WHEN THE INDIAN Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman S Somanath says that science has its roots in the Vedas, it is not surprising that a paper like the Hindustan Times should put it on the front page. It is not because of what is being said but who is saying it. He is, after all, the man responsible for sending satellites and rockets to space, a feat that is impossible without the minutest calculations and advanced engineering. We must also note the venue where he was speaking this: at the convocation of a Sanskrit and Vedic university in Ujjain, where as a guest, it is only courtesy that he utter words that sound good to them. But is it true?
The newspaper’s report about what he spoke at the event begins thus: “Algebra, square roots, concepts of time, architecture, the structure of the universe, metallurgy, even aviation were first found in the Vedas, travelled to Europe through Arab countries, and were subsequently posited as discoveries of scientists of the western word…” There are two components in negotiating this averment. One, whether it can be established with evidence. The Vedas are hymns to gods and whatever little can be gleaned out of it will have to be interpreted with convenience and in any enquiry with such an attitude, almost anything can be traced back to the Vedas or any other scripture. In fact, this is a common phenomenon in all religions. Many Christians and Muslims believe the Bible and Quran to be the repository of all truths.
But let us assume the statement is true, that the Vedas did indeed have all of what the ISRO chairman claims. In which case, where is the steam engine or the airplane that should come out of such knowledge? Why does it take thousands of years for the Industrial Revolution to happen, and even more for the satellites that ISRO is sending out to space? Because what is easily glossed over when such statements are put forward and consumed with enthusiasm is that science, as loosely used here, and the scientific method are two separate beings. In the latter, phenomena are observed, hypotheses put forward and experiments are conducted to test them. And then they are verified, noted down and publicised so that others can double-check for errors. It is this process that has led to the incalculable benefits of science and the reason why science is rightly eulogised.
The objective of the Vedas is religious and any truths that they arrived at was through intuition. That was good enough for the end that they had in mind but it did not move the needle in any way in the scientific scheme of things as we know it. Somanath, for instance, even puts architecture in the remit of the Vedas when there is almost no archaeological remnant of any such architecture. The Western world is not superior today because modern science began there. It is everywhere and belongs to everyone now. It is possible to be conscious and proud of our beginnings without sleights of imagination.