Indian scientists at odds on ancient discovery claims

By AFP
Published: January 8, 2015
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Sensational claims, including that ancient Hindu sages were pioneers of aviation and algebra, triggers debate. STOCK IMAGE

Sensational claims, including that ancient Hindu sages were pioneers of aviation and algebra, triggers debate. STOCK IMAGE

NEW DELHI: A series of sensational claims, including that ancient Hindu sages were the pioneers of aviation and algebra, have triggered a furious debate in Indian academic circles amid warnings that nationalist breast-beating could undermine the country’s burgeoning scientific reputation.

A weekend conclave of experts and researchers, whose guests included new Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was intended to highlight some of the latest achievements by India’s scientific community.

The nation’s scientific prowess received a major boost last year when it became the first Asian country to reach Mars, a breakthrough that academics hoped would make people view India in a different light.

However the headlines from the weekend conference in Mumbai were dominated by the contributions in a session devoted to Vedic science, which appeared in ancient Hindu scriptures.

Former pilot turned author Anand J. Bodas said Maharishi Bhardwaj – a sage of the Vedic period (around 1500 – 500 BC) – had laid down as many as “500 guidelines” on flying in one of the ancient Hindu texts much before Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century ideas for flying machines and the American Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903.

The Maharishi defined an aeroplane as a vehicle which could even travel from one planet to other, Bodas said before adding that some of the “jumbo” aeroplanes of ancient India had “40 small engines” and could move not only forward but backward as well.

He then raised eyebrows further by claiming aviation technology existed in India as early as 7,000 BC, though he did not explain his evidence for this theory.

In the same session, Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan also caused a stir by claiming that Indians were the first to discover some of the most important mathematic principles.

“Our scientists discovered the Pythagoras theorem but we very gracefully allowed the Greeks to take the credit,” said the minister who is a member of Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.

“We all know we knew ‘beej ganit’ (Hindi term for algebra) long before the Arabs, but very selflessly allowed it to be called algebra.”

The claims did receive some support, including from opposition politician Shashi Tharoor who said “the genuine accomplishments of ancient Indian science” should not be underplayed just because their modern-day champions are Hindu supremacists.

But D Raghunandan, president of the All India People’s Scientific Network, said such claims for Vedic science would only end up heaping ridicule on the country’s scientific community.

“They want to trace everything back to the Hindu Vedic age. They are not talking about the medieval period because then they would have to mention the influence of Islam,” he told AFP.

“We are giving a young, aspirational generation a wrong idea of science. And this is why nobody takes Indian scientists seriously.”

Even before Bodas took to the stage, a Nasa researcher was reported to have launched a petition calling for the author’s speech to be cancelled as it had no scientific basis.

Bodas was not immediately available for comment.

But reacting to Bodas’ speech, Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen said that a distinction had to be drawn between imagination and reality.

“As our epics show, Indians have thought about flying for a long time. But it would be fanciful to say that India invented the aeroplane,” Sen told the CNN-IBN news network.

“If ancient India had airfare technology, we would like to see some evidence,” the economist said.

One noted scientist said Bodas’ claims about aviation had been debunked 40 years ago by a team of experts after a thorough study.

HS Mukunda, one of the authors of the study, said the planes described by Bodas are “at best poor concoctions rather than expressions of something real”.

“None of the planes has …capabilities of being flown, the geometries are unimaginably horrendous…. and the principles of propulsion make them resist rather than assist flying,” Mukunda told the Indian Express.

In an editorial after the conference, The Hindustan Times criticised the claims as baseless, saying that “while proof of such things is said to exist in the texts of yore, none of this seems grounded in fact”.

In a speech in October, Modi himself cited examples from Hindu mythology as proof that plastic surgery and genetic science existed in ancient India.

“We worship (elephant god) Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery,” Modi said.

Critics have accused the government of pursuing a ‘majoritarian Hindutva’ (Hindu nationalist) agenda by exalting Hindu history, culture and religious texts while ignoring the country’s secular credentials.

Hindus comprise some 81 percent of India’s 1.2 billion population with 13 percent Muslim and a little over 2 percent Christians.

