Shashi Tharoor on how Hindutva discredits science and distorts history

[Book extract] We need to use the past as a springboard, not as a battlefield.

 |  15-minute read |   25-01-2018
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There is definitely a case for enhancing the Indian public’s awareness of the genuinely impressive accomplishments of their forebears (of which more below), rather than remaining schooled in a colonial-era Westernised view of the world. But the uncritical, indeed fantasy-laden, manner in which its Hindutva aficionados have advocated the cause has only discredited it.

The dominance of the BJP at the Centre and in the states has propelled a number of true believers of Hindutva into positions of unprecedented influence, including in such forums as the Indian Council for Historical Research, the University Grants Commission, and, it turned out, the programme committee of the Indian Science Congress, which scheduled a talk on "Vedic Aviation Technology" in 2015 that elicited howls of protest from many delegates.

It has also given a licence to unqualified voices who gain in authority from their proximity to power - none more significant than the prime minister himself, who suggested in a speech at a hospital, no less, that lord Ganesha’s elephant head on a human body testified to ancient Indians’ knowledge of plastic surgery.

The idea that the smallest conceivable elephant head could fit on the largest imaginable human neck defies rationality, but this appears not to have occurred to the literal-minded Hindutvavadis. Such ideas, because they are patently absurd, except in the realm of metaphor, have embarrassed those who advance them as well as those who cite them in support of broader, but equally unsubstantiated, claims to past scientific advances from genetic science to cloning and interstellar travel and the use of nuclear devices (by the philosopher-sage Kanada in the first century BCE).

Petty chauvinism is always ugly but never more so than in the field of science, where knowledge must be uncontaminated by ideology, superstition or irrational pride. But the controversy also discredits the modern rationalists who, in their contempt for such exaggerated and ludicrous claims, also dismissed the more reasonable propositions pointing to genuine Indian accomplishments by the ancients.

It is not necessary to debunk the genuine accomplishments of ancient Indian science in order to mock the laughable assertions of the Hindutva brigade. Separating the reasonable from the absurd is a necessary condition of well-founded criticism. A BJP government choosing to assert its pride in yoga and Ayurveda, and seeking to promote them internationally, is, to my mind, perfectly acceptable.

why-i-am-a-hindu---c_012418085040.jpgWhy I am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor; Aleph Book Company

Not only are these extraordinary accomplishments of our civilisation, but they have always been, and should remain, beyond partisan politics. It is only if the BJP promoted them in place of fulfilling its responsibility to provide conventional healthcare and life-saving modern allopathic medicines to the Indian people, that we need object on policy grounds. But when the national manifesto of the BJP for the 2009 General Election claimed that in ancient times, rice yields in India stood at 20 tonnes per hectare - twice what farmers can produce today using intensive agriculture in the most fertile and propitious conditions imaginable - all one can do is to throw up one’s hands in despair.

On the other hand, in asserting (in his own speech to the Indian Science Congress) that ancient Indians anticipated Pythagoras, science and technology minister Harsh Vardhan was not incorrect and should not have been ridiculed. In fact, he could have added Newton, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo as well, every single one of whom had been beaten to their famous "discoveries" by an unknown and unsung Indian centuries earlier.

The Rig Veda asserted that gravitation held the universe together 24 centuries before the apple fell on Newton’s head. Scholars working in Sanskrit anticipated his discoveries of calculus by at least 250 years. The Siddhantas are amongst the world’s earliest texts on astronomy and mathematics; the Surya Siddhanta, written about 400 CE, includes a method for finding the times of planetary ascensions and eclipses. The notion of gravitation, or gurutvakarshan, is found in these early texts. Lost Discoveries, by the American writer Dick Teresi, a comprehensive study of the ancient non-Western foundations of modern science, spells it out clearly: "Two hundred years before Pythagoras," writes Teresi, "philosophers in northern India had understood that gravitation held the solar system together, and that therefore the sun, the most massive object, had to be at its centre."

Aryabhata was the first human being to explain, in 499 CE, that the daily rotation of the earth on its axis is what accounted for the daily rising and setting of the sun. (His ideas were so far in advance of his time that many later editors of his awe-inspiring Aryabhatiya altered the text to save his reputation from what they thought were serious errors.) Aryabhata conceived of the elliptical orbits of the planets a thousand years before Kepler, in the West, came to the same conclusion (having assumed, like all Europeans, that planetary orbits were circular rather than elliptical). He even estimated the value of the year at 365 days, six hours, 12 minutes and 30 seconds; in this he was only a few minutes off (the correct figure is just under 365 days and six hours). The translation of the Aryabhatiya into Latin in the 13th century taught Europeans a great deal; it also revealed to them that an Indian had known things that Europe would only learn of a millennium later.

The Vedic civilisation subscribed to the idea of a spherical earth at a time when everyone else, even the Greeks, assumed the earth was flat. By the fifth century CE Indians had calculated that the age of the earth was 4.3 billion years; as late as the 19th century, English scientists believed the earth was a hundred million years old, and it is only in the late 20th century that Western scientists have come to estimate the earth to be about 4.6 billion years old.

