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Speech at Panel Against Pseudoscience,Panjab University Chandigarh,  15-Jan-2019

Panel Against Pseudoscience

Panjab University Chandigarh



Speech by Rajesh Kochhar


During the past five years an extremely disturbing trend has emerged and is gaining ground whereby established forums like Indian Science Congress are being used to expound and propagate and give respectability to pseudoscience, insulting in the process not only modern science but also ancient Hindu sacred books.

Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) was established in 1914 as the first ever body of Indian scientists. One of the objectives stated at the time of its formation was ‘to advance and promote the cause of science in India’. The official website tells us that in addition, one of ISCA’s major objectives is to inculcate the scientific temper among the people.

ISCA is listed as a body under Government of India Department of Science and Technology (DST). It is almost entirely dependent on DST for financial support. I have looked up its most recent annual reports available on the internet. In 2015-16 (the latest report available) it received four crore rupees as “Grant from Government”, while its income from other sources was only 40 lakh. A year previously, during 2015-16, the grant was much larger, Rs 6 cr, and internal income less, 35 lakh. Note that a portion of the annual government grant is transferred to one or the other fund and placed with a bank as fixed deposit so that interest earned on it becomes internal income the next year. As much as 90% of annual money in the hands of ISCA comes from DST whose representative sits on the Executive Committee as an ex-officio member.

In its more than century old existence, it is only recently that Science Congress has opened its doors to pseudoscience. The tone was set up by the Prime Minister himself in October 2014 in Mumbai while inaugurating a hospital. He declared that the human body and elephant head of the mythical Lord Ganesh was proof of plastic surgery’s being prevalent in ancient India. Incidentally, there is a certain amount of naivete in the use of the term plastic surgeon. Incidentally, the surgery involved in an organ transplant is far more complex than a plastic surgeon is capable of.

The most discussed part of the proceedings of the 2015 Mumbai Science Congress was the claim that very sophisticated airplanes were in vogue in ancient times. The basis for this outrageous assertion was a so-called ancient text which 30 years previously had been shown to be an early 20th century fabrication.

We are all used to science-related frivolous statements from politicians and public figures. Old timers at Panjab University Chandigarh will recall Morarji Desai’s non-acceptance of fossils, and Giani Zail Singh’s reluctance to accept human links to monkeys. This was not done from a public platform but while examining the exhibits. One considered these things as amusing. What is worrisome is that anti-science statements are now being made from public and scientific platforms.

Over the years, pseudoscience and outrageous claims of various kinds have penetrated the Congress deeper and deeper. More and more persons with science degrees are falling prey to this. Most disturbingly, middle-rung academics who have steadily built a solid international reputation for themselves have joined the frivolous brigade. Obviously they think that saying such things will bring them benefits from non-academic sources.

A new trend has emerged this year, and that is of ridiculing established science itself. If Einstein’s general relativity theory is ever proved wrong, or inadequate, the announcement will have to come from a better forum than Phagwara!

Even though the stated objective of Science Congress Association is to promote science and scientific temper, even though Government gives a substantial grant to further these objectives, DST has not said a word about the degradation of the Science Congress; learned Science Academies have not said a word; and membership of the Science Congress Association has not said a word to the Executive Committee or the DST nominee on it. There seems to be an all-round conspiracy of silence.


Pseudo-support for pseudo-science

Pseudo-support for pseudo-science has come from the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India. One would have expected a press release from his office. Instead what we get is a personal blog, which is clever and dishonest. It does not talk of situation in India but gives examples from Soviet Union and South Africa. आग अपने घर में लगी है और आप दूरबीन से इंडोनेशिया के वोल्केनो देख रहें है.( There is fire in your own house, and you are looking at the Indonesian volcanoes through your telescope)


The Scientific Advisor concedes that one or two presentations at Scienc Congress have been preposterous but believes that they receive disproportionate attention in national and global media. If a librarian tells you that 2% books have been lost because of the open shelf system, you say it is ok. But if a headmaster says that 2% boys have to be admitted to the hospital because of beating by the teachers, you cannot dismiss the phenomenon on the ground that percentage is negligible.

Strangely, the Scientific Advisor finds it fascinating, not disturbing but fascinating, that preposterous presentations at the Science Congress are being perceived as having official endorsement. He says that the organizers do not filter the presentations at the Congress. This is untrue. The contents of a Science Congress are the admitted responsibility of the organizers. He further says that the Government does not have any role in the matter. It is true only in a technical sense. If Pseudoscience in Science Congress has emerged as a recent phenomenon, some tidal forces must be at work?

The Advisor says that the Science Congress Association raises funds from its activities and gets only some support from DST. This is factually incorrect. If he had consulted official reports of Science Congress Association duly submitted to Government of India every year, he would not have made such a misleading statement. As already pointed out, as much as 90% of Science Congress Association funds come from the Government as direct grant.

