Sunday, January 1, 2012

Review of India's Culture and India's Future by Michel Danino


Indian Culture and India's Future, by Michel Danino

Ready reckoner for the confused Indian and the misinformed rest.
A book that attempts to put forward the vast richness of India's culture, its contribution to the world, and the crossroads the country and its culture finds itself at.

Indians have long been accused of looking at their past with rose-tinted lenses and a sort of smugness about their superiority. A lack of knowledge about their past means most Indians have no objective perspective of their present, nor are they able to cogently argue why India's contributions to the world have been so often and so grossly misrepresented. This book attempts to put together, in one short read, a guide on India's past, its achievements, its thinkers, its contributions, and also tries to identify the causes that have led to this strange sense of dissociation and lack of pride that so many Indians have for India and its culture and heritage.

The first part of the book, titled "A Thousand-Branched Tree" covers the history of India's scientific minds and scientific discoveries, the vast reach of India's culture that pervades most of the world today, its contributions to art and culture, and its deep sense of respect for nature - yes; green was cool in India a few thousand years before the rest of the world discovered that annihilating the environment was, to put it mildly, not a good idea.

The second part then treads ground close to the present, and is titled, "Indian Culture at the Crossroads". This section covers the problems facing India and its cultural identity, and its causes.

The final section is "India and the World". This section looks at the distortions, stereotypes and outright lies that have been used to malign India.

Note that there is enough material that is likely to be offend people with sensitive sensibilities. Leftists, liberals, and communists for one - the historical kind, the ones in the media, and the ones with pretensions to intellect, since they have been at the forefront of the admirably successful campaign over the past several decades to run down India and its culture. However, when arguing with the wind of facts at your back, the proper response should be introspection from those so offended, not invective. There has also been a concerted effort by some in western media - a very smartly choreographed drama - that utilizes oft-repeated lies, a selective use of distortions, and a glib overlooking of evidence and contrarian evidence. The most pernicious example is the persistent perpetration of the fiction that there was a so-called Aryan invasion of India. But more on that in a future post.

This book can be read from cover to cover in three hours or so. I recommend that people interested in and who care for India would be well advised to spend these few hours in this book. They will be amply rewarded and enriched by that time.

"Blaming India's present degradation on her ancient culture or civilization is not merely ignorant, it is dishonest." [pg 20]

India's Scientific Mind
In the space of 121 concise, sometimes cryptic verses, Aryabhta, born in 476CE, possibly the greatest mathematician ever, gave us the following advances:
. a proposed value of pi (Π) equal to 62832/20000 or 3.1.416 ... and a surprisingly perceptive explanation that this value is only 'approximate';
. an ingenious method for the extraction of square and cube roots
. a succinct and precise table of sines (or jya), in the form of just two lines of coded syllables, giving sine values of angles up to 90° (in twelve increments of 3° 45')...
. a statement that the earth is a sphere with a diameter of 1,050 yojanas, which comes fairly close to the actual figure;
. a prescient observation that the earth's rotation is what causes the fixed stars to appear to move. (... Aryabhata's system remained basically geocentric; heliocentricism appears first with Parameswara and more clearly with his disciple Nilakantha Somayaji (1444-1545), two celebrated Kerala astronomers who predate Copernicus.)
. a correct understanding of the basic mechanism of solar and lunar eclipses, which he attributed to the moon's disc and the earth's shadow respectively;
. a notion that the moon and planets are not self-luminous but actually reflect sunlight.
But this is not all. Aryabhata's work on yugas led him to "a contemplation of the infinite which was a hallmark of Indian savants: 'Time is without beginning or end,' said Aryabhata. From this 'contemplation' flowed insights which our rational mind can only regard as 'coincidences': the value of a 'day of Brahma', 4.32 billion years, 'happens' to be almost exactly the age of the earth.' [pg 27]

In contrast, "In the seventeenth century, Archbishop James Usher revised those calculations (not the Indian calculations) and proposed that the universe had been created in 4004 BCE, a belief that prevailed until Darwin." [pg 34].

Lest the enlightened mind think that Aryabhata was a lone flash-in-the-pan  in the wilderness of Indian scientific thought, there is more.

The single greatest mathematical concept of all time has to be the decimal place value notational system, and it was developed in India.
The 594 CE incscription from Sankheda (near Baroda) is the oldest dated Indian document containing a number written in the place-value form. ... [pg 62]
Sayana and the Speed of Light
As far as we know, it was measured for the first time by the Danish astronomer Ole Roemer in 1675, with an error of 25 percent, and more precisely in the nineteenth century. But there is a curious comment by the fourteenth-century Vedic commentator Sayana on a hymn of the Rig Veda addressed to Surya, the sun-god. Sayana records a tradition associated with Surya:
   Thus it is remembered:
   [O Surya] you who traverse 2,202 yojanas in half a minute.
In much of ancient literature, the yojana is equated to 8,000 human lengths, or 13.6 km taking an average height of 1.70 m. ... And the nimesha's value is generally 16/75th of a second. With these values, Sayana's statement yields a speed of 280,755 km/s, remarkably close to the known velocity of light (299,792 km/s, thus some 6 percent too small). [pg 35]

Quantum physicist Edwin Schrodinger counted the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads among his favourite readings (and named his dog 'Atman'!):
This life of yours which you are living is not entirely a piece of this entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in this sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: tat tvam asi, this is you.... [pg 70]
Speaking of medicine, the notion of "invisible creatures" finds mention in Indian texts:
Thus the Ashtangahridayasamhita refers to blood corpuscles that are 'circular, legless, invisible, and coppery in colour' - strangely reminiscent of red blood cells... [pg 39]
India's contributions were not limited to contemplations on the universe and the world. They extended to outside India too, in the form of commerce for instance.
... cowrie shells originating form India or the Maldives were used as currency in Kenya and Egypt in the third millenium BCE
... Recent excavations at the Egyptian Red Sea port of Berenike have confirmed that an extensive sea trade existed between India and the Middle East from the third century BCE onward... [pg 52]

