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Ancient Indian Science: Dissecting Myth and RealityJodhpur architecture

A lot is said and debated about the contribution of ancient India in the field of science and technology. Many claims are made about the discoveries and inventions in the Vedic period, such as in surgery, aviation and atomic physics etc. Surely, archaeological materials like the old books, inscriptions and heritage buildings show us that our ancestors had made advances in architecture, sculpture, astrology, literature, music, philosophy and other fields. But nothing can be taken at face value. Each evidence needs to be studied or investigated carefully, and in the context of those times, before we can make any claims about the progress of ancient science. In order to help the reader understand our past better, we at Ektara bring you some links and resources to research material and write-ups available about the progress of science and technology in ancient India.

But before we proceed, a few things need to be kept in mind: (1) What we call ‘India’ today did not exist in the past with the present geographical boundaries and political identity. The definition of India kept changing over time.* Also, the region of India did not exist in isolation from other regions – there was a constant trans-migration of ideas, materials, knowhow, and technology from one region to another through trade, which allowed the progress of science and technology in India. So a particular ‘invention’ by an Indian (such as zero or decimal) may have been possible with an idea or knowhow coming from China or Arabia, or vice a versa. (2) Similarly, history must ideally be seen as a continuum in time without any fixed periods. For example, it is wrong to label any progress or event as ‘Hindu science’ or ‘Islamic invention’ etc. even if their contributors had a certain religious identity. (3) In the pre-modern India, the concept of ‘science’ was probably not as we understand it today from a western perspective. Scientific thinking, discoveries and inventions of the past were usually not detached from other aspects of life such as religion, superstition, social hierarchy, trade and art etc. In other words, what we may call a ‘scientist’ of the past could also have been an ironsmith, an astrologer, a poet and/or a trader among other things.

(4) Starting any large and long-term project or initiative (such as the construction of a temple, a bridge, or development of surgery tools, or writing of an epic) was not possible without the support or patronage of a king or people in power. One has to investigate the reasoning of why such as project or invention was sponsored, and who did it benefit etc. Also, in a country with a deep-rooted system of social hierarchy, it is possible that a particular invention benefited only the upper classes of Indian society and did not reach the masses. Similarly, an innovation made by an ordinary villager, however revolutionary it might have been, if not recognized by the ruling elite, would have probably not spread or survived beyond his own home, as it often happens even today. (5) It is also possible that a scientific idea or invention described in an old treatise was only an idea or wish, and not really tried out practically. Many of our ancient writers (as they were writing in praise of the rulers) use hyperbole and exaggerated claims about their times to please their patrons. Even if some surprising advances (such as in aviation or atomic sciences) were made in the past, why did they fail to survive and benefit the society to this day? There are many questions, and whatever claim we make today about the past has to be questioned and investigated using scientific methods of research and not believed (or boasted about) blindly. Let us start with some writings that we have found for you.

The following list will keep expanding and updating, although it is still not in a proper academic reference style. We have tried to feature the most authentic research that uses trustworthy sources. But, as is the tradition in professional history writing, one should not stop at consulting just these sources. Research into history is an unending process – there is always room for finding more knowledge and data which can either strengthen the present theory or completely contradict it. So please read/consult these and allow your appetite for knowledge to grow more. (And please actually READ them, not just download and be happy about it). You can also suggest to us some more interesting links and essays that are not featured here:

