It was a matter of time before someone mentioned plastic surgery at the party. India’s amazingness had been the evening’s topic. Then Mars was mentioned, leading to more congratulations. Then, inevitably, a voice added: “Let us not forget that Vedic science was highly advanced in areas besides interplanetary travel. For example, everyone knows we were way ahead in plastic surgery. How else do you think the god Ganesh got his elephant head?"
He was right. Everyone did seem to know this. For many of the staunchly devout, it may now even be at the level of doxa, a thing that can be held as true because important people have said so, no one has refuted them, and most people have no problem with it anyway.
Critical thinking asks that we examine what we see and are told, especially in this age of fake news, deepfake videos and whimsical and often false assertions by those in power. The best way to take a statement apart is to assume it is literally true and see where that leads you. In this case, I’d start by noting practical realities—elephant necks are not slender like human ones; a large human neck’s circumference would be around 48cm, while the smallest baby elephant’s neck would be around 120cm.
Ganesh’s donor would have had to be an unusually small baby elephant, and even that would probably have been too large. Also, elephant skin is leathery, as thick as 3cm in parts, and entirely the wrong colour. Vedic India may also have had advanced dermatological technology.
Using a baby animal to create a god is disturbing, apart from not being terribly god-like. Even more disconcerting is knowing that somewhere within this Vedic clinic must have been two carcasses—the headless body of the baby elephant and the discarded erstwhile Ganesh-head.
The correct question to ask here, fingers crossed, is if this was the plastic surgeon’s first-ever transplant. Vedic plastic surgeons, it turns out, had abundant practice in xenotransplantation, the fixing of animal parts on human bodies. A true believer might point to Hanuman with his simian head, Narasimha with his lion head, and Varaha with his pig head. Further proof might be gods with multiple limbs and ten-headed demons like Ravan.
Mythical stories provide blurred evidence that holds as long as you don’t look at it too closely. For example, plastic surgeons know that the human body can violently reject tissue from animals or other humans within five minutes flat. You could ask how Ganesh’s immune system accepted an animal head.
This might be when the flip-flop starts. Ganesh, awaiting his transplant like any mortal, will suddenly become god again. Gods don’t fall sick, and so they don’t need immune systems. In fact, it would be sacrilege to imagine them doing human things like sweat. However, they do have offspring, like humans do.
Ganesh, though, was not born of any such union. Instead, he was quickly created by Shiv out of a lump of earth and clay to take care of his wife Parvathy while he went off to meditate. When he returned, Ganesh didn’t recognize him as his father and refused him entry. Annoyed, Shiv lopped his head off. Parvathy was inconsolable, so Shiv went looking for a replacement head but the nearest available one happened to be an elephant’s.
Thus goes the mythology. A true believer might quietly insert a human plastic surgeon at this point to help Shiv get his son a head and also quietly claim a global scientific-first for Vedic India.
The gaping hole here, pointed out by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, is that whoever can create a god must by definition have been greater than that god. Ergo, the plastic surgeon who created Ganesh must have been a more powerful god than his patient. If Ganesh was not a human who needed plastic surgery, the plastic surgeon had to be a senior god who created junior gods.
But this is not a useful conclusion for claiming that India invented plastic surgery. For the claim to work, Vedic plastic surgeons had to be human even if their patients were gods. But why would a god need human help for a makeover? Aren’t they supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent universe-creators and destroyers?
The deeper purpose of such assertions, you realize, is to somehow claim timeless Hindu supremacy in all the sciences. Everything, we must believe, started in India: aviation, internet, space travel, self-driving cars, computers, in vitro fertilization, wi-fi. Perhaps even sushi.
The irony is that proving plastic surgery was invented in India in Vedic times doesn’t require this much contrivance—because it actually was. And in Vedic times. Sushruta (600-1,000 BCE) is widely regarded as a founding father of surgery and plastic surgery. In his compendium, Sushruta Samhita, he describes surgical techniques for reconstructing noses, earlobes and genitalia. He developed the forehead flap rhinoplasty procedure, which is still the standard in plastic surgery, and the otoplastic technique for reconstructing earlobes with skin from the cheek.
Offering India’s beloved elephant god as proof of ancient plastic surgery expertise does little for the deity and only makes a laughing stock of a triumphant scientific heritage.
C.Y.Gopinath is a journalist, author, designer and cook who lives in Bangkok