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The Great Indian Pride

When religious beliefs erode rationality

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Potential trigger warning, for the religious ones. If so, don’t proceed any further.

A while ago, I saw a question on Quora, which was based on the events that occur in the Hindu Epic Ramayana:

Did India have the technology to make airplanes thousands of years ago as it is mentioned in Ramayana that Lord Rama traveled from Lanka to Ayodhya by Pushpak Vimana? Or it is just a myth?

Interesting question? Maybe. And here’s one answer, which at the end implies it to be true.

It received over 3000 upvotes. Take a minute to read it if you like, because we’re going to pick it apart (along with its other variations).

Now if you’ve read the answer in an objective way, you’ll notice that the author of that answer (amongst many others) - and the several people that left comments on his answer - are operating under the influence of the Belief Bias.

Or, in-less technical terms - wishful thinking.

And this eventually leads people to committing a classic Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. According to the definition on Wikipedia -

In other words, it’s a false cause fallacy. A common example of this fallacy would be the modern day interpretations of Nostradamus' writings, which are often mistranslated out of context to conclude that he predicted a modern day event - of-course, after the occurrence of said event (big surprise).

Ironically, the answer says “you should not make assumptions” but is quite literally full of them all over. In the answer, the author makes some interesting and possibly true points about ancient people having engineering skills and knowledge of material science. And that’s what makes it so convincing to the lowest common denominator of the population. In pseudoscience, fiction is often mixed with facts and scientific-sounding words that everyday people might have heard during high school, thus giving it an air of legitimacy.

There’s something awfully wrong when people go about doing all sorts-of mental gymnastics to prove their beliefs as true. Not only is it ignorant, but dangerous. So here’s my take on the same answer, in trying to expose it for the B.S that it is.

The premise

To summarize, here are some of the most common premises which adherents of this belief often state to arrive at their conclusion -

  • Flying machines and incantations that invoke powerful weapons have often been mentioned in our mythological texts.
  • We have lost valuable ancient knowledge during invasions and natural calamities.
  • We haven’t discovered all the secrets that our ancient people knew.
  • We blindly follow The West and believe only whatever NASA or CERN invent or discover.

Conclusion: And therefore, it is true that ancient Indians indeed had advanced knowledge and technology, including the knowledge of aircraft and nuclear weapons.

When someone makes a claim as extra-ordinary as this one, it’s important to remember -

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

So needless to say, the supporting arguments must provide definitive evidence. How well do these premises fare in this regard?

Unpacking the arguments

Premise #1: Because our mythological texts say so.

Ever heard of Chinese Whispers? It’s a game where the players form a line. The first player whispers something into the ear of the 2nd person. The 2nd player repeats the message to the 3rd, and so on. Finally, the last player announces the message to the entire group, to compare with the original message.

It’s a fun game because the last version differs significantly from the first one, and is usually amusing and humorous. If this happens among just 10 people with one single phrase - imagine with how much degree, entire stories, history, and tales of heroism by various kings could have changed when they were passed from generation to generation! Moreover, a lot of the stories from many of our own epics were passed orally. - and oral translations/transmissions are quite often unreliable, as the game clearly demonstrates.

Authors are known to write fictional events using real places and real people. Many times they narrate real incidents too - but the narrations would be greatly exaggerated, often mixed with fiction as well.

Take any Dan Brown or mainstream novel and read - the people might have been real, the places might have been real - but there will also be fictional and supernatural elements. Just because we have an episode on time travel in a Harry Potter novel, doesn’t mean that it would be right for people in the future to believe that Hogwarts was actually real or that we actually had time-travel technology. Or that if a great so-called tsunami wipes us all, and 1000 years later someone discovers The Justice League comics - does not mean that we actually had a superman wearing red tights and a cape who could fly, lift buildings and fight alien monsters.

Now, specifically addressing the Vimana -

Say if indeed the engineers in the times of the Ramayana had the technology to invent aeroplanes. First of all, the Vimana has been described in various religious texts as being pulled by horses. There is no evidence to suggest that horses evolved the ability to fly anytime during their evolution. There is no law of physics or biology that suddenly gives a horse the ability to fly, and then lose them later. That’s not how natural selection works.

The Universe is governed by laws of science, not magic.

Proponents of this theory also commonly refer to the text Vaimānika Shāstra, which in Sanskrit means “The Science of Aeronautics”. A study by aeronautical and mechanical engineering at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore in 1974 concluded that the aircraft described in the text were “poor concoctions” and that the author showed a complete lack of understanding of aeronautics. Besides, the text itself was released in the early 20th century, and not in an ancient time of the world, as people might believe.

Premise #2: We have lost valuable ancient knowledge during invasions and natural calamities.

Construction of aeroplanes requires an immense knowledge in the field of mathematics, physics, electronics and engineering.

  • Wouldn’t they have taken great measures to preserve such important documents? It makes no sense that they had the technology to invent planes, but couldn’t invent the technology to preserve such an important field of knowledge. It is utterly implausible that only stories, manuscripts and insignificant artifacts survived, but any other archaeological evidence of advanced ancient technology and their supporting mathematical proofs, engineering principles and documentation disappeared.
  • Wouldn’t the engineers have passed down this knowledge to the next generations and so on, especially when these technologies had such profound mathematical and engineering implications? And yet, even the most knowledgable vedic scholars till date, possess no knowledge of building ancient flying machines or nuclear weapons by reading The Vedas.
  • Almost every important work in existence are themselves the derivatives of other important works. We have discovered the works of mathematicians such as Aryabhata (who was also a physicist), Brahmagupta (also an astronomer) and Bhaskara. Isn’t it possible that they could have laid their hands on ancient vedic knowledge? But even their works are not found to contain any advanced knowledge of calculus, differential equations or quantum physics. In fact, their works didn’t even contain decimal fractions - something that kids learn in high school.
  • India had interactions with its neighbouring lands during ancient times and was connected to many parts of the world via trade routes. Trade routes were important not only for exchanging goods, but also for exchanging knowledge (like the number 0, for example). One of the earliest routes was the Grand Trunk Road, that existed during Chandragupta Maurya’s reign.

