Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >Separating fact from ancient Indian science fiction

In January, at the 102nd annual Indian Science Congress—the country’s top science conference—a session was held where a pilot claimed that our ancestors had built a vehicle capable of interplanetary travel 7,000 years ago. This was by no means a stray claim made at the event.

Indian scholars (of the serious kind) have debunked the existence of these supposed interplanetary planes. Not only are the designs in the Bruhat Vimana Sastra, the supposed source text for these claims, scientifically unsound, but it is also likely that the text was made up by a Sanskrit scholar in the early 20th century. And yet these claims persist and enjoy great popular cachet.

Why? Why is the public’s knowledge of the history of Indian science so poor? And, in a nation full of engineers and doctors, how could such psuedo-scientific attempts be so frequent? To answer the question, we need to go back a few hundred years to the time of the British Raj.

Finding new roots

Following conquests and colonization, the traditional gurukul education system that was in place in India for centuries had disintegrated. Slowly, as the British realized that they needed educated men to help them run their colony, a completely new educational system was set up.

But even as this system produced lawyers and judges and teachers, teaching science proved too expensive a proposition. And, anyway, such an investment was considered unnecessary given that the British wanted to produce bureaucrats, not scientists. A few universities eventually started offering technical education, but science as a subject didn’t become compulsory in schools till more than a decade after independence.

When the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) was given the reins of the nationwide educational agenda in the 1960s, its goals were, first, “to acquire knowledge of biological, physical and material environments including forces of nature and simple natural phenomena", and second, “to develop scientific attitudes such as objective outlook, spirit of enquiry, truthfulness and integrity, inventiveness, accuracy and precision, avoiding hasty conclusions on insufficient data, respect for the opinions of others".

With such a lot to catch up on, the NCERT probably can’t be blamed for overlooking the need “to put the knowledge of modern science in the context of work done in ancient India". And even if it wanted to add such a goal to the agenda, it would have struggled. For there were very few scholarly works on the history of Indian science at the time, and the few that existed were mostly produced by British scholars.

It was a deficit that did not go unnoticed. In 1960, the History of Science board was formed within the Asiatic Society, itself first set up in 1784 to “enhance and further the cause of Oriental studies" among British and regional scholars. The board then transformed into the National Commission for Compilation of History of Science in India in 1965, and then the Indian National Commission for History of Science in 1989.

The original goal was nothing less than ambitious, B.V. Subbarayappa told me. The scientist and historian who was involved in the setting up of the first commission told me how the idea was to set up multiple centres of research within universities across India to help with the compilation work.

B.V. Subbarayappa. Photo: The Hindu
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B.V. Subbarayappa. Photo: The Hindu

There would be hundreds of scholars from different disciplines working to translate, understand and disseminate the knowledge locked in ancient scrolls. This was an audacious goal. Many original manuscripts had remained untouched for centuries.

But while the bureaucratic tinkering with the commission’s name continued, Subbarayappa told me how things took a wrong turn for those actually involved in the noble endeavour.

Failed grand visions

When the 1971 war between India and Pakistan broke out, the country needed to desperately channel money to more urgent causes. Among those who suffered cuts was the commission, whose goals seemed far less important, and the promised research centres were never set up.

There is currently a National Centre for History of Science at the University of Mysore. But there is very little scholarly work going on there, Subbarayappa told me. The “centre" is just a tiny project within the Oriental Research Institute. The 13 academic staff at the institute are not just involved in the history of science, but also need to work on the National Mission for Manuscripts and the Indira Gandhi Centre for Arts.

The Oriental Research Institute, University of Mysore. Photo: The Hindu
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The Oriental Research Institute, University of Mysore. Photo: The Hindu

The upshot, according to Roddam Narasimha, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, is that the bulk of the work to compile the history of science in India has been done by professional scientists who are interested in the history. And because there aren’t enough professional historians looking into the matter, Narasimha believes that “there are some limitations" in the body of work we have produced so far or will produce in the future.

