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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ancient Indian Astronauts Assault on Indian Heritage

Brahmagupta
7th Century Mathematician
Were the ancient astronauts aliens from another galaxy or our ancestors in space suits heading towards another planet amongst whose inhabitants they would be known as their ancient astronauts ?  May be it is both, may be neither. The previous statement is quite consistent with ancient Indian philosophy which had place for every strain of thought, even the seemingly contradictory ones. This gave abundant space for inquiry and assimilation of new ideas.  Over the last few centuries this space was being gradually eroded by dogmatism, today it seems we are regressing. Are efforts to gain respect for Hindu Nationalism leading to embarrassment of genuine contributions of ancient Indian Civilization ? Should we be gloating about ancient aviators which cannot be proved or about Brahmagupta, the first mathematician to use zero as a number and who laid down rules for a number of mathematical calculations.



I have always written on the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva, especially the latter being more of a secular racist-cultural organization using Hindu identity for political mobilization . PM Modi's speech around three months back that the Hindu god Ganesha's elephant head and trunks point to availability of the science of  cosmetic surgery during those times. There are two problems with this statement - since it was made in a gathering of doctor and other science students and professionals, using mythological character is a major blunder, simply because science cannot be based on mythology  . Secondly, from a real Hindu's point of view, Ganesha epitomises the harmony between wild nature (Prakriti) and  dharmic principles (Purusha), a god with wisdom of the sages and of  the material world of traders and civilization in general! The symbolism in the act of Shiva beheading Ganesh and then replacing it with an elephants head implies,  truth  destroying the mind filled with arrogance, greed and other base instincts and imparting him a mind enriched with rules and principles.  It is for this that Ganesha is worshipped by millions of people. Does a person whose head has been transplant, become worship worthy ? If I were a Hindu, worshipping Ganesha I would have really felt offended, but then as I said Hindutva is not Hinduism at all.

The issue gained lot more attention after the Indian Science Conference held recently, included
sessions on ancient Indian avionics science. The idea that flying vehicles existed in ancient India is  mostly based on observations that epics like Ramayana make references to flying vehicles. However, references to flying vehicles are found in most  civilizations and even among some of the most isolated tribes contacted as late as 200 years back. They were often described as vehicles on which
 gods visited them but "flying carpets in Persian tales  or Uran Khatola flying cots in medieval folk tales, Pegasus in Greek mythology and numerous references to flying vehicles in nearly all mythologies were never considered as early airplanes. Some far right wingers have claimed to possess documentary evidence but none of them are truly historic, nor the procedure given work. In fact, the experts who delivered talk on ancient Indian aviation, as well as the organisers of ISC refused to even share the papers of the session.

Ironically, during the inauguration, Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Harsh Wardhan remarked that ancient Indians selflessly gave away, Pythagoras theorem to  Greeks and Algebra to the Arabs which actually is true but shows his lack of understanding of history since Al-Khwarizmi was the strongest advocate of adopting Hindu numerals (now known as Hindu-Arabic numerals). Pythagoras may indeed have learnt (the word is teach/share,not give away selflessly) the theorem from Indians  It is speculated that Pythagoras may have learned the basics from a 8th Century B.C. Indian text "Sulba Sutras" (Mesopotamians, Chinese too were familiar with the theorem). However, he didn't mention something more important that Pythagoras also introduced the concept of numbers in Greece  and professed beliefs that suggest he may have visited India or acquired knowledge from an intermediary during his visit to Egypt. Pythagoras is also credited with being one of the earliest and important contributors to the disciplines of natural philosophy and  mathematics (even if he started a mystical religion or cult which again hints at Egyptian or Indian influence)  I find this very interesting that both the concept of numbers and their application i.e. the number system or Arabic numbers (which Arabs call Hindu numerals) along with the hugely important zero was taken from India by Arabs and taught to the West. This is the foundations on which the vast body of scientific knowledge was built in later centuries.
Evolution of Hindu-Arabic Numerals
 It is not just the number system, theories like atomism was also first developed in India by Jainas, and Nyaya schools too. As Buddhism spread, its monks carried with them knowledge India had to offer in the form of spiritualism and metaphysics. Much of this  knowledge that the monks and the Arabs took from India and gave to the West that later developed into popular theories.
And it is not just India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Chinese made important contributions to the body of knowledge that the Arabs conserved and enriched during the European dark ages.  But post-Renaissance, the torch of civilization came into the hands of the Europeans. Perhaps it was European imperialism that required the colonized people be made to feel intellectually inferior, that West ignored acknowledging other civilization's contribution. At the same time, Western scholars, the Orientalist presented a vision of mystical East,alluring but certainly not part of the scientific world. The Western smugness was perhaps best captured in Lord Macaulay's infamous statement

 "I have never found one amongst them (Orientalists) who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia".

However, it would be hypocritical of me to not be gratuitous for introducing English language, even as I continue to write in the very language! However, it only for introducing the language, as of today, English is as much an Indian language as it is American, Australian and West Indian language. But we are not eager to accept latest technological achievements as our own, since every civilization has made contribution towards it. Because Western civilization is the ascendant civilization we don't need to consider them custodian of sciences and go back to our archaic practises or create imaginative past and become subject of rebuke. Aversion to modern technological advancement ,especially modern medicine (erroneously called western medicine ) is stupidity. I don't intend to criticize alternative medical science such as Ayurveda but to quacks exploiting the people's aversion towards what they consider Western medicine.  

The best example I have come across is the practice of Unani medicine among Muslims of Indian subcontinent. Over the time, Unani medicine has become so closely associated with Muslims that one may start thinking it has religious sanctity . However, Unani medicine simply means Grecian medicines that the early Muslims brought from Greece and improvised it. The greatest icon of Grecian medicine is  Ibn Sina (Latinized - Avicenna) whose treatises are still taught in Unani schools, What these people forget is that even Western medical researchers drew information entirely from Ibn Sina and then developed it. Shunning Western medicine in favour of Grecian medicine for civilizational reasons is simply absurd since Greece is as West as it could get, in fact Greece is the cradle of Western Civilization!

So instead of making seemingly outrageous claims to prove our technological achievements in unrecorded past, it would do well to take pride in modern technological achievements which are mankind's achievements, not a particular civilization's. It would be prudent to try winning accolades for number system and Mangalyaan  mission rather than lecture on ancient astronauts and aviators, which may make  a particular segment of electorate proud but otherwise draw rebuke from scientific communities across the world. Worse, our best achievements would be lost in the process.

The earliest chart on
 relativity of time

Just glance through this page, you would be surprised how great the contribution of Indians was to the field of mathematics. 

References:
http://www.storyofmathematics.com/indian.html
http://www.storyofmathematics.com/islamic.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagorean_theorem
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_units_of_time

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