  • Indians Learnt Maths from Greeks, Romans, Babylonians Too: Amartya Sen (NDTV).
  • Golden age of Indian mathematics was inspired by Babylon and Greece: Amartya Sen (Scroll.in).
  • History of Science, list of papers at Indian National Science Academy.
  • History of Mathematics in India.
  • The story of shunya, Brishti Guha, The Indian Express. 18 March, 2015.
  • Brahmagupta, Mathematician Par Excellence, C.R.Pranesachar, Resonance.
  • Brahmagupta's Formula.
  • Money and the magical mathematics of Brahmagupta.
  • Brahmagupta's Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta VOL I.
  • The Iron Pillar at Delhi, T.R.Anantharaman, Iron and Steel Heritage of India
  • A note on ancient zinc-smelting in India and China, Vijaya Deshpande, Indian Journal of History of Science.
  • Characterization of rust on ancient Indian iron, R.Balasubramaniam et al., Current Science, Dec. 2003.
  • Aspects of Powder Technology in Ancient and Medieval India. By R. K. Dube. Powder Metallurgy 2013; 33(2), 119-125.
  • A History of Medicine: Early Greek, Hindu, and Persian Medicine, Henry E. Sigerist, Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Sushruta: The first Plastic Surgeon in 600 B.C., by S Saraf, R Parihar.
  • On the science of consciousness in ancient India, Subhash Kak, Indian Journal of History of Science.
  • India’s Scientific and Metaphysical Views of Medicine in Objects, Claire Voon
  • The Medical Profession in Ancient India, Patrick Olivelle, Lecture for CSDS. (youtube)
  • Dyes in ancient and medieval India, Mira Roy.
  • Biology in ancient and medieval India, R.N.Kapil, Deptt of Botany, Delhi.
  • Review: History of Technology in India. Bag, A. K. (Ed.) 1997. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy.
  • Logic, Debate and Epistemology in Ancient Indian Medicine and Philosophy — An Investigation, Karin Preisendanz.
  • Ancient metal-mirror making in South India, by S. G. K. Pillai, R. M. Pillai, A. D. Damodaran.
  • Time, Space and Structure in Ancient India, Subhash Kak.
  • Indian Astronomy : From Jantar-Mantar to Kavalur (Vigyan Prasar).
  • Astronomy in ancient India - its importance, insight and prevalence, S.A.Paramhans, BHU, Indian Journal of History of Science.
  • Indian astronomy in the era of Copernicus, Krishnan D. Mathur (Nature).
  • Why Science Declined in Ancient India? Dr. K. Jamanadas (An interesting look from Ambedkarite perspective).
  • Towards Unification of Modern Science and Indian Ancient Science, by D. N. Srivastava.
  • From Alberuni to Demons of the Flesh, The Historiography of Indian Alchemy, Janne van Berkel.
  • Alberuni and Indian Alchemy, Martin Levey.
  • Indian Science and Civilization in the Light of Alberuni Writings.
  • A history of Hindu chemistry from the earliest times to the middle of the sixteenth century A.D., a book by Prafulla C.Ray.
  • History of Indian Healing Traditions.
  • The growth of Greco-Arabian medicine in medieval India, R.L.Verma.
  • Indo-Muslim Physicians, Fabrizio Speziale. Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  • Guide to Indo-Persian Medical Text 1864, University of Chicago Library, 2008.
  • The Circulation of Ayurvedic knowledge in Indo-Persian Medical Literature. Fabrizio Speziale.
  • Ayurveda in Post-Classical and Pre-Colonial India.
  • Folk-Medicine in Ancient India (Nature).
  • The precise method of cow slaughter in the Indus Valley Civilisation, Sanjeev Sabhlok.
  • Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery, Kenneth G. Zysk, Motilal Banarsidass.
  • Marks and symbols of professionals on Mughal monuments, S.A.N. Rezavi.
  • Monumentality and Mobility in Mughal Capitals, Carla M. Sinopoli, Asian Perspectives, Univ. of Hawai'i Press.
  • Evolution of Modern Geographical Thinking and Disciplinary Trends in India, Dr. Lalita Rana, The Association for Geographical Studies.
  • An Aspect of Indo-French Exchange in Science and Technology (c. 1650-1800 C.E.), by Shah Nawaz Ansari, Journal of History and Social Sciences.
  • Contribution of Islamic Education to Sciences, Social Sciences and Literature in India, Kuldip Kaur, World Journal of Islamic History and Civilization
  • Arab-Muslim contributions to Eastern and Western science.
  • Environmental Concerns in Mughal Era, Shireen Moosvi.
  • Review: Akbar and His India, edited by Irfan Habib; Oxford University Press.
  • Mughal Gardens and Geographic Sciences, Then and Now, James L.Westcoat, Jr.
  • Agriculture Science in Mughal Period & its Socio-Economic Impact, Mrs. Tanuja Kumari, International Journal of Humanities and Applied Sciences.
  • Sultan, Suri and the Astrolabe, Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma, Indian Journal of History of Science.
  • The Technology and Economy of Mughal India, by Irfan Habib, The Indian Economic and Social History Review.
  • East-West knowledge transfer in Mughal India, Christoph Clavius’ Gnomonices Libri Octo (Rome, 1581) and the Kitāb al-Maqāyīs [li-Kalāwīyūs], translated by Mu‘tamad Khān Rustam b. Qubād al-Badakhshī (d. 1705).
  • Innovation, Commentary and Translation: Scientific and Legal Knowledge between the Ottoman and Mughal Empires.
  • The Awadh Scientific Renaissance and the Role of the French: c 1750-1820, Iqbal Ghani Khan, Indian Journal of History of Science.
  • Colonialism and Green Science: History of Colonial Scientific Forestry in South India, 1820-1920, V M Ravi Kumar, Indian Journal of History of Science.
  • Mughal Gardens and Geographic Sciences, Then and Now. by Wescoat, James L., Jr. 1997. In Gardens in the Time of the Great Muslim Empires: Theory and Design, edited by Attilio Petruccioli, 187-202. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.
  • Medical Techniques and Practices in Mughal India, S.A.Nadeem Rezavi, History of Technology in India Vol. II, Editor Harbans Mukhia.
  • Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400–1800, Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Cambridge University Press.
  • Technology in Medieval India — c. 650-1750: Irfan Habib; Tulika Books.
  • Agrarian system of Mughal India (1556-1707), Irfan Habib.
  • Hakim Abdul Hameed. 1990. Exchanges between India and Central Asia in the Field of Medicine Especially During the Mughal Period. In Interaction between Indian and Central Asian Science and Technology in Mediaeval Times (Eds.) W.H. Abdi et al. Vol. II. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. Pp. 19-47.
  • History of Paper Technology in India, by Lalit Tiwari.
  • Rare and Strange Goods, International Trade in Ninth-Century Asia, John Guy.
  • How Learned Were the Mughals: Reflections on Muslim Libraries in India, by Kalpana Dasgupta, The Journal of Library History (on jstor).
  • Iranian Influence on Medieval Indian Architecture, S.A.Nadeem Rezavi (A Shared Heritage).
  • Agriculture Science in Mughal Period & its Socio-Economic Impact, Mrs. Tanuja Kumari, International Journal of Humanities and Applied Sciences.
  • Munshi Zakaullah and the Vernaculaization of Science in Nineteenth Century India, S.Irfan Habib.
  • Master Ramchandra of Delhi College: Teacher, Journalist, and Cultural Intermediary, Gail Minault.
  • The introduction of scientific rationality into India: A study of Master Ramchandra— Urdu journalist, mathematician and educationalist, Dhruv Raina.
  • Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein Met Tagore, By David L. Gosling.
  • Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science, Hillel Ofek.
  • Useful Knowledge in the Indian Subcontinent, Prasannan Parthasarathi.
  • Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, Some contemporary European accounts, by Dharampal, Other India Press, Goa.

