August 10 was the convocation ceremony at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay. Addressing the outgoing students, the Union Minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) Ramesh Pokhriyal made a series of ridiculous and unscientific claims. Pokhriyal said that “sahiyta,” “sisksha” and “sanskriti” are the foundations of progress and national pride. He added that any education without “sanskar” was like a tree that could be uprooted easily at the slightest breeze.
He went on to claim that Rishi Charaka was the first person to study atoms and molecules. Charaka who probably lived in the 3rd century BCE is considered one of the foremost contributors to Ayurvedic knowledge through his treatise, Charaka Samhita. He further proffered that NASA (America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has stated that Sanskrit would be the basis for a computer capable of spoken-language. As has been pointed out, historical evidence for atomic philosophy dates as far back as the 5th century BCE, put forward by Greek philosopher Leucippus, who lived long before Charaka’s time.
Such unfounded claims about one of the highest aeronautical authorities in the world and Sanskrit as a language for computer programming are so prolific, that a petition asking NASA to debunk it is currently waiting for signatures on the site Change.org. In 2016, ex-HRD Minister Smriti Irani suggested that Sanskrit be included in the IIT course curriculum in order to facilitate the study of science and technology as reflected in Sanskrit literature.
Making bizarre, unscientific statements and treating Hindu mythology as historical fact is not new for the BJP. In January last year, the then Union Minister Satyapal Singh told reporters that Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was wrong because our ancestors have never mentioned that they witnessed apes turning into humans. His comments were met with widespread derision. He was at the time, Minister of State for Human Resources, Uttar Pradesh. In January 2017, Rajasthan’s education minister stated that “cows inhale and exhale oxygen” in an attempt to stress the importance of cows. This is hardly surprising when the Prime Minister of the country himself says that Karna from Mahabharata and Ganesh are proof that ancient India knew both reproductive genetics and plastic surgery. Or can we forget his more recent comments on the Balakot airstrikes, when he claimed to have advised the Indian Air Force, that cloud cover would prevent Pakistani radars from sensing the Indian planes?
Speaking to the Indian Cultural Forum, Tejal Kanitkar from the National Institute of Advanced Studies said, “What can one say about a minister who thinks astrology is above science? All other statements seem less ridiculous as compared to that one. There is no point in commenting about the absurd statement that he made. Such ideas will continue as long as science and scientific temper remain abstract concepts and vague constitutional values. The practice and integration of both into social consciousness has to be strengthened. There is nothing in our science curricula that does this today. By the time they reach IIT-B, students are already convinced of their ability to solve equations in a matter of seconds on the one hand and the scientific validity of some or the other ritual on the other”. Speaking of such blinkered thinking, she further said that, “unless a nation-wide campaign to inculcate rationality and scientific temper is initiated and strengthened; such ridiculous statements will be made with impunity and will go unchallenged even in the most august institutions of science.”
Speaking to ICF, D Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum responded to Pokhriyal’s claims: “This is similar to comments made by several leaders across states and members of the ruling dispensation. The idea that ancient India has already discovered or invented everything that modern science has, unfortunately ignores the real accomplishments of Indian civilisations. These accomplishments were made with shared knowledge from other civilisations and cultures. Statements like those made at IIT Bombay convey a wrong idea of both science and history.”
Such attacks on rationality, scientific tempter and history will continue to be on the rise if people choose to believe statements rooted in blind nationalistic pride rather than verified facts.