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Thursday, 20 April 2017
Plastic Surgey and Ganesha - Claude Alvarez
Knowledge systems are inextricably linked with culture, that is why there are so many of them. Within the vast framework of India itself, there are multiple cultures, hence various knowledge systems, each valid in its own right, each with its own set of assumptions.
Assumptions by definition are, well, assumptions. We cannot test them as we do theories precisely because they are assumptions. Within the framework of these assumptions, we can construct the logic for any human activity, including science. In the democracy of assumptions, all assumptions are on par, whether we are referring to the assumptions behind doing modern science in the way it is done, or assumptions surrounding religion. In that fundamental reckoning, both modern science and religion operate on faith.
Paradoxically, the validity or usefulness or workability of a piece of knowledge can sometimes be established even outside the framework of that culture. Validity is established from practice, from experience, from experiment. That is why elements of knowledge taken from one part of the world can be exploited or used in another part of the world, whatever the culture. Problems arise when the piece of knowledge is imported with its attendant baggage of assumptions as well.
For these reasons, the assumptions on which a specific knowledge system is based may not be — or are not necessarily — shared by others and may sometimes even be in open conflict with those of others and these assumptions are invariably the contribution of the domain of culture. For instance, the assumptions behind the Jain traditions of knowledge conflict with the assumptions behind science or the acquisition of known through Baconian methods. India’s science traditions arose because of a search for utility, which unlike theory or speculation, can rarely go wrong simply because it is subject to trial and error linked eventually with survival.
To give an example: India’s cultures, its civilizations, have survived a period exceeding ten thousand years. By any yardstick, the processes on which this survival was based were sustainable; in fact, they were successful in evolutionary terms. A major component of the knowledge system that enabled such success was the health care system based on Ayurveda, which developed following a separate, but credible, set of assumptions which are in many ways separate and distinct from the set of assumptions that have driven the development of Western medical science.
Where the principles behind these ways of knowing have come from interaction with the real world, from practice, they have been inextricably linked with what I call the perennial (and not the seasonal) streams of knowledge. Unless this is discussed and understood in all its ramifications, Indian science, scientists and knowledge producers will continue to perceive themselves inappropriately and unnecessarily as secondary to Western or seasonal science, when in fact, India should be considered the source of several key ideas that fertilised the development of perennial science including its fundamentals in various parts of the world.
Unlike the development of science in the West — which saw periods of serious disjunction or gaps — the development of knowledge systems in India (upto the colonial period) saw remarkable continuity. However, in all the history of science and technology text-books we read or study, it is the West which claims it had an unbroken tradition in science, while according to its version all other civilisations merely added sporadic footnotes. This claim is made despite the fact that the West had its Dark Ages which lasted one thousand years! India’s Dark Age, on the other hand, commenced only very recently with the imposition of the Western system of knowledge which required an effort to show that India never had any science and its entire civilizational output was a black hole. The disjunction in the knowledge system in India was introduced by the colonial regime more or less by the 19century, during which the colonizers sought to replace one set of valid and practices and theories by another, despite the fact that the existing one was valid in its own terms.
Example: from the Indian historian Dharampal, we know that the practice of inoculation against small pox was known to Indians upto the 18century and used successfully as well. However, this valid and effective system was unilaterally replaced by the method of vaccination associated with Jenner, introduced by English colonizers. No reasons were given for the replacement. The Indian method was not even studied, neither its theory nor its practice.
Till the commencement of what I call India’s own “dark age”, there had never been any serious doubt about the knowledge systems in play in the subcontinent, their validity and use.
In order to explain these proposals further, let me undertake to provide further illustrations. To render this discussion controversial as well, I will begin with the recent comments made by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, on Lord Ganesha and plastic surgery. These have provoked hysterical and dismissive responses from persons whose perspectives on these issues have more often than not been shaped by a baptism (and later, sustained indoctrination) in the system of education imported from the West designed wholly on the basis of Lord Macaulay’s extreme biases.