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Reader Comments (27)

  • Pity
    Jan 8, 2015 - 3:13PM

    This happens when you believe in myths and foolish stories.

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  • John
    Jan 8, 2015 - 4:31PM

    I’ll have what these nationalists are having :P
    The cracker however was “The Maharishi defined an aeroplane as a vehicle which could even travel from one planet to other, Bodas said before adding that some of the “jumbo” aeroplanes of ancient India had “40 small engines” and could move not only forward but backward as well”
    RIP rocket science,you were doing it wrong.

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  • sharabi
    Jan 8, 2015 - 4:57PM

    why not? If Moses could make a path through river, Jesus could walk over water, could feed hundreds of people by one fish & one bread.
    BTW we should leave past glories & try for a better future.

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  • Rex Minor
    Jan 8, 2015 - 5:14PM

    Despite the fact that todays people in India are regarded as an underdeveloped and uncivilised, the land has experienced several civilisations which were evidenced from the archeological finds, indicting the life style of the former generation far more superior to what one can imagane. Some of the relics are now under water and need to be explored.

    Rex Minor

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  • Nouman
    Jan 8, 2015 - 5:15PM

    The claims about Algebra and mathematics may hold some merit. The Arabs did acquire knowledge from both India and Greece and built upon that. Arabic numerals that we all use are of Indian origin. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging that.

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  • Malatesh
    Jan 8, 2015 - 6:04PM

    I’m a Hindu,
    I dont believe these are just imaginary stories stories, there is no evidence about Ramayan/Mahabharath, these are just friction stories written by some ancient people.

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  • Bewildered
    Jan 8, 2015 - 6:19PM

    “Arabic numerals that we all use are of Indian origin”

    Seriously, were they written in Arabic style, English style, or Roman style? No LOLs.

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  • Bewildered
    Jan 8, 2015 - 7:36PM

    “We worship (elephant god) Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery,” Modi said.

    And these Hindutva fascists trolling in the global cyberspace spewing venomous vitriol against Muslims and Islam and trying their best to deceive the world with their cover up propaganda that Indians elected Modi because he was the only one in the whole 1.2 billion Indian population with the intelligence and wisdom needed to turn India’s fortunes, not because of his Hindutva ideals. Only an absolutely dumb and closed minded person with zero IQ level could have interpreted what Modi have said. This is the clearest proof how much extraordinary intelligence Modi is blessed with.

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  • Nouman
    Jan 8, 2015 - 8:00PM

    @Bewildered:
    Arabic numerals refers to a system where the position of the digit tells you its value. Like unit position, tens, hundreds and so on. Before Arabic numerals the West used Roman numerals where different letters represented different values. The script used to write the actual numbers is not what the term “Arabic numerals” refers to. The whole world now uses Arabic numerals and this is basic general knowledge which you seem to lack.

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  • John B
    Jan 8, 2015 - 10:58PM

    There are some evidences based on the Egyptian writings that there were mixture of ideas between the east and middle east both on philosophy and science. Certainly Indians and Chinese had a good knowledge of basic geometry and algebra and rudimentary calculus. even the so called Arabic numerals are Indian script, but that does not mean they alone invented numbers. The concept of Boolean logic and zero certainly originated in India as part of philosophical quest for god.

    However, it is purely irrational to conclude that flight and all of algebra originated from India. Certainly during the stay of Alexander in that region, there were great deal of exchanges of ideas and Greeks certainly took back some with them as did Indians. Ptolemy records some of those in astronomy. Indo-Persians did have good knowledge of astronomy, as part of their religious beliefs.

    The ancient world was small, people received trade goods frequently, and diaspora of middle east including Jews did settle in India as far as north east of India. Roman ships anchored inland Cauvery water ways on the eastern side of India for grain. Thus, mixture and spread of knowledge were unavoidable and no ancient civilization can claim credit for anyone thing. Bricks were burnt in Sumaria as well as in India and china. Lime stone mortar was common in southern India at the same period as that of Romans.