The limitations he mentions arise from the way scientists approach history compared to how historians do. The tools that historians bring to a subject, which is often a matter of subjective analyses and rarely has definitive answers to provide, are different from those that a scientist uses to probe nature’s truths. The result may be that, put together, the work may not provide as full a picture of the past as would have been possible with historians working on the topic too.

Such limitations show. In an invited article in 2009, on the occasion of 50 years of the history of science programme, A.K. Bag, the editor of the Indian Journal of History of Science, wrote, “(In) the studies made during the early part of the 20th century, hardly 15 to 20 important manuscripts, some archaeological reports, basic inscriptions and dynastic records, travelogues formed the basic material for their write-up. Our systematic efforts in history of science have helped to find out about 35-40 source documents/manuscripts in each major discipline of science, whereas at least 100 basic important manuscripts/sources are still lying untouched in oriental libraries."

Think about that for a minute. Bag is saying that in the first half of the 20th century, without a systematic programme in place, a tiny number of scholars managed to explore as much as half the number of manuscripts that a 50-year government-funded and driven programme analysed.

Bag continues, “Other types of sources lying untapped are yet to be explored, and authentic unbiased text books are still to be written in each discipline of science in India both from its national and international perspectives." The rest of the invited article makes for an interesting, if a little depressing, read.

From the work done so far, India could actually make the claim of being a world leader in science in the not-too-distant past. It certainly has some great scientific achievements to back it up.

The interplanetary planes were never real. However, scholars have confirmed many other achievements. The first form of plastic surgery was indeed pioneered by the Indian surgeon Sushruta and is recorded in the Sushruta Samhita. The famous Pythagorean theorem was mentioned in Baudhayana’s Sulva Sutra before Pythagoras’s time. And there are numerous contributions in astronomy, mathematics and metallurgy from that period which, through Islamic scholars, made their way to the European body of knowledge that became Western science.

Bring on a revolution

The sad part is that, despite an ongoing history of science programme, which has been running for more than 50 years, very little of that has filtered in to public knowledge. I asked Subbarayappa why.

“That is a question I have often asked myself," he said laughing. The commission nudges on with what it has been doing for the past 50 years. Regular articles appear in the Indian Journal of History of Science, but there is little conversation between the few academics working on the history of Indian science and those working on setting the science curriculum.

Perhaps a 1997 qualitative analysis holds the answer. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University asked those responsible for science education at the NCERT a set of questions to understand how they approached their organization’s policy objectives. The report states, “It is… interesting that some of the participants see no need to draw a connection between insights from the history and philosophy of science to their own ideas about classroom practices."

And the trouble is that NCERT does not provide teachers with any room to do more than what the textbook says. One of the curriculum developers says, “Teachers have to follow the textbooks from page one till the end page. There are no separate sets of instruction as to how to modify, how to use different methodologies for dealing with different type of children, for addressing the needs of areas from different socioeconomic conditions. As far as NCERT is concerned, it is only (the) textbook (and) nothing but the textbook."

Such attitudes need to change. And what can change the attitudes of those who create children’s curricula in India is the media.

But many fellow journalists say that editors at news publications and magazines give little value to science stories. Good science reporting at the scale that a nation of a billion people and hundreds of newspapers demands simply doesn’t exist.

A qualitative survey I conducted a few years ago of Indian newspapers produced the same dismal results today. Each newspaper will sport a science section, but these sections will almost exclusively publish wire stories, which are often exaggerated and poorly explained. The Hindu is an exception in that it provides regular space for reporting on science, but its reach is limited.

New entrants in the online media space are doing a little better. But India doesn’t have a Scientific American or a New Scientist to enthuse a broader audience. And this, sadly, is to our own detriment, leaving too many people believe that our ancestors flew to Mars and back, but the best the Indian space agency can do is to send a probe to orbit the red planet.

Akshat Rathi is a science and health reporter for Quartz in London. He has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Oxford, and a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai.

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