Myth & science

Age of unreason

Print edition : July 06, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration of HN Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai on October 25, 2014. He claimed at the function that plastic surgery and genetic science were practised in ancient India. Photo: PTI

More and more BJP leaders cite Hindu myths as evidence of great scientific achievement in ancient India, and historians see this as part of their larger anti-Muslim propaganda.

IT all started after Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister in the summer of 2014. Soon, mid summer madness overtook Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, with elected members of State Assemblies and Parliament from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and later Tripura and Bihar as well vying with one another in making fanciful claims about things past, real or imagined. Some of them expounded on the ability of cow dung to absorb harmful radioactive emissions or the healing qualities of a mixture of cow urine and dung; others spoke ecstatically about the use of flying chariot (pushpak viman) in the Ramayana era, much before Wright Brothers developed the idea of aircraft in the 20th century. Another BJP leader, who was appointed to the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), claimed that atomic weapons were present in ancient India. These weapons found mention in the Mahabharata, he said seriously.

Dinesh Sharma, Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister. Speaking at an event organised to mark “Hindi Journalism Day” in Lucknow, he said journalism started during the Mahabharata era with what he claimed was a “live telecast” of the war by Sanjaya.   -  PTI


The bravos for India’s inventions moved from aeronautics and nuclear science to biotechnology when Dinesh Sharma, Deputy Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, claimed on June 1 that Sita, the female protagonist of the Ramayana, was actually a test-tube baby. Speaking at an event organised to mark “Hindi Journalism Day” in Lucknow, he also said journalism started during the Mahabharata era with what he claimed was a “live telecast” of the war by Sanjaya.

His claim came hot on the heels of the flutter caused by Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb’s statement that the Internet was used in the Mahabharata era. Deb also said Aishwarya Rai and not Diana Hayden was the Indian beauty. The religious insinuation was not lost on anybody.

The two leaders drew their inspiration from Prime Minister Modi who, not long after pledging to abide by the Constitution (the Directive Principles seek to instil scientific temper in Indian citizens), claimed at a function in Mumbai in October 2014 that plastic surgery and genetic engineering were practised in ancient India. He cited the examples of Karna (of the Mahabharata), saying he was not born out of his mother’s womb, and Ganesa, whose elephant head, he suggested, was a surgical transplant. All these statements were not aimed at the world of science. Their proponents knew scientists would scoff at such baseless theories. They were targeted at historians. The Hindutva brigade has set out to prove that all was fair and fine with India until Muslims arrived in hordes, smashing all evidence of civilisation and the vestiges of a golden age. From Mahmud of Ghazni and Mohammad Ghori to the sultans and the Mughals, they were bloodthirsty invaders. Never mind the fact that archaeologists have not been able to find any evidence to back up such claims.

Biplab Kumar Deb, Tripura Chief Minister. He claimed that the Internet was used in the Mahabharata era.   -  Sandeep Saxena

K.M. Shrimali, retired professor of history, Delhi University, said: “They believe in all these things—the very notion of India’s glorious past when everything was fine until the Muslims came and ruined everything. This entire vision of Indian history has no space for reason. They just believe in these things, and they become issues of faith for them, and hence beyond the realm of debate. They are the people who believe myth is history. They do not make a distinction between the two. The ICHR President actually said our epics are history and should be treated as such.”

Professor Ali Nadeem Rezavi of Aligarh Muslim University agrees. He said: “Actually the Hindutva forces are nothing but successors of the collaborators of those who colonised and enslaved us. In the colonial scheme of things, there was a glorious past, the ancient, followed by the Dark Ages, the medieval era, followed by a modern age. In this scheme of things, nothing was good in medieval times. This scheme suits the Hindutva forces: to them, ‘medieval’ represents Muslims, and thus it is a dark period. Yes, to the core it is anti-Muslim.”

The historian Rizwan Qaiser of Jamiia Millia Islamia put it succinctly: “Clearly, there is a pattern to the statements. They are anti-knowledge, anti-debate, anti-dialogue. In their limited world, ancient India was an ideal world, and medieval times were full of barbarities. So, all the good things stopped at ancient India. This is obviously not true.”

The consistency with which ancient India is drawn up as a benchmark for scientific progress points to a hidden anti-Muslim agenda. No BJP politician talks about the scientific progress made during the Mughal period.

Akbar got a dam constructed near Fatehpur Sikri. The dam worked on Persian waterwheels to provide water to Fatehpur Sikri. Shah Jahan took the process of irrigation further by constructing canals. Incidentally, the Chandni Chowk market in Delhi is said to have a canal flowing through it. Shah Jahan built the cannon foundry at Jaigarh Fort.

Fariduddin Munajum, a court astronomer, compiled Zije Shah Jehani, in which he wrote about the determination of the motions of the planets and devised tables and calendars. Even Aurangzeb had what was arguably among the best cannons in the world. Called Zafarbaksh, it worked on wrought iron and bronze-casting technology. Not to forget Akbar’s metal cylinder rockets, which worked well in wars. Incidentally, the weapons made by the Mughals were said to be better than the ones used in Europe.

“It is not hidden anymore, but it is not unexpected. They have been making such claims for several decades. They have always thought of Indian history in those terms. What they teach in Vidya Mandirs is all hocus-pocus,” Shrimali said, adding, “The National Democratic Alliance government [headed by A.B. Vajpayee], patronised an event that spoke of the mythical origin of the Saraswati river.”

Rezavi put things in perspective: “Hindutva forces have emerged as champions of make-believe and a fairy-tale past. Actually, this is the result of a severe inferiority complex they suffer from. This is nothing surprising: even a basic knowledge of psychology would tell you that when you have nothing to show as a result, and all-round failure stares at you, you start hallucinating and your brain runs riot to create myths. They are trying to create a fantasy world around them and hope the illiterate will fall for it.”

Shrimali said Hindutva forces had always treated mythology as history without using the tools of a historian. Rezavi said: “The duty of a historian is to endeavour to put forward things in the correct perspective. We cannot shrug it off. We have to contest the falsehoods being spread and tell people about the reality of our past. Every past has its ugly and beautiful moments. Past is multi-shaded and variegated. Even if bad, it is our past. Actually, we should be proud of the fact that in spite of all its ugliness, we were able to carve out a good present. The past should guide us to get a favourable future. And who can help guide us better than a faithful and truthful historian? Myths would give us a false sense of pride and make us complacent.”

Shrimali said: “Our scientists and historians do take them to task for such claims not just at seminars and in academic circles, but even in the public domain.”

Professor Mohammad Sajjad of Aligarh Muslim University feels such statements or myths not only popularise a certain kind of history, but also “assume that every big accomplishment of science was there in ancient India before the arrival of Muslims. Such divisive history serves a political purpose.”

He put a new spin to the whimsical claims: “After some scientific accomplishment, someone rises and finds it in a religious text. This is ridiculous. The question is, if it was there in the religious text, then the religious scholar should have been able to accomplish those scientific feats. The way I see it, all these claims are part of a larger plan to deny the media the right to interrogate the government on its failures on other fronts. Even the anti-Muslim slant is a convenient ruse.”

The veteran historian D.N. Jha said categorically: “To say we had made great scientific progress before the Muslims came is not true. Scientific advancement, or the lack of it, had nothing to do with Muslim kings’ arrival in India. All the fanciful claims around Ganesa and Sita are hollow with no shred of evidence. They are part of the larger anti-Muslim propaganda.”