Traditional, Modern, and Post-Modern
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Indic Visions in an Age of Science by Varadaraja V. Raman
(New York, NY: Metanexus, 2011).
Indian culture and civilization have contributed significantly to humanity’s heritage. They are as ancient as any, more ancient than many. Indian civilization is remarkable in its uninterrupted continuity since the misty millennia of unrecorded history. Scholars are unable to trace its precise roots, except to note that there flourished in India cultures that preceded the Vedic-Sanskritic and the Dravidian-Tamil which are the principal weaving threads in the fabric of current Indic civilization.
The Indian subcontinent has witnessed countless triumphs and tribulations, with more than its share of famines, frustrations, wars and battles. The resilience of Indic culture to alien intrusions, whether pillaging and plundering, or of the occupying kind, has few parallels in history. Religions which practically obliterated many ancient cultures to whom they brought their messages, did not destroy Hinduism. Every outsider who ever walked into India has been touched one way or another by the Indian people. In the long run, India has also benefited from her contacts with the aliens who barged into her shores.
Whether in food or costume, in marriage customs or festivals, there are significant regional variations within India. Not unlike in Europe when Christendom reigned supreme, the people of India, even with their linguistic and alimentary diversity, have maintained a commonalty, bound together largely by their Sanskritic and Tamil heritages. In our own times, English and modern science bind the elite of the nation, while the people at large are woven together in a political, cultural, and national fabric through a democratic system of government and by a unified framework of culture such as they have seldom experienced before in their long history.
The inhabitants of India range from primal tribes that still guard their one-with-nature ways to sophisticated groups that contribute to international debates and to modern science and technology. Present day Hindus are products of healthy mixtures from waves upon waves of immigrants and invaders. They include descendents from Africans, Greeks, Mongols, Persians, Afghans, Portuguese, and more.
Indic visions in an age of science is a vast subject. Indic visions include profound insights and illuminating thoughts, poetic imagination and flights of fancy, breakthroughs in mathematics, and ethical principles that range from the purely pragmatic to the impractically idealistic. They are reflected in art, music, science, philosophy, poetry, even pornography, in grammar, gourmet cuisine, stories, sinful and sacred.
Indus Valley civilization
The Indus valley civilization is one of the most ancient civilizations unearthed by archeologists. It has received more attention and commentaries than most other submerged civilizations have. It is said to have flourished between 2500 and 1900 B.C.E. Sir John Marshall often gets the lion’s share of the credit for this, but other important scientists in the field, such as; D. Banerji, K. N. Dikshit, E. Mackay, and M. S. Vats, must also be mentioned in this context.
The question of whether the Indus civilization had developed a script is a fascinating one. Here, as in other similar situations, there are divergent views among specialists in the matter of interpreting ancient data. Some have claimed to have deciphered it, others are still struggling with the task. There is also new hypothesis to the effect that they are not scripts at all. What is known is that there were mass-produced inscriptions in the Indus civilization such as are found nowhere else among ancient civilizations. Thus in a sense it may be said that the first version of printing began in the Indus valley.
The people of the Indus valley civilization were adepts in the construction of roads and residential structures, but there seem to be no big monuments or places for worship there. A building which in the ruins has been interpreted as a granary. The findings of archeologists make it clear that those people had the technologies of brick-making and pottery. We have no idea of what they thought or reflected upon, their religion or philosophy.
An old and a new theory
Nineteenth century Indologists discovered that many words in Sanskrit sound similar to roots words in some European languages. There are also some striking parallels between the Vedic pantheon and the ancient Greek. From phonetic and mythopoeic similarities, they formulated a theory by which in the remote past, nomadic peoples streamed from Central Asia into India via the Afghan passes and established a new civilization in the northern plains of India.
This so-called ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ was held suspect right from the start by Indian thinkers. It has been subjected to critical deconstruction in recent decades. In the new century, it has hardly any adherent, staunch or lukewarm, in India or beyond, though slightly modified versions of it still persist. The idea of Dravidians having been pushed from the north has also been rejected by most serious scholars. It often happens that yesterday’s theory in history is today’s nonsense. Some Indian scholars even suggest that the Aryan Invasion Theory was a carefully crafted scheme, a trickery perpetrated by the colonial British to justify their occupation of India as just another instance in a long pattern of alien intrusions, on the questionable moral principle, it would seem, that if a bank had been robbed many times before, I too should have the right to do so now.
