A tragedy of Vedic proportions

If you have been following the news from India over the last few weeks, undoubtedly you’d have gawked at the following gems:

“We discovered the Pythagoras Theorem but we gracefully allowed the Greeks to take the credit” [1]

“We realize that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time.” [2]

“Ancient India knew aerial combat techniques” [3]

“Ancient planes powered by donkey urine” [4]

These statements were not courtesy of any extreme-right fringe element (such as this); these were claims by leading members of India’s government and media, boasting tremendous reach and impact across the country. Statements from such people are widely adopted at face value by millions, including educated adults. Also, these remarks were not made in a political vote-seeking event, they were made under the guise of science at internationally recognized symposiums such as the Indian Science Congress. Unsurprisingly, both international and national media have pounced on these stories and published numerous articles berating and belittling these views. Equally unsurprisingly, these have been met by a strong pro-Vedic brigade who gloat on ancient India’s advances in plastic surgery and algebra. While there are valid points on either side, I fear that the real victim in this tit-for-tat has been Hinduism itself and its millions of followers. 

Firstly, I would like to emphasize that I am a strong believer. My faith has always been an integral part of my daily life and despite studying and working at the frontiers of technology, my beliefs have only served as the wind on my back. As an Indian and a Hindu, I’m also incredibly proud of the wealth of knowledge passed on to us through the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads. Even though I cannot natively read any of these texts, I can appreciate their depth of inquiry and wisdom through translations. But, I am also conscious of the limits of religious faith. When I fall sick, I would rather consult a doctor than perform a puja for the God of health. In some indescribable way, my faith and my modern self mesh together like a solved puzzle, the edges never bump awkwardly. Perhaps, it is due to this equilibrium in my sensibilities, that I am shocked at the way certain elements are portraying ancient Vedic texts as the answer to everything. This image, they seek to conjure, of a benighted India that must return to her golden roots is completely at odds with my aspirations of a modern, progressive India that is proud, not arrogant, of her traditions. 

India’s ancient civilization has great teachings for one’s spiritual quest, its emphasis on spiritualism as an intensely private endeavor is shockingly advanced [8]. But obstinacy about supposed superiority of Vedic ways goes against the spirit of inquiry and curiosity that forms a primary tenet of the religion. [5] Such obstinacy also does grave injustice to our hard-working scientists, engineers, doctors and administrators; if ISRO succeeds in sending a man to the Moon, will we argue that the Vaimanika Shastra already has knowledge about inter-planetary travel, hence ISRO’s work is derivative and redundant? There is a fundamental difference between visualizing a conception and actually realizing it. For example, more than 2000 years ago, Greek philosopher Democritus proposed the theory of atomism which claimed that everything is constituted of indivisible, invisible atoms. He further explained that each property of every object is determined by its configuration of atoms. As we can tell, atomism holds more than a passing resemblance to the scientific advances in quantum physics in early 20th century. But do we credit Democritus as the founder of quantum physics? Likewise, Leonardo Da Vinci’s notes are filled with wondrous contraptions for flight and underwater travel. But we don't credit him with the airplane and submarine! I am not questioning the genius of these great minds, who could think beyond their times, but I refuse to equate thoughts with actions. In the case of the Vaimanika Shastra, apart from valid concerns on its authenticity [6], its designs for flight are judged flawed and unrealizable by pre-eminent physicists. I fail to see how this proves ancient India had the knowledge of space travel. 

If I were a neutral observer to these episodes, I would conclude that the ancient Vedic texts are wild ramblings with no applications for modern, 21st century living. I fear that many young Indians are coming to the same conclusion. As it stands, young India is losing touch with her traditions, thanks in no measure to parental apathy. These episodes, certainly, are not helping. When there are so many legitimate things to be proud about our ancient teachings, why argue on such implausible claims? Even legitimate remarks about our ancient wisdom should be accompanied by practical actions. Empty remarks remain just that, empty. For example, the government can call attention to Panini Sanskrit’s suitability for building artificial intelligence [7], and use it as a launching pad for promoting research on machine learning through Sanskrit. 

Among all the things that my religion gives me, I most cherish its open-mindedness. Its embrace of diversity and tolerance are lessons which India needs and deserves; I sincerely hope that we don’t let the Vedas become a trophy for partisan politics. 

Check out this episode of We The People on Vedic Sciences. 

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