NEW DELHI // Speakers at a prestigious science conference in Mumbai have said that a Hindu sage invented interplanetary spacecraft 7,000 years ago, that a herbal paste applied to a person’s feet can help locate underground water and that a bacteria found in cows can turn any material into gold.
These unconventional claims were made on Sunday during a session of the continuing Indian Science Congress, titled Ancient Sciences Through Sanskrit.
The discussion was sandwiched between more orthodox events on nuclear magnetic resonance and the structure of the atom, and speakers were an uncomfortable fit with the rest of those on the day’s schedule: spiritual counsellors and Sanskrit scholars moving among neurologists, chemists and physicists.
“There is official history and unofficial history,” said one of the speakers, retired pilot trainer Anand Bodas. “Official history only noted that the Wright Brothers flew the first plane in 1903,” but the inventor of the airplane was really a sage named Bharadwaja, who lived around 7,000 years ago. “The ancient planes had 40 small engines.”
The pilots of these planes, Mr Bodas went on, wore special suits that protected them from viruses, electric shocks and extreme weather conditions.
But the text on which he relied — titled the Vaimanika Shastra — has been dated by a team from the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru as only a century old at most. The flying machines described in the text, the team said, were “poor concoctions” and “unimaginably horrendous.”
The presence of speakers like Mr Bodas at an ordinarily serious gathering of scientists — the 102nd such annual event — has stirred anger in India’s scientific community. It has also stoked concerns that the rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has allowed Hindu nationalists to spread their influence into academia.
The Indian Science Congress Association, which puts on the conference each year, is a professional body under the government’s ministry of science and technology with a membership of 30,000 scientists.
The government’s representative, environment minister Prakash Javadekar, insisted that the forum was “secular and purely academic.”
“We should pay attention to Sanskrit knowledge and use it for human development,” he said.
Leaders of the Hindu right, including prime minister Narendra Modi, have previously suggested that modern science has its origins in ancient Indian understanding.
Mr Modi, who hails from the BJP, said in October that deity Ganesha — who under Hindu myth was formed by the attachment of an elephant’s head to the body of a human boy — was an early example of plastic surgery.
And in November, home minister Rajnath Singh said that Werner Heisenberg’s principle of quantum uncertainty, theorised in 1927, drew upon the Hindu scriptures known collectively as the Vedas.
The political opposition has criticised the government’s encouragement of such declarations. On Monday, Congress party parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor dismissed the “exaggerations of the Hindutva brigade,” using the common term for Hindu right-wing groups.
Mr Tharoor pointed out, however, that old Indian texts did include some robust science, such as an equivalent of Pythagoras’ theorem and some concepts of algebra.
Indian scientists have been forceful in dismissing what they see as the encroachment of political agendas on science.
In December, after the Indian Science Congress’ schedule was announced, California-based Indian scientist Ramprasad Gandhiraman began a petition “to stop providing a platform for pseudoscience.” More than 200 Indian scientists have signed the petition since then.
Calling the presence of such speakers at a scientific conference “appalling,” the petition said it questioned the integrity of scientific progress.
“We as [a] scientific community should be seriously concerned about the infiltration of pseudoscience in science curricula with backing of influential political parties,” the petition said. “The accelerated pace with which it is being promoted will seriously undermine [the] nation’s science and ... will have a disastrous effect on the future generation [of] scientists.”
The congress’ Ancient Sciences Through Sanskrit session “made for some interesting lunchtime conversation” at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, said T A Abinandanan, a professor and the author of Nanopolitan, a popular blog focused on higher education.
"It's pretty bizarre," he told The National. "It has made the event look ridiculous."
Mr Abinandanan observed, however, that the history of Indian science is and should be “a legitimate field of inquiry. What did the ancient Indians know, and how did they know it?”
“There is definitely place for such a session at the Indian Science Congress,” he said. “My grouse is that they didn’t ask people who do science-orientated work to speak about it. They asked a bunch of jokers with a political agenda.”