History of science and technology in the Indian subcontinent

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The history of science and technology in the Indian Subcontinent begins with prehistoric human activity the Indus Valley Civilization to early states and empires.


  • Hindu sciences have retired far away from those parts of the country conquered by us, and have fled to places which our hand cannot yet reach, to Kashmir, Benaras and other places.
    • Alberuni's India, vol. I, p. 22. Also quoted (in part) in Jain, Meenakshi (2011). The India they saw: Foreign accounts.
  • The Hindu systems of astronomy are by far the oldest, and that from which the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and even the Jews derived Hindus their knowledge.
    • Jean-Sylvain Bailly source:: The Secret Doctrine, Volume 3, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky Quoted from Gewali, Salil (2013). Great Minds on India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.
  • The motion of the stars calculated by the Hindus some 4500 years before vary not even a single minute from the modern tables of Cassini and Meyer.
    • Jean-Sylvain Bailly source: World as Seen Under the Lens of a Scientist, Dr Vithal B. Shetty Quoted from Gewali, Salil (2013). Great Minds on India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.
  • INDIA'S work in science is both very old and very young: young as an independent and secular pursuit, old as a subsidiary interest of her priests.
  • To make these complex calculations the Hindus developed a system of mathematics superior, in everything except geometry, to that of the Greeks. Among the most vital parts of our Oriental heritage are the “Arabic” numerals and the decimal system, both of which came to us, through the Arabs, from India. The miscalled “Arabic” numerals are found on the Rock Edicts of Ashoka (256 B.C.), a thousand years before their occurrence in Arabic literature.
  • The decimal system was known to Aryabhata and Brahmagupta long before its appearance in the writings of the Arabs and the Syrians; it was adopted by China from Buddhist missionaries; and Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi, the greatest mathematician of his age (d. ca. 850 A.D.), seems to have introduced it into Baghdad. The oldest known use of the zero in Asia or EuropeI is in an Arabic document dated 873 A.D., three years sooner than its first known appearance in India; but by general consent the Arabs borrowed this too from India, and the most modest and most valuable of all numerals is one of the subtle gifts of India to mankind.
  • Algebra was developed in apparent independence by both the Hindus and the Greeks; but our adoption of its Arabic name (al-jabr, adjustment) indicates that it came to western Europe from the Arabs—i.e., from India—rather than from Greece. The great Hindu leaders in this field, as in astronomy, were Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and Bhaskara. The last (b. 1114 A.D.), appears to have invented the radical sign, and many algebraic symbols. These men created the conception of a negative quantity, without which algebra would have been impossible; they formulated rules for finding permutations and combinations; they found the square root of 2, and solved, in the eighth century A.D., indeterminate equations of the second degree that were unknown to Europe until the days of Euler a thousand years later.14 They expressed their science in poetic form, and gave to mathematical problems a grace characteristic of India’s Golden Age.
  • The Hindus were not so successful in geometry. In the measurement and construction of altars the priests formulated the Pythagorean theorem (by which the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the squares of the other sides) several hundred years before the birth of Christ. Aryabhata, probably influenced by the Greeks, found the area of a triangle, a trapezium and a circle, and calculated the value of π (the relation of diameter to circumference in a circle) at 3.1416—a figure not equaled in accuracy until the days of Purbach (1423-61) in Europe. Bhaskara crudely anticipated the differential calculus, Aryabhata drew up a table of sines, and the Surya Siddhanta provided a system of trigonometry more advanced than anything known to the Greeks.
  • Chemistry developed from two sources—medicine and industry. Something has been said about the chemical excellence of cast iron in ancient India, and about the high industrial development of Gupta times, when India was looked to, even by Imperial Rome, as the most skilled of the nations in such chemical industries as dyeing, tanning, soap-making, glass and cement. As early as the second century B.C. Nagarjuna devoted an entire volume to mercury. By the sixth century the Hindus were far ahead of Europe in industrial chemistry; they were masters of calcination, distillation, sublimation, steaming, fixation, the production of light without heat, the mixing of anesthetic and soporific powders, and the preparation of metallic salts, compounds and alloys. The tempering of steel was brought in ancient India to a perfection unknown in Europe till our own times; King Porus is said to have selected, as a specially valuable gift for Alexander, not gold or silver, but thirty pounds of steel.22 The Moslems took much of this Hindu chemical science and industry to the Near East and Europe; the secret of manufacturing “Damascus” blades, for example, was taken by the Arabs from the Persians, and by the Persians from India.
  • The Hindus seem to have been the first people to mine gold.... Much of the gold used in the Persian Empire in the fifth century before Christ came from India. Silver, copper, lead, tin, zinc and iron were also mined-iron as early as 1500 B.C. U The art of tempering and casting iron developed in India long before its known appearance in Europe; Vikramaditya, for example, erected at Delhi (ca. 380 A.D.) an iron pillar that stands untarnished today after fifteen centuries; and the quality of metal, or manner of treatment, which has preserved it from rust or decay is still a mystery to modern metallurgical science." Before the European invasion the smelting of iron in small char- coal furnaces was one of the major industries of India. The Industrial Revolution taught Europe how to carry out these processes more cheaply on a larger scale, and the Indian industry died under the competition... Europe looked upon the Hindus as experts in almost every line of manufacture—wood-work, ivory-work, metal-work, bleaching, dyeing, tanning, soap-making, glass-blowing, gunpowder, fireworks, cement, etc.21 China imported eyeglasses from India in 1260 A.D.
