Unless the West copies us, we're irrelevant

Unless the West copies us, we're irrelevant
First experiments of the alkali metal explosion in water performed at the balcony of the Institute in Prague provided important clues for later more rigorous laboratory studies (and lots of fun). Credit: Phil Mason

We have become quite good at dismissing the more asinine utterances of our ministers and other learned people in terms of either a susceptibility to pseudoscience or, less commonly, a wilful deference to what we might call pseudoscientific ideas in order to undermine “Western science” and its influence. But when a matter of this sort hits the national headlines, our response seems for the large part to be limited to explaining the incident: once some utterance has been diagnosed, it apparently stops being of interest.

While this is understandable, an immediate diagnosis can only offer so much insight. An important example is the Vedas. Every time someone claims that the Vedas anticipated, say, the Higgs boson or interplanetary spaceflight, the national news machine – in which reporters, editors, experts, commentators, activists and consumers all participate – publishes the following types of articles, from what I have read: news reports that quote the individual’s statement as is, follow-ups with the individual asking them to explain themselves, opinion articles defending or trashing the individual, an editorial if the statement is particularly pernicious, opinion articles dissecting the statement, and perhaps an interview long after to ask the individual what they were really thinking. (I don’t follow TV news but I assume it is either not very different in its content.)

All of these articles employ a diagnostic attitude towards the news item: they seek to uncover the purpose of the statement because they begin with the (reasonable) premise that the individual was not a fool to issue it and that the statement had a purpose, irrespective of whether it was fulfilled. Only few among them – if any – stop consider the double-edged nature of the diagnosis itself. For example, when a researcher in Antarctica got infected by the novel coronavirus, their diagnosis would have said a lot about humankind – in their ability to be infected even when one individual is highly isolated for long periods of time – as well as about the virus itself.

Similarly, when a Bharatiya Janata Party bhakt claims that the Vedas anticipated the discovery of the Higgs boson, it says as much about the individual as it does about the individual’s knowledge of the Vedas. Specifically, the biggest loser here, so to speak, are the Vedas, which have been misrepresented to the world’s scientists to sound like an unfalsifiable joke-book. Extrapolate this to all of the idiotic things that our most zealous compatriots have said about airplanes, urban planning, the internet, plastic surgery, nutrition and diets, cows, and mathematics.

This is misrepresentation en masse of India’s cultural heritage (the cows aren’t complaining but I will never be certain until they can talk), and it is also a window into what these individuals believe to be true about the country itself.

For example, consider mathematics. One position paper drafted by the Karnataka task force on the National Education Policy, entitled “Knowledge in India”, called the Pythagorean theorem “fake news” simply because the Indian scholar Baudhayana had propounded very similar rules and observations. In an interview to Hindustan Times interview yesterday, the head of this task force, Madan Gopal, said the position paper doesn’t recommend that the theorem be removed from the syllabus but that an addition be made: Baudhayana was the originator of the theorem. Baudhayana was not the originator, but equally importantly, Gopal said he had concluded that Baudhayana was being cheated out of credit based on what Gopal had read… on Quora.

As a result, Gopal has overlooked and rendered invisible the Baudhayana Sulbasutra as well as has admitted his indifference towards the programme of its study and preservation.

Consider another example involving the same fellow: Gopal also told Hindustan Times, “Manchester University published a paper saying that the theory of Newton is copied from ancient texts from Kerala.” He is in all likelihood referring to the work of G.G. Joseph, who asserted in 2007 that scholars of the Kerala school of mathematics had discovered some of the constitutive elements of calculus in c. 1350 – a few centuries before Isaac Newton or Gottfried Leibniz. However, Gopal is wrong to claim that Newton “copied” from the work from “ancient texts from Kerala”: in continuation of his work, Joseph discovered that while the work of Madhava and Nilakantha at the Kerala school pre-dated that of Newton and Leibniz, there had been no transfer of knowledge from the Kerala school to Europe in the medieval era. That is, Newton and Leibniz had discovered calculus independently.

Gopal would have been right to state that Madhava and Nilakantha were ahead of the Europeans of the time, but it’s not clear whether Gopal was even aware of these names or the kind of work in which the members of the Kerala school were engaged. He has as a result betrayed his ignorance as well as squandered an important opportunity to address the role of colonialism and imperialism in the history of mathematics. In fact, Gopal seems to say that unless Newton copied from the “ancient texts,” what the texts themselves record is irrelevant. (Also read: ‘We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it’.)

Now, Madan Gopal’s ignorance may not amount to much – although the Union education ministry will be using the position papers as guidance to draft the next generation of school curricula. So let us consider, in the same spirit and vein, Narendra Modi’s claim shortly after he became India’s prime minister for the first time that ancient Indians had been capable of performing an impossible level of plastic surgery. In that moment, he lied – and he also admitted that he had no idea what the contents of the Sushruta Samhita or the Charaka Samhita were and that he didn’t care. He admitted that he wouldn’t be investing in the study, preservation and transmission of these texts because that would be tantamount to admitting that only a vanishing minority is aware of their contents. Also, why do these things and risk finding out that the texts say something else entirely?

Take all of the party supporters’ pseudoscientific statements together – originating from the Madan Gopals and culminating with Modi – and it becomes quite apparent, beyond the momentary diagnoses of each of these statements, that while we already knew that they have no idea what they are talking about, we must admit that they have no care for what the purported sources of their claims actually say. That is, they don’t give a damn about the actual Vedas, the actual Samhitas or the various actual sutras, and they are unlikely to preserve or study these objects of our heritage in their original forms.

Just as every new Patanjali formulation forgets Ayurveda for the sake of Ayurveda®, every new utterance about Ancient Indian Knowledge forgets the Vedas for the sake of the Vedas®.

Now, given the statements of this nature from ministers, other members and unquestioning supporters of the BJP, we have reason to believe that they engage in kettle logic. This in turn implies that these individuals may not really believe what they are saying to be true and/or valid, and that they employ their arguments anyway only to ensure the outcome, on which they are fixated. That is, the foolish statements may not implicitly mean that their authors are foolish; on the contrary, they may be smart enough to recognise kettle logic as well as its ability to keep naïve fact-checkers occupied in a new form of the bullshit job. Even so, they must be aware at least that they are actively forgetting the Vedas, the Samhitas and the sutras.

One way or another, the BJP seems to say, let’s forget.