Archive for January, 2013

The Ancient Wisdom

We often come across statements from traditionalists like “Our ancestors knew this long back, and our scientists have come to know about it now” whenever some significant scientific discovery or proposition has been made. This happens a lot in India, where people’s pride of Vedic knowledge often clouds its scientific veracity. In this article, we are going to identify some aspects of these claims where understanding of nature was given already in the scriptures

First of all, we need to understand that I am referring Vedas, Upanishads and Vedanta as ‘Scriptures’ as they were works of revelation, communicated or “revealed” by some supernatural agency. Works like Surya Siddhanta (Author unknown), Aryabhatiya (Aryabhatta), Pancha Sidhanta (Varahamihira), etc.,  are not scriptures as they were not “revealed” but were derived from logic-based and evidence-based rational methodology

1. The adjective “Vedic” is a misnomer

Not every scholarly work made in India in the ancient and medieval periods is “Vedic”, or sourced from scriptures. Whatever mathematics regarded as contribution of India to the world was done by Indian mathematicians like Aryabhatta, Varahmihira, Brahmagupta during post-Vedic period. Moreover, there was a great contribution from Jain scholars to Indian mathematics, and so it is very unfair, if not insulting, to use the “Vedic” qualifier for these.

The more recent “Vedic Mathematics” published in 20th Century which has tricks to do elementary arithmetic calculations is neither Vedic not Mathematics, and its claim that “there is no part of mathematics, pure or applied, which is beyond their jurisdiction” is superfluous and ridiculous.

“Vedic astrology” is also one such misnomer, and there is no mention of any kind of star-divination (Jyotisha) in the Vedas. Horoscope-based astrology is more of a Hellenistic influence in post-Vedic period in India, and wasn’t “revealed” to the Aryans. So, Hindus don’t need to feel astrology as some kind of Vedic baggage they need to carry as part of their religious faith. If they still feel it as cultural baggage that needs to be followed, refer this post where I criticized the blind practice of tradition that becomes irrelevant and dangerous over a period of time

2. Terseness of Scientific literature

Since old Babylonians, people have been sensible enough to use a crisp, unambiguous and direct writing style for scientific information they have discovered. The reason behind this is obvious, that if I were looking for some scientific information, I would want it without any ambiguity and to-the-point. If there’s something mentioned which is cryptic, indirect and ambiguous, it’s more likely to be mysticism and fantasy than science. This is a good rule of thumb anyone can use in everyday reading. We know claims from traditionalists that verses from scriptures mention String-theory dimensions, Mass-Energy equivalence, Big Bang, Black Holes, Speed of light and so on. We also have the claim that Quran mentions lot of scientific information, for instance, development of the human embryo during pregnancy.

If we look at these type of claims, all of them make use of farfetched and cherry-picked interpretations of verses from scriptures forcing them to be conclusive with the discovery made. This is done with so much enthusiasm and pseudo-sincerity that when dimensions in String theory had changed from 10 to 26, the Vedic interpretation also changed from 10 to 26. Also, the verses under consideration of these claims, in fact never literally mention any information as observed in nature, and they refer to something else when looked at the proper context. We can only bridge the verse and information from the discovery made, but cannot arrive at the discovered fact from the verse using logical reasoning.

Simply put, someone with basic trigonometry knowledge can prove Sin^2(x)+Cos^2(x)=1, but a kid who has learned numbers cannot start with 1 and show that it is equal to Sin^2(x)+Cos^2(x)  due to the lack of knowledge of trigonometry in the first place. It’s only due to the presupposition of information, that scriptures can be interpreted into agreement.

Apart from this, one thing to be noted here is that, myths in scriptures don’t actually mean anything. When the Upanishads say everything has come from Brahmanda, it doesn’t mean anything. But when there is a scientific claim that the universe could’ve originated from a miniature energy source via Big-bang, there are some 100 parameters to measure, validate and refine the claim. Scientists don’t pull speculations out of their asses, and they have sound rational basis to do so. And the method of falsification filters any unreasonable speculations over a period of time.

For eg., our knowledge on what could’ve happened during and just after the Big bang has been refined so much by now, that the substrate from which everything came out can simply be void of any matter or energy but just have quantum fluctuations, and in that case, the claim of genesis from Brahmanda, which is an infinite energy source, becomes completely false. Don’t be surprised if some Art of Living or Inner-engineering fellow comes up with a new definition of Brahmanda or cites a different verse altogether. Apparently, god works in mysterious ways and talks in a lot of tongues with ambiguity.

Moreover, mere information (like development of human embryo or speed of light) is useless for science and humankind, unless the method in which that information can be obtained and validated is mentioned. What am I going to do with a Time-machine if I don’t know how to operate, customize, improve and build it? I can only clean it, put it in a museum and worship it if I am stupid enough.

On a lighter note, unless god wants to impress people by making a show-off of the information he knows, there is no point to any of these claims and interpretations from “revealed” scriptures.

3. Exaggeration of ancestors’ lifestyle

 It is a popular notion that our ancestors were very smart, enjoyed excellent health ever in the history of humankind, had far superior technology than we have now, and were pure by body, pure by heart, pure by soul, and so on. The perspective of “Us-Them” is a false and idiotic dichotomy, especially to look at progress and technology. Well, if they had far superior technology than us, or at least as good as us, they would’ve definitely had printing presses,  and had easily passed-down all their discoveries and technology to the future generations.

But that never happened. I’m not saying our ancestors didn’t pass down any information to us: It’s just that the method of communication has been getting refined since olden times. The way how Babylonians and Egyptians have shared their history is more complicated compared to how the Holy Roman Empire did, and the way we know about a more recent event like World War II is far less ambiguous, and is direct and academic. It’s nonsense to think that ancient civilizations like the Indus Valley or aboriginal tribes in Sri Lanka had sophisticated technology capable of something like air flight. We don’t have any stone tablets from the past that have blueprints of at least a printing press. Why would any civilization invent the best technology ever, and then choose not to pass it down to their children?

Also, it is a matter of common reasoning to understand that technology always improves over a period of time, and the technology our ancestors had in 2000 BCE was superior to that in 5000 BCE and the technology we have now is far superior to that in 1990 CE; As a matter of fact, we have a technological acceleration now. We have become better in fighting against diseases than our ancestors: We even eradicated smallpox and are on our way towards a climax with polio, we improved our life-expectancy, ventured into extra-terrestrial space, and our understanding of life and the universe improved by leaps and bounds compared to what we had 100 years back. Politically, we have come to the stage where genocide is categorically immoral, war is frowned upon, equality and liberty rule over everything else, and are recognizing other species as an equal part of nature with us. We need to keep this in mind while understating the achievements of the current generation and overstating those of our ancestors.

In conclusion, we should stop demoralizing ourselves by undermining our generation’s progress and contribution to human history, and make efforts towards improving the things around us in a better and useful way. Misinterpreting and improperly understanding our ancestors’ knowledge and contribution is an insult to the fact that we are building on the progress and technology fundamentally laid down by them. We have to give them the due credit for what they have done to us, uphold the spirit of Scientific progress and constructively work for ourselves and the future generations.

Further Reading:

Vedic Mathematics

The surprising decline in violence (Ted talk) –

Scientific Progress

Categories: General Science Tags: ,
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