  • It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by ten symbols, each receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit.
  • Said the great and magnanimous Laplace: 'It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by ten symbols, each receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity, the great ease which it has lent to all computations, puts our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.'
    • Pierre-Simon Laplace, quoted in Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage : India and Her Neighbors.
  • In order to instill a proper and well-founded pride in Hindus, it is (once more) most important to restore the truth about Hindu history, especially about Hindu society's glorious achievements. In technology, it cannot match China, which was the world leader until a mere three, four centuries ago. But in abstract sciences like linguistics, logic, mathematics, Hindu culture has been the chief pioneer. In psychology, it is still unsurpassed, though this is not yet fully recognized in the West, the part of the world that still arbitrates on what can count as rational and scientific.
    • Quoted from Elst, Koenraad (1991). Ayodhya and after: Issues before Hindu society.
  • In the Vedic Age, India was very religious, but it was also ahead of the rest in mathematics and astronomy. Thus, the geometry of the Shulba Sutras, geometrical appendices to the manuals of ritual (Shrauta Sutras), include the oldest known formulation of the theorem named after Pythagoras, developed in the context of Vedic altar-building. Modern Hindus are fond of recalling this scientific element in their tradition, e.g. by quoting Carl Sagan: “Hindu cosmology gives a time-scale for the earth and the universe which is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology”, as opposed to the limited Biblical-Quranic cosmology, which was protected against more far-sighted alternatives by a vigilant religious orthodoxy.
    • Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, 2001, p. 29-30, by Koenraad Elst
  • Sushruta described many surgical operations cataract, hernia, lithotomy, Caesarian section, etc. and 121 surgical instruments, including lancets, sounds, forceps, catheters, and rectal and vaginal speculums. Despite Brahmanical prohibitions he advocated the dissection of dead bodies as indispensable in the training of surgeons. He was the first to graft upon a torn ear portions of skin taken from another part of the body; and from him and his Hindu successors rhinoplasty the surgical reconstruction of the nose descended into modern medicine. "The ancient Hindus," says Garrison, "performed almost every major opera- tion except ligation of the arteries."
  • In the time of Alexander, says Garrison, "Hindu physicians and surgeons enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for superior knowledge and skill," and even Aristotle is believed by some students to have been indebted to them.
  • Although it would seem as if we had already furnished sufficient proofs that modern science has little or no reason to boast of originality, yet before closing this volume we will adduce a few more to place the matter beyond doubt... In the famous and recent work of Christna et le Christ, we find the following tabulation:
    [...]"Mathematics.--They invented the decimal system, algebra, the differential, integral, and infinitesimal calculi. They also discovered geometry and trigonometry, and in these two sciences they constructed and proved theorems which were only discovered in Europe as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries[...]
    [...]"Chemistry.--They knew the composition of water, and formulated for gases the famous law, which we know only from yesterday, that the volumes of gas are in inverse ratio to the pressures that they support. They knew how to prepare sulphuric, nitric, and muriatic acids; the oxides of copper, iron, lead, tin, and zinc; the sulphurets of iron, copper, mercury, antimony, and arsenic; the sulphates of zinc and iron; the carbonates of iron, lead, and soda; nitrate of silver; and powder.
    "Medicine.--Their knowledge was truly astonishing. In Tcharaka and Sousruta, the two princes of Hindu medicine, is laid down the system which Hippocrates appropriated later. Sousruta notably enunciates the principles of preventive medicine or hygiene, which he places much above curative medicine--too often, according to him, empyrical. Are we more advanced to-day? It is not without interest to remark that the Arab physicians, who enjoyed a merited celebrity in the middle ages--Averroes among others--constantly spoke of the Hindu physicians, and regarded them as the initiators of the Greeks and themselves.
    [...]"Surgery.--In this they are not less remarkable. They made the operation for the stone, succeeded admirably in the operation for cataract, and the extraction of the foetus, of which all the unusual or dangerous cases are described by Tcharaka with an extraordinary scientific accuracy.
    [...]"Architecture.--They seem to have exhausted all that the genius of man is capable of conceiving. Domes, inexpressibly bold; tapering cupolas; minarets, with marble lace; Gothic towers; Greek hemicycles; polychrome style--all kinds and all epochs are there, betokening the origin and date of the different colonies, which, in emigrating, carried with them their souvenirs of their native art."
