In 1920, Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician, succumbed to what was probably amoebic dysentery at the age of 32. But even though his lifespan was short, Ramanujan’s work continues to influence mathematics today — from number theory and infinite series to continued fractions — and he is just one of many influential Indian researchers whose efforts have helped to form the foundations of science. These include the space scientist Venkatraman Radhakrishnan, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, co-winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics.
None of these individuals, however, were discussed at a lecture in Mumbai in September. Organized by a group called “Bharatam Reawakening,” the meeting — and the group — aim to glorify India’s past and the contributions of their ancestors to the world, even if it means taking a detour into the fantastic and the unlikely. The talk itself was titled “Vaimanika Shastra,” which means “Aeronautical Science” in Sanskrit, and at its heart is the claim that an ancient Indian civilization had developed aeronautical technology centuries before the Wright Brothers flew their first plane. A small but significant number of Indians believe that the mention of flying vehicles in Indian mythology is evidence that such technology was already created by their ancestors.
It’s just one of numerous fantastical ideas, fueled by a toxic mix of misinformation and brewing Indian nationalism, that have long percolated through Indian society. In the northwestern city of Jodhpur, one such theory suggests, there is ample evidence of an ancient nuclear war. And even the country’s own prime minister, Narendra Modi, has claimed that the Hindu god Ganesha — depicted as having the head of an elephant and the body of a human — provides evidence that ancient Indian doctors had mastered cosmetic surgery.
Modi’s bizarre claim notwithstanding, such stories have generally been banished to the scientific fringe. But the Mumbai event, which included among its speakers Prahlada Ramarao, the former chief controller of India’s leading military research agency, suggested to some that these ideas are now creeping perilously close to mainstream scientific circles. “The way [the organizers] opened the session that day was by saying ‘Our religion is in deep trouble,’” said Rohini Karandikar, a post-doctoral fellow at Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education (HBCSE) and a member of a group of Indian activists calling for an end to these sorts of superstitions and conspiracy theories. “That itself was an indication of where this talk was leading.”
It’s a problem that has many academics here worried. As India becomes increasingly polarized, coordinated efforts to popularize pseudoscientific theories, and to aggrandize the nation’s own scientific past, have begun to gain ground, they say. It’s a worrying mash-up of nationalism, religion, and scientific bunkum that appears to be an increasingly easy sell — and one that leaves the population both misinformed and perennially at odds with itself. “That is why our leaders and scientists talk about how evolution is wrong,” said Aniket Sule, an astrophysicist and colleague of Karandikar at HBCSE, “or how Indians were first to invent plane or atomic theory, or how cow worship is scientific.”
Karandikar agreed. “They want to use these claims in science to mobilize people… under the umbrella of religious supremacy,” she said. “For them it is a competition and the need to champion Hinduism.
“I fear that this could lead to a situation where such claims — propagated over and again — might eventually enter our textbooks,” she added. “It is already a ticking time-bomb.”
Such characterizations are not mere hyperbole. In 2014, a department that focused on research into alternative and traditional Indian medicines — including unscientific fields like homeopathy and naturopathy — was elevated in status to the level of ministry and now operates alongside the Indian Ministry of Health. And several attempts have already been made by political leaders to change parts of the national school syllabus to reflect elements of nascent pseudoscience. Earlier this year, Satya Pal Singh, Minister of State for Human Resource Development, called for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to be removed from textbooks. “Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, have said they saw an ape turning into a man,” he reasoned publicly. “No books we have read or the tales told to us by our grandparents had such a mention.”
The suggested revisions were strongly opposed by the scientific community in India, but advocates for rationalism in the country warn that more such endeavors will follow. And it’s that conviction that prompted researchers like Karandikar and Sule to help establish countervailing events like National Scientific Temper Day, which honors the slain activist Narendra Dabholkar.
Dabholkar, a doctor and rationalist author, was the founder of the Committee to Eradicate Superstition in his home state of Maharashtra. He was assassinated by two gunmen in 2013.
Several other groups have also taken up the cause of myth-busting. A popular website called Alt News, for example, recently started a section devoted to countering false information in science. Sumaiya Shaikh, the site’s science editor, emphasized the need to counter the spread of pseudoscience quickly, especially in the field of medicine. “The fact that we now have a whole separate Ministry of AYUSH [Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy], outside of the Ministry of Health, to focus on alternative or ancient science is concerning,” Shaikh said. “A lot of times many of these medicines are not being tested properly, and are marketed as ‘ancient science’ and assume that our ancestors must have established its efficacy.
“This not only reduces India’s scientific quotient,” she said, “but it also causes real damage — and it’s medical negligence.”
Sule, meanwhile, is preparing a petition to fight against the introduction of a new engineering textbook that endorses the notion of pre-20th-century Indian aircraft, among other claims — including that batteries and electricity were common in ancient India. “There are people close to the current government who feel that the present curriculum for science and history is too Western-centric, and they have to take drastic measures to swing it to other extreme,” Sule said. “It is important for us to stand against any revisions which get introduced without due academic deliberations,” he said, adding that it can “brainwash a generation.”
Karandikar and Sule also make it their mission to attend conferences like the recent one in Mumbai, so that they can challenge the event’s outlandish claims. “We need to put emphasis on the real achievement of Indians in science,” Karandikar said. “There is no need to make up theories glorifying India that have no basis or evidence in reality.”
They had much to confront in Mumbai — including a discourse about India’s deep history of mercury mining. “When Dr. Ramarao spoke about the use of mercury in ancient India… [Sule] asked [him] where in the country did mercury mining happen,” Karandikar said, which triggered an aggressive response from not just the organizer, but also many people in the audience.
A similar question on the validity of funding research into fuels made of donkey urine — another ancient Indian technology — nearly got the activists ejected. “We had to remind the organizers that this was meant to be an intellectual debate,” Karandikar recalled.
The activists were permitted to remain, but Sule says he believes the battle against magical thinking is only just beginning in India. “I strongly believe the ability to ask the right questions is the heart of democracy,” he said. “Unless you don’t know how to question the claims put in front of you, you tend to side with the person who dazzles you the most.”
Ruchi Kumar is an Indian journalist currently working in Kabul, Afghanistan, focusing on news stories from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. She has been published in Foreign Policy, The Guardian, NPR, The National, Al Jazeera, and The Washington Post, among other outlets.