Legally speaking, since the Indian Science Congress Association is deviating from its stated objectives, the Government grant to it can be stopped. When your computer or mobile phone hangs, the first thing you do is to shut it down and restart. In a similar manner, there is need to reboot the Science Congress Association. Also, one would like to see high-profile scientists in their individual capacity and collectively through learned academies raise their voice against pseudoscience.

An aspect of the problem that needs attention from scientists, non-scientists alike as well as society in general is the insult heaped on ancient texts and their authors in the name of finding modern endorsement for isolated passages in them.

Modern science is a powerful knowledge system. But it is only at best 400 years old. During this short period no evolutionary change could have taken place in human brain. Human beings have always been imaginative and creative. Their creative urges finds expression in various ways. Poets, playwrights, and authors devise their own ways to convey their message. A scientist’s universe is very small. Imagination covers much larger territory. A statement should be interpreted not in the in the framework that is extant today but in a framework that prevailed in its own time.

Gandhari is said to have given birth to 101 children, 100 boys and a girl. The Mahabharat tells us that she carried pregnancy for two years after which she delivered a piece of flesh which was as hard as iron. It was irrigated with cold water and split into 100 thumb-sized portions. These portions in turn were placed in pitchers filled with ghee which were carefully kept at secret places. After another two years, each pitcher produced a boy. A small piece of the aborted flesh was still left from which, after a month, a daughter was born. Note that the whole process took four years and did not involve any chemicals other than water and ghee. Surely, a modern biologist would require more complex materials and tools, and much less time.

The description was not written at the time of the experiment but much later when Duryodhan’s credentials as a villain were already well-established. The Mahabharat continues the story: Immediately on birth, he started braying like a donkey whereupon, the ‘other’ donkeys, vultures, jackals and crows in the area also joined the chorus.

People who are finding modern scientific references in old texts have only extremely superficial acquaintance with the contents of Ramayan, Mahabharat, Purans, etc. Very often, we come across the statement: वेदो में लिखा है (It is written in the Vedas). One would like to be told the exact title of the work and the exact reference within the text so that one could check for oneself. Saying वेदो में लिखा है(It is written in the Vedas) is like saying: Some  book in the library says this.

For some reason, only sacred texts are handpicked for frivolous interpretations. In Kalidas’ celebrated poem Megh-doot, a cloud is used as a messenger. Nobody has tried to give this a modern scientific twist. In folk songs and film songs, a girl routinely talks to a crow, parrot, cat, moon, river, ocean etc. People accept the song’s creativity and enjoy it. Why then should people ostentatiously committed to ancient Indian glory bring disrepute to it through their thoughtlessness?


False claims about ancient India detract attention from the genuine accomplishments of yesteryears which should be discussed dispassionately with a view to appreciating them in the world context. If colonial historiography belittled ancient Indian achievements, this does not mean that exaggerated claims be made now.

More important than scientific results is the scientific methodology. Ancient India is a genuine and important field of enquiry. This enquiry should be carried out with the same methodology as employed in modern science, that is, with rigour, detachment and open-endedness.

KUMBH explained


Just at the time UNESCO included Kumbh Mela in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the Uttar Pradesh government under the leadership of chief minister Yogi Adityanath has unnecessarily and thoughtlessly changed the traditional Kumbh nomenclature.

Kumbh Mela is celebrated on four riversides. Every 12 years, the event is celebrated in Allahabad as Purna Kumbh. Half way through it, every six years, Ardh Kumbh is celebrated. After 12 cycles of a Purna Kumbh – that is after 144 years – is held the Maha Kumbh, the grandest and the holiest of all Kumbhs, also in Allahabad.

For a better understanding of how this works let’s see how we have celebrated it over the last couple of years. Kumbh was celebrated at Trimbak in Nashik in 2015 and at Ujjain in 2016. The same year Haridwar observed Ardh Kumbh. Prayag (Allahabad) celebrated the Kumbh in 2013 and will be organising Ardh Kumbh in 2019.

The timing of the Kumbh is fixed astronomically. The celebrations are in honour of the planet Jupiter, which has an orbital period of about 12 years. For the event to occur, Jupiter should be in a specified zodiacal sign (rashi).

Since Jupiter spends a year in one rashi, the precise timing of the festival is arrived at by referring to the sun and the moon. To describe the path of the sun, the zodiacal list is headed by Aries (Mesha). For some reason, in case of Jupiter the most important rashi is Aquarius (Kumbha).

The term Kumbh has come to be used in two distinct senses: to denote the rashi proper and as a general description for the congregation. Strictly speaking, there is only one Kumbh, namely the one at Haridwar when Jupiter is actually in Aquarius.

