Ideas Matter

Recently concluded Indian Science Congress in Mumbai had a session dedicated to contributions of India to Science and Technology. It is for the first time that India officially acknowledged her invaluable contributions in generating and distributing knowledge. It is quite unfortunate that the discussions went on in the session generated much controversies among scientists and technologists. This event shows that even after about more than six decades of Independence, we Indians have not yet regained our self esteem which was lost during the 19th century when British were trying to find out a method to enslave India. The speech made by Lord Macaulay in the British parliament on 2nd February 1835 speaks all. “I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen a person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we could ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage and therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient system, her culture, for if Indians think that all that is foreign and English is superior and better than their own, they will lose their self esteem and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”

Consequently in 1835, Macaulay Commission revamped Indian Education System to mould Indians to serve as clerks and secretaries in British Administration. Objections from some of the famous Indologist-members were overruled by Maculay as the Chairman of the Commission saying that the whole of Indian literature in Sanskrit is not sufficient to fill one stack in the library of British Grammer School. The reactions during the Science Congress session from various quarters prove how prophetic Macauley’s words were and how correctly he read Indian mind. It shows that the elites and knowledgeable persons in India are ignorant about the Indian golden heritage even if there are examples in front of them to see like the iron pillar in Delhi (remarkable success in materials science), the famous Aranmula mirror from Kerala (metallic mirror with reflectivity as high as 99.5%).
There is a top ranking scientist friend of mine in one of the National Institutes in India who does not believe in the existence of the remarkable decimal place value–names up to 13 places (as mentioned in Yajur Veda, the place values are Eka, dasa, satha, sahasra, ayutha, niyutha, prayutha, arbuda, nyarbuda, samudra, madhya, antha, parardha. Bhaskaracharya in his famous book Leelavathi, mentions upto 17 place values) as compared to 8 places prevalent currently in India and seven places in western mathematics. My friend is one among the many who has not been introduced to Indian Knowledge systems, especially mathematics and Astronomy. It is high time that we correct the mistake and introduce Indian Knowledge systems also in the Indian Education system.
It is a pity that our learned elites have not heard of the works of Aryabhata, Varahamihira, Brahama-gupta, Bhaskaracharya and others. Indian youth know the name of Aryabhata as the first Indian artificial satellite. But he was a genius mathematician and astronomer.

Indian systems of medicines like Ayurveda, highly scientific and mathematical structure of Sanskrit with its glory of grammar, Panini’s Ashtadh-yayi, the first book on the science of language called linguistics are the pearls of Ancient Wisdom. Shankaracharya established four Maths (monasteries) one at Sringeri, another at Dvaraka, a third at Puri and a fourth at Joshi Math in the Himalayas in location that represent four vertices of a square. How Shankaracharya performed this act of wonder we do not know, but it reflects the glorious scientific past of India.

Legacy of Charaka and Susrutha in the light of modern medicine have been discussed in detail by Prof. MS Valaithan who bridged Modernity and Indian antiquity as far as Medicine is concerned. In his studies Valaiathan proves beyond doubt that the eye surgery and plastic surgery were practised by physicians in ancient India. Pharmacology was well developed subject in ancient India. Turning blind eyes towards the Indian success in the field of Indian systems of medicines, few modern medical doctors and elites still declare that all Ayurvedic traditions are humbug. One of the criticisms which they put forward is that Indian systems of medicine like that of bhasma contain heavy metals, which according to modern medicine, is harmful to health. Researchers from IIT Mumbai have analysed such bhasmas and found that metals like gold are present in nano form. Biological interactions at nano dimensions of metals are entirely different from that at bulk level. One has to carryout unbiased studies in this aspect before putting forward a blanket judgement against Indian medicines.

Sterling contributions of ancient Indians in the field of mathematics and astronomy are now well known due to studies by Prof. K V Sharma and others. Specifically, Prof Sharma elucidates the valuable contributions made by the chain of Guru Shishya parampara that existed during 14th to 19th century in Kerala, which westerners describe as the kerala School of Mathematics.

Kerala School of Mathematics was founded by Sangama gram Madhava (1350-1425) who lived in a village in Kerala near Cochin called Irinjalakkuda. It was Madhava who, for the first time, showed that one can get finite value by summing infinite terms. Professor George Gheverghese Joseph from Cambridge details the works of the Kerala School in his recently published book, Passage to Infinit: Medieval Indian Mathematics from Kerala and its Impact was published in 2009. His book,The Crest of the Peacock: Non European Roots of Mathematics was first published by Penguin at London in 1991. It was in the 1830′s that Charles Whish, an Englishmen wrote about the mathematical tradition of Keralam. He says that Neelakantan’s Tantrasangraham, Jyeshtadevan’s Yuktibhaasha, Putum-ana Somayaaji’s Karanapaddhati and Sankara Varma’s Sadratnamala were the earliest works on calculus. But nobody took note of it for long.

The decimal system alone is sufficient to think of the glorious past of Indian Mathematics without which we could not have progressed this far in the field of mathematics and astronomy. As a concrete example we can point out the so called Pythagoras theorem that was known to the group of mathematicians known as Sulbakaras. Their works called Sulbasutras explains how, using a sulba (thread) and a pole of bamboo, one can construct complicated geometrical shapes. Sulbakaras were, in the modern terminology, surveyors and Sulbasutras are the surveyors’ handbook. Sulbasutras were written as a guide to surveyors for practical application and hence do not contain detailed proofs of sutras. Some of the famous Sulabakaras that lived during 8th to 5th century BC are Baudhayana, Kathyayan, Apastha-mbha and Manava. Baudhayana and Kathyayana, Apasthambha and Manava Sulba sutras are published along with English commentaries by Indian National science Academy (INSA). Pythagoras lived during 5th century about three centuries after Baudhayan nad Kathyayana. It was Euclid (3rd century BC) who attributed the so called Pythagoras Theorem to Pythagoras. Brahmagupta’s Brahma-sphuta-siddhanta is a magnum opus, may be equal if not greater than Newton’s principia which contains a wealth of mathematical formulae and theorems. He describes the Kuttaka method of solving indeterminate equations like which does not contain unique integer solutions. Infact, Bhaskaracharya’s Beeja ganitham contains an exercise to find integer solutions of the indeterminate equation which is one of the Fermat’s problems. It took hundred years to get a solution for this equation as given by Euler. Bhaskaracharya’s book gives the answer also (the smallest integer solutions are 226153980, 1766319049) well before about 600 years of Euler. It was Euler who named such indeterminate equations as Pell’s equation after John Pell of 16th century (400 years after Bhaskaracharya.)

Prof. KV Sharma catalogued more than 3000 manuscripts in the field of mathematics and astronomy of which less than 100 are deciphered. What we know is only the tip of the iceberg. If all are deciphered we may get new knowledge and may be able to get a quantum leap in many fields.

It is high time that the young generation starts research and training in the field of Indian heritage of knowledge, otherwise, they will be lost forever or smuggled out to western world and we will be deprived of our priorities. At present, there are indications in this direction. IIT Delhi is going to have tie up with Sanskrit Institute in Rishikesh for the study of science in Vedas and other texts. In Mumbai IIT there is a section which does research on Indian contributions to Astronomy and Mathematics.

The Organiser
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