Apathy for truth

Rohit Dhankar

(Deccan Herald, 14th August 2014)

Gujarat State School Textbook Board (GSSTB) is distributing nine books written by self-proclaimed educationist Dina Nath Batra to all schools in the state. These books are to teach children ‘facts’ about history, science, geography, and religion. Examples of some facts from one of these book titled “Tejomay Bharat” are worth considering. It is claimed that 100 Kaurawas were test-tube babies incubated in 100 tanks of ghee, that motor cars were available to Aryans in Vedic era, and that Indians used television in Mahabharat era. Such claims are not new, preachers of many religions claim hints at modern scientific discoveries in their ancient texts. What is new is distribution of such knowledge to all children as ‘compulsory reading’. And the frequency of such claims by people who are generally thought to be sensible.

Barely a week after this report a Supreme Court judge declared that had he been dictator of India he would have introduced Gita and Mahabharata to all Indian children from class one. Speaking at an international conference the judge advised Indians to return to ancient traditions. According to him it would be a remedy to present day violence and terrorism. Gita and Mahabharata will teach children how to live life in modern era. The judge is not a dictator, but GSSTB has the power and is using it.

The question in the face of such claims is: how should we understand such repeated assertions of superior scientific and moral knowledge in our ancient texts? What should we make of emerging greater thrust for such knowledge in curriculum and textbooks? Education has always been a hotly contested arena. Its aims, curriculum and content all are sought to be used for furthering socio-political agendas. One can interpret such claims and thrusts by sections of people to be an expression of love for their culture, patriotism and an expression of their genuine beliefs. It could be assumed that the authors of books like Tejomay Bharat and the GSSTB officials who want every child to read them really believe what is written in them, and that spreading this lost knowledge widely in the society is for everyone’s good.

Interpreted in this sense they have all the right to push for their version of good education. Their attempt to emphasise education rooted in ancient culture is as legitimate as attempts to spread rational thinking, scientific knowledge and objective history. However, the sheer flight of imagination expressed in the claims like stem-cell research in Mahabharata makes one somewhat uncomfortable with this charitable interpretation.

Harry Frankfurt in “On Bullshit” claims that bullshit is much more prevalent in societies than we think. He philosophically analyses the concept of bullshit, not as a term of abuse but as an expression used to communicate a standpoint in conversations. Frankfurt claims that: one, bullshitters are profoundly indifferent to truth. Two, they are not concerned with communicating information, though they may pretend to be doing so. Thee, that they are “fakers and phonies” and that what they care about primarily is whether what they say is effective in manipulating opinion. This understanding of bullshit leads Frankfurt to the conclusion that “bullshitting constitutes a more insidious threat than lying does to the conduct of civilized life.” Because a liar at least recognises the force of truth as well as its place in life; and he lies to avoid that force. A bullshitter is unaware of the place of truth in society and is profoundly indifferent to it; all that matters to him is manipulation of opinion to gain prominence and power.

Unconcern for truth and consistency becomes immediately clear in Mr. Batra’s claims if one looks at the original text even cursorily. He interprets Gandhari’s pregnancy for two years, then birth of mass of flesh, its division into hundred pieces and keeping these pieces in tanks of ghee, etc. as experiments in stem-cell birth of Kaurvas. But ignores the fact that the mass Gandhari gave birth to was hard like iron, and broke into pieces when cold water was poured on it. How does this process square with processes in stem-cell cultivation? Obviously this is no concern of a bullsitter.

Batra’s own account of use of television by Sanjay to report war in Kurukshetra is full of holes. He claims that Mahabharata narrative of Sanjaya’s divya-drishti is a proof of existence of television. But modern day television is no Divya-drishti, it can be explained in terms of scientific causal relationships. To square the Mahabharata divya-dristhi with modern day television one has to stretch the concepts of “yoga-vidya” and “divya-drishti” out of shape to the extent that they become meaningless. However, as Frankfurt says, consistency in use of concepts and truth is no concern of a bullshitter as long as the desired manipulation of opinion works.

The issue, then, is: how to counter bullshit in the public education and discourse? The usual answer is: through encouraging critical thinking. But this answer is rather tame in the face of current attack on common sense.

The same idea is expressed in somewhat stronger terms in a Postman and Weingartner’s book “Teaching as a subversive activity”. The authors propose that for survival of a viable democratic society the schools should set out to cultivate “experts at ‘crap detecting’.”

The advice, in spite of being more than forty years old, is very relevant today in our society. We should gear our education and public discourse to countering bullshit and crap floating so thick these days. We should not imagine that ignoring crap and bullshit will make it go away. It won’t. We have to counter it. This is necessary not only to preserve the truth; but also to preserve a viable democratic society.

2 Responses to Apathy for truth

  1. Aruna says:

    Sir, the following two responses to your article in the DH by some Dr.Sudarshan Shetty and some “Ta No” seem interesting. Can we analyse them??