    Every early human civilization did agriculture the same way and made clay pots with burnt clay from south America to India, and weaves their clothes (wool or cotton or hemp) the same way, and dyed their clothes.

    Naturally one is inclined to ask how the diverse people knew all this in a same manner.

    In the end however, it was Greeks who cohesively put all the materials together, copied faithfully by early Arab and Persian scribes, and later expanded by French and English. Whatever the ancient Indians had, it was either lost due to the materials they were written on, or locked in religious nonsensical myth which came to dominate India until the advent of renaissance period.

    The concept of flight was known for eons but the means of controlled flight and methodical approach to the problem goes to Wright brothers. The concept of Algebra and Geometry however certainly originated in the east (as part of their celestial calculations for religious purpose) but expanded and perfected by Greek-Romans, carried around the world by the English, and French as part of their colonial expansion.

    The concept of Atom was known to the east much before the Greeks, but it was Dalton, Thompson and Rutherford gave a working model; Maxwell unified the electro magnetic wave functionality and wave-particle duality dilemma led to the idea of quanta by Max Planck and much later in America they split the atom. So, who can claim credit for splitting of atoms?

    In the ancient world which was small and connected through trade knowledge flowed freely in all directions. That was the very reason for colonial conquest. Who did what in the past is irrelevant since there are no concrete evidences except a general idea.

    What they did with that knowledge is the key. If the Vedic Indians knew of flight mechanism, why did they not fly to Usha? After all she was a Vedic god.

    The decline of Indian civilization started with the expansion of mythical religions of the past and it took Islam invaders to shake the Indian minds. Shedding of the religious myth freed Europe, and as part of the British empire modern India directly benefitted from that new world school of knowledge with her old world money.

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  • Bewildered
    Jan 8, 2015 - 11:50PM

    @Nouman:

    “The whole world now uses Arabic numerals and this is basic general knowledge which you seem to lack.”

    May be I lack this basic knowledge (not true, anyway), but you surely lack basic comprehension skills. This is what you said earlier “Arabic numerals that we all use are of Indian origin”. and I asked “were they written (in India) in Arabic style, English style, or Roman style?”. Where is the answer to my question? Perhaps you yourself don’t know, yet (Internet is a wonderful facility — wasn’t that also invented by some Indian yugi 7000 years ago?).

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  • PrasadDeccani
    Jan 9, 2015 - 5:17AM

    @Rex Minor:
    “Despite the fact that todays people in India are regarded as an underdeveloped and uncivilised”

    Very amusing indeed.

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  • Rex Minor
    Jan 9, 2015 - 5:43AM

    @John B:
    and as part of the British empire modern India directly benefitted from that new world school of knowledge with her old world money.

    How naive and ignorant you must think of people of the Indian subcontinent, your narrative has no solid basis. The cradle of human civilisation is in the middle east, the homo sapiens originated from the arablian penensula, unlike previously thought from Africa which is based on archeological finds in Laos. Indian subcontinent suffered from the two centuries colonial suppression during the period of renaisance and idustrialisation in Europe.

    Rex Minor

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  • ISROFan
    Jan 9, 2015 - 6:40AM

    I am a Hindu, but if my religion does not agree with Science, then my religion is wrong not Science. Period.

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  • John
    Jan 9, 2015 - 8:56AM

    @ISROFan:
    Dude don’t be silly, how could be your religion wrong, its definitely science which is wrong. Even on its best day, Science cannot hold a candle in front of Hinduism, I mean look at it, some of the “jumbo” “aeroplanes” you folks made used to have ‘“40 small engines” and could move not only forward but backward as well and that too around 7,000 BC. How can science even imagine to be at par with the might intellect of your fore fathers?

    Science 0 , Hinduism : 10

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  • PrasadDeccani
    Jan 9, 2015 - 9:37AM

    @Rex Minor:

    You don’t call impoverished, illiterate, barbaric, nomadic desert tribals civilized.

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  • N.Siddiqui
    Jan 9, 2015 - 10:19AM

    @John:
    This must be sarcasm. This is a Hobsons choice…to be(religious) or not to be is the question. The more you embrace religion with all the myths and mystics, you are moving away from science and reality.

