Newton And The Problem Of ‘Cargo Cult’ Hindutva

Newton And The Problem Of ‘Cargo Cult’ HindutvaEnglish mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton contemplates the force of gravity, as the famous story goes, on seeing an apple fall in his orchard. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 
  • The meme-based frivolous activity of Hindutva supporters is really a betrayal of the historical responsibility that society, dharma and time have entrusted upon them.

Attacking Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin has become almost a trend in Hindutva circles. Before getting into the details of this disturbing phenomenon, we need to distinguish between an earlier type of critique of Newton’s worldview and the recent attacks on him – the person and his science.

Newton: Monotype by William Blake (1795/1805). Blake wanted god to “keep us from single vision and Newton’s sleep”.
Newton: Monotype by William Blake (1795/1805). Blake wanted god to “keep us from single vision and Newton’s sleep”.

Dattopant Thengadi (1920-2004) and H V Sheshadri (1926-2005) are considered the most profound Hindutva ideologues in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) circles. They criticised Newton’s worldview. According to them, it is synonymous to a mechanical worldview, and is the root cause of all the problems an individual, society and nature face today. They placed Hindutva as the organic alternative to this worldview.

Thengadi, the founder of India’s largest central trade union organisation – the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh – through his lectures had made the critique of Newton’s worldview, integral to his critique of Marxism, which he considered ‘an intellectual parasite on Newtonian science ...’ (The Perspective, 1971). He further considered it as a larger problem in the Western society:

Except for a few modern scientists, the West, being still under the influence of Newtonian science, clings to the myth that mind is only a super-structure on matter and hence believes that socioeconomic structure is basic, deserving our exclusive attention. The religion, culture, ethics, literature, arts etc – all these constitute a mere super-structure, which will automatically undergo appropriate corresponding changes, once the socio-economic order is altered...
Third Way’, Sahitya Sindhu Prakashana, 1998

Based on the views of Gandhian-Buddhist economist E F Schumacher, Sheshadri made the following critique:

In short, the overall dominance of the economic factor, of considering economic growth alone as the yardstick for measuring standard of life – to the exclusion of all other values of life, has verily led to the destruction of human personality. It has made man a mechanical part of the huge mechanical world he has created which has destroyed the natural rhythm of his life.
Universal Spirit of Hindu Nationalism’, Vigil,1991

The importance of the above Hindutva critique of Newton’s worldview is that they contribute to the conceptual evolution of Hindutva by interacting with the deeper value system.

From left to right, Deendayal Upadhyaya, Thengadi, Sheshadri, Blake, Schumacher and Fritjof Capra: Hindutva has a sustained critique of mechanical and Newton’s worldview,  which aligns with a long but not dominant Western tradition of the same.
From left to right, Deendayal Upadhyaya, Thengadi, Sheshadri, Blake, Schumacher and Fritjof Capra: Hindutva has a sustained critique of mechanical and Newton’s worldview, which aligns with a long but not dominant Western tradition of the same.

It can be noted here that Newton’s science was not questioned. The critique is on the worldview based on Newtonian physics, mainly in the context of society and the individual. In this, both Thengadi and Sheshadri have not hesitated to align themselves with another Western tradition though not dominant, which can be said to start from the critique of Newton by William Blake to the works on deep ecology and systems of view of life by physicist-author Fritijof Capra.

But that is not the case today. What we have here is ‘cargo cult’ Hindutva, which dominates through memes. It presents a highly-contrived worldview. Here, it is often claimed that Hindus discovered gravity, and Newton 'stole' from Hindus the idea of gravitational force. Such claims come from cultural illiteracy and an inferiority complex, and the ignorance of how global science evolves through contributions from various cultures. More importantly, such claims also deprive the Hindutva supporters of the important work of bringing to the fore the contributions India really made to the evolution of scientific discourse.

