Through a lens closely

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah @fadesingh | Updated on August 22, 2014 Published on May 02, 2014

Blown up: Hindoo Devotees of the Gosammee and Jetty Tribes, a drawing by James Forbes in the late 1700s.   -  Wikicommons

Blown up: Robert Hooke's microscope in 1665   -  Wikicommons

Blown up: Hooke's drawing of a flea in his Micrographia.   -  Wikicommons

The arrival of the microscope in the subcontinent challenged long-cherished views about the Hindu cosmos and the human body

Encounters of the microscope with native Indians during the arrival of British science were fundamental in shaping colonial history, perhaps more culturally significant than the telescope — its scientific twin. Because disease breeds fear, medical science can be a form of political power over the human body.

It is hard to say when the first microscope landed on the shores of India, or whether it came via British, French or Dutch sources. In the late 1700s, the artist James Forbes mentions an anecdote, which became a staple of orientalist lore about the Hindu reaction to Western science. The memoir, written in 1765-84, relates “the story of an English gentleman, extremely fond of natural and experimental philosophy, being intimate with a liberal-minded Brahmin, who had been educated at Benares, or some other celebrated college; they generally passed the morning together in the pleasing walks of science. The Brahmin read English books, searched into the Encyclopaedia, and profited by the best philosophical instruments. The gentleman, on receiving a valuable solar microscope as a present from Europe, showed it with rapture to his Hindoo friend; and… discovered to him the innumerable animalculae devoured by the Brahmins on every fruit and vegetable they eat…”

Aghast at the realisation, the pious Brahmin, “grasping the instrument, descended with a quicker motion than is customary with his caste into the garden; where, seizing a large stone, he laid the microscope upon the lowest step of the veranda, and instantaneously smashed it to pieces before his astonished friend could prevent him.”

Later the Brahmin explained that his actions were merely in the interest of his fellow countrymen, “I am a solitary individual among 50 million people all educated in the same belief with myself! All happy in their ignorance! So may they ever remain!” Forbes later used this anecdote — fact or fabrication, one does not know — to advocate the conversion of Hindus to Christianity.

According to a report found in the Asiatic Journal, as late as 1839 the humble microscope continued to cause “... astonishment, especially among the native gentlemen who were present. The Hindoos, who are afraid to take away life, drink water without hesitation; but by this microscope it is discovered that in every handful of water which is drunk, hundreds of living creatures are constantly put to death.”

The arrival of the microscope in the sub-continent thus challenged some long-held views about the Hindu cosmos and the human body. One of the major themes of this confrontation was smallpox in India, of which a famous account comes to us via the company surgeon John Holwell, who describes an indigenous practice of inoculation in Bengal conducted by Brahmins who “...lay it down as a principle, that the immediate cause of the smallpox exists in the mortal part of every human and animal form, that the mediate (or second) acting cause, which stirs up the first, and throws it into a state of fermentation, is multitudes of imperceptible animalculae floating in the atmosphere; that these are the cause of all epidemical diseases, but more particularly of the smallpox; that they return at particular seasons in greater or lesser numbers; that these bodies, imperceptible as they are to the human organs of vision, imprison the most malignant tribes of the fallen angelic spirits. That these animalculae touch and adhere to every thing, in greater or lesser proportions, according to the nature of the surfaces which they encounter; that they pass and repass in and out of bodies of all animals in the act of respiration, without injury to themselves…” (Holwell, 1767)

This account is in contradiction with Forbes, whose story was meant to illustrate the Brahmin ignorance of microbial life forms. On the other hand, Holwell seems to suggest a familiarity with the notion of microbes. Traditionally, smallpox was treated as a manifestation of the Goddess Sitala’s anger, but treated nonetheless. It became necessary for later epidemic management programmes by the Empire to assimilate such local beliefs into their own propaganda for vaccination. As a result, the complex relationship of Hindu beliefs and Western science kept changing through the 18th century.

If the Hindu scriptures were interpreted as saying that plants have life, then the Brahmin’s diet was already in contradiction with his dharma. Debatable as that may be, was it then a sin to harvest silk from silkworms, and wool from sheep?

This question is important because the clash of Western science and Hindu beliefs slowly simmered for over a century. The British government’s enforced scheme for containing smallpox involved a vaccine developed by Edward Jenner from cows, and faced very strong resistance in its adoption by the natives. And it finally exploded with the Mutiny of 1857, sparked by the sepoys’ suspicion that cartridges of the Enfield rifle were being greased with the fat of cows and pigs.

Hylozoism — the idea that all matter is in some sense alive — was prevalent in many ancient cultures, and was directly opposed to the emerging mechanistic view of nature in the 17-18th centuries. Especially so during the British Raj, which coincided with the ‘scientific revolution’ in Europe (as loose as that term might be). Even today Jaina monks of certain sects can be seen walking around barefoot with mouths covered by cloth to prevent themselves from killing airborne microorganisms.

( Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; >@fadesingh)

Published on May 02, 2014

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