India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has caused some consternation and controversy by saying to an audience of doctors and scientists last weekend that plastic surgery and genetic science existed and were in use thousands of years ago in ancient India.
That, he said at the dedication of a hospital in Mumbai on October 25, was how the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head became attached to a human body, and how a warrior god was born outside his mother’s womb.
The theme of Modi’s speech was that India needed to improve its (grossly inadequate) healthcare facilities, which is in line with campaigns he has launched for cleanliness and the provision and use of toilets in schools and elsewhere. Quoting the ancient Mahabharat epic, he extended this to say that “our ancestors made big contributions” in such areas and that those capabilities needed to be regained.
The speech (at a hospital funded by the Ambani family of Reliance, one of India’s two biggest groups) is on the prime minister’s office website in Hindi (click here), and the Indian Express has published some of the paragraphs with an English translation (click here):
“We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Karna in Mahabharat. If we think a little more, we realise that Mahabharat says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb…..We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
This is significant for three reasons. One is the unusual position of a prime minister who makes such utterances as fact, which caused the consternation and was debated earlier this week on the Headlines Today To the Point tv channel. The second is that, apart from that programme, there has been very little coverage of this part of his speech in the Indian media, which has been largely fighting shy of criticising or questioning Modi and his ministers since the general election.
The third reason is that it controversially illustrates how Hindu nationalist views are moving to centre stage now that the BJP is in power. Activists have a simple vision of building a strong India that is respected worldwide as a modern version of an ancient Hindu civilisation, which is the pivotal point of their view of history.
It is this vision that drives Modi and many of his ministers, raising the question of how much they would disturb India’s broad-based traditions and view of history that have been built since independence by Congress governments to embrace Muslims and other minorities. Re-writing school textbooks is part of the government’s programme, as it was when the BJP was last in power,
That Modi supports theories such as Ganesh’s head is well known. He has spoken about them before and propagated them in schools when he was chief minister of Gujarat, writing the preface of a book that claimed the ancient inventions of motor cars, airplanes and origins of stem cell research.
In a similar vein, Modi’s water resources minister, Uma Bharti, has revived a geological search for the mystical River Saraswati, which is mentioned in Vedic texts and is alleged to flow roughly parallel to the Indus from the Himalayas to the Arabian sea.
Even under the recent Congress government, the Archaeological Society of India, an official body that is in charge of ancient monuments and sites, last year authorised a (fruitless) dig under an old fort in Uttar Pradesh after a seer had dreamed that 1,000 tonnes of gold were buried there
The Ramayana, the Hindu religion’s most popular epic dating from 3,000 years ago, has for seven or more years been the basis of opposition to a project to dig a shipping channel in the Palk Straits between the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka. It has been argued the channel would breach a crop of rocks known as Adam’s Bridge (or Ram Setu) that Lord Ram built across the straits so that his armies could rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the Lankan king.
Such suggestions and actions need to be seen in the context of Indians’ every-day lives, which absorb mythologies and religions without necessarily questioning and analysing the boundaries between mythological and religious beliefs and modern reality.
What is unusual is to have a prime minister say Ganesh was the product of plastic surgery without acknowledging that accuracy cannot be vouched for in the empirical western sense of history, even though inspirational mythology usually has some basis in truth.