Science and India

Many ancient as well as modern Indian scientists have made enormous contributions in the fields of Science, Medicine and Mathematics. For a long time the Eurocentric historians ignored the contributions of ancient scientists, astronomers and mathematicians from India, bestowing a lot of accolades to Greeks and scientists of the Renaissance period. Indians (and perhaps later, Greek scientists) had discovered the sphericity of planet earth as well as heliocentricity of our solar system long before it was accepted in the Christian Europe. Though astronomical findings were well established in pre-Christian Europe, it was Christianity that impeded acceptance of scientific explanation of the cosmos because it was proscribed by the Bible.  It took more than another millennium and a half until the church finally accepted the heliocentric nature of our solar system. The Holy Roman Empire even took drastic steps like imprisoning scientist Galileo for suggesting that earth revolved around the sun, a fact that was already known to the rest of the world for many centuries.

The God of medicine in Hinduism is Dhanvantari and the father of Ayurveda is Atreya, from 3rd century B. C. E. Atreya was a teacher in the famed school in Takshashila, which was a renowned university, the first of its kind in the world even during the period of Buddha (600 - 500 B.C.E). One of its great teachers was Panini, the brilliant Sanskrit grammarian. His scientific analysis of alphabet, and morphological analysis of words was the first, and laid the foundation for sophistication of many languages that followed.

Charaka was a court physician in Kanishka’s court (2nd century C.E.) and was credited with saving the king’s wife by watching over her difficult delivery of her first child. He codified Ayurveda in his treatise, Charaka Samhita, summarizing Atreya’s work. The treatise consists of eight chapters including pharmacology, nutrition, medical ethics, anatomy, embryology, pathology and general therapy. Treatment of leprosy and jaundice are discussed in detail. Many of these treatments are still practiced in modern India even today. Charaka also identified eight major diseases like diarrhea, fever, dropsy, consumption, tumor, abscess, leprosy and skin diseases. The only branch of modern day medicine he ignored was surgery.

Sushruta wrote Sushruta Samhita and was an ingenious court physician in Gupta Imperial times in 4th century C.E.. He performed several operations including Caesarean sections, cataract operation, plastic surgery of nose (rhinoplasty), reconnection of severed ears and noses as well as fingers and limbs. In his treatise he lists 125 surgical instruments used for sophisticated probing, puncturing, extraction, drainage and suturing techniques. Amputation of limbs, use of skin flaps in covering wounds (practiced even today) and abdominal operations were common during his time. Even bandaging techniques are described in detail as it should be applied to different parts of the body classifying them as tight, medium tight and loose. Hospitals were built during his time and patients were treated free of charge. That was a golden period of medicine in India, far ahead of rest of the world.

Yoga was used as holistic approach to health, the worth of which is only recognized now throughout the world. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali laid the foundation for yoga and later Swami Vivekananda attributed Rajayoga to Patanjali. Ancient Indians were also familiar with veterinary medicine. Elephants, horses and cows were prized possessions and various treatments for diseases of these large animals were utilized routinely. Hastyayurveda (Science of Prolonging Elephant Life) was one such compendium.

India’s oldest medical texts were far superior to most subsequent works. Philosophy based on idealism of religion inhibited progress in study of anatomy. Lack of sterilization and antisepsis soon diminished the effectiveness of surgery. Invasions by foreigners starting at the end of 1st millennium C.E. further dampened free thought and contemplation. However, remnants of the holistic approach to overall health and herbal medicine still remain popular in Indian psyche.

Mathematics is the science to which Indians contributed the most. Our decimal system, number 1 through 9, place notation, and the ubiquitous 0, concept of infinity, are major contributions to world science by India. Without them our computer sciences, earth-launched satellites, microchips, and AI would all have been impossible (Stanley Wolpert - India - Updated Edition). Like most ancient people, Indians first learned mathematics by focusing on stars and astronomy. They learned geography and introduced algebra to the world. Their sound knowledge of astronomy and mathematics helped them explore the realm of astrology, and probability of predicting the future, another unique gift to the world.

