Science And Superstition

Recalling Meghnad Saha

Anirban Pathak

Professor Meghand Saha is one of the most famed Indian scientists. Much has been discussed about his life and works in the recent past as 3 years back his 125th birth anniversary was celebrated and last year was the centenary of Saha ionization equation—most famous scientific work of Saha. However, relevance of his thoughts and activities in the modern world in general, and modern India in particular, is relatively less discussed. Actually, many scientists have made outstanding contributions in their respective domains, but never tried to think outside their domain of expertise and address the social issues. Saha did, and that's what distinguishes him from majority of his colleagues and makes him extremely relevant to the contemporary world in general and India in particular. Specifically, it would be relevant to note at this time when India is facing farmers' movement, unemployment issues, the administration sponsored propaganda to establish mythology as historical facts and going to elect lawmakers in a few states, that Saha participated in electoral politics, fought for industrialisation to reduce unemployment and worked scientifically to improve life of farmers, especially through river projects and calendar reform. To understand the relevance of his activities in the context of the modern world, one may start by noting that India is now observing a huge farmer protest, and in the recent times India in particular and the world in general have observed different types of natural disasters (including floods), economic crisis due to pandemic and many such issues of concerns. Social scientists have tried to address the issues from their perspectives, but the scientists have hardly tried to provide direct solutions to these social problems.

In last 25-26 years of his life, he became more concerned about social issues, policy development and applying science to solve national problems. In all such things, he adopted a scientific approach.

Droughts and floods are common in a farmer's life and recently cloudburst and other such natural disasters are adding to the agony of the farmers. Saha was extremely concerned about these problems, especially he had early experience of flood as he was born in a place in the Brahmaputra delta, where flood was so regular a phenomenon that it was often said that children learn to swim before they learnt to walk. These early experiences of flood and the experience that he gained during devastating floods in the Damodar Valley in 1913 and 1923, while he was involved in the relief works, had a great influence on him. In fact, these forced him to look for a scientific solution and to seriously pursue river physics.

In 1922 he wrote an interesting article in Modern Physics (cf. Modern Physics, 32 (1922) 805) describing the physical reasons behind flood and how science can be used to reduce or circumvent the devastating effects of flood. Subsequently, in several articles and lectures he argued for establishment of a hydraulic research laboratory and to adopt a scientific approach in controlling flood. In 1943, following another flood of Damodar, Saha wrote many articles advocating the need of adopting a scientific approach to solve the problem and that essentially forced the Government of Bengal to form a Damodar Flood Inquiry Committee with Saha as a member. To provide a solution to the frequent flood in the Damodar Valley, Saha rigorously studied the various flood control projects abroad, like Tennessee Valley System, USA. The scientific approach led to a scientific conclusion which is nicely stated in a 1944 article of Saha and Ray where they wrote—"....The solution of the problem lies in the scientific storage and adequate management and distribution of the water resources of the basin, combined with the land reclamation measures."

At that time B R Ambedkar was the member-in-charge of power and works in the Viceroy's Cabinet. Saha and Ray met him and convinced about the need for river control project in Damodar valley, which finally led to the establishment of Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) which became functional in 1948 and improved the life of farmers and the other habitants of the region.

A scientific approach revealed that flood and drought are not the only problems in the life of farmers. In the Indian subcontinent many farming activities are performed in accordance with the auspicious days listed in the calendar. Saha as a scientist recognized that a calendar reform is needed in India. In a 1939 article published in Science and Culture entitled, "Need for Calendar Reform", Saha scientifically established the need for calendar reform. He strongly argued for this cause after independence and finally in 1952 then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru gave his consent for calendar reform and a committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Saha. The relevance of the effort was echoed in Pandit Nehru's message to the calendar reform committee where he stated, "It is always difficult to change a calendar to which people are used, because it affects social practices. But the attempt has to be made, even though it may not be as complete as desired. In any event, the present confusion in our own calendars in India, ought to be removed".

"I hope that our Scientists will give a lead in this matter".

The committee submitted a report in 1955, and it was accepted in 1956, but the proposed uniform calendar has never become popular. Despite that one must appreciate the scientific approach adopted by Saha to ensure that the right crops are cultivated in right time by ensuring that the corresponding festival or session appears at the right time in the calendar. A similar scientific and simultaneously humanitarian approach is also needed now.

