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A Very Brief History of Indian Science

A Very Brief History of Indian Science

The annual Indian Science Congress, which simply concluded, had its ordinary share of controversies about historical past of Indian science and I’ve been requested to weigh in. It so seems that I did exactly that in a quick account titled “Science” for Stanley Wolpert’s Encyclopedia of India(2005) and since that’s freely out there on-line, I shall be extra selective of themes on this revision of the earlier essay. This account doesn’t embrace the fashionable interval for which many wonderful histories exist.

Indian archaeology and literature present appreciable layered proof associated to the event of science. The chronological time-frame for this historical past is offered by the archaeological report that has been traced, in an unbroken custom, to about 8000 BCE. Previous to this date, there are data of rock work which are significantly older. The earliest textual supply is the Ṛgveda, which is a compilation of very historic materials. The astronomical references within the Vedic books recall occasions of the third or the fourth millennium BCE and earlier. The invention that Sarasvati, the preeminent river of the Ṛgvedic occasions, went dry round 1900 BCE, if not earlier, means that parts of the Ṛgveda could also be dated previous to this epoch.

The third millennium urbanization is characterised by a really exact system of weights and monumental structure utilizing cardinal instructions. Indian writing (the so-called Indus script) goes again to the start of the third millennium BCE, nevertheless it has not but been deciphered. Nevertheless, statistical evaluation exhibits that the later historic script referred to as Brahmi advanced from this writing.

Legal guidelines and cosmology

The Vedic texts assert that the universe is ruled by ṛta (legal guidelines) and that consciousness transcends materiality. The universe is taken to be infinite in measurement and infinitely previous. By the point of the Purāṇas, different worlds have been postulated past our photo voltaic system.

It’s asserted that language (as a proper system) can’t describe actuality utterly and linguistic descriptions endure from paradox. Due to this limitation, actuality can solely be skilled and by no means described absolutely. Information was categorised in two methods: the decrease or twin अपरा; and the upper or unified परा. The seemingly irreconcilable worlds of the fabric and the acutely aware have been taken as elements of the identical transcendental actuality.

The texts current a tripartite and recursive view of the world. The three areas of earth, area, and sky are mirrored within the human being within the bodily physique, the breath (prāṇa), and thoughts. The processes within the sky, on earth, and inside the thoughts are assumed to be related. This connection is a consequence of a binding (bandhu) between numerous internal and outer phenomena and it’s due to this binding that it’s attainable to know the world.

The connection between the outer and the internal cosmos is seen most strikingly in using the quantity 108 in Indian spiritual and inventive expression. It was recognized that this quantity is the approximate distance from Earth to the solar and the moon, in solar and moon diameters, respectively. This quantity was in all probability obtained by taking a pole of a sure peak to a distance 108 occasions its peak and discovering that the angular measurement of the pole was the identical as that of the solar or the moon. It’s a curious proven fact that the diameter of the solar can also be roughly 108 occasions the diameter of Earth.

This variety of dance poses (karaṇas) given within the Nāṭya Śāstra is 108, as is the variety of beads in a japamālā. The space between the physique and the internal solar can also be taken to be 108, and thus there are 108 names of the gods and goddesses. The variety of marmas (weak factors) in Āyurveda is 107, as a result of in a sequence 108 models lengthy, the variety of weak factors can be one much less.

Historic Indian views of the universe are extra delicate than the corresponding Western views.

Bodily legal guidelines and movement

The historical past of Indian physics goes again to Kaṇāda (कणाद) (~ 600 BCE) who asserted that each one that’s knowable is predicated on movement, thus giving centrality to evaluation within the understanding of the universe.

Kaṇāda asserted that there are 9 courses of drugs: ether, area, and time, that are steady, and 4 sorts of atoms two of which have mass and two are massless. He additionally made a distinction between thoughts and the self, or consciousness. The acutely aware topic is separate from materials actuality however is, however, capable of direct its evolution. Kaṇāda introduced legal guidelines of movement and in addition spoke of invariants. He noticed the atom to be spherical because it ought to seem the identical from all instructions.

The atoms mixed to type totally different sorts of molecules that break up beneath the affect of warmth. The molecules come to have totally different properties based mostly on the affect of varied potentials.

Indian chemistry developed many various alkalis, acids, and metallic salts by processes of calcination and distillation, typically motivated by the necessity to formulate medicines. Metallurgists developed environment friendly methods of extraction of metals from ore.


