Anticipating the recommendations of the Bretton Woods institutions, the sages of antiquity practised “severe austerities” (to quote popular translations from Sanskrit), spurning the threats of the wild and the allure of apsaras. But the official diary for 2017 of the Maharaja Sayajirao University celebrates them for “developing nuclear technology” and “discovering rockets and aeroplanes”. Indian thinkers did make astonishing contributions to philosophy, from atomism to atheism, and notably to mathematics. But to celebrate their allegedly giant strides in the applied sciences is anachronistic. No matter how sophisticated their thinking, the material culture and industry of their time could not have produced nuclear technology and heavier than air flight.
However, factual error is a minor inconvenience for celebrated modern thinkers like Dinanath Batra, who has inspired the faithful, including those in high places, to liberate fantastical stories of Indian science from between the lurid covers of pulp and place them in the mainstream of contemporary thought and academics. Intellectual confusion is evident in the statement of Jignesh Soni, the university syndicate member who recommended the sages for the diary: “Many may disagree with the facts, but several people also believe it.” Facts are absolute, above both disagreement and belief. Modern scientists like J.C. Bose and C.V. Raman, who also grace the diary, would have been appalled at such ignorance.
Acharya Kanad did formalise an atomic theory, but there was nothing “nuclear” about it. Sushruta did describe reconstructive rhinoplasty, but not plastic surgery in general. Garga Muni did study the stars, and his work informed that of the great Varahamihira, but their astrological tradition has survived better than their astronomy. More importantly, the traffic of knowledge between Indian thought and the classical Greek and Roman schools is poorly understood. Science and mathematics are without borders, and it is juvenile to marvel at them through the lens of nationalism.