“The Futures of India’s Past” by Subir Sinha
In the on-going annual conference of the Indian Science Congress at the University of Mumbai, one panel that has attracted high interest in the press and in social media is entitled ‘Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit’. Presenting his paper on Ancient Indian Aircraft, Captain Anand Bodas, a retired principal of a pilot training school, asserted that Indian aeronautical sciences are 7000 years old, that ancient Indian aircraft were capable of not only international and inter-continental flight, but indeed of inter-planetary voyages.
Bodas is not the first to make this claim, based on a purportedly ancient text called the Vaimanik Purana, which has been around for some time, as have claims that the Purana itself is a more recent, even early 20th century, concoction. This text is now freely available on the web, and it does appear remarkably detailed, even though its claim that these inter-planetary craft could fly ‘as fast as birds’ does raise the question of how long it would take for them to go to other planets. The size of the craft as described in Bodas’s paper also seems to defy known laws of physics.
But as someone who cannot claim expertise in ancient Indian texts or on the aeronautical sciences, or indeed on ancient Indian texts on aeronautical sciences, it is beyond my abilities to cast further aspersions on their scientificity. I would like to ask another question: what to make of this ‘Vedic Science’ fixation of Hindu nationalists at a time that Narendra Modi has promised to make India a leader in cutting edge science and technology, and of economic growth driven by advances in these fields?
Note that prominent members of the government are not the only ones making the claims for the superiority of the Vedic sciences. There is widespread acceptability of the usefulness of Ayurveda and Yoga across caste, class and religious groups in India. For flight itself, there exist accounts, independent of its Hindutva provenance, of an unmanned craft designed by a priest, Pandit Talpade, leaping 1500 feet in the air decades before the Wright Brothers got off the ground. In the 1990s, environmentalists such as Vandana Shiva and Claude Alvares highlighted the achievements of ancient Indian sciences in their rejection of the claims of European superiority. Also, Indian epics, which have a massive readership in an age of undiminished, even increasing religiosity, have more science fiction-like elements than any other major religions of the world, and were made popular as television shows through the past two decades. In such a climate, rationalist critics of religious superstition have been the object of attack from votaries of Hindu superiority. Recall that no one has yet been arrested for the murder in 2013 of the rationalist campaigner Narendra Dabholkar in Pune.
Ancient Indian space flight has long been a staple of global conspiracy theories. For example, conspiracy theorists argue that many of these ancient texts were removed to Germany by Nazi expeditions to the high Himalayas in the 1930s, that they were destroyed by Muslim invaders, or that they are currently residing in unnamed collections at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Crypto-historical programming on satellite television channels have incorporated claims of scientific achievement of ancient India in their overall narrative of a mysterious global past that seems tantalizing beyond the reach of modern scientific falsification. There are other recent crypto-historical claims, such as the fact that the Chinese have made available to academics of Punjab University fragments of text on space travel in an undeciphered script, or that an ancient Indian spacecraft has been found intact in Taliban held territories in Afghanistan. Typically, these stories reside in a realm in which they are immune to proof. In other words, they are ‘faith-based’, rather than ‘evidence-based’ history and science. That is to say, not history nor science at all.
It has seldom been the case that the claims of not only the possibility of Vedic science, but of its primacy and superiority over all other forms of knowledge, have been made so forcefully from the highest echelons of government. Prime Minister Modi himself has talked of ancient Indian space sciences and of advanced medical practices, including plastic surgery grafting animal heads on human bodies. Harsh Vardhan, the Science and Technology Minister has argued that Indian sciences are the basis of all modern sciences. D. N. Batra, who advises a number of BJP ruled states on school curriculum, has argued not only that space craft existed in ancient India, but also television, human cloning, test tube babies, unammed vehicles etc. The Minister for Shipping and Transport Nitin Gadkari has claimed that 10000 or more years ago the ancients built a bridge connecting Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka. Well-placed senior figures of the RSS have even suggested that the Indian Mars mission was based on ancient Indian space sciences. More enthusiastic RSS ideologues have claimed that purported ancient scientific achievements qualify India to become a ‘vishwa guru’, or a teacher to the world.
That a political philosophy based on the supremacy of Hinduism over all other faiths should claim for itself high scientific achievements in a long lost golden age is not in itself surprising. The loss of that science at the hands of Muslim and colonial invaders, too, fits well with the narrative of victimhood, and of not being given due recognition by the world, that underpins Hindutva ideology. Similarly, the project of Hindu resurgence based on ancient Indian knowledge too is understandable.
However, what is surprising is that these crypto-historical and anti-scientific claims are being made at a time that Mr Modi has placed science and technology at the centre of his ‘Make in India’ campaign to make India a hub of global manufacturing. At the Indian Science Congress itself, there are rumblings by scientists of the misuse of the platform for Hindutva propaganda: a petition by an Indian scientist from NASA explicitly condemns the unscientific claims made by RSS ideologues at the conference. They are of a piece with the wider process of changing the face of Indian scientific and social scientific institutions. For example, the new Chair of the Indian Council for Historical Research, Prof. Sudershan Rao, wants to use Indian vedic texts and epics as direct historical evidence, as he believes that the term ‘mythology’ was used by western and western-inspired scholarship to demean ancient Indian knowledge. Premier institutions of research await the appointment of new Directors as the RSS jostles to place academics who champion its view of science. The Indian Space Research Organisation gets a Director who is a geologist, and so on.
These changes have not gone unnoticed in those countries from which Modi is hoping to attract collaboration in research and development, and in manufacturing, going by the coverage they have given to the claims of ancient Indian space exploration. Can Modi’s modernizing claims stand the scrutiny of his profoundly anti-scientific and anti-rational pronouncements, and those of his associates? How will these sciences help India’s poor deal with issues of lingering hunger, disease, lack of education and precarious livelihoods in a rapidly changing world? These are questions the government needs to answer, not only to the satisfaction of those who voted for it, but for all Indians and for the world at large.