Tag Archives: Ancient India

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.

Why old Ghaggar cannot be the Rigvedic river Sarasvati?

Rajesh Kochhar
Sarasvati is the most celebrated river in the Rigveda on whose banks numerous hymns were composed. While many rivers are merely named, Sarasvati is described at length in the old Mandalas. It is called a mighty river which raises foam, makes waves , roars, cuts its banks and finally flows into a samudra. (Samudra literally means a water body. Its translation as ocean is a recent phenomenon.) In its course, it receives many tributaries which are called its daughters. There are other independent rivers in the area which are called its sisters.
This is the Sarasvati of the Old Mandalas. The tenth Mandala, unanimously agreed to be a later work contains River Hymn which mentions Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati in sequence, but only in passing. The pride of place in the hymn belongs to Indus. All adjectives and superlatives earlier applied to Sarasvati are now transferred to Indus. It is clear from context that the Sarasvati of the tenth Mandala cannot be the ‘naditama’ Sarasvati of the old Mandalas. There is a consensus among Vedic scholars that the Sarasvati of the last Mandala should be identified with the present-day Ghaggar lying between Satluj and Yamuna. It would seem that it is the phrase Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati that gave rise to the later legend that Sarasvati invisibly joins Ganga and Yamuna at Prayag Raj. Note that the Sarasvati of the old Mandalas as well as that of the tenth Mandala can in no way be reconciled with the Puranic description of invisible Sarasvati associated with Ganga and Yamuna.
When the term Rigvedic Sarasvati is used , the Sarasvati of old mandalas is meant. Even though Rigvedic hymns have been preserved over millennia, the question of river identification never arose. The question was taken up by European Indologists
The Norwegian scholar Christian Lassen suggested in 1858 that the Rigvedic Sarasvati be identified with Old Ghaggar. In 1891, in his English translation of the Rigveda, Max Muller asserted that at the time of the composition of the hymns, Ghaggar was a large river. He however was careful to admit that ‘it may not be possible to determined by geological evidence the time of the changes which modified the southern area of the Punjab and caused the Sarasvati to disappear in the desert‘. Max Muller had to resort to speculation because in his time geology was scientifically and technologically not advanced enough to answer questions about chronology. A hundred years later there is no need to indulge in idle conjecturing because we can answer the question unambiguously.
Rainwater fed Ghaggar rises in the Shivaliks and collects a number of tributaries. At present Ghaggar does not reach the sea but loses its way in the desert sands. There can be no doubt that at some epoch in the past, both Satluj and Yamuna flowed into Ghaggar and the combined river emptied into the sea. In this high-tech era, it has become common to draw attention to satellite imagery and remote sensing to make the point that Satluj and Yamuna gradually moved away from Ghaggar to reach their present state. It is important to note that the finding is more than a century old; it was arrived at through actual field work by British Indian officials. The key question is this: when did Ghaggar reach its present sorry state? Possibility exists that the shifting of Satluj and Yamuna took place 10000 or even 10000 years ago, that is much before the Rigvedic time. I have seen chronologies being extracted from remote sensing data. What is astonishing about many such technical reports is that they quote sacred texts. Geology is older than religion or religious texts. Interpretation of scientific evidence cannot depend on scriptures. Science should arrive at its findings from internal findings. These findings in turn should be used to constrain literary theories.
Remote sensing data requires the help of mathematical modelling which can raise suspicions. There is no reason to depend on indirect methods when the hydrological history of the Ghaggar system can be ascertained in a straightforward manner by collecting samples from dry river beds and paleo-channels and analysing them in the lab. To be credible this research should be carried out by an international team in a scientifically rigorous and open-ended manner.
Even if for the sake of argument it is conceded that in Rigvedic time, both Satluj and Yamuna flowed into Ghaggar, Ghaggar would still not conform to Rigvedic description. Waters from the snow-fed Satluj and Yamuna would strengthen lower Ghaggar. Upper Ghaggar would still be as puny as it is today. By no stretch of imagination can the puny rain-fed Shivalik stream that upper Ghaggar is be called foremost of rivers when mighty glacier-fed Satluj and Yamuna lie tin the neighbourhood.
Let us take the help of modern science to answer important questions on ancient Indian history. Till the time answers are obtained to everybody’s satisfaction, it would be prudent to keep one’s mind open.

Aryabhata reinstalled

Rajesh Kochhar

Aryabhata (born AD 476) is the founder of Siddhantic astronomy which focused on developing mathematical algorithms for calculating planetary orbits and for predicting lunar and solar eclipses. His concise text, composed in AD 499 and known simply as Aryabhatiyam ( Aryabhata’s), influenced all subsequent work on the subject. From Aryabhata’s time till that of Kepler’s laws, Siddhantic astronomers were probably the only ones in the world who could calculate eclipses with any degree of accuracy.

