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Book excerpt: Indian Cultures as Heritage — Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Indian Cultures.

SCIENCE AS CULTURE

Many Indian scientists, competent in their fields of specialization, know less about science as a form of knowledge, or the kind of reasoning involved in the scientific method that can also be applied to other forms of knowledge. This might explain their surprising and tacit acceptance of some of the more ridiculous statements made by non-scientists on the fantasy-based claims pertaining to science as supposedly practised by our ancient ancestors. This reduces their ability to recognize the difference between the remarkably impressive knowledge of premodern Indian thinkers in some of the sciences, and the infantile fancies that are often projected in their name by those ignorant of science in both premodern and in current times. The reasons for doing the latter are more often political rather than due to any scientific assessment.

The onus is not only on the scientist but also on the historian. Not enough attention has been given by historians to integrating the ideas related to the sciences from earlier times to other aspects of culture. The historian’s intervention from this perspective would require the re-crafting even of some historical formulations. This is being done for some other aspects in recent historical reinterpretations. One of these is the notion of ‘civilization’ as a somewhat fixed and continuing historical unit.

Used more casually in the earlier centuries to refer to the softening of manners and to artistic and literary achievements, it became a widely accepted unit of history from the nineteenth century, coinciding with colonial perceptions of history. The world was divided into discrete, geographically bounded areas each with a dominant culture, recognizably different in intellectual, aesthetic, technological and religious attainments, all of which were associated with urban centres, the use of scripts, the existence of a state and of an organized social order. In A Study of History, the British historian Arnold Toynbee counted twenty-six such civilizations, each rising in response to challenges and declining when the response was inadequate. More recently the count has been reduced to eight in Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As a spokesman of the American political right wing, his theory that the future of the world will revolve around the clash of civilizations inspired by religious identities seems to envisage conflicting civilizations as a replacement for the cold war.

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Book Review: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Indian Cultures.

Title: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Pages: 222 pages 

 

Culture influences our values, world view, loyalties, behaviour and much more. Very often it is equated with civilisation a term that came to be used to describe societies that boasted of extensive territory, sophisticated language, literature, art and architecture, and above all, a single religion. Under the colonial influence, culture came to be redefined simply as a way of life of elite groups, for instance Aryans in the case of India. Unfortunately, our current understanding of Indian culture is overshadowed by this erroneous interpretation. Heritage, both cultural and natural, consists of ideas, objects and practices; contributes to quality of life, gives us a cultural identity and connects us with our past. India’s cultural heritage has always been subject to debates. While traditional historians favour the ‘unity in diversity’ approach in order to project a homogenised Indian identity and presumably invoke the spirit of patriotism, Thapar, in her latest book, Indian Cultures as Heritage Contemporary Pasts, does exactly the opposite.

A fearless, frequent and outspoken critic of our dogmatic and communal interpretations of the past, Thapar’s  book does not to go into the historical aspect of the making of Indian culture but provides glimpses of what is often omitted, marginalized, trivialized or is even considered irrelevant to its understanding. Drawing on her lectures and essays, published in the recent past, this book challenges the idea that Indian culture is the monolithic phenomenon it is often portrayed as in Indian historical writing or what is being currently imposed on the Indian citizens by cultural nationalists. Identification with a single culture, she argues, despite the existence of many in the country, is risky since it tends to dismiss all that does not conform to the mainstream forms, perpetuates inequality and silences all kinds of reasonable resistance. Culture is deeply linked with historical developments and bound to change. But the two differ as well. While history narrates and explains the past, culture can invent the past without any historical evidence. Therefore, one has to guard against spurious history which can be manufactured by culture. Thapar’s argument that we need to subject the Indian culture to rigorous historical scrutiny and juxtapose historical and cultural forms to understand their interface is highly relevant, especially in the present context when cultural forms are being subjected to identity politics due to ignorance and lack of general or intellectual interest in other cultures, within and outside the subcontinent.

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Even what doesn’t happen is epic

The revival of science fiction in China

Science fiction isn’t new to China, as Cixin Liu explains in Invisible Planets, an introduction to Chinese sci-fi by some of its most prominent authors, but good science fiction is. The first Chinese sci-fi tales appeared at the turn of the 20th century, written by intellectuals fascinated by Western technology. ‘At its birth,’ Cixin writes, science fiction ‘became a tool of propaganda for the Chinese who dreamed of a strong China free of colonial depredations’. One of the earliest stories was written by the scholar Liang Qichao, a leader of the failed Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, and imagined a Shanghai World’s Fair, a dream that didn’t become a reality until 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, given the degree of idealistic fervour that followed Mao’s accession, very little utopian science fiction was produced under communism (in the Soviet Union there was plenty, at least initially). What little there was in China was written largely for children and intended to educate; it stuck to the near future and didn’t venture beyond Mars. By the 1980s Chinese authors had begun to write under the influence of Western science fiction, but their works were suppressed because they drew attention to the disparity in technological development between China and the West. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when Deng’s reforms began to bite, that Chinese science fiction experienced what Cixin calls a ‘renaissance’.

Cixin himself has been at the forefront of the scene since the 1990s. He is the first Asian writer to receive a Hugo award (in 2015), and the author whose work best captures the giddying, libidinous pace of the Chinese economic boom. His monumental Three-Body Trilogy – first published between 2006 and 2010, and recently translated into English by Ken Liu, a Chinese-American sci-fi writer – is Chinese science fiction’s best-known work. Barack Obama is a fan, and the forthcoming movie adaptations are already being described as ‘China’s Star Wars’. The trilogy concerns the catastrophic consequences of humanity’s attempt to make contact with extraterrestrials (it turns out that the reason we haven’t heard from aliens yet is that we’re the only species thick enough to reveal our own location in the universe). It is one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written. The story begins during the Cultural Revolution and ends 18,906,416 years into the future. There is a scene in ancient Byzantium, and a scene told from the perspective of an ant. The first book is set on Earth, though several of its scenes take place in virtual reality representations of Qin dynasty China and ancient Egypt; by the end of the third book, the stage has expanded to encompass an intercivilisational war that spans not only the three-dimensional universe but other dimensions too.

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Extreme gray literature – Famous paintings as evidence for earth’s climate past

Tree rings don’t lie but if you trust temperature readings before 1980, you are not using a rational approach to science. There are too many cases where the official reader is a thermometer of unknown quality or a television report that used what a farmer who called in from his house said.

If you can’t trust old thermometers, can you trust old paintings?   A paper in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics used the colors of sunsets painted by famous artists to estimate pollution levels in the Earth’s past atmosphere. They found that the paintings reveal that ash and gas released during major volcanic eruptions scatter the different colors of sunlight, making sunsets appear more red.

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Unravel mysteries of science, math at Jaipur Literature Festival!

The 7th edition of festival will see an increase in the number of science, math and technology writers: DNA

Ever wondered why there are four suits in a pack of cards? Or want to know what prime numbers have to do with Real Madrid’s footballing success? Well, writers at Jaipur Literature Festival may have just the answer this month.

To be held from January 17 to 21 at Diggi Palace Hotel, the seventh edition of the festival will see an increase in the number of science, math and technology writers appearing at the annual event. 1989 Nobel laureate in medicine, Dr Harold Varmus will discuss his recent memoir, The Art and Politics of Science.

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