Hall of Shame: On a Hindutva Apologist’s Recent Lectures at IIT Madras
What are the least things one should expect from a scientist who has worked in a CSIR lab for 25 years? Among all attributes one need to have, we could safely say that integrity and commitment to truth and scientific method are bare minimum moral requirements. It turns out that these are the very same qualities the ‘celebrity’ Hindu evangelist Dr. N. Gopalakrishnan lacks although the endless bragging about his career, D. Lit awarded in Sanskrit and “Americans who were dumbstruck by his revelations”, continued unabated in the 56 minute long verbal diarrhea that flooded the central lecture theatre at IIT Madras on the 16th August 2012. If one wasn’t enough, this charade was repeated in a supposedly interactive session held in the media resource centre, library building on 17th August 2012. The event was the inauguration of the yearly activities of Vivekananda Study Circle, an institute sponsored club whose mundane activities are intimated by none other than Dean of Students in his official capacity. If one wonders why Indian science and technology did not progress the way it should have, one need not look far. A nation whose premier institutes themselves succumb to such narrow nationalistic pride, bigotry and the endemic disease of lack of integrity, shouldn’t dare to aspire a higher stature.
The mistake of inviting a man, whose main hobby is bad mouthing other religions (while never applying the same arguments to Hindu religion), who unabashedly shouts inaccurate facts to blatant lies, is not just a matter of bad selection but also a breach of the constitutional ideal of government (and its institutions) being secular. As rationalists committed to secularism (one of the authors being a member of the IITM community too), we find it both shocking and ridiculous, and are of the opinion that public interest is being served by writing this critique. Majority of his claims were hugely distorted or wrong. His arguments were basically clichéd right-wing ideals that give instant orgasm to the proponents of cultural nationalism and his conclusions were not only preposterous but also dangerous.
Let us glance through some of the remarkable opinions that were expressed in those two lectures. We have categorized them under three headings.
- The supremacy of Indian civilization: India is the only civilization that has withstood the test of time and absolutely nothing of any value remains in other classical civilizations; just the “pyramids and pygmies” (sic) remain in Egypt and only a mausoleum of Mao remains in China. Indian civilization was alive in B.C. 8275 and thus it has 10,000 years of continuity and great knowledge. Western paradigm of development is destructive and only India can combine the knowledge of East and the knowledge of West. Unlike Semitic religions, Indians wrote many books because they realized that ideas need amendments and people are diverse. Vedas have been recognized by UNESCO as world heritage and Bhagavat Gita is taught in 186 American universities despite the fact that the US is not ruled by BJP. There is a western conspiracy which is supported by JNU (Marxists) in purporting the Aryan Invasion Theory. India is the only country which has not invaded other countries ever in history. In short India was the most scientifically advanced and morally upright civilization.
- Inferiority of ‘non-Indian’ traditions and religions: Non-vegetarians, people who follow western traditions, values and life styles are somehow culturally inferior. “God send his prophet to Saudi Arabia and God sent his son to Israel. God came here 10 times”. Entire Africa was converted to Christianity in 62 years while British and others could only convert 2 percentage of Indians. There is a European (Christian) conspiracy behind not recognizing Indian history beyond 1500 B.C. Adam and Eve was born only a while before that according to the Semitic myths, and that is the reason why they refuse to recognize Indian civilization (Vedic) before 1500 B.C.
- Justification for Indian traditions: All Indian traditions have a rational and scientific basis. The anaachaaras (anachronistic traditions) or duraachaaras (wrong traditions) like caste and untouchability were the result of the fall of civilization after the Gupta period due to the raids by Timur. None of the 210 maharshis who composed Vedas were Brahmins. Caste discrimination was non-existent in the early India. Punarjanma or rebirth, which is a part of Indian philosophy, has been scientifically proved.
Apart from these broad ideas and opinions, Gopalakrishnan made some specific claims about ancient Indian scientific heritage:
- Gravity was not discovered (sic) by “Newton or Oldton”, but by Bhaskara II and is described in his work Siddhānta Siromani.
- The spherical shape of earth was not discovered by “Copernicus or Silvernicus” but Indians knew it well in advance and is mentioned in Bhagavata.
