(L-R) Meghnad Saha, S. Somanath and J.V. Narlikar. Photos: Wikimedia Commons
Kolkata: Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) helmsman S. Somanath’s recent comments claiming Vedic roots to modern scientific discoveries and understanding have gained far greater currency after the ISRO’s Chandrayaan III successfully landed on the south pole of the moon.
His comments have started flooding social media platforms, with those believing in Vedic superiority over all other cultures enthusiastically showing their detractors how an ace scientist is backing the view they always held. A hashtag #वेदों_से_विज्ञान (from Vedas to science) was also started.
Somanath recollected how he, as a rocket scientist, “was fascinated” by Surya Siddhanta, a Sanskrit book on astronomy, while going through its contents on the solar system, time scale and the size and circumference of Earth. He opined that Vedic understanding of astronomy, medicine, physics, chemistry and aeronautics are written down in Sanskrit and it’s only that they “were not fully exploited and researched”.
Among other things, Somanath said that algebra, square roots, concepts of time, architecture, the structure of the universe, metallurgy and even aviation were first found in the Vedas, travelled to Europe through Arab countries, and were subsequently posited as discoveries of scientists of the western world. The West merely ‘packaged’ the findings of the Vedic sages, he contended.
Soon after this speech, Breakthrough Science Society (BSS), a collective of scientists, termed Somanath’s comments “an unrealistic claim”. delivered in “an exaggerated and eulogised manner, creating confusion in the minds of people”.
“One simple question to Mr. Somanath is: If superior knowledge in astronomy, aeronautical engineering, etc., is available in the ancient texts in Sanskrit, why isn’t the ISRO using them? Can he show one piece of technology or theory that ISRO has taken from the Vedas and applied to make a rocket or a satellite?” they asked in a statement.
Somanath’s claims are not new – and neither is the debunking of such claims.
Astrophysicist Meghnad Saha, one of India’s celebrated – though somewhat forgotten – scientists, not only rubbished but also ridiculed such claims in a series of writings published in the iconic Bengali literary journal, Bharatbarsha, in 1939. Unfortunately, they are not known to have been translated into any other language.
“For the past twenty years, I have minutely searched the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, Shastras, astrology books, and ancient texts on science but have failed to trace any root of modern science to them,” Saha wrote in one of the essays, titled ‘Adhunik Bijnan O Hindu Dhormo (modern science and Hinduism)’.
“No one but fossilised wiseacres would dare claim that the Vedas of the Hindus contained everything,” he wrote.
He said that scholars in all ancient civilisations had said various things about the place of Earth in the universe, the motion of the moon, the sun, and the planets, and about chemistry and zoology. “Despite that, the reality is that modern science is a product of the collective research work of European scholars over the past three centuries,” he wrote.
He mocked the claim that the theory of avatars (reincarnations) in Hinduism signified the Darwinian theory of evolution. He pointed out that Hindu scriptures disagreed over the avatars and their orders and even the most-recognised dashavatara (10 incarnations) was nowhere close to describing evolution.
He rubbished the popular Hindu nationalist claim of the 12th-century mathematician Bhaskaracharya having discovered the laws of gravity centuries before the English mathematician Issac Newton (1643-1727). He pointed out that Bhaskaracharya neither mentioned the planets’ travel in their elliptical orbits nor proved that these orbits can be ascertained by applying the rules of gravitation and dynamics.
Saha said that equating the Hindu theory of avatarvaad (reincarnation) with that of evolution was even more ridiculous than the late Sanskrit scholar Shashadhar Tarkachuramani’s explanation of the myth of sage Agasthya’s drinking of the ocean as “electrolysis”.
“The theory of evolution is based on clearly visible discoveries and well-tested theories. Behind it lies the discoveries of the remains of thousands of living beings from ancient times, collected by scientists. These remains have been scientifically classified, their chronology determined through elimination and reasoning, and dated using the time-tested methods of the physical sciences,” he wrote.
A rare breed
Saha’s writings remain among the earliest, and also rare, examples of an Indian scientist of global repute going through ancient Sanskrit texts to verify Hindu nationalist claims of the Vedic root of modern sciences.
