Hindu god Shiva with the Ganges flowing from his head.

Hindu god Shiva with the Ganges flowing from his head.

The Wellcome Library

Indian scientists denounce presentations at annual congress

For the second year running, the Indian Science Congress has drawn condemnation and scorn from prominent scientists.

The annual confab, held this year in Mysuru, India, featured plenty of legitimate science. But a few talks were simply beyond the pale, some researchers say. For example, on 5 January, some of the 12,500 attendees heard a lecture extolling the supposed health benefits of blowing a conch shell. Rajeev Sharma, a civil servant with a master’s degree in botany, delivered a deafening 2-minute conch blast to kick off his talk for a session on indigenous approaches to psychology. Sharma claimed that the conch—an article of religious and ritual importance in Hinduism—could cure psychosomatic ills. Blowing a conch daily, he elaborated, provides “excellent exercise” for the rectum, prostate, and diaphragm. The audience gasped when he claimed that the consequent surge in blood flow would turn “white hair to black.”

The next day, a paper was due to be presented on how the Hindu god Shiva was the “greatest environmentalist in the world.” The supposed evidence for such eco-friendly attributes were riding a rat, a peacock, and a mythic bull, and providing purified water of the Ganges River from his topknot. The paper’s author, Akhilesh Pandey, a botanist by training and the chairman of Madhya Pradesh Private University Regulatory Commission in Bhopal, India, failed to show up for the session after tripping in a stairwell and injuring his leg, according to the Hindustan Times newspaper. He defended his work, however, by telling the paper, “All the things in science we are talking about today” are found in ancient Indian texts.

Such presentations have caused senior Indian researchers to throw up their hands. Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a biologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, told The Times of India that an earlier congress was “a circus,” after which he vowed to “never attend a science congress again in my life.” Biologist P. M. Bhargava, founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, told the paper that the event had deteriorated over the years and was now “an absolute waste of money.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated this year’s conclave, sparked a controversy in 2014 after claiming that the god Ganesh’s elephant head was proof that cosmetic surgery existed in ancient times and was founded in India. And at last year’s congress, a retired pilot claimed that “jumbo planes” fitted with “ancient Indian radar systems” made in India achieved interplanetary travel 7000 years ago.

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