In a new paradigm, which is slowly gaining ground among an increasing number of people in India, the Indus-Saraswati culture which emerged in the northern river valleys was in fact the original civilization of India. The proponents of this model remind us that the townships in Indus valley were no less impressive than their Mesopotamian counterparts. An eminent scholar arguing for this theory believes that “the history of civilization dates to the Rig Vedic people who lived on the banks of the Saraswati long before Indus Valley civilization.” This thesis has not yet achieved universal recognition.
Debates on history and confirmation of the legitimate roots of culture are no doubt of enormous import, since they have implications on many aspects of cultural self-image and national integrity. Nevertheless, my focus in these lectures will not be with how it all began, nor with controversies on ancient history. I will focus rather on some of the visions that arose from India‘s intellectual and moral roots, and present some of the recent results that have been obtained in this regard. Many of the recent interpretations of ancient texts are gaining adherence from an increasing number of people affiliated to the tradition, and therefore deserve recognition. Culturally meaningful interpretations will always carry much weight in the analysis of thought and history.
General impression of Indic civilization and its causes
Indic civilization is not given much importance in the global context, perhaps because there is no incentive to pay attention to a civilization that is not wreaking havoc in the world. Another reason for this benign neglect is that it is often cast in a religious framework. Furthermore, the general impression created about Indic civilization is that it is essentially concerned with other-worldly matters, and engaged intensely only in spiritual pursuits. Though Indian citizens include members of many different faith communities, the vast majority of the people of India are affiliated to values and worldviews that are labeled as Hindu. As it used to be in medieval Europe, practically every aspect of Indian culture is linked in some way or another to the religious framework of the people.
Some modern Hindu scholars have rightly complained that the scientific mind of India has not been given sufficient emphasis in the Western world. But one may ask in fairness, how many Indian thinkers gave the deserved importance to their own scientific heritage before Europeans came on the scene? If anything, from the close of the nineteenth century, eminent spokespeople for Indic traditions stressed, if not overstressed, Indian spirituality rather than India‘s overall intellectual vigor.
In other words, if the general impression that was created up until the middle of the twentieth century was that Indic civilization has been uniquely, if not excessively spiritual, that impression arose as much from the emphasis on spirituality placed by the prestigious exponents of Indic culture as from misunderstandings and distortions on the part of Western scholars. The eloquence of Swami Vivekananda, the first propagator of Hindu thought to the modern West, the interpretations of the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita by Sri Aurobindo, one of the foremost scholar-sages of the Hindu tradition in modern times first, and the prolific writings of S. Radhakrishnan, a most learned author on the tradition: all these were essentially spiritualistic in their interpretations. Such thinkers created in the science-dominated technological Western mind a picture in which Hindus had always been drawn only to other-worldly matters. Even today, the weight of Indian writings on Hindu thought leans more on the spiritual, the religious, and the philosophical than on its scientific insights.
The enormous role that spirituality has played in shaping and enriching Indic civilization cannot be denied and should not be underplayed. But it must be allowed that at least part of the source of the Western characterization of India may be traced to the writings of some illustrious Hindu thinkers of the 20th century.
Be that as it may, in the interest of obtaining a more complete picture, we need to bring out the more this-worldly dimensions of Indic culture also.
It should be recalled that already in the early nineteenth century some European historians began to uncover that significant science and mathematics had been formulated in the Indian subcontinent. It was not out of the blue that the eminent French mathematician Pierre Simone de Laplace wrote early in that century: “The ingenious method of expressing every possible number using a set of ten symbols (each symbol having a place value and an absolute value) emerged in India… The importance of this invention is more readily appreciated when one considers that it was beyond the two greatest men of Antiquity, Archimedes and Apollonius.”
In recent decades, the number of scientifically informed investigators exploring the legacy of India‘s scientific thought has been steadily growing, both within India and beyond. These scholars have uncovered insights in classical Indic texts which have relevance and significance beyond religious frameworks.
On resurgent civilizations
Considered from a long time-span, the civilizations of the world may be put into three broad groups: First we have those that flourished in the distant past, and have completely disappeared, their precious legacies relegated to artifacts in museums and to books and articles. Such were the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as also Norse, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations. Then there are civilizations which are no longer in their former splendor, but some of whose worldviews, creative ideas, and artistic genius continue to nourish modern civilizations. Such are the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.
Finally, we have the Chinese, the Indic, and the Islamic-Arab civilizations: three major civilizations which flourished with great verve and vigor at various times, but which, as a result of various historical forces, became for some time dormant in their scientific creativity. In the second half of the twentieth century, these civilizations have been slowly waking up from a long slumber as it were. They have already asserted themselves in the global context, and show every promise of becoming creative and active again in the scientific field, perhaps with even greater accomplishments than before.