    Dr.Sudarshan’s response-
    “Dear Sir, I have a few questions to the “critical thinking” Rohit. Sir, have you considered the fact that a woman cannot conceive 100 children except by human interventions like IVF? How do you explain Sanjay telecasting live the events of the war otherwise? so do you believe in telepathy if not television? when the “critical thinkers” arrived in India before the 1900s they had no idea objects heavier than air can fly, so they interpreted all “vimaans” as imaginary flying chariots, giving our science a comical angle. Do you believe we had neurosurgeons and plastic surgeons who used instruments very similar to modern era, do you believe Dhrona Acharya got his name because he was born in a “dhrone” meaning a test tube?Sir, there are many things we cannot explain only by our limited present knowledge we call as “Science”. The science what we have today might not be applicable tomorrow. The entire western culture believed world was flat, when we knew the planets by names and the star alignments. Before we call the bull shit, i guess we owe the young generation the knowledge we have failed to recognize and is on the verge of being lost, a classical example is the art of ayurvedic medicine. Let the children decide who is the “critical thinker” and who is the “bull shitter”.
    Prof Dr Sudarshan Shetty M.D.

    Ta No’s Response-
    “The author is bent upon demeaning gujarat, and hindu interpretation of life , world , technology. Voice recognition as technology is yet to be common. All veda practitioners chant vedas in a tone very similar. Vedists claim chanting can make gods to oblige the wishes. The voice recognition technology is not matured since human voice has many tones and tenors. One way to get voice recognition technology common is to make people to mimic a tone and tenor. That will make the authors job of writing anti hindu abuses more easy and faster. Hindus need / cannot claim this technology we had and aware.

    Going in parikrama makes the mind peaceful. How can a movement settles mind or things. This is the concept of missile guidance technology. Even in space with no bill boards. the faster the gyroscope rotates , more stable and retains one direction always immaterial the vehicle moves. The patents are gives for ideas not for proven products. We could have patented from curd, yogurt onwards.

    The list can be very long. I will like to inform the author . The knowledge were insisted to be transferred from generation to generation orally in a civilisation which built massive rock structures, written on silk cloth, on palm leaves, even papyrus. In a nuclear war every record can be destroyed vanish, or in a place a high radiation humans cannot access. But you survive even as a vegetable with just active brain and voice even you can transfer the knowledge to the next generation. In today’s technology a super computer is one which can process more data, store more data, make the data portable is what is required. Again if we explain this concept why hindus do like this we will be told do not bull shit.”

    The above two speculative responses hold a lot many people’s conviction. How does one answer them???


  2. ravi5886 says:

    Dear Dr.Sudarshan Shetty your points seems very valid but yet they raise lots of questions. I am not as much learned as you seem about Hindu Mythology but I have read few books. When I read Mahabharta and then few other mythological stories I found them very interesting they had lot of amazing things to tell, everything was just little too amazing …. I mean most of the characters were not born normally they all came to life due to some special arrangements. Starting from the birth of Bheeshm the most powerful character and then it continues all ………. I mean if we believe these stories I find normal birth in those times was very rare thing . kauravas, pandawas and it goes on ……… extraordinary story, with extraordinary births …. if the science according to claims was so advance …. why can’t normal births were possible …. i mean why not Paandu,,, father of Pandavas got cured rather than getting children from some other person …. like this the whole story goes on ….. at last at the end of war …. all the normal born sons of Pandavas were killed …but a boy again with extraordinary birth “Parikshit” lived ….
    The point which i want to make is Mahabharata or other Indian Mythological books they have great stories ……. but i found them too amazing ….. I mean if someone in present times writes a story about “flying disc in space and exchange of trade and culture between planetary system” which he imagines or find amazing and creates a his own logic behind each of them …………. and after 1000 years if few facts of these flying Discs and trade between planets” become reality due to advances of science it doesn’t means that these things were present 1000 years ago ……… proof will be the “cause and effect” relation between how it was mentioned in stories of 1000 years back and in current what is explainable by science.
    I am in 100% agreement about the fact that we had better and far ahead civilization in old times in comparison to westerns … but we should think that teaching these things will not preserve the so called knowledge in these books … but experimenting them, looking them critically and questioning them will definitely …. because if it will not be questioned no one will try to find what is truth … another point which I want to raise is they way it is being taught in the schools as like it is the ultimate truth …. where will this lead us ….. Our children will start believing in it and will never question it they will be living in the fancy world of these stories with a notion in mind that we HAD … I am emphasizing again “we had these so called technologies” … and other robbed it … their childhood will start with hatred for other civilizations which took their technology …. I do not understand how is this going to lead to “Peace and prosperity of world” ……… You are talking about let children choose …. but where are you giving them choice …. actually they do not have choice because questioning these books is like treason to culture and religion in our country … who will like to be called as traitor …. ?

    Ravi Kumar


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