A calendar showed up on my WhatsApp feed recently. It has been conceptualised and researched by an official at the newly formed Centre for Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. The calendar made the focus of the centre very clear: to establish the supremacy of a supposed ancient native Hindu civilisation in India and to debunk the well-known theories of Aryan invasion and migration into the subcontinent.
The calendar aims to show that Hinduism is the product of an indigenous civilisation of India (the Dravidian civilisation) and was not brought to the subcontinent by an invasion or migration of foreign tribes (known as the Aryans) from Iran and Central Asia.
To me, this represents the final nail in the coffin of Indian scientific and rational thinking. That such a calendar could come from one of the Indian Institutes of Technology was unbelievable. Let me explain what is wrong with this.
An established conclusion
First, let us look at the cover page.
This looks innocuous enough. What’s wrong in exploring and researching ancient Hindu philosophy and thought? It is part of our culture, after all.
What is wrong is that the whole goal of the Indian Knowledge System centre at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, is defined in advance. This is clear as you leaf through the calendar. The conclusion is stated before the research has been done. IIT Kharagpur is wading into areas that are still points of debate and stating upfront that they want to reach a certain conclusion about matters that are either unclear or patently false.
This is not the scientific method. The presentation of the material is also decidedly unscientific, with numerous points being presented with exclamation points. This is not research, it is a point of view.
In his bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says that effective people begin with the end in mind. For a scientist, that end is the discovery of a new principle or a new theory. But scientists do not know what the new theory is when they begin. They do not begin with the conclusion in mind. That is exactly what the Indian Knowledge Systems centre is doing.
Last year too, IIT Kharagpur produced a similar calendar.
Consider some of the problems with the 2022 calendar. First, the Aryan invasion theory is still actively debated. A recent paper by Richards et al (2016) says that the genetic history of India shows a sudden influx of male DNA, from outside India in the Indian genetic mix at around 2,000 BCE, which is when the Indus Valley civilisation began its 700-year decline. This is conclusive proof of either an invasion or a migration by foreign people at that time.
Second, current scholarly opinion, such as research by the late Iravatham Mahadevan, suggests that the Indus Valley civilisation was Dravidian and that its language was related to Tamil. While this is not conclusively proven, these are topics of current research.
Third, current scholarly opinion also informs us that what is understood today as Hinduism is a blend of pre-Vedic deities such as Shiva and Muruga, with the Vedic deities of Indra, Agni, Vayu and others. Even the Vedas are considered to have incorporated aspects of the local deities such as Shiva.
In fact, it is puzzling why the calendar takes issue with Shiva being a Dravidian god. If the objective is to prove that Hinduism is of “Indian” origin and had nothing to do with any Aryans from outside, it would make sense to claim not just Shiva and Muruga, but all Hindu deities as Dravidian.
But this would mean giving importance to Dravidians, and perhaps saying that the origin of Hinduism was in the Dravidian civilisation, the representatives of which are India’s southern states today. This is a problem for the Bharatiya Janata Party, with its Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan vision of Hinduism and India.
Fourth, the calendar mixes images that make no sense. On the page for March, there is some discussion of the Rigveda, but the image shown is that of the Buddha. The same image has the image of the “Pasupati” seal (what is considered to be the “Shiva” image – the primeval yogi) found in the Indus valley seals to the right of the Buddha’s head (from our perspective), but has a nonsensical image on the left side that is not seen in any seal.
Fifth, in the leaf for May, there is some talk about a mother goddess, but juxtaposed with the painting by Abanindranath Tagore is the famous Indus dancing girl. This latter sculpture is by no means necessarily related to any notion of a mother goddess or anything sacred or divine. This is meaningless and confused, whimsically linking unrelated things.
Even if the Indus dancing girl had any religious connotations, to connect it with Tagore’s depiction of India as a goddess is wildly fanciful and totally out of context.
Sixth, in the leaf for June, an attempt is made to connect the so-called Indus Valley unicorn with the sage Rishyasringa from Indian mythology. But Rishyasringa was not a unicorn, according to the Mahabharata. He was supposed to be a man with deer-like horns, born of a human and a doe. This is typical Hindutva grasping for straws.
Seventh, after this, there is some confused blather about the similarity between Sanskrit and European languages. It is unclear what the point of this is.
Eighth, following this, there is yet more confusion about the two World Wars that were supposedly fought for the cause of Aryan supremacy, whereas in fact only World War II was fought on this basis. What this establishes is not clear.
Now, one may disagree with some or many of all the things the calendar takes issue with, but these are contentious issues on which final consensus has not been arrived at. A research institute, therefore, must not take the approach that a certain viewpoint is wrong and that the purpose of a centre is to prove the correctness of a certain ideology or “debunk” inconvenient ideas.
Technology is not science
At the end of this calendar, there are some details of the Indian Knowledge System centre. There are some impressive-sounding words on the techniques that the centre will use: GPR exploration, laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, photo-luminiscence dating, paleo-radiology, computer tomography, micro-CT scans, paleo-botany, advanced geo-hydrological exploration studies, Natural Language Processing, advanced satellite imagery, HMI (Human-Machine Interface), image processing, iconographic exploration (semantic and semiotic) and many more fancy words.
All this is fine, but the first requirement of good research and good science is not technology but the absence of bias. While it is impossible to remove bias completely, no research will succeed in revealing the truth unless an honest attempt is made to eliminate bias. The Indian Knowledge System centre at IIT Kharagpur, is the very opposite of that ideal. Its very founding has a mission to reject alternative viewpoints and promote a particular ideology.
This is not the way science works. Science works on the principle of falsifiability – that any theory is falsifiable and should be rejected if the evidence does not support it. If a research centre has an ideological bias, then it will reject all evidence that contradicts its ideology and cherry-pick from the facts only those which suit its ideology.
The output of such a Centre of Excellence is propaganda, not knowledge.
A highly-esteemed research institute such as the IIT Kharagpur, should not need lessons on what scientific integrity means. But we are compelled to remind them of this because they seem to have forgotten the scientific temper that Nehru established the Indian Institute of Technologies to foster. It is sad that Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, was the first IIT to be inaugurated by Nehru and has now wandered into the dark alleys of superstition and dogma.
This article first appeared on Seshadri Kumar’s Medium page.
Seshadri Kumar has a BTech from IIT Bombay and an MS and a PhD from the University of Utah, US, and writes about social and political issues, science, music, movies, literature, and religion. His writing can also be found on his website here.