It is instructive to note that when writers in the Western countries discuss scientific ideas or ethics almost wholly from the context of the Christian religion, this is not considered reactionary either by people from the West or by scientists from India. Einstein made the observation that “God does not play with dice,” a statement that can only be understood from within the context of Christian theology and its obsession with “laws” that are eternal. If you are not a Christian, you may never understand what he meant. But if you are a Christian — or alternatively, educated within a Western or Christian educational institution — you would be able to have some grasp or idea, because by then you would have accepted those assumptions (regarding the “laws of God” or the “laws of nature” or the notion of eternal laws) as well which are nothing more than fictions or constructions. (If you are Western educated, you would refer to the Christian god as God and to all other Gods as gods.)
However, when Indian thinkers, writers or politicians refer to our elephant god Ganesha or to goddess Saraswati and attempt to associate such figures with some aspect of science, technology or learning, there is invariably a howl of protest and it most likely will emanate from Marxists (people who feel a priori that every aspect of India and its traditions are primitive, caste-based, superstitious or bad) and also from the educated middle class as well, which, except for a few elements, has developed a profound sense of contempt for features of the society that continues to feed them. This is not the place to analyse this, but it needs to be stated up front for what it is worth.
Today, I would say, not even education is required to know that one cannot graft the head of an elephant on to the body of a man and create a hybrid of both.
So I presume that is hardly what Mr Modi could have meant when he referred to Ganesha and its implications for our skills with plastic surgery. The PM was obviously referring to India’s skill in plastic surgery and its long history of use in the Indian subcontinent. If you go by what is taught to us in school, college and university, you would never know most things about this country, its history, its people, its technical skills, its history of math, science or technology. These are rarely discussed or mentioned. This is because Macaulay still reigns as a ghost in all our textbooks and educational institutions! Therefore, I was not surprised that this idea of plastic surgery being a skill commonly available in India was received with consternation. What rubbish! even my well-read and well-meaning colleagues declared. Plastic surgery is a modern invention, and like all the skills and techniques we use nowadays, could never have come from India! We were backward, remember? We do not have such traditions of science or technology. The art has come to us exclusively from the West. Why deny the West its claim to have given us everything bold and beautiful?
So it will come to many as a surprise to discover that like several other things about the other India — the India we know so little about — the idea of plastic surgery did actually originate in India from where it spread to the rest of the world.For the skeptics, a little unvarnished history would be useful. The art of plastic surgery rose as a response to a custom peculiarly prevalent in India: the cutting off or amputation of the nose as a punishment for crime or as a plain humiliation after a military defeat. Sometimes, it was also visited on individuals who were found cavorting with other people’s wives. The resulting disfigurement drove the sufferer to a class of surgeons who founded a thriving business in the reconstruction of noses (technically called, rhinoplasty – “nose shaping”). In 1794, Dr. H. Scott, an Englishman, would report from India on the “putting on noses on those who lost them” and send to London a quantity of caute, the cement used for “uniting animal parts.”
The earliest of these rhinoplasties (and other cosmetic surgeries as well) were performed in India already in 1600 B.C. and there are still families that practise the same method today. The operation is described in the Sushruta Samhita, a book written in 600 B.C. by Sushruta, the well known Indian surgeon: a flap from the cheek was cut off to reconstruct the nose. Later, a better method used flaps from the forehead instead. Another Indian surgeon, Vagbhat, provided a more detailed description of the procedure in his book, the Ashtanga Hridyans, in the fourth century A.D.
“The practical secret of rhinoplastic operations spread from India through Arabia and Persia to Egypt and from there it leaked to Italy. In the 15th century in Sicily, Branca used cheek flaps — a la the Indian method – to reconstruct the proud noses of hot blooded swordsmen. His son, Antonio, tried flaps from the arm and by the late 16th century, Tagliacozzi had published his work on the Italian method of arm flap rhinoplasty.”
It was only in the 19century — two centuries after the Italians — that German, French, and English surgeons could study the entire method afresh, through the translation of the Sanskrit literature and personal observations through travel in India.
“In Kumar, a place near Pune, a Mahratta surgeon was seen by James Findlay and Thomas Cruso, two medical officers of the East India Company, performing a rhinoplasty by the median forehead flap. This case was reported as a “singular operation” in the Madras Gazette of 1793. The patient was Cowasjee, a Mahratta bullock driver with the British army in the war of 1792. He was taken prisoner by Tipu Sultan who cut off his nose and one of his hands. He went back and rejoined the Bombay army of the East India Company and after one year had his nose reconstructed in Kumar near Poona. A description of this case also appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine of London in a letter from India in 1794.”
