Chandrayaan-3, ‘the gestalt of India’s association with sky and space’, and Article 51A(h)

Is a healthy reverence between science and mythology possible without mixing the two? The Leaflet asks scientists and rationalists in light of the recent NCERT modules on Chandrayaan-3 that talk Pushpak Vimaans and Vymaanika Shastras.

THE Union Minister for Education and Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Dharmendra Pradhan launched 10 special modules on the Chandrayaan-3 mission on October 17.

The modules, developed by National Council for Education and Research Training (NCERT), seek to give an overview of  “scientific, technological, and social aspects, as well as the emotional journey and team spirit of the scientists involved”.

NCERT is an organisation set up to assist and advise the Union and state governments on policies and programmes related to school education.

The controversy

The contents of the 10 modules are designed to cover classes I–XII of school education and have been released in English and Hindi languages.

According to the module, the scientific exploration of Chandrayaan-3 can be traced to the past. “Did this scientific exploration happen only now? Didn’t it happen in the past? Didn’t people in the past think about this?” the text asks.

The module claims that Vymaanika Shastra or the science of aeronautics, an ancient Sanskrit text, contains “flying objects” with details of construction, the working of engines and the gyroscopic systems.

In addition, the module also mentions ancient epics where the gods purportedly travelled in ‘chariots’ that could fly, such as the Pushpak Vimaan from the Valmiki Ramayana.

Reportedly, NCERT withdrew the module a few days after its release. A section of scientists had seemingly demanded the withdrawal of the module for disguising mythology as science.

Subsequently, the Union Ministry of Education released a statement on October 25 defending the module. As per the statement, “Mythology and philosophy put forward ideas and ideas lead to innovation and research.”

The ministry’s statement claims, “Numerous research studies emphasise that mythology plays an indispensable role in the cultural fabric of any country, including Bharat.”

The statement seeks to draw the importance of integrating culture into education that, according to the ministry, fosters an understanding of a “nation’s historical legacy” but also improves creativity and problem-solving skills. 

It’s the whole gestalt of India’s association with sky and space,” it adds.

Consequent to the ministry’s statement, the modules were reinstated.

Reactions to the module

On October 30, the All India People’s Science Network, a network of grassroots-level science organisations, released a statement pressing for recalling of the NCERT special modules on account of “pseudoscientific claims and misleading scientific content” and other technical errors.

On the mention of ‘flying objects’ in the module, the statement says that Vedic texts and epics are understood to be products of the imagination of poets.

While the literature of several ancient cultures refers to flying vehicles, they are not taken as proof of the existence of flying vehicles in ancient times, the network states. “There is no proof of any human leaving the Earth to travel to space before Uri Gagarin did it in 1961,” it adds.

The network describes the details of the ‘flying objects’ in Vymaanika Shastra as “completely imaginary, unscientific and useless”.

Aniket Sule, associate professor at Homi Bhabha Centre of Science Education spoke with The Leaflet and shared that the founders of the Indian Space Research Organisation have not attributed ancient Indian texts to the development of scientific exploration and innovation.

Hence, Sule opined that “firstly, the modules are creating a false history of how Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) developed.  Secondly, the description of flying objects or vehicles under poetic imagination is completely different from the model rocket Indian spacecraft. Hence, it is a false statement that the model rocket spacecraft are inspired by ancient texts.

Dipti B., state secretary, Breakthrough Science Society (Karnataka), a science organisation that campaigns for a secular, scientific and democratic education policy, told The Leaflet that any scientific innovation needs to follow certain basic principles of science such as Newton’s law of mechanics and aerodynamics.

Without looking into these laws, how can it be claimed that the present-day innovations existed in ancient literature,” she said.

Dipti B. claimed that by citing the Vedas and flying objects such as the Pushpak Vimaan, the ministry has introduced “fanciful ideas” in science education.

She underlined the importance of undertaking a thorough discussion with experts before ushering in new content for education, and creation of a ‘textbook committee’ for this purpose.

Finding a healthy balance between science and mythology

Article 51A(h) of the Constitution states that it is the duty of every citizen of India “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. 

The recent statement of the Union Ministry of Education claims the indispensability of mythology to enrich the culture of a society. However, does such indispensability stand while integrating education and mythology, as claimed by the ministry?

Sule stated, “While as a generic statement, ‘imagination informs innovation’ may be true, the problem lies when the two are integrated”.

Dipti B. highlighted the problematic nature of “mixing science and mythology”. “Mythology is separate from science. By mixing the two, the ministry is trying to demean the genuine and actual contribution during ancient times, including in the areas of geometrics and mathematics,” she opined.

A scientist who chooses to be referred to anonymously, said, “There is no merit to the argument that there is a need for interaction between mythology and innovation. Innovation in the context of science is about questioning, about upturning ideas. It is not necessarily about adhering to the existing system, unlike religion and mythology.”

V.N. Rajsekhar, vice-president of All India Save Education Committee (Karnataka), an organisation that upholds the cause of education, opined, “Science should be our culture. Science mandates that nothing should be accepted without experimentation and verification.”

Rajskehar added, “We have great respect for all mythologies across the world as they set value concepts and guided humans in morality in ancient times. In today’s context, however, mythology cannot guide us. The vested classes always used religion to further their exploitation.

Mythologies and religions have stood in the way of science, while scientists have struggled to prove their experiments. Science has been a history of struggle against these vested interests. The peculiar admixture of technical aspects of science with spiritualism creates a culture for the growth of fascism. So it has to be resisted.

The Indian Science Congress, the country’s premiere science symposium, has been under the scanner in the recent past for its alleged attempts to mix science and mythology, including by introducing Vedas in the study of aviation.

In 2014, Dr Ram Prasad Gandhiraman, a scientist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Ames Research Centre, had petitioned against such integration.

The petition had reportedly stated, “We as a scientific community should be seriously concerned about the infiltration of pseudo-science in science curricula with backing of influential political parties.”

It has been reported that politicians are known to conflate mythology and science. For instance, members of political parties have claimed that the internet and in vitro fertilisation (IVF) technology for test-tube babies existed during the days of Mahabharatha.

In an article in the Deccan Chronicle, author Farrukh Dhondy writes on the New Zealand government’s recent endeavour to teach in science classes that Maori Ways of Knowing have equal standing with Western sciences.

Dhondy writes, “Long may the tradition of keeping the ancient culture of every civilisation be kept alive as a study; but confounding mythical theories with those of modern science which has proven itself in every human endeavour— positive and destructive— will inevitably end in confusion, if not tears.”

The Leaflet