Is A Hindu Science Possible?
By Ankur Betageri
14 March, 2015
Image Credit/The Hindu
“The view expounded by Aryabhata... and others is spearheaded against commonly accepted ideas and alien to the Vedas, Smritis and Samhitas. The Samhitas, which were drawn up by Garga and others, say that Rahu is the source of the eclipse and that otherwise the Brahmanas would not have been compensated for their acts of making an oblation to the gods by casting butter into fire, muttering prayers and performing other rituals.” —Brahmagupta (Bongard-Levin 1977: 75)
I recently heard Manuel DeLanda, the formidable Deleuze scholar and philosopher, say, in a recorded lecture, that though widely used, the idea of a science-in-general as a ‘reified generality', a conceptual abstraction mistakenly assumed to be concrete, is quite problematic. The dictionary definition of science, as the systematic study of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, is so vague and general that it does not meaningfully describe the practice of any of the scientific disciplines, he said. A science-in-general, like the concept of “society”, is a convenient conceptual abstraction, a reified generality, which has no existence in the actual world. When we say society what we really refer to in the world is a human population or a set of populations of different religiosities, ethnicities, nationalities etc. Similarly, when we say science, what we actually refer to are different scientific disciplines, most of which are defined by scientific methods specific to these disciplines.
De Landa summarizes the evolution of the concept of science-in-general as follows: The image of science as a generality comes from Euclidian geometry. At the origin of this image is the first book of geometry, Elements, by Euclid, containing the famous set of axioms from which the whole of Euclidean geometry follows. This set of axioms was the classical model for what science should be, and it is this model which has given us the image of science as a set of universal natural principles. Physics, which deals with the world of micro (subatomic and atomic) particles and macro bodies (as opposed to chemistry, which deals with the world of interactive atoms and reactive atomic compounds) came closest to this axiomatic dream with Newton's classical mechanics which could account for every physical phenomenon in the universe with its system of natural laws. By explaining what classical mechanics could not explain Einstein's relativistic mechanics tried to take its place but its supremacy was immediately challenged by quantum mechanics which explained what relativistic mechanics could not account for: the world of subatomic particles. Since then we have had numerous attempts by various physicists at bridging the macro and quantum universes with a Theory of Everything: the string theory, which cannot be empirically verified, being the latest contender for such a theory. But this model, of course, does not take into consideration developments in various other branches of science like chemistry and biology, fields in which a theory like the Theory of Everything is never possible as they underline the divergent creative potential of the universe which is random and unforeseeable. It has also become increasingly clear to chemists and biologists now that the principles of chemistry cannot be reduced to those of physics and the principles of biology to those of chemistry, though there could be meaningful and productive associations between these broad generic fields. Though physicists are still looking for a Theory of Everything it has begun to seem more and more improbable, as sciences, in their attempt to accurately account for various phenomena, instead of showing indications of converging at some point, are, in fact, diverging into numerous sub-disciplines.
But when Hindutva crusaders make claims about the Vedas and Upanishads containing Quantum Mechanics, like the Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh who spoke about Heisenberg having “learnt” the uncertainty principle from “the philosophy of Vedas,” not only do they assume the existence of a science-in-general, they fail to understand the nature of scientific theory itself, which has to make testable and falsifiable predictions to be considered a theory. Quantum theory, for them, is not a set of contending mathematical interpretations explaining quantum phenomena but a postulate about the uncertain nature of reality, something which can not only be found in Vedic philosophy but in the thought of most western philosophers beginning with that of Heraclitus.
At the 102nd Indian Science Congress held earlier this year claims about the existence of ancient aviation technology were repeated, though Vimanika Shastra, the early 20th century text which has been the source of these speculations has long been established as a hoax and all its claims shown to be impractical in a paper published in 1974.
Mr Modi's claim of mythological figures of the Indian epics and puranas having knowledge of reproductive genetics and plastic surgery is something – given the fact that he has not repeated such statements – that he seems to regret. But this has not deterred his Cabinet colleagues in the least who see making such claims as a profitable political move: it reinforces the idea of Hindu victimhood and reveals the global conspiracy of “Secular Liberals” who, for whatever reason, want to hide “the golden age of Hindu science”. But “Hindu” science—can science be Hindu? Is it possible for science to be religious?
