Modern, is it?

Aren’t you glad you live in the enlightened 21st century? You have telephones, internet, Facebook, Twitter, and best of all, enlightened knowledge! We know now that the world is composed of matter. That everything, but everything is made of atoms. We have progressive modern medicine, although we don’t yet have a cure for common cold, but hey, we do have antibiotics! We know that the earth is round and that it is the earth that revolves around the sun, not the other way round. We know why things fall to the earth and why people in Australia don’t fall off the face of earth entirely ( Thank you, Sir Isaac Newton). Seriously, what all don’t we know? We even know how to create weapons that will wipe out an entire portion of the human population. Hell, we did that already in the Second World War!

Don’t you look back to the far past and pity them for not knowing all this? Don’t you look back to the Greeks and laugh at them for thinking that the earth is flat? Don’t you look back to Chanakya and wonder how he managed to walk 2000 km, even though it took him six months to do so? Don’t you look back to the middle ages and shake your heads at their primitive medicine unable to handle plague?

I think we all do, at some point or the other. Seriously, how many times have you said, “Wow, I’m glad I live in the 21st century”.

But, is all that knowledge that we have really all that modern? Let’s analyze it. Let’s start with gravity.

We’ve all learnt in school that it was Sir Isaac Newton who discovered Gravity. So, he was just sitting about one day and Bam! An apple falls on his head and as he’s munching on it(I’m presuming he was, i know I would if an apple fell on my head), eureka! Inspiration! And Gravity is born.

Umm…not quite so! Textbooks need to revise their knowledge. Newton didn’t discover gravity, he only rediscovered it.

In the 3rd Century BC, Archimedes first said that there is a certain force that holds things together not only on earth, but throughout the universe. We are all subject to that force, and that force is nothing but Gravity. Archimedes showed that the torque exerted on a lever by weights resting at various points along the lever is the same as what it would be if all of the weights were moved to a single point — their center of mass.

Nearly a thousand years later, in 597 AD, Brahmagupta was born in what is today the state of Rajasthan, India. Well into his adulthood in the 7th century AD, he had a bit to say about the same subject too, “All things fall to the Earth by law of nature; for it is the nature of the Earth to attract and keep things”. Whether or not Brahmagupta was aware of Archimides’s theory is something that I have no idea about. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. I don’t know.

Then came along Newton in the 17th century, basically saying the exact same thing that these two guys had been saying all along! Yet he is credited for ‘discovering’ Gravity. No doubt he discovered it, on a personal level. And his further research on the subject is invaluable for modern physicists. But on a larger scale, he didn’t discover it. He rediscovered it and refined it further.

When it comes to Vedic knowledge or the epics, people are always eager to go overboard. Brahmasthra is translated into a nuclear weapon, Ravana’s Pushpaka Vimana is translated by the tamest as forerunner to the modern airplane and by the wildest as a UFO(a UFO, really?). We forget that these, especially the Ramayana and Mahabharata are works of literature rather than a physics or history textbook. I mean, you don’t watch Star Wars and come out believing in an intergalactic battle, do you? You don’t read Life of Pi and believe that Pi found a carnivorous island near Madagascar that had never been seen before and was never seen since. You don’t start believing in Richard Parker as a God in an avatar who came down just to save Pi, do you?

It’s exactly the same thing here. But yet there is no denying that the vedas (rather than the epics) contain a lot of knowledge which I’m not sure we have exploited to the fullest, and nor have we given credit.

When Robert Oppenheimer developed the atomic bomb and it was successfully tested in New Mexico, he was asked, “Was the bomb exploded at Alamogordo during the Manhattan project the first one to be detonated?”, he replied, “Well – yes, in modern times of course”.

Conspiracy theorists take this along with his interest in Vedic literature and his first words as the first bomb was detonated, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” which is a phrase from the Bhagvad Gita, and jump to the conclusion that the Brahmasthra was an atomic bomb.

Was it really? Somehow, I highly doubt it.

But there is absolutely no doubt that our ancestors knew much more that we give them credit for. The atom, for instance, we credit to the Greeks. But what about the “Anu”? Anu is nothing but the Sanskrit name for an atom. So who discovered it? The Ancient Greeks or the Ancient Indians? Well, its not exactly a race, so I’m going to say both, since both these discoveries happened around approximately the same time period. A few thousands of years later came leptons and quarks and what nots. But all that wouldn’t have been possible without the first basic discovery of the atom, or the anu.

Oppenheimer knew that. That is why he buried himself in Greek and Indian literature. And that probably expains his quotation from the Bhagvad Gita, rather than the Brahmasthra being an atomic weapon.

So how modern is our knowledge, really? Whatever we call modern is drawn upon knowledge that is ancient. Without ancient knowledge, modern knowledge would be impossible. It is a collective work. It isn’t one person’s work or even one lifetime’s. It is a collective and continuous work that has been going on for thousands of years and will be continued on for thousands of years. So do we really have the right to call it “modern” knowledge, to call it “modern” technology? Are we robbing our ancestors of their contribution by calling it modern? Because “modern” implies that it is all ours, not theirs.

It is just a matter of careful wording, rather like chairperson vs chairman or police officer vs policeman. But maybe it is high time we thought carefully about the words we use. Maybe it is high time we gave our ancestors credit for their invaluable research without which our present research would have been non-existent.

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