The description of the “singular operation” was responsible for the later spread of this technique to European countries and to the United States of America. The first successful case of forehead flap rhinoplasty performed in England was published in 1814, about twenty years after the Cowasjee case. Carpues’ book An account of Two Successful Operations for Restoring a Lost Nose from Integument of the Forehead was published in the year 1816 and helped to create a considerable interest in this subject. In Germany Carl Ferdinand Von Graefe performed the first total reconstruction of the nose in 1816 and coined the term “plastic surgery” in his text on this subject published two years later. Jonathan Mason Warren from America undertook rhinoplasty by the Indian method in the year 1834. Captain Smith published his Notes on surgical cases Rhinoplasty in the British Medical Journal in 1897 and suggested improvements. Keegan (1900) wrote a review of rhinoplastic operations describing recent improvements in the Indian method.
As stated in the very beginning of this paper, the assumptions behind the development of medical science did not prevent the development of surgery in India, though in the West, for centuries, then prevailing assumptions about the sacredness of the body, did. Thus the credit for writing the first text on surgery (Susruta’s Samhita) is undisputedly Indian. Several surgical innovations are discussed by Susruta in his text including the reconstruction of noses. The Europeans simply took over the practice: not habituated to visiting punishments with the lopping off of noses, they could more easily see a possible application of the technique to other areas of bodily defect.
Today rhinoplasty is extensively practised in countries like Iran for cosmetic purposes, whereas in India the practice of cutting off of noses has long since been discontinued. Rhinoplasty therefore is not a familiar word among the Indian population even if it is a term familiar with surgeons. Here too, the general practice is now to learn it from Western medical texts which dominate the field of medical education. Narendra Modi was therefore quite rightly using a more familiar outward symbol of “plastic surgery” (Lord Ganesh) to make a point: that people in India had a well-established ability to transplant (or graft) one piece of living flesh onto another. I find nothing wrong therefore with what he said. Once you accept that India did have obvious competence in the art of plastic surgery and taught the world how to do it, I doubt anyone else would have a problem too with what the PM said.
But what do the educated people of this country know about other aspects of India’s math, science and technology traditions? Fairly little. Even though thousands of Indians have seen the Ashok pillar in Delhi and seen how it has withstood corrosion over centuries, most educated people still continue to believe that the iron and steel industry originated in modern Europe. The late Indian historian, Dharampal, collected considerable information about the manufacture of Indian steel or wootz, as it was then known. Indian steel, also known as Damascus steel, was the best steel the world produced at the time and amazed even the first steel makers at Sheffield.
All the information one needs to know about wootz has been put together with additional research in a scholarly work, India’s Legendary Wootz: An Advanced Material of the Ancient World, written by Sharada Srinivasan and S Ranganathan (2004) of the National Institute of Advanced Study (NIAS) and published by Universities Press, Hyderabad.After reading Dharampal and the NIAS study, one can only arrive at the conclusion that once again an excellent (and valid) method of making steel was simply replaced by another, without even attempting to find out what were the assumptions that led to the development of the Indian process. While the Indian process, being small-scale, generated no pollution, the modern iron and steel industry and its processes continue to pose a serious challenge to the environment, climate and public health.
The instance of plastic surgery and its spread to other countries is repeated in other spheres, from math to the entire process of manufacture of textiles. I will discuss (briefly) mathematics, agriculture, astronomy, industry, etc., within the context of a society that had evolved competent, in most cases, optimal solutions to problems it faced. None of these would have emerged if we had relied upon unrealistic or unworkable assumptions about how the natural world functioned. And it is important to reiterate that all these developments were made possible without relying upon the assumptions that have contributed to the expansion of Western science, including Bacon’s prescriptions which spoke quite bluntly about the need to torture nature in order to wrest her secrets.
For example, Prof. C.K. Raju has shown that the basic algorithms – addition, subtraction, mutiplication and division — that began to be understood in Europe only in the 16th century were already mastered by people living in India over ten centuries prior. Prof. Raju has in fact pointed out that the very term “algorithm” is sourced to Al Khwarizmi who translated the basic mathematical texts from India into Arabic in a volume called the Hisab-i-Hind, from where they were translated into Latin and Greek.