- The 15th century Mathematician from Kerala Puthumana Neelakanttha Somayaji had already found the angular velocity of earth to the precision of microseconds and had written this in his work Karana padhhathi using the katapayadi system.
- Human evolution and even aerodynamics had already been discovered by early Indians.
- Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is given in Patanjali’s Yoga sutras.
- Zero was not discovered by Aryabhatta but by Pingala and is mentioned in his work Chandahśāstra.
- Before A.D. 1820 Kaliyuga (K.E.) was used world over.
While debunking these claims is essential, given that many people might fall for his gimmicks with Sanskrit verses and magnanimous dosages of self-praise, it should be noted that almost all of these claims are merely repetitions from his early speeches. It seems, for all his presumptions of grandeur and wit, originality has never been a strong point of this researcher who celebrated a silver jubilee in his career. His series on “Indian astrology” (13 lectures) was stripped bare by the three bloggers, Umesh, Suraj Rajan and Calvin (Sreehari), and a 62 page long collection of articles on ‘Astrology and science’ was published as an e-book in Malayalam. By some astrological accident, some of the YouTube videos of his ‘fabulous’ lecture series were soon withdrawn or edited. Interestingly some of the very same claims made in that lecture series (and in his many other lectures) are repeated here.
The task of re-inventing the wheel, i.e. repeating the same exercise of debunking these idiotic claims that others did quite successfully before, is unfortunate. Still, let us analyze a some of his prominent opinions and claims, which by no means are exhaustive, as his entire war with words is ridden with such incredible ‘pearls of wisdom’.
It is well known to anyone who has bothered to look beyond his/her own nose that superiority claim by any civilization doesn’t hold much water. The modern human knowledge is a sum of all the knowledge that various civilizations have gathered and/or generated over many millennia. It seems, for Dr. Gopalakrishnan even monumental discoveries like the fundamental ideas of counting, arithmetic, geometry, divisions of time, position of stars, axioms of Euclid, writing paper, printing, rockets, democracy, glimpses of analytical philosophy etc. - the huge list of worthy things developed by other civilizations independent of India – are irrelevant. If continuity is a measure, Chinese civilization surpasses Indian by any yardstick. But one wonders how, when and where did pygmies feature in ancient Egypt. Perhaps, he found out through transcendental meditation.
Indian civilization being as old as 8275 B.C. would imply that people had an Iron age/Bronze age civilization before the Mehrgarh civilization, a precursor of the Indus Valley civilization and the oldest urban civilization that’s been discovered yet in the Indian subcontinent. This would be a revolutionary discovery about the history of the human race. This would push time of Neolithic age back by several thousands of years and therefore it would require a massive European conspiracy to cover it up. Still, there is no doubt in Dr. Gopalakrishnan’s mind that it happens to be the case.
It is not hard to identify the embedded racism in his rants against non-vegetarians, ‘western culture’ and the Semitic religions. But much worse is the ‘nationalistic pride’ he attempts to inculcate among the audience for its aggression and emptiness. The mention of European conspiracy behind “not allowing Indian civilization to date before 1500 B.C.” and deviously presenting “Aryan Invasion Theory” as the modern consensus version of ancient Indian history in the academic circle (as against the Aryan Migration Theory) should not miss one’s attention. Further he has deliberately ignored the actual academic debate about ancient Indian history- i.e. whether the Aryans (which is a linguistic term and does not denote race) who wrote Vedas were indigenous (i.e. whose ancestors migrated from Africa before 60,000 years and settled in India) or pastoral groups who migrated from Central Asia or elsewhere and settled in Indian peninsula in gradual waves in and around the B.C. Second millennium, the evidence of the later being more overwhelming than the former. With such abysmal standards of presentation and propaganda, one would wonder whether the event was the inauguration of a club in IIT Madras or a conference organized by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevaks. And our honourable speaker affirms his affiliation with such fantastic statements like Vedas being declared as world heritage by UNESCO and 186 universities in USA, which is not ruled by BJP, teaching Bhagavat Gita! We do not know from where he came up with the figure, but except for a course in comparative religion or theology (in which Bible, Quran etc are also taught), a university worth its salt would hardly find it persuasive to teach Gita unless it is of the ilk of ‘Hindu University of America‘. The fact twister in our revered guru is again trying to mislead audience by confusing ‘vedic chanting’, which was declared as world heritage by UNESCO, with ‘vedas’ (the scriptures).
