India’s (unacknowledged) contributions to Mind Sciences by Rajiv Malhotra

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Indian embassy in Washington DC kick started their Third International Yoga Day (2017) celebration with the below lecture by Rajiv Malhotra. The main theme of the talk was appropriation and digestion of Indian ideas and techniques by the west. It charted the developments in Mind Sciences in the West since Swami Vivekananda’s trip to the west. In one-hour Rajiv Malhotra mentioned all the people (in yellow), institutions (in red) and techniques/ideas (in blue) in the image above! That should be reason enough to watch the lecture!

Every time I hear RM speak on this topic, I realize something that I was overlooking earlier. Digestion clearly violates the ethics of academic and scientific research since the references are not properly cited and acknowledged. By weakening Indian culture and tradition, digestion also facilitates various Breaking India forces. I appreciated all this earlier.

However, all that is a problem for the Indian government and Swadeshi scholars. Should the aam aadmi care? How does it matter whether one gets the authentic version of a technique or the digested one? In other words, should it matter whether you learn Vipassana or it’s digested version of mindfulness; yog nidra vs lucid dreamingTranscendental meditation vs relaxation-response? Rajiv Malhotra argues that it does matter because the digested versions are usually just a small subset of the source body of knowledge, and often are also substandard. He mentions that authentic Vipassana is much more advanced than mindfulness, yet mindfulness is projected as the “new and improved” version and is all over the town today! In a few generations, people may not even know that something called Vipassana even existed. I can easily imagine this. Indian scriptures and rituals can be very complex with many layers of meanings and symbolism. Same idea can often be interpreted and implemented in many different ways and combined with other ideas in numerous different ways. Once the source has been reduced to one or two digested forms, such experiments will no longer be possible. Paraphrasing from the talk:

digestion effectively plucks the fruit on a tree and leaves the tree behind to atrophy thereby eliminating the possibility of future harvests.

Another thing I realized is the difference between the way rest of Asia treated knowledge from India and how the west did it and is still continuing. Buddhism spread to China, Japan and south-east Asia over millennia and steadily became less prevalent in India. Yet, Buddhist scholars and practitioners in those countries even today respectfully acknowledge their Indian roots. Western appropriators, on the other hand, go out of their way to avoid crediting India. RM gives a powerful analogy to illustrate this point:

it is like you run 100m faster than any one before and the credit goes to the guy with the clock who timed you and reported it to the world!

RM mentioned that he is writing seven books based on this talk. I can’t wait for it!

Bertrand Russell and Sadhguru on the Scientific Spirit

Recently I happened to come across two beautiful descriptions of the scientific spirit from two very different people – one by a Guru from the West and other by Sadhguru!

First, let’s listen to one of the greatest thinkers from the West:

When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts .. look only and solely at what are the facts.                                                –Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

And now Sadhguru:

[29 Dec 2016:  Unfortunately this video has been removed from youtube. I am looking for another clip where Sadhguru makes these points. If anyone has a suggestion, please share. Ideally please find me this clip – it was audio only with an image of an ash covered sadhu. Thanks.]

If you want to approach truth, the first thing is you don’t assume anything.                      -Sadhguru

Isn’t the similarity striking!

Sadhguru’s comments are interesting at many levels. First, it is one of the most elegant and passionate description of the scientific spirit that I have come across. And yet he is not a Nobel prize winning physicist, but a spiritual guru from a Dharmic tradition. Another illustration of the fact that the scientific spirit is at the core of Indian spiritual traditions. There was never any conflict between science and spirituality in India. So Sadhguru here is not an outlier. He is just rephrasing what has been practiced for ages in India. The West, on the other hand, discovered it only in Renaissance, and have not really been able to reconcile modern science with Abrahamic religions.

Another point is that the Indian tradition is that of seekers, not believers. In the above clip, Sadhguru does not mince his words in his criticism of believers:

Belief gives you confidence .. and fools getting confidence is dangerous; belief is death actually.  -Sadhguru

In the Abrahamic tradition, belief is absolute and unquestionable and leads people to get more and more trapped in their own echo chamber. Fanaticism and superstition are bound to take hold in such societies.

In the Indian system, the counterpart of belief is shraddha. In the context of education, shraddha towards a guru does not mean blind faith in the guru, but just allowing for the possibility that the guru knows more and may have something useful to teach. The questioning and seeking never ceases.

