Indians were once leaders in science


Justice Markandey Katju –

Justice Markandey Katju


The solution to India’s massive problems today of poverty, unemployment, etc. is science.

Many Westerners assume that Indians lack a scientific bent of mind and that their contribution to scientific progress is negligible, but this is false, and betrays a colonial prejudice.

The truth is that Indians have a natural aptitude for science, and this is proved by the fact that at one time India was leading the whole world in science. Ancient and medieval scholars of Arabia, Spain, China and Greece acknowledged their indebtedness to Indian science.

Thus, the prominent medieval Muslim Arab scholar Sa’id ibn Ahmad al-Andalusi (1029-1070 ) wrote in his book Tabaqat al-‘umam, one of the earliest books on the history of science :

“The first people in the world to have cultivated science are the Hindus, who are renowned for their wisdom. Over many centuries, all the scholars of the past have recognized the excellence of the Hindus in all branches of knowledge. They have made great strides in the study of numbers and geometry. They have acquired immense information and reached the zenith in their knowledge of astronomy. They have surpassed all other peoples in their knowledge of the medical sciences “.

Many scientific thinkers consider the invention of the decimal system by Hindus the greatest invention ever made by man. Without it modern civilization would be impossible. Thus, in his three volume work, ‘ The Universal History of Numbers ‘, the French scholar Georges Ifrah writes about it :

“Finally, it all came to pass, as though across the ages and the civilizations, after the human mind had tried all the possible solutions to the problem of writing numbers, before universally adopting the one which seemed the most abstract, the most perfect and the most effective of all. The measure of genius of the Indians, to which we owe our decimal system, is all the greater in that it was they only in all history and of all people in the world to have achieved this triumph “.

It is interesting to note that while Arabic, Persian and Urdu are written from right to left, writers in these languages write numbers from left to right, which proves that these languages borrowed their numbers from the Hindus.

The ancient Romans no doubt built a great civilization, the civilization of Caesar and Augustus. But if one asked an ancient Roman to write numbers above 1000 he would start feeling uncomfortable. That is because he wrote his numbers in alphabets, V standing for 5, X for 10, L for 50, C for 100, D for 500, and M for 1000. There was no alphabet expressing a number above 1000, and there was no 0. So if an ancient Roman had to write 2000 he had to write MM, to write 3000 he had to write MMM, and to write 1 million he had to write M a thousand times, which would drive him crazy.

On the other hand, in the decimal system invented by the Hindus, the concept of 0 enabled them to express huge numbers in very brief. Thus, 1000 was called sahastra, 100,000 was called lac, 1,00,00,000 was called crore, 1,00,00,00,000 was called arab, 1,00,00,00,00,000 was called kharab, 1,00,00,00,00,00,000 was called padma, 1,00,00,00,00,00,00,000 was called neel, 1,00,00,00,00,00,00,00,000 was called shankh etc. This was possible because the Hindus had conceived of the number 0, which no one had conceived of before.

Baudhayana in his Shulba Sutras mentions the geometry for construction of temples and large buildings long before the Greeks and Romans worked out their theories about them. 

Computer scientists today are finding the highly scientific approach to grammar and linguistics in the book Ashtadhyayi by the great grammarian Panini as valuable tools in designing computer languages.

The famous French astronomer of the 19th century Jean Sylvan Bailey was amazed by the accuracy of the system of astronomy created by the ancient Hindus.

He writes: “The motion of the stars calculated by the Hindus thousands of years ago vary not one bit from the tables of Cassine and Meyer which are used in Europe in the 19th century. The Hindu tables give the same annual variation of the moon as those discovered by the great 16th-century Danish scientist Tycho Brahe–a variation unknown to the school of Alexandria and also to the Arabs. The Hindu system of astronomy is far superior to that of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and the Jews .”

In medicine, Hindus far surpassed all peoples in the world. The Charak Samhita in medicine and the Sushrut Samhita in surgery were the oldest and most comprehensive medical books of their time.Sushrut invented plastic surgery 2000 years ago, while the Europeans learnt it only about 200 years ago.

The concept of town planning was perhaps conceived for the first time in history by the people of the Indus Valley Civilization, who were probably the first to set up a scientific drainage system and scientific ports such as that at Lothal.

So, the propaganda that Indians were savages before the British came here is fallacious. Today no doubt we have many massive problems, but with our natural inclination towards science, we will one day surely overcome them.

[Justice Markandey Katju is former Judge, Supreme Court of India and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own]

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