In his second talk, a rational person cannot help but laugh to see Dr. Gopalakrishnan stretching his imagination and (il)logic to justify every tradition and superstition. But the most prominent one was his denial of caste discrimination. He even goes to the extent of passing the blame of ‘caste discrimination’ to the ‘Timur’s invasion’. The nonsensical claims like all 210 rishis who composed Vedas being non-Brahmins, are subpar jokes at the best. Let us trust that he is either unaware of the Smritis, the story of Sambooka in Ramayana, Ekalavya in Mahabharata and countless other instances of casteist apartheid promulgated by Hindu scriptures or has an impeccable proof that they were added by Muslim kings or the British.
Claims of primacy with regard to “gravitational physics”, “spherical shape of the earth” and “aircraft technology” are only a few of the blatant falsehoods Gopalakrishnan dumps on the audience. Isn’t it odd that someone who claims to have a doctoral degree in science and brags about spending many years in a premier science institute in India believes that Newton did not “discover gravity”? Not only does he revel in his complete ignorance of the history of science, but also makes spurious claims firmly based on that ignorance. He amuses the audience by quoting the verse from Siddhānta Siromani (Bhuvanakosa, v 6) and to the people who have no clue as to the history of the concept of gravity, it would sound awesome, for sure. However, Bhaskaracharya’s Siddhānta Siromani dates back to 11th century AD; the idea of a force attracting things towards the earth had already been well established by then. Aristotle, c. 300 BC had mentioned about the inherent attractive force possessed by the earth. Many thinkers have stumbled upon variants of the same idea since then. Vituvius of Ist century BC in Rome, John Philoponus of 5th century AD in Alexandria, Brahmagupta of 7th century AD in India have all suggested their own ideas on the theme. By 11th century AD, Ibn Sina, the famous Persian polymath had already proposed the idea of inertia, momentum and motion in the absence of resistance. Even the inverse square law had been around for quite some time before Newton’s Principia (1680s).
One only needs to refer the original sources he mentions to get shocked at the level of his ignorance and propaganda. Let’s consider the claim that Bhagavata treats earth as a sphere. Historians agree that although the oral tradition of Vaishnavism makes it difficult to date Bhagavata purana, interpolations and redactions to the text could have continued way into the 10th and 11th century A.D. Canto 5, Chapter 16 of Bhagavata contains Bhuvanakosa varnanam (‘description of the cosmos’). Although there is a single reference to earth as “Bhoogola”, i.e., the “sphere that is earth”, nowhere in the said chapter does Bhagavata describe earth as a sphere. In fact the earth is described as a circular and flat! Not surprising; pretty much every religious text depicts the earth as flat. The Bhagavata goes on to liken the flat earth to a fully bloomed Lotus. At the center of the lotus flower, or what we call the receptacle, is located the Meru mountain, which the ancient Hindus believed to be the abode of the gods — something akin to mount Olympus of the Greeks. The bizarre geographical descriptions do not end there. The Jambu land mass, on which mount Meru firmly rests, is surrounded by concentric circles of 7 water-bodies, each separated by 7 circular land masses. These water-bodies, or “oceans” as it is stated in Bhagavata, are further described as made of brine, nectar, milk, butter, yoghurt and so on. There are also elaborate descriptions of netherworlds beneath the earth where huge serpents, demons, divine beings and gods live (Bhagavata Purana: Canto 5, Ch 16: 5-30; Ch 20, 24, 25). Apologists like Gopalakrishnan would not be happy talking about all this. He likes to cherry-pick from Sanskrit scriptures; often without even understanding the context of the actual verse or hymn. The claim that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Darwinian laws of evolution are mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga sutras is one such instance. Gopalakrishnan, presumably for lack of time, has not ventured into his claims from Yoga sutras, but the videos of his past talks on this were removed from YouTube by his organization (IISH) after this was pointed out to be a blatant act of cherry-picking and misquoting.