The civilizations of China, India, and the Arab world did not lose their creative capacities in art, music, and poetry, nor in local technologies, during their pre-modern scientific phase. It is now well established that India was economically very productive and prosperous in the era prior to the intrusion of the British into the subcontinent. But modern science did not emerge in these cultures. Whatever the reasons for this, it has had drastic consequences on the self-appraisal of the resurgent civilizations, as also on their appraisal of modern science. The matter is complicated by the fact that they have suffered adversely from European colonialism. This additional factor in the lives of these awakening civilizations is playing a role, both subtle and overt, in their renaissance.
The search for roots
The search for cultural and scientific roots in the Western world led to a rediscovery of ancient Greece and Rome. In this context two things must be noted. First, the unsavory memories of Greco-Roman cultural and political colonization had long disappeared from the psyche of the West when modern science began to emerge. Furthermore, modern science was not imported into the West from an oppressing and exploiting culture, though it had been nourished, even instigated by its contacts with Arab scholarship. There was thus no reason in the West to react with irritation towards ancient Greece or Rome. Secondly, in the enthusiasm of the discovery of insightful ancient Greek thought, some people were persuaded that the ancient Greeks had known some of the results of 18th and 19th century science. Almost unconsciously one developed a romantic vision of the ancients, which made one see more in the past than there was actually there. What was ignored in such views was that there were basic methodological differences between ancient and modern science.
In the Non-Western world, two major forces are at play in this context. One of these is the motivation to become part of international science, and make contributions to the advancement of human knowledge. Hindu, Chinese, and Islamic scientists, like everyone else, have been making their marks in substantial ways in this regard. To this group belongs the likes of; S.N. Bose, Meghnad Saha, C. V. Ramans, and countless others in present-day India. The other force springs from the memory of colonial oppression that is part of the Non-West’s recent history, and from the fact that the West is still hegemonic in the international arena. Therefore, the re-discovery of Non-Western cultural roots tends to be colored by an undercurrent of animosity towards the West. Added to this is the fact that Western historians and scholars, in their explorations into and commentaries on Non-Western cultures, have in many instances, whether consciously or unwittingly, unacceptably transformed various aspects of those cultures, often portraying them as creatively inferior, or as intrinsically limited in their capacity for scientific reasoning.
It is in this unsavory scenario that a good deal of writing and reflection on the roots of Non-Western science are occurring. As a result, the joy of discovery is often tainted by cultural misunderstandings, antagonisms, and acrimony, provoking unpleasant exchanges between otherwise serious and balanced scholars.
As in the West, with respect to Greece, here too there is the risk of reading more into the texts than what their authors might have meant. It is important in such contexts to differentiate between deep insights of keen thinkers in ages past on the one hand, and quantitatively, experimentally, and instrumentally derived results of modern science on the other. Uncovering intuitively grasped profound truths in thinkers of the distant past can be very meaningful, but reading too many modern ideas in ancient texts may not be doing their authors justice.
The twin roots of Indic culture
Many streams have nurtured Indic visions, even as many rivers vivify the Indian subcontinent, both in the northern plains and in the southern peninsula. The two most influential of these have been, as mentioned earlier, the Vedic-Sanskritic and the Dravidian-Tamil. They have always interacted and enriched each other. Whether the two had a common source is another issue of debate which is not only hard to track down, but also wrought with political and cultural sensitivities which will not concern us here.
The Vedas are among the most ancient utterances of the human spirit in its quest to connect with the Cosmos. Tradition ascribes them to spiritually awakened sage-poets, reverentially referred to as rishis. The rishis are believed to have received Vedic truths from transcendental sources. Tradition affirms that the Vedas are eternal, and that the chanted hymns existed as pure cosmic vibrations until the rishis heard and articulated them for the benefit of humankind.
We may interpret this to mean that truths about the human condition and mystical visions about the world beyond have more than temporal validity. Their relevance is not for one historical age or another, but for all times. They constitute what Augustine Steuch in the 16th century called philosophia perennis; Nuggets of wisdom that are of eternal significance. It has been said that that is the reason why the Vedas have stood the test of time, and have inspired the major doctrinal tenets of the Hindu world, the third largest religious family in the world.
Just as most Arab nations are rooted in Islamic culture, and the secularized Western civilization still draws its sustenance from Judeo-Christian roots, so too, though the modern nation of India is a secular democracy, and its Constitution respects and gives equal rights to all religions, it is also deeply embedded in a culture that had its beginnings in Vedic visions. Denying this cultural reality sometimes leads to fears and conflicts. It may not be long before Western civilization has a similar experience.
All dynamic civilizations have pondered questions of life and death. They have also wondered about the nature of matter and motion, gazed at the sky and the stars, developed methods of counting a