The advances made by seers of yore in India are inspirational for all those who are making a mark in the cutting-edge fields of science and technology
Gazing at an endless blue sky, you must have often wondered at what makes the earth go round and the apple fall from a tree. Whenever such queries cropped up, you found the answers in school science books. The word ‘science’ literally means knowledge or the state of knowing. When this knowledge is put to practical use, it creates technology.
Today, we have most, if not all, science recorded for posterity in print and other media. But if the history of science is traced back to its origin, it probably starts from an unmarked era of ancient times. The phenomenal advances of ancient India, for example, in science and technology are the stuff that legends are made of-be it the oft-quoted example of the conception of zero or developments in the fields of astronomy, chemistry and metallurgy.
Science, in fact, was neither ‘discovered’ nor ‘invented’: it was ‘revealed’ to ancient Indian seers in their meditations, got codified in the four Vedas-Rig, Yajur, Sam, Atharva-and was passed on from generation to generation.
‘The language of the Vedas,’ explains Dr Thomas Arya, a German psychologist and committed Indophile, ‘is symbolic and imagistic. It clothes all knowledge in symbols that a literal mind may comprehend only at the most evident level.’
SCIENCE IN RITUALS
The Vedic cosmology evolved as part of a complex system of sacrificial ritual. Although the Rig Veda does not mention any temples, according to scholar Nundolal Dey in his book Civilization in Ancient India, ‘each house had a furnished room as a receptacle of the sacred fire’. The daily havan (fire worship) preceded all rituals and particular emphasis was given to building the havan kund or altar. The agni cayana or flare of the fire linked sky and earth. So, square and round altars represented sky and earth respectively.
Every altar was different, with a specific shape and number of bricks based on astronomical and calendar calculations. For instance, the sky altar had five layers of bricks, each signifying the number of years.
‘Probably these rituals led to the birth of various branches of mathematics,’ notes the book In Search of the Cradle of Civilization, written by George Feuerstein, Subhash Kak and David Frawley.
The central position enjoyed by rituals demanded a proper comprehension of the skies and time. Although astronomy bloomed much later, thanks to the seminal work of Aryabhatta (499 AD), Latadeva (505 AD), Brahmagupta (628 AD) and Bhaskaracharya (1150 AD), ‘the earliest writer on astronomy is said to have been Parasara,’ says Dey. The primary aim of astronomy then was rectifying the calendar, ascertaining chronological epochs and calculating eclipses. ‘Although it is generally supposed that the Surya Siddhanta by Latadeva is the oldest astronomical text in India, some consider Brahmagupta’s Brahama Siddhanta to be the earliest work,’ notes Dey. Aryabhatta is supposed to have compiled Aryabhita Sutra around sixth century AD.
Many theories postulated then have found uncanny support now. Take Bhaskara’s Siddhanta Siromani, where he mentions a force of attraction resembling gravity, discovered centuries later by Newton. In Surya Siddhanta, Latadeva talked about the earth’s axis and called it sumeru. The astronomers also divided the year into 12 months and six seasons.
Behind such amazing discoveries was a rigorous study of the sky and a mathematical precision in instruments used. Of note is the bhubhagola, an instrument composed of rings showing the positions of important circles of the celestial sphere. Its design was similar to the armillary sphere, an instrument popular among European astronomers. Obviously, a proper reading of these instruments demanded a separate stream of knowledge-mathematics.
In The Third Anniversary Discourse: On The Hindu, Indophile Sir William Jones wrote: ‘The ancient Indians can boast of three inventions-instructing by apologues, decimal scale and the game of chess.’
Although the seeds of mathematics were present in Vedic rituals, including Vedic mathematics, a relatively simple method for complex calculations, they truly blossomed in astronomy. In fact, Indian mathematics’ greatest contribution came, philosophically enough, in the form of zero, courtesy Aryabhatta. In the Kalpasutras, penned in 290 BC, the scholar Bhadrabahu even solved the Pythagorean theorem.
An extant book on arithmetic was the Lilavati by Bhaskara. Lilavati contains the common rules of science and applies them to motley questions on interest, barter, mixtures, combinations and permutations.
The development of mathematics was not restricted to astronomy. It was an integral part of trade and commerce much before the Vedic era. Says Dr Arya: ‘The weights used by the Indus valley civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjodaro followed a binary system and measurements were based on the decimal system.’ The pursuit of knowledge, therefore, was strong much before the Vedic times.
In Search of the Cradle of Civilization dates the Indus valley civilization to around 2500 BC. Almost all our knowledge about this civilization comes from a study of the two excavated towns of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, now in Pakistan.
Archaeologists discovered that both sites were roughly three miles in diameter and arranged in a grid. To the west lay a citadel, erected on a high mud and brick platform. A remarkable structure within the citadel at Mohenjodaro was what archaeologists term the Great Bath. This 39 ft-long, 23 ft-wide and 8 ft-deep bathing pool had been sunk into the courtyard and waterproofed with bitumen.
To the east of the citadel lay the lower city, with straight bricklined streets 30 ft-wide, which neatly divided the town into blocks. All the streets had brick-lined sewers fitted with manholes.
Till date, the layout of Mohenjodaro and Harappa are considered model town plans. But this civilization’s innate sophistication is also evident in the arts and crafts unearthed.
