intoxicating entertainment and shaped our understanding of how life was centuries ago.
Like many other Indian kids, I was raised on tales of baby Krishna’s mischievousness, Hanuman’s loyalty to Rama, and other fantastical tales of Rakshasas and Devtas. In fact, I’d be able to provide a blow-by-blow account of Rama and Sita’s exile in the forest more easily than I’d be to outline the course of the Revolt of 1857. When you spend your formative years familiarising yourself with these myths, you know them more intimately than actual history.
So it is no surprise that we hear more about the assertions that ancient India had flying machines, and less about the hundreds of PSLVs or GSLVs that we are currently breaking technological ground with.
What Satyapal Singh is doing is perpetuating the notion that India needs to look to its past for inspiration, when our true potential has to lie in the future. The internet supplements my hypothesis with countless websites that tout India’s Vedic period as the most advanced point in human history. This isn’t just run-of-the-mill propaganda: These are assertions made by Indian and international researchers – and India’s Prime Minister – about how ancient India had nuclear technology, miraculous medicine that surpassed what we have today, and a tendency for plastic surgery long before Kim Kardashian was conceived. This parade of talking heads quote verses at random from the Vedas and Puranas, to make some pretty outlandish claims that then land up in family WhatsApp groups.
You might think that aeroplanes and spacecraft are a marvel of the modern age, but it’s time to forget everything you learned about the Wright Brothers, and listen instead to our homegrown Right Brothers. Between 1918 and 1923, Pandit Subbaraya Shastry claimed to have been visited by the spirit of the legendary Vedic sage, Maharishi Bharadwaj. The sage apparently dictated no less than 3,000 shlokas on the subject of building vimanas and the art of flying to Shastry, who then recorded it for posterity. His notes became the basis for Vaimanika Shastra, a text on the creation of ancient Indian flying machines. Take that, ISRO scientists, no number of satellite launches will ever live up to a manual that someone dreamt up.
Meanwhile, as us pathetic humans in the Kalyug wait for the first successful human head transplant of the modern age, our venerable Prime Minister – the walking, talking alt-fact generator – claimed our Vedic ancestors had gone one step further and succeeded in performing an inter-species head transplant! The PM’s claim is based on the legend of Ganpati’s creation (totally a real person), and beats other contenders for best plastic surgery like Anushka Sharma’s lips.
When supposedly distinguished scholars and prominent public figures endorse these views, they have a way of worming into mainstream consciousness.
One of the most seductively appealing of all these theories has to be the one about nuclear warfare though. It uses the following lines from the Mahabharata that describe a weapon as the basis for the claim that ancient Indians possessed nuclear weapons.
“A single projectile charged with all the power in the Universe.
An incandescent column of smoke and flame as bright as 10,000 suns, rose in all its splendour.”
Donald Trump vs Kim Jong-un. India vs Pakistan. The world is full of candidates to set off a nuclear war that can lead to the apocalypse. Despite their own dubious credentials, “experts” like Erich von Däniken and David Hatcher Childress have treated this line as an eyewitness testimony of the nuclear bomb’s detonation. Yes, why not? Next, let’s hear what we know about ancient physics from Bahubali.
The theory also points to a highly irradiated patch of land in Rajasthan, declaring it to be the site of a cataclysmic nuclear explosion. For those who want to believe, the idea is irresistible. Maybe there was an ultra-advanced civilisation that flourished in the distant past that was wiped out by nuclear conflict, leaving us to rebuild our world in post-apocalyptic Kalyug.
Once you come to terms with the fact that the fog of prehistory might be concealing some truly amazing technological marvels, you start finding yourself more amenable to the hypotheses. The idea of Vaimanika Shastra serving as a manual to build ancient aircraft starts to seem increasingly credible. The fact that the text was compiled between 1918 and 1923 is often left out by the peddlers of these myths, and it’s these small omissions that make a huge difference in how you receive the story. When you hear of an ancient Vedic sage who drew up blueprints for aircraft centuries and even millennia before the Wright Brothers, you feel a surge of nationalistic pride at the fact that India got there first.
It’s a fact that’s not lost on these peddlers. The first successful organ transplant is more important than our IITs’ actual contribution to science. In the eyes of one such merchant of misinformation, Y Sudarshan Rao, the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research aeroplanes, cars, and stem cell research all have their roots in ancient India. That, and the solution to all of our modern problems is contained in our holy texts. Shut down your research centres, MIT and Johns Hopkins.
When supposedly distinguished scholars and prominent public figures endorse these views, they have a way of worming into mainstream consciousness. So while we’re being hammered with newfound facts like Vishwamitra invented rockets and missiles and Ravana’s ten heads were actually ten clones of the same person, on National Science Day, we’re reducing the real contributors to our scientific legacy, such as Aryabhatta, to a zero.
Let’s celebrate Charaka for giving us Ayurvedic medicine. Let’s look to the past and see not the characters from myths and legends, but the real people that enabled us to become a nation that launches rockets to Mars more easily than Hollywood makes films about space. And most importantly, let’s not accept ignorant peddlers of alt-facts as chief guests at our science events.