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Mr Mohan Bhagwat,RSS chief in his speech preceding Pranab Mukherjee’s in the RSS headquarters made a reference which seems very questionable but has attracted little notice.In quoting a Sanskrit subhashit, a saying, he virtually ridiculed intellectual debate.

Those who use learning for debate are wicked., he said. This was in keeping with the current dumbing down of knowledge and debate. But this kind of thinking ignores India’s ancient tradition of debate.

Moreover the Hindu zealots seem hardly aware that ancient system of Indian medicine Ayurveda could not have made progress without a spirit of debate and inquiry. This is well-documented. In fact, the main sources of ancient debate in India are in the evolution of Ayurveda. In ancient India, the only discipline that aspired to be fully secular and promised—though inevitably in a rather rudimentary form—the beginnings of natural science in the modern sense, was medicine or Ayurveda. It moreover represented the original nucleus from which could eventually branch off specialised sciences like botany and zoology, anatomy and physiology, meteorology and metallurgy, even physics and chemistry. Besides, for all that we know of ancient Indian culture, it was in the medical circle that a conscious attempt to settle the question of the methodology of natural science was first developed, points out Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, the eminent scholar of ancient India. The significance of this for the development of Indian logic is already discussed by S. N. Dasgupta

This whole importance of study, debate, research has now been sidetracked and zealots currently love to make fantastic claims about the advances of surgery or aeroplane technology in ancient India but forget that actually vested interests in that period treated the doctor with contempt because he came in contact with ordinary people and there are various injunctions against contact with doctors. This aspect again is well documented

It can always be argued that Mr Bhagwat did not mean to ridicule the concept of debate but the context made it all so clear. It is all right to suggest as his quotation does that the virtuous impart knowledge but then why condemn debate as the work of the wicked ?. And how is knowledge created, gathered ? Does it not require discussion, debate, argument, trial, experimentation ?

It is in the context of the current assault on reason and democracy that one misses Dr Hemu Adhikari who passed away in Mumbai on May 31 at the age of 81. He was known to the general public mainly as a theatre and film actor and most notably he is remembered for the role of the quiet Gandhian protester in the film Munnabhai. But there was far more to him. He was one of the foremost promoters of a scientific temper and progressive ideas. He was a senior scientist in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai. Being a scientist does not mean automatically one acquires a scientific tmper. In his autobiography published last year he gives several instances of irrationality among scientists. During the solar eclipse some BARC scientists would close their windows and remain indoors as the eclipse was considered inauspicious. And there were many fans among scientists who went and took darshan of Sathya Saibaba, they arranged his visit to BARC.

On the other hand class four employees in BARC showed a more rational outlook. Also being secular does not necessarily mean a person is automatically better and a believer does not automatically become irrational. Hemu wrote that he saw that when the Babri masjid was demolished some highly religious Hindus were disturbed.On the other hand irreligious people could behave irrationally when treating their wives like their servants. So, Adhikari had a very balanced view of life.

He also came from a politically progressive family. His father’s brother Dr Gangadhar Adhikari, was a founder of the Communist party of India and a scientist trained in Germany who had worked with Einstein. His mother lost her job a teacher in Dadar’s well known Bal Mohan school for being a Communist supporter along with three other teachers including the brother of the owner Dadasaheb Rege.

His theatre career spanned over five decades starting in 1953 and understandably one his most memorable performances was in the Marxist playwright poet Bertolt’s Brecht’s path-breaking play Life of Galileo , translated into Marathi by Rajeev Naik, a prominent theatre and literary critic.

Galileo’s theory was the mother of all revolutions that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around and he is a rebel with his scientific attitude against religious dogma. Being a remarkable actor, Adhikari could play with equal ease the character of the Cardinal who is initially sympathetic to Galileo but once he gains more power he becomes more hostile and irrational. Adhikari transformed himself into this role impressively , recalls Rajeev Naik who has also written an introduction to Adhikari’s book on his work in the field of theatre, science and social engineering.

Adhikari contributed substantially in providing inputs for Chandita Mukherjee’s television serial Bharat ki Chhap which surveyed the advances in science in India from ancient times. He and the likes of him had a correct understanding of ancient India and the epics like Mahabharata.So he was impressed by the poetry and wonderful imagination of the writers. But , he pointed out, it would be a serious error to presume that the darkness descended on the earth during the Mahabharata war could be ascribed to atomic dust and existence of nuclear technology.

So Adhikari had this unique advantage. He was well versed in acting in theatre and films, knew science from inside out and had a keen political understanding. He had a happy married life with his wife, two daughters and a son who is an accomplished scientist in Barcelona. His regret was at the social level, over the rising tide of fundamentalism.

He was also a thorough gentleman. His colleague and science writer Prakash Burte recalled that when his juniors submitted research papers he would never take credit for their work, would not allow them to put his name for the project.

In the current onslaught against reason and a scientific outlook, we need to create more people like Hemu Adhikari.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority

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