On March 9, the department of education at the University of Delhi organised a surprising event: a seminar that quickly unraveled to become a platform for pseudoscientific claims and the purported ‘supremacy’ of ancient India.
While similar events have been organised at educational institutions in other cities, the latest instance is worrisome also because it was supported by the Union human resources development ministry via the Institute of Advanced Studies in Education, and faculty members of the department.
The seminar, entitled ‘Science in Sanskrit Literature’, was organised by Rakesh Kumar and Gyanender Kumar, both assistant professors in the department.
According to DU academics, Rakesh Kumar is also affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He was hired last year following the Supreme Court’s order to fill vacant positions at the university.
The programme schedule included talks on topics such as ‘palaeontology and new science’, ‘Vedanta and modern physics’ and ‘Heliocentrism: from Rg Veda to Copernicus’. But even though the last one sounds benign, it betrays the overall spirit of the seminar – as does the belief that the Vedas contained any science.
The historian Meera Nanda has called this spirit the ‘jagat-guru’ complex: where India, rather Hindustan, has always ever been only a ‘giver’ of science, never a taker.
As if to confirm that, students who attended the event said speakers also discussed the ‘pushpak vimān’. Purveyors of this brand of pseudoscience have claimed, most famously since the 2015 science congress, that these are chariots that ancient Indians flew as a mode of transport, including on interplanetary travels.
One of the students, who wished to remain unnamed, told The Wire that the first giveaway of the event’s credentials came when speakers attempted to cast Sanskrit as a language of the masses and spoke of its potential to liberate. The fact is that the use of Sanskrit was restricted to the upper-caste Brahmins and was thus an instrument of oppression.
“It was clear they were trying to establish Sanskrit as the dominant language and knowledge written in Sanskrit as the dominant knowledge,” the student said, “and they were trying to do this claiming a scientific basis.”
It’s such loose uses of the term ‘science’ that lie at the heart of why these events can be problematic. Science as it is practised today is very different from its counterparts many centuries ago, particularly with the rigour it has demanded of evidence and proofs.
As a result, claiming connections between the contents of premodern literature and those of modern physics is a kind of reverse presentism, and is immediately suspect.
One person who was present in the room said that while some could “distinguish between utterances rooted in science and those rooted in ideologies”, not everyone could – that some students had even walked away with a sense of wonder, believing that ancient India was as great as the speakers claimed it was.
Sources at the university said that Namita Ranganathan, the head of the department of education, had granted permission to conduct the event “in an effort to be democratic”. She also delivered a welcome speech at the start of the seminar.
But this is misguided, another student pointed out, because it undercuts the department’s own responsibilities to inculcate critical thinking. “They are ruining science in the institute,” the student said.
Ranganathan, as well as the organisers and some of the speakers, did not respond to requests from The Wire for comment.
The University of Delhi is not alone in this regard. Supporters of the Hindutva cause have attempted to organise similar events in other institutes before, including Mumbai University and the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. They have also been making regular appearances at the Indian Science Congress since 2015.
The RSS has been seeking out more articulate members – especially in the English language – to reach new, younger, more urban audiences. These members in turn have become a crucial part of the Sangh’s efforts to invade educational and research spaces in a quest for greater legitimacy.
“This is not a fight between scientific temper and religion,” as the second student put it. “This is a fight between religions, and the Hindutva brigade want to prove that their religion is scientific and want to take credit for everything.”
Both the broader scientific enterprise in the country and science education have been collateral damage – to the point where many in the scientific community believe research spending and fighting against pseudoscience could be election issues. The nonsensical claims that university vice-chancellors and parliamentary lawmakers have been making at public events have only solidified this belief.
“Their audience is those that believe in the Hindutva ideology, and the illiterate and the semi-literate,” the second student added.
But even without the elections, not all is lost. Scientists and science academies have in the last three or so years found their voice and have been speaking up against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s more egregious plans and claims.
Cognisant of scientific illiteracy’s wider consequences for society, many of them have also been attending events where pseudoscience is on the agenda, calling the speakers out on their claims and inviting them to debate. Aniket Sule, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, is perhaps the more notable of this group.
However, in almost all documented cases, the speakers have turned aggressive, accused the questioners of being disruptive and have dismissed demands for evidence. The same thing happened at the University of Delhi event as well.
According to people present in the room, one student asked if the speakers could present archaeological evidence for the ‘pushpak vimān’. “They got aggressive and began dismissing the student’s question,” they said, adding that they also got the impression that the organisers thought the act of asking for evidence was a way to stall the proceedings.
“They want to inculcate an agenda and their propaganda in educational institutes,” another student told The Wire. “It is a politics of the vote bank and a politics of identity as well. And they’re investing in education because they want to create the vote bank conducive to their politics.”
In October 2017, an IISc alumnus – and former scientist at the National Aerospace Laboratories – attempted to organise an astrology workshop at the institute’s Bengaluru campus. It was swiftly nixed after members of its alumni association protested and the press picked up on it.
At the time, many of those who had spoken out thought a declaration by educational institutes that they wouldn’t allow pseudoscientific events on campus would be a good idea. But the proposal fizzled out. It might be useful to reconsider it, considering many institutes are already running lean and could do without events paying only lip-service to the idea of democracy.
Indeed, to rephrase what one of the students said, the university is a democratic space and everybody has the right to be heard. But nobody has the right to spread misinformation.