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Durable Link to this BlogTuesday, February 10, 2009

Science in Ancient India

The word Jnana stands for knowledge in Sanskrit. "Vijnana" (Vi+Jnana) is the term used for science in general. "Vi" the adverb stands for "specific" or "specialized". When put in textbook or palm-leaf book form, Vijnana came to be known as Shastra. Originally both terms Vijnana and Shastra were used in spiritual context. Oral tradition was the way of learning in ancient India. Hence all the formulae, and theory were in verse form made easy to recite, repeat and remember. All most all science or Shastra works are in verse form. Hindus are or were, very practical people. Like religion, science was a way of life with them. When application comes, these various forms of science are considered as "arts", like cookery, dancing, singing, in modern times. This is western interpretation. But in ancient times such subjects were science or Shastra and regarded with sanctity. Cooking was supashastra. Erotics was kamashastra, music was sangitashastra and dancing, natyashastra.

At times music, dance and drama went together in Indian tradition. Most of the details concerning scientific achievements and their adoption in everyday life of Indians were observed by foreign visitors, Arab, Persian, European and Chinese, from time to time. Indians were not keen on laying down all scientific norms in book form. They lived them. Let me quote examples from supashastra:

Without bothering to name them, average Indians used green vegetables, sprouted grams and fibrous food in plenty. Though wheat, and rice were staple food, daily meal consisted of vegetables, dairy products, pulses, (proteins), fish, meat etc. Nourishment quality of these items may not have been analysed and named in laboratories in the modern sense. But the diet was a balanced one. Salads of raw vegetables were common. Their vitamin contents were arrived at by empirical methods. Nellikai (Myrobalan) was used in, plenty for jams, sauce, and oil for hair. Today its richness in vitamin "C" has been fully, recognized. Turmeric, a regular cooking ingredient, was also an antiseptic.

I was once invited to give a talk on preserved food and drinks in ancient times by cultural Association of BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) at Mumbai. I checked the details of extracting juice from various fruits, mango jambolina, citrus fruit, jack fruit, pomegranate etc in ancient supashatra texts from an Officer in Chemistry department of that centre, whether they were scientific. He confirmed that they were. The fruits were mixed with rock-salt and kept in the sun. "We boil them in the laboratories and our ancients used natural Sunshine. It was free from dust and pollution in earlier times" he stated. Food items like payasam (pudding) and curd-rice were preserved for longer period by cooking the rice in water, medicated with herbs. Artificial ways of obtaining milk from coconuts and peas was known. Ways of refrigeration was worked out using earthen pots with pores immersed in water which help containers and continuous fanning was applied.

Care was taken to keep the potable water clean. Itsing the Chinese monk, (8th century C.E) has mentioned that it was compulsory to carry specially pored napkins for students which they used for sieving water.

Amma's Column by Jyotsna Kamat

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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