Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Harking back back to a glorious past - II

It is claimed that Pythagoras theorem was known in India before Pythagoras. This  is an example of a partial truth - a statement that can't be rejected outright because it has some elements of truth but it can't be accepted without qualification because it is some way from the whole truth. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, scientist and philosopher,  said that the most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth.

From what I have read, there were civilizations that knew about the theorem before Pythagoras.and they used it frequently in their construction activities. But they knew specific instances of the theorem. It was true for the instances they checked but they had no way of knowing whether it was true for an infinity of right angled triangles.  The theorem is named after Pythagoras because he was the first person to give a mathematical proof using variables to show that it was true for all right angled triangles.So till Pythagoras provided the proof, the equation was a conjecture.

The PM stated that the creation of Ganesha is proof of the existence of plastic surgeons thousands of years ago. He said that an elephant's head had been grafted on a person's body to create the god. There were claims that Kauravas were born using stem cell technology, that cars and TV existed in Mahabharat times, that a helmet used in the Mahabharata war is found on Mars, that there were inter-planet planes during the Vedic age...the claims keep getting more bizarre. Some of these claims were made at the Indian Science Congress. Here is a discussion about it. By such glorification of myths the real achievement of ancient India like creation of the number zero is  in danger of being brushed under the carpet.

The argument that science has often been wrong and the ancient sages always knew the right thing is underwhelming. Each generation finds out something about the universe that is more true than what the previous generation knew. Isaac Asimov illustrates this idea in a piece he wrote called The Relativity of Wrong in which he said that if you said that the earth is flat, you would be wrong; if you said that the earth was spherical, you would still be wrong; but the first statement is more wrong than the second. Asimov writes:
What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.
In IIT Madras, one Dr. A. B. Sudhakara Sastry delivered a speech on the topic of “Vedic Sciences: A Treasure waiting for YOU”. He said' 'Vedic literature has every speck of knowledge we need for today. There is no need to invent; we just need to discover what’s already there.' Judging from the videos of the event (Part 1, Part 2), he had a testing time. As Tagore said:
That our forefathers, three thousand years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe, is not a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor the universe, so poor.'
It is all designed to evoke a false sense of pride among the gullible. It is an extension of the trend of taking pride in what you are not. Résumés are about showcasing the outstanding personality that you are not. The inflated marks in schools are about projecting you as the brilliant student that you are not. Liberal use of fashion accessories is about showing off the trendy, debonair person that you are not. In one commentary stint, Sunil Gavaskar called this generation 'the hyped generation'. It is all about hype and show; about exaggeration and chest-beating; and reality be damned.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Harking back back to a glorious past - I

It is not difficult to call for a return to the past, to tell men to turn their backs on foreign devils, to live solely on one's resources, proud, independent, unconcerned.  India has heard such voices.  Tagore understood this, paid tribute to it, and resisted it. - Isaiah Berlin

H.L. Menken said, “Politics, as hopeful men practise it in the world, consists mainly of the delusion that a change in form is a change in substance.” One of the biggest delusions that people have is to think that recreating a Golden Age of the past is the answer to all problems. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay alluded to this in a talk quoted in Makers of Modern India.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was one of the Makers who I knew nothing about. Apparently, after independence, she could have entered Parliament, Union Cabinet, become an ambassador etc. but she rejected all offers and preferred to concentrate on social work instead. Ramachandra Guha writes, "That Indian crafts are still alive and, moreover, have a visible national and international presence, is owed more to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay than to any other individual." In a speech quoted in the book, she accuses the Muslim League of spreading 'medievalism' and the Hindus of similarly spreading 'fanatical passions'.
It has...souught refuge in a demagogic past. It tries to cover the complex present with the veil of a vague past, tinting the harsh realities with elusive shades and the gross angles with sentimental contours, conjuring up in short bygone ghosts to lend heroics to commonplace sentiments.
She warns that the selling of this Hindu mirage is trapping immature minds who, being overwhelmed by the present, 'fill the imagination with past achievements, which at least for the fleeting moment gives them a sense of security'. She warns that present problems cannot be tackled by going back to a glorious past but  by 'a bold and courageous reckoning up of existing conditions and their appraisal'.