Parallels between Newton’s discovery and Vedic symbolism: such claims were there even during the time of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
Parallels between Newton’s discovery and Vedic symbolism: such claims were there even during the time of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

Such claims have always been there. However, when such claims were made, they were viewed with scepticism and critiqued. For example, even during the time of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), it was claimed that Vedic seers knew of the seven colours of the prism and that the horses of the sun were symbolic of that knowledge. But, Tilak did not accept it. He wrote:

... and the late Mr S P Pandit goes so far as to assert that the seven rays here referred to may be the prismatic colors with which we are familiar in the Science of optics, or the seven colors of the rainbow. All this appears to be very satisfactory at the first sight, but our complacency is disturbed as soon as we are told that along with the seven rays and horses of the sun, the Rig-Veda speaks of ten horses or ten rays of the same luminary.
Samagra, Lokmanya Tilak: Vol-7: P-278

Despite Tilak pointing out the ineffectiveness of drawing such parallels, this continues to be a part of the lore of 'Vedic science’. But the real twist in the tale comes from the fact that Newton's idea of seven colours itself emerges from a parallel he wanted to construct with the seven notes of the music scale.

Peter Pesic, a physicist, a pianist and author of Music and the Making of Modern Science (MIT, 2014) says that there is 'no justification in experiment exactly’ and that it represented 'something' that Newton was 'imposing upon the color spectrum by analogy with music'. So much for Vedic rishis introducing the symbolism of Newton’s discovery in the seven horses of the sun!

In recent times, the problem escalated, when a person as important as Minister of State for Human Resources and Development, Satyapal Singh, is reported to have claimed that "there were mantras which codified 'laws for motion' much before it was discovered by Newton”. Even if we give enough discount to the distortions that the mainstream media is capable of making in any Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister’s statement, here unfortunately it is true that the minister could have made such a statement. A few months ago, in November 2017, another BJP leader, a new entrant to the party and now an MP in Rajya Sabha, Dr Subramaniyan Swamy tweeted the following:

The tweet is linked to an article that has a meme, which depicts Kanada – the seer associated with Vaisheshika Darshanam as ‘Vedic nuclear scientist’ and all three laws of motion by Newton are ascribed to the seer – which of course can only be obtained by Zakir Naik-like distortions.

When such questionable memes and claims become sources of information for people in power, then it is a matter of grave concern.
When such questionable memes and claims become sources of information for people in power, then it is a matter of grave concern.

This Kanada-Newton linkage provides an insight into the quasi cultural illiteracy ailment of cargo cult Hindutva. The connection comes from the fact that among the different qualities or gunas of Vaisheshika Darshana is 'gurutva'. Earlier, colonial indologists translated gurutva as gravity, and Vaisheshika sutras associate this quality with falling of the bodies. So, it is quite tempting to presume that Kanada indeed first discovered gravity. While Kanada's Vaisheshika system had in it some of the fundamental and crucial insights into the science of motion, it was still far from formulating the laws of motion and gravitation. Here is an insightful analysis by a physicist:

While speculating on matter, the Vaisheshika realists did not fail to notice the fundamental importance of motion. In fact, one of their definitions of substance recognizes motion as an inherent quality of the substance. (kriyaavattva). Moreover, motion (karma) is acknowledged as one of the six categories with which to comprehend the physical world. ... The basic concepts of motion were introduced during the formulation of the Vaisheshika aphorisms (c 300 BC). Unfortunately, no further study of the nature of motion was undertaken by the later exponents of the school until Prasastapada (c AD 600) revived the idea in his Padarthadharma-sangrha. ... Prasastapada defines motion as the change of place of particles as ‘property of acting as independent cause of conjunctions and dis-junctions. He regarded motion as instantaneous in its simplest form, distinguishing it from impressed motion, momentum, which is a persistent tendency and implies a series of motions. This concept does not readily correspond with Galileo’s (1564-1642) concept of uniform motion in a straight line. ...Although Prasastapada was aware of the nature of vectors, he did not explore their properties. In any case, he may be considered to be pioneer in vectorial concept.
Dr S D Chatterjee, ‘Physics and Mechanics in Ancient and Medieval India’ in ‘The Cultural Heritage of India’, Vol-VI: ‘Science and Technology’ (Ed Priyadaranjan Ray and S N Sen), The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1986, pp 102-3

In this view, though the Vaisheshikas had the means to arrive at the laws of Newton much earlier, they could not do so because they did not have the necessary empirical data. Acharya Seal, in his book The Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, lamented that though good foundation was "laid for the explanation of accelerated motion of falling body, but Galileo’s discovery was not anticipated, as Galileo’s observations and measurement of motion were wanting”. So, what about the laws of motion and gravity?