Some general sources on History of Indian Science:

  • Wikipedia: Science and technology in India.
  • Wikipedia: History of science and technology in the Indian subcontinent.
  • Wikipedia: List of Indian inventions and discoveries.
  • History of Indian Science & Technology: By Rajiv Malhotra and Jay Patel
    Overview of the 20-Volume Series.
  • History of Indian Science, Subhash Kak, July 31, 2002 (Brief introduction).
  • History of Science and Technology in Ancient India: (3 Vols. Set), Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (Manohar Books)
  • India in the World of Physics: Then and Now, edited by Asoke Nath Mitra, Pearson.
  • Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India, David Arnold, Cambridge University Press.
  • Ancient India's Contributions to the World (Full Documentary on Youtube.com)
  • Science in India: A Historical Perspective, by B.V. Subbarayappa, Rupa Publications.
  • Indian Journal of History of Science.
  • 10 Indian women scientists you should be proud of (this doesn't pertain to pre-modern history, but is included here as such news go unnoticed).
  • Some Famous Indian Scientists (TIFR)
  • *About the idea of India (as mentioned above), you may read more here, here or here.

Critique/coverage of the recent events:

  • Science & Nonsense. The Hindu.
  • Is jingoistic science discrediting the astounding achievements of ancient Indian knowledge? Economic Times.
  • Science Congress lauds ‘feats’ of ancient India. The Hindu.
  • ‘Mere study of ancient texts not science’, The Hindu.
  • Mythology and science, The Hindu.
  • India’s Contribution to Science = Nothing! Really?
  • IISc research debunked long ago myth of ancient Indian flying, Kalyan Ray,
    Deccan Herald.
  • India already the myth-making world superpower, Ramachandra Guha,
    Hindustan Times.
  • Science lesson from Gujarat: Stem cells in Mahabharata, cars in Veda. Indian Express.
  • India's 'yoga ministry' stirs doubts among scientists. Nature.
  • Indian Science Congress organisers slip Vedic mythology about aviation into programme schedule. Mumbai Mirror.
  • Free India from Left-Liberals sneering at its ancient history, Hindol Sengupta, Indiafacts.
  • Vedic Science: Fiction vs Fact (NDTV discussion).
  • Those mythological men and their sacred, supersonic flying temples, Siddhartha Deb, New Republic, May 14, 2015.
  • Don’t mock mythical imagination by calling it science, says Karnad, The Hindu.

(Last update: 12 Dec, 2015) Please if you find any dead links. This site is constantly in progress.

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