Hindutva politicians are free to pander to the learnt gullibility and chauvinism of a whole new generation of “Hindutva-ized” public but it would be helpful for both to understand the simple distinction between religion/religious nationalism and science. Science, no matter in which discursive practice it is born, is, and has always been, an approach to reality which is totally opposed to religion. Religion demands faith; it is, in spite of all questionings present in theology, ultimately an approach to reality where dogma, or unquestionable truth, reigns supreme. Dogma in Hinduism becomes the indescribable nuance “which has no equivalent in the English language” called Dharma, which, since translation is inescapable, can still be rendered as “the correct way of life.” Hinduism which is no religion but a “Dharma”, demands, before everything else, conformity to Dharmic principles. And this conformity is so important that in many schools of orthodox Hindu philosophy it is not Reason which is held supreme but Dharma. Reason should always be tempered with Dharma as established by the shrutis, that is, the Vedas and Upanishads, and the truthfulness of these scriptures can't be questioned as they are the word of Brahma him/itself. [Manu, the ancient lawmaker, decreed that “those whose only guide is reason should be banished from the company of the virtuous.” (Ganeri 2006: 1)]
But it is Reason and experimentation which is held supreme in science. Though one can say that there is no science-in-general but different scientific disciplines defined by their method, a philosopher of science like Feyrabend (1993: 1) would contest that by showing that “the events, procedures and results that constitute the sciences have no common structure.” (Emphasis mine.) But any truth claim in science would certainly have to go through the broadly defined process of impartial observation, rational analysis of evidence, empirical testing and verification. So scientific observations are “scientific” by virtue of the method followed, and even if made by someone who belonged to the Brahmanical religion (since the words “Hinduism” and “Hindu” did not exist before 19th century there can't be a “Hindu” scientist or mathematician) can never be a part of the faith-system of religion. Aryabhata, for example, followed the custom of paying obeisance to Brahma at the beginning of his astronomical treatise Aryabhatiya, but his work destroyed the livelihood of Brahminical astrologers who needed imaginary “evil” planets like Rahu and Ketu to account for phenomena like eclipses and to make superstitious claims about the influence of planetary bodies on human life. And Baudhyana, though he came up with shulba sutras to aid in the construction of homa-kunds or vedic altars, is recognized today for providing a rigorous proof for the rule of the right-angled triangle which has come to be known as Pythagoras Theorem—a proof which has nothing to do with either the Vedas or Vedic ritualism. The relation between Baudhyana's shulba sutras and the vedic altar, like the relation between Newton's principle of gravity and the apple tree, or Galileo's law of free fall and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, is incidental; it contributes nothing to the proof of the rule of the right-angled triangle. Therefore, to say that the work of Aryabhata and Baudhyana are part of Hinduism is as patently absurd as saying classical mechanics is part of Christianity because Newton was a Christian, or Theory of Relativity is part of Judaism as Einstein was a Jew.
So, yes, there were astronomers like Aryabhata and Brahmagupta, mathematicians like Bhaskara I and Baudhayana, physicians like Charaka and surgeons like Sushrutha in ancient India, but the work of these men of science has nothing to do with Hinduism or Hindutva—both being 19th century inventions. [The first recorded use of the word “Hinduism” was by Raja Rammohun Roy in 1817. (Lorenzen 1999: 631) And “Hindutva” is a concept propounded by V.D. Savarkar in 1923 in a book of the same name.] It is absurd, therefore, of Hindutva politicians to associate the work of these scientists with “Hinduism” or “Hindutva” and quite disgraceful of them to claim credit for the ingenuity, hard work and courageous assertions of ancient Indian scientists, many of whom, like the astronomer Aryabhata, had to face the ire of Brahminical orthodoxy to make these assertions. These attempts at legitimizing “Hinduness” (which still largely consists in asserting one's holier-than-thou nature by positing a “polluting” community) by advertizing it as “scientific” and “modern” and “respectful of women” (female Vedic philosophers like Gargi, Maitreyi etc may not have existed after all – though two colleges of Delhi University are named after them – as this paper by the Vedic scholar Michael Witzel argues) betrays an inferiority complex and dimwittedness which seems to be peculiar to the Hindu right, because to posit a religion (or anything) as “scientific” is to make it vulnerable to doubt, questioning and rejection—it is never a means to enhance its credibility or prestige.
Hinduism, as a “Dharma”, is still a system of faith, and no matter how cleverly one connects quantum mechanics with the essential teaching of Advaita Vedanta, it cannot be a “science”, nor can it contain within its system all the scientific disciplines practiced in ancient India from astronomy to medical science. Conversely, a scientific discipline, whether ancient or modern, is a formal system of empirical enquiry, which, by its very nature, is opposed to the faith-based system of religion. Therefore, Hindu science, as a proposition, is a contradiction in terms, and absurd. And those who claim such a science exists deserve, more than anything else, our laughter.
De Landa, Manuel “Axiomatic Failure in the Thought of Gilles Deleuze 2009.” Gilles Deleuze and Science Public Seminar. European Graduate School, Saas-Fee Switzerland. n.d. Open Lecture. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cFwnBxtcYU&index=1&list=PL1B83A90F4D4F4B9A
Feyrabend, Paul (1993) Against Method, London: Verso
Ganeri, Jonardan (2006) Philosophy in Classical India: the Proper Work of Reason, London: Routledge
Lorenzen, David N (1999) “Who Invented Hinduism?” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 41, No 4, pp. 630-659
Bongard-Levin, G.M (1977) “Aryabhata and Lokayatas” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 58/59, Diamond Jubilee Volume, pp. 69-77
Witzel, Michael (2009) “Female Rishis and philosophers in the Veda?” Journal of South Asia Women Studies 11(1)
Ankur Betageri is a Doctoral student working on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.
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