SCIENCES OF THE ANCIENT HINDUS: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation

In India’s long history dating back to thousands of years, there never had a conflict between religion and science. Our rishis always welcomed free and independent thinking and as a result many have probed deep into the mysteries of Life and Universe. In fact, 24 centuries before Issac Newton’s discovery, the Rig Veda proclaimed that gravitation held the universe together. The Vedic civilization asserted that the earth is spherical at a time when everyone else, even the Greeks, assumed the earth was flat. By the Fifth Century A.D., Indians had calculated that the age of the earth was 4.3 billion years; as late as the 19th Century, English scientists believed the earth was a hundred million years old, and it is only in the late 20th Century that Western scientists have come to estimate the earth to be about 4.6 billion years old.

Subsequent to the Vedic period, Aryabhata, in 499 A.D, discovered that the daily rotation of the earth on its axis is what accounted for the daily rising and setting of the sun. This happened a thousand years before Kepler, who came to the same conclusion.

The modern numerals, known to the world as “Arabic” numerals, were in fact invented by Indians. They were named as ‘Arabic’ because the West got them from the Arabs, who learned them from Indians! It was an Indian who first conceived of the zero, shunya; the concept of nothingness. Modern mathematics owes a great to the zero and the decimal system.  

Recently, in an article, eminent scholar and Congress Member of Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, Dr. Sashi Taroor wrote, “The Siddhantas are amongst the world’s earliest texts on astronomy and mathematics; the Surya Siddhanta, written about 400 A.D., includes a method for finding the times of planetary ascensions and eclipses. The notion of gravitation, or gurutvakarshan, is found in these early texts. Lost Discoveries, by the American writer Dick Teresi, a comprehensive study of the ancient non-Western foundations of modern science, spells it out clearly: “Two hundred years before Pythagoras,” writes Teresi, “philosophers in northern India had understood that gravitation held the solar system together, and that therefore the sun, the most massive object, had to be at its centre.” 

The list of ancient India’s contribution to science is endless. However, even after 68 years of Indian independence, educated Indians, by and large, are not aware of India’s glorious achievements in science. Recently at the behest of so-called left historians a resolution was passed unanimously at the Indian History Congress (IHC) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, describing the papers presented at the Indian Science Congress, as “historical distortions” promoted by the ruling party at the Centre and its associates! Several articles and debates that had appeared online and in the print and electronic media have revealed the ignorance of even the so-called scholars on India’s past scientific glory.

Why majority of educated Indians, by and large, are not aware of our own glorious heritage? “Most mainstream history books on classical India, such as D.N. Jha’s Ancient India or Romila Thapar’s Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 (2003), are almost completely silent on Indian scientific achievements,” recently wrote Sri Michael Danino, historian and author of several books on ancient India, who is currently a guest professor at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar.

If our history books did justice to genuine, well-documented and well-studied scientific and technological accomplishments, there would be no room left for the fantasisers.

In the same article in the Hindu, he wrote, “if our history books did justice to genuine, well-documented and well-studied scientific and technological accomplishments, there would be no room left for the fantasisers. And it is not just mathematics, astronomy or medicine that have been blanked out by mainstream Indian historiography: chemistry, metallurgy, agricultural and veterinary science, water management and irrigation techniques, textile manufacture and dyeing, construction and transport technologies, perfumery and cosmetics, numerous crafts, and a few intriguing technologies from ice- making to weather prediction and water divining, are all equally worthy of study. They are part of India’s considerable heritage of indigenous knowledge systems, beside an equally extensive intellectual field ranging from grammar, prosody, philosophy and logic to literature, plastic and performing arts.”

It is in this context that the book “Sciences of the Ancient Hindus: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation,” written by Dr. Alok Kumar, professor of physics at the State University of New York at Oswego, assumes significance. Dr. Kumar has received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the U.S. President’s Award for Creative and Scholarly Activity and Research. He has more than 65 refereed research publications and is active in the fields of atomic physics, chemical physics, history of science, and science education.

In his path breaking book, genuine achievements of Indian science have been projected. To the question, why he titled the book as science of the ancient Hindus, instead of Indians, Dr. Kumar, who was raised in a Hindu family of Haridwar said, “As a scientist, I have always focused on facts and truth. Therefore, I opted to stick to the term Hindu, since for about millennia, the people who produced the Vedas and the Upanishads were known by this popularized term in nearby regions. The term India only became popular in the last 250 years—a period not covered in my book.”