As V.V. Raman, an Emeritus Professor of Physics and Humanities at the New York-based Rochester Institute of Technology, put it in a 2010 article, most of India’s current scientists seem to prefer to be silent on these issues.
“Aside from the fact that many of them would rather spend their time doing real science, one reason for this could be that proponents of no-nonsense views on science become targets of ad hominem attacks to the effect that they are brain-washed Macaulayites, that they are lackeys of the West, that they have no respect for their own culture, etc,” Raman wrote.
Science historian Meera Nanda’s 2006 essay says that this tendency can be attributed not only to current scientists but also to the previous centuries. She wrote that while conflating the Vedas with modern science has been a “routine business and has been going on since the very introduction of modern science and technology in India,” dating back to the 18th century, “Indian rationalists, in comparison, have never enjoyed the same degree of cultural hegemony.”
Among other Indian scientists of global repute, after Saha, to thoroughly study Sanskrit scriptures to find scientific excellence of ancient India is cosmologist Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, the founder-director of Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA).
In his 2003 book The Scientific Edge – The Indian Scientist from Vedic to Modern Times, he highlighted the excellence of the likes of Baudhayana, Apastampha, Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta and Bhaskara II, while cautioning against a ‘know-it-all’ tendency with regard to ancient texts.
“We frequently hear the comment that our ancient ancestors anticipated all that modem science is telling us today and that they possessed technology at par with modem times… There are quotations from ancient philosophical texts that are interpreted as containing the basic ideas of quantum theory, string theory, unified field theory, relativity theory—all achievements of modern science,” he wrote and then debunked such claims with examples.
“A scientific theory is expected to make a clearly worded prediction, often with quantitative details. The more sophisticated a theory is, the more precisely stated are its predictions,” he wrote, adding that those interpreting ancient texts to claim roots of all modern sciences “can serve science well by predicting discoveries instead of post-dieting them once they have been established.”
Narlikar pointed out how the questions asked in the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda bear a striking resemblance to the questions asked by modern cosmologists. He pointed out that what is known as Diophantine equations is actually found in the Shulva Sutras much predating the Greek philosopher Diophantus.
Nevertheless, Narlikar argued that while it could not be denied that “our Vedic ancestors had the same scientific curiosity that drives modern science,” it could not be accepted that “they knew what modern science talks about today.”
“To claim that the quantum uncertainty principle is contained in our Vedantic philosophy is to do injustice to both ideas,” he said, and added, “The claims that all the modern discoveries of science are of Vedic origin do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. In fact, they are counterproductive because they divert attention from the genuine discoveries attributable to ancient India.”
Raman traced the tendency of claiming ancient roots to modern European scientific achievements to a direct impact of Europe’s colonising role – people in colonised nations, hurt by colonial policies, made these claims to deny Europe their claims of superiority.
This led to “a vast body of an imaginative, if questionable, genre of writing” whose goal is to show that the results of modern science, from gravitation and thermodynamics to genetics and quantum mechanics, were latent in ancient Sanskrit aphorisms, in the Torah and in the Quran, Raman pointed out.
Raman felt the 19th-century Hindu religious leaders who inspired such perspectives in India made “commendable and contextually relevant effort to infuse the overwhelmed Hindu heart with self-respect and dignity” but such an “understandable, indeed essential,” approach had no place in today’s world, where free India was claiming greatness on its own rights.
“If anything, such claims do a disservice to the legitimate contributions of ancient Indians, besides provoking amusement in those familiar with what modern science is all about,” Raman wrote, adding that it was important to distinguish between wisdom, insight, and common sense on the one hand and science on the other.
“That all bodies thrown upwards fall back to the ground, as recognised by many ancients, is common sense and that this happens because of their intrinsic quality (svabhâva), as stated by some ancient Hindu thinkers, is an interesting idea; that every mass in the universe exerts an attractive force towards itself on every other mass as per the inverse square law, as formulated by Isaac Newton, is science,” he concluded.