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Scientists query PM’s Ganesh-surgery link - Ancient medical pioneer Sushruta would have been a better example, says researcher

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  • Published 29.10.14

New Delhi, Oct. 28: Several scientists have expressed surprise at a speech by the Prime Minister that appeared to portray mythological narratives as illustrations of ancient Indian medical feats.

Speaking at the Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai on Saturday, Narendra Modi referred to Mahabharat hero Karna’s birth and elephant god Ganesh’s head to say that India could take pride in its past achievements in medicine.

The Prime Minister said that according to the Mahabharat, Karna was not born from his mother’s womb and this suggested that knowledge of genetic science existed during that period. He added that Ganesh’s elephant head pointed to plastic surgery.

“I’m not happy about this,” said Yash Pal, a scientist turned educator who has tried to spread the scientific temper through television programmes.

“I view him (Modi) as quite scientific and rational, so he must have said this in jest. But a Prime Minister should not say things like this. Those who understand will recognise it for what it is, but others might start believing it.”

Yash Pal and several other scientists said that mythology deserved respect for its contributions to India’s culture.

“Our mythology has made rich contributions to our identity and has an important place in our culture,” said Shuba Tole, a neurobiologist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.

“However, painting it with scientific overtones takes away some of the symbolism and the sheer poetry of the metaphors. I think the Prime Minister could have used other examples from our rich historical past — not mythology — to illustrate our ancient scientific achievements.”

One scientist recalled that the late Raj Narain, health minister in the 1977-79 Janata Party government, too had once cited Ganesh’s head as evidence for the world’s first plastic surgery.

“I’m sure the Prime Minister doesn’t take this seriously but if he does, I would be worried,” said Subhash Lakhotia, a Banaras Hindu University biologist involved in research into the scientific principles underlying the Ayurveda.

Lakhotia, member of a panel of science academies that had five years ago recommended revisions in undergraduate science courses, said too much emphasis on ancient achievements might shift the focus from what needs to be done today.

“Basking in what we had done, even if true, doesn’t take us far today,” Lakhotia said.

But, he added, the well-documented achievements of the sixth-century surgeon Sushruta would have been a genuine example of ancient surgical practice. The Sushruta Samhita describes certain surgical procedures practised by surgeons even today.

“I don’t know why our Prime Minister alluded to those (mythological) examples,” said L.S. Shashidhara, biology professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune.

“All knowledge-rich societies will have great creative artists. Indeed, we had and still have the best of musicians, poets, storytellers, sculptors and architects. Storytellers often creatively mix some imagination while narrating a story. Human imagination has no boundaries and is limited only by our ability to communicate.”

Shashidhara added: “While it is true that often such imagination becomes reality at a later day — after all, both are the products of the human mind — one should not assume that it was reality at the time of the storyteller without any evidence.

“By that logic, historians of tomorrow reading today’s science fiction would imagine a world that is very different from the one we are living in today. I guess our Prime Minister wanted to convey to our medical fraternity that we should convert the imagination of our forefathers into reality.”

Not everybody was surprised at the reference to Ganesh, though. “This should be viewed in a lighter vein,” said Rajesh Pande, an intensive care specialist in New Delhi.

“I’ve seen many medical presentations by transplant surgeons, whose first slide shows Ganesh. But they use that only to kick-start the presentation.”