STILL IN BANGALORE-My hugely entertaining junket tour of India is finally winding down. The last stop was to attend this seminar organised by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), one of the premier institutions of scientific learning and research in India. Spread over a large wooded campus, it is equipped with a state-of-the art laboratory with PARAM, the super-computer. The theme of the seminar was to re-live the glory days of ancient India which had apparently been conducting space exploration, building super-computers and launching satellites three thousand years ago. Attending the seminar were luminaries like His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Ravi Shankar, the swami, not the sitar-player. Both spoke about spirituality in the age of science. Also in Bangalore at the same time was India's celebrity scientist, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the father of India's nuclear bombs, who was there to espouse peace. Just like hunters are the world's most avid conservationists, so it seems with nuclear scientists: war-mongers seem to be the loudest peaceniks.
Attached to the IISc is the Tata-funded National Institute of Advance Studies (NIAS). Unlike its mother institution, NIAS does not limit itself to the sciences. It does not confine itself to the study of pregnant monkeys carrying test-tube embryos and moths that eat mosquitoes. It occasionally gets into the science and society interface. This week, when the IISc was playing host to their holinesses, the NIAS was hosting an international conference of scientists and philosophers to talk about "Knowledge and East-West Transitions".
Even here, the topic of discussion became secondary as speaker after Indian speaker took to the podium to trace the roots of the nuclear bomb, communication satellites and global positioning systems to some long-lost Sanskrit monograph from the first millennium before Christ. There was one Prof CK Raju who said, among other things, that Euclid was a manufactured personality, and that Einstein plagiarised his theory of relativity from some ancient Buddhist scripture in Pali smuggled out of India. For my namesake Professor CK, proof appeared immaterial, all that mattered was faith. Looking to the past amidst the squalour of the present was a quintessentially Nehruvian process. Nehru was educated in elite schools in England, and he embellished the glory of an idealised past to awaken a civilisation in deep slumber. Perhaps at that time in the history of newly independent India it was necessary to do so. But sadly, Nehru's agenda has been hijacked by saffronite fundos who use it to justify everything from nuclear bombs to revive a "lost" Hindu Empire encompassing Afghanistan, Burma and everything in between. Now it seems this agenda has even infiltrated India's scientific community. Indian and Nepali "scientists" talked nebulously of how our ancestors streaked across the subcontinental skies in pushpak bimans. May be true, but this was a scientific conference. We needed proof, not conjecture.
While all this was going on, an Indo-Nepal Sanskrit Conference was being organised by the Rastriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth in the holy town of Tirupati where a "senior scientist" named CSR Prabhu (they sure have a lot of initials down there) expounded on his theory that not only were our ancients buzzing around in bimans, but they had also perfected space technology, geo-stationary satellites and all-terrain vehicles capable of travelling through space, land and water with equal ease. May well be true, but how does that change the fact that South Asia has more child malnutrition, less literacy and more gender disparities than sub-Saharan Africa? Why was all this coming out in an Indo-Nepal Sanskrit meet I haven't yet figured out. And also mysterious is why no one asked Mr Prabhu why our scriptures which suddenly seem so ahead of their time, have no answers for our present development dilemma? Or why the ox-cart and the plough have remained essentially unchanged for 5,000 years?
Mr Prabhu wasn't finished yet. He said "Nepal's Royal Library" (do we have one?) has a copy of Subbaraya Sastri's book which contains technical details on assembling and fabricating a spacecraft, the advanced alloys to be used, semiconductors, and propellants. Finally, our own Mahendra Sanskrit University in Dang seems to have found a purpose: get over its obsession with the Diploma in Karmakanda (rituals) and pursue a intellectual property rights case to get compensation from NASA for stealing what, Mr Prabhu says, are joint Indian and Nepali discoveries of orbital launch vehicles and space stations.
Rajiv Sarkar, editor of Gentleman magazine (doing to India in the 00s what Playboy did to America in the 70s) put it in his own very pithy style: "See, all that these pompous b.....s are bothered about is an India of only 25 million people that is riding on the crest of the information communication revolution, carries international credit cards and drives around in fancy cars. The rest of the billion simply do not matter to them. These intellectuals manufacture apologies to relieve the guilty conscience of India's middle-class."
Why are we so obsessed with manufacturing and wallowing in an artificial past? Our history is glorious, but sadly, we can't live there. We have to live in the present and plan for the future.