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Durable Link to this BlogSunday, May 8, 2005

Ancient Indians and Science

Many subjects which are considered as art today were known as science in ancient India. Hence pakasastra (cooking, also called supasastra), aromatics, erotics were called sciences. So also were music and dance, Sangita sastra and Bharata's Natyashastra were science. They were also performing arts. Sastra (a.k.a shastra) is a word used for sciences. There was no real distinction between arts and sciences. Knowledge was whole. We find poets mastering architecture, the science of war, political science, dance and music which facilitated their use of imagery. We find scientists mastering poetry to express their formulae or expositions. Works of Varaha Mihira and Bhaskaracharya on astronomy and arithmetic are in verse-form. Any great sastrakara (scientist) was also referred to as kavi (poet or learned man).

Oral tradition, more than written works was the mode of learning. Verse-form was easy to read, recite and remember. Most of ancient science works are in verse form for this very reason. Memorizing was most important in learning.

Scientific Discoveries and Inventions

All of us know that the discovery of zero is ascribed to Indians. So is the field of Algebra. In ancient times astronomy, was a science subject studied in detail to determine rains, climate, crops and navigation. Position of stars and their study was important in seafaring. Indians had centuries-old trade and commerce links with far and middle eastern countries as well as those from Europe. They established cultural empire encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand and these countries still maintain established Hindu traditions. This they could achieve even without a marinerís compass, is noteworthy. Marinerís compass is comparatively a late discovery. It was due to scientific study of astronomy only, that they achieved success in deep-sea navigation. Persian and Arab scholars came to India to study Sanskrit and astronomy. Later, astronomy got restricted to astrology and led to various superstitions is a sad story. So also is the case of Vastu or science of architecture. If science is distorted to meet selfish ends, superstitions creep in one by one as the recent developments in India bear witness.

First book in Arabic on gynecology and pediatrics in the 8th century, was a translation of a Sanskrit work, which is now lost. Most of the details concerning scientific achievements and their adoption in day-today-life have been observed by foreign scholars Arab, Persian, European and Chinese who visited India from time to time. As for Indians, they never wrote them. They just lived them!

Tomorrow: Ancient Indians and Scientific Attitudes

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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