ARTS AND CRAFT
The bronze and copper artifacts that are today considered ‘ethnic’ have a history dating back to the Indus valley civilization. Archaeologists found three major sculptures in its ruins. The first, made of soapstone, depicts the bust of probably a senior priest. It shows a bearded man, with half closed eyes, wearing a headband and an ornament on the left arm. The second artifact is a male torso made of red stone.
But by far the most popular item is the copper figurine that scholars have named Dancing Girl. Another artifact of note is a life-size bronze head, identified as the sage Vasishtha. A thriving economy is indicated by stamp seals with animal motifs, pottery ware, jewelry, copper and bronze vessels. Till date, historians have failed to fathom how such an advanced civilization suddenly disappeared into the blue.
The use of metals and their production has been one of India’s most ancient sciences. According to the treatise Rasaratnakar, the first batch of zinc was made in India around 50 BC at Zawar, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Experts even claim that iron was part of the Vedic culture, roughly dating back to 1500 BC. This theory is based on the word ayas, which recurs in the four Vedas and is widely believed to denote iron. But the Atharva Veda and Yajur Veda speak of different colors of ayas, indicating that it may have been a generic term for metal.
Even metallic money—golden nishkas—has been mentioned in Rig Veda. Yet we find the ancients using cattle as exchange (pasu, pecus). Some historians consider the nishkas to denote gold coins worn as necklaces.
In his work Manusmriti, Manu gives details of estimating the value of a coin. For instance, eight trasarenus (motes) is equivalent to one licksha (poppy seed). Copper was weighed in suvarna. ‘From these evidences, it is clear that the value of ancient money depended on the weight it bore,’ writes Dey. This changed with the mastery of madhuchusta vidhanam or the lost wax process, which led to the Chola bronze coins during 800-1400 AD.
Metallurgy was closely linked to developments in chemistry. Here also, ancient India was far ahead of its times.
Known as rasayan shastra, chemistry was initially part of the medical treatise Charak Samhita. ‘They (ancient Indians) knew how to prepare sulfuric acid, nitric acid, the oxide of copper, iron, lead, tin and zinc, the sulphate of copper, zinc and iron, and the carbonates of lead and iron,’ writes historian Elphinstone in his book History of India.
According to Dey, the weapons mentioned in the Indian epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata were actually products of chemistry. All warfare knowledge resided with the Brahmins, who later imparted it to the Kshatriyas. ‘The mantra the gurus gave their pupils was nothing but chemistry,’ argues Dey. ‘The arrowheads were probably coated with certain chemicals.’
Dey goes on to state that even gunpowder, whose invention is traditionally ascribed to the Chinese, was known to ancient Indian chemists. ‘Gunpowder,’ he says, ‘was known as aurbagni, being the invention of Aurba, the preceptor of Sagara and the ancestor of Rama.’ The ingredients and power of the fire of aurba have been described thus in the work Nitichintamani: ‘Combining burnt wood (charcoal), saltpeter and sulfur by parts gradually lessened, a terrible fire is produced by which even water and others are burnt.’
But not all of chemistry was warlike. Because of it being a part of Charak Samhita, chemistry also contained the knowledge of creating medicines by potentizing various metals. This near-extinct healing science is practiced by Vaidya Balendu Prakash in the north Indian valley town of Dehra Dun.
The Charak Samhita consisted of another science of healing—ayurveda, ancient India’s most potent contribution to the world of medicine. Legend has it that Brahma, the creator of the universe, perceived this science and taught it to Prajapati Daksha, who transferred the knowledge to his twin brother Ashwini. In his turn, Ashwini taught ayurveda to Indra who passed on the science to various sages. Two of Indra’s disciples—Bharadwaja and Deodas Dhanwantari—later became prominent physicians. Dhanwantari revealed this science to his pupil Susruta, who developed surgery.
Apart from providing a consummate healing technology, the ayurvedic savants also made some amazing discoveries about the human body. For example, they found that the number of bones in the human body actually equals the number of days in a year.
The Vedic era’s emphasis on nature led to one of the world’s earliest classification systems for plants and vegetables—perhaps because ayurvedic physicians looked into nature to find cures for various diseases. The Yajur Veda, for example, contains hymns that classify the plant kingdom into classes, orders, genus and species. According to Dey, this segregation was based on the plants’ external appearances. All vegetables that originate either from seeds or from slips of branches were called aushadhi (herbs). The plants that do not bear flower or fruit were termed vanaspati (lords of the forest) and those that did, came to be known as briksha (trees).
Message From Nature
As is evident, most of these sciences were in tune with nature. The ancients did not plunder the earth to search for its natural treasures. It was a contemplation, which took years to manifest. It was the perfect marriage between science and spirituality where one complemented the other. The laboratories of the sages of yore were the open blue sky, the quiet of a virgin forest, the calm of their inner awareness. Here, wisdom dawned. From quantum physics to the Big Bang, the universe was explained in terms of a symbol—the Nataraja—and a poem—the Rig Veda. Here, beauty and knowledge mingled to create a harmony that was unique among all times.
Then, shouldn’t we follow in the footprints of yesterday in search of a better tomorrow? Isn’t it time we look back and seek the universal harmony that we lost somewhere along the race for existence?
This article was first published in Life Positive magazine, October 1999.