If you’ve been on the interwebs for the past decade, you’ve probably come across a post about our glorious past, sometimes about mythical planes and sometimes about the cryptic calculation of speed of light in Vedas.
If you know me at all, you’ve probably found me arguing against that crap. By now, you’ve probably also added a mental filter to remove this from your feed as such baseless claims of grandeur are usually made for compensating and rarely with any scientific interest.
But we did have a glorious past
Maybe, we didn’t have mythical planes but we did have a glorious past! Just like many other countries. To list few examples:
- We have single-handedly contributed to huge parts of the foundations of mathematics. Be it basic arithmetic, ‘zero’, trigonometry, number system and algebra… all of them had huge contributions from India (or at very least developed parallelly, since we didn’t have Facebook back then to share our inventions.)
- Ayurveda was significantly advance for that era.
- Now lost knowledge of material sciences/metallurgy was once best in class, some of which is STILL not reproducible.
Technology degrades and eventually fades away
That’s right, any civilization that fails to pass on the knowledge will eventually lose the progress made. There are many examples of this, and India isn’t an exception here.
- Lycurgus cup - cutting edge glass manufacturing from the 4th century which required “3D printable nanocomposite material” to reproduce in the modern-day. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lycurgus_Cup
- Antikythera mechanism that can rival a swiss watch. - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism
Why is this so popular then
I’ve spent way too much time trying to find sources of popular inventions from our grand pasts. I’ve usually found some wacky journal articles or blog posts as source of the myth. While the original piece is often intended to spark a conversation and investigate further, such articles usually result in pop-science articles and then devolve into WhatsApp forwards, at which point they’ve lost all the scepticism that was present in the source material.
This quote perfectly sums it up:
Some nationalists take these statements to mean the literal scientific truth, which claims is ridiculed by their political opponents who then use this broad brush to tar all Indian science.
– Subhash Kak, Indian Foundations of Modern Science
Reading about other’s “glorious past” is an humbling experience. Claiming grandeur won’t get us anywhere. The only way “lost knowledge” can help us if we are able to decipher it and reclaim it somehow.
99%+ of Indians can’t speak Sanskrit, many native languages rapidly losing touch from schools today. We may have “lost knowledge” in past, we are also losing knowledge right now in one form or another.
Studying the lost technologies, studying the reasons for the degradation of such technologies and preserving our current knowledge is required but not at cost of losing basic scientific integrity.
This is largely inspired by Jonathan Blow’s talk “Preventing the Collapse of Civilization”. Though that talk is mostly about software engineering, if you liked this post, you’ll probably love that talk!