Saha was a critique of Gandhi's Charka movement and village based development plan. He noted that since the Vedic era of Charka, at least 800 new technologies have enriched textile industries.

First, he approached Netaji, Tagore and Nehru to obtain support for his views in favour of heavy industries in contrast to the views of Gandhi as he thought without those, it will be impossible to generate enough jobs and become self-sustainable. He was partially successful in convincing Nehru, but was not in complete agreement with his policies, specially the policies related to foreign investment and this was what compelled him to fight in the first parliamentary election of India. He won and went to the Parliament, and played a crucial role in planning commission and industrialisation. It was not an easy task to win an election against Congress immediately after independence, and the Government was open enough to utilise the expertise of an opposition MP.

Globally, logic and rational thinking are in crisis. People are often listening unscientific and illogical statements from people occupying responsible positions, be it former US President or Chief Ministers of different Indian states. Saha was extremely critical to the caste system and the unscientific views. Naturally, he was opposed by some people. He could never accept the caste system and posed a fundamentally important question—"Why will the social respect of an uneducated priest who recites chants in Sanskrit without knowing their meaning be more than that of a cobbler or a weaver?..." Our society still doesn't have answer to such questions.

His views on superstitions and pseudo-prides of ours had led to many interesting debates.

In 1938, Saha gave a lecture at Santiniketan in the honour   Tagore, the text of the lecture was later published in Bharatbarshya. In this lecture, Saha argued that the relative social status of the people involved in different walks of life in a country depends on which God is considered as most powerful in the religion(s) followed there. Specifically, he stated that in China the creator is visualized as a mechanic who created the world by shaping the mountains with the help of a hammer and an axe. As a consequence, social respect of the technicians is high in Chinese society and that's why they have succeeded in producing many outstanding technologists and engineers. In contrast, the Creator is imaged as a kind of philosopher in India, specially in Hindu society. Consequently,people who are involved in non-productive philosophical debates and performs only mental jobs, are respected more in comparison to the technicians and farmers involved in more productive jobs. Saha felt that this approach has created a gap between brain and hands, and that's what restricted us from producing new technologies. He also opined that this gap and the lack of technology allowed others equipped with contemporary technologies to conquer India again and again.

Saha's opinion was criticised by Anil Baran Rai who opined that Saha's views are not original and are considerably influenced by Western philosophers, but Europe is hardly benefitted by the advent of modern science. He continued to claim that Saha is not aware of the great knowledge present in the Vedas, and further claimed that the Mother had a spiritual realisation through Yoga that there exists a supreme power which has created and controls the universe.

In a detailed response to criticism, Saha noted that that the existence of pre-Aryan civilisation has been found in Mahenjo-daro and Harappa, but evidence of the existence of Vedic civilisation has yet been found. In addition, many of the religious practices and rituals followed today have originated from the pre-Aryan era, so Rai's opinion that everything has originated from Vedas is not correct. Saha's response was long—here are a few lines from Saha's original response in Bengali to clearly reflect what was  Saha's views: "I have looked into the issue from a different perspective. In my opinion, the caste system has completely destroyed the link between our brain and hand, and that's what put us much behind Europe and USA in the development of the materialistic modern civilization. From the middle-age, Indian intellectuals were busy in discussing their bookish knowledge and surprising others by the depth of their abstract knowledge. They were hardy connected to the real life. They never thought of doing something for the development of industry and business. Probably, doing so would have thrown them out of their community (caste). Similarly, the warriors were busy in showcasing their power using the available weapons, they never tried to learn or adopt the new technologies and techniques evolved in other countries. ....India has not invented any useful technique or procedure since long as here the works done only with the brain have been given a very high position compared to the works done by hand. That's what has cut the connection between brain and hand. Today, an American student or a professor is not reluctant to do the work of a carpenter or another technician, but an Indian student is. Unless our intellectuals themselves work with the machines, and the technicians come in close contact with the intellectuals, new machines and technologies will not be developed, as it happened in Europe and America".