    Such were the results attained by this ancient and imposing Brahmanical civilization.... Beside the discoverers of geometry and algebra, the constructors of human speech, the parents of philosophy, the primal expounders of religion, the adepts in psychological and physical science, how even the greatest of our biologists and theologians seem dwarfed! Name to us any modern discovery, and we venture to say, that Indian history need not long be searched before the prototype will be found of record.
  • We catch a glimpse of the great river of science which never ceases to flow in India. For India has carried and scattered the data of intellectual progress for the whole world, ever since the pre-Buddhist period when she produced the Sankhya philosophy and the atomic theory.
    • Okakura Kakuzō. Quoted from Gewali, Salil (2013). Great Minds on India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.
  • The skill of the Indian in the production of delicate woven fabrics ... in all manner of technical arts has from very early times enjoyed worldwide celebrity.
    • Prof.Weber, Industrial Commission Report, p. 295. in Lal, K. S. (1999). Theory and practice of Muslim state in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 7
  • Fakhr-i-Mudabbir gives primacy to the bow and the sword as the most effective weapons of the horseman. Both these weapons were of different varieties. Among them all, the Hindu sword was the best and most lustrous (gawhardartar). Their export to such distant areas as Ummayad Spain and Seljuq Anatolia too is attested. He also declares that there is no better lance than the Indian.
    • Adab-ul-Harb, trs. Rizvi, Adi Turk Kalin Bharat, Aligarh, 1956, 258; Simon Digby, War Horse and Elephant in the Delhi Sultanate, Oxford, 1971, 15-20. cited from Lal, K. S. (1994). Muslim slave system in medieval India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 8
  • It was India, not Greece, that taught Islam in the impressionable years of its youth, formed its philosophy and esoteric religious ideals, and inspired its most characteristic expression in literature, art and architecture.
    • Havell, E.B., History of Aryan Rule in India, p.256. quoted from Lal, K. S. (1992). The legacy of Muslim rule in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 1
  • In the West they learnt from Plato and Aristotle and in India “Arab scholars sat at the feet of Buddhist monks and Brahman Pandits to learn philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, chemistry and other subjects.” Caliph Mansur’s (754-76) zeal for learning attracted many Hindu scholars to the Abbasid court. A deputation of Sindhi representatives in 771 C.E. presented many treatises to the Caliph and the Brahma Siddhanta of Brahmagupta and his Khanda-Khadyaka, works on the science of astronomy, were translated by Ibrahim al-Fazari into Arabic with the help of Indian scholars in Baghdad. The Barmak (originally Buddhist Pramukh) family of ministers who had been converted to Islam and served under the Khilafat of Harun-ur-Rashid (786-808 C.E.) sent Muslim scholars to India and welcomed Hindu scholars to Baghdad. Once when Caliph Harun-ur-Rashid suffered from a serious disease which baffled his physicians, he called for an Indian physician, Manka (Manikya), who cured him. Manka settled at Baghdad, was attached to the hospital of the Barmaks, and translated several books from Sanskrit into Persian and Arabic. Many Indian physicians like Ibn Dhan and Salih, reputed to be descendants of Dhanapti and Bhola respectively, were superintendents of hospitals at Baghdad. Indian medical works of Charak, Sushruta, the Ashtangahrdaya, the Nidana, the Siddhayoga, and other works on diseases of women, poisons and their antidotes, drugs, intoxicants, nervous diseases etc. were translated into Pahlavi and Arabic during the Abbasid Caliphate. Such works helped the Muslims in extending their knowledge about numerals and medicine.
    • Lal, K. S. (1992). The legacy of Muslim rule in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 1 citing Alberuni, Introduction, p.xxxi; Singhal, India and World Civilization, I, p.149.
  • Indian students should value their religious culture and of course, the classical Indian culture bears importantly on the meaning of life and values. I would not separate the two. To separate science and Indian culture would be harmful … I don’t think it is practical to keep scientific and spiritual culture separate.
    • Charles H. Townes. source: Interviews with Nobel Laureates and Eminent Scholars, T.D. Singh and Pawan K. Saharan Quoted from Gewali, Salil (2013). Great Minds on India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.
  • The conclusions of modern science are the very conclusions the Vedanta reached ages ago; only in modern science they are written in the language of matter. Today we find wonderful discoveries of modern science coming upon us like bolts from the blue, opening our eyes to marvels we never dreamt of. But many of these are only re-discoveries of what had been found ages ago. ... All science is bound to this conclusion in the long run. Manifestation, and not creation, is the word of science today, and the Hindu is only glad that what he has been cherishing in his bosom for ages is going to be taught in more forcible language, and with further light from the latest conclusions of science.
    • Swami Vivekananda. Quoted from Gewali, Salil (2013). Great Minds on India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.
  • Religious faith in the case of Hindus has never been allowed to run counter to scientific laws; moreover the former is never made a condition for the knowledge they teach, but they are always scrupulously careful to take into consideration the possibility that by reason both the agnostic and atheist may attain truth in their own ways.
    • Romain Rolland. source: Vivekananda, Romain Rolland. Quoted from Gewali, Salil (2013). Great Minds on India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.

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