Did the ancient Indians know everything?


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Recently, in response to my piece “Why Religion?” in this column, a well-meaning old school-mate of mine emailed me. Over the next few days, we had an exchange of several, very polite, emails. This school-mate even used to sign off his emails with “Sab ka mangal ho”! He was from IIT, Delhi, and was currently running a very high tech commercial engineering division.

A quantum of Qi

My friend was trying to convince me about the true meaning of “Dharma”, and believed that Buddha was a “super scientist”. According to him, Buddha had already discovered the most amazing secrets of Quantum Mechanics, thousands of years ago. As proof, he had sent me the link to a two-hour long video of a lecture given by Mr. S N Goenka, at IIT, Mumbai, on the subject. Mr. Goenka, by the way, is a Padma Vibhushan, no less! I wrote back to my friend, explaining that the video he had directed me to, was too long. Not to be fazed by this, my friend sent me another link, this time to a 10-minute video. And this shorter video, I did watch.

It was, expectedly, a disappointing experience. The video drew some very tenuous connections between Buddha’s philosophy and Quantum Mechanics. For example, Buddha talks about the “emptiness” in his philosophy. To me, he is probably referring to the emptiness of the meaning of life as we know it, and not about the emptiness of space – within and external to an atom – as the video purported.

Unquestioned, unscientific

At the same time, I was having quite a raging debate with some of my college mates both over WhatsApp and email. Here, the main belief quite strongly put forward by a lot of “proud Indians”, was that the great Indian tomes, Upanishads, Vedas, etc. had already got it all figured out thousands of years ago. Most of these “proud Indians” feel that all the world has to do is to simply follow the teachings of the ancient Indian scriptures and all will be well with the world! As an aside, all these “proud Indians” also happen to be Hindus, quite exclusively. For these “proud Indians” there is no need for rationalism, scientific enquiry, experimentation, and proof, nor for natural human inquisitiveness and logical discussion.

So did the ancient Indians know everything?

Legacy of India’s ancient past

There is no doubt that ancient India was very prosperous. Prosperity allows a society to invest in developing it’s “soft” skills as it frees itself from a desperate existence of eking out a basic living. Prosperous societies invest in education heavily, open universities, encourage research, literature, and the arts

They encourage discussion and scholars. The openness and exchange of ideas in such societies allows them to evolve faster and they become more egalitarian. This is exactly what we see in the rich “West” today.

The prosperous, ancient India had perhaps the world’s best universities. Scholarly pursuits were very highly regarded, respected, and rewarded. Little wonder then, that ancient Indian scholars were well ahead of their time and created amazing works of literature, philosophy, and science.

However, while the ancient Indians – and for that matter, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Mayans, Aztecs, etc. – were indeed ahead of their times, they could not have been so far ahead as to not only have theorized what we know today, but also have proven it. Mankind simply did not have the collective proven knowledge based on real and hard evidence that it does today. “Proud Indians” will cite examples of mention of things such as “viman” in ancient texts as proof that ancient Indians had aircraft, for example! It is similar to future humans, a few thousand years from now, finding some of our science fiction and taking that as proof that humans of our time were able to time-travel, and visit other planetary systems in their USS Enterprise!


Lack of scientific evidence

The other thing to note is that our ancient texts only seem to make obtuse and vague references to such apparently futuristic concepts as aeronautics, quantum physics, astronomy, etc. Why are connections between what is written in the ancient scriptures and modern scientific knowledge always ambiguous? If the ancients had already discovered all this knowledge, would they have not written about it in very clear terms, as scientific writings would demand at any point in history?

In science, it is not enough to just come up with theories that may explain things. It is necessary to prove them too. If that was not the case, why would mankind spend billions of it’s hard earned dollars on scientific experiments such as the Hadron Collider, NASA, the Hubble telescope, and many others? Did the ancient Indians have all these? If they did, then where is the evidence for it? And if they didn’t, then how did they prove their theories?

So why do the “proud Indians” believe that the ancient Indians knew everything?

It is a romantic concept, which an ancient civilization with a glorious past – but an inglorious present and possibly the future – is wont to find solace in. When there is little to feel proud of in the present, one is naturally drawn to one’s glorious past, if one has one! It is like a modern day Indian maharaja reminding anyone who would listen, about how great his dynasty was. In the past!

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