According to our venerable evangelist, Aryabhata’s mention of “spherical earth” (Aryabhatiya, Golapada: 6) predates Copernicus and hence the primacy goes to the former. Once again, he hardly has a clue about history. The idea of spherical earth has been around at least since 5th century BC. Pythagoras and Parmenides hint at early Greek concepts of a round earth. Plato (4th century BC) unambiguously called earth “round as a ball”. His student Aristotle later suggested reasons for why the earth must be spherical. Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth in BC 240 — nearly 700 years before Aryabhata. In short, the idea of spherical earth had already been around for centuries when Aryabhata’s treatise on astronomy was compiled (499 AD). The concept of rotation of earth also features very early in ancient Greek cosmology. The Pythagorean school of ancient Greece held such a belief and Heraclides of Pontus (c. 390 BC) is probably the foremost among the Pythagoreans who suggested that the earth rotates once every 24 hours.
It is noteworthy that in a fit of nationalistic pride, Gopalakrishnan conflates many concepts such as spherical shape of the earth, rotation of the earth and revolution of earth around the sun and attribute them to Indian astronomers and mathematicians. In fact all of these concepts developed often separately and gradually over time. For example, even Aryabhata regarded the earth to be the center of the universe (a belief prevalent during his time). Brahmagupta (7th century AD), who critiqued many of Aryabhata’s ideas, followed the concept of geocentrism as well. Other eminent Indian astronomers such as Varahamihira (6th century AD), and Bhaskaracharya (12th century AD) also believed the same. This was the case with Greek astronomers as well. Though the Pythagoreans believed in a central fire (akin to the sun) around which all celestial bodies revolved, this wasn’t shared by their contemporaries.
The book Vaimanika Sastra of Bharadwaja, supposedly authored by one Subbaraya Sastry in 1923 has been a source of great pride for Hindu revivalists and nationalists as it seemingly suggests methods of designing and manufacturing aircrafts (vimanas). Gopalakrishnan passingly mentions this book along with his usual claims of antiquity of Indian knowledge. However should be noted that this book was the subject of a detailed rebuttal published in 1974 by the departments of Aeronautical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (Mukunda HS et al., 1974). These IISc authors have concluded that the work “cannot be dated earlier than 1904” and that “the planes described [in Vaimanika Sastra] are at best, poor concoctions, rather than expressions of something real. None of the planes has properties or capabilities of being flown; the geometries are unimaginably horrendous from the point of view of flying…”
Nailing his other claims about ‘Kali era’, discovery of Zero by Pingala and micro second precision of Somayaji’s calculation etc. are left to the readers (interested readers may also refer ‘Astrology and Science‘ ). However, let it be underlined that the purpose of this article is not to question the proven mathematical, astronomical, medicinal, metallurgical achievements from ancient India. Far from it, the intended purpose is to bring attention towards the need to keep vigil on such hollow propagandists who taint every bit of achievement through a combination of huge exaggerations and outright falsehoods. The larger question of allowing space for such hate-mongering, cultural supremacists whose only credit is a good memory of Sanskrit verses, in secular national institutes remains. If this trend continues, we should better change the name of IIT to Indian Ignoramus Technocrats.
- Astrology and Science Umesh P. N., Dr. Suraj Rajan, Calvin http://www.usvishakh.net/documents/astrology_and_science.pdf [pdf, Malayalam]
- The Pseudoscience of Gopalakrishnan Dr. Suraj Rajan. http://surajcomments.blogspot.in/2010/02/pseudosciencegopalakrishnanindian.html [Malayalam]
- Gopalakrishnan’s Astrology, Dr. Suraj Rajan. http://surajcomments.blogspot.in/2010/04/jyotish-gk-pseuodsci.html [Malayalam]
- The Yojana that changes with person Umesh P. N. http://malayalam.usvishakh.net/blog/archives/404 [Malayalam]
- Mathematics in India. Kim Plofker, 2009. Princeton University Press
- A critical study of the work “Vyamanika Shastra” H. S. Mukunda, S. M. Deshpande, H. R. Nagendra, A. Prabhu, S. P. Govindaraju, 1974. . Scientific Opinion, p.5, 1974 http://cgpl.iisc.ernet.in/site/Portals/0/Publications/ReferedJournal/ACriticalStudyOfTheWorkVaimanikaShastra.pdf
- Siddhānta Shiromani Bhaskara II (notes by Pandit Muralidhar Jha), 1917. E. J. Lazurus & Co. Benares