Most of the early texts of Indian science and astronomy are lost. But it is very likely that Indians knew a lot about the planet earth, its diameter, its polar radius, precession (earth’s wobbling as it rotates) and the precise positions of stars that formed our galaxy. From the surviving texts we know of a remarkable man named Aryabhata, who compiled a great treatise called Aryabhatiya in 5th century C. E., in which he calculated Pi at 3.1416 for the first time. He also discussed square and cube roots, arithmetical progression, factors, sine and algebraic identities. His treatise also discussed spherical astronomy and led to trigonometry later. Aryabahata was the first one to tell us about the of phases of the moon, that moon’s waxing and waning were because of earth’s shadow on it. He also told us that earth spun around its axis and moon revolved around the earth. There were also others like Bhaskaracharya and Varahamihira, who contributed significantly to our knowledge of mathematics and science. A Kerala mathematician, Madhava by name (who was untutored), developed his own system of calculus based on his knowledge of trigonometry around 1500 C E. This was at least a century before Newton or Liebnitz!

In the modern era, physicist C V Raman’s discovery, the change of wavelength of deflected light when it traversed through transparent material earned him a Nobel Prize (Raman Effect). His nephew, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar was also awarded Nobel Prize for his many contributions including statistical mechanics and degenerate electron gas in white dwarf stars, which he wrote down during his voyage on the steamship that took him from India to England at age nineteen. Not to be outdone by his uncle C V Raman, a new phrase “Chandrasekhar Limit” was coined in the field of astronomy. A star under 1.4 times the mass of our sun will remain as a dense dwarf star when it’s fuel is spent, whereas any star more massive than that will explode violently as supernova forming a neutron star or a black hole . He was initially ridiculed and mocked by the scientific community, in England”s Royal Astronomical Society, specially by respected physicist Sir Arthur Eddington (who had provided proof for Einstein’s theory of relativity). He later found his home in University of Chicago, where he completed his work over decades. In the year 2016 NASA scientists observed the early flash of an exploding white dwarf star proving what Chandrasekhar had predicted.

And then there is the story of brilliant Srinivas Ramanujam, an intuitive Indian mathematical genius. Not schooled in the traditional fashion, Ramanujam was born to a poor Brahmin family in colonial India in Erode in Tamil Nadu. (His life story was tastefully portrayed in a recent movie, The Man Who Knew Infinity). He wrote an informal letter with a solution to a complex equation to Professor G. H. Hardy in Cambridge, who immediately recognized the young man’s genius and invited him to Cambridge. He had a collection of four loose-leaf notebooks, where he had written his mathematical equations but did not want to write the proof or how he came to the conclusions. An equation known as “Ramanujam Conjecture” was finally proven in 1973, decades after his death. Nearly hundred years after his death in 1920, his brilliant equations are slowly being understood by mathematicians across the world. Ramanujam died at a young age of 32 from complications of tuberculosis. Scientist/botanist Julian Huxley called Ramanujam “the greatest mathematician of the century”.

As young Ramanujam lay dying of tuberculosis, a depressed Professor G H Hardy visited him and commented morosely, “It’s such a dull day! Even the number on the cab that brought me here was dull - 1729.” Instantly Ramanujam responded, “No, Hardy, 1729 is a wonderful number! That is the only number which is the sum of two different sets of cubes, 1 and 12, and 9 and 10.” Ramanujam’s mind was a modern day computer.

19th and 20th century scientists include such stalwarts as Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, who integrated botanical and physical sciences. Dr. Homi J Bhabha was the founder of the “Cascade” theory of cosmic-ray showers, and chaired India’s Atomic Energy Commission. Dr. M. N. Saha was another great nuclear scientist whose work helped us understand outer space better. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai was India’s industrialist-scientist, who set up the Thumba Rocket Launching Station and Experimental Satellite Communication Station in Ahmedabad. We all know how India’s space exploration and technology have progressed in leaps and bounds, sending unmanned rockets to deliver communication satellites as well as sending Mars Observer to Martian orbit, at a fraction of the cost. Future missions include an experimental space laboratory to study the sun with a solar probe in an attempt to study its core, atmosphere, its halo and the umbra and penumbra.  India has joined the elite company of U.S.A., Russia and the European Union, China, Japan and Canada in the list of countries capable of space exploration.

A scientist in the colonial era had to fight extreme discrimination to be recognized. Today, Indian scientists dominate science, especially in the fields of computational science and Information Technology. Indian physicians are the leading group that is providing healthcare to the rest of the world. Though the West first ignored and then ridiculed India’s contributions, the tide has surely turned. Now, the genius of Indian scientists is being applauded by everyone, albeit in disbelief.


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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