Of science and history

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Professor Romila Thapar's scholarly contributions over the last four decades to the field of Indian history have given her a special place and standing in the academic world. Large numbers of educated Indians were first introduced to the sweep and depth of Indian history through the History of India (Volume 1) with its lively and absorbing narrative, which Thapar wrote in the mid-1960s and is currently revising. Her popularity as a scholar-communicator comes from the accessibility of her historical writings, to the general reader; her writing of school history textbooks; as well as her outspokenness against recent attempts at rewriting Indian history along communal lines.

Professor Thapar recently spent three weeks as the first Visiting Sundararajan Chair at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The Chair is given to eminent scholars in the social sciences, arts or humanities to spend up to three months at the Institute in interaction with the science community. In an interview with Parvathi Menon, Professor Thapar spoke about the two disciplines of science and history, and how a fruitful exchange between the two could enrich them both. Excerpts: History connects with science in many ways: it uses, for example, the tools of science to investigate the past, it records the history of science and scientific thought, and so on. What in your view are the areas of intersection between these two disciplines, that of history, and that of science?


I think the interaction is at various levels. There is at one level the attempt to understand the scientific method and the historical method and to assess the extent to which both help the methods of research in the social sciences. I discussed these in the many interactions I have had with students here. While explaining the complexities of historical analyses, I tried to emphasise issues like cross-checking the reliability of evidence and making rational, logical analyses. The students then came up with two or three ideas that as scientists they found important. I had not mentioned these, although they are also important to history but in a different kind of way. I was asked how a historian corrects errors. I had to explain it was really a rather long process as compared to the correction of error in many scientific theories. The second question they asked me was whether history could predict. I said that the intention of history was not to make predictions but rather to understand the past and thereby understand the present. There is of course a persistent notion among students of science that scientists have hypotheses, but historians have biases! There was an interesting discussion on what is meant by a hypothesis and what is meant by a bias.

The question then arises, what does history bring to the study of, let us say, either the history of science, or to scientific theories. There are two aspects to this. There is first a time dimension, that is, the emphasis of history would be to see scientific theories in terms of how they started, and how they evolved to a particular point in time. Secondly, this question raises the equally important one: what is the social and historical context of that particular piece of scientific knowledge? While presumably the scientist would see it simply as a fragment of knowledge, the historian would relate it to how it came about at that particular point of time in history, and how it was then used in other historical contexts. So the historical and social contexts are important questions for the historian, but it would seem, not necessarily so for the scientist. Yet there have been some studies of the structure and nature of shifting paradigms in science, which endorse the need to look at the social and historical context of scientific ideas.

To return to the point you make about method, what in your view are the differences and commonalities in method between science and history?

Well, when we talk about scientific history what we mean is that the method that we use is something akin to the scientific method. It is based on at least three characteristics that would be important. The first is to establish that the evidence is reliable. The second is making certain that the analysis being made is logical. And third, the analysis must lead to a generalisation that is based on rational argument. I think that these would be the important points of emphases in what is commonly referred to as scientific history.

Your talks at the various institutes of science research in Bangalore were of particular interest to scientists. What is it that history brings to these areas of inquiry that are also of fundamental concern to scientists, ecologists, environmentalists and others? Also, has your interaction with scientists expanded the boundaries of your own inquiries?

Yes, my interaction with scientists, brief though it was, has certainly firmed up my awareness of various dimensions that I had thought about more vaguely before. One of these is the discussion that we had on the sources of knowledge. I focussed a little on the study of the history of science in early India as a system of knowledge, or in fact as multiple systems of knowledge. We agreed that questions relating to knowledge must be posed in a much more direct or firm way than perhaps we have been used to doing. This is particularly so if one looks specifically at themes relating to mathematics, geometry, algebra, on the one hand, or medicine and metallurgy (which is tied in to both alchemy and Ayurveda) on the other. For example, if there is something on the use of plants and metals in Ayurveda, it might be useful to actually investigate which plants are being referred to, how they relate to other classifications, what are the qualities that are associated with these plants, and so on. In other words, we have to go into much more detail, and ask a wide set of questions so as to clarify the evidence.

Take another example - the sources of knowledge. What is the relation of empirical knowledge to that which is regarded as tradition? Now this of course raises the very interesting question that historians are currently debating - what constitutes tradition? Some would say tradition has been inevitably invented all the time and that there is no such thing as a body of information that goes back to a hoary past and is passed on unchanged from generation to generation, which is the way in which people normally think of tradition. The argument now is that tradition is selected or even invented by each generation for specific purposes. This point of view then raises many interesting questions. How does a body of knowledge, like say Ayurveda, or astronomy, get picked up over a century, or three or four centuries? Does it continue unchanged, or is it changed? If so, how is it changed? Why is there a continual recourse to calling upon tradition? Of course, it is called upon largely to give legitimacy to what is happening in the present. It is called upon even more strongly when there are major changes taking place, because one way of legitimising change is to say it is traditional. This sounds contradictory but is frequently the most effective way of introducing change! It is this kind of relationship that new knowledge has to old knowledge that I think has to be investigated in a historical context.

