22 May 2019 06:19 AM



Why Internet During the Mahabharat Era is Not A Joke

Credit for the claim goes to new Tripura CM

In the long list of fantastic and wild claims made by several high-ranking BJP leaders, Biplab Deb, the newly elected Chief Minister of Tripura, has added another gem. He has claimed that internet existed in the age of Mahabharata. His assertion is based on the story in the Mahabharata that Sanjay narrated the happenings in the war-field to Dhritrashtra sitting miles away from the location where the war was taking place. He defended his claim on several occasions but this interview given to the India Today TV Channel (https://www.indiatoday.in/india/video/watch-tripura-cm-biplab-deb-defend-internet-existed-during-mahabharata-claim-1216538-2018-04-20) is worth watching for the conviction with which Biplab Deb speaks about this issue and his general understanding of science, society and history.

Internet is awash with jokes, parodies and memes on this issue. However, leaders affiliated to the RSS-BJP ideological family have been making such claims regularly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had famously said that India had a well-developed technology of Plastic surgery in the ancient times which is proved by the fact that Lord Ganesh has a human body over which the head of an elephant was planted. Only a few months ago Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan declared that eminent scientist Stephen Hawking also agreed that the Vedas contained theory superior to Einstein’s theory of relativity.

His assertions and claims would have been laughable but for the fact that these ideas are going to decide what students in Tripura and other BJP ruled states would study, the areas of research which would be taken up in universities and other academic institutions and the overall mindset guiding the actions of the government in all fields of its activity. A flawed and distorted understanding of our past can only give rise to a dark future for India’s scientific research, technology, innovation and education. This is worrisome.

India is probably among the few countries in the world which has put promotion of ‘scientific temper’ as a constitutional obligation under article 51A which enjoins upon people to ‘develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’ as part of fundamental duties. This may have come through the 42nd amendment of constitution in 1976, but it has always been the underlying current which enlivened and informed our constitution.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru believed that a modern nation can be built only on the foundation of scientific temper to ensure a better quality of life for millions of people suffering poverty and deprivation after the two centuries long British rule. His approach to science was reflected in his undying zeal to set up scientific institutions to promote research and innovation. He set up dozens of research laboratories across India, IITs, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and persuaded Tata to setup Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai among many others. The beginning of ISRO also lie in the Nehru era when in 1962 INCOSPAR (Indian National Committee for Space Research) was set up under the leadership of Vikaram Sarabhai. This resulted over a period of time in making India a major centre of trained and qualified scientific manpower.

Today, Nehru is being reviled by BJP-RSS for establishing and upholding values like secularism and also his quest for making India a modern nation based on the spirit of scientific enquiry and rational thinking. The Nehruvian vision stands in sharp contrast to the path chosen by Pakistan and the predecessors of the present-day BJP who believed in backward looking and obscurantist ideas to guide the state policy. The similarity between the two is striking.

Biplab Deb boasts of the achievement of India’s space mission which put 104 satellites in the orbit in one go. Certainly, achievements like this or mission to Mars make us proud. But he conveniently forgets that these achievements have been possible only because India adopted a modern scientific approach as its guiding principle. The institutions set up in the early days of our independence were based on a clear understanding, as Nehru said in his book ‘Discovery of India’, that ‘it is the scientific approach, an adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory, and the hard discipline of mind.

All these are necessary not merely for the application of science, but for life itself and solution of its many problems.’ Unfortunately, these ideas find no resonance with the ruling dispensation today. It wallows in a false and fabricated sense of pride in its past. It wants to turn the gaze of people backwards. People are expected to feel proud about India with a vision that is blinkered and distorted.

Indeed, there are a number of things in India for which we must feel proud. Its legacy in philosophy, spirituality and also in science is formidable. Nobody can deny that ancient and medieval India had made great contribution to the field of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, veterinary sciences, architecture, metallurgy, etc. Among the galaxy of people who contributed to the fields of astronomy, mathematics and medicine Aryabhat, Varahmihir, Bhaskaracharya, Brahmagupta, Sushrut are definitely counted as great scientific personalities. Aryabhat (499 BC) calculated the value of pi accurately. He also correctly found the length of the solar year to modern estimates. He hypothesised that earth was a sphere that rotated on its axis and its shadow falling on moon caused eclipse.

All these are remarkably in line with modern scientific findings. This has been acknowledged by historians like Romila Thapar who wrote that during that historical period ‘an increasing dialogue existed between Indian and Arab astronomers and mathematicians similar to the earlier one between Hellenistic and Indian astronomers’.

It is also true that the western writers of the history of science have often underplayed and ignored the role of scholars and scientists from the non-western world. Edward Said has meticulously shown in his celebrated book Orientalism and other writings as to ‘how the European culture was able to manage-and even produce-the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.’ The concept of Orientalism also brings focus on the exclusions and coloured reading of the history (including that of the scientific achievements) of the non-western world by the Europeans.

It would be important here to point out that a section of our own intellectual class was also ensnared by the Orientalist understanding of our history. Their vision was tainted by downplaying and ignoring the achievements of India’s historical contribution in the fields of science, technology and philosophy. Many of them made fun or heaped sarcasm even on genuine achievements of the Indian past.

This has been used by the obscurantist-backward looking forces to create a narrative that progressive and secular people actually hate India’s past and that they aim to privilege western achievements over Indian ones. At a certain level it has created a background for popular acceptance of the narrative peddled by these forces.

However, to reduce this complex understanding of the way colonialism has impacted the picture of our world does not mean that we should claim to have everything in the past and imagine that the march of knowledge has stopped since Aryabhat discovered the value of pi or calculated the length of the solar year is bunkum. While it is legitimate to reclaim our contribution to the world of science and technology, it is even more important to understand why the process came to a halt at some point of history.

As the renowned historian of science J.D. Bernal points out the progress of science has not been uniform over time or space and periods of rapid progress have been followed by stagnation and sharp decline. Remarkably, he says, ‘the centres of science have been continually displaced, usually following rather than leading the migration of centres of commercial and industrial activity. Babylonia, Egypt and India have all been the foci of ancient science.’

The deep and complex relation between the socio-economic structures and the development of science and technology can be understood only with an an open mind rooted in objectivity and rational thinking. To reduce it to empty claims of glory of the past and our achievement in ancient times alone is more dangerous than ridiculous.

A confident nation does not seek to sit on its laurels of the past, much less invent phoney tales of glory to gloat over it. Those who do so are often narrow-minded fanatics who have some hidden agenda behind it. They create a smokescreen of pride, glory and use other tropes to create a society that is shorn of its capacity to introspect and question. It helps them in moulding people’s mind into becoming unquestioning followers which is so essential to retain the status quo and keep people away from real issues of our times.

It is perfectly fine to enjoy the joke about internet in the time of Mahabharat or Pushpak Viman and Hanuman Missile etc. but we must be aware of the deeper damage this may inflict upon the future of our country. Our foundations are strong fortified as they are by commitment to scientific temper built assiduously since the time of freedom movement.

But we must also be aware of the white ants that lurk behind the surface to damage these foundations irretrievably for ever.