About the purpose of the book, he says that it is to demonstrate that the ancient Hindus made critically important fundamental contributions to the early development of mathematics and science, predating the Greeks by many centuries. The sciences of the ancient Hindus were an essential and integral part of their religion. The disciplines of astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, physics, yoga and medicine were all practiced to meet the needs of religion, as well as to fulfill natural curiosity. Unlike the members of some religions, Hindus have never had to make a choice between science and religion. Excerpts from an exclusive e-mail interview with Kerala based senior journalist Pradeep Krishnan:

1. Indian textbooks, school and college level, talk about Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Pythagorus, Galileo, etc, but they don’t tell you anything about Yajnavalkya, Panini, Pathanjali, Aryabhata, Varahamihira, etc.  Your comments?

Yes, it is an unfortunate situation. Most textbook authors in India have written texts that fit the western model and they are either ignorant or reluctant to include scientific contributions of India.  Hopefully, with the publication of my book, Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, future generations may change the situation and include ancient Indian contributions in textbooks.  In my opinion, most authors are well intentioned and do not know the Indian contributions to science.

2. Did Science as we understand it originate in the West? What are your views? 

The obvious answer is no.   Science is multicultural by nature.  Science does not belong to one particular culture or gender; it belongs to all who want to unfold the mysteries of nature.  Modern science certainly did not spring into a completely evolved form suddenly with the Renaissance in Europe.  Influences came from various parts of the world like streams from many different sources join to form a river.
 
The absence of Indian contributions in science textbooks is not unique to India; many other cultures are also absent in our science texts. I must admit that the situation is changing even in the West and, hopefully, we may see books recognizing Indian contributions in the near future.
 
Several historians of science have noticed this fact.  For example, Joseph Needham, a historian of science from UK, recognized the omissions of contributions of the non-Western cultures in the history of science.  He called these omissions “deeply unjust to other civilizations.  And unjust here means both untrue and unfriendly, two cardinal sins which mankind cannot commit with impunity.”

3. India had a glorious scientific past.  But what is the point in simply basking in past glory? How that is going to help us in the present fast changing technologically advanced world?

The history of science is not the history of events; it is the history of culture, intents, and a history of human minds. It tells us how various cultures recognized issues that they found crucial and resolved them. Such knowledge is important in dealing with the unknown future we deal with. Knowing what we were in the past helps us to understand what we are in the present, and who we will be in the future. If you don’t know your history, then you are like a limb that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. Further, all countries celebrate their great heroes, including the great scientific and mathematical minds of the past and present. Greece had Aristotle and Socrates, Italy had Galileo, England had Newton, and India had Kanada and Aryabhata, showing that the greatest minds of the ancient Hindus could be a match for the world’s best scientists and mathematicians.  Just imagine erasing the name of Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato from the current philosophy texts because it is an old past. Will it be just and fair?  The answer is no.  This is exactly the case when we ignore our own heroes in India unjustly.  In the context of teaching and learning, it is detrimental to the learning process. Celebration and recognition of our heroes in all disciplines serves as glue for a stable society.  For this reason, all societies document their own histories.  Most universities have a history department.  In the West, most students getting an undergraduate degree must take a few courses in history. 

4. Tell us about your book ‘Sciences of the ancient Hindus; unlocking nature in the pursuit of salvation.’  How did the academic community of the West view this remarkable work?

I was raised in a Hindu family in Haridwar, a holy city known for Ganga river.  I was told by my parents that the Hindu culture has a long and glorified intellectual tradition.  I tried to learn the details of this tradition in Indian and later in America. I soon realized that the modern Hindu accounts of the ancient world are meager and these accounts are mostly ignored by the West or simply labeled as biased or wrong.  This trend is definitely prevailing for about 250 years.  What about the period that ranges from the ancient period to the beginning of the British colonial period? 
 