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  • John
    Jan 9, 2015 - 11:58AM

    @N.Siddiqui:
    Yes it was.
    Also rumor has it Cellular Communication was also invented by the champions of Hindutva. You know how did they find that out? Well they dug up hundreds of meter in the ground but couldn’t find any kind of cabling or fiber links which took them to the conclusion that their forefathers used to engage in wireless communications ^_^

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  • Ahmed Shafik
    Jan 9, 2015 - 7:34PM

    I sincerely hope that PM Modi would dismiss these ministers. Flight and space travel is something humans have dreamed of for a long time and so did the Indians. That said just like Arabs there are plenty of things Indian and rest of third world civilisations need to wrest back the credit of from West.

    Advances in science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine were made in India, Persia and Arab world but the Hellinistic civilisation of Europe and West attribute almost everything to modern Western scientists or ancient Greek Philosophers.

    Lastly since the debate digressed, colonialism DID NOT BENEFIT INDIA. Alot of Indians ate writing papers about it. At the time British tookover India was an economic super power when they left sub continent was a filthy over populated third world nation. Would we have adopted printing press, industrial revolution and Constitutional monarchies is a question which can never be answered since British conquered India.

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  • John B
    Jan 9, 2015 - 8:31PM

    @Rex Minor:
    If you think middle east is human origin, then you are myopic in your understanding. Humans have neanderthal and African origin DNA ( with the exception of African population ) and it is the African DNA that gives human characteristics.

    The DNA of Indian subcontinent has every genotype you can imagine and a fantatic repertoire to study ( prove ) Hardy-Weinberg law.

    Every one of my word is backed by historical and scientific writings.

    Contrary to popular belief, British -India developed economically, industrially, governmentally and educationally faster than other colonies. No doubt they had their oppression by British policy, but not all was bad in a broad picture.

    Until the advent of WW I, there was a steady progress. India incurred debts on behalf of British empire in WWs thereafter and took her a long time to come out of it. Europe does not even remember or acknowledge the Indian soldiers died for the European conflict dubbed as WW I and II. Such is the history of that region.

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  • Seema ulanghan
    Jan 9, 2015 - 10:05PM

    India/ hindus gave the arabs their numbers. What we call arab numerals in english are known as hindu numerals in arab countries. Knwledge of Mathematics was given to arabs by hindus.

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  • Dr ANIL MISHRA
    Jan 10, 2015 - 2:22AM

    ASTRONOMY, SCIENCE AND MATHS IN HINDU INDIA

    It is truly shocking that even in the age of knowledge and internet, ppl let their prejudices interfere and publish nonsense. The following is a brief list of genuine proven discoveries by Hindus in the era from 800 BC to 800 AD, easily verifiable-

    Aryabhatt, the hindu astronomer said in 600 AD that the earth is round and revolves around the sun. This was hundreds of years before Galileo
    Sushruta, the plastic surgeon, had described rotation rhinoplasty in 500 BC- every American plastic surgical textbook acknowledges that. It was to repair the cut noses resulting from cruel punishments doled out in those days.
    It is well known that Baudhyana in 700 BC is the first person to have ever described the theorem that was later attributed to Pythagorus.
    Similarly, the Hindus were the first to describe the zero and decimals.

    I will stop here, please do your own homework to verify these facts. At its peak, the Hindu civilisation was perhaps the most advanced race of its time. It may have been influenced by other cultures both before and during its peak, and very definitely enriched and influenced Chinese and Arabic knowledge.

    Now we are learning from the west, but also striding forward on our own as well. Our space mission has reached Mars, an outstanding achievement. This give and take, and the rise and fall of civilisations is quite common over centuries and should come as no surprise.

