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Doubly anachronistic December 8, 2014

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kumar, Vikas , trackback

Vikas Kumar

In a recent address, on the occasion of the rededication of Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai, the Prime Minister claimed that Karna’s birth outside a womb was evidence that ancient Indians knew genetic science, whereas the episode of Lord Ganesh acquiring an elephant’s head showed that they also knew plastic surgery. A few days later, the Home Minister and a senior legislator of the ruling party went a step further and claimed that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle was inspired by Hindu scriptures. As if this was not enough, a historian close to the ruling party suggested that Ancient India had aircrafts and nuclear weapons. While the criticism that followed mostly focused on how the Hindu Right’s sense of history is deeply flawed, this article explores incoherence in the right wing’s use of history.

During the last Lok Sabha election, in the course of a telephonic interaction with party workers in Bihar, the Prime Minister told them that ‘while Kautilya integrated several states to strengthen the Mauryan empire, Sardar Patel integrated princely states into India centuries later.’ On an earlier occasion he claimed that his vision of Good Governance was partly inspired by Kautilya’s Arthasastra, which suggests that the ruler’s ‘happiness lies in the happiness of his subjects, his welfare in their welfare.’ These statements have to be viewed in the context of the Sangh Parivar’s celebration of Kautilya (also known as Chanakya) as the first and foremost of inspiring historical figures who unified India. In his book Bunch of Thoughts, M. S. Golwalkar, the second Sarsanghchalak of the RSS, notes that ‘[t]he Artha Shastra of Kautilya is a volume, which has few equals in the entire world literature on politics. This small treatise is a veritable treasure-house of thoughts of such abiding and inherent worth as to cross all boundaries of clime and time.’ He further claimed that the treatise ‘was not mere dry knowledge encased in a book but a living and practical guide in the actual statecraft of those days.’ We can safely infer that the Parivar treats Kautilya with reverence and, more importantly, believes that his treatise depicts the actual state of affairs in ancient India.

Kautilya’s Arthasastra, a major treatise on statecraft, economy, and law, is, in fact, among the most important sources of information on the material foundations of ancient Indian state and society. It is also one of the biggest sources of non-sacerdotal/ritual vocabulary of that period. Contrary to the right wing’s claims about spectacular scientific and technological achievements of ancient India, the Arthasastra is completely unaware of genetic science, aircrafts, head transplants, and missiles. The treatise presents a picture of the society that is consistent with available evidence regarding that period. For instance, it conceives of an animal and boat-driven army and presents a detailed discussion of how to build and maintain different wings of such an army and how to deploy it in pursuit of political goals. Unless we assume technological regress, it is difficult to explain the complete absence of reference to artefacts and techniques of interest to the Parivar in the Arthasastra, which was presumably written long after the time of Ganesh and Karna. The inference drawn here will not change if we replace the Arthasastra with any other ancient treatise, say, Manusmriti.

The quest of the Parivar to ground the history of science and technology in mythology is problematic. They claim dubious achievements on the basis of selective reading of ancient texts, while ignoring the real achievements of which there is no dearth in ancient or later literature. For instance, there are authentic sources of information on plastic surgery in ancient India like the Sushruta Samhita. The art of surgery progressed further in the medieval period, when the Unani tradition reached India. More recently, as noted Gandhian historian Dharampal tells us, when the British arrived in India they encountered among other things plastic surgery and inoculation against smallpox and they borrowed freely from this tradition. In other words, we have a longstanding indigenous tradition of plastic surgery that is amply supported by authentic historical sources.

It needs to be added though that the Parivar was not the first to beat the kettledrum of Hindu science. That credit goes to among others the Arya Samaj’s founder, Swami Dayanand. He was primarily interested in demonstrating that in its early stages the Vedic faith and its rituals were not inconsistent with science. But he went a step further and claimed that the weaponry and other gadgets described in ancient texts had a scientific basis. In his book Satyarth Prakash (1875), written about half a century before the launch of the RSS, he catalogued an amusing assortment of India’s past achievements. For instance, he drew attention to the Bhoja Prabandha that refers to mechanics in the service of Raja Bhoja, who made a horse-like machine that moved both in the air and on land and covered 45 miles in an hour. They also invented a fan, which moved automatically. He then concluded that had these ‘inventions come down to these days, the Europeans would not have been so puffed up with pride.’

Swami Dayanand’s desire to embellish India’s past with science has to be viewed in the context of the British contempt for local knowledge. But when more than a century later the Prime Minister and his camp followers make similar claims they sound doubly anachronistic. While it is possible that the Parivar is still trapped in debates of another era, its appeals to a distant, mythical past could also be a means of claiming Hindu-ness of the scientific achievements of pre-modern India.

Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

 

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