By the way, on the topic of education, check out this very thoughtful discourse by Sadhguru. Education is clearly one of his passions. Yes, gurus can, and ought to be passionate about things in the mundane world!

 

 

 

 

Why Gurus should not talk Science!

One of my pet peeves with Hindu Gurus is how they talk about science. It is often something to the effect of what was known to our ancient Rishis, modern science is realizing only now. I have seen this happen in between an impeccable presentation of some deep Vedantic thought. Such a digression into science during a discourse often fails because Gurus mess up the science. At best the analogies do not work, and, at worst, the science is factually wrong. As my friend said – run away, as soon as a Guru utters quantum mechanics! By the way, rediscovery of ancient knowledge by modern science, if done independently, does not make modern science any less impressive.

The thing is that the Guru does not stand to gain anything here. The lay audience doesn’t care about science, while it puts off the scientifically literate audience. Even worse is that it gives ammunition to (pseudo) secularists who can point out that Gurus embrace science as long as it agrees with them, and when there is disagreement they start using phrases like higher consciousness, sat chit anand, etc. Javed Akhtar made this point in this debate with Sadhguru. This is the only place in the debate where I agree with Javed Akhtar, otherwise Akhtar is at his obnoxious best throughout the interview.

Such conduct by Gurus strikes seems strange to me because they would often like to say that the spiritual knowledge that they are imparting is more valuable and powerful than any other knowledge. Why then do they need the approval of modern science? By the way, I do believe that Vedantic teachings are incredibly enlightening and thank the Gurus for imparting that knowledge.

So, is it ever okay for Gurus to talk science?

The answer to this question is best given by an anecdote that Rajiv Malhotra often relates: A westerner asks a Tibetan Buddhist monk (his name sounds like Tai Sipuren Che) – Is Buddha same as Christ? The monk responds: I have dedicated my life to Buddha and have studied his teachings; So I can tell you all about Buddha, then you can decide if he is same as Christ. Likewise, Gurus should stick to Vedanta or what ever philosophy they know and let the scientists in the audience determine if science agrees with what he is saying.

Let me make this more concrete with some examples. No guru should talk about quantum mechanics till he can write down the Schrodinger equation and solve it for the electron in a hydrogen atom! No guru should talk space-time relativity till he can write down the Lorentz transformation. No guru should talk genetics, till he can explain the difference between driver and carrier mutations. No guru should talk artificial intelligence, till he can code a Hidden Markov Model. By the way, all this is undergrad level science. So knowing the answers to these questions is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one!

 

 

Why bother with Ancient Knowledge when we have Modern Science?

I believe that ancient Sanskrit texts have a wealth of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, including science, and that it is well worth the effort to study them. A common response to this proposition is:

I doubt there is anything there which might be relevant today. In any case, even if there is something, why should I bother with a whole new approach when I already have something that works – modern science and technology. If it is needed today, modern science will rediscover whatever our Rishis found. 

In this post I would like to challenge this view with two main counter arguments.

Before I present the arguments, let me say that the progress that modern science and technology has made in short 500 years since Galileo is truly mind blowing. The advances in the last 100 years since the steam engine are even more spectacular. I am well aware of the recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics and computing. The potential of each of these technology individually is immense, but combining them really takes you into crazy science fiction realm.

In fact, science has come so far that Ray Kurzweil is able to talk about singularity and people actually take him seriously. Including me! I agree with Ray Kurzweil that technology can grow exponentially. But the point he misses, I think, is that exponential growth may not be sustainable forever as it may hit a fundamental bottleneck (think Moore’s Law). And once that happens, you need breakthroughs in basic science, which are completely random and unpredictable – you cannot generate an Einstein by design, just create conditions such that if an Einstein were to show up, he would not go unnoticed. So, yes, singularity is a possibility but it is not inevitable, and most likely not on the time scale that Ray Kurzweil imagines.