    Thank you, with best wishes from UK. Dr Mishra

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  • amoghavarshaii
    Jan 10, 2015 - 9:55AM

    @Dr Mishra, that is what every body is saying.. u are also saying..
    ” Aryabhatt, the hindu astronomer said in 600
    ” Sushruta, the plastic surgeon, had described rotation rhinoplasty in 500
    ” Baudhyana in 700 BC is the first person to have ever described

    you have said it all
    aryabhatt ” said ”
    sushruta ” had described”
    Baudhyana ” to have ever “

    is there something like,
    He has Proved
    He has demonstrated
    etc., which are more used in maths and science.

    Also why it is called Pythogarus theroem and not Baudhyana theroem world over?
    why there is still galileo named as first person to have proved that earth is not at center?

    Mishra and all Hindutva scientist can challenge that in the world of science and get galileo and pythogarus names removed from text of world over, is it not possible in this todays world of technology.

    Science needs proofs, evidences.
    Not undated literatures , undated theories.
    A theory has to be proved by scientific experiment and evidence, then only it is valid theory, other wise it is just TEXT of Imagination and literature.

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  • Milind
    Jan 10, 2015 - 10:57AM

    N. Siddique – “The more you embrace religion with all the myths and mystics, you are moving away from science and reality”

    Religion/myths/mystics are more in the realms of imagination/intuition. Science to begin with is mostly in the realms of practicality/objectivity..
    However ultimately both converge. Thus your statement holds true when we’re at the initial levels of religion (or science). However once we evolve both hold true, both are parts of the same whole, as we look at these holistically.

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  • Dinesh
    Jan 11, 2015 - 12:01AM

    There are lot of proofs for Hindu stories for example Sati Kaushika stopped the rotation of earth to bring back life of her husband now it may be a good story but it tells us that earth was rotating.

    Britishers destroyed our education system because they were jealous of many things which we had.

    Now coming to viman shastra it is my firm belief that these techniques are so advanced that we are unable to understand them at this point of time.

    hundreds of years ago people used to laugh on many hindu customs one of them was to worship tulsi and saying that every house must have tulsi . Now we know why it is necessary. In many countries tulsi is sold for 70000 rs/ kg . because of its medicinal properties.

    our mind may not be able to accept it today but may be in future it can. Biggest example to explain If I go back in time when computer was in development stage and show them a micro Sd card and say its capacity is 2 TB will they believe or laugh, by the way that time computer had 5 MB hard disk and size was huge….

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  • Dr Anil Mishra
    Jan 11, 2015 - 2:19AM

    amoghavarshaii thank you

    The 3 names I quoted above, Aryabhat, Sushruta and Baudhayan are easily verifiable by reading quality links on the net. My job is to light a spark inside of you and your job is to spend some time researching these wonderful facts about how advanced the Hindu civilisations were in the years 800 BC to 800 AD.

    In your quest you will find delightful nuggets about other civilisations as well. At its peak, the Hindu civilisation was perhaps the most advanced race of its time. It may have been influenced by other cultures both before and during its peak, and very definitely enriched and influenced Chinese and Arabic knowledge.

    Sushruta contribution to rhinoplasty is openly acknowledged by ALL British and American plastic surgical textbooks, easy to confirm pl look it up.

    After 1000 AD there were many brutal invasions in India and much of what was learned was destroyed. For example the exquisite Ellora caves whose monolithic architecture is more intricate than the Parthenon, was lost to mankind for hundreds of years and was only re-discovered by accident in 1800. An immaculate knowledge of geometry and maths was required to construct the temples.

    Similarly, a lot of science of Egyptians was lost for hundreds of years and only since 1920 have we slowly understood some of what they knew, but not all.

    More and more textbooks here in UK are now openly acknowledging the contributions of Aryabhatt and other astronomers and mathematicians.

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  • thehinduego
    Jan 22, 2015 - 5:42AM

    I blame the West in her quest to contain China they have massaged the Hindu inferiority complex so much so that they are deluded and living in a bubble.

    We have a flying elephant idol so we invented flying craft and plastic surgery .

    Here is the thing these scripts are neither authentic nor is their faith a monolithic wisdom but a mish mash of many myths. For them to now take credit for others achievements on thesis of erroneous inconcise text is verging on the dsmn right desperate.

    The Hindus are a funny ppl nice enough but give them a little power and whoops!

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