India’s traditional knowledge systems are the theme of the 2021 calendar published by Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur’s Nehru Museum of Science and Technology. Each page focuses on a discipline that had been studied in ancient India such as astronomy, law and the arts, highlighting quotes from Western figures from Voltaire to Mark Twain speaking approvingly of the achievements of the people of the subcontinent.
For instance, the page for March is dedicated to bijaganita and jyamiti, algebra and geometry. It has a quote from Albert Einstein declaring, “We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.
Kharagpur is the oldest of the IITs and commands great respect in India as well as abroad. One would have welcomed its interest in ancient Indian scientific heritage. But, regrettably, respect for fact, the separation of fact from fiction, critical evaluation of various types of texts, and the intellectual probity that one would like to associate with the IITs are missing here.
History of mutual exchange
A calendar is a temporary thing. What is worrisome here is its use as a pretext for the de-intellectualisation of ancient India.
Indian culture is characterised by antiquity, continuity and interaction with the outside world. Of particular significance has been the long history of mutual exchanges through the Northwest frontier. In addition, people and ideas have travelled from the subcontinent by land to China, Korea, and Japan, and by sea from the east coast to Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia and beyond.
Because of a convoluted sense of nationalism, while we take great pride in our ideas being transmitted to other cultures, we are extremely reluctant to acknowledge inputs received from elsewhere.
Ancient India has bequeathed us a large number of texts in various categories: the Vedic corpus, the Puranas and the epics, Jaina and Buddhist sources, and scientific works. These texts were composed over an extended period of time and do not rank at par with one another as far as their credibility and reliability are concerned. The most important task before a student of ancient Indian history is to critically evaluate the source material.
Among the significant achievements of Ancient India were the invention of zinc metallurgy, the manufacture of carbon steel (known by the anglicised term wootz) and the development of rocketry. These technologies were incorporated into the Western mainstream. One would have thought that a technical institute would be particularly interested in these ancient processes, but the Kharagpur calendar makes no mention of them.
Instead, the calendar quotes random passages and fragments from disparate sources and makes unfounded statements. It has handpicked quotes from well-known Western names without checking the context and without making sure that the quoted words make sense. The authors do not seem to have consulted any primary source to check the authenticity of quotes. A quote must speak for itself. The celebrity of an author cannot add any authority to his words.
A hypothetical scheme
The text for January begins by quoting from the Vishnu Purana, naming seven sages who are described as “the forerunners of all Indian Knowledge systems” who represent “a primordial cosmic consortium of ancient Vedic India”. They belong to the Vaivasvata Manvantara that is “the present Cycle of Creative flux”.
It should be noted that the Manu Smrti and Surya Siddhanta describe a hypothetical cosmological Yuga scheme in which a Maha Yuga is set equal to 4.32 million years and 71 Maha Yugas make a Manvantara, which contains a mind-boggling span of 306,720,000 years.
It would be absurd to link a human lifespan with cosmological timescales. It cannot be anybody’s argument that seven individuals dominate a period running into hundreds of million years.
The text for July asserts that “a thousand years prior to ancient Greeks and Babylonians (3000 BCE)...Indian cosmology and positional astronomy were fully aware of the geocentric, heliocentric and galactic patterns of the universe”.
Helio-centrism is not merely a way of describing planetary orbits. It strikes at the very roots of anthropo-centrism. If it had been known 5,000 years ago that the Earth went around the Sun, all world religions would have taken a different shape.
Religions assume that the Earth is the centre of the universe, and man the master of Earth. If the Earth were known not to be at the centre of the divine things, divinity would have been understood in some other way.
As for galactic patterns, scientists and technologists should know more than anybody else that identification of galaxies became possible only when large telescopes and ancillary instrumentation had been built. It is only as recently as 100 years ago that the 100-inch diameter mirror telescope came into use that it was recognised that many of the nebulosities seen in the sky were in fact far-off external galaxies.
The text goes on to claim that “the legacy of Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, Bhaskara II, and Varahamihira of Medieval India” goes back to older Sutras, which “forward the details of construction of sacrificial altars”.