India invented modern numerals (known to the world as "Arabic" numerals because the West got them from the Arabs, who learned them from us). It was an Indian who first conceived of the zero, shunya; the concept of nothingness, shunyata, integral to Hindu and Buddhist thinking, simply did not exist in the West. Modern mathematics would have been impossible without the zero and the decimal system; just read a string of Roman numbers, which had no zeros, to understand their limitations.

Indian mathematicians invented negative numbers as well. The concept of infinite sets of rational numbers was understood by Jain thinkers in the 6th century BCE. Our forefathers can take credit for geometry, trigonometry, and calculus; the "Bakhshali manuscript", 70 leaves of bark dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era, reveals fractions, simultaneous equations, quadratic equations, geometric progressions and even calculations of profit and loss, with interest.

The Sulba Sutras, composed between 800 and 500 BCE, demonstrate that India had Pythagoras’s theorem before the great Greek was born, and a way of getting the square root of 2 correct to five decimal places. (Vedic Indians solved square roots in order to build sacrificial altars of the proper size.) The Kerala mathematician, Nilakantha, wrote sophisticated explanations of the irrationality of "pi" before the West had heard of the concept. The Vedanga Jyotisha, written around 500 BCE, declares: "Like the crest of a peacock, like the gem on the head of a snake, so is mathematics at the head of all knowledge." Our mathematicians were poets too!

Hindus also invented the Katapayadi system (also known as Parralperru in Malayalam). In an age without paper and climatic conditions that tended to destroy records, this was a method where numbers could be transcribed as words or even verses. The idea that mathematical formulas could be written down as meaningful sentences helped preserve and perpetuate mathematical expertise in the country. Indian numbers probably arrived in the Arab world in 773 CE with the diplomatic mission sent by the Hindu ruler of Sind to the court of the Caliph al-Mansur. This gave rise to the famous arithmetical text of al-Khwarizmi, written around 820 CE, which contains a detailed exposition of Indian mathematics, in particular the usefulness of the zero.

It was al-Khwarizmi, who is credited with the invention of algebra, though he properly credits Indians for it. But the point is that, alas, we let this knowledge lapse. We had a glorious past; wallowing in it and debating it now will only saddle us with a contentious and unproductive present. We should take pride in what our forefathers did but resolve to be inspired by them rather than rest on their laurels. We need to use the past as a springboard, not as a battlefield. Only then can we rise above it to create for ourselves a future worthy of our remarkable past.

Hinduvta and history

Unsurprisingly, a later period of Indian history, following the Muslim conquests of north India, has become "ground zero" in the battle of narratives between the Hindutvavadis and the pluralists.

When, with the publication of my 2016 book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, I spoke of 200 years of foreign rule, I found it interesting that at the same time the Hindutva brigade, led by Prime Minister Modi himself, was speaking of 1,200 years of foreign rule. To them, the Muslim rulers of India, whether the Delhi Sultans, the Deccani Sultans or the Mughals (or the hundreds of other Muslims who occupied thrones of greater or lesser importance for several hundred years across the country) were all foreigners.

I responded that while the founder of a Muslim dynasty may have well have come to India from abroad, he and his descendants stayed and assimilated in this country, married Hindu women, and immersed themselves in the fortunes of this land; each Mughal Emperor after Babar had less and less connection of blood or allegiance to a foreign country. If they looted or exploited India and Indians, they spent the proceeds of their loot in India, and did not send it off to enrich a foreign land as the British did. The Mughals received travellers from the Ferghana Valley politely, enquired about the well-being of the people there and perhaps even gave some money for the upkeep of the graves of their Chingizid ancestors, but they stopped seeing their original homeland as home. By the second generation, let alone the fifth or sixth, they were as "Indian" as any Hindu.

This challenge of authenticity, however, cuts across a wide intellectual terrain. It emerges from those Hindus who share VS Naipaul’s view of theirs as a "wounded civilisation", a pristine Hindu land that was subjected to repeated defeats and conquests over the centuries at the hands of rapacious Muslim invaders and was enfeebled and subjugated in the process. To such people, independence is not merely freedom from British rule, but an opportunity to restore the glory of their culture and religion, wounded by Muslim conquerors.

Historians like Audrey Truschke, author of a sympathetic biography of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, have argued that this account of Muslims despoiling the Hindu homeland is neither a continuous historical memory nor based on accurate records of the past. (For instance, it was a pious Hindu, Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur, who led Aurangzeb’s armies against the Hindu warrior-hero Shivaji, just as the Hindu general Man Singh had led Akbar’s forces against the Hindu hero Rana Pratap, whose principal lieutenant was a Muslim, Hakim Khan Sur.)

But there is no gain saying the emotional content of the Hindutva view of the past: it is for them a matter of faith that India is a Hindu nation, which Muslim rulers attacked, looted and sought to destroy, and documented historical facts that refute this view are at best an inconvenience, at worst an irrelevance.

Indeed, prof Truschke has disputed the widespread belief in India that Aurangzeb was a Muslim fanatic who destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, forced millions of Indians to convert to Islam, and enacted a genocide of Hindus.

