The Hindu time scale is cyclical; it consists of kalpas which consists of a thousand cycles of is four yugas- the satya, the thretha, the dwapara and the kali yuga, which repeat themselves. At the end of each kalpa, the universe is destroyed and recreated to begin the next cycle, each consisting of billions of years. In the current cycle, the Ramayana happened during the thretha yuga, the Mahabharata in the dwapara yuga. We are living in the kali yuga, hence the end-of-the-world predictions of December 2012. Time and date-keeping, which forms the basis for recording events, was not done in a rational and precise manner. There is no information on the exact date when the Battle of Kurukshetra occurred, but there is a record of the positions of stars and planets, that is, astronomical time.
But the ancient Greeks and Arabians recorded events and facts that occurred during a time period. They originated the Gregorian calendar which is in use even today; there was continuity and objectivity in their writings. Their history is a scientific record of events, facts and time. Indian history is a medley of facts and mythology which has changed with every retelling, with several regional variations. It is said that Indians do not have a sense of history. For example, we never knew that the Indus Valley Civilisation existed until a military officer of the East India Company, Charles Masson, recorded his finding of the city of Harappa. Information about the times of Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka have been put together mostly from the writings of foreign travelers to their courts. History was never a science for us, it was merely a storybook of mythology.
Indian society and culture has numerous rituals, beliefs and superstition woven into its intricate fabric. For example, there is a belief behind the caste system that formed the basis of interaction and hierarchy in Hindu society- according to the Puranas, the Brahmin originated from the head of God, the Kshatriya from his arm, the Vaishya from his thigh and the Shudra from his foot. Notions of purity and pollutions are pervasive in Indian society and have led to social evils like caste system and ostracisation of menstruating women. Its not all bad though. Many of these practices were beneficial too. Oil massages given to newborns is a celebratory event among Hindus, and its benefits have been proven beyond doubt. We have often heard our grandparents say ‘The elders have a reason behind every one of the practices they prescribed to us, we just don’t know it’. Then why do we follow them blindly, without stopping to question them?
Perhaps we lack that questioning mind, the objectivity, the ability to think critically, the rationality , to analyze and draw conclusions – all essential elements of scientific temper. But Indians made so many contributions to the world in ancient times – zero, numerals, astronomical discoveries, trigonometry and many more. But we lost it somewhere along the way in a cloud of ritualism and superstition. Of late, many are making unverified claims about the scientific prowess of ancient Indians- the Pushpaka Vimana, used by Ravana to carry away Sita, was the world’s first aero plane; and many more such. The Government is investing in research of unique medicinal properties in the Indian cow’s milk, dung and urine. Many indigenous medicine practitioners and the government itself are putting out advisories of how cow urine can prevent COVID-19. While we have much to be proud of with regards to this, it would not be right to mislead the public.
But are we making strides in developing a scientific temper? Covid-19 has caused upheavals around the world, and perhaps in the way Indians think. There is acknowledgement that it is spread by a pathogenic virus and not by the wrath of Gods. People realise that it can be prevented by following hygienic practices like hand washing and social distancing and not by offering sacrifices to the village Goddess. There is a cause and an effect, and a way to prevent it. Of course, it has caused a sanitization mania among a small section, but that is a different kind of ignorance. This is a step in the right direction, which may make the population more aware and productive, dispel baseless fears and break many glass ceilings.
But a scientific temper may also spill into personal life; relationships maybe subjected to cost-benefit analyses. This may damage inter-personal interactions and does not suit the community way of life. Compromise and kindness may take a back seat. People may become more selfish. The elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable sections maybe neglected as they are not productive. Hence, Swami Vivekananda’s formula for the modern world- a synthesis of the science of the West and Spirituality of the East. Values are as important as a scientific temper, if we are to live with humanity.
While we may have made a beginning, India must invest in improving the quality of our education, as we struggle to educate our youth to the standards needed in today’s competitive world. The awakening will be led by today’s children and tomorrow’s citizens.