Dr Chatterjee explains:

Had Vaisheshikas explored the resultant motion of a vertically falling body experimentally, they would in all probability have discovered Newton’s force-acceleration relationship as represented in the equation F=MA, where ‘F’ is the force, ‘M’ the mass and ‘A’ the acceleration.... Now gravity is stated to be one of the causes of motion, the other causes being fluidity, volitional effect and conjunction. Here conjunction means a special type of contact of which examples are impact and impelling push. Being causes of motion all these agents can be regarded as forces. The word gurutva (gravity) has also been used in the sense of heaviness or weight, but there seems to be no correlation between gravity and mass of the substance as there is no correlation between any type of force and acceleration.
ibid, pp 103-4

In the Vaisheshika system, the objects were qualitatively viewed and motion was thus caused by a quality in the substance. And it did not bother itself with time. It was the Nyaya school, which brought in the idea of series of samskara (impressed motion). According to Dr Chatterjee, with this, the Nyaya-Vaisheshika school also brought in the concept of ‘vega’:

The power of samskara diminishes by doing work against counteracting forces and when the samskara is in this way exhausted, the moving body comes to rest. Thus vega corresponds to inertia in some respects and to momentum in some others. This is the nearest approach to Newton’s first law of motion.
ibid, p 104

Now, let us come to the Western tradition.

Galileo discovered that the speed at which a body falls is independent of the weight or size of the body. Galileo proved, with experiments, that the objects having different weights (varied gurutva) fall at the same time, if the air resistance is removed. The video below shows a modern adaptation of Galileo’s experiment.

However, Galileo was so much wedded to the ideas of Plato that he rejected the idea of Johannes Kepler of elliptical orbits for planets. For Galileo, the planetary orbits had to be circular.

Newton's first two laws have the contributions of Galileo. Newton himself acknowledged that he was standing on the shoulders of two giants – Galileo and Kepler.

Newton And The Problem Of ‘Cargo Cult’ Hindutva

So, if someone accuses Newton of 'stealing' the concept of gravity from a Hindu gurukul, then he should also blame Galileo of the same. But then even for cargo cult Hindutva brigade, as it is for other rational Hindutva supporters, Galileo is clearly a symbol of resistance to the church. And to accuse him would be to undermine their own case. So, the accusation that Newton 'stole' the laws of motion and gravity from India simply falls flat. Far from a person, who steals and publishes, Newton actually had lost all his interest in mechanics until 1684. It was at the insistence of astronomer Edmond Halley that he published his magnum opus Principia Mathematica. That is not exactly the behaviour of a person, who 'steals' and refuses to pay credit.

A later day painting depicting Galileo before Catholic Inquisition.
A later day painting depicting Galileo before Catholic Inquisition.

However, there is indeed a Hindu connection to Newton story. Mathematician C K Raju makes a passionate and plausible case for the transmission of what is called the 'Taylor-series' expansion, which is at the heart of the mathematical tool used by Newton came from India, and Jesuits were instrumental in bringing this knowledge.

The English-speaking world has known for over one-and-a-half centuries that “Taylor” series expansions for sine, cosine and arc-tangent functions were found in Indian mathematics/astronomy/timekeeping (jyotisa) texts, and specifically in the works of Madhava, Nilakantha (Tantrasangraha, 1501 CE), Sankara Variyar (Tantrasangraha Vyakliya), Jyesthadeva (Yuktibhasa, ca 1530 CE), Kriydkrarnakan, etc. ... Historically, to relate Madhava’s sine, cosine, and arctan series expansion to the European use of the calculus, it is convenient to consider two stages: (1) the import of these infinite-series techniques into Europe, and (2) the dissemination of those techniques within Europe. ... (T)he Jesuits were initially not sufficiently well-trained in mathematics and astronomy to understand how the panchanga was made. After about 1575, however, Jesuits, like Matteo Ricci, who trained in mathematics and astronomy under Clavius’ new syllabus were sent to India. (Ricci also visited Coimbra and learnt navigation. He remained devoted to Clavius, and he later translated Clavius’ books into Chinese.) In a 1581 letter to Petri Maff’ei, Ricci acknowledged that he was trying to understand local methods of timekeeping from “an intelligent Brahmin or an honest Moor”. ... by 1610, the Jesuits were confident enough about their knowledge of Indian mathematics and astronomy to write polemics against its older versions.
C K Raju, ‘Cultural Foundation of Mathematics: The Nature of Mathematical Proof and the Transmission of the Calculus from India to Europe in the 16th c. CE’, Vol X Part 4 in ‘History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization’ (Gen Ed D P Chattopadhyaya), Pearson, 2007, pp 326-337