The transmission of knowledge is another important area of inquiry. Is it a closed group that is transmitting knowledge, or is it socially open? Is it really true, for example, that much of theoretical knowledge in early India was confined to the Brahman caste, or to scholars and Buddhist monasteries? Or was it in fact being continually expanded socially to include more and more people who then provided new ideas? We need to investigate the systems of knowledge in each of the disciplines within what we today call science, and see how changes were wrought.

The transmission of knowledge raises the important issue of who controls knowledge, and how knowledge is developed, expanded, increased, and utilised in new ways. The historian explores these issues also through interactions with scientists working in these disciplines. By looking at the texts of the early period, the scientist and the specialist on the text could understand the ways in which changes are taking place; the historian moves in to try and explain why these changes are taking place, and the context in which they are happening.

Are the linkages between history and science more apparent in the study of ancient Indian history? If so, has this to do with the nature of early historical sources?

I don't think that the linkage between history and science is necessarily closest to the study of ancient Indian history. There is much work being done on the subsequent period, from about the 10th-11th centuries. More recently, there has been considerable interest in the 18th and 19th centuries with reference to pre-colonial and colonial knowledge. But yes, if you argue, as scholars argued in the 19th century, that the ancient period is to be seen as a Golden Age, then you have to assume an excellence in everything without investigating the ups and downs, the tensions and conflicts, the harmonies and the co-existences, the discussions on specific theories of knowledge, and so on. Secondly, there are limited texts for such an early period, and the language is sometimes archaic and difficult to understand. Precision therefore can be a casualty. Texts increase in number later in time. This also means that claims can be made for the ancient period that are not always substantiated.

The association of archaeology with ancient history is now bringing about a change. Good archaeology brings in certain kinds of scientific investigation. For example, environmental change is becoming a major area of investigation. The decline of the Harappan cities is being explained as due in part to major environmental changes. Today there is much more emphasis on studying the impact of environmental changes such as deforestation, the flooding of rivers, rivers changing course, salination, the aridity of the landscape, the rise and fall of sea-level, and so on. Could these have led to a decline of the cities?

There is also the evidence on technological change provided by archaeological objects. You can actually see the objects, examine them, and see where and how the technologies have changed. Why were they made in a particular way? How does the method of making them change? What is their function? Science here aids historical analysis. Or take the study of climate. Did climate change in historical times, and if so what effect did it have - on agricultural production, or the rise and decline of cities? Hydrology is a very important area, because if rivers change course they cause certain kinds of destruction and these may have a historical impact.

The other area that is only beginning to be touched upon but is becoming generally of great interest is the epidemiology of diseases. There is frequent reference in general discourse to the possibility of malaria in India having reduced populations and thereby caused the decline of either a state, or a society, or an area. The skeletons of people found lying in the city of Mohenjodaro, point to their having suffered from severe anaemia. More recently, there has been interest in viruses and how societies in the past coped with viral diseases. For example, in those agricultural societies where human beings and animals live in the same hut, there is a greater tendency for viral diseases to develop. Could viral epidemics have wiped out or weakened to the point of making ineffective, a particular society? The study of the evolution of diseases is becoming a theme in history.

New technologies which had the potential of introducing new economies need to be investigated much more fully. What is the corelation, for example, of irrigation technologies to soil conditions, natural water resources, crop patterns, climate, and so on? There has also been a debate on the degree to which the technology of iron was the factor that led to urbanisation in the Gangetic plain in the mid-first millennium B.C. Technologies evolve, of course, and the historian's task is to show that there is a continual process of evolution, and that these points of evolution need to be examined. Such changes would presumably be of interest to scientists. The evolution of technologies also helps to explain variations in form. For example, within iron production there is a difference between objects made of wrought iron and those made of steel. The metallurgist and the historian can usefully do joint analyses of such objects and on why this change occurred.

But lest I sound too down-to-earth, let me add that there are other areas of an exciting exchange of ideas, as for instance in discussions on cosmologies and time.

In recent years there has been a sharp conflict in India between science and a Hindu revivalist notion of science, on a range of issues. Most of these relate in one way or the other to the degree of development of scientific thought in Indian history. The terrain of this conflict is early Indian history. What is the role of the historian in this debate within science? Do you think that scientists and historians have joined forces sufficiently in defence of both science and history?

I think that scientists and historians have greater scope for joining forces in defence of both science and history. The Hindu revivalist position is more often the imposition of modern fantasies on earlier times. Claims are made that much of modern science, especially in geometry, mathematics and astronomy, was known in earlier times, and Vedic texts are repeatedly cited. One wonders whether those who cite Vedic texts really know what they are citing. Or has it simply become a formula that all knowledge systems go back to the ancient period, to the Vedas? There is much talk about Vedic mathematics being superior to the mathematics being taught today. Critics of this view argue that there was not much mathematical development in the Vedas, even though the geometry of altar construction is often mentioned in the Sulvasutras. The real mathematical advances are detached from the Vedic texts and occur in the mathematical treatises of the period after the mid first millennium A.D. There is in fact a distancing from the very early texts, generally dated to the second millennium B.C., and a movement towards more advanced systems of knowledge not restricted to the Vedas such as the contributions of Aryabhatta, Bhaskara, Lalla, Bhaskaracharya and so on. The claims by revivalist ideology about aspects of early science are often historically confused. Early theories are confused with later theories, and the more enthusiastic the revivalist view, the greater the confusion. So in making these claims there isn't even a process of systematic thinking involved, going from simpler forms to more complex forms.

