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The myth of civilizational greatness

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The myth of civilizational greatness

What seems to be missing in these deliberations on ‘science nationalism’ these days in India are the thoughts on the actual function of science...

The myth of civilizational greatness

Expert Expressions

Dr C.P. Rajendran

The writer is an adjunct professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and a director of the Consortium for Sustainable Development, Connecticut, U.S.

The media reports reveal that the Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) while addressing the students of Maharshi Panini Sanskrit and Vedic University at their convocation said the concepts like algebra, square roots, concepts of time, architecture, the structure of the universe, metallurgy and also aviation originated in the Vedas, which later came to be celebrated as the discoveries of the western civilization. According to the reports, the ISRO Chairman also said that the rules of Sanskrit grammar and structure, an ancient Indian cultural product, are suitable to be used for developing languages for computers and artificial intelligence (AI), possibly basing his argument on the statements made in a 1985 paper written by Rick Higgs, a researcher who was attached to NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California.

 But despite the initial ambitious claims made in that paper, no one has made any progress in devising computer codes written in Sanskrit. If Sanskrit is an ideal language candidate for software why wouldn’t there be software based on it by now? Why wouldn’t the ISRO itself take the initiative for such a potentially noble endeavour. The story of how two software engineers in Poland developed Polish speech synthesizers sometime back in 2000 for the purpose of communicating with virtual assistants for a commercial company could be treated as a harbinger of such technologies of the future. The intention of this article is not to dwell on the usability of Sanskrit as an AI language, but to highlight the irrationality of the notion of “civilizational greatness” that is alluded to in the statements made by the ISRO Chairman.

The ISRO Chairman, of course, is following the trend of the times. In recent years, we have been seeing this tendency among the new elites in the power echelons of the country to be xenophobic at the slightest provocation. Such pronouncements imply that the ancient counterparts of ours, more specifically the Vedic Aryans, for some fortuitous genetic reasons or by the virtue of covenant with God, developed a special faculty for science, the arts, and literature (for unknown reasons the ingenuity of the pre-Vedic people of the Indus Valley in town planning, water management and in introducing weighing systems are never considered in these discussions on India’s past greatness). The Vedic people thus endowed with special intuitive powers, prepared the earliest Indian religious scriptures, including the Vedas that have been propagated orally, since the 2nd millennium BCE, facilitated by elaborate mnemonic techniques. For many, Vedas became a source for all facts that modern science now stands to represent, including technological marvels like airplanes, television, satellites, surgery, and robotics. While speaking at the 105th edition of the Indian Science Congress held at Manipur University in 2018, the then union minister for science, for instance, asserted that the cosmologist Stephen Hawking had said that an ancient Hindu text might have had a theory superior to the idea of mass-energy equivalence as expounded by Albert Einstein in the theory of special relativity. Hawking had never said such a thing. I like to imagine that the minister must have made the statement with all good intentions. It can be argued that it is one way of promoting the scientific temper in the country: that modern Indians are descendants of a great intellectual culture that promoted critical inquiry and developed many ideas, many of which are now simply being rediscovered by modern science. That we must reclaim this lost world’s scientific spirit. The ISRO Chairman also must have similar noble sentiments while making the statements echoing the Indian civilizational superiority.

But the bigger question is whether such claims, and half-truths, can actually help or if they are counterproductive. Rather than encourage a science culture that is fundamentally rooted in raising questions, looking for a continuity between ancient and modern science will only strengthen the cause of orthodoxy in India. Further, it encourages an uncritical acceptance of ancient scriptures and traditions, both of which could allow an unhindered path to pseudoscience. Science is about challenging. To understand the implications of uncritical acceptance of any given truth, one only needs to go back to the Charvaka (Lokayata) epistemology, a part of ancient Hindu philosophy which states that whenever one infers a truth from a set of observations or truths, one must acknowledge doubt; and that the inferred knowledge is conditional. A part of the Hindu tradition, the Lokayata also implies that any inquiry can’t begin with the conviction that we have always known everything and that whatever we knew was all defined in our scriptures. The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman elaborates this concept in his book, The Meaning of it all: The Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. He states: “It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.”