I decided to collect the Greek, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and European accounts dealing with the ancient Hindus.  When I compiled the scientific achievements of the Hindus from the accounts of Aristotle, Arrian, Megasthenes, Clement of Alexandria, and Apollonius of Tyana among the Greeks; Al-Biruni, Al-Khwarizmi, Ibn Labban, al-Fazari, al-Masudi, and Al-Uqlidisi among the Islamic scholars; Fa-Hien, Hiuen Tsang, and I-tsing among the Chinese; Leonardo Fibbonacci, Pope Sylvester II, Roger Bacon, Voltaire and Copernicus from Europe, a much different picture emerged.  With further research, I found that, in the modern era, thinkers and scientists as diverse as Goethe, Emerson, Thoreau, Jung, Oppenheimer, Herder, and Schrodinger, to name a few, have acknowledged their debt to ancient Hindu achievements in science, technology, and philosophy. I decided to compile a history of the Hindus based on all these accounts.  The mosaic that emerged from this effort was in contrast to what is generally portrayed in the popular media and even in academics. This is the story behind my book,.
 
Modern science and medicine would be unrecognizable, and far more primitive, without the immense contribution of the ancient Hindus. They invented everyday essentials such as our base-ten number system, with place-value notations, and zero as a numeral. The ancient Hindus also developed a sophisticated system of medicine with its mind-body approach known as Ayurveda; detailed anatomical and surgical knowledge of the human body, including cataract surgery and the so-called plastic surgery; metallurgical methods of extraction and purification of metals, including the so-called Damascus blade; knowledge of various constellations and planetary motions that was good enough to assign motion to the Earth; and the science of self-improvement popularly known as yoga.  This book covers these topics in details.
 
The overall reaction of the academic community is positive.  I often get e-mails from scholars who appreciate the quality of my arguments and the contents provided in my book.  I am truly overwhelmed and humbled with the positive reactions of the readers. 

5. Many who had studied the Indian scientific heritage are of the view that our
Rishis were scientists par excellence. Your comments?

Yes, most people who have studied the work of Rishis do recognize the excellence of the ancients.  The works of Aryabhata, Kanada, Varahmihir, Brahmgupta, Charaka, and Sushruta is certainly par excellence.  As explained in Questions #2 and #6, the work of the Rishi, as explained in my book, speaks for itself, demonstrating the highest quality of intellectual achievement. 

6. Vedic science is often criticized describing it as archaic, mystical and unverifiable. Your opinion?

We are dealing with documents that were written several thousand years ago.  Over this period, the documentation technology has evolved, our articulation styles have evolved, and knowledge is branched into a large number of disciplines.  Vedic knowledge was compiled in poetry (hymns) to facilitate memorization.  The ancient Hindus memorized their literature verbatim.  The spoken words, not the written words, have been the basis of literary and scientific traditions of the Hindus.  The people who memorized the texts, mostly in rhythmic hymns, were highly respected as they became the tools that could keep the tradition alive.  Special class of people who memorized these books were defined: Vedi (or Bedi), Dvivedi, Trivedi, and Chaturvedi are popular last names among the Hindus.  Initially these names signified the number of Vedas the person memorized. As a result, Vedic science may be mystical and archaic to some. However, it is certainly not unverifiable. My book amply demonstrate that the Vedic knowledge is relevant even today and verifiable.  Modern science is also archaic and mystical to some.  Should we discard it for this reason?  Of course, not. Such criticisms are to be ignored.

7. What is the response of the Western academic world to ancient Indian science? How far is it appreciated?

Let me share my own experience.  My book is well received by the academic community in the West.  I get excellent input from the readers.  I teach a course that is partly based on this book at the State University of New York at Oswego.  The course is very well received.  Most students, who take the course, come from the Western background and are totally ignorant about the Indian past. Yet, they have little problem in accepting the fact.  By the time they are done with the course, majority of them like the course very much.  I get excellent teaching evaluations from them.  As a result, I have received Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, and President’s Award for Scholarly Activities.  On top of this, I have multiple awards in academia that demonstrates the general acceptance of my ideas.  You can check my activities at https://sites.google.com/a/oswego.edu/kumar/..  

8. In India when one talks about our glorious scientific heritage and discoveries our Rishis made, it is dubbed as ‘reactionary,’ ‘fundamentalist’ etc.  Your comments?

That is the nature of our pseudo-secular environment and we will have to learn to live with it, concentrate on our work and, I am sure, their minds will be changed in due course of time.  I must also share my own experience. I often talk about the scientific heritage of India and have not been dubbed as reactionary or fundamentalist.  My success in academia demonstrates that this is not always the case. 

Pradeep Krishnan


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