An ode to India’s forgotten heritage

In Indian Culture and India's Future, Michel Danino celebrates the country's wonderful past that has been swept under the carpet

Michel Danino came to India from his native France as a young man of 21, and has lived in his adopted country for the past 39 years. Now a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), he has written several authoritative books on Indian history, including on the Aryan migration theory and the mystery of the river Saraswati. His most comprehensive work is Indian Culture and India’s Future.

It’s a book that will make you rejoice and it’s a book that will also depress you.

In less than 250 pages, Danino paints a compelling picture of our wonderful heritage—a heritage that most of us have never known or have forgotten, a heritage that has, in many cases, been systematically kept out of our textbooks and curricula, first by the British Raj, and then by Indian Marxist historians.

“It is (a) cruel irony," he writes, “that none of our Indian universities should find it worthwhile to offer a course in this rich aspect of our heritage (in science, mathematics, astronomy, architecture and so on), as though ‘history’ should be restricted to meaningless series of dates, dynasties and wars."

For instance, Aryabhata (born in 476 CE), calculated the value of pi correctly to the fourth decimal point (3.1416) and mentioned that this was an “approximation". He invented an ingenious method for the extraction of square and cube roots; figured out that the Earth was a sphere that rotates; calculated planets’ orbits with astonishing precision; and worked out the mechanism of solar and lunar eclipses.

While the biggest number that the ancient Chinese and Greeks could think of was 10,000, and the Arabs could not proceed beyond 1,000, Indian mathematicians were routinely using “infinity" (ananta) in their calculations. They were also aware of the “infinitesimal". Thus the paramanu—supreme atom—corresponded to a length of 0.3nm and a weight of 0.614 microgram.

In the 14th century, the Vedic commentator Sayana calculated the speed of light to be 280,755km/s. Today, we know that light travels at 299,792km/s (Sayana was just 6% off the mark).

From the days of Harappa, India traded with the entire civilized world, running up a huge trade surplus. Along with their goods, the merchants took their culture and script. Many Asian scripts—the Burmese, Tibetan, ancient Cambodian (Cham script), Malayan, Javanese, Sumatran and Philippine (Tagalog)—were directly derived from the Indian Brahmi script. Indian literature, from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the Panchatantra, remains a vibrant tradition in many parts of Asia.

Many of the greatest physicists of modern times, like Nikola Tesla, Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they themselves acknowledged, were greatly influenced by the Indic concept of vedanta, in which the latter two said they found the clues to develop their concepts that are absolutely key to quantum physics as we know it today.

Anyone whose knowledge of Indian history comes only from school and college textbooks will be unable to read the first half of Danino’s book without a sense of wonder and pride. And the second part will quite possibly make him angry. Because Danino, here, goes on to describe how successive rulers and governments have tried to stamp out our knowledge of our heritage.

The Islamic rulers, writes Danino, “rarely attempted to take possession of the Indian mind: a few, in faithful obedience to Koranic injunctions, tried to stamp it out; that they did not succeed is another story". But the British were far more lethal.

“The British rulers followed two lines: on the one hand, they encouraged an English and Christianised education in accordance with the well-known Macaulay doctrine... on the other hand, they pursued a systematic denigration of Indian culture, scriptures, knowledge systems, customs, traditions, crafts, cottage industries, social institutions and education system, taking full advantage of the stagnant nature of Hindu society at the time," he writes.

But even 75 years after Independence, says Danino, the Indian mind remains colonized to a large extent, and our education system has hardly changed. Our children learn about Humpty Dumpty before they learn anything about India. India’s pursuit of knowledge in every field has been blanked out in our school textbooks.

In higher education, in physics, chemistry, mathematics, metallurgy (at least 2,500 years ago, we were producing the finest steel in the world—wootz), even environmental science (water harvesting is presented as a recently developed Western concept, while Indians, beginning from the Harappans, have practised it for millennia), there is no mention that the Indians were far ahead of any other civilization—in fact, there is no mention of any Indian contributions to anything at all.

Danino’s book is a revelation and a clarion call to learn about our heritage and to change our education systems.

Changing our history textbooks will be a tough call. Reason 1: Evidence tells us that BJP governments go about it rather ham-handedly, earning negative publicity in the media. Reason 2: The educational establishment is still packed with Marxists. A Swarajya magazine investigation turned up the insidious changes made by the United Progressive Alliance government in CBSE school history textbooks (and were not covered by the media). Some of these are:

• Mahmud of Ghazni was not an invader but an Indian king. Mahmud himself would have been enraged by this description.

• Babur’s stint is glorified, whereas Babur himself wrote in his Baburnama that he loathed India and Indians.

• The section on Subhas Chandra Bose was reduced from 1,250 words to 87 words.

• Swami Vivekananda now merits only 26 words. And Sri Aurobindo has been expunged.

It is time to read Danino and support the mission of scholars like him.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com.

The Bookmark is a series on ‘interesting’ books—intelligent and thought-provoking, but also enjoyable.

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