Similarly, with the calculus: like the case of plastic surgery later, the calculus appears in the 16th century in Europe without any chronology of development in that society’s history — as part of the Newtonian “revolution” — but, as Prof. Raju has again shown, it was already perfected in India from the 5th to the 15th century. The spread of the calculus to the West was through the Kerala School of Mathematics. In India, the precise trigonometric values provided by the calculus were evolved for accurately predicting the monsoon for the requirements of agriculture and also of navigation.
Besides the obvious competence displayed in inventing the calculus, plastic surgery or the making of wootz, there is concrete evidence of other fairly impressive but little known skills. The many-volume work of Donald Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe, is often referred to in the discussions on this theme. But even Lach is not comprehensive enough since he could not conceivably access all available sources. Certainly he had no access to the materials painstakingly accumulated by Dharampal, and others.
For instance, those working in botany and plants know that Garcia de Orta faithfully recorded local Indian knowledge of a huge variety of plants that were being used for medicinal purposes, the knowledge of which was thereafter transmitted by him to Europe. The information he collected was circulated in the form of the Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”), published at Goa in 1563. His understanding and systematic collection of this vast indigenous knowledge of plants is sometimes misunderstood to claim he discovered the various medical uses of these plants himself!
Similar things can be said about the Hortus Malabaricus. That text was based on botanical knowledge available in India, collected by the Dutch from vaidyas. It influenced Carl Linnaeus in the 18century. Linnaeus is promoted amongst us as the “founder of botany”. The history of knowledge of plants prior to him, particularly in countries like ours, is not taught in our so-called universities. (This information I found in Dr P.L.T. Girija’s book on Ayurveda, discussed below.)
Several other skills like the manufacture of textiles could not have developed in Europe without close study and imitation of Indian textile making procedures by English and European traders. In fact, English colonial masters in some areas had to cut off the thumbs of local weavers in order to kill the local industry. We know that the knowledge of natural dyes was widespread. Today — after a relatively short and disastrous courtship with chemical dyes — natural dyes have returned under the garb of promoting sustainable industry which shows very clearly that some features of the Indian economy ought never to have been changed in the first place.
This brings me to other unmistakeable contributions of a scientific and technological nature of which little information might have gone outside India. One striking example involves the maintenance of the biodiversity of the rice plant and other domesticated crops. It is without doubt that Adivasis and peasant farmers were responsible for the creation and maintenance of some of 300,000 varieties of rice. This is a phenomenal figure and does indicate a very high level of understanding of seed selection and breeding techniques. I confirmed on a visit to IRRI several decades ago that 72,000 rice accessions in their possession were (without the consent of the farmers who reared them) collected from India. There are likewise at least 60,000 of rice varieties at the Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack which I also visited. The late rice scientist Dr. R.H. Richharia maintained 19,000 rice varieties in situ at the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute at Jabalpur in MP. Even today, Dr Debal Deb, a single scientist working without any infrastructure, maintains over 900 varieties of rice at his research centre in Odisha.
The breeding of rice varieties is a dynamic process. Dr. Richharia – himself a leading rice breeder – found he had to revise his opinion about adivasis’ knowledge of science when he tried out certain seeds which he got from these farmers but which he was unable to reproduce. He discovered that these were male sterile lines. He had no idea of how the adivasis had come to know about the existence of these varieties (which modern breeders are still struggling with) but they knew what these naturally occurring varieties were meant for and how they ought to be used in their rice fields to create new varieties.
Likewise, none of the so called “saline” varieties of rice were created by modern science; they were selected by farmers in coastal belts from varieties that had adapted to those environments. In fact, the International Rice Research Institute has produced after 50 years of research only two major successes, IR8 and IR36. This can be compared with the hundreds of varieties generated by India’s peasant and tribal communities, and they served hundreds of different uses. In so far as they are pure sorts, “selections”, they represent knowledge or science of the permanent variety or stream. The plant varieties from current science labs are contributions to seasonal science, since they have no staying power but get mowed down by nature and its devices largely because of their narrow genetic base.
This diversity is manifest in several other crops as well. Indian farmers have evolved, for example, 2500 varieties of brinjal. This recognition led to the famous agitation against the Monsanto proposal to introduce a genetically engineered eggplant in the country.
