Indian Contributions to Science

Based on an early draft I wrote for an article on wikipedia

The Indian way of life provides the vision of the natural, real way of life. We veil ourselves with unnatural masks. On the face of India are the tender expressions which carry the mark of the Creator’s hand.

George Bernard Shaw, Famous British Author

India – this was how the Greeks referred to people on the other side of the Indus (Sindhu). This civilization that the Greeks were referring had seen the light of day, and had made great strides in Science and Technology, long before the Greeks and Romans came by.

The so-called Indus Valley Civilization situated suitably, with a lot of resources, was a lesson in city planning and sanitation. One of the first examples of closed ‘gutters’, public baths, granaries etc. are seen here.

The ancient Indian texts – Vedas, Upanishads, and various other treatises (Siddhantas) are replete with definitions, derivaitons etc. For eg. one of the books, the “Pancha-siddhantika” talks about the calculation of eclipses. The ancient Indian culture has always been diverse in its choice of spices, condiments, ornamental items, and hence India was the origin of palm and coconut oil, indigo and other vegetable dyes and pigments like cinnabar. Many of the dyes were used in art and sculpture which surivive even today. Perfumes and their variety in Indian history demonstrate a deep knowledge and application in chemistry, particularly in distillation and purification processes.

The Greek historian Ktesias who lived in the 4th century B.C. has observed that “Among the Indians are found certain insects about the size of beetles and of a colour so red that at first sight one might mistake them for cinnabar. Their legs are of extraordinary length and soft to the touch. They grow upon trees which produce amber, and subsist upon their fruit. The Indians collect them for the sake of the purple dye, which they yield when crushed. This dye is used for tinting with purple not only their outer and under-garments, but also any other substance where a purple hue is required. Robes tinted with this purple are sent to the Persian King, for Indian purple is thought by the Persians be marvellously beautiful and far superior to their own.” Ktesias also says that the Indian dye is deeper and more brilliant than the renowned Lydian Purple.

The Sandalwood tree is native to India. Sandalwood has been a known item of export from India since ancient times.

The earliest recorded use of copperware in India has been around 3000 B.C.

The Hindus excel in the manufacture of iron. They have also workshops wherein are forged the most famous sabres in the world. It is impossible to find anything to surpass the edge that you get from Indian Steel“. This passage which has been quoted in the notes to the Periplus on page 71 proves beyond doubt, in the words of a foreign historian, that the art of smelting and casting iron was well developed in ancient India.

Shipping was another active area, and there were treatises and manual on shipbuilding widely available around the 5th century AD itself. There are also references to ships in the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, indicating shipping knowledge earlier than 2000 BC.

A panel found at Mohenjodaro, depicting a sailing craft. Vessels were of many types. Their construction is vividly described in the Yukti Kalpa Taru, an ancient Indian text on Ship-building. Sanskrit and Pali literature has innumerable references to the maritime activity of Indians in ancient times. There is also one treatise in Sanskrit, named Yukti Kalpa Taru which has been compiled by a person called Bhoja Narapati. (The Yukti Kalpa Taru (YKT) had been translated and published by Prof. Aufrecht in his ‘Catalogue of Sanskrit Manu scripts. An excellent study of the YKT had been undertaken by Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji entitled ‘Indian Shipping’. Published by Orient Longman, Bombay in 1912.)

The excavations of the ruins at Mohenjodaro and Harrappa (today in Pakistan) proved the existence of a developed Urban civilisation in India. The indus valley civilization is dated around 3000 B.C. Thus since the last 5000 years. India has had an urban civilisation. The existence of an urban civilization presumes the existence of well devel oped techniques of architecture and construction. Indian construction and architecture has been the most dynamic of technologies. The original contribution in this field was by the Indians to have a separate science with principles, laws and plans for every type of building. This science called as ‘Vaastu Shastra‘ offered details and plans based on very scientific principles like Strength of Materials, ideal height of construction, presence of adequate sources of water, light hence preserving hygiene. It is one of the first building science to be so all-inclusive. Later on, Indian rulers adopted anything that appealed to them, and incorporated this in our buildings. Hence we see many historical monuments in India with strong Greek, Scythian, Mongol and of course, Islamic influences. Having incorportated these aspects from other cultures, the output is something unique, and seen nowhere else in the world.

In India, mathematics has its roots in Vedic literature which is nearly 4000 years old. Between 1000 B.C. and 1000 A.D. various treatises on mathematics were authored by Indian mathematicians in which were set forth for the first time, the concept of zero, the techniques of algebra and algorithm, square root and cube root. Vedic Mathematics, as it is referred to today, is a separate field of study and courses are offered even in foreign universities.

It was from this translation of an Indian text on Mathematics that the Arab mathematicians perfected the decimal system and gave the world its current system of enumeration which we call the Hindu-Arabic numerals. The concept of ‘Zero‘ seems to have been a contribution of ancient Indian thought. Every ancient Indian language has multiple words to refer to this concept of ‘Void’ or ‘nothing’ – ‘Shunya’ in Sanskrit. In Brahma-Phuta-Siddhanta of Brahmagupta (7th century), the Zero is lucidly explained and was rendered into Arabic books around 770 AD. From these it was carried to Europe in the 8th century. However, the concept of Zero is referred to as Shunya in the early Sanskrit texts of the 4th century BC and clearly explained in Pingala’s Sutra of the 2nd century. Mathematicians like Aryabhata, Bhaskara wrote works that still stand out for their originality, and timelessnes. Aryabhatta in 499 AD worked the value of Pi to the fourth decimal place as 3.1416. Centuries later, in 825 AD, Arab mathematician Mohammed Ibna Musa says that “This value has been given by the Hindus (Indians)”.

The Nalanda University, established somewhere in 700 BC once housed 9 million books.It was the center of education for scholars from all over Asia. Many Greek, Persian and Chinese students studied here under great scholors – Kautilya, Panini, Jivaka, Vishnu Sharma. THe vast complex that remains today stands testimony to the fact that a great centere of learning stood here, and it was probably one of the first examples of a University-based education system. The university was burnt down by pillaging invaders who overran India in the 11th century
India was the motherland of our race and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages. India was the mother of our philosophy, of much of our mathematics, of the ideals embodied in Christianity… of self-government and democracy. In many ways, Mother India is the mother of us all.”

Will Durant – American Historian 1885-1981


2 responses to “Indian Contributions to Science”

  1. gaurav shetty Avatar
    gaurav shetty

    vry nice way of presentation

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