Indians and science

By Justice Markandey Katju-

Justice Markandey Katju

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

Today the Indian subcontinent has huge problems of massive poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, price rise, religious extremism, etc. In my opinion, these problems can be overcome only by science and scientific thinking.

Some people think that Indians, in which term I include Pakistanis and Bangladeshis ( since I regard India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh as one nation, only temporarily separated ), as having no bent for science, and that they have made no contribution to scientific development. But this is wrong.

The truth is 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 ‘ The Universal History of Numbers ‘, the French scholar Georges Ifrah writes :

“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, whose language of learning, Sanskrit, was written from left to right.

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 feel 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 Sanskrit 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 .”

Thus even today Hindus can accurately predict the date, timing,and duration of solar eclipses ( surya grahan ) and lunar eclipses ( chandra grahan ) using charts ( patras ) invented by their ancestors 2000 years ago.

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.

Before I conclude, two notes of caution must be struck.  Firstly, some Indians claim that we had aeroplanes, atom bombs, guided missiles, etc in ancient India, and that we had invented genetic engineering, head transplants, etc. This is all false, as explained in the article below, and we make a laughing stock of ourselves before the whole world by mixing the truth with untruth by making such false claims.

Secondly, we must not gloat on the scientific achievements of our ancestors, but move forward and do scientific thinking today to solve our huge problems.

By science is not meant the natural sciences ( physics, chemistry, biology, etc ) alone. It includes the social sciences ( economics, political science, sociology, etc ) as well. The main problems of the Indian subcontinent are poverty, hunger, unemployment, price rise, casteism and communalism. These will require new scientific theories suited to our country in the social sciences ( particularly economics ) to resolve. They cannot be resolved by knowledge of the natural sciences. Hence the social sciences have become particularly important in our subcontinent today.


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