The ability to work with seeds was matched by other competencies in agriculture. There are several reports of agricultural specialists – from Alexander Walker to Albert Howard – who came to teach Indian farmers how to do agriculture but retired after conceding that they had very little to teach and more to learn. Dharampal’s Chingleput data taken from British records indicates that the output of field crops in that region was higher than that associated with the best of the so-called green revolution practices used today.
Or take cotton, as another fine example of how the situation has indeed deteriorated, instead of being assisted to the contrary, by modern agricultural techniques. Just look at this 120 year old data about cotton production from India’s history (and remind yourself, no pesticides and chemical fertilisers were used in cotton prior to 1966) sent to me recently by Soumik Banerjee, an activist working on indigenous seeds:
In 2013-14, as per the Cotton Corporation of India Website, average yield of cotton per ha was reported at 577 kg/ha with the highest yields of 785 kg/ha from Rajasthan.
Now let’s look at the data provided Sir George Watt’s Dictionary of Economic Products of India Vol-4 (1890):
In 1888-89, the average yields of indigenous cotton in 19 districts of India were above 577 kg/ha as shown in the table below:
Soumik Banerjee has highlighted other interesting observations from the same source:
“In 1870, Mr J G Fraser of Gopalpur, Jaunpur reported results of cultivating Hinganghat cotton by transplanting from broadcast sowing made in the rains. The yield was 1405 kg/ha of high quality cotton.
“In Cawnpore (Kanpur) Farm, a 2 year experiment by settlement officers recorded yields of 635 kg/ha under irrigation and 561 kg/ha under unirrigated condition.
“Conjointly with the laudable endeavours to improve the local races of cotton, numerous experiments were conducted with the object of determining the suitability of foreign seeds to the climate and soil of Sind. The results have been to prove that no seed can in anyway compete under the local conditions of soil and climate with commonly cultivated Sindi race. Bourbon cotton, the exotic chiefly experimented with, gave an outturn of only 354 kg/ha while native cotton on the other hand yielded in the same year and similar care 1992 kg/ha.”
It bears repeating that the 2013 yields of cotton are after profuse use of chemical fertilisers and deadly pesticides. The stagnancy in production is now being used by Monsanto and other obnoxious multinationals — with the support of some Indian scientists — to inflict genetically modified cotton everywhere in the country. Already, in some States like Gujarat, more than 90% of cotton now grown is genetically modified. We can see how the assumptions behind indigenous agricultural science and those behind Monsanto’s operations are in open conflict.
The approach of this society to water, water harvesting, water transport, reflected in large scale engineering devices, is only now emerging among scholars. Large-scale, meticulously planned irrigation systems not only enabled people to transport and store water in very large quantities (examples: Rajasthan, Pune; the suranga traditions of Kasargod in Kerala which were similar to the quanat from the Arabic world) but the system of tank irrigation (for example, in Karnataka) was so well designed that when English engineers proposed to increase the number of tanks, they found there were no more locations available since the existing ones had adequate arrangements to collect allthe rainfall that fell on the ground in the area.
Indian water harvesting systems were designed to deal with the monsoon, that is, to collect rain where it fell, precisely like the Mumbai housewife who finds she must collect as much water from her tap within an hour every morning when the public water supply starts and then shuts. Modern irrigation systems built on the technology of dams are never sustainable, since they dam only the run off instead of harvesting all the rain that falls. In fact, the forests that harvest and store the water are slaughtered and drowned in the dam’s reservoirs. Since catchment areas are denuded, the life of the dam is considerably reduced through erosion and siltation. In the tank system, the silt accumulated in tanks was removed and used to fertilise agricultural lands.
The artistic and intellectual traditions that were still very vibrant at this time were intensely preoccupied with the theories of aesthetics, architecture and grammar. For example, the cultural arts, most of the gharanas (including the various classical schools of dance) maintained their ability to reproduce the expertise, innovating when circumstances required. Psychological theories and therapies, still in use today because of their obvious therapeutic worth, were passed on without much damage, ensuring continued intergenerational reproduction of yogic asanas. One of the most important demonstrations of dynamism is the maintenance of the system of commentaries on various scriptural texts by eminent teachers and spiritual men and women which sought to re-interpret them in the light of contemporary experience. The Bhakti movement is not the sole instance of vitality.