Very little is known about Aryabhata himself. This is so because of the inherent limitations of the oral tradition. Astronomical texts were composed in terse metrical poetry, which was memorized and transmitted from one generation to the next by word of mouth. What was not considered worth preserving for the moment was lost for ever. It is thus not possible to construct a connected account of ancient astronomy or for that matter of any aspect of ancient India.

Internet has given birth to a flourishing industry of concocting details about Aryabhata and others and giving such details wide currency. By attributing to Aryabhata what he did not do , we would be belittling what he actually did.

Here is some authentic information on Aryabhata arranged in question- and- answer form.

Q1. What do we know about Aryabhata, the person?

A. First note that his name is spelt with a single t and not two. He was born in AD 476 and composed his work Aryabhatiyam in AD 499. This we learn from the book itself. The year of his death is not known.

Aryabhata says that he “ sets forth here the knowledge honoured at Kusumpura”. This has been interpreted to mean that Kusumpura was his work place. It has been identified with Patliputra which in turn has been equated with modern Patna.

This is all what we know about Aryabhata from him. Some additional information comes from his commentators ( e.g. the earliest, Bhaskara I ( AD 629)), who declared that Aryabhata hailed from a place , or district, called As’maka. It has not been possible to identify Asmaka. Legend prevails that Aryabhata hailed from Kerala. There is no basis for this. It is a well known fact that Aryabhata’s work was followed and improved upon in Kerala. Attempts to place Asmaka in Kerala may simply be manifestation of a desire to give physical basis to this intellectual relationship.

Bhaskara I also calls Aryabhata Kulapa. By a long shot this has been interpreted to mean that he was the vice-chancellor of Nalanda University! Kulapa could simply mean founder of a school, which Aryabhata certainly was.

The press coverage of 22 July 2009 total solar eclipse claimed that Aryabhata maintained an observatory at Taregna near Patna. This is an instance of history driven by tourism.

Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, has erected a statue of Aryabhata to keep company with Galileo, Newton and Einstein. Bare-chested, stocky Aryabhata wearing a sacred thread is of course a figment of imagination. We have no way whatever of knowing what Aryabhata looked like.

Q2. Did Aryabhata believe in the spin of the earth?

A. He certainly did. But the whole thing should not be blown out of proportion.

We do not sense the spin of the earth under our feet. Instead the whole celestial sphere seems to be going around the earth. This indeed was the prevalent world view. Aryabhata boldly asserted that the earth was not static but spun on its axis.

He was severely criticized for this by friends and foes alike. His own follower Varahamihira died AD 587) believed that the earth was static. The otherwise brilliant mathematician astronomer Brahmagupta ( ) severely castigated Aryabhata for believing in the spin of the earth. Such was the onslaught of mainstream criticism that even followers of Aryabhata’s own school retreated. They rather ineffectually changed a word in the Aryabhatiyam text to argue that Aryabhata indeed considered the earth to be static.

If the scientific tradition had been based on written-down prose rather than on oral metrical poetry, Aryabhata’s reasons why he believed the earth spun would have been on record, and might have been considered convincing by later generations.

While today we give credit to Aryabhata for this, we should keep in mind that we know of Aryabhata’s belief in the spin of the earth not from his work or that of his followers but from the charge sheet maintained against him by his opponents. ( Just as we know about many nationalist heroes from the criminal complaint against them recorded by the colonial government.)

It is noteworthy that only a handful of later Indian astronomers believed that the earth rotated on its axis : Prthudaka (AD 860) and Makkibhatta ( AD 1377). Significantly , a religious text , Skandapurana ( , following Aryabhata, describes the earth as a bhramarika ( spinning top).

It should be borne in mind that belief in spin of the earth or otherwise was not relevant for Siddhantic calculations. Brahmagupta did not believe in in it . But that does not mean that he was any the lesser astronomer. Aryabhata himself , like everybody else, maintained that the sun revolved around the earth. As far as kinematics is concerned it matters not who goes around whom.

Aryabhata believed that the earth was all water south of equator ( Gola 12) and that it expanded in size by one yojana during a day of Brahma and contracted during a night( Gola 8).

As Thoreau put it , “ A man is wise with the wisdom of his age only and ignorant with its ignorance”.

Q3. Did Aryabhata believe in heliocentrism?

A. As discussed above , no , he did not. WE take heliocentrism for granted. In its time, it had profound philosophical implications that went beyond planetary theory.Impact of heliocentrism on human thinking should not be under-estimated.

Q4. Did Aryabhata invent zero?

A. No, zero had been known long before that.

Q5.Is Aryabhata the founder of the eclipse theory?

A. No. He is probably the first one to apply it in India. Such theories were already known in Greece and China