This Article is From Oct 30, 2014

The Prime Minister and Early Indian Science

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is 'Homeless on Google Earth' (Permanent Black, 2013).

In a recent speech at the inauguration of the Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai, Mr Narendra Modi encouraged doctors to take their cue from ancient Indian scientists who had, on the evidence of India's religious and mythological narratives, performed head transplants and produced babies outside the mother's womb. Thus Ganesh, that lovable God of all good beginnings, was the result of an elephant's head being grafted on to a human body by a pioneering plastic surgeon while Karna, Kunti's oldest son, was the product of advanced genetic engineering.

Mr Modi is the Prime Minister of India and we should take his public utterances seriously. One reaction to his claims was to 'normalize' them by treating them as generic invocations of India's glorious Hindu past. This was a mistake because Mr Modi is not some eccentric antiquarian. Mr Dina Nath Batra's claim that India invented stem cell research can be discounted, but when the Prime Minister begins channeling golden age fantasies, you have to pay attention...if only to sort out whether he believes what he says, or whether he is invoking magical Iron Age plastic surgery rhetorically, as a means to an end.

Normally, I'd choose the second explanation because it's unlikely that a politician as sharp as the Prime Minister believes that an elephant's head was successfully attached to a human body at any time, let alone whenever it was that Ganesh walked the earth.

So did Mr Modi cite Ganesh and Karna in a cheerleading way to raise the morale of the doctors and medical professionals gathered in front of him? To inspire them to invent and innovate? Unlikely. You couldn't galvanize a gathering of physicists by invoking ancient sages who travelled faster than light without risking your credibility, so why would you pick on pachyderm-human head transplants as a surgical technique with which to inspire doctors? Especially when there is a reasonable, historically-founded case to be made for the remarkable achievements of ancient Indian medicine.

If Mr Modi wanted to toot India's trumpet on the plastic surgery front, he could have quoted the Susruta Samhita's astonishingly detailed account of reconstructive plastic surgery. Parke-Davis once published a lavishly illustrated book, Great Moments in Medicine. It had a marvelous chapter on Susruta's achievement in restoring female noses cut off by jealous ancient Indian husbands. But instead of citing the inspirational breakthroughs of this bona fide desi genius who lived and worked in the 6th century B.C., the Prime Minister chose to give us Ganesh.

The other explanation for the Prime Minister saying something he didn't actually believe could be that his speech was intended not for the doctors in the audience, but his primary constituency, the TV-watching public. The logic of this would have Mr Modi saying just anything to inspire warm fuzzy feelings in the hearts of credulous voters who need imaginary ancient successes to distract them from India's contemporary failures. That seems a cynical interpretation because it suggests either a chronic need to pander, or a contempt for the intelligence of the ordinary Indian that we have no reason to believe Mr Modi feels.

This leaves us with the other possibility -  that the Prime Minister actually believes in ancient Indian head transplants and out-of-body baby-making. On the face of it, this is an absurd belief. Forget the complicated reasons why these transplants can't happen, like the impossibility of getting elephant tissue to 'take' when sewn on to a human being.  Just think of the physical mismatch. The average elephant's neck is more than two feet in diameter; the human neck, even if we choose a very large human, is unlikely to exceed eight inches. How would you fix the one on the other?

Is this too literal a reading of Mr Modi's speech? No. Mr Modi offers Ganesh as an inspiring example of ancient Indian technology in keeping with the tenor of his speech which emphasized the need to innovate technologically to advance contemporary Indian health care. Ganesh, in this context, is the result of exemplary Indian surgical technique; the example doesn't work unless he presents the head transplant as a fact.

But is Mr Modi's belief in ancient Indian head transplants any stranger than the magical religious beliefs harboured by dozens of political leaders around the world? Mr Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, is a Catholic. This means that he believes in transubstantiation. He believes that the wine he drinks during the sacrament of the Eucharist is literally changed into the blood of Christ and the wafer into His body. Likewise, the Turkish president, Mr Recep Erdogan, as a practicing Muslim must believe that the Prophet was transported from Jerusalem to various heavens on the back of a steed called the Buraq. So why should Mr Modi be singled out for magical thinking if others aren't?

Because Mr Erdogan's and Mr Blair's beliefs aren't of the same order as Mr Modi's. Religious believers explain supernatural events by attributing them to divine intercession. Ordinary human beings are incapable of subverting nature unless they are helped along by godly powers. The miraculous is the domain of divine grace or religious magic.

Mr Modi's claims are an inversion of the logic of faith; he is asserting that the supernatural, in this case the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, is not an instance of divine magic but the consequence of human technology. He is, if you like, offering us a secular explanation for a deity in the Hindu pantheon.

If this is a reasonable characterization of his claims, then the closest parallel to the Prime Minister's thinking is to be found not in the religious beliefs of other political figures, but in the speculative theories of Erich von Daniken. Von Daniken was an enormously successful Swiss writer in the 60s and 70s who wrote a series of best-selling books based on a single conceit: the idea that the artefacts of ancient civilization were littered with signs that pre-historical human societies were raised from their primitive state by intelligent extraterrestrials who provided them with technologies more powerful that modern earthly science can imagine.

Daniken's most famous books had titles like Chariots of the Gods and The Gods were Astronauts. One of the many illustrations he supplied as 'proof' of his thesis was the photograph of an astronaut in a spacesuit juxtaposed with a rock relief of a globular humanoid figure and the caption encouraged the reader to 'read' that ancient carving as a rendering of a kitted-out alien space traveller. Daniken credits the extraordinary achievements of early civilizations to the technological prowess of ancient aliens, while Mr Modi attributes the marvelous figures of epic narrative and religious belief to the technological genius of ancient Hindus.

Implausible though his narratives were, Daniken offered speculative explanations for actual artefacts: the Sphinx, the pyramids, the mysterious Nazca Lines of Peru. Mr Modi set himself a more challenging task. He supplied technological explanations for legendary figures drawn from faith and epic narrative. An exact parallel for Mr Modi's daring is hard to find. If David Cameron were to urge a gathering of British doctors to match the achievement of early Anglo-Saxon surgeons in creating a Griffin by grafting an eagle's head and wings on to the body of a lion, the Prime Minister might have company.

Parsing Mr Modi's speech in this way might be premature. The Prime Minister could, in a statement or a tweet, withdraw his claims or indicate that he misspoke while speaking off the cuff. But if he doesn't-and it's unlikely he will, because Mr Modi is not a recanter- we should ask more keenly than we have so far: what else does Mr Modi believe?

We know, for example, that Mr Modi's party is committed to the continued criminalization of homosexual intercourse. We now know that the Prime Minister has a radically revisionist understanding of India's storied past. It would be useful, in this context, to know what he makes of Darwin and his works. Does he subscribe to evolution or does he lean towards Intelligent Design? What does he think of Guru Golwalkar's prescriptions on citizenship?

The Prime Minister has shown us in his Mumbai speech that he's willing to air unconventional views forthrightly. Journalists should try to draw him out. Mr Modi's regime represents the enthronement of a new conservative common sense. A fuller account of his beliefs might clarify the ideological filiation of both the Hindu Right and its attendant cohort of strenuously cosmopolitan fellow travelers.

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