New Delhi: In a departure from the past, this year’s Indian Science Congress had a new addition: the importance of ancient Indian science in the modern world. The change could potentially expose the government to criticism, especially in the context of the recent initiatives to tweak school syllabi to promote Sanskrit.

On the second day of the five-day Congress hosted by the University of Mumbai, several speakers focused on why Indians must study ancient Indian sciences. Invitees spoke of the origins of mathematical theorems and surgical methods in Sanskrit, as well as how Indians flew planes before the Wright brothers did. There was a session titled “Ancient Sciences through Sanskrit".

“Ancient Indian scientific theories with those machines and tools are based on experience, wisdom and minute observation and logic. Those must be recognized and it has relevance today. If scientists from other countries can produce new science based on our ancient sciences, why can’t we?" asked Prakash Javadekar, minister of state for information and broadcasting.

Speakers talked about peer review systems in ancient Indian science, weather forecasting through blooming of certain flowers, methods to conduct autopsies and Ganita Kaumudi by Narayana Pandita which has a reference to the mathematical constant, Pi. One speaker dwelt on physician Sushruta and compared ancient surgical instruments with modern ones.

In a session by Anand Jayaram Bodas and Ameya Jadhav, the audience was explained aviation technologies in Maharshi Bharadwaja’s Vaimanika Shastra, which is said to describe aircraft that can cross borders and fly across planets. Bodas also spoke of radars described in ancient Sanskrit literature which can show the shape of planes and fighter planes which could fly forward and backward.

Pamphlets on Shivkar Bapuji Talpade, touted as the first man to fly a modern aircraft, were distributed at the session. Talpade, it is claimed, flew an unmanned plane in December 1895 at Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach. Bodas said history, however, talks only of the Wright brothers’ flight in 1904.

“Our sages have given many sutras on war technology, vimanshastra, surgery, botany and described the technology in detail. It is important for the youth of our country to be aware of this literature and not neglect it any more; instead of only looking at advances in science in western society," said Jadhav, a lecturer at Swami Vivekanand International School and Junior College.

According to Hem Pandey, additional secretary at the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, the session’s idea was to establish where Indian research started. “One must read the original text, instead of its translations, and understand it," he said.

The sessions, though, have faced criticism from sections of the scientific community, with an Indian scientist with the National Aeronautical Space Administration (Nasa) floating an online petition against peddling what he called pseudoscience as modern science. However, there are defenders, too. Congress member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor tweeted on Sunday that “to mock the credulous exaggerations of the Hindutva brigade, you don’t need to debunk the genuine accomplishments of ancient Indian science!"

Saturday saw several references to the importance of ancient science in India. In his inaugural speech, Union science and technology minister Harsh Vardhan had talked about how India gave away the credit for the Pythagoras theorem and algebra to other countries. 2014 Fields medal winner Manjul Bhargava had talked about how his study of ancient Sanskrit and other languages helped in his study of number theory.

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