The point is that the research on ancient science does not support the revivalist claims. As a non-scientist, I for one would greatly appreciate an assessment of these claims by scientists. This would counter the confusion that has been created by these claims at the popular level. Unfortunately, there has not been enough of a collective effort by scientists to examine systematically all the revivalist theories about pre-modern science and counter them in a single volume that covers all the disciplines involved in these claims. If the claims are to have any validity, they have to be assessed by scientists.

When theories of science were first drawn out of the early texts, there were careful and meticulous studies of the knowledge they provided. And today there are some scholars who have updated this knowledge, some in Indian universities and some in universities abroad. But the popular understanding has been muddied by the garbled versions arising out of revivalist enthusiasm.

While the science vs revivalist science debate goes on, the government has moved quickly. We will soon have Vedic science, Vedic mathematics and astrology being taught as subjects in our universities. What have scientists and historians brought to our understanding of Vedic science, and can its teaching as a sort of 'Indian brand' of science be in any way justified?

There are many systems of knowledge which could be called Indian science, but to go on calling them Vedic science is historically inaccurate. Furthermore, to label science from early times as Indian science, Chinese science, Arab science, European science and so on, is frequent but some historians of science have questioned these assumptions. Even in the past, many areas of what we now call science evolved through the interaction of various civilisations. For example, in India, astronomy based on a study of the constellations drew heavily on Hellenistic theories in the early period, and in these theories centres such as Alexandria were very important. Translations were made of Greek texts into Sanskrit and there were dialogues between Indian and Hellenistic scholars. This kind of study and dialogue changed in the period after the 5th century A.D. when Indian astronomers and mathematicians were working on other presuppositions and were later in dialogue with Arab scholars. So the subject of Indian numbers, place value systems, the zero, methods of calculation, algebra, was all being discussed by Indian scholars with Arab scholars, with a mutual exchange right up to the 11th and 12th centuries, and in some fields later as well. Emerging out of this dialogue, these sciences then entered the European systems of knowledge. Similarly, alchemy in India was closely linked to alchemical knowledge in China. The achievement lies in how this body of knowledge was advanced through the thinking of a broad spectrum of cultures, and not whether it was 'invented' in India or China or Arabia. Even if some of the breakthroughs are associated with specific cultures and individuals, such as some mathematical ideas by Indian mathematicians, their greater significance lies in the broad spectrum of seeing how knowledge was used. One has to recognise that the history of civilisations is a history of their dialogues.

"Who are the Vedic peoples?" Why has this question become central to the Hindu revivalist notion of history? How would the historian answer this, and how has science been able to provide insights on this? For example, what information has genetic analysis been able to offer? Does science strengthen the independent findings of history?

The question has become central to the issue of early history because of the political ideology that is now stressing the centrality of identity and origins as part of the ideology of Hindu nationalism. There has never been this obsession with identity before. Since a fundamental theory in the Hindutva ideology would like to prove that caste Hindus are the lineal descendants of the original inhabitants of this country, and therefore are the inheritors of the land, there is a tendency to argue that everything goes back to a single source - the Vedas. Anything that one can be proud of today inevitably has to have a Vedic origin. Now this is a travesty of history. We know that cultures, sciences, bodies of knowledge, and identities all evolved and changed. There were and are multiple identities and these evolved and changed over time, as they are still doing. The single source theory is a static theory, very reminiscent incidentally of the early 19th century colonial historiography of India that assumed that the source of Indian civilisation lay in the Vedas. Wherever there is contradictory evidence, as with the discovery of the Harappan cities, an attempt is made to prove that they had the same authorship as the Vedas.

In their search for a scientific basis for their theories, the revivalists are now trying to draw on genetic analysis to help ascertain whether 'the Aryans' were indigenous or came from outside. From what I have gathered from my stay here, genetic analysis is still a rather recent discipline and the samples relating to the study of identifying groups have been limited samples. It seems to me that it would be premature at this point to make sweeping generalisations about identities of ancient peoples based on genetic analysis. It is necessary that we think about this carefully, because it can have disastrous consequences if we get the identities wrong. In the late 19th century everybody swore by 'race science' which was regarded as being at the forefront of science. For a whole century we lived with the disastrous consequences of that. Therefore, I think we have to be careful about this matter and not rush into making statements, however eager the media might be to forefront the kind of sensationalism that is likely to come out of these analyses. But it is an area on which geneticists and social scientists will have to work closely together.

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