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Faith accompli

Faith must encourage the adventure of ideas and promote scientific inquiry, writes Sitaram Yechury on the controversial Sethusamudram ‘debate’.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2007 11:21 IST

The last day of the Budget session in Parliament saw heated debates in both Houses on the Sethusamudram Project. This controversy merits a revisit as the debate drifted towards replacing historical inquiry and evidence with mythology and replacing philosophy with theology. While on this issue and in the larger Indian context, it is the RSS and the BJP that has been seeking such a metamorphosis, other persuasions of faith could be equally guilty in different circumstances and dispensations.

Before discussing this, it is necessary to note certain aspects of this project. The Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project, inaugurated by the Prime Minister, envisages the dredging of a shipping channel across the Palk Straits between India and Sri Lanka. The project undertaken jointly by various shipping public sector corporations with an initial equity from the Centre is designed to deepen the channel to permit modern ships to navigate from the west and east of India. Currently, ships have to navigate around the Sri Lankan coast to reach destinations in the east of India. Once completed, this project will reduce the distance by as much as 424 nautical miles and save 36 hours of sailing time. This will not only boost maritime trade but also provide considerable economic activity in the region, saving crucial time and money.

The singular thrust of the BJP’s objections to this project is that this would destroy the chain of islets and shallows known as the Adam’s Bridge linking India with Sri Lanka. Adam’s Bridge is claimed by the BJP to have been constructed 1.7 million years ago and is the famous bridge built by Lord Rama in the Ramayana for the purpose of launching his assault on Lanka to rescue Sita.

Despite the thunderings of the shipping minister that there is no proof that this is a man-made bridge and that a 1987 Nasa statement quoted by the BJP had no scientific validity, the BJP stuck to its guns. What is strange is the fact that under the BJP-led NDA government, the Geological Survey of India was asked to conduct a test that proved that the Adam’s Bridge alignment is a palaeographical formation dating back to several hundreds of thousands of years and disproved that it was a man-made construction. In fact, the NDA government allocated nearly Rs 5 crore for a feasibility study to implement this project in the 2000-01 Budget.

Geological studies and scientific advances now permit us to fairly accurately map the movement of land mass on our planet through shifts of tectonic plates. Such scientific studies have also fairly accurately mapped the geological ages of our planet along with corresponding organic life that inhabited it at that point of time. This scientific classification, going back to 4,000 million years, has divided this period into various aeons, eras and epochs. These have also mapped the physical changes that have occurred over this period. Accordingly, it has been shown that “in India, as all over the world, a major result of glaciations in each Ice Age, was the great fall in sea level since enormous bodies of water were kept frozen in large ice sheets in north-western Europe and northern America”.

It is believed that in the last Ice Age, in the late Pleistocene (an epoch that began 1.8 million years ago and ended 10,000 years ago with the advent of the current epoch, Holocene), the sea level was between 100 and 150 metres below the present mean sea level. Such a retreat of the sea in the Ice Age meant that both the Gulf of Kutch and the Gulf of Cambay became stretches of dry land; Sri Lanka was joined to South India by a broad belt of land around Adam’s Bridge; and the north, middle and south Andaman Islands formed a single island.

Given the current debate on global warming, when the reverse is estimated to occur with the submerging of large tracts of land mass, the above scientific evidence should not come as a surprise. However, seeking to communalise every issue for political benefit, the BJP takes recourse to faith to authenticate mythology as history.

Faith is a matter of individual choice. A right that a democratic system will assiduously protect. What we are discussing here are not matters of faith. These are matters of historical inquiry and reality. By protecting the right of the individual choice of faith, the Indian Constitution also seeks to encourage scientific inquiry and spirit. These cannot and should not be counterpoised.

In this very spirit, consider the following interpretation of the mythological Das Avataras. We are told in the Mahabharata that in every yuga (epoch), God descends on Earth to uphold dharma and to cleanse it. At the end of the present yuga, God is supposed to appear in the form of the tenth avatar, Kalki.

The first avatar is in the form of a fish. Science has now confirmed that the first life forms evolved underwater. The second is the tortoise, an amphibious creature capable of living both on land and in water. The third is the boar, able to live only on land. The transition of life from underwater to land marks this stage. Next in line is the Narasimha avatar reflecting the transition from the animal to the human form. This is followed by the Vaman avatar, representing the evolution of the human form in its dwarf size. This is followed by Parasuram, who wields the axe as his weapon. This represents the stage of the clearing of forests for human settlement. Rama who follows wields the bow and arrow as his weapon, i.e. a weapon that can protect human settlements by attacking the enemy from a distance.

Balaram, who comes next, wields the plough. This is the stage of evolution of human civilisation to the levels of an agrarian economy. Krishna represents the further advance of human civilisation in the stage of domestication of the cow and the development of the dairy economy. Farther down the line, Kalki, who is yet to arrive, is portrayed as riding a horse representing the stage of the domestication of the horse.

The Das Avataras can, thus, be seen as a remarkable recording of the evolution of human life and its civilisational advance till the Aryans mastered the horse and majestically moved across lands.

Thus, without entering into any disputes on matters of faith, this remarkable materialist interpretation of the Das Avataras, surely, merits attention. Faith, in its final form, is the pursuit of truth and acquiring the ability to recognise the truth. Chinese civilisational wisdom, as equally old and ancient as ours, tells us to let a hundred flowers bloom, a thousand thoughts contend, so that finally we can seek truth from the facts. While truth is a fact, all facts are not whole truths. This is the difference between philosophy and theology.

Faith must encourage the adventure of ideas and promote scientific inquiry and not reduce itself to fanning communal passions for petty political and electoral benefits.

Sitaram Yechury is a Rajya Sabha MP and Member, CPI(M) Politburo.