We all know fairly a bit about how astronomical science advanced in India. The Yajurvedic sage Yājñavalkya knew of a ninety-five-year cycle to harmonize the motions of the solar and the moon, and he additionally knew that the solar’s circuit was uneven. The second millennium BCE textual content Vedāṅga Jyotiṣa of Lagadha went past the sooner calendrical astronomy to develop a principle for the imply motions of the solar and the moon. An epicycle concept was used to elucidate planetary motions. Given the totally different durations of the planets, it turned essential to assume but longer durations to harmonize their cycles. This led to the notion of mahāyugas and kalpas with durations of billions of years.

The improvements of the division of the circle into 360 elements and the zodiac into 27 nakṣatras and 12 rāśis passed off first in India. The schoolbook accounts of how these improvements first emerged in Mesopotamia within the seventh century BCE after which arrived in India centuries later are incorrect.

The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa which was compiled quickly after the Vedas says: “The solar strings these worlds [the earth, the planets, the atmosphere] to himself on a thread. This thread is identical because the wind…” This means a central position to the solar in defining the motions of the planets and concepts resembling these should have finally led to the idea of increasing and shrinking epicycles.

Astronomical texts referred to as siddhāntas start showing someday within the first millennium BCE. Based on the custom there have been eighteen early siddhāntas, of which just a few have survived. Every siddhānta is an astronomical system with its personal constants. The Sūrya Siddhānta speaks of the movement of planets ruled by “cords of air” that bind them, which is a conception like that of the sector.

The good astronomers and mathematicians embrace Āryabhaṭa (b. 476), who took Earth to spin by itself axis and who spoke of the relativity of movement and offered outer planet orbits with respect to the solar. This work and that of Brahmagupta (b. 598) and Bhāskara (b. 1114) was handed on to Europe by way of the Arabs. The Kerala Faculty with figures corresponding to Mādhava (c. 1340–1425) and Nīlakaṇṭha (c. 1444–1545) got here up with new improvements of study based mostly on superior arithmetic.

Evolution of Life

The Sāṅkhya system speaks of evolution each on the ranges of the person in addition to the cosmos. The Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas have materials on creation and the rise of humankind. It’s stated that man arose on the finish of a sequence that started with crops and numerous sort of animals. In Vedic evolution the urge to evolve into greater varieties is taken to be inherent in nature. A system of an evolution from inanimate to progressively larger life is assumed to be a consequence of the totally different proportions of the three primary attributes of the guṇas (qualities): sattva (“fact” or “transparence”), rajas (exercise), and tamas (“darkness” or “inertia”). In its undeveloped state, cosmic matter has these qualities in equilibrium. Because the world evolves, one or the opposite of those turns into preponderant in several objects or beings, giving particular character to every.

Geometry and arithmetic

Indian geometry started very early within the Vedic interval in altar issues, as within the one the place the round altar is to be made equal in space to a sq. altar. The historian of arithmetic, Abraham Seidenberg, noticed the start of geometry and arithmetic within the answer of such issues. Two points of the “Pythagoras” theorem are described within the texts by Baudhāyana and others. Issues are sometimes introduced with their algebraic counterparts. The answer to planetary issues additionally led to the event of algebraic strategies.

Binary numbers have been recognized on the time of Piṅgala’s Chandaḥśāstra. Piṅgala, who may need lived as early as fourth century BCE used binary numbers to categorise Vedic meters. The information of binary numbers signifies a deep understanding of arithmetic.

The signal for zero inside the place worth decimal quantity system that was to revolutionize arithmetic and facilitate improvement of know-how seems to have been devised round 50 BCE to 50 CE. Indian numerals have been launched to Europe by Fibonacci (13th century) who’s now recognized for a sequence that was described earlier by Virahaṅka (between 600 and 800), Gopāla (previous to 1135) and Hemacandra (~1150 CE). Nāryāna Paṇḍit (14th century) confirmed that these numbers have been a particular case of the multinomial coefficients.

Bharata’s Nāṭya Śāstra has outcomes on combinatorics and discrete arithmetic, and Āryabhaṭa has materials on arithmetic together with strategies to unravel numerical issues successfully. Later supply supplies embrace the works of Brahmagupta, Lalla (eighth century), Mahāvīra (ninth century), Jayadeva, Śrīpati (eleventh century), Bhāskara, and Mādhava. Particularly, Mādhava’s derivation and use of infinite collection predated comparable improvement in Europe, which is generally seen as the start of recent calculus. Some students consider these concepts have been carried by Jesuits from India to Europe they usually ultimately set in movement the Scientific Revolution.