The Persian scholar Al-Beruni, who had come to India in the 10th century to study Indic science, had been among the first one to comment on a growing insularity and an unrealistic sense of superiority as the reasons for the decline of science in India. This is where medieval Europe scored over other inward-looking ancient societies. The ancient intellectual history of India shows that its dominant philosophy, as it evolved, essentially negated the objective world and emphasised the relation of self with an unknowable and unmeasurable cosmic “Brahman”. The ancient Greeks, however, had realised that there was an objective world governed by natural laws outside of human consciousness and that it was amenable to testing and observation. The Europe of the 5th to 15th centuries absorbed this Greek tradition, and in turn led to a true scientific revolution whose features were radically different from those of the ancient sciences.

In fact, the Mesopotamian science (8000-2000 BCE) had a much earlier start and must have influenced both Chinese and Indic sciences in the areas of astronomy and mathematics. Euclid had already written his Elements almost 800 years before the Āryabhatīya (476-550 CE) with rigorous proofs that became the foundation of mathematics 23 centuries later. The Śhulbasūtra and the Āryabhatīya are indebted to contributions from Babylonia, Egypt, China and Greece. It was the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus (220-143 BCE) who developed the heliocentric model for the first time and was also able to calculate the distance between the Sun, Earth, and the Moon based on elementary geometry. In all these pioneering efforts, interactions between various learning centres located at various parts of Eurasia must have played a major role in the cross-fertilization of ideas. Whether it is of Indic or Greek origin, science can’t develop in isolation, in the present or in the past. Like the world of today, the ‘old’ world was also interconnected, and our civilisation exchanged goods, people and ideas with the rest of the world, although in a much slower mode than today. The Vedic, Chinese or Greek had opportunities to meet their counterparts in Persia Alexandria or Baghdad, which are considered to be some of the ancient cultural centres. To this list, one may want to add the Buddhist monastic universities of Nalanda and Takshashila. Frits Staal, an eminent Vedic scholar, in his book Discovering the Vedas (2008)  discusses these ancient paradoxes very insightfully and comments that ancient science can only be understood if the Eurasian continent is treated as an undivided unit – which in turn implies that “Indic science does not stand alone and cannot be studied by isolating it artificially from the remainder of the Eurasian continent”.

Minabere Ibelema, who wrote a recent book on the topic of cultural chauvinism says, it  “is the tendency of peoples of the world to think of themselves as superior to others and therefore more valuable”. But this tendency is not unique to India, you will find modern examples of cultural chauvinism elsewhere including the Western countries. The notion of “Western values” is the most consequential expression of cultural chauvinism – emanating from an assumption that the modern West is the custodian of a privileged inheritance, passed down through a kind of cultural genealogy that we usually refer to as “Western Civilization.” This version of history is wrong. There is no scientific basis for racial superiority or for a master race – the concepts that prepared the launching pads for deadly ideologies like Fascism and Nazism. Once we recognize the fact that India or the geographic space it occupied in those days was one among this globalised network of civilisations - a tapestry woven together with strands of diverse peoples, cultures, and ideas - a newer, saner, and less chauvinistic appreciation of our ancient knowledge with all its limitation will begin to take shape.

What seems to be missing in these deliberations on ‘science nationalism’ these days in India are the thoughts on the actual function of science. Aside from treating it as an agency that could accelerate the productive capabilities of the country, a point that is overstressed by politicians, science is a transformational tool for evolving a rationally conscious just society. Science is fundamentally about change; questioning accepted facts thus yielding new answers and new questions – a never-ending process. In our enthusiasm to please a particular audience, we, as scientists, forget our responsibility and keep repeating the old shibboleths that come rolling off the lips of political masters.

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