Indian foundations of Modern Science

    In the complex encounter between the West and Indi, the political elites in the West for a variety of reasons have been willing to concede religiosity and some philosophy to India but not science, which they take to be a purely European invention, the beginnings of which are to be traced back to Greece. The reality is quite different and if Indians themselves are not aware of the history of their science that is because their school and college curricula are hopelessly out of date.

    Textbooks only speak of the Geometry of the Vedic altars, the invention of zero Yoga psychology, and Indian technology of steel-making that went into the manufacture of swords. But if you take the trouble of reading scholarly books, articles and encyclopaedias, you will find that early Indian contributions to Science are more impressive than that of Greece (or Europe) for they include a deep theory of mind, logic, Panini’s astonishing Sanskrit grammar with its computer-programme like structure, binary numbers of  Pinagala, music theory, combinatorics, algebra, earliest astronomy, and the Physics of Kanada with its laws of motion and four atoms, two with mass and two without.

    To speak of modern science, the delivery of infinite series and calculus by Newton and Leibniz heralded the Scientific Revolution that was to change the world. But new research has shown that over two centuries prior the Kerala School of Mathematics had already developed Calculus and some historians suggest that this and advanced astronomical knowledge from Kerala went abroad via the Jesuits and provided the spark for its further development in Europe.

    Ayurveda texts include the notion of germs and inoculation and also postulate mind-body connection, which has become an important area of contemporary research. Indian medicine was strongly empirical; it used Nature (which is governed by Rta) as guide and it was informed by a sense of scepticism. In the West the notion of scepticism is usually credited to the Scottish philosopher of science, David Hume, but scholars have been puzzled by the commonality between his ideas and the earlier Indian ones. Recently, it was shown that Hume almost certainly learnt Indian ideas from Jesuits when he was at the Royal College of La Flèche in France.

    There are also indirect ways that Indian ideas led to scientific advance. Mendeleev was inspired by the two dimensional structure of the Sanskrit alphabet to propose a similar two-dimensional structure of chemical elements. A Vedantic vision guided Jagadish Chandra Bose in his path-breaking discoveries in a variety of fields. Bose is considered the true father of radio science. He also discovered millimetre length electromagnetic waves and was a pioneer in the fields of semiconductor electronics and biophysics.

    Digital computer theory is normally traced to the mathematical logic of George Boole, Charles Babbage and Augustus de Morgan in the UK to the middle of the 19th century. But Boole’s wife Mary, who was a well-known science writer in her own right, hinted that their work was based on Navya Nyaya which Mary’s uncle George Everest, a longtime Surveyor General of India, had learnt from local scholars.

    Erwin Schrödinger, a founder of quantum theory, credited ideas in the Upanishads for the key notion of superposition that was to bring about the quantum revolution in Physics that established new foundations for Chemistry, Biology and Electronics Technology and the new world of computer hardware.

    The emerging Science of Consciousness represents the frontier of knowledge whether you look at it from the viewpoints of Neuroscience, Physics, Computer Science or Epistemology. This is the very heart of the Vedic Atmavidya, and it is most likely that it will facilitate further progress in these fields and consequently change the world society in ways that be scarcely imagined.

    (Speech delivered at 10th Chamanlal Ji Memorial Lecture recently)


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