Now that the 105th edition of the Indian Science Congress to be held at Imphal in March this year has been announced, this author who, like thousands, expects this ever-dynamic branch of human quest to quench our thirst for knowledge on several aspects of life and nature, would like to appeal to it to reconsider its attitude towards a vital subject that has impacted our faith and thought since time immemorial.
The urgency for this appeal lies in the fact that three years ago the organisers of the Congress were very unkindly criticised for allowing presentations of a few papers on that particular topic in one of its sessions.
The topic was myth. Some intellectuals picked up the cue and continued to condemn that frail endeavour as if myths were a handful of filth hurled into the sanctum sanctorum of science. And this attitude seems to have prevailed till its last meet.
This is a deplorable Indian situation, because we understand that in the international arena, science is marching into new domains, as confirmed by the British physical chemist-cum-creative writer
C P Snow in his acclaimed Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution: “The boundaries of science have expanded in recent decades in a rather interesting way. Emotion, consciousness, human nature itself, have become legitimate topics for the biological sciences.” Why should then myths, the cryptic treasure of all those basic human elements, remain untouchable for science in India? No doubt, several myths have bred superstitions and taboos. But that itself is a major justification for science taking them up and stripping them off their superflux. To do that science should be prepared to adopt new and imaginative means of probe.
Once some groups in the US were out to patent the qualities of neem for their medical products and India contested the move legally and won. During the interval at a conference, a NASA scientist asked me, “What kind of laboratory your country had a thousand years ago to discover such qualities of neem which we did in our modern laboratories?” “The laboratory of consciousness,” was my answer, for I was familiar with the myth of the Rishis getting identified with different plants through their meditative concentration and finding out their beneficent qualities.
It is well known how the outstanding scientist August Kekule, after hours of vain brainstorming exercise, found the solution to his problem of the structural formula of benzene molecule through a dream featuring a serpent in a whirling motion biting its tail. In India it is well known to scholars how the genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, according to his own statement, received in his dreams solutions to the most perplexing mathematical enigmas from Goddess Namakkal.
We may term such cases, if we dismiss any occult intervention, as cases of solutions built up by the subconscious. But that does not diminish the efficacy of the dreams. And dreams form a considerable area of our myths and they could be items of sealed significance.
There prevails some reluctance among the intellectuals, including our scientists, to respond even when a myth invites them with a promise of revealing something worthwhile. Otherwise why should we shy away from the obvious evidence of a submerged Dwaraka? Is it because the discovery will justify a Mahabharata myth?
If some scientific survey by foreigners suggests that the row of rocks that once linked India with Sri Lanka were placed on the oceanic sand, is it not strange that there is not even any sign of curiosity in the relevant quarters on such an exciting claim? Is it because it would highlight a Ramayana myth?
To explore a myth is not to endorse it, but to probe its core and assess the truth entangled or buried in it. Sometimes an invaluable truth could wear the mask of a myth—and prevail for millennia precisely because of the mask. Let us examine the riddle of Sphinx, originally an Egyptian myth, comparable to the Indian myth of Nachiketa.
Atop a hill beside a lonely road sat the strange creature Sphinx—consisting of the face of a woman, the body of a lion, paws of a dog and a serpent for its tail. It would challenge any passer-by to name the being who walked in the morning on four legs, on two legs as the day grew and on three legs in the evening. If the traveller stood mum, by sundown the creature would pounce upon him. At last the hero Oedipus encountered it with the answer, “I am that being—I the man. Man walks on all fours in infancy—the morning of his life, he walks on two legs as he grows and takes recourse to a stick—the third leg in the evening of his life!”
The Sphinx jumped to its own death the moment the riddle was solved, conveying the message that death dies when man knows himself. The very constitution of Sphinx, symbolising death, was unreal.
When Einstein wrote in his Out of My Later Years, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”, he meant the essence of religion—the human aspiration for truth.
It should be possible for the Science Congress to assign a few of its members—surely there are some interested in the lore—the task of probing the myths with an integral approach. Since the time of
paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, we have seen how anthropologists have traced the beginning of human civilisation to earlier and still earlier times. Maybe some primeval wisdom could be recovered through the project.
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship