Tree of Knowledge

Tree of Knowledge

Contribution of India to Humanity and Science

— Dr Rabindranath Das

More often than not we do not realise our debt to the past. Many of the ideas underlying discoveries and developments that came afterwards were seeded in ancient times, and several of them came from Indian thinkers in various fields. What follows is meant as a humble tribute to some masters whose wisdom and thoughts spanning across the continents and time have contributed to the progress and welfare of humanity.

This has been recognized by several of their counterparts in modern times, such as Albert Einstein who said that ‘we owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made possible.’ Earlier, the great American author Mark Twain had pointed out that ‘India is the cradle of the human race, the birth place of human speech, mother of history, the grandmother of legends, and the great-grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most constructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.’

As for Will Durant, American historian, he observed that ‘India was the motherland of our race and Sanskrit was 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 mother of us all.’ Even Hu Shih (1891-1962), a former ambassador of China to the USA was honest enough to admit that ‘India conquered and dominated China culturally for twenty centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.’

We can start with Aryabhata, who was born in Taregana, Bihar in 476 BCE. At the early age of 23 he wrote a text on astronomy and an unparalleled treatise on mathematics known as Aryabhatiyam. It may be noted that the first reference to astronomy was found in the Rig Veda which is one of the four Vedas considered as the oldest extant books of knowledge in the world. Aryabhata originated the concept of zero, and also calculated the formula of planetary motion and the time of lunar and solar eclipses. Further, he was the first to proclaim that the earth is round, rotates on its own axis, orbits around the sun and is suspended in space — almost 1000 years before Copernicus came up with his heliocentric theory. Moreover, Aryabhata calculated the value of pi or four decimal places: 3.1416 and also the Sine table in Trigonometry. Centuries later, in 825 CE, the Arab mathematician Mohammed ibn Musa credited the value of pi to the Indians, acknowledging that ‘this value of pi had been given by the Hindus.’

Another contributor to mathematics was Bhaskaracharya (1114-1183 BCE), in branches as diverse as arithmetic, algebra, calculus, trigonometry and geometry. He was born in an obscure village Vijjadit in Maharashtra. His marvellous mathematical works known as Karna Kutuhala, Lilawati and Bijganita made his fame spread through the translation of his works in many languages. His Siddhanta Shiromoni, another epoch-making treatise describes planetary positions, calculation of eclipses and cosmography through the use of mathematical techniques and astronomical equipments.

In the Suryasiddhanta he makes a note on the force of gravity, stating that all objects, small or large, earth, sun, moon or any planet in the whole creation are attracted to each other by a divine force. This concept of gravitational force was subsequently elaborated in modern scientific terms by Sir Isaac Newton almost 1200 years later, in 1687. Many of Bhaskaracharya’s ideas and thoughts inspired the Arab and European scholars who earned name and fame through their research on his works in the medieval period. Al Khwarizmi was the first Arab to write about the Hindu numerals in his book ‘On the calculation with Hindu Numerals’ (825 AD). This was followed by Al Kindi who wrote ‘On the Use of the Indian Numerals’(Kitab-fi-Isti’mal-al-‘Adad al-Hind) about 830 AD. In fact Arabs themselves acknowledged that their numerals were obtained from the Hindus. Other legendary mathematicians such as Madhava, Nilkantha and Somyaji from Kerala did work on higher mathematics on themes that were later taken up further by European mathematicians such as Gregory, Leibnitz and Newton.

Acharya Kanada (600 BCE) laid the basis of an Atomic theory as is evident by reference to his quotation Anu aniraniyat indicated in his great philosophical treatise Vaisheshik Darshan, one of the six principal philosophical works of ancient India. He is believed to have been in Pravash Khetra (Dwaraka), Gujarat. He pioneered work on Relativity, Law of Causation and Atomic theory. He taught the concept of length in terms of shortness. Similarly, light will not be appreciated if there is no darkness. He gives an example of the perception of a man on a moving boat and looking at the stationary trees on the distant horizon. He classified all the objects in this universe into nine elements namely earth, water, fire, wind, ether, time, space, mind and soul. He stated that ‘every object is composed of atoms which are again composed of subatomic particles. They are unseen with naked eyes, attracted to each other and are indivisible.’ Sage Kanada also described the chemical reaction and dimension of atom and its dynamic and rhythmic motion, mimicking the divine dance of Lord Shiva. The eminent historian TN Colebrook has written that ‘compared to the scientists of Europe, Kanada and other Indian scientists were the global masters in this field.’

A wizard of chemical science was Nagarajuna (100 BCE), born in Madhya Pradesh. His masterpieces of chemical science, namely Rasratnakar, Rashrudya and Rasendramangal bear testimony to his legendary excellence in chemistry and metallurgy. The Rasratnakar is still an essential text in Ayurvedic colleges in India. He used ashes from iron and copper as medicine in anaemia. His significant contribution in the field of medical sciences is found in his memorable works like Arogyamanjuri and Yogasar. He was appointed Chancellor of the then renowned Nalanda University for his profound and versatile knowledge in all fields of science.

In medical sciences Acharaya Charaka (600 BCE) is considered as the Father of Indian Medicine, being the principal contributor to the ancient art and science of Ayurveda, a system of traditional Indian medicine. He is renowned for his famous work known as Charaka samhita, an encyclopedia of Ayurveda containing 120 chapters and divided into 8 parts. It is said that many saints like Atreya, Danwantari, Kashyap and Bharadwaj had contributed to the development of Ayurveda over many centuries. The Body-Mind-Soul relationship was discovered by Charaka. He outlined a charter of ethics centuries before the Hippocratic Oath. According to Charaka, human health and diseases are not predestined and long life can be attained by changing lifestyle. He comments that ‘a physician who fails to enter the body of a patient with the lamp of knowledge and understanding can never treat diseases.’ In his treatise, he emphasizes that ‘prevention is better than cure.’ He was the first to discover anatomy, physiology, aetiology, digestion, embryology, microbiology and immunity. He knew the fundamentals of genetics as he was aware of the factors determining the sex of unborn child. He mentioned that not parents but sperm and ovum are responsible for congenital malformation like lameness and blindness. He gave a figure of 360 as the total number of bones in the body. He knew about heart being a centrally placed organ that is constantly sending nutrition to distant parts of body via blood through countless channels, and that blockage of these channels causes diseases. This wandering physician had six main disciples and Agnivesh was the best among them. For at least 2 millennia Charaksamhita, which describes the medicinal qualities and functions of 10,000 herbal plants, remained as the only ayurvedic medical text which was translated in many foreign languages including Arabic and Latin.

Acharya Sushruta (600 BCE) is known as the father of surgery. His name and fame was heard far and wide through his well-known work Sushrut samhita. It has descriptions of over 1100 types of illnesses, 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral and 57 from animal sources. The text described more than 300 operations and 42 surgical procedures, covering the fields of abdominal and orthopaedic surgery. He is best known for his techniques of plastic surgery, the one for the nose – rhinoplasty – still being used today with variations, but also addressed the problem of cataract and commented on cranial surgery as well as delivery by caesarian section.

He introduced a form of anaesthesia, using wine, smokes of cannabis and hypnosis (sammohoni vidya). As regards training, Sushruta used to teach his disciples surgical procedures by practising incisions on vegetables and leatherbags filled with mud of different densities. The Sushruta samhita was translated in Arabic as Kitab-i-Sushrud or Kitab Shah Shun-al-Hindi in the 8th century by ibn Abillsaibial. The Persian physician Rhazes in 9th century was also familiar with the Shusruta samhita. The Arabic translation of Sushruta samhita reached Europe at the end of the medieval period. During Italian renaissance, the Branca family of Sicily and Gasparo Tagliacozzi of Bologna were familiar with the techniques mentioned in it.

Varahamihir (499-587 BCE) was an eminent astrologer and astronomer, the most prominent out of nine in the court of King Vikramaditya in Avanti, Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. He was the first to describe that the moon and other planets were luminous because of light from the Sun. His famous work known Pancha-Siddhantika or ‘Five Astronomical Canons’ (575 BCE), which gives us information regarding older Indian astronomical texts which are unfortunately now lost. He was the first to mention about ayanamsa or shifting of the equinox to 50.32 seconds. The Persian scholar and traveller Al-Beruni in 11th century mentioned about the Pancha-Siddhantika. Varahamihir authored another two famous texts known as Brihat Samhita and Brihat Jataka. They covered various subjects of human interest like astrology (jyotish), planetary motion, eclipses, rainfall, cloud, architecture, matrimony, harvest of crops, domestic and religious rituals, all with mathematical calculations.

In the filed of gemnology, the Brihat samhita or great compilation contains 106 chapters and describes the evaluation criteria of various gems, especially the sacred ‘Nine Gems’ including pearls as mentioned in the Garuda Purana. Brihat Jataka was the original text on Indian astrology and horoscopy, which attracted the Greeks and the Arabs as evidenced by Varahamihir’s statement in Brihat samhita that Mecchya and Yavana should be honoured because of their profound interest in Indian astrology.

There was also contribution made to aviation technology by Acharya Bharadwaj (800BCE), from Prayag, Allahabad. He authored Yantra Sarvasa, a treatise on mechanical and aviation engineering. It deals with aviation and space science and flying machines, well before Leonardo da Vinci’s time. Sage Bharadwaj is said to be the author of Vaimanika sastra, a Sanskrit text detailing various types of aircraft in Vedic times.

Acharya Kapila (3000 BCE) was the founder of the Sankhya philosophy, which threw light on nature of the universal Soul (Purusha) and its relationship to primal matter (Prakriti) and Creation. His concept of transformation of energies and the commentaries on atman, non-atman and the subtle elements of the cosmos has ensured his perennial place in the field of cosmology.

These are only few examples of great sage-scientists of ancient India who were the forerunners modern scientific knowledge in their own way, and thus have contributed a lot towards the development and progress of human society in terms of spirituality and the scientific search of the eternal Truth. Modern scientists, surgeons, physicians, mathematicians and cosmologists owe a great debt to these great Indian saints for their achievements today.

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