“Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?”
Rig Veda, 10:129-6
Somewhere embedded deep inside the Rig Veda — which happens to be one of the important canonical texts of Hindu religion, the four Vedas — is Nasadiya Sukta, or what is known as the hymn of creation. Of unknown authorship, this hymn poses some very cryptic and incisive queries on the purpose of life and the very existence of an all-bearing god. There is an element of agnosticism, of query, of doubt. It starts in a rhetorical fashion, posing incisive queries questioning the singularity itself. And while numerous interpretations of the Sukta have highlighted the scientific temper and the inquisitive temperament of the early sages who penned this and the very many hymns found elsewhere, the fact remains that Nasadiya Sukta is also a very humane and emotional query. For instance, when asked to believe in something, don’t we always begin with scepticism and doubt, it is only later when through understanding and acceptance that we move to the next level. Until then, we are atheists, sceptics, agnostics and so on.
In that way Nasadiya Sukta is most special, it accepts doubt and empiricism as part of the man’s spiritual and scientific journey. It encourages questioning the very fundamentals, even the existence of a supreme being or many is not taken for granted. It is in this sense, Hinduism differed from all else, you did not have to believe anything that your rational mind did not. Faith was not a mandatory imposition; that is, not believing in the trinity — Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh — did not make you any lesser of a Hindu, than say a temple priest who spent a lifetime propriating the very triad. And so the ancient Vedic Hindu was a questioning, open-minded, person, not a self-deluded proud oaf who saw Meru as the centre of the universe, denying everything else.
Much has changed in the journey from a Vedic Hindu performing a homa on a vedi in the ancient time, to the modern Hindu blogging and posting on the Vedas on FB and Twitter today. The progress of technology and evolution has left its mark on the religion itself. New gods have emerged, old have been dislodged, there have been numerous reformist movements from Arya Samaj to Theosophical Society, from Iskcon to Art of Living. Hinduism probably is the only religion in the world, where new deities keep emerging at different time, and all the time. Take the case of Sai Baba, there are numerous temples dedicated to him and many more are sprouting all the time. In fact, Shirdi which was the seat of Sai Baba has become a huge pilgrimage centre, with annual donations running in many millions. Faith is always good business in any religion.
Sadly, the Vedas to a large extent have now been relegated to the domain of the experts and the scholars, with newer texts taking their place. The Hindu theology can be broadly classified into three buckets:
- Vedas & Brahmanas
- Puranas & the Epics
The four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Attharva, Sama — primarily are a collation of hymns, rituals and prayers, propitiating the various Vedic deities (32 approximately), like Indra, Agni, Varun, Maruts, Prajapati. There’s much lesser storytelling in them, and whatever are there, the purpose is to present a reasoning for a certain ritual or sacrifice. For instance the tale of Apala in the Rig Veda provides a clue as to why certain rituals like the turmeric
ceremony is performed during the nuptials. Thus, the tales are a sort of story to explain the science. There is a purpose, a well-thought objective. The sheer depth and complexity of the Vedas are tempered by such tales. Also, it is important to note that there is a lot more cultural and scientific material in the Vedas, through careful examination and interpretation, one can understand the nature of being, and the natural world that surrounds it. Indeed, there is theology and philosophy, but only to a limited extent. For instance, we get to know about how the world was created through Purusha Sukta and to an extent the Nasadiya Sukta. Matters like philosophy of religion is dealt with much greater emphasis in the subsequent works like the Upanishads.
So, broadly speaking Vedas are the scientific texts, Upanishads are the philosophical treatise, and by the time we reach the Puranas, all we are left with tales and myths. The Puranas are much later compositions and were written for a specific purpose to promote and endorse one deity over all else, thus in the Shiv Purana, you are told that Lord Shiva is ‘dev adi dev, mahadev’ (the super-duper god), the Vaishnav Purana would tell you about the Maha Vishnu, who creates a million universes with each breath lorded over by a smaller Vishnu in his own image. The Devi Purana, similarly pronounces the supreme-ness of the female deity. All this is done through prose stories, and almost every time the story of creation is reinvented with a new twist.
Meanwhile, the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana penned by Vyas and Valmiki respectively are Maha-Kavyas, great poems and work of fiction, like say Iliad and Odyssey. These are fantastical tales possibly of fantastical people and times, but then in lack of larger proof in terms of historical finding or artefact, they cannot really be considered as real.
Yet, since the epics are much a part of the religious ethos, the Hindus treat them with much deference and respect. Considering that the two major Vishnu Avatars are at the core of each of this epic, raises the religious value of these works beyond comprehension. Little wonder, when the same epics were adopted on television the actors playing Rama and Krishna were treated like gods, and there are stories of how people would offer flowers and fruits to the TV when the episodes aired. In that particular timeslot the television set would turn into a temple of sorts. That is the power of belief.
Little wonder, the amazing tales told in the epics, or even the Puranas, are not fiction for many. There are numerous who believe them to be real, and so many scholars and researchers spend their lifetime looking for clues, meanings and physical markings of all the things and places etched out in them. This is a sort of retrofitting research, wherein you try and find the physical manifestation of a fictional object or thing. People give real world dates, 4000 BCE, 8000 BCE, 80000 BCE and so on. Ramayana came first, Mahabharata second, and so on.
