'Everything In Vedas'

Science, Pseudo-Science and Narasimhayya

V Subrahmanyam

Science Congresses repeatedly are generating news other than science. Propagation of pseudo-science, glorification of myths as ancient scientific innovations have become recurring phenomena occurring during Science Congresses. A month old 106th Science Congress at Jalandhar is no exception. The Hindutva forces were emboldened from a stage of glorifying myths to a phase of castigating fundamental principles of science during this Congress. They had the temerity to ridicule Newton and Einstein too.

G Nageswara Rao, the Vice Chancellor of Andhra University, a professor of Biosciences made some outrageous statements at the "Meet the Scientist" event of the Children's Science Congress section at the Jalandhar Congress. He told the gathering that the 100 Kaurava princes of the Mahabharata could have been born only as test-tube babies and that stem cell technology existed in ancient times. He also claimed that Ravana, the mythical king of Lanka, possessed 24 types of aircraft apart from the Puspaka Vimana. Earlier, Geologist Ashu Khosla while presenting a research paper at the Indian Science Congress said that Hindu god Brahma discovered dinosaurs and documented them in ancient Indian scriptures.

Mr Modi himself began this trend in 2014 with his outlandish claim that cosmetic surgery was practised in India thousands of years ago. Such claims aim at an imagined glorious Hindu past to boost up religious nationalism.  HRD minister Satyapal Singh, in 2017, said that aeroplanes were first mentioned in the ancient Hindu epic—Ramayana. In 2017, the Education minister of Rajasthan claimed that cow was the only animal in the world to both inhale and exhale oxygen. Legislator Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank said in 2014 that "science is a dwarf in front of astrology". He added that astrology was "the biggest science" and that India conducted nuclear tests more than 100,000 years ago.

The current Minister for Science and Technology Harsh Vardhan claimed that Stephen Hawking said India's Vedas had proven Einstein's E=mc2 millennia before Einstein ever did. The most disgusting part of this is that he made this comment right after Hawking died.

Such caricature of science naturally upset the scientific community. Perhaps that was why the director of the Centre for Molecular Biology(CCMB), showed concern over the declining standards of the Science Congress couple of years before his death. Nobel Laureate, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan when he was invited to the Mumbai Congress in 2015, described the Science Congress as a circus. He said he won't attend these conferences ever again.  Dr C R Rao and the Science Advisor to the PM Vijay Raghavan condemned these unscientific utterances by these participants. The Indian Scientific Congress Association expressed "serious concern" at the remarks. "We don't subscribe to their views and distance ourselves from their comments. This is unfortunate," said, Premendu P Mathur, general secretary of Indian Scientific Congress Association.

K Vijay Raghavan, the principal scientific advisor to the Government of India, said this in his blog:
It is indeed unfortunate that a sitting vice-chancellor of a great state university—and a biologist to boot—says something that is scientifically completely untenable. His chancellor should receive a formal complaint from those who were present in the audience, and he will also surely hear from individual scientists and vocal science academies.

Students, teachers and others belonging to rationalist organisations opposing the scandalous outpourings of the VC staged protest demonstration before his office in Visakhapatnam. Scientists also made a signature campaign protesting such anti-science statements during the Science Congress meetings.

It is relevant to remember another VC, who stood steadfast throughout his life for science, scientific temper and rational thinking in this context.

Fourteen years ago, on January 31st Hanumanthappa Narasimhayya, popularly called—Hosur Narasimhayya- passed away at the age of 84. From 1972 to 1977 he was the Vice Chancellor of the Bangalore University. He was a staunch Gandhian, a committed rationalist, a protagonist of popular science, and a robust advocate of a medium of instruction in the mother tongue.  He lived a simple and frugal life who remained as a bachelor. He fearlessly fought against the frauds of 'godmen', relentlessly endevoured to spread scientific understanding against palmistry, astrology; untiringly worked to remove the practice of witchcraft prevalent in North Karnataka. He was a dedicated teacher whose popular refrain was: A poor teacher complains, an average teacher explains, a good teacher teaches, a great teacher inspires.

In the '70s and 80's Dr Nara-simhayya and Abraham T Kovur were in the vanguard of the rationalist movement and posed a big challenge and became a nightmare to the fraudster Babas who were hoodwinking millions of people. The typhoon of rationalist movement in that period inspired many a youngster. This writer became an atheist being influenced by this movement.

Born in a poor family, Narasimhayya with grit and hard work pursued his studies. His father was a construction worker and his mother a daily wage labourer. He was born in 1920, on June 6th, in Hosur village of Gauri-bidanur Taluk of Kolar district of Karnataka, bordering Andhra Pradesh. During the mid-1930s, while he was a school student, he became a Gandhian and remained so till his last breath. He participated in Quit India movement and was imprisoned for 9 months in various jails—in Eravada, Mysore, and Bangalore. Later he continued his studies. He was awarded Ph.D. in Physics at Ohio University in 1960 for his thesis: The Radioactive Decay of Hafnium and Thulium Isotopes (1960).

