Monday, February 6, 2023

Can we leave physics and plastic surgery to domain experts, please!

Under perfectly normal circumstances, politicians, all politicians for that matter, do tend to go overboard on most issues and on most occasions.

We have learnt to ignore them on most such occasions. But there are times when they indeed surprise us with their sheer enthusiasm to present the unreal as real. Politicians do show us that on occasions they are capable of displaying extraordinary sense of proportion.

The union home minister Mr. Rajnath Singh’s recent observation that Heisenberg’s theory of uncertainty was based on Vedas takes our credulity to similar absurd heights.

In our country, generally VIPs do make such grand pronouncements on and off and the media highlights them with alacrity while the scientist community and the intelligentsia generally ignores them with disdain as routine affair.

However, Rajnath Singh’s statement this time should not be ignored for two important reasons. One, he is a trained physicist and understands the implications of his statement. Two, he has always been a suave and sensible human being and he is not one who is given to the habit of making nonsensical comments for garnering cheap publicity.

So, when as serious and as well-educated a person as Rajnath Singh says something, we have to listen to him carefully and then examine facts before questioning it.

So what actually has he said that requires so much attention? Only this that the fundamentals of German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty in quantum physics were based on Vedas.

No, Mr. Singh, with due respect to your experience and scholastic aptitude, fundamentals of uncertainty in quantum physics are not based on Vedas at all.

It is true that uncertainty and duality have always been a part of Hindu darshan and epistemology. It is also true that Hinduism has had a great tradition of posing ingenious questions about the functioning of this universe and then exploring hard to seek answers to those questions.

It is also true that whatever our predecessors did to find correct answers to these questions, even the Tantra Sadhna in the dead of night, fell within the gamut of scientific enquiry, though the methods were crude by today’s standards.

If seen in the context of that era, the questions asked in our holy books were brilliant, the methods devised to find answers to those questions were quite cerebral and the efforts made to answer those questions were honest.

It is also true that Hinduism is perhaps the only religion which is amenable to scientific thinking and though it has a pantheon of gods with supernatural powers, its attitude towards debates, discussions and scientific questioning is astoundingly liberal. You can sit in a temple and literally give a lecture on how to reject gods. Hindus do not mind it. At least they should not mind it, if they are true to their legacy. You don’t believe? What do Kabir’s bhajans suggest? And why are they played with devotion in most of our Mandirs? Think about it!

It is true that Heisenberg had visited India to lecture and that he was a guest of Rabindranath Tagore. It is also true that he had long discussions with Tagore on Indian philosophy. Heisenberg has been quoted as saying that these talks with Tagore helped him a lot with his work in physics and he came to the conclusion that the new ideas taking shape in quantum physics were not all that crazy. Fritjof Capra’s famous book “The Tao of Physics..” says that he (Heisenberg) realized there was a whole culture that subscribed to very similar ideas. The book says that Heisenberg did convey that this was a great help for him.

It is obvious that Heisenberg had great respect for Hindu philosophy and its analytical approach to questions relating to this universe. There have been many western scientists, writers and philosophers who have been impressed and overwhelmed by Indian philosophy and schools of thoughts and they have acknowledged this fact in different ways, in their books and in their statements.

But should we then extrapolate on this and claim that all their achievements owe their origin to Indian philosophy? Would that be prudent?

At most we may say that discussions with Tagore helped or inspired Heisenberg to reach a conclusion on the question of uncertainty. But, we really are in no position to appropriate something which is not in Vedas and has never been in Vedas.

What is Heisenberg principle? In brief, it says that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known and vice versa.

Any student of physics knows that the first person who defined momentum mathematically was Newton, though he also built upon pre-existing ideas, especially of impetus. I doubt if any attempt has been made to define momentum anywhere in Vedas. And although having been brought up in a Hindu family I have a hunch that uncertainty and duality must be a recurrent theme in Vedas and Upnishads, I doubt if precision and measurement of uncertainty find any mention anywhere. And if these basic ideas do not find a mention, it is hard to believe that uncertainty principle must have been rooted in Vedas.