Here are my arguments for why we should study the Indian ancient sciences:

Argument 1: We need breakthroughs in Mind Sciences

I believe our ancient knowledge can inform a whole range of fields in both social and physical sciences. But one area where it can have a huge impact is mind sciences or neurosciences. In this domain modern scientific understanding is truly primitive. Needless to say, mind sciences can have direct impact on our emotional and mental well-being. Modern medicine’s understanding of the human brain is at the same level where modern physics was just after the invention of the telescope (I consider functional MRI as the telescope of neuroscience.) Mental health issues have reached epidemic proportions world over – this is better appreciated in the West than in the developing world, but the problem is universal. For most mental disorders, forget cure, modern medicine cannot even diagnose the problem with any confidence. It just comes up with different names. As an example, look at the history of autism described by Steve Silberman in this sobering TED talk.

I believe our ancient Rishis excelled in mind consciousness studies. They certainly thought very deeply about it, and more importantly, very differently from the way modern medicine is approaching it today. The reason for this, I think, is the absolutely central role of meditation in Hinduism. One just needs to read a good commentary on Patanjali’s Yog Sutras to get an idea of the depth of their knowledge (here’s one recommendation: Four Chapters on Freedom by Swami Satyananda Saraswati). In fact, I look at Swamis and Yogis more as psychologists and neuroscientist, than as spiritual or religious teachers! Other Dharmic traditions, particularly Buddhism, would probably also have something valuable to contribute here since meditation is a core practice in those traditions too.

Argument 2: Science is not at the center of the society due to it’s secular origins

My second argument is not about a specific area of science, but about the status of science and technology in today’s society. The spectacular rise of western science and technology has had some serious adverse effects. We have damaged the environment to an extent that some of the damage may be irreversible (watch the documentary Racing Extinction). We now have nuclear and biological weapons which have the potential to wipe out a good fraction of life on earth. I have already mentioned the mental health epidemic. There are other disease epidemics too, for example, auto immune diseases. Though modern science may have created some of these problems, I have no doubt that it can also find the solutions to quite a few of them.

But do we have the social, political and economic structures to enable this?

I would say – No, not by a long shot. In spite of the existential threats that we face today, science and scientists are hardly at the center of the society. If you don’t believe me, ask any researcher in a university or even one in a corporation about the funding situation. But do so at your own risk since the whining can go out of control! You will get sob stories of how screwed up the system is and how they have to beg before politicians and business heads who have no idea about the science and on and on. Most large scientific initiatives would not have materialized without a politician championing it, for example JFK for the Apollo mission and now Joe Biden for Cancer. In other words, regardless of how important or urgent the scientific question is, it does not go anywhere until a politician or a businessman gets on board.

Why is this so? Why does science, in spite of all its successes and potential, get a step motherly treatment?

So far I was talking like a journalist and just describing things as they are. Now let me put on a sociologist’s hat, and present an admittedly speculative theory on how we got here. I feel that the present status of science in society is to a large extent due to its historical origins as a revolt against the almighty Church. You just need to read Galileo’s Daughter to realize how strong the Church was in 16th century Europe and how hostile it was towards science. Modern science arose in the Renaissance period as a revolt against the establishment, which pretty much was the Church at that time. The impact of this secular origins linger on to this date and is partly the reason for science not being truly integrated into the society. Neil deGrasse Tyson summed it up well when he said something to the effect that it is ridiculous to see people bad mouth science while talking on their cell phones! I don’t think this is merely due to poor science education or poor out reach by scientists. The conflict between cultures based on Abrahamic religion and modern science continues to this date. Oh, by the way, left leaning atheists who claim to be champions of secularism and science are not doing themselves any favor by mocking religion and spirituality. They need to understand that spirituality does not equal blind faith and superstition, certainly not in the Dharmic traditions. I feel that extreme atheists can be just as obnoxious as religious fundamentalists, for example, Javed Akhtar in this conversation with Sadhguru.  If you come down on the side of Javed Akhtar, all I can say is try to suspend your arrogance for a bit and listen to a few more talks by Sadhguru.

