Ancient India's Contribution to Science and Technology

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If someone asks the question, “What is India’s contribution to the world in the development of science and technology?”, we get various types of answers. Some say ‘Nothing happened in India’ – some western elites are also included in this type of response!

It is true that not much has happened in recent past centuries. But before that, many great scientists and thinkers were born in India and they have given the world the valuable knowledge in science and mathematics. Many western historians conveniently forget this fact! May be as a reaction to this, the educated middle class wants to bask in the glory of past by exaggerating that ‘We had everything here in India before the world knew later!’

We have beautiful stories from Ramayana & Mahabharata. We learn the social structure, their standard of living, their ways of daily life through these stories. From the stories, one may think that we had laser rays, destructive weapons, missiles, drugs that give immortality, airplanes etc. But they were imaginations. Truly speaking, even to think of such imaginations is also phenomenal! You can call them science fictions. Science fiction has no less contribution to the development of science and technology. People created many science fictions which later came to existence. Isaac Asimov first created the concept of machine-man and after a few decades robot came to existence. This happened in many other cases.  To this extent even to think about future implements in itself was a big jump. But that is no reason to claim we had everything here. There is no solid evidence. Jayant Naralikar has written extensively on this issue.

Around 1500 BC, Shalva-Sutra was written. It proposed the principles of measurements. In those times, length was measured with ropes; hence people started identifying rope as Shalva. In Vedic times, there was requirement of platforms to perform yagya. This necessitated system for measurements. Pythagoras theorem is stated in Shalvasutra. However no proof can be found. But the proof is found in Euclid’s ‘Elements’. Similarly our people knew the relationship between radius and circumference of a circle. That was 3.14159. We knew this value but it was not explained why and how. Also in Boudhayana found in Krishna Yajurved and in Aapstambha Sootra, we can find references to Diophantine equations. Although westerners give its credit to Greeks, we can find its roots in Shalvasootra.

The greatest contribution of ancient India to the world is the notion of ‘Zero’. There are six chapters to explain the meanings of Vedas and to comprehend the Vedic Vidhis. They are known as Vedangs. Shalvasootra can be found in one such VedangVendang Kalpa. Geometry was developed around the method of the procedure to build Yagya Vedi. There is some information about astronomy in the fifth Jyotish Vedanga. But not many details are available.

Great sage Kanaad conjectured for the first time some elements of theory of atoms in fifth century BC. His real name was 'Ulook’ (owl). He used to write throughout the day time, and at night he used to pick up particles from jungles for a living. Hence he may have got the name Kanaad (Kan means particle). He put forward the theory that every substance was made of atoms!

A great mathematician was born during 450 BC and 585 BC. His name was Varahmihir. He used to state that there were some attractive forces in the stars of the universe. Due to the sum total of such forces the Vasundhara (the earth) was able to float. This was just a step before the most talked about Gravitational Forces.

When we think about fifth century, there is some written information available. Aryabhat belonged to this period. He thought and used the sine function of geometry. He was aware of roundness of the earth and its rotating around its own axis. He knew exact positions of stars in the sky.

In 'Arybhatiya' poem, for which he worked for about six months, he said, “Even if we feel the sun and the stars are rotating around us, in fact they are fixed and the earth is only rotating around them.” It proves how many centuries he was ahead of others. He mathematically calculated the circumference of the earth as 39,736 KM. It is believed today that to be 39,843 KM. It is amazing to get such near accurate number in that period. He used to say that moon does not have its own light but it gets that from the sun. He recognized that the planets orbit in elliptical shape. It was believed in those times that there is demon known as Rahu in the elliptical orbits. Arybhat had calculated that there are 365 days, 6 hrs, 12 minutes and 30 seconds in one year.

Bhau Daji Laad for the first time published Arybhat’s theories in 1864 AD. After that in 1875, Dr. Ken published this in Holland. That is how the world came to know about this great mathematician and astronomer.

Bhaskaracharya of 12th century was the next great mathematician after Aryabhat. In 1658, there was well known French mathematician Pierre de Firma. He had asked one mathematical question to his friend Bernard Frenicle de Bessy’. If X and Y both are integers, then how do we solve the following equation?

61X**2 + 1 = Y2

This was his question. Nobody could solve this equation for decades. Finally in 1732 a great mathematician called Leonhard Euler had solved it. He was much appreciated too. Later people realized that Bhaskaracharya had solved this problem in the year 1150! As per him, the answer was:

X = 22,61,53,980 and Y = 1,76,63,19,049! He used Chakrawala method to solve the equation. This method is elaborated in Bhaskaracharya’s 'Sidhhant Shiromani. Bhaskaracharya had one daughter, Lilavati, who became widow at a young age. In order to popularize mathematics, Bhaskaracharya wrote a book on mathematics by the same name. This book, Lilavati, became so popular in those days, that people, in lighter vein, used to say that if you read this book, you can look at any tree and tell exactly how many leaves the tree has!

In astronomy too, Bhaskaracharya made great strides. His two volumes – Ganitadhyay and Goladhyay are rich with knowledge. Based on these two volumes, it can be said that he was very close to initiating the new branch called Calculus.

India had made great progress in medicines too. We had tradition of medicines since 3000 BC. But we believed that ‘human beings get diseases due to ghosts’. Understanding the body and scientific treatment commenced from Vedic times. This knowledge is known as AyurVed (knowledge of Life).

Our source of ancient medical knowledge is through the four main volumes: ‘Charak-Samhita’, ‘Sushrut-Samhita’, ‘Ashtang-Hriday’ and ‘Ashtang-Sangrah’.

Since Vedic period, we had Gurukul system. The universities of Takshshila, Varanasi and Nalanda were well known all over the world. Which education was not possible in Takshshila at that time? One could acquire education on arts, literature, music, philosophy, religion (Hindu and Buddha), law, chemistry, biology, medicine, astronomy, architecture, sculpture, history and geography. Besides these, they used teach the art of riding horses and elephants, agricultural procedures, writing revenue-expenditures, astrology, archery. You will not believe but they were teaching even black magic. You can graduate in handling serpents, or nullifying effects of ghosts. Takshshila had earned its reputation throughout the world so much so that students used to come there from China, Syria, Arabia, Babylon, Persia etc. Nalanda University started its function in what is present state of Bihar. It was at its peak in reputation and prospered during 4th to 13th century.

This article was originally written by my dad.

1 comment:

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about these Samhita texts?