It is often claimed that the democratic practices of modern India was a tradition of ancient India. Actually, the Indian constitution with its emphasis on equality and fundamental rights is a radical break from a hierarchical past. The hierarchical nature of the society can be seen in many parts of India even now. I can hear many statements of caste, gender and religious biases from supposedly liberal people who will swear that they don't harbour such biases. The idea of caste privileges exists even among educated city dwelling people. It is easy to change laws but it is not easy to change customs. As Sunil Khilnani writes in The Idea of India:
Mere recovery of the past could not make Indians self- sufficient: the necessry veneration of a rich and unusual history had to coexist with a modernist, more self-critical idiom that acknowledged the immense failings of that past. 
Every country has a Golden Age to talk about which in India is usually the Gupta period or the Vedic Age. People who don't know about either the science or the relevant scriptures will  neverthless be thrilled when told that something that science has discoved was actually foretold in an ancient text. It is regularly claimed that NASA has proved something in Hindu scriptures. It would seem as if NASA had nothing better to do than verify the historical truth of incidents in Hindu scriptures.

Instead of providing metaphorical explanations of speculative musings in Hindu scriptures, people will try to pretend as if they are the same as the discoveries of modern science. For instanc some have interpreted Vishnu’s ten avatars as foreshadowing the Darwinian theory of evolution. They know that their audience is science illiterate, that they will remember a few scienc words from school, put two and two together and conclude that philosophical musings and science are the same. Indian gurus do it all the time

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Nationalism - IV

Patriotism is proud of a country's virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country's virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, "the greatest", but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is. -Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author (1917-1986)  

In his essay The Illegitimacy of Nationalism, Ashis Nandy writes:
Once he [Tagore] had dreamt, like Gandhi, that India's national self-definition would some day provide a critique of western nationalism, that Indian civilization with its demonstrated capacity to live with and creatively use contradictions and inconsistencies would produce a 'natianal' ideology that would transcend nationalism. However,  even before his death, nationalism proved itself to be not only more universal but also more resilient than it had been thought. Today, fifty years after Tagore's death and forty years after Gandhi's, their version of patriotism has almost ceased to exist, even in India, and for most modern Indians this is not a matter of sorrow but of pride.
I am one of those few Indians who is not enamored of what Ashis Nandy calls 'the clenched-teeth European version of nationalism' characterised by flag wrapping, chest thumping,Pakistan hating crowds. Or by giving the impression that the sole purpose of scientific missions like Chandrayaan or Mangalyaan is to plant the national flag in their destinations.Or by painting anyone who criticises the government as 'anti-national'. Or by thinking that military strength is the sole barometer of international prestige. (Till recently, India was the largest buyer of arms in the world still there is a constant clamour for more arms.) India is not Pakistan. It is said that most countries have an army but the Pakistan army has a country.

I heard a story about a US scientist who asked for more funding for a cosmological experiment. A politician asked him, 'Will it help defend the country?' He replied, 'It will not help defend the country but it will help make the country worth defending.' Yes, military strength is important but it has meaning only when other fields of human endeavor like science, business, arts, sport, etc. are  flourishing within the country. Blind appeals to to parochialism and past glory sound hollow. Tagore says it all in his poem Where The Mind Is Without Fear.

Tagore's warning about the fetish of nationalism ultimately 'making the cult of self-seeking exult in its naked shamelessness' is shown by this report about Mein Kampf having booming sales in Delhi. Apparently, many management students 'see it as a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it'. If this is how management students think these days, be afraid. As a poor villager, who was part of the group that was being rounded up like cattle by government officials to meet sterilisation targets, says in Rohinton Mistry's novel, A Fine Balance, 'What to do, bhai, when educated people are behaving like savages?'