However. this knowledge transmission continues to be denied by mainstream historians of science. For example, mathematics historian Kim Plofker of Princeton University, while accepting that the infinite series of Madhava "predate by centuries Newton’s and Leibniz’s versions of them" and that they "did not appear in Latin mathematics until late in the seventeenth century”, wants it to be "economically explained as cases of parallel evolution than as evidence of direct transmission”. He even suggests a change of name: “Madhava-Leibniz series for π/4 and the Madhava-Newton power series for the Sine and Cosine”. (Mathematics in India, 2009). In this connection, it should be noted that as early as 1858, one Pandit Bapudeva Sastri had published a paper in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, claiming Indian origin for calculus.

Dr C K Raju
Dr C K Raju

Another economist from Kerala, George Gheverghese Joseph, had also written a book on the same subject titled A Passage to Infinity (Sage, 2009) when the author was with University of Manchester. There was a bitter controversy with C K Raju alleging that Joseph had used most of Raju’s work. In 2010, the university declared that 'Indians predated Newton 'discovery' by 250 years'. It also acknowledged that "the significant body of work conducted by Professor C K Raju in this area”.

So, what Hindutva supporters needs to do is to create more research into the history and philosophy of science and integrate it with the curriculum in an inspiring way. They have their job cut out for themselves.

Take for example, the Leibniz-Newton series. If the present government changes, in the forthcoming textbooks, the name of the series as Madhava-Leibniz and Madhava-Newton series, that would be a great first step in the right direction. The progressives would call it saffronisation and make a fool of themselves. Instead, what we see here is the Hindutva supporters making a fool of themselves with unsubstantiated meme-based childish claims. By such claims, supporters of the Hindu cause even hinder the work of scholars labouring hard to bring out the real contributions India has actually made to the evolution of science.

What is that greatness about Indian scientific tradition that has to be communicated to the students?

Almost a thousand years before Galileo and Kepler, Aryabhatta had declared the paths of the planets and the moon should be elliptical; he also declared that the diurnal changes happen because of earth’s rotation – this was, however, not the dominant view then. The dominant view as reflected in Surya Siddhanta was both geocentric and with circular orbits of planets. Thus in comparison, Aryabhatta, was a rebel for more complete than Galileo. But he was not persecuted. India never produced an index of forbidden books and placed Aryabhatiyam in it. Instead, Aryabhatta was, and to this day, is hailed as an acharya. Of course, Aryabhatta never explicitly stated the heliocentric theory. A nationalist like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee did not try to hide the fact, but lamented that though Aryabhatta “distinctly affirmed that the starry firmament was fixed and it was the earth which continuously revolving produced the rising and the setting of the constellations and the planets”, though it should have led to heliocentric theory it “was never positively put forward”. Still, even if Aryabhatta had explicitly arrived at a heliocentric theory, it would not have created a problem in India. Physicist and historian of science Subhash Kak explains:

This was because the physical centrality of the Earth in the universe was a central belief in the dogma of the Christian Church, although it originated in the earlier Aristotelian ideas. This was in contrast to India where the Earth did not play a central role in cosmology. In the Puranas, there is mention of innumerable world systems beyond our own.
Subhash Kak, Terrestrial and Celestial Aspects of Natural Science - Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galielo, Kepler: A Historiographical Study, 2010

This aspect of the non-confrontational, open and flexible nature of puranic cosmology with respect to empirical astronomy fosters and facilitates a healthy scientific outlook in the society. And this needs to be communicated to the student.