Rai being a strong believer of a view that everything achieved in modern science was present in the Vedas, claimed that the discoveries of Galileo are not new and so is the work of Darwin which may be viewed as equivalent to reincarnation concept. Saha criticised these views of Rai as strongly as possible and repeatedly stressed on the point that if one wishes to glorify or criticise a civilisation, one must compare it with the other contemporary civilisations. To clarify this idea he noted that "until 1st AD, Indians used to make an error of 3.75 days in every 5 years, whereas in 400 BC, Babylonians used to make an error of 2.16 hours in every 19 years. Naturally, after 80 AD, Indians started following Greco-Roman and Chaldean Astronomy, and that led to the development of Indian Astronomy".

Unfortunately, there are many anti-Darwin leaders still now and the number of people who believein the line of Rai is increasing and that's what is making Saha's views extremely relevant in today's world.

In two other articles published in Bharatbarsha in 1939 and 1940, Saha expressed similar views on the relation between science and religion. The titles of these two articles are self-explanatory, and will clearly show their relevance in today's India. The first one was entitled Modern World and Hindus: The campaign of nonsense in the name of Science and the second one was entitled—Modern Science and Hindu Religion: There is everything in the Vedas.

These articles led to a new debate between Saha and Mohini Mohan Dutta, who wrote an article in Bharatbarsha in 1940 questioning Saha's knowledge of Vedas and claimed that there are many scientists whose opinions differ from the views of Saha. He also quoted some scientists and opined that Saha and the editor of Bharatbarsha (who was guilty of publishing Saha's articles) must go to hell after their death. In response Saha told a story, which is self-explanatory and carries an important message for today's world.

Saha began the story by stating that there were two friends. One was extremely religious who used to take bath in Ganges and follow all rituals mentioned in Panjika and perform regular fasts. He even used to follow caste and lizards. The other friend was a nonbeliever, materialistic and used to eat everything. Naturally, post-death, the orthodox friend was sent to the Heaven, whereas the modern friend was sent to the Hell of the scientists. On the repeated request of the friend in the Hell, one day the orthodox guy bought a return ticket from the Heaven and went to visit the Hell, but he did not return for a long time. A concerned friend of the orthodox guy sent him a letter from the Heaven. In response the orthodox friend wrote a letter, part of which is given below—

"...reaching the border of the scientist's Hell, I felt thirsty and the temperature was very high. For a while, I thought that I have made a mistake by accepting his invitation. As I entered the Hell, I had to change the train at a junction which was so nice that I have no words to describe it. I left the train of Heaven and boarded a train of the Hell. The new train was amazing- there was no heat, and light cold air was flowing- initially, I was surprised. Later, I heard that all the vehicles are air-conditioned here. After reaching my friend's residence, I was moved to see the system of the Hell. At Heaven, we don't need to work, we just need to be present at the court of Indra and see the routine dance of Apsara, and listen the news of the Earth in the broken voice of Narada Muni, in name of drinks we had to drink Bhang and Country liquor. In brief, whatever I had carefully rejected during my life at Earth, I had to do those at the Heaven. In contrast, everything is different at the Hell of scientists. This place was originally hot, but the scientists have used machines to convert heat into work and thus to make all houses air-conditioned. Here, we have excellent ice-creams and juices, fresh fruits and vegetables and newly invented processed foods. Travelling at heaven was a pain-horses were old. Here, we have air-conditioned cars powered by steam engines, it's much fun to be here. Switching on the radio, we can hear the news of the external world, listen the songs of famous singers, speeches of the leaders of other field. I feel mentally well by seeing dances, listening songs and occasionally visiting museums and planetariums and listening the talks delivered there. The life at the Heaven was boring and monotonous. Personally, I found the comfort and life style of the scientist's hell much more attractive. So I have cancelled my residency of the Heaven and have decided to live here permanently."

At the end, Saha thanked his critique for kindly sending him to the Hell.

In the recent past, lack of scientific temperament has been shown by the leaders—be it Indian political leaders or the former President of US. Specially, in context of COVID19 in world and in many issues in India. In such a time, people really need scientists like Saha, who can give a clear scientific opinion to solve issues of farmers and skilled and unskilled labourers, and oppose superstitious and/or unscientific opinion(s) of the leaders.

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Vol. 53, No. 44, May 2 - 8, 2021