Dear Mr. Rajnath Singh, human knowledge is cumulative and collaborative. In that sense, every attempt to answer a question has had a role in advancing our knowledge. So, ancient Hindu sages and philosophers did play a great role in adding to our knowledge. No one will deny them this credit. But, that does not mean that we should give them credit for something which has been achieved centuries later, somewhere else, by someone who has been an admirer of our philosophy but who has also had the opportunity to build on the ideas of great philosophers and scientists of yesteryears like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Newton and Einstein. Dear Mr. Singh, uncertainty principle owes as much to Indian philosophy as to Western philosophy. Please, do give them their due too!

There have been many scientists who have got their answers in a quirky manner. John Nash, the famous mathematician and the inventor of game theory has gone on record saying that he got his answers in and through dreams. Does that mean fundamentals of game theory are founded on dreams?

I love the lack of finality and the space for uncertainty and later revision in the pronouncements made in Hindu scriptures. And I also love the great poetry that these scriptures have. If anything, these scriptures deserve to be revered on the sheer strength of the brilliant poetry they contain.

My favourite stanza from Gita is the following.

य एनं वेत्ति हन्तारं यश्चैनं मन्यते हतम्।

उभौ तौ न विजानीतो नायं हन्ति न हन्यते॥१९॥

न जायते म्रियते वा कदाचिन् नायं भूत्वा भविता वा न भूयः।

अजो नित्यः शाश्वतोऽयं पुराणो न हन्यते हन्यमाने शरीरे॥२०॥

“One who considers that he is the slayer of this (the Soul), and the other who presumes that it (the Soul) is dead, both are ignorant because none can slay the soul, nor it is slain.

This one (the soul) is neither born, nor does it die at any moment. It does not come into being or cease to exist. It is unborn, eternal, everlasting and primeval. It does not perish when the body is perished.”

I think these are great lines and give us an insight into how cerebral and insightful our predecessors were and how hard they were trying to understand the working of this universe. That does not mean that these lines comprise the roots of medical science or reveal the secrets behind life and death. Or do they?

Hindus are nice people. Hinduism is a nice religion that allows a lot of thought-freedom and actually encourages debates and scientific enquiry.

There is already a lot in Hinduism that deserves standing ovation. We do not need anything more to add to the greatness of Hindu philosophy.

Those who want to keep Hinduism as an ideal religion should focus more on rooting out social and political evils that have slowly crept into this religion and are distorting the core ideas and responses of Hinduism.

At least they should desist from appropriating modern scientific achievements on the grounds that these were mentioned in different fables and parables in our holy books. Aladdin’s flying carpet did not embody aircraft, Ravana’s Vimana was not a prototype of aeroplane and Lord Hanuman’s ability to fly across oceans does not mean that we had the technology to fly.

There is a difference of degree among dreams, fables, ideas, hypothesis, theories, principles, rules and laws as well as conjectures, observations and experiments.

Dear Mr. Singh, just because today I can dream of having a vehicle that would one day run, sail and fly without any sort of fuel endlessly, one cannot and should not give me the credit for invention of such a vehicle if it is ever invented in future.

If at all, my dream should count as an expression of human desire to achieve the impossible. Nothing more than that.

No, Mr. Singh, however much we may like to support everything that our prime minister says, the fact remains that Ganesha’s elephant head was not a result of a rare feat of a brilliant plastic surgeon. Instead the credit should go to a brilliant story teller who first thought about this and a wonderful literary community of Hindus who adopted it as a part of their life.

This frequent mix up in credits is disappointing. Your government has been performing rather well. Why not focus on governance for the time being and leave these things to domain experts?

Akash Tiwary
Akash Tiwary
Akash Tiwary is a freelance writer and a keen blogger. He has been writing regularly for newspapers and has been a columnist.



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