And this is essentially where the anomalies start, in the fascination and fastidiousness of proving the epics as historical contrivances, supposed scholars start building fancy hypotheses. Thus, a Brahmastra in Arjun’s quiver becomes an equivalent of an atomic missile, Ravan’s Pushpakvimana turns into an early age helicopter, Gandhari’s mechanism of having kids by raising 100 embryos in 100 earthen pots is like test-tube baby, replacement of Ganesha’s head with that of an elephant is surgical procedure, the Jambudweepa is another term of the ancient Pangea, the extreme slowness of Brahma’s time is actually time dilation, the Krishna’s precise and pinpointed Sudarshan Chakra is actually a cruise missile, and the list just goes on and on.
Looking from the prism of today, these scholars try to reinvent the past using the epics as the base. The core idea is to impress upon us that our lineage actually hails from a very scientific and advanced race. It is like reading Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues under the sea’ and deducing that the medieval man had a powerful nuclear submarine like Nautilus, or using HG Wells novel to claim the indisputable existence of a time machine. The lines between fact and fiction gets blurred.
By the way, in no manner do I imply that our great ancestors were some pastoral oafs. Indeed they were ahead of their times, inquisitive and used science as a tool. Anyone who has ever visited any Indus Valley Civilization’s ruin — even excepting Harappa & Mohenjo Daro (because they are far too superlative to not impress) — would immediately realise the scientific temperament of the ancient Indians, the town planning, the right-angled streets, the sewer system, the trade mechanism, etc. do provide a glimpse into the scientific past.
And yes there are many epigraphical evidences that can make any scientific Indian’s heart swell with pride, be it Aryabhatta’s mathematical work, from where we had the zero and decimal system, or even the precise value of the Π (Pie). It was the genius Aryabhata who claimed that earth was a planet rotating around the sun, something which even the oh-so ‘scientific’ Puranas seem to have missed, placing Earth at the centre of the creation. Then there is another mathematician Bhaskaracharya, who provided the principles of differential calculus and its application to astronomical problems and computations as back as 12th Century in his book Siddhanta-Shiromani. Coming to medicine, while Shiva replacing Daksha’s head with that of a goat, or grafting an elephant head on Ganesha is not a proof of surgery, Sushruta’s treatise surely is, which even spells out the procedure of cataract surgery. There are also other treatises on medical sciences say by Charaka and Jivika, who have provided detailed exposition on various maladies and how to treat them. If that is not enough to astonish you, we have Kannada who founded the philosophical school of Vaisheshika and authored the text Vaisheshika Sutra. His biggest contribution to science was his concept of ‘anu’ or molecule that was the base of everything. He postulated this molecular theory way back in 6th Century ACE, much ahead of anyone. And not only such high-brow scientific texts, you had a range of scholarly work across spectrum, Kautilya’s Arthasashtra a work on political governance is still much relevant. Even on the literary front you have plenty, there’s Panini for Sanskrit grammar, Yaskacharya on etymology of Rig Vedic words and so on.
So to be frank, there is just no paucity of scholarly and scientific work in ancient India, one just has to dig a bit deeper, look beyond the obvious, do a bit of research. There is a vast body of scriptures to refer to, there are the Angas are six in number: Science of morals and duties, Grammar, Philology, Music and Astronomy. Upangas (again six): Purva Mimansa, Vaisheshika, Niyama, Yoga, Sankhya and Vedanta. Brahmanas are four in number: Aitreya, Shatapatha, Sama and Gopatha. All of them present detailed study in each subject.
In the end, the distinction between what is science and what is not is very elementary and necessary. And if you err on that, and go about searching for science where it is not meant to be. Thus as, unlike, what a respected MP from India said in parliament recently, ancient astrology that predicts future based on astral movements is not a science, but ancient astronomy that tracked the movement of ancient bodies certainly is.
What set Indians apart in the ancient times was the quest for knowledge, the persistence of doubt, the pursuit of learning. Which is immediately obvious in the Nasadiya Sukta, questioning the very basics, doubting the very core, not accepting anything on face value.
We need to rekindle that spirit, regain that trait, renew the zeal, the quest for answers. We need to be that Doubting Thomas’s again, that perennial argumentative race that was never short of why, how and what. So, next time anyone quotes a myth to prove a point, say a Ganesh-surgery story, or a Brahmastra-nuclear one, stop him or her in the track, and ask “Are you really sure, and pray where did you read it”?
There is this beautiful small prayer in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (I.iii.28) that kind of encapsulates that spirit. It begins with the moving words, Asato Ma Sadgamaya, or could be translated as ‘lead me from the materialism to immortality’. The prayer is also an admission on the sense of limitedness of mindset, and knowledge, and seeks light through true knowledge. It is this that we need to turn to, knowledge that liberates our pride and spirit, not merely air that swells the heart with pride. Om Shantih! Shantih! Shantih!