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‘Pancha mahabhoota’, ‘desi’ space tourism – how ancient wisdom met modern science at Akash Tattva

Akash Tattva, which opened in Dehradun Saturday, will be followed by conferences focussing on other four elements, Vaayu (air), Jal (water), Prithvi (earth) and Agni (fire).

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Dehradun: Calls of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and an occasional “Jai Shri Ram” erupt from the audience while scientists are busy discussing the latest breakthroughs in research related to ‘Akash’ (the sky). Among these was the idea for a space tourism experience with an ‘Indian touch’ and the study of a cave in Tamil Nadu that could help predict weather patterns.

First in a series of ‘pancha mahabhoota’ conferences planned this year as part of the ‘Sumangalam’ campaign, the ‘Akash TattvaAkash for Life’ conference opened in Dehradun Saturday and will continue till 7 November.

The event, where scientists and politicians are sharing a stage, was conceptualised by Vijnana Bharati (Vibha) – that describes itself as a “swadeshi science movement” – and organised in conjunction with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and various departments of the science ministry. The idea behind the series of conferences is to find solutions to problems like global warming through an “Indian perspective”.

With the aim of exploring the point of view of Indian traditional knowledge systems, five national conferences will be held across the country focussing on the ‘pancha mahabhoota’ or five elements, namely Akash (sky), Vaayu (air), Jal (water), Prithvi (earth) and Agni (fire). 

Part of the event in Dehradun is an exhibition where scientists from across India are putting forth and discussing their work. While an ISRO exhibit highlighted its past and future projects, one by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) showcased its work during the Covid pandemic, and another by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) shed light on how radiation can help protect farm produce from decaying.

The Karnataka Chapter of non profit India March for Science (IMFS) had in a statement last month hit out at organisers of the conference for promoting aspects of ancient science as modern science.

“Today, science is an international activity. Though we are all proud of our ancestors and their contributions to overall human development, there is nothing to be gained by projecting their teachings as totally equivalent to science. We reject the concept of Pancha Bhootas — the sky, earth, water are not elements. Such concepts have been deleted from science books a long time back,” read the statement.

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‘Bringing past together with modern sciences’

Dubbing it the first conference of its kind, Union minister Jitendra Singh said in his address that he was skeptical at first about how scientists would perceive the idea. “The challenge for us was how to reach out to our friends in the scientific community with this proposal,” he said.

Adding, “I knew that as soon as I put across this idea, they (scientists) will think that this will be a lecture series promoting superstitions. But I am glad that this gave them a cue to think in a different manner.”

Singh said he discussed with Principal Scientific Advisor Dr A.K. Sood how they would have to “walk a very tight-rope” to make the conference a success. 

“Yesterday’s fairytales have become a reality today. And that is what we mean to achieve by bringing our past together with the modern sciences,” Singh said. He went on to add that Indians gave up developing our traditional knowledge or understanding of indigenous resources while chasing technologies and materials that were developed by foreigners. 

“Without getting swayed by fanciful stories and romanticism of the past, how can we best extract traditional knowledge for relevance of modern science, that is the crux of the ‘pancha mahabhoota’ series,” he explained. 

‘Saints of yesterday, scientists of today’

During his address, Singh credited the conceptualization of the conference series to Suresh ‘Bhaiyyaji’ Joshi, former general secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who was also present at the inauguration.

Indians have been following the “wrong path” for over the last seven decades, Joshi said, emphasising the need for course correction. Equating revered saints and gurus with the scientists of today, he added these are the people who keep our knowledge systems alive. 

ISRO chairman S. Somanath in his address said that there was initial skepticism within the scientific community about how the two thought processes could be brought together. The conference is showcasing how the past can be connected to modern technology, he added.

Indians have been leading a sustainable form of life since centuries, long before such concepts became global keywords, noted Principal Scientific Advisor Dr A.K. Sood.

“Although we ourselves contribute very little to the carbon footprint as compared to developed countries, the challenge of sustainability is now a global fight that we need to take up,” he said. Sood added that understanding how the five ‘tattvas’ (elements) impact our everyday lives would be key to achieving sustainability. 

Other scientists alluded to ‘ancient knowledge’ while maintaining the spirit of evidence-based scientific research in keeping with the overall theme of the conference.

In his presentation on “Earth’s climate system and effects on Indian monsoon”, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Madras, director Dr R. Krishnan talked about how studying rocks in Tamil Nadu’s Kadapa caves enabled the institute’s researchers to reconstruct the Indian monsoon from over 3,200 years ago. This historical data, once analysed, becomes a valuable asset in predicting future weather patterns.

Aakash Porwal, founder of Mumbai-based startup ‘Space Aura’ — which aims to launch space tourism for Indians by 2025 — told ThePrint on the sidelines of the event that the experience would be a unique fusion of space travel and Indian culture. Space tourists’ one-hour stay in the stratosphere will be enhanced by ancient chants, hymns, and ayurvedic aromas, he said. 

Sneh Bajpai, a researcher at the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Faridabad, said she hoped to meet scientists and officials part of ISRO’s Gaganyaan programme since she is working on a research project that can help study the difference in metabolites before and after space travel. 

A prominent physicist, who did not wish to be named, said despite the initial skepticism, he found that the conference maintained a scientific tone, with very eminent scientists presenting their works on the first day.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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