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India: Legitimising suspect ‘traditional knowledge’ and passing it off as proven wisdom is perilous

8 November

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The Indian Express

Past perfect and a future tense

Legitimising suspect ‘traditional knowledge’ and passing it off as proven wisdom is perilous.

by Rajesh Kochhar | October 31, 2018

The things All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) wishes to formally teach engineering students in the name of ancient Indian scientific achievements is a gross insult to ancient India. Making unsubstantiated claims about the past detracts from the genuine contributions that were actually made, and brings ridicule to an otherwise respected discipline.

AICTE is an apex body set up by the HRD ministry for the promotion of quality in technical education. The Delhi centre of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan is offering, through its website, a post-matric course on “essence of Indian knowledge tradition”, and a post-graduate diploma in “Indian knowledge tradition: Scientific and holistic”. To serve as a text for these courses, a book titled Bharatiya Vidya Saar has been prepared.

AICTE, no doubt guided by HRD ministry, has co-opted this programme and decided to offer a credit course based on the Vidya Saar — meaning that students will be formally examined in it and assigned grades.

The proposed textbook is not freely available. Whatever excerpts have been published makes for disturbing reading. Students will be told that “In Vedic age, ‘Maharshi Bhardwaj wrote an epic called Yantra Sarvasva and aeronautics is a part of the epic. This was 5,000 years before Wright brothers’ invention of the plane… Yantra Sarvasva is not available now but out of whatever we know about it, we can believe that planes were a reality in Vedic age.”

A number of questions arise immediately. How do we know that Yantra Sarvasva existed? If it discusses aeronautics, what is the actual term used? If the text does not exist anymore, which are the works that have preserved the extracts? Details should be provided so that readers can decide for themselves how much credence is to be placed on such claims. In the same fashion, it is claimed that Maharishi Agastya in Agastya Sanhita talks about the discovery of electricity and invention of batteries.

Students should, no doubt, be made aware of ancient Indian science. We cannot, however, ask students to switch off their mental faculties when they are being instructed in the essence of Indian learning, but bring their intellect into full use an hour later when the regular curriculum is taught.

In recent years, a flourishing industry has sprung up which takes stray passages from ancient texts and relates them to modern scientific and technological discoveries.

In 2002, B G Matapurkar, a surgeon at the Maulana Azad Medical College Delhi, claimed that the Mahabharata description of the Kauravas’ birth proved that “they not only knew about test-tube babies and embryo splitting, but also had the technology to grow human foetuses outside the body of a woman — something unknown to modern science”. If the learned surgeon had taken the trouble of reading the original description (given in Adi Parva, Chapter 14) he would not have been so rash.

Gandhari could not possibly have given natural birth to 100 sons. One is inclined to believe that 100 was not meant as an exact number but as a poetic exaggeration. The Mahabharata tells us that Gandhari was pregnant for two years after which she delivered a piece of flesh which was as hard as iron. It was irrigated with cold water and split into 100 thumb-sized portions. These portions in turn were placed in pitchers filled with ghee which were carefully kept at secret places. After another two years, each pitcher produced a boy. A small piece of the aborted flesh was still left from which, after a month, a daughter was born. Immediately on birth, the first born, later to be known as Duryodhana, started braying like a donkey whereupon, the “other” donkeys, vultures, jackals and crows in the area also joined the chorus. Here is an attempt to take Duryodhana’s villainy back to his birth itself; any resemblance to modern research is purely incidental. It is extraordinary that the creativity and imaginativeness of ancient poets and dramatists should be sacrificed at the altar of modern science.

In October 2016, the PM, while inaugurating a hospital in Mumbai, claimed that the Hindu god Ganesha’s having an elephant head showed that plastic [?] surgery began in India. He also speculated that genetic science must have been known in ancient India because the Mahabharata says that Karna was born outside the mother’s womb. The Mahabharata also says that virgin Kunti’s motherhood was due to her recitation of a mantra and that, fearful of the public opinion, she clandestinely set the newborn afloat in a river. What use is a scientific discovery if it has to be presented as a miracle and hidden from the public at large? More recently, the newly-elected Chief Minister of Tripura concluded that internet existed in the age of Mahabharata, because Sanjaya narrates the happenings in the war-field to Dhritarashtra who is located miles away.

Such dubious claims have been made by persons in power or in inaugural addresses, etc. But, alarmingly, the government has now decided to give such claims the legitimacy of a teachable subject, and that too, at the level of professional colleges.

By definition, science today is better than science yesterday. It is, therefore, anachronistic to pit one against the other. Production of wealth today depends on modern science. Prosperity in ancient India depended on agriculture and un-organised manufacturing activity — knowledge systems connected with these two spheres were exclusively the domain of farmers and artisans and there was no reason for sacred Sanskrit texts to incorporate this parallel knowledge system into their own. In other words, it makes no sense to look for products of modern technology in ancient sacred texts.

AICTE should put its present proposal on hold for the time being. It should ask Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan to heavily annotate its textbook so that a reader can check the veracity of the claims made. The draft text should be uploaded online, and comments invited on its content. The textbook should be finalised in the light of the feedback received. Only then should it be placed in the hands of teachers and students. The proposal, as it stands now, is an insult to human intelligence and aimed at the “moroni-fication” of the students.

Rajesh Kochhar is with the mathematics department, Panjab University.

P.S.

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