Science or Nonsense

The Theatre of the Absurd

Ramakrishna Bhattacharya

They have got what they wished for. Wide publicity by creating sensation and statements both for and against the views ventilated through social media. The hon'ble Prime Minister of India sparked off this trend by claiming quite nonchalantly that Ganesha's elephant head was the outcome of plastic surgery. Members of his Party all over India vied with one another in making similar absurd claims[1].

It is now the turn of the academics. In the recently held Indian Science Congress in Jalandhar, Punjab (5 January 2019), no less a dignitary than G Nageswara Rao, the Vice Chancellor of Andhra University, came out with a bold declaration that the Kauravas were born using stem cell technology and Ravana had twenty-four types of aircraft and that Sri Lanka at that time had airports[2].

Not to be outmanoeuvred by others who are making such claims, K J Krishnan of a Science Centre in Tamil Nadu rubbished Newton and Einstein as scientist. There were more such announcements, such as, the ten avataras of Vishnu predate Darwin's Theory of Evolution, India possessed signs of guided missiles thousands of years ago, etc., etc. ad nauseum. Instead of being ashamed for making these nonsensical claims or blaming the press for misrepresenting their words, these "scientists" stuck to their statements and defended themselves by saying that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are not mythology, but history. 'Because we don't understand it today, we can't say it's not science,' said the VC of Andhra University.

Fortunately, the scientific community of India has come out in protest against all such nonsense. Professor Amartya K Sen, an apostle of tolerance, has urged people to be "impatient" with this "absurdity"[3].

This may suffice for many, but this writer apprehends that such simple one-liners pooh-poohing the claims of arch patriots finding everything modern already known in ancient India, is not sufficient. It is not enough to say that their claims are absurd; it has to be proved so over and over again. Take the case of the ten avataras. In the 1890s the Hindu revivalists in Bengal had claimed with perfect conviction that the ten avataras were the anticipation of Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Rabindra-nath Tagore had written satirical pieces about them[4]. But the claim never stops being made every ten years or so. Professor Meghnad Saha had to tackle this claim staked by a disciple of Sri Aurobindo in the year 1930 again[5]. And the same claim reappears even in the twenty-first century.

Why so? Are all the advocates of India's past glory so stupid that they don't understand how preposterous their claims are? Professor Saha argued that both Rama, son of Dasharatha, and Parasurama, two avataras are projected as contemporaries in the Ramayana (Popular edition), Book I (Balakanda), Cantos 74-76, whereas the incarnations of Vishnu are supposed to appear at different times (see Gita 4.8 the famous verse ending with sambhavamiyu-geyuge). How can then they appear in a sequence: the boy Rama beating the annihilator of the Warrior caste (Kshatriya), who had already annihilated them not once, but 3x7 times? Such refutations apparently fall into deaf ears for the same claim, like a bad penny, tends to come back over and over again. What to do with these people who will not pay any heed to reason? Can un-reason be fought back by reason at all? What is needed is a strategy to fight the wise fools and their absurd claims.

All rationalists in India should take up this task more seriously. Instead of patiently explaining what is wrong with such claims one should go for counter-offensives. Take the case of Ravana and his airports. People should ask: where does the Ramayana say so; which Book (Kanda), which Canto (adhyaya or sarga), which Verse (shloka) contains any reference to the airports? Do they say anything about the fuel used by Ravana's pilots?

In the case of the ten avataras too, one should defy them to enumerate all ten first. Again, nine out of ten of such claimants will fail to name more than six or seven. Even if someone succeeds in naming all in their proper sequence, one should ask: where does the list occur, which Purana or which other source? It will be found that their knowledge does not go beyond the hymns to the Avataras attributed to the ninth-century philosopher, Shankaracharya, and/or the twelfth-century poet, Jayadeva[6]. And here also there is a crux. In the north Indian tradition, after the two Ramas mentioned above, there is Balarama, brother of Krishna. In the south Indian tradition, it is Krishna himself rather than his brother who is regarded as an Avatara of Vishnu. This is how the hymns to the ten incarnations attributed to Shankaracharya and Jayadeva differ in a vital aspect. Moreover, the Bhagabata Purana, a seminal text for the Vaishnavas says that the avataras are innumerable (1.3.26, see also 1.2.6-7)!

The name of the Buddha, the penultimate avatara in the ten-avafara's list, does not occur before the fifth century CE.7 He is included as the embodiment of ahimsa, non-injury. So, animal sacrifice in whatever form, although sanctioned by the Vedas, is apparently rejected. However, the inclusion of the Buddha is not supposed to nullify vedic ritualism involving injury to life. Apparently, the vedic and non-vedic ways are permitted to function side by side without any hitch: one does not negate the other.

And yet, there is denunciation of the Buddha's doctrines as well as those of Mahavira's (that is, Jainism). If the Buddha is to be admitted as the reincarnation of Vishnu, why not Mahavira? In fact, his opposition to injury to animals and insects was no less than the Buddha's. While attacks on the Buddha are slightly less than before, an all-out denunciation of the Jains and the materialists continue unabated till the later centuries[8].

Thus, a frontal attack against the obscurantists and self-proclaimed patriots, based on a knowledge of classical Indian texts, may prove to be more effective than a mere appeal to reason. Facts are required to disprove and demolish such absurd claims. This is what the rationalists in India should do now.

Notes and references :
1.   My friend, Arvindhan Nagarajan, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, has compiled the statements of the supporters and opponents of Satya Pal Singh, Union Minister of State for the Ministry of Human Resource Development etc. He declared on the side-line of the All India Vedic Conference, Aurangabad, 19 January 2018 that Darwin was wrong. There were also opponents of Singh, a former IPS officer, who issued statements criticising him. For the web references please see below.
2.   The Times of India, Kolkata edition, and all national dailies, January 6, 2019.
3.   The Times of India, Kolkata edition, January 8, 2019, p.l, continued to p.4.
4.   See Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore), 'Arya o Anarya', Rabindra-rachanavali, vol. 5, Kolkata: Government of West Bengal, 1984, pp. 494-497.
5.   See Meghnad Saha, 'Adhunik Vijnan o Hindudharma', Meghnad Rachana Sankalan, Calcutta: Rama Saha, 1887 Saka [1965], pp.113-190.
6.   Both the hymns are available on the web.
7.   See R C Hazra, Studies in the Puranic Records on Hindu Rites and Customs, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987, pp. 41-42.
8.   See R N Dandekar, 'Heretical Doctrines in the Puranas', Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1991-1992 (1993).

[The author is a former teacher of English in the University of Calcutta. He is now Fellow, Pavlov Institute, Kolkata.]

Vol. 51, No. 44, May 5 - 11, 2019