From about 500 BCE, the celebrated 'wootz' steel produced in south India was exported to the Middle East and Europe; it was called 'Damascus steel' as it was there that it was made into sharp swords
The ancient Iranian port city of Siraf (modern Taheri) was entirely built with Indian teakwood.
[pg 67-68]

One firm evidence for the spread of Hinduism comes to us from Armenia in the second century BCE. This region then included a part of Turkey and a part of Iran, and two Indian princes had travelled there from Kannauj, bringing with them a cult of Krishna and founding a city called Veeshap. They were killed in some quarrel, but their descendants built two temples...  The temples, which contained two brass statues about five and seven meters high of a god called 'Kissaneh' (Krishna, obviously), were destroyed about 301 CE by 'Saint' Gregory the Illuminator, amid the slaughter of over 1000 resisting Hindus, including the temple priests; the survivors were forcibly baptized. [pgs 53, 54]
In the eighteenth century, for instance, Voltaire pointed out that the Christian use of holy water had its origin in the sanctity attached to Ganga water. [pg 54]

On The Bhagvad Gita
Chapter 7 is titled, "The Gita and the Problem of Action". This holy song of the Lord has inspired Indians to action and has acted as a guiding light for millions over the millenia. The Independence movement was no different.
Indeed, the revolutionaries in Bengal and Maharashtra drew such inspiration from the Gita that the colonial authorities came to regard it as a 'gospel of terrorism', and it became one of the most sought-after pieces of evidence in police raids. It is also one of the chief influences cited in the 1918 Rowlatt Sedition Committee Report, side by side with Swami Vivekananda's works. [page 146]
It is then little surprise to read what so-called Indologists like Wendy Doniger have to say about the Gita.
Witness this statement made in 2000 by Wendy Doniger ... : 'The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think,' she informed her audience. 'Throughout the Mahabharata ... Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors as war ... The Gita is a dishonest book; it justifies war.'
Genuine philosophers like Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, and countless others, on the other hand, saw in the Gita much enlightenment.

The Gita had a profound impact on the US philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:
I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-Gita. It was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy... It [Vedic thought] is sublime as night and a breathless ocean.
As an aside, J. Robert Oppenheimer, often called "the father of the atomic bomb", remarked that the first atomic bomb test "brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.""

Emerson's disciple, Henry David Thoreau, spoke no less highly of Hindu thought:
In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmological philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny. [pg 59]
India and the World
In the third section, the author points out several incongruities that arise if you compare Indian literature and the doctrine of hatred and division sowed by English colonialists, missionaries, and more recently by communist historians.
Nowhere in the Sangam literature (the most ancient in Tamil) do we find a hint of a cultural clash with the North or with Vedic culture. Quite the contrary, we find the Vedas and the recitation of Vedic mantras praised from the earliest layers of this literature. [page 170]
It is perhaps so often overlooked that "distinctiveness is not separateness."

Again, the terrible lies that "India's numerous tribes never had anything to do with Hinduism until it was 'imposed' upon them by Brahman 'missionaries'" is not borne by facts.
Not only is there no trace of any such 'imposition', Hinduism is in reality the result of a long and fruitful interaction between Vedic culture and tribal cults, with many tribal deities enrichening the Hindu pantheon and tribal practices, rituals, and art forms getting absorbed - a wholly organic process controlled by no authority or clergy. [page 171]
It perhaps does not require repetition that the problem is not with the religion, but with those who have misused and misrepresented religion and the name of religion for their own selfish ends.
"Francis Xavier had this to write in a letter to his fellow Jesuits at Rome's Society of Jesus in 1543:
When all are baptized I order all the temples of their false gods to be destroyed and all the idols to be broken in pieces. I can give you no idea of the joy I feel in seeing this done, witnessing the destruction of the idols by the very people who but lately adored them." [page 172]
The author also laments the ubiquitous practice of self-censorship followed by historians in India. This is supposedly done "for fear of offending today's Muslim Indians. Yet the latter are no more responsible for them than today's Germans are responsible for Nazi atrocities."

Yet another blow against India's struggle for truth is wielded by Marxist historiographers like Bipin Chandra, who in his textbook on Modern India "used the words "terrorism" and "terrorists" seven times in just two pages to describe revolutionaries in India's freedom struggle, no doubt aware of how the word's connotation has shifted in recent decades. ... there is no excuse for using it in a modern textbook without a suitable explanation: India's freedom fighters did not explode bombs in public places with a view to causing as many deaths as possible, nor did they take hostages or use suicide bombers..."  [page 181]

In the words of the author, "Marxist historiography is in many ways the inheritor and continuer of the colonial, Eurocentric view of India, although in a new garb. ... it finds no intrinsic or endearing value in Indian civilization or in its contributions to humanity."

This book, as I said at the beginning, is a short read. The writing style is engaging and simple. The organization of the chapters is logical and each chapter is focused on a theme or single topic, and therefore easy to follow. There is a rich list of references at the end of the book. This book should help educate Indians about the unsurpassed richness of their culture and heritage, its scientific spirit that has fostered innovations for thousands of years, and also of the challenges facing Indian society, which is under stress from several quarters. The need of the hour is to raise awareness among the youth to these issues.

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© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.