The congregations at Nashik and Ujjain are not Kumbh but Simhasth because Jupiter is in Leo (Simha) in both cases. That is why the two events are never more than a year apart. Simha rashi is important because it falls midway in Jupiter’s 12-year orbit.

The Prayag congregation is peculiar. It marks Makar Sankranti (Maghi) every year. Kumbh takes place when in addition to this, Jupiter is in Mesha or the succeeding Vrishabh (Taurus).

While releasing the logo for the Prayag 2019 event, Yogi Adityanath facetiously asserted that since there was nothing incomplete in Hinduism, Ardh Kumbh would be designated Kumbh, and the Kumbh Maha Kumbh.

There is nothing incomplete or vague about six being half of 12. The UP executive fatwa raises many problems. In Yogi Adityanath’s scheme, no unique term is now left to denote the event held every 144 years.

Secondly, since the order cannot be implemented retrospectively it will create confusion between the description of past and present congregations at Prayag.

Thus, a Kumbh was celebrated in 2001 and 2013 and is again being celebrated in 2019. Finally, since the UP chief minister’s writ runs only in UP, pan-Indian description would be fragmented with Prayag following a different nomenclature for its Kumbh than the three other locations.

Assembling of a large number of people at a single place for a limited period of time poses great challenge on various fronts: law and order, crowd management, sanitation, hygiene, pollution control, healthcare, etc. A government should focus on these issues. As a matter of policy it should desist from unilateral action on matters involving tradition, culture, and religion.

There are some calendrical matters too that would benefit from government interest. Because of differences among traditional astronomers, Kumbh was celebrated in Prayag in 1965 as well as 1966. The UP government should call a meeting of traditional panchang makers, Sanskrit scholars and modern astronomers to ensure that there is unanimity on the timing of the Kumbh. At a more fundamental level, there is a need to remove the error that has got into the Vikrami calendar over the past 1,500 years.

As a result of the discrepancies in the Vikrami calendar, Makar Sankranti (14 January) is still celebrated as Uttarayana (northward turning of the sun) while winter solstice has already taken place on about December 21.

The UP government should persuade the central government to initiate action to restore precision to Vikrami calendar and bring the calculated sky in consonance with the observed sky.
(First published on DailyO)

BAKED NEWS: political satire

“Sir, when did you decide to become the Supreme Leader?” As you know, my first love has always been history. But I do not believe in reading books, or reading minutes of meetings, official correspondence, or personal correspondence, etc. My approach is intuitive. It is based on two basic assumptions. First, Congress can do no right. Secondly, whatever is wrong must be due to Congress. I once applied for the post of a history teacher in a school. Even though I had a degree in Entire History, I was not selected. There and then, I decided to become the Supreme Leader, so that my historical conclusions get high publicity, and are propagated by my supporters. The other day, I was talking to Donald Trump. Both of us agreed that reading and thinking cause confusion. And confusion should be avoided at all costs.

BAKED NEWS. Journalist to Meha Halini: Your party is very keen to reform Muslim personal law. You are an imprtant leader of your party. What is your opinion? Meha Halini: I do not know about Muslims, but Muslim personal law is very useful for Hindus. Let me give you an example. My husband was already married. So, we could not have been married according to Hindu law. Both of us converted to Islam, naam ke vastey, and got married, We however remain practising Hindus. I suggest that even if Muslim law is changed for Muslims, it should be retained for Hindus so that well-off Hindus can make use of it to indulge in bigamy by bypassing Hindu law.

BAKED NEWS. From the personal diary of an eminent person. I spent an hour explaining to a person how bad Nehru had been for the country. He did not interrupt me, but said at the end: I do not understand what you were saying. But, one thing is clear to me. When Nehru died, the whoe nation went into mourning and millions attended his funeral. I wonder how many people will attend yours.

BAKED NEWS. Son to father: I wish to start my own business. I think I should open a tea stall. Father: It is a good idea. But do not open your stall in the town. Open it at the railway station. Son: But, why?. Father: If you open your stall in the town, people will come back and complain about re-used tea-leaves, bad quality of milk,smell of smoke in the tea, etc. But, if your customers are railway passengers, they will fall sick, will curse you, but cannot get back at you.

BAKED NEWS. Hanuman to Ram: Prabhu, Mahant has obtained SC certificate for me. Ram: Not a good idea; he should have got ST certificate. Hanuman: Why, Prabhu? Ram: If you change your religion, you will lose your SC status, but an ST status would have continued,

BAKED NEWS. Corridor Talk, Dera Baba Nanak. “I feel greatly honoured to be associated with this event of significance for the entire humanity. I take this opportunity to thank my respected father-in-law, my dear husband, and my loving husband. I regret to say my children have not been able to grace the occasion.