Though there is little doubt that he was indeed, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, "a bigot and an austere puritan" - he ended royal patronage of music, prohibited rituals of Hindu origin in his court, imposed the bigoted jizya tax on his non-Muslim subjects, withdrew land grants given to Hindus and introduced policies that favoured Muslims alone - none of the other propositions, she demonstrates in her work, was true, least of all the claim (made by many of those who fought successfully to remove his name from a prominent road in Delhi) that his ultimate aim was to eradicate Hindus and Hinduism.

Historical evidence suggests that Aurangzeb did not destroy thousands of Hindu temples as is claimed and that the ones he did destroy were largely for political reasons; that he did little to promote conversions, as evidenced by the relatively modest number of Hindus who adopted Islam during Aurangzeb’s rule; that he increased the proportion of Hindus in the Mughal nobility by co-opting a number of Maratha aristocrats from the Deccan; that he gave patronage to Hindu and Jain temples and liberally donated land to Brahmins; and that millions of Hindus thrived unmolested in his empire.

History is a complex affair: Aurangzeb was undoubtedly an illiberal Islamist unlike his ancestors or the brother he decapitated on his ascent to the throne, Dara Shikoh, but he was not the genocidal mass-murderer and iconoclast many Hindus depict him as having been.

For prof Truschke, who concedes that Aurangzeb demolished a "few dozen" temples, a "historically legitimate view of Aurangzeb must explain why he protected Hindu temples more often than he demolished them". Critics find this an insufficient excuse for his intolerance. One, Girish Shahane, no Hindutva apologist himself, retorts: "Should we not criticise sportspersons who take money to fix matches unless they do so in most games they play? Should we defend sexual predators on the grounds that the vast majority of their interactions with women are respectful? Should we object to a serial killer being called a psychopath because we can’t be sure why he targeted particular victims but not hundreds of other people he met? It is important to push back against the Hindutvavadi idea of Muslim rulers as genocidal maniacs who destroyed shrines indiscriminately. But it is imperative we do it without explaining away Muslim religious prejudice where it exists."

A fairer assessment, in other words, might be to say that like many rulers of his time, whether Muslim or Hindu, Aurangzeb both protected and attacked Hindus and Muslims alike, though his religious bigotry was, of course, directed only at the former. But such nuanced accounts of Aurangzeb enjoy little traction amongst those who prefer their history in unambiguous shades of black and white.

As prof Truschke has written, "Aurangzeb is controversial not so much because of India’s past but rather because of India’s present… The narrative of Aurangzeb the bigot, which crops up largely in polarising debates about Indian national identity, has more to do with modern politics than premodern history and is a by-product and catalyst of growing intolerance in India."

In this Hindutva-centred view, history is made of religion-based binaries, in which all Muslim rulers are evil and all Hindus are valiant resisters, embodiments of incipient Hindu nationalism. The Hindutvavadis believe, in prof Truschke’s words, "that India was subjected to repeated defeats over the centuries, including by generations of Muslim conquerors that enfeebled the people and their land… many in India feel injured by the Indo-Muslim past, and their sentiments [are] often undergirded by modern anti-Muslim sentiments."

As the historian KN Panikkar has pointed out, liberal and tolerant rulers such as Ashoka, Akbar, Jai Singh, Shahu Maharaj and Wajid Ali Shah do not figure in Hindutva’s list of national heroes. (Indeed, where many nationalist historians extolled Akbar as the liberal, tolerant counterpart to the Islamist Aurangzeb, Hindutvavadis have begun to attack him too, principally because he was Muslim, and like most medieval monarchs, killed princes who stood in his way, many of whom happened to be Hindu.)

Communal history continues past the era of Islamic rule. Among those Indians who revolted against the British, Bahadur Shah, Zinat Mahal, Maulavi Ahmadullah and general Bakht Khan, all Muslims, are conspicuous by their absence from Hindutva histories. And of course syncretic traditions such as the Bhakti movement, and universalist religious reformers like Ram Mohan Roy and Keshub Chandra Sen, do not receive much attention from the Hindutva orthodoxy.

What does is the uncritical veneration of "Hindu heroes" like Rana Pratap (portrayed now in Rajasthani textbooks as the victor of the Battle of Haldi Ghati against Akbar, which begs the question why Akbar and not he ruled the country for the following three decades) and, of course, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the intrepid Maratha warrior whose battles against the Mughals have now replaced accounts of Mughal kings in Maharashtra’s textbooks.

The Maharashtra education board’s newly revised Class 7 history book of 2017 has eliminated all mention of the pre-Mughal Muslim rulers of India as well, including Razia Sultan, the first woman queen of Delhi, Sher Shah Suri and Muhammad bin Tughlaq, who notoriously and disastrously moved India’s capital south from Delhi to Daulatabad. (The educational system is the chosen battlefield for the Hindutva warriors, and curriculum revision their preferred weapon.)

(Reprinted with the publisher's permission.)

Also read: Who are the Indian Muslims (and what is their 'brand' of Islam)?


Shashi Tharoor Shashi Tharoor @shashitharoor

MP for Thiruvananthapuram. Author of 14 books. Former Minister of State,Govt.of India. Former Under Secretary General, UnitedNations.

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