There is little doubt then that we are dealing with a civilization that can hardly be dubbed as traditional, early modern or modern simply because several of its features in fact reflected an awareness of science so perennial in nature that it could be profitably used as long as human beings survive on the planet. The best example of such a system with unique assumptions that work is Ayurveda or better still, the Indian science of health.
No one associates modern Western medicine or medical institutions with “health”. They are almost always associated with illness, disease, curing illness and disease, and dying. People are now encouraged to die in hospitals and not at home so that all their hard-earned savings can go to these medical institutions in the form of outrageous fees rather than to deserving dependents and families. Medical doctors get into the act only after the person (who is now called a patient) reports that he or she is being troubled by something. Treatment is based on recognition and treatment of symptoms. All solutions are external input and demand copious amounts of cash. Often, patients’ concerns about diet needed to be followed are dismissed with the advice that they can continue to eat anything and everything.
This is not the case with the assumptions underlying Ayurveda, which is based on the three empirically sensed elements: vayu (or vata), pitta (heat) and kapha (cold). You can explain global warming on the basis of these three elements. But so can you also explain how the body conducts itself. These elements appear as doshas in the human body. When any one of them or even two, gets predominant, harmony is upset, disease or dis-ease results. The effects show on the seven dhatus of which the body is composed and where the dis-ease manifests itself.
The cure to a dis-ease is obtained by reversing those actions that have led to the emergence of the vitiated dosha and the trouble that it now causes. Mostly, this is achieved through diet, not medicine. All food will contribute in some way to the maintenance or predominance of each of the three doshas. Medicinal plants and regimen will also contribute, so Ayurveda also developed competence in both these areas as well. Therefore, good health in the population is maintained by a widespread knowledge of how these elements can be maintained in harmony in the body through diet. (Educated people have adopted the Western theory of nutrition which sees food in terms of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and calories — based on a different set of assumptions.) As Dr P.L.T. Girija says in her remarkable book, Jeevani: Ayurveda for Women (which I have summarised above),Ayurvedic understanding of the body is perennial science. “It was valid in the past, it is valid today, it will be valid in the future.” The assumptions on which it based are part of permanent (not seasonal) science.
Because our academic life has been submerged, soaked and contaminated with Eurocentric perceptions of our history, and because most of our historians have come from arts faculties with little or no engineering or scientific or technical backgrounds, the general impression that has gained disproportionate credence is that whatever good has come to this country in the form of serviceable, utilitarian or practical ideas has come exclusively from the West.
This has had a severe impact on the self-esteem of the public at large because of the impression created that the modern knowledge system is 100% borrowed from abroad whereas, in fact, it is quite apparent that much of modernity would not exist but for the fact that India (and China, Egypt, Arabia and Persia) existed and provided most of the intellectual foundations.
Lack of self-esteem is often sought to be shored up by such claims as appear sporadically in the example of the Modi reference to Ganesha and plastic surgery. But this cannot cloud us to the fact that even if the entire western world were taken into the sea by a tsunami, this country would survive and do well, because it created the four algorithms, the calculus, it had perfect knowledge of the processes of making iron and steel, it could handle complex issues like plastic surgery, it could clothe itself, it had the most diverse range of cultivated seed and crops, it had mastered the art of dealing with the monsoon, which enabled it to produce wealth and food for all. Almost every technology in use closely imitated natural processes: instead of using high energy fuels which produce waste, we relied almost exclusively upon ambient energy (which is also the way nature works).
This presentation is an invitation to the academically inclined audience present here to re-think the frame-works that continue to rule, burden and cripple our intellectual work. Our “dark age” may only just be beginning, ever since our intellectual elites including our planners decided to ignore history and instead place this huge billion plus civilisation on the self-destructive development path chosen by the West by accepting most of the latter’s assumptions about how and why life needs to be lived. By forgoing our right to decide our own assumptions, and to be ruled by them, we almost surrendered our right to live as worthy human beings on this planet. However, we can still change all that. And we continue to have several models to choose from, if we wish to get out of the rut of modernity and be ourselves once again.
(Paper delivered at the 38th Indian Social Science Congress, AP University, Vizagapatnam, 29 March-2 April, 2015)