And we need to communicate to the student the scientific spirit of Nilakantha Somayaji, who was an astronomer and mathematician of Kerala school. He died 20 years before the birth of Galileo. Nilakantha advocated what Plofker calls "actual, gradual, process of creating a scientific tradition" over "a naive view of scriptural authority”. In his work Jyotirmeemamsa, Nilakantha says:

... this [is what] some think. “Because of Brahman’s omniscience, freedom from passion and hatred etc., and certainty of truth, how [can there be] criticism [or testing] of that?” Stupid! [It is] not thus. The favor of the deity is just the cause of mental clarity. Neither Brahman nor the Sun-god [but Aryabhatta] himself taught it ...
Quoted in Kim Plofker, Mathematics in India, Princeton University Press, 2009

Such an approach giving primacy to knowledge gained through observation over established authority resulted in the creation of some very impressive models:

This bold approach to the construction and revision of mathematical models allowed Nilakantha to make some ingenious modifications to the Aryapaksha system. Most strikingly, he changed the arrangement of planetary orbital circles to something that was computationally equivalent to a quasi-heliocentric system similar to the later one of Tycho Brahe, where most of the planets orbit the sun, which in turn orbits the earth.
ibid, p 250

We need to show how mathematics in India had no problem like the inhibition in accepting the irrational numbers that the West had, because of its adherence to the concept of Platonic perfection as understood in a limited anthropomorphic way or later because of the West’s over-dependence on abacus-based mathematics. In the words of C K Raju:

... unlike Greek tradition, no special mystical significance was attached to ratios (or the corresponding musical harmonies), and irrational numbers like \/2 are treated like other numbers from the days of the sulba sutra ... Indian tradition had no problem with irrational numbers like \/2 or the so-called transcendental numbers like ‘pi’  for which it long accepted the impossibility of stating an exact value. However, such irrational numbers arising from the solution of quadratic equations, or interest calculations, were viewed with suspicion in European tradition, since the abacus could not very well be used to solve quadratic equations, or to represent irrational numbers.
C K Raju, 2007, ibid,  p 124 and p 398

Let us also take another crucial domain. Werner Heisenberg had pointed out how some of the earliest deep questions of philosophy reappear in modern physics. And an understanding of the conceptualisation and framing of the fundamental questions about nature by the profound thinkers of our past can help us frame our questions and exploratory tools in the modern context. Let us take the case of the atomic concept of Kanada himself.

Kanada did not know quantum mechanics. But <i>Vaisheshika&nbsp;</i>system definitely will help student understand the dynamic atom model better and in a more profound manner.
Kanada did not know quantum mechanics. But Vaisheshika system definitely will help student understand the dynamic atom model better and in a more profound manner.

Now, for a student, who sees the nature of atom itself undergo a difference from Democritus to Dalton to Bohr model to the modern concept of atom with quantum mechanics, the relevance of Vaisheshika concept of atoms may become relevant. Physicist George Sudarshan points this out:

To start with, the atoms were very substantial objects and one simply wanted to explain the laws of chemistry and certain of the laws of spectroscopy. But it brought about the invention of modern field theory in which objects are in fact complexions of an underlying entity which itself is never perceived. Even where substance predominates, as in the Vaisheshika system, tradition has it that they have to be given potentials and potentialities. Therefore, these atoms that the Vaisheshika theorists expounded are more akin to chemical atoms than the sterile Greek atoms.
E C G Sudarshan, ‘Aspects of Indian Culture in Relation to Science’, ‘Indian Horizons’, Vol 43, No 3,1994, pp 5-6

With such enormous and unenviable task on their hands, the Hindutva leaders indulging in such meme-based frivolous activities is really a betrayal of the historical responsibility that society, dharma and time have entrusted upon them.

When the temptation of meme-based momentary glory lures Hindutva supporters, they should consider the standard set by Tilak, who lived at a time when the nation was ruled by the British. The claim that Newton’s discovery was already present in the Vedas would have surely helped him to infuse in the then educated youths a sense of pride. Yet he chose to stand by the truth rather than by false pride. Hindutva supporters of today need to emulate the dharmic standard set by the Lokmanya.

Note: Since the writing of the article Dr C K Raju had brought to our notice the what he considers the elaborate act of plagiarism done on his work by economist G G Joseph. This note is to give full credit to Dr C K Raju of finding the connection and the plausible transmission route of mathematics from India to Europe through the Jesuits.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


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