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History, Mythology and Science – M.S. Srinivasan

flower_white_flower_yellow_flower[Fable and the Fact! How to deal with them.]

Sometimes back, there was a heated controversy and debate regarding some of the perspectives presented in the Indian Science Congress. The main objection of the traditional scientific mind is that mythology was getting mixed up with science. This article examines how far and to what extent this objection is valid.

Let us briefly define in simple words what these terms mean. Science is or supposed to be an objective of study of the world around us, natural and man-made, based on facts. History is the study of past based on available evidence. Mythology, in its outer form are fables, but a deeper insight shows that most of them are allegories, metaphors or symbols of moral, psychological or spiritual principle or realities of the invisible worlds.

While talking about science we have to take note of two important factors. First are the actual practice of science and the study of history of science. Second is the distinction between the ancient and modern conceptions of science. The practice of science has to be as much objective and precise as possible within our human limitation. Absolute objectivity may not be possible even in physical science – if we accept the Heisenberg’s principle that our observation alters the position of the observed. If this is the position in the physical sciences, we can’t accept the history of science to be entirely objective. It is now recognized by all historians that history should include not only events and personalities but also ideas which in turn includes the values and ideals which shaped a civilization.

So there is nothing wrong in presenting some of the ancient scientific ideas in a science conference, as part of history of science, provided it is not asserted as a fact. When a pilot presented the aeronautical ideas of ancient India he could have said something like this: “I am presenting here some of the aeronautical ideas described in an ancient Indian treatise on aircrafts. As an experienced and professional pilot, I can say there are many similarities and resemblances to modern aircrafts. But it is difficult to say whether they actually built a flying object. There could be some attempts and experiments in aircraft building in ancient India. But there is no evidence to prove it.”

The second factor is that while looking or studying the history of ancient science, we should not impose our modern notions of science. In most of the ancient world no distinction was made between philosophy, science or religion. The premodern scientists in the West called science as “natural philosophy”. Johanes Kepler, in an interesting passage in his preface to his path breaking work on laws of planetary motion, says that he was presenting his work as an offering to his divine creator. He says further that nothing in his work belongs to him because it was inspired by the Divine and done with the faculties gifted by his Creator. Building hypothesis and experimental testing have not developed in most of the ancient world, in the West or in India. According to many historians of science, this experimental approach came from the mediaeval Islamic world, from Islamic scientists experimenting with optics.

We need a broader definition of science which can include the process of both ancient and modern sciences and also all sciences-physical, social, psychological and spiritual. In this wider perspective science may be viewed as having three basic processes: observation, enquiry and discovery. First is an objective observation of facts and phenomenon, inner and outer. Second is an enquiry, which can be intuitive or rational or both, that tries to penetrate into the deeper truths, patterns or laws behind them, which leads to the third stage discovery.

Coming to mythologies, as we have indicated earlier, they are not just fanciful fables. Most of the mythologies contain significant and symbolic stories with a dose of facts. These facts may contain important historical information which can help us in understanding the way of life of ancient people. A seeker of truth who wants to understand the deeper truths should never ignore mythology because the symbolic stories of mythology can provide the following insights:

  1. Ideas and values of the civilization which had a large impact on its religious mental, moral and spiritual history of the civilization.
  2. Supraphysical realities expressed in a symbolic language.

For example, Rama, Krishna or Christ may or may not be historical figures. But as symbolic role models their lives and teachings had a profound impact in shaping the values and ideals of the civilization in which they lived. And the life of Rama, Krishna or Christ has perhaps a deep inner, spiritual or evolutionary significance which only a mystic with a spiritual insight can understand. Secondly some of the events in mythologies may not be events on earth but of other supraphysical worlds, seen through the inner vision by poets and seers and translated outwardly in earthly images.

Even apart from these spiritual or mystic considerations when we look at world–mythologies, they have some motifs, like for example the Mother Goddess, battle between evil and good, slaying of the dragon, which indicate they are universal truths of the inner worlds or inner life of seekers. So mythology can also be studied as a science, if we accept the wider definition of science which we have described earlier.

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This entry was posted on June 10, 2015 by in Society & Culture.