‘On nobody’s word’

Consider the following verses from Sanskrit and Halegannada (old Kannada) texts written in India about a millennium ago (translations mine):

If cucumber and ash gourd plants coated with honey and ghee are tied with a rope and smeared with cow dung, they will become one plant.  If their respective root and stem are cut off, the cucumber shoot that remains will bear fruits that resemble those of ash gourd. [Surapala’s Vrikshayurveda (10th century CE), verses 285-286]

Hmm… Interesting.  Doesn’t this remind one of grafting?

In a land where plants like sesame and black gram are sown and removed after they are full of flowers, in a land which is flat and beautiful should one sow seeds of trees. [Surapala’s Vrikshayurveda, verse 63]

 [And in another text, three centuries later]

 Sow black gram and sesame in a land that is even and well ploughed.  After they have grown well, uproot them and sow seeds of your choice. [Sharngadhara’s Upavana Vinoda (13th century CE), verse 50]

Well, that’s strange.  At least black gram has the goodness of being a legume, and may be beneficial to other plants grown in the same soil.  Why sesame?

Kapittha and bilva trees treated with ghee, jaggery, milk and honey and sprinkled with water will yield fleshy, seedless fruits, sweet as elixir, all the time. [Sharngadhara’s Upavana Vinoda, verse 156]

 That sounds fantastic.  Maybe they think the fruits will be sweet if the tree is treated with honey, just because honey is, you know.

 If new seeds of brinjal are deposited in an ash gourd fruit, and if the ash gourd seeds are collected and sown once the fruit ripens, surprisingly, the new ash gourd creeper bears brinjal fruits. [Chavundaraya’s Lokopakaram (11th century CE), verse 55] 

This is utterly impossible! Anyone with even a little common sense can immediately see such statements have no scientific basis whatsoever, and it’s our collective duty to trash them.

But wait a minute…  Let’s just ask ourselves how much time we have spent assessing the truth or otherwise of these verses. The answer, as far as I know, is zero.  A decade ago, Prof. K N Ganeshaiah asked the same question in his critique of an Editorial in the journal, Current Science. (The Editorial had appealed to Indian scientists to unite in opposing a move to introduce astrology in college curricula.)  This, of course, provoked a volley of letters where other Indian scientists expressed their anguish and incredulity at Prof. Ganeshaiah’s suggestion to ‘consider the possibilities of salvaging anything that may be of worth from these areas’ before we ‘hit the last nails on the coffins of these subjects’.  Most of these letters complained that the ancient Indians were ignorant of the modern scientific method, or that some of the things they said were ‘clearly’ improbable. Some plainly reflected the (rather insular) mentality of ‘Which self-respecting modern scientist would spend time testing the veracity of what ancient Indians had to say?’  To my mind, branding something as unscientific just for these reasons is itself rather unscientific.

The Royal Society of London, one of the most respected institutions of science, has as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’: ‘On nobody’s word’.  Ancient Indian knowledge must not be relegated to the bin without due experimentation and testing, based only on what a few modern scientists believe.

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