He worked as a Physics lecturer and later became Principal to that college and continued till 1972. From 1972- 77 he became the fourth VC to Bangalore University. HN lived in the same hostel room of the College for over 50 years, first as a student, then as its lecturer and Principal ( except when he was VC) and finally retiring as the head of the 'National Education Society' that ran the institutions.

He was very critical of the superstitions and sought to instill a strong scientific temper among his students and the public. He set up the 'Bangalore Science Forum' in the '60s. The Forum regularly organised public lectures by eminent scientists and thinkers, film shows, debates, and events. It hosted an annual 'Science Festival'.

Narasimhayya, as a rationalist, was critical of people's obsession with astrology, miracles, and superstitions. While serving as President of the Indian Rationalist Association, he set up an inquiry committee to investigate the 'miracles' of Godmen, challenging like the ilks of Sai Baba. He headed a committee to investigate the practices of witchcraft or 'banamathi' in Karnataka. When Bangalore University attempted to introduce astrology as a subject, Narasimhayya was naturally upset and vehemently opposed.

As a Vice-Chancellor, he constituted and chaired the "Committee to Investigate Miracles and Other Verifiable Superstitions" in 1976. Members of the committee included scientists, academics and rationalists such as A R Vasudeva Murthy, A M Dharmalingam etc. The committee aimed to expose claims of miracles and paranormal phenomena, specifically by godmen. The first challenged was Sathya Sai Baba, one of the most prominent godmen of India, who claimed to produce holy ash and Shiva Lingas out of thin air. Other claimed miracles were healing the sick and wounded with his blessings. Narasimhayya personally wrote three letters to Sai Baba asking him to publicly demonstrate the miracles under controlled conditions. Sai Baba refused to comply, and remarked, "Science must confine its inquiry only to things belonging to the human senses, while spiritualism transcends the senses." Narasimhayya commented this refusal as an indication of hoax in the miracle stories. Public controversy and debate then ensued. When the committee requested to visit Sai Baba, he refused to appear. The committee was also involved in exposing a 7-year old Sai Krishna of Pandavapura (a village near Mysore), a mini-Avatar and an alleged protégé of Sathya Sai Baba. These exposures compelled many godmen to admit that they did not have special abilities. The committee was dissolved in 1977, as he was forced to quit the office of Vice Chancellor.

In 1985, Narasimhayya challenged a godman, Shivabalayogi, who claimed that he could create rains by praying. To test the claim, Shivabalayogi was asked to fill up the T G Halli reservoir by rain to feed Bangalore. It never rained.

For his contribution to the popularisation of science, he won the Sir M Vishweshwaraiah Award. He was also the only Indian to be elected Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP International), set up by Paul Kurtz in the USA.

He became the head of a legislature committee which investigated banamathi (a practice of black magic) in some villages of northern Karnataka. His committee concluded that there was no such thing. In April 2011 the executive council of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, formerly Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) selected Narasimhayya for inclusion in CSI's Pantheon of Skeptics. The Pantheon of Skeptics was created by CSI to remember the legacy of deceased fellows of CSI and their contributions to the cause of scientific skepticism.

Those were the times when the rationalists were conducting their programmes and propaganda without fear. The times have changed. The present-day rationalists have to pay their lives in spreading their cause. Dhabolkar, Pansare and Gouri Lankesh have become martyrs in this cause, as observed by Ramakrishna Bhattacharya in his speech to the Federation of Indian Rationalists Association (FIRA)  held at Visakhapatnam on January 5th and 6th, 2019.  In Bangladesh too, dozens of rationalists who opposed the religious obscurantism through their blogs were killed brutally by the Muslim fundamentalists.

Surprisingly, Narasimhayya was not an avowed atheist. He said: I am not an atheist.  I don't go to the temple because God is everywhere. A temple is like a jail for God. I don't believe in religious practices or commercial Gods either. But he refused to practice religious rituals. He did not perform tonsure when his father passed away. He would eat food during a solar eclipse to demonstrate that it does not cause indigestion, as Hindus believed to be so and would fast. Yet, he did inaugurate the procession at Dassera festival in 2004 in Mysore. It raised eyebrows, though he defended it as a gesture of unity with local cultures.

Leaving these small glitches, his life was a glorious example of a fight against frauds of Babas, superstitions, and barbaric practices like banamathi. Being in VC's office he upheld science and established a forum to fight against these false claims of miracles. Another VC, in a Science Congress, speaks nonsense and promotes fake science. Fascism, a rotten form of the bourgeois system, ideologically a counter-revolutionary current, refuses to recognise the rationality, and harps on the glorification of past, revivalism, ahistoricism. Gurajada's, (Telugu illustrious literary giant, 1885-1915) famous quote from his drama Kanya Sulkam aptly expresses this trend: Everything was there already in Vedas.

Rationalist movement has to be advanced and rationalists have to put up a relentless and multi-pronged fight against these Brahmanical Hindutva fascist forces.

Vol. 51, No.34, Feb 24 - Mar 2, 2019