January 27, 2009

Svetasvatara Upanishad recounts the earliest conflict between religion and science

Sanskrit Texts: A Window on Indian Scientific Tradition Prema Prakash

In the popular perception, India's contribution to the development of science and technology often appears limited to those achieved over the last century or so. However, the wealth of Sanskrit texts provides evidence that such contributions have existed over the millennia�the earliest textual source being the Rigveda (believed to pre-date 3100 BC). Yet, an awareness of the precise nature of the contributions has not percolated through our now westernized education system. This is partly due to a lack of wider cultivation of Sanskrit, and access to the ancient texts. Nevertheless, attempts are being made in several academic institutions in India, including IIT Bombay, to bridge this rift with our heritage by archiving, translating, and digitizing manuscripts for easier access.

Indian Science over the Ages Archaeological evidence shows that the first 'industrial' revolution had begun as far back as the Mohenjo Daro and Harappan civilizations. The Svetasvatara Upanishad recounts the earliest conflict between religion and science, which ushered in a new intellectual climate during the Second Urbanization (c.600 BC)�a period that allowed for the first time, the emergence of the 'scientist'.

Contrary to the belief that science originated in Europe pioneered by the Greek sage Thales (76 BC), historian D P Chattopadhyaya demonstrated that it was actually Uddalaka Aruni from the Indian subcontinent who possibly was the first in human history to claim the need for arriving at knowledge through experimentation. As is well known today, the rationalist medicine of ancient India was rich in its empirical content. Its founders made use of knowledge not only of anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, but also digressed into other disciplines that later evolved into physics, chemistry, biology, climatology and mineralogy. Also, scholars have acknowledged that Panini's grammar (5th century BC) with its 4000 rules is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time. It represents a universal grammatical and computing system, which anticipated the logical framework of modern computing languages.

The period between 4th & 12th centuries AD saw remarkable progress made in the realms of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, metallurgy and architecture. The oldest mathematical works essentially dealing with geometry were the Sulvasutras. Mathematics itself developed more as an offshoot of an enduring preoccupation with astronomy. Some of the astronomer-mathematicians like Aryabhatta (born 476AD), Brahmagupta (born 598AD), Bhaskaracharya (1114AD), Madhavacharya (c.1340-1425) and Nilakantha Somayaji (c. 1444-1545) had developed methods far ahead of their European contemporaries. Bhaskaracharya was the author of Siddhanta Shiromani, a compendium comprising: Lilavati on arithmetic, Bijaganita on algebra, Ganitadhyaya, and Goladhyaya on astronomy. His "epicyclic-eccentric" theories of planetary motions were more developed than in the earlier siddhantas. The Chakravala (quadratic equations with two unknowns) contained in the Bijaganita gained popularity in 17th century Europe.

The sources for astronomical knowledge are the Jyotish-Vedanga (500BC) and the Panchasiddhantas, of which, the Suryasiddhanta (Varahamihira, 578 AD) has had a major influence on Indian astronomical tradition. Similarly, the postulation of atomism in the Nyaya-Vaisheshikas; the extensive treatise on coinage and minting in Kautilya's Arthashastra; and the holistic 'science of life' Ayurveda with its outstanding texts�the Charaka, Susruta and Ashtanga samhitas�are examples of the advanced scientific knowledge that was available during the medieval period (c.647 - 1526AD)

This worldly vs. otherworldly Despite such early achievements, in the post-Industrial Revolution era, India fell behind Europe in developing modern science and technology. Historian, A Rahman has suggested that the reason lay in "a lack of quantification of knowledge and practice, a lack of development of aids to observation, and the failure to evolve a perspective of the future and develop a pattern of knowledge in relation to it". Others have implicated periodic invasions, unfavourable social climate, and the self-seeking policies of the colonial power. The Indian education system was seen to be ritualistic and brahminical, and the subsequent government decree in 1844, which officially recognized only students of the Western education system, led to the decay of traditional Pathshalas. In his well-known book 'Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' the European sociologist Max Weber observed that the capitalist form of economy employed a form of rationality�a "this worldly attitude"�that fostered western scientific thought; unlike the "otherworldly attitude" of withdrawal and renunciation that was supposedly adopted by eastern cultures. In short, the exotic and spiritual aspects of Indian intellectual tradition have been unduly exaggerated over its more rationalistic and analytical elements.

The Sanskrit Cell at IIT Bombay The usefulness of Sanskrit texts for modern times can be demonstrated by demystifying the basic knowledge in the ancient texts, and by working out new theories and paradigms that can be built on the principles laid down in them. At the suggestion of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, IIT Bombay has set up a 'Cell for Sanskrit in Indian Science and Technology' (CSIST), with an Advisory Committee constituted by Profs Amitabha Gupta (Convener) and P R Bhat (Dept of Humanities and Social Sciences); Profs H Narayanan and S D Agashe (Dept of Electrical Engineering); and Prof Pushpak Bhattacharya (Dept of Computer Science & Engg)

The cell's activities include: initiating teaching and research based on Sanskrit texts, developing a digital archive*, and organizing workshops, seminars and lecture series to highlight and disseminate Indian contribution to science and technology. An elective course has already been introduced at the 4th year level, and the texts currently available at the website are Suryasiddhanta and Bijaganita. Verses from the former have been juxtaposed with their English translation by Rev Ebenezer Burgess (1861). Prof S M Bhave, Head, CSIST has provided the prefaces to both texts. In the future, the CSIST aims to make more such texts readily accessible and help re-evaluation of ideas dormant in them, and so enhance their utility in the on-going discourse on Indian contributions to the founding of science. Acknowledgement: The author thanks Prof A Gupta and Prof S M Bhave of the Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences for their comments and suggestions. *Website: www.csist.hss.iitb.ac.in Home Top Previous page more on next page Home Top Next Page

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