The current obsession with the glorious achievements of India’s past space travel, nuclear science, plastic surgery, aeronautics are only some of the things apparently invented in India of yore has given us cause for much merriment. The Indian Science Congress in Mumbai has been the focus of these claims, with scientists asking for more rigour and others giggling at the absurdity of assertions about planes that could fly backwards and between planets.
However, behind that laughter is deep despair. It is indeed funny when politicians make absurd claims. But, it is not funny when politicians and self-appointed scholars and experts make these claims in order to fool people or even themselves. None of these claims are substantiated with any proof. Indeed, if you ask for proof, then you are branded an anti-national.
A young visitor takes a closer look at a model of an Indian Air Force aircraft at the 102nd Indian Science Congress at Mumbai University. While the nation has plenty of accomplishments it can take pride in, the Science Congress has been in focus for the wrong reasons, with assertions about ancient Indian planes that could fly backwards and between planets. File pic
At the bottom of it all, it speaks to a deep insecurity with the idea of India. One where you cannot be proud of being an Indian unless you give to yourself the achievements of others. This insecurity runs so deep that you do not even realise how foolish you sound. And yet, by any reckoning, India is a great civilisation, whether or not some sage set off a nuclear bomb in second century BC.
Hindu mythology is endlessly fascinating in all its layers, and is a very substantial milestone and reference point in the study of all mythologies. The depth of thinking and discourse in the Upanishads is mind-boggling. Ananda Coomaraswamy, art historian and scholar extraordinaire, calls “Brahmanism or Hinduism... the oldest of the mystery religions, or rather metaphysical disciplines, of which we have a full and precise knowledge from literary sources... but also perhaps the only one of these that has survived with an unbroken tradition.”
There is much to be proud of here. But not if you are so ignorant or so caught up in what you have not done, that you cannot see the wood for the trees. India is also more than Hinduism and Brahmanism. It is also the history and the mythology of the Dalit, the untouchable, the animist, the tribal, the adivasi. It is also the story of the Muslim, the Christian, the Jew, the Parsi, the Afghan, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French, the British. Some of these came to conquer, others to stay, some were converted with force and coercion, some chose to change. All these are part of who we are.
If we make up a nonsensical past, we just belittle ourselves and our staggering achievements while making ourselves a laughing stock. It is great to be able to boast that the Indian space programme worked to send a craft to orbit Mars on a fraction of the budget used by other nations. It is idiotic and cringe-making to hear someone claim that NASA found a helmet belonging to an ancient Hindu king on Mars.
It may seem odd that we are seeing such signs of insecurity from those very people who stated that India would now see better days since the BJP and Narendra Modi have come to power at the Centre. But, it is not. These are the people who feel they have been bullied and silenced for too long and their time has come. Unfortunately some of them have been so long steeping in a hatred of “others” and festering in their own inadequacies that they jump into the limelight with such outrageous pronouncements.
Their hatred is of such proportions that anyone who disagrees with them is seen as a stooge in the hands of Karl Marx or T Macaulay (because of his imperialist ideas about educating Indians) or Muslims or Missionaries (Christians). In their thinking, all right-thinking Indians are their kind of Indian right-wing in the extreme.
And yet, by their ludicrous claims they are, in fact, demeaning everything every Indian has actually achieved, in ancient times and now. Please note, there are no scholarly pronouncements on Aryabhatta’s actual genius. Therefore, I suspect that living in this la-la land where Indians invented everything is preferable to actually getting down to the nitty-gritty of reading and understanding ancient Indian texts. Well. Tat Tvam Asi.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona