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- ISRO, the Ministry of Science & Technology and the RSS will together hold a two-day conference on ‘Akash Tatva’ in the first week of November in Dehradun.
- Science minister Jitendra Singh has said that the conference will be purely “scientific” and expose the youth to “ancient wisdom” and “modern science”.
- The point that we need to consider in the minister’s assertion is the compatibility of the wisdom of ancient Indian thought with that of modern science.
- The schools of thought from which the ideas of the ‘Akash Tatva’ and panchabhootas have been drawn are not only pseudoscientific but also pseudo-philosophical.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Union science and technology ministry and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will together hold a two-day conference on ‘Akash Tatva’ in the first week of November in Dehradun.
In line with its aim to promote “swadeshi science”, Vijnana Bharati, an affiliate of the RSS, plans to draw on the idea of Akasha – the ethereal space or ether different from another conceptual substance, called dik (or space), according to the ontological classification of the Nyaya-Vaisheshika element of ancient Indian thought – at the event.
Jitendra Singh, the minister of state for the Ministry of Science and Technology, has said that the conference will be purely “scientific”, with the aim of exposing the youth of India to “ancient wisdom” and “modern science”. He replied thus to questions from the media as to whether the conference will advance pseudoscientific ideas.
The point that we need to consider in the minister’s assertion is the compatibility of the wisdom of ancient Indian thought with that of modern science. It is one thing to be overenthusiastic about attempting to forge a convergence between ancient Indian wisdom and modern science – but quite another to claim such parallels are sensible. In fact, an exposition of the idea of panchabhoota will reveal whether the two are compatible at all.
The ‘panchabhoota’ in Indian ontology means the elements. It comes from the root bhu, which means ‘to come into being’ or ‘to be produced’. There are five elements known as the panchamahabhootas – earth, air, fire, water and space – and they are to be found in the different schools of ancient Indian metaphysics.
The most important schools of thought that have expounded on the panchabhootas are the Sankhya–Yoga and the Nyaya–Vaisheshika, the four orthodox schools, or systems, of Indian philosophy. Traditional scholarship treats Sankhya–Yoga and Nyaya–Vaisheshika as complementary philosophical systems. Together with Mimamsa and Vedanta, these six constitute the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy.
Sankhya is concerned with the coming into existence of matter as an evolutionary process (this ‘evolution’ is not as in modern biology!). This process begins with a postulated ontological entity called prakriti, also known as pradhana or the ‘primary’. It also postulates the gunas, roughly translated as ‘qualities’ or ‘aspects’, which are subtle entities. There are three gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas; they are always in equilibrium in prakriti by their mutual opposition.
According to the Sankhya school, before the world came into existence, this equilibrium in prakriti was in a state of dissolution. When this equilibrium was disturbed, the gunas aggregated in different proportions, leading to the formation of an array of other entities that coevolved. In delineating this evolutionary series, Sankhya further postulated 23 principles, called the tattva.
In the course of its evolution, prakriti changes into mahat and continues so on until the formation of the bhootas. The immediately preceding forms of the bhootas are known as the tanmatra. There are five tanmatras: sabda (sound essence), sparsa (touch essence), rupa (colour essence), rasa (taste essence) and gandha (odour essence). These tanmatras are in effect the primordial elements from which the mahabhootas, or the gross elements, are produced.
Also according to Sankhya, the panchabhootas came into being by progressively greater differentiation.
This, in brief, is the Sankhya account, leaving out finer descriptions of the entire process.
Similarly, the Nyaya–Vaisheshika school provides its own account of the origin of the panchabhootas in its metaphysical explanation of the universe. It postulates a category called padartha and sets forth seven padarthas. They are essentially categories into which our experience of the world can be grouped. Dravya, commonly translated as ‘substance’, is the most important of the padarthas.
There are nine dravyas. Of them, five – prithvi (earth), ap (water), tejas (fire), vayu (air) and akasha (ethereal space or ether) – are known as the bhootas. The first four of these bhootas are to be found in two aspects, the primary and the secondary. In primary form, they are not to be understood as the things bearing these names that we commonly experience. In the primary form, they are also constituted by paramanus, closest in meaning to atoms. (Again, this idea of paramanu is not to be confused with the modern scientific notion of the atom.)
Now, it’s clear that both these descriptions of the panchabhootas are speculative accounts of the universe that our ancestors constructed by their imagination. They are not empirically grounded: each system postulates concepts and categories like gunas, mahat, ahamkara (Sankhya), padarthas, dravya and paramanu (Nyaya–Vaisheshika) to which we can’t find any parallels in modern science – or even converse about on some common acceptable terrain.
Two popular and common books to which scholars turn on the topic of the ‘science’ of the ancient Hindus are Natural Science of the Ancient Hindus (1987) by Surendranath Dasgupta and The Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus (1915) by Brajendranath Seal.
Writing in 1915, Seal appropriated modern scientific terminologies to adumbrate some ancient ideas, principles and Sanskrit terms. In the process, his exposition becomes quite hazy, obscure and unintelligible.
For example, he described the three gunas of Sankhya – sattva, rajas and tamas – as ‘essence’ or ‘intelligence-stuff’ and energy and matter as being characterised by ‘mass’ or ‘inertia’, in an effort to claim that elements of the language of modern science were present in ancient thought. This is a bizarre way of drawing a parallel.
In his Indian Philosophy: A Popular Introduction (1986), philosopher Debiprasad Chattopdhyaya described Seal’s writing in terms of “19th century European science” thus: “There is the obvious risk in such efforts to read more ideas in the ancient philosophical systems than actually belonged to these.”
Against this background, the ‘Akash Tatva’ conference’s organisers would do well to heed Chattopadhyaya’s words and desist from seeing modern science in ancient Indian thought.
While these systems of thought are called philosophical systems, they are unified in their aim: salvation and liberation of the soul. One question that has frequently been the topic of discussion in scholarly circles is whether Indian culture and civilisation really recognised an independent discipline called ‘philosophy’ as a discursive analytic tradition. The question arises because all its schools have been restricted to theological and soteriological1 concerns.
Surendranath Dasgupta even begins his aforementioned book with a note of caution, that Indian thought always manifested itself “in an yearning after the Infinite” and that “Hindus never busied themselves about the investigation of the laws of nature except in so far as it was connected with the general philosophical speculations”.
In this sense, the schools of thought from which the ideas of the ‘Akash Tatva’ and panchabhootas have been drawn are not only pseudoscientific but also pseudo-philosophical – even as the ‘Akash Tatva’ conference threatens to continue drawing pseudo-parallels between its agenda and science and philosophy.
The author has drawn on M. Hiriyanna’s Outlines of Indian Philosophy (1932) and Surendranath Dasgupta’s History of Indian Philosophy (vol. 1; 2015) to summarise the metaphysical themes of the Sankhya-Yoga and the Nyaya-Vaisheshika schools.
S.K. Arun Murthi taught philosophy of science. His areas of research include epistemology and metaphysics of science, Indian philosophy and political philosophy.
Soteriology is the study of doctrines of salvation.↩