It was very likely, that much of our own knowledge and inventions would have been borrowed by other nations. Which begs the question: why did the entire world - including Indians - wait for over 2000 years for the Wright brothers to invent the aeroplane? Food for thought. The most logical explanation would be that we simply didn’t have the knowledge!

Premise #3: We haven’t discovered all the secrets that our ancient people knew.

There has been painstaking efforts for more than a century to study the ancient texts from the Vedas, in an attempt to understand the mathematical knowledge within them. For example, from the study of Vedic Samhitas and Brahamanas, we know that they had the system of counting progression, and that they considered remarkably large numbers, even up to 14 digits - unlike other civilizations of those times. We even knew about Baudhyana Shulvasutra which had the earliest form of Pythagoras theorem, which preceded the actual Pythagoras theorem by several centuries.

Guess what we didn’t find? Oh yes - the advanced mathematical equations, physics and engineering rules that are necessary to propel a human powered aircraft into the air. Simple observations like “what goes up comes down” are there and suggest that we knew about the existence of gravity. But there is no evidence to suggest that we had quantified, formalized and invented the mathematical equations for it, or general theory of relativity equations.

This was a time when people rode on horses and fought using swords, bows and arrows. A civilization that didn’t have electricity or even machine guns for that matter, to possess the knowledge of aerospace or nuclear fission is simply impossible. So to use the available facts and going as far as to say that we had the technology to fly aircraft and atom bombs is a huge logical leap. Suffice to say - it isn’t a huge mystery anymore, and we should stop living under the illusion that there is some “secret treasure of ancient knowledge” waiting to be discovered.

Premise #4: We blindly follow The West and believe only whatever NASA or CERN invent or discover.

No we don’t. That’s simply being condescending. Actual scientific theories has a mountain of at-least one, or more of these -

  • Observational Evidence, that does not rely on eye-witness testimony alone.
  • Actual Mathematics and laws of physics to back it up.

Many of these researchers and scientists including NASA open-source their life’s work. Their works are monitored and measured from some of the most precise, accurate data-gathering and measuring devices known to man. Their works take decades of research, are peer-reviewed by thousands of other scientists (who publish their findings independently), and they most definitely don’t use anecdotes presented as “evidence”. They are verifiable, falsifiable and reproducible.

And what’s more? They don’t consider their knowledge as dogma. Read on how in 2011, scientists announced that they discovered faster than light neutrinos, then publicly acknowledged that their calculations had errors. That’s how they build trust.

Unlike religion, Science isn’t a belief system. It’s a procedure for investigation. Quite a rigorous one in-fact, and not rooted in blind faith. And that’s why it makes sense to trust the process.

Thus, one can conclude the original claim as truly debunked and dusted. Similarly, over the last few years, there’s been more such dubious claims made by common and prominent people alike -

More ludicrousness

Here are the more common ones, along with links thoroughly debunking them -

I can imagine Shiva’s third eye rolling after hearing such ludicrous claims. All of these claims follow the same model of wishful thinking, and make the same logical fallacies and biases. Almost every single one of them either can be - or already are - debunked, by evaluating them rationally.

This endeavour of trying to take credit for every single modern invention, and attributing those to mythological and religious texts is counter-productive to our own image as a society in the long run. When the current Prime Minister himself makes outlandish claims like these, what hope do the common, scientifically-untrained people have?

Look, don’t get me wrong - it’s great, even necessary to be aware of our past achievements. But at the same time, it is also equally essential to confront, question, and expose baseless arguments presented as “facts”. We’re seeing a false sense of national pride associated with our literature, and now even well-meaning and educated people are accepting it uncritically.

So what can you do to highlight India’s rich heritage?

  • Firstly, stop taking pride in thories that aren’t falsifiable. It’s like a beggar bragging about how rich and wealthy his forefathers used to be thousands of years ago. What’s the point? Scientifically or practically it is of no use for us to make such claims whatsoever. You’ll be indulging in a futile exercise, while the rest of the world will move on to discovering and inventing better things.
  • And if you really believe that ancient Indians knew everything, then do us and humanity a favour - read all the epics, stories and scriptures that you can get hold of, and produce a falsifiable theory that hasn’t been discovered yet - complete with documentation on how to test, verify and reproduce your experiments, and practical applications.
  • Make people aware of legitimate works of marvel such as Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man who independently compiled over 3000 unique equations, that works like Baudhyana Shulvasutra existed. Talk about the Harappan Civilization, when Indians invented the world’s earliest public baths, latrines and sewage systems.

You’ll discover more such works done by eminent scientists, physicists and mathematicians of India. Be proud of them, their very real achievements, and show them off to your people. It is this kind of information that will highlight our ancient heritage. Quoting religious texts out of context, however, is just lazy and wrong - and it reeks of our own shallowness.

You don’t have to believe in the Vedas, Ramayana, and Mahabharatha to imbibe the good lessons, the values and morals that they teach. I have read these epics too, and I was always awestruck by their rich stories, their diverse characters, and intricate plots.

But bringing them into the science or engineering classroom and attributing all modern discoveries and inventions to them will only bring ridicule, and people will stop taking them seriously.

Originally published on Quora