The Shulba Sutras no doubt are the world’s oldest texts on geometry, but they do not constitute a pre-history of Siddhantic astronomy. That system dates back to 499CE, when Aryabhata composed his influential text, Aryabhatiyam.The Vedic corpus contains an exclusively astronomical text Vedanga Jyotisha, the oldest parts of which could be as old as 1500 BCE. In the centuries after Alexander invaded the subcontinent in 326 BCE, inputs were received from Iraq and Greece which revitalised Indian astronomy which in turn found full expression in Aryabhata.
In the context of astronomy, the text of the calendar makes a very significant omission. It fails to note that while calculating planetary orbits, Indian astronomers set up mathematical equations and solved them.
Shunya and Advaita
From the point of view of world history of mathematics (the theme for March), a particularly noteworthy achievement was that some 200 years before Newton, the infinite series was discovered by the Kerala school founded by Madhava (about 1350 to 1425).As early as 1834 a South India-based colonial official Charles Whish brought the Kerala work to the notice of Western mathematical scholarship. Europe of the day however could not bring itself to upstage an icon like Newton. All modern world histories of mathematics give due credit to Kerala. But regrettably, Kharagpur is still stuck in the nineteenth century colonial historiography.
It is astonishing to see a learned institute making a claim in the text for the month of March that the zero and one employed in computer calculations correspond to Shunya and Advaita. Historians of computers trace the binary system used in the machines to Leibniz in 1693. There is no mention anywhere in history of computers to Hindu philosophy. Association of Shunya and Advaita with zero and one is an afterthought.
The calendar text does not cite any modern researchers. Instead, it picks up old quotations and uses them in a de-contextualised way. For instance, it highlights a passage by the 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire: “I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganges, astronomy, astrology, metempsychosis, etc. It does not behoove us, who were only savages and barbarians when these Indians and Chinese peoples were civilized and learned, to dispute their antiquity.”
However, the quote reproduced on the calendar omits the italicised words with the result that it does not make any sense. Even if the quoted sentence had been complete, a problem remains. Talking of astronomy in the same breath as astrology and transmigration of souls and using banks of the Ganges as an exotic far-off locale may have made sense 200 years ago but sounds anachronistic and patronising now.
For the month of April, the calendar has printed a quote purportedly from the American author Mark Twain: “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.”
The quote is misleading. Twain visited India in 1896 and wrote about it in his book Following the Equator. Living up to his reputation as a humorist addressing his home audience in the US he said: “The great god Vishnu has 108 – 108 special ones – 108 peculiarly holy ones – names just for Sunday use only. I learned the whole of Vishnu’s 108 by heart once, but they wouldn’t stay; I don’t remember any of them now but John W.”
Elsewhere, tongue-in-cheek, he declares: “I wish I were a ‘chuprassy’.” He refers to ‘cotton-clad dark natives’, and describes their private servants as “dressed for a part in the Arabian Nights”…. “This is indeed India! the land … of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition…”
The italicised part has been converted into a complete sentence. But the reference to Vishnu’s 108 names for Monday alone, and of the Arabian nights, cobras, and tigers in the same breath shows that Twain was having fun. Instead of rejecting his description as an Orientalist construction, it has been modified to look like a testimonial.
This is not all. A sentence written by the German Indologist Max Muller has been attributed to Twain. In 1883, Max Muller wrote in his India: What It Can Teach Us: “Whatever sphere of the human mind may be selected for special study, whether language, religion, mythology, or philosophy, whether laws, customs, primitive art or primitive science, we must go to India, because some of the most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up there, and there only.”
The italicised part has been made into a complete sentence and included in the quote attributed to Twain. The fabricated quote conveys a meaning not originally intended. It is not known who created the quote. It figured in an address by Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu delivered on December 17, 2018.
The use of these quotes is ironic and lacks a sense of why these statements had been made during the colonial period. As it turns out, to legitimise their rule over India, the British chose to emphasise to Indians that they had enjoyed a pre-eminent position in the remote past but it was now the turn of the Europeans to dominate. When historian AL Basham states that “Indian surgery remained ahead of European until the 18th century”, the compliment to India is left-handed: the emphasis is clearly on the accomplishments of modern Europe.
Much effort and money have obviously been expended in designing this calendar but one is constrained to advise IIT Kharagpur students to use it only to check the date and take note of the holidays and to ignore the text. One cannot help feeling that the IIT does not quite feel at home in ancient India.
The author is the author of The Vedic People: Their History and Geography. He is a former president of the International Astronomical Union’s Commission on History of Astronomy.