Sanskrit is not a magic language

There have always been people who take religious myths literally. But in recent years, literal interpretations of mythology and metaphor have found a new lease of life, thanks mostly to the web. I think this points to a fundamental discomfort with metaphors and with speculative literature. And before I proceed, I should clarify that I do consider much of our mythology speculative fiction. Speculative fiction based on historical people and places perhaps, but speculative fiction nevertheless.

Having said that, I don’t think there is anything wrong with flexing one’s imagination and wondering if the Ram Setu could have been built by Neanderthals who were political allies of a Homo Sapiens prince. But there is a problem when such interpretations are placed squarely in opposition to interpretations that are more metaphorical.

Suddenly, it is no longer enough that the Ramayana is a story — it has to be literally true in order to mean anything. Suddenly, a myth being a story is the same as it being “just a story”. Suddenly, rakshasas have to be explained away as being actual organisms and real geographical locations have to correspond to kingdoms mentioned in the epics. And don’t even get me started on the “scientific” justifications for caste-based discrimination, not eating during eclipses, and a number of other rituals that have only symbolism going for them.

Why? Because thanks to an education that devalues the Humanities, a good number of us fail to process metaphors — things either exist and can be measured, or they are those fancy potatoes that philosophers juggle — things with no “practical” utility. I wrote some time ago that the Indian education system’s focus on technical training has produced a generation that is insensitive to nuance and increasingly given to insensitivity. I think that argument applies here as well. The Humanities teach a kind of comfort with ambiguity. Through literature, history, and imprecise subjects such as sociology and economics, the Humanities teach us that the human condition is about much more than data points and technical know-how. Our schools and colleges, focused as they are on manufacturing factory workers, have thrown all sense of nuance out the window.

So our WhatsApp groups are now full of people who can’t tell history from mythology, who won’t settle for “I don’t know”, who will fall for the most childish theories that come their way. Some of these childish stories are literal justifications of miracles from Hindu mythology. It is not enough that Ganesha having an elephant’s head is a symbol of his formidable memory and intelligence. He now has to have an actual elephant head transplanted using plastic surgery. It is not enough that Hanuman’s immortality be seen as a symbol of Ramayana’s everlasting appeal and him having become a character people will always remember. Now, he has to be found literally alive, living an ascetic’s life in a forest somewhere.

I am a storyteller. I spend several hours every day with characters who are half man-half animal and characters who are immortal. And despite the fact that some of the theories I just pointed out are outrageous, I am open to the possibility that we may find irrefutable proof of them being true one day and upend all that we know about reality. But the key word here is proof.

What manner of scientific thinking are we exercising when we label things “science” with nothing more than a culturally-sanctioned comforting story as “evidence”?

Before I end, I want to share a question I encountered on Quora some time ago, along with my answer to it. It is what triggered this letter and its title.

Somebody asked: When will modern science prove that Sanskrit is like the universe's programming or controlling language, and that everything has some level of consciousness?

I’m no scientist, and if I have bungled below, please feel free to correct me by replying to this letter. Here’s the answer I gave:

Before you ask “when”, ask “if” science will ever “prove that Sanskrit is like the universe’s programming or controlling language, and that everything has some level of consciousness”.

The way science works is that a hypothesis is made to explain certain observed or observable phenomena. Then experiments are carried out to confirm the hypothesis. Then the results as well as the experiment’s methodology are presented to the scientific community. Then other scientists repeat these experiments and present their results. If an overwhelming number of experiments provide the same results under the same conditions, the hypothesis is eventually given the status of a scientific theory. This theory is then generally accepted as a way to explain reality or certain aspects of it.

What this question presents is, at best, a hypothesis. And it has two parts:

  • “Sanskrit is like the universe’s programming or controlling language.”

  • “Everything has some level of consciousness.”

Having given a brief introduction to how modern science goes about proving things, I now move on to provide a list of things one will need to prove the above hypotheses.

  • You will need to prove that the universe even needs a programming language. Right now, there does not seem any need for the universe to have any programming language or a controlling language. Existing natural laws serve as adequate explanations of observable phenomena.

  • You will need to formulate experiments which demonstrate that Sanskrit has the properties you describe.

  • You will need to demonstrate to the scientific community that chanting of Sanskrit verses and shlokas can manipulate matter and energy in the ways you describe.

  • You will need to demonstrate that everything has some level of consciousness. Right now, there is neither any need to assign consciousness to everything, nor is there any need to think that we live in such a universe.

Science goes where the evidence is. If there is observable and demonstrable evidence, it shouldn’t be difficult to prove any hypothesis. But the evidence can’t be things you have read in a book. And it can’t be things you believe (no matter how firmly you believe).