Nationalism is the human equivalent of group identification among other primates. Within countries, different states; within states, different regions; within regions different groups; all think they are superior to others.  The VP Hameed Ansari's comment  that the idea of a homogeneous nation is problematic was called controversial but I think he is perfectly correct. The public discourse is shaped in such a way that everyone is hypnotised into thinking that being a homogeneous nation is the only way to survive. In this conversation Ashis Nandy tells of a lament by a Bhil woman for her dead son. The Bhils are among the poorest and most marginalised sections of Indian society but the woman says:
Come back to me in your next birth only as a Bhil, 
Take care not to be  born as a Brahmin because then you will spoil your eyes by reading and writing,
Do not be born as a baniya because you will be only counting money and will not learn the true value of things,
Do not be  born as a Kshatriya because  you will be unnecessarily violent all the while, 
You must be born only as a Bhil because that is the best community in the world.
Do not make a mistake, come back to me as a Bhil.
 I often hear people say that Indian culture is the best. What they mean of course is that the culture of the group they belong to is the best. An orthodox Brahmin from Tamil Nadu will find the habits of an orthodox Brahmin from UP strange. It substantiates a point that Nehru made in his Autobiography (a book that I have not read but I came across the quote in Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India): 'Indian culture was so widespread all over India that no part of the country could be called the heart of that culture.'

The human instinct for group identification can be seen when a class is randomly divided into two groups, those sitting on the left and those sitting on the right. They will soon develop group loyalties and start competing against each other. Once, talking about peace between India and Pakistan, the Pakistani cricketer Moin Khan said, 'Hamme farak hi kya hai?' ('After all, what is the difference between us?') Perhaps the similarity is the problem? I came across this Chinese poem in Anti-Utopia:
When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs 
 I am compelled to conclude  
That man is the superior animal. 
When I consider the curious habits of man 
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.
In the video I linked to above about Ashis Nandy, he observes that like Indian epics, perhaps both gods and demons are required to make the world; only the definition of who the gods and demons are varies from community to community. He tells of the Zapatista world-view: one should cherish the 'otherness' of others, not the sameness of others. Again like in Indian epics, there is something of a demon in a god and something of a god in a demon.

In Mahabharata, Krishna cheats several times to make his side win. For eg., he tells the Pandavas to lie to Drona that his son had been killed which would make Drona depressed and thus easier to kill. On the other side, when a dying Duryodana (who had been defeated by Bhima aganist the rules of war due to a hint from Krishna) deplores his behavior, Krishna has no answer because he knows that he has done a wrong. The heavens shower petals on Duryodana thus acknowledging his unconquerable spirit and that he had been felled by unfair means. Similarly in Ramayana, Rama kills Bali by deceit and shows himself to be a poor husband by being quick to suspect Sita; while on the other side,  Ravana is skilled in Ayurveda and music and is a big devotee of Shiva. There are Ravana temples in India.

Gods are only gods most of the time and demons are only demons most of the time. Thus gods and demons are not wholly good or wholly bad; they are only relatively good and relatively bad. William Golding shows in his novel Lord of the Flies how evil is innate inn the nature of civilised man. As he said, one lot of people is inherently like any other lot of people and  the enemy of man is inside him.  In a nationalistic fervour one is likely to forget a warning that I saw in a Radiolab podcast - "As we act, we must  not become the evil that we deplore."Or as Nietzsche said, 'Not only the wisdom of centuries - also their madness breaketh out in us. Dangerous it is to be an heir.'

Group identification is an evolutionary instinct but the human brain has grown large enough to thwart it. Every time people use contraceptives, they show that human brains can overcome evolutionary instincts. As Richard Dawkins, who has struggled to reconcile his life-long liberal values with Darwinian evolution, says:
 Scientific theories are not prescriptions for how we should behave. I have many times written (for example in the first chapter of A Devil's Chaplain) that I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to the science of how life has actually evolved, but a passionate ANTI-Darwinian when it comes to the politics of how humans ought to behave. I have several times said that a society based on Darwinian principles would be a very unpleasant society in which to live. I have several times said, starting at the beginning of my very first book, The Selfish Gene, that we should learn to understand natural selection, so that we can oppose any tendency to apply it to human politics.