A noteworthy contribution was by the varsity of New Logic (Navya Nyāya) of Bengal and Bihar. At its zenith through the time of Raghunātha (1475–1550), this faculty developed a strategy for a exact semantic evaluation of language. Navya Nyāya foreshadowed mathematical logic and there’s proof that it influenced trendy machine concept.


Pāṇini’s grammar Aṣṭādhyāyī (Eight chapters) of the fifth century BCE supplies 4 thousand guidelines that describe Sanskrit utterly. This grammar is acknowledged to be one of many biggest mental achievements of all time. The good number of language mirrors, in some ways, the complexity of nature and, subsequently, success in describing a language is as spectacular as an entire principle of physics. Students have proven that the grammar of Pāṇini represents a common grammatical and computing system. From this attitude, it anticipates the logical framework of recent computer systems.


Āyurveda, the Indian drugs system, is a holistic strategy to well being that builds upon the tripartite Vedic strategy to the world. Well being is maintained by means of a stability between three primary humors (doṣa) of wind (vāta), hearth (pitta), and water (kapha). Every of those humors had 5 varieties. Though actually which means “air,” “bile,” and “phlegm,” the doṣas represented bigger rules. Its division of states into three classes fairly than two is extra environment friendly than the binary division of different drugs methods.

Caraka and Suśruta are two well-known early physicians. In line with Caraka, well being and illness aren’t predetermined, and life could also be extended by human effort. Suśruta defines the aim of drugs to remedy the illnesses of the sick, to guard the wholesome, and to delay life. The Saṃhitās converse of organisms that flow into within the blood, mucus, and phlegm. Particularly, the organisms within the blood that trigger illness are stated to be invisible. It’s recommended that bodily contact and sharing the identical air may cause such illnesses to unfold. Inoculation was practiced for cover towards smallpox.

Indian surgical procedure was fairly superior. The caesarian part was recognized, as was cosmetic surgery, and bone setting reached a excessive diploma of talent. Suśruta categorised surgical operations into eight classes: incision, excision, scarification, puncturing, probing, extraction, evacuation and drainage, and suturing. Suśruta lists 101 blunt and 20 sharp devices that have been utilized in surgical procedure. The medical system tells us a lot concerning the Indian strategy to science. There was emphasis on statement and experimentation.

Thoughts and consciousness

Indian texts present a particularly delicate narrative on the character of consciousness. Vedic deities symbolize cognitive facilities. It’s asserted that parā-vidyā or ātma-vidyā can’t be described in language. Consciousness stays perpetually past phrases or designs which is why within the Śrī-yantra which is a illustration of the cosmos, consciousness (Śiva) is proven as an infinitesimal dot within the center.

The interplay between matter and consciousness is postulated when it comes to the remark course of in a view that known as dṛṣṭi-sṛṣṭi (creation via remark). This view doesn’t intrude with the method of evolution by regulation. Within the orthodox interpretation of quantum principle, consciousness is a separate class in a fashion is sort of in keeping with Vedanta.

Trendy scientific topics like physics, pc science, and neuroscience have been unable to elucidate the phenomenon of consciousness. Philosophy can’t reconcile our sense of freedom and company with the framework of machine-like legal guidelines. In bodily principle there isn’t any place for the observer, pc science can’t clarify how consciousness arises within the mind machine, and neuroscience has not discovered any neural correlate of consciousness.

On the similar time, the very affiliation of data with bodily techniques as is completed utilizing entropy implies postulation of consciousness. So using the reductionist technique within the evaluation of consciousness has hit a wall.

Indian texts assert that the phenomenon of consciousness can’t be studied instantly as a cloth property. Their evaluation of consciousness utilizing oblique strategies might very properly be related for additional progress of this query in modern science.


Concluding, India’s civilization valued science and information above all and a number of the most extraordinary scientific advances befell there. These embrace the earliest astronomy, geometry, quantity concept, the Indian numeral system, the thought of bodily legal guidelines and invariance, the earliest formal system to explain a posh pure phenomenon (as in Pāṇini’s pc program-like grammar that was not rivaled for two,500 years), a really delicate Yoga psychology, and the thought of immunization in drugs.

This creativity didn’t finish with the traditional interval. For India’s persevering with relevance on the planet of science, see The Indian foundations of recent science

This text first appeared right here and has been republished with permission from the writer

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Subhash Kak is an Indian American pc scientist notable for his Indological publications on the historical past of science, the philosophy of science, historic astronomy, and the historical past of arithmetic.