Last week, even as the hurly-burly of campaigning, voting, and counting in two state elections colonised the front pages, we received news of far greater importance for India and the world. It was proof of the existence of Lord Ram, evidence that Valmiki’s epic told the literal truth. All right, it wasn’t quite that, but something fairly close, confirmation that there once existed an artificial bridge between India and Sri Lanka of the kind described in the Ramayana. One doesn’t require the powers of Hanuman to leap from “artificial bridge” to “built by Ram’s vanar army”. Nobody else has claimed to have built such an engineering marvel, have they?
Did the proof take the form of a multi-year collaborative study between geologists, archaeologists and historians published in a leading peer-reviewed journal? More or less, though the means of delivery wasn’t exactly a published research paper, but an audio-visual presentation in a popular, accessible format. Yes, that’s another way of saying “television programme”. What’s wrong with television programmes? The fuss about original research, peer review and domain expertise is way overdone. Why can’t an episode from the Science Channel’s What On Earth series be valid proof? So what if nobody featured in that show has done any work on the Ram Setu? It’s on Science Channel, so it must be scientific, right?
Admittedly, the programme itself hadn’t been telecast when the news went viral. The excitement was driven by a three-minute teaser put out on the channel’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. That’s perfectly acceptable, because the general argument was clear enough in the promo. The best parts of a film are often in the trailer anyway.
Time to drop the mask, and tell the story straight. Last week, raving loony Hindutva historians went delirious about what they considered scientific validation of the legend that Ram and his monkey army built a bridge over the sea in order to invade Lanka, defeat Ravana and rescue Sita. The Science Channel’s tweet about the programme garnered over 20,000 retweets and 30,000 likes, against an average of about 50 retweets and 100 likes for its other announcements.
The same promo on the channel’s Facebook page has received 7 million views and been shared more than 150,000 times. Few of its other posts top 1000 shares.
Among those who retweeted the teaser was India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister, Smriti Irani, who added the obligatory Namaste emojis and a Jai Shri Ram.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, our law minister, spelled out the political ramifications of the issue, recalling that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government (in actuality, the Archaeological Survey of India in an affidavit filed during the UPA’s rule) had stated there was no proof of Ram’s existence. He called on the Congress to make its position known in the light of the new evidence.
Pro-Hindutva channels like Times Now used the Science Channel advertisement as a new stick with which to beat the Congress. Nobody thought it wise to wait to watch the entire episode, leave alone question its logic.
In his interview, Prasad alluded to the lone bit of evidence provided in the trailer, which is that the underwater sandbar between India and Sri Lanka has stones on it which are older than the sand itself. According to the show, the rocks on the sandbar, presumably brought there by the vanar army, are 7,000 years old, while the sand is a mere 4,000 years old. As proof of the Ramayana’s literal truth, the mismatch in dates is hopelessly inadequate, for at least four reasons.
First, I’m not sure how sand can be dated. It is composed of millions of small particles coming from different sources, quartz to shellfish. Second, accepting for the sake of argument that the entire sandbar is younger than the rocks above it, this is no evidence of anything, for sand keeps being shifted by the wind and by sea currents. Older sand under those rocks could easily have been washed away and replaced by deposits of newer sand. Third, if we, for the sake of the same argument, further accept that the sand we see today is exactly the same sand on which the monkeys built their bridge, it would indicate the structure was constructed at most 4,000 years ago, which flies in the face of the mythical dating of Ram’s invasion. Fourth, the existence of an artificial bridge, even if proved, would not constitute clinching evidence of a supernatural or magical origin. There is a high amount of consensus among archaeologists that the Troy described by Homer is the city excavated by Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century, but none of those archaeologists believes the myth that the walls of Troy were built by the gods Poseidon and Apollo.
I’m certain a natural explanation for why the rocks are older than the sand turns up in the course of the Ancient Land Bridge segment. That’s the standard operating procedure for every What on Earth instalment. As one annoyed viewer described the format of the poorly received series,
“Take some normal satellite images of unusual shapes and colours on the face of the Earth, add lots of zoom-swish sound effects, breathlessly amazed commentary by a bunch of ‘experts’ and then imagine every half-baked wild-eyed mystery theory you can think of before you finally reveal the perfectly logical explanation that a whole bunch of locals knew about all along. Only the truly gullible would fall for this kind of tripe.”
Past chapters of the series have looked for King Arthur, Goliath, the Minotaur, the Fountain of Youth, and Dracula’s Tomb. My favourite synopsis relates to a two-segment episode titled Mystery of the Fang Forest, which reads,
“A forest of razor-sharp stones could be home of an undiscovered Hobbit-like humanoid species. When a man-made island mysteriously appears of the US coast, grisly new evidence points to secret government experiments into psycho-chemical warfare”.
So there you have it. Our government and media uncritically accept the wild theories of a mediocre television series which employs sensational hypotheses as viewer-bait in teasers only to refute them or offer logical alternate interpretations at the end of each programme. The clear stream of reason that Rabindranath Tagore hoped would be the nation’s future has lost its way, not in the desert of dead habit as he feared, but in a morass of superstition posing as science.