In January 2019, during the Indian Science Congress, the chemist G. Nageshwar Rao made a peculiar statement. He claimed that stem cell research existed in India ‘thousands of years ago’. His proof – the birth of a hundred Kauravas in the epic Mahabharata. Other than the unfortunate vantage of this statement, these kinds of assertions create a problem for both scientists, historians, and philosophers – how do we determine the validity (or lack thereof) of such claims of inventive and scientific vigour of the past? Of course, you may look at the statement and the text it alludes to and conclude that it is outlandish. After all, the mythical elements in the text are far from a realistic description or the causal reasoning behind the claim at hand. And that would be a sound argument to a large extent, but I believe that it falls short of proving the invalidity of the claims.
Consider Sushruta Samhita, for example. An ancient Indian text that deals with various forms of surgery including Rhinoplasty, and other general principles of medical intervention. The text has a peculiar aspect. It has an empirical vigour in terms of its medical procedures but at the same time, it is marred with Hindu mythos about Karma, Vedic supremacy and even the sacred status of the cow. These two elements are intertwined together to form the text. The challenge then is – do we classify it in the same category as the mythical ‘stem cell research’ from Mahabharata, or does it provide enough empirical vigour to be classified as a scientific text? One answer is simply based on the observation that Sushruta Samhita provides a causal explanation for its claims about surgery. For example, it explains how rhinoplasty is done by reconstructing the nose using flesh from the cheek, which the ‘stem cell’ explanation from the Mahabharata lacks. But this answer might be insufficient.
While causal explanations are a cornerstone of scientific explanations, it is not necessarily the necessary or the sufficient condition. For example, we do not know the mechanism of how Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) – a major component of antidepressants – actually works (the mechanism of the drug has been elusive). But we know it works better than a placebo and has been an effective treatment for major depressive disorders. A similar argument can be made for the ancient system of Ayurveda – which uses herbs and other plant parts to treat ailments. To say that the claims of Ayurveda are completely unfounded would be wrong. After all, plants and herbs do have medicinal properties. The bark of the Cinchona tree has been used as a treatment for malaria. And aspirin finds its origins in the bark of a willow tree. While we do not know the mechanism behind the action of the medicine provided by Ayurveda, it will be hard to argue that at least in some cases the observation is based on pretty solid statistical evidence. Certainly, this is not to say that Ayurveda is completely accurate in its observations as it does not live up to the current scientific rigour, but to outrightly reject it might be wrong as not only it will be a rejection of probable forms of treatments, but also of indigenous practices that might have some merits and probable use for our modern medicine (we have to remember that the precursor to modern medicine – where new drugs are created in labs, has been the isolation and use of compounds that occur in nature) or even the simple distinction of it being an ancient science in its own right.
In essence, both Ayurveda and Sushruta Samhita can be seen as protosciences, i.e., they do espouse some of the characteristics that are seen in the current scientific method but fall short of the vigour that we currently demand of our sciences. Most protosciences can be seen as a precursor to current sciences. They do rely on observations and experimentations but are marred by their framework that is dependent on non-scientific explanations derived majorly from religious texts like the Vedas. The caveat here is that they never developed further to be classified as sciences. The onus of this fact lies on historical events pertaining to the stratification of Indian society. But that is a topic for another time. For now, it will suffice to say that to lump them together with the claims made by Dr Rao, for example, will be unjustified.
This brings us back to the problem of why the ‘stem cell’ claim of Dr Rao is different from Sushruta Samhita and the system of Ayurveda. My proposed answer to this question is based on the idea that Dr Rao’s statement is purely dependent on post hoc claims. Post hoc means making logical assumptions about an event after it has occurred. When Dr Rao describes the story of the birth of Kauravas from a pot as equivalent to stem cell research, what he is doing is a post hoc analysis of the myth at hand and justifying it by comparing it to a technology that has come into being in very recent times. The explanatory burden here lies on the ‘stem cell research’ and not on the incident in question itself (the birth of Kauravas).
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The explanation is post hoc because it has only come about after the existence of the explanatory component used here – stem cell. In the absence of this research, there is no way Dr Rao could have ever explained the story of the birth of Kauravas. What he is merely doing is to draw the logical equivalence to stem cell without offering any internal consistency from the Mahabharata. Let us consider it in length. The incidence in question is of Kaurava’s being born out of pieces of flesh put in 101 jars along with ghee. After two years of incubation, these pieces of flesh develop into human babies. Now if Dr Rao wishes to give us a credible explanation he needs to explain about how this event takes place – how hundred jars of ghee with flesh pieces in them turn into human babies? If one wants to give an internally consistent explanation will have to rely on the setup itself – about how the ghee and flesh turned into babies? But Dr Rao instead maps the explanation of stem cell into this event in hopes of explaining the incident in question. This is in contrast with Ayurveda, which provides internal consistency by the fact that it posits the imbalance between elements (earth, fire, water, air and ether) as causes of ailments.
This self-consistency might not live up to the scrutiny of our modern times but at least the proponents of this system strived to explain their observations and does not depend on our current scientific practices first devising an explanation that can be hijacked by the proponents of these systems. A better way to put this might be that Ayurveda and other forms of traditional explanations strive to explain their claims, even if based on Vedic metaphysics, based on observation and research, they do not rely on the advancements of allopathic medicine to explain their findings. Rather their whole focus is on being an alternative system to allopathic research. They follow the same methodology of administration and observation to the same ends (of medical intervention) but towards a different world view. On the other hand, the ‘stem cell’ claim in the Mahabharata, Internet existing in the same text, or airplanes existing in the Ramayana are all post hoc explanations for mythic texts that only come about when the inventions/explanations that they tend to hijack come into existence.
There is no explanation for the Internet in the Mahabharata without the Internet first existing. There is no explanation for Pushpak Viman before aeroplanes taking flights in our skies in reality. This indicates another problem with how post hoc explanations are used to justify religious beliefs. In essence, what Dr Rao does is not new and will not be the last instance of it. As and when new techniques in stem cell will be invented we will find people like Dr Rao claiming how this new technique explains the Birth of Kauravas in Mahabharata, i.e. instead of going back to the source and scrutinising it, post hoc explanations evolve with our technological advancements and a better understanding of science. It is probably the only field of study that gets better explained by no new research being conducted on it.