"Science" in India

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Mon Oct 23 05:58:03 UTC 2000

What a surprise after returning for the weekend! A few quick
notes, hopefully ending this thread:

Dominik Wujastyk writes:

> At base, what Farmer is trying to do is to find for himself some way of
> understanding how Rajaram, Kak, and others can write history that is so at
> variance with the standard model, and is based on poor evidence,
> misleading argumentation, and so forth.  How can someone do something so
> inexplicable?

Dominik characterizes my motives perfectly. I'd like to add that
I think that the sources of Rajaram's errors are radically
different from Kak's, as Michael Witzel and I suggested in our
FRONTLINE article.

David Salomon writes:

> It should by now be obvious that poking a jackbooted fascist
> with a stick is a risky business.  Fascists are brutal but they
> must have their historical myths, and they value compliant
> "scientists" who will give their myths respectability.
> The question should not be why are Farmer and Witzel pursuing
> this matter, but why are Indian scientists so silent in their
> support?  Have they been intimidated?

Thanks much to David and others for their moral support. The fact
that this is risky business certainly doesn't mean that scholars
should be silent. Nor, so far as native Indologists go -- if not
scientists -- we shouldn't forget that Iravatham Mahadevan has
offered his strong support for Rajaram's debunking, as has Romila
Thapar, and many other native scholars on this List.

Vidyasankar Sundaresan writes:

> Now we have Farmer insulting an entire
> population and an entire nation,

Ridiculous. Valerie Roebuck expresses my motives perfectly:

> I don't think Steve Farmer was insulting anybody--just questioning the
> quality of certain systems of education, surely a legitimate concern of
> academics everywhere?

Vidyasankar Sundaresan writes further:

> I invite Steve Farmer, or indeed, anybody on this list, to show that
> Farmer is indeed a trained Indologist. From what I can make out, he has as
> much training in Indology as I do, and perhaps less background than I.
> I am also just expressing a wish that the experts on this highly
> self-referential and self-reverential list stand up to the same standards
> that they expect out of amateurs, and that they apply the same standards to
> all the amateurs, including Steve Farmer.

Sundaresan opens the door to a topic on which I've wanted to
remark for some time, especially in light of Dominik's
(understandable) comments that he intended this List for
professionals. I'm obviously a comparative historian and not an
Indologist. But that hardly makes me an "amateur" of Sundaresan's
sort. By definition, comparative historians move systematically
from field to field. I've spent over twenty years (going back to
when I received my doctorate in cultural history) as a premodern
historian who studies the evolution of manuscript traditions in
Europe, China, India, the Middle East, and Mesoamerica.
Historical studies of manuscript traditions travel remarkably
well from field to field: shifting from premodern studies of
Greece or China or Mesoamerica to India is radically different
from shifting from engineering to any premodern field. Religious
commentators (say) dealing with Vedic or Buddhist or Hindu
traditions employed remarkably similar exegetical methods as
commentators concerned with Confucian or Aristotelian or Islamic
or Egyptian texts. Obviously, in studying manuscript traditions
cross-culturally, I can't be expert in all the premodern
languages that were used in Eurasia or Mesoamerica, nor in all
the modern languages that scholars use to discuss them. But I am
competent in a half dozen or so of those languages, and am
continually studying others (including Sanskrit). When I can't
deal with a specialized topic on my own, I go to lengths to
collaborate with reputable scholars who have skills that
complement my own. In any event, after two decades of advanced
research into premodern traditions I think that I can claim that
I am possibly more qualified to raise scholarly questions in
fields like Indology (and I always expect to raise more questions
than I can answer) than (say) an engineer who turns to to the
field without that same two decades of professional study -- let
alone without the formal training in paleography, philology, and
the history of philosophy, religion, and science expected of
someone in my field. One of the problems in premodern studies --
for Sinologists and Western classicists no less than Indologists
-- is that experts are so constrained by the specialized needs of
their research that they normally have little time to study other
Eurasian, Middle Eastern, or Mesoamerican fields that throw light
on their own. This is one place where comparativists can play a
significant catalyst's role, serving as a bridge between
researchers in intellectually related but geographical dispersed
fields. Recently I've had some moderate success bringing together
Vedic specialists (including M. Witzel) and their counterparts in
the Warring States period in China -- in ways that have already
affected work in the latter field.

In any event, can I suggest that the ridiculously early dates
assigned to Vedic sources so cavalierly by the Rajaram or Kak or
Talageri or Frawley types are immediately *recognized* as
ridiculous by *any* trained premodernist -- if not by engineers
who approach Vedic studies without that training?  Insofar as I
am a "lover" of premodern history, etymologically speaking (at
least) I embrace the "amateur" label. But after two decades
working with premodern texts, including some infamously difficult
ones, I can safely reject the "amateur" label the way that
Sundaresan intends it. Of his training, I know nothing.

Steve Farmer

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list