Culture & Life · History · History of Medicine · Religion

Why do some Indians like to obsessively make outrageous claims about ‘ancient Indian science’?

I wrote the following as an answer to the question on Quora What were some of the global events that had the greatest impact on the history of India?

I will write about a very obvious global event and its very under-appreciated impacts on India’s history. The event is British colonialism. The underappreciated impacts are those on our collective understanding of our own past.

It has been only 70 years since India shook off British colonial/ imperial domination, but many to most Indians today have little idea of what colonialism was. The simple understanding is that it was a foreign rule by foreigners, that it was an arrogant and violent display of power, and that it was an awful state of affairs to be in for Indians. (The truth is messier than these understandings, but that ain’t part of this answer.) One reason we do not think beyond these superficial views is that we are hardly exposed to anything other than that – whether in schools, or families, or in discussions with those around us. Besides, in today’s world the possibility of patient, nuance-filled discussions has been reduced further.

Thus here I wish to bring to people’s attention the ideology of colonialism, or the justification for it provided by those who supported it. (Mind you, there have always been those in Britain who were vehemently opposed to the colonial project in India.) Two phrases will be helpful here: the White Man’s Burden, and the civilizing mission. They kind of refer to the same concepts. To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The legitimacy of colonialism has been a longstanding concern for political and moral philosophers in the Western tradition. In the nineteenth century, the tension between liberal thought and colonial practice became particularly acute, as dominion of Europe over the rest of the world reached its zenith. Ironically, in the same period when most political philosophers began to defend the principles of universalism and equality, the same individuals still defended the legitimacy of colonialism and imperialism. One way of reconciling those apparently opposed principles was the argument known as the “civilizing mission,” which suggested that a temporary period of political dependence or tutelage was necessary in order for “uncivilized” societies to advance to the point where they were capable of sustaining liberal institutions and self-government.

The best, as well as the most notorious, example of the pursuit of the so-called civilizing mission in India is Thomas Macaualay’s 1835 Minute on Education, in which he argued that the only education worth imparting to Indians was Western-style education:

I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.

Thus for decades – in fact for more than a century – Indian people grew up being told, over and over again, that they are inferior to white people, and their cultures are inferior to European cultures.

Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography provides an interesting glimpse of that world. He recounts in it a little doggerel was written by a local poet in the Gujarati town where he grew up: “Behold the mighty Englishman/ He rules the Indian small,/ Because being a meat-eater/ He is five cubits tall.”

Now what kind of impact can such a consistent bombarding of a particular world-view have on people? For one, many just begin accepting that as truth, as the ‘real’ state of affairs. This is very similar to our current culture where a bombarding of the ‘Muslim as evil/invaders/destroyers’ world-view has been unquestioningly accepted by many among us.

But another consequence is a resistance to that world-view. One rejects the world-view’s claim to truth, and also attempts to explicitly prove it wrong. Here of course power dynamics come into play. If the worldview is being propagated by intolerant authorities, like it was in colonial India, the avenues of resistance and protest are limited. Nevertheless, many Indians resisted in their own little ways. It is this resistance to the colonial ideology of ‘Western superiority Indian inferiority’ which has had immense consequences for India and its people.

‘We invented every darn thing’

Self-respect is extremely important for a fulfilling human life. The consistent humiliation by the British naturally spurred many Indians to go to great lengths to ‘prove’ to the British that hum kisi se kam nahi. What was a noble pursuit to begin with, however, ended up with Indians frequently making a fool of themselves. And the foolishness is alive and kicking even today, which is why I think this is one of the greatest impacts of colonialism on our society.

Imagine this. A British colleague in your office remarks, “We are a hundred times more intelligent than you people.” You will easily be able to laugh that off, even swear at the person, and talk about all those smart Indians doing all the smart things that they do: in medicine, IT, economics, etc.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a young Indian in 1893 – the year when Bhuvan’s team was about to rout the goras in Lagaan. What will you talk about when provoked by a British person?… Untouchability? Sati? Girls of age 10 being married to men of age 50? Millions of Hindus and Muslims in India being controlled through the fists of a few hundred Britons? Basically, when during British domination an Indian wished to resist the worldview of ‘Western superiority Indian inferiority’, they could not, for obvious reasons, employ any claim about their contemporary status. There was nothing but ‘darkness’ there.

So what did they do? Disillusioned with the dark present, they decided to hold tight to a bright past. And as you must have guessed by now, they began Vedifying their claims. Listen you gora.. Sure you people have technology and science and all that which makes us your gulaam.. But mind you, even we were advanced during Vedic times… Look at the sophisticated literature, look at the references to science!

There was indeed sophisticated literature and many other awesome things in ancient India (just like anywhere else on earth where human societies inhabited). And talking about that indeed helped many Indians salvage some self-respect during the colonial period. But as it often happens with such endeavors, it was overdone. The claims got more and more outrageous, the arguments turned more and more vicious. Many of us today rightly feel amused when politicians claim something like Internet was invented in ancient India. But this is nothing new. A century back, when X-rays were invented in Europe, there were Indians claiming that sooner or later it will be found that ancient Indians ‘already knew’ about X-rays. In the 1910s a wise Sanskrit scholar termed this mindset as our “extravagant admiration for ancient Hindus.” Today there is hardly any advancement in knowledge or technology that at least some of us will not attribute to the Vedas or other ancient Hindu scriptures.

It is unfortunate that we still are struggling with the remnants of the inferiority complex that colonialism inculcated in our minds more than a century ago. We are needlessly reactionary and aggressive whenever it comes to India’s past, and also despise any realistic or critical attitude towards it. We are also now witnessing a manifestation of our unhealthy obsession with the past in the polarizing and regressive politics around us.

Finally, the constant cacophony around outrageous claims has made many of us completely deaf to the real achievements of people from ancient India. More importantly, we have so disproportionately focused on Sanskrit traditions that we hardly give enough respect, as a nation, to the other equally sophisticated traditions from ancient India — whether of non-Sanskrit languages, or of non-Brahmanical communities. And of course who can forget the consistent erasure of Islamic contributions to our history? All form part of our heritage. All deserve to be preserved. And all need to always be realistically assessed, not outrageously valorized.

[NOTE: I have had to condense a lot of complexity to make this answer fairly brief and (hopefully) readable. But there’s a lot more to how and why Indians began talking about ancient Hindu science in these particular ways during colonialism. Two books that might help the more curious readers are Gyan Prakash’s Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India, and David Arnold’s Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India.]


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