Now, lets talk about the position of science in ancient India. And by ancient here, I mean pre-mughal. This conflict between science and spirituality never existed in Hinduism. Vedic philosophy does not dismiss the modern scientific method. In fact the two can collaborate fruitfully. It is already happening with Ayurveda and modern medicine, though modern science is the one who is more hesitant. In Vedic philosophy the ultimate goal for an individual is to gain a deep and clear understanding of the nature of the self. And the collective responsibility of the society is to create conditions for individuals to pursue this goal. Furthermore, the genius of the Hindu tradition is that it does not prescribe a single path leading up to the ultimate truth. In other words, freedom of thought and exploration is built into the Hindu framework. And science could, and, indeed was, one such path. The subtitle of Dr Alok Kumar’s wonderful book Sciences of the Ancient Hindus sums it up beautifully: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation. There could be a whole series on ancient Indian studies with subtitles like ‘unlocking music in pursuit of salvation’, ‘unlocking trade in pursuit of salvation’, ‘unlocking language in pursuit of salvation’, and so on. In other words, Indian civilization did not need secularism to develop as a culturally and scientifically advanced civilization. On the contrary it was the quest for the sacred and spiritual that motivated individuals to excel in different areas of human endeavor. When Rajiv Malhotra says that ‘Sheldon Pollock is removing the sacred dimension’ he is talking about attacks on this very foundation of the Indian civilization and we should take it seriously.

Now, let’s envision a society organized based on the Dharmic principles. Using the categorization of the varna system, the center of such a society would indeed be the Brahmins as they are the knowledge producers and disseminators. And Brahmins would include not only swamis and gurus, but also artists, musicians and scientists. Brahmins would not have political or economic powers but all other sections of the society would be obligated to heed to the advice of the Brahmins. In fact, everyone else, including politicians and business heads, would consider themselves support staff for the Brahmins!

Conclusion

In summary, we should realize that there is no conflict between modern science and the knowledge of our Rishis, and also that modern science may not be the panacea. By studying the ancients, modern science only stands to gain new ideas and insights. Let me remind you that I am not one of those who romanticize our past claiming that India was an utopia, err Ram Rajya (!), in 5000 BCE. But neither am I dismissive of my past. The way forward is not to try and regress to the past, but to study it with the attitude and humility of a seeker. I hope this post will encourage such exploration.

The public ignoramus

This is a brilliant article by Michel Danino on the hyprocrisy and the ridiculousness of outrage by the pseudo-secular on MHRD’s circular to IITs encouraging Sanskrit studies. The sarcasm in the article is priceless!

This is the height of hypocrisy of the Congress party –

Be that as it may, here is the government’s recommendation: “Research in Indology, the humanities and social sciences will receive adequate support. To fulfil the need for the synthesis of knowledge, inter-disciplinary research will be encouraged. Efforts will be made to delve into India’s ancient fund of knowledge and to relate it to contemporary reality. This effort will imply the development of facilities for the intensive study of Sanskrit.” Before you righteously cry out against this highly jingoistic and communal agenda, allow me to add a dateline: the above is not a diktat of today’s government, but the recommendation of the Congress government in its National Policy on Education of 1986. Savour the irony (or should I say the hypocrisy?).

The closing paragraph of the article sums it up perfectly –

What is needed is not governmental intervention, but the creation of an atmosphere of genuine culture where students are invited to critically explore wider horizons. Let the thali of Indian culture be offered to them, and let them be free to accept or reject this or that dish — but after tasting it. And let our Public Ignoramus spare us his high-decibel, stereotyped and neo-colonial disparagement of one of the finest heritages humanity may yet claim.

The article refers to the SandHI series, a collection of works on Science & Technology in Ancient India published in 2015 in the Financial Chronicle. Worth a read.

 

India Has to Be its Own Cultural Ambassador, But it Has to Be Scientific About it

Read this interview with Manjul Bhargava posted on thewire.in on 19 Jan 2016. Completely agree with the thoughtful and measured views of Manjul Bhargava. Introduction from the article:

On January 2, Princeton University mathematician and 2014 Fields Medallist Manjul Bhargava delivered a lecture at the Madras Sanskrit College, Chennai, on the connection between Sanskrit and mathematics. Over 75 minutes, he touched upon ancient Indian contributions to advancing number theory and geometry, the importance of preserving their historic contexts, and what institutions like Sanskrit College can do to legitimise modern debates over India’s claims to primacy. Edited excerpts of his speech follow.

In other interviews Manjul Bhargava has cautioned against over hyping Indian contributions to science and technology. There are many important contributions which can be backed up by solid evidence. Let’s just stick to them.

One work that does a great job of collecting such contributions is Dr Alok Kumar’s book Sciences of the Ancient Hindus: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation. I will post a review of this book at some point. Interestingly, Rajiv Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation has funded a project to design a school curriculum based on this book. A great idea!