Intro: The purpose of book ‘Sciences of the Ancient Hindus’ is to demonstrate that the ancient Hindus made critically important fundamental contributions to the early development of mathematics and science, predating the Greeks by many centuries.
In India’s long history dating back to thousands of years, there never has been a conflict between religion and science. Our rishis always welcomed free and independent thinking and as a result they probed deep into the mysteries of Life and Universe. In fact, 24 centuries before Isaac Newton’s discovery, the Rig Veda proclaimed that gravitation held the universe together. The Vedic civilisation asserted that the earth is spherical at a time when everyone else, even the Greeks, assumed the earth was flat. By the Fifth Century A.D., Indians had calculated that the age of the earth was 4.3 billion years; as late as the 19th Century, English scientists believed the earth was a hundred million years old, and it is only in the late 20th Century that Western scientists have come to estimate earth to be about 4.6 billion years old.
Lost Discoveries, by American writer Dick Teresi, a comprehensive study of the ancient non-Western foundations of modern science, spells it out clearly: “Two hundred years before Pythagoras,” writes Teresi, “philosophers in northern India had understood that gravitation held the solar system together, and that therefore the sun, the most massive object, had to be at its centre.”
The list of ancient India’s contribution to science is endless. However, even after 68 years of Indian independence, educated Indians, by and large, are not aware of India’s glorious achievements in science. “Most mainstream history books on classical India, such as DN Jha’s Ancient India or Romila Thapar’s Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 (2003), are almost completely silent on Indian scientific achievements,” wrote Michael Danino, historian and author of several books on ancient India, who is currently a guest professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.
It is in this context that the book “Sciences of the Ancient Hindus: Unlocking Nature in the Pursuit of Salvation,” written by Dr Alok Kumar, professor of physics at the State University of New York at Oswego, assumes significance. He has received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the US President’s Award for Creative and Scholarly Activity and Research. He has more than 65 refered research publications and is active in the fields of atomic physics, chemical physics, history of science, and science education.
Excerpts from an exclusive e-mail interview with Kerala based senior journalist Pradeep Krishnan:
- Why did you title the book as science of the ancient Hindus, instead of Indians?
As a scientist, I have always focused on facts and truth. Therefore, I opted to stick to the term Hindu, since for about millennia, the people who produced the Vedas and the Upanishads were known by this popularised term in nearby regions. The term India only became popular in the last 250 years—a period not covered in my book.
- What is the purpose of this book?
The purpose of this book is to demonstrate that the ancient Hindus made critically important fundamental contributions to the early development of mathematics and science, predating the Greeks by many centuries. The sciences of the ancient Hindus were an essential and integral part of their religion. Unlike the members of some religions, Hindus have never had to make a choice between science and religion.
- Indian text books talk about Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Galileo, etc., but they don’t tell you anything about Yajna-valkya, Panini, Aryabhata, Varahamihira.
Yes, it is an unfortunate situation. Most textbook authors in India have written texts that fit the western model and they are either ignorant or reluctant to include scientific contributions of India. Hopefully, with the publication of my book, Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, future generations may change the situation and include ancient Indian contributions in textbooks. In my opinion, most authors are well intentioned and do not know the Indian contributions to science.
- Did Science, as we understand, originate in the West?
The obvious answer is no. Science is multicultural by nature. Science does not belong to one particular culture or gender; it belongs to all who want to unfold the mysteries of nature. Modern science certainly did not spring into a completely evolved form suddenly with the Renaissance in Europe. Influences came from various parts of the world like streams from many different sources join to form a river.
The absence of Indian contributions in science textbooks is not unique to India; many other cultures are also absent in our science texts. I must admit that the situation is changing even in the West and, hopefully, we may see books recognising Indian contributions in the near future.
For example, Joseph Needham, a historian of science from UK, recognised the omissions of contributions of the non-Western cultures in the history of science. He called these omissions “deeply unjust to other civilizations”.
- What is the point in simply basking in India’s past glory? How that is going to help us in the technologically advanced world today?
The history of science is not the history of events; it is the history of culture, intents, and a history of human minds. Knowing what we were in the past helps us to understand what we are in the present, and who we will be in the future. If you don’t know your history, then you are like a limb that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. Further, all countries celebrate their great heroes: Greece had Aristotle and Socrates, Italy had Galileo, England had Newton, and India had Kanada and Aryabhata, showing that the greatest minds of the ancient Hindus could be a match for the world’s best scientists and mathematicians. Just imagine erasing the name of Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato from the current philosophy texts because it is an old past. Will it be just and fair? The answer is no. This is exactly the case when we ignore our own heroes in India unjustly. In the context of teaching and learning, it is detrimental to the learning process.
- How did the academic community of the West view your work?
The overall reaction of the academic community has been positive.
I often get e-mails from scholars who appreciate the quality of my arguments and the contents provided in my book. I am truly overwhelmed and humbled with the positive reactions of the readers.
I was raised in a Hindu family in Haridwar, a holy city known for Ganga River. I was told by my parents that the Hindu culture has a long and glorified intellectual tradition. I tried to learn the details of this tradition in Indian and later in America. I soon realised that the modern Hindu accounts of the ancient world are meager and these accounts are mostly ignored by the West or simply labeled as biased or wrong. This trend is definitely prevailing for about 250 years.
I decided to collect the Greek, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and European accounts dealing with the ancient Hindus. When I compiled the scientific achievements of the Hindus from the accounts of Aristotle, Arrian, Megasthenes, Clement of Alexandria, and Apollonius of Tyana among the Greeks; Al-Biruni, Al-Khwarizmi, Kushyar ibn Labban, al-Fazari, al-Masudi, and Al-Uqlidisi among the Islamic scholars; Fa-Hien, Hiuen Tsang, and I-Tsing among the Chinese; Leonardo Fibonacci, Pope Sylvester II, Roger Bacon, Voltaire and Copernicus from Europe, a much different picture emerged. With further research, I found that, in the modern era, thinkers and scientists as diverse as Goethe, Emerson, Jung, Oppenhei-mer, Herder, and Schrodinger, to name a few, have acknowledged their debt to ancient Hindu achievements in science, technology, and philosophy. I decided to compile a history of the Hindus based on all these accounts. The mosaic that emerged from this effort was in contrast to what is generally portrayed in the popular media and even in academics. This is the story behind my book.
- Vedic science is often criticised for being archaic, mystical and unverifiable.
We are dealing with documents that were written several thousand years ago. Over this period, the documentation technology has evolved, our articulation styles have evolved, and knowledge is branched into a large number of disciplines. Vedic knowledge was compiled in poetry (hymns) to facilitate memorisation. The ancient Hindus memorised their literature verbatim.
The spoken words, not the written words, have been the basis of literary and scientific traditions of the Hindus. Special class of people who memorised these books were defined: Dwivedi, Trivedi, and Chaturvedi are popular last names among the Hindus. Initially these names signified the number of Vedas the person memorised. As a result, Vedic science may be mystical and archaic to some. However, it is certainly not unverifiable. My book amply demonstrate that the Vedic knowledge is relevant even today and verifiable.
- What is the response of the Western academic world to ancient Indian science?
Let me share my own experience. My book is well received by the academic community in the West. I get excellent input from the readers. I teach a course that is partly based on this book at the State University of New York at Oswego. The course is very well received.
Most students, who take the course, come from the Western background and are totally ignorant about the Indian past. Yet, they have little problem in accepting the fact. By the time they are done with the course, majority of them like the course very much. I get excellent teaching evaluations from them. As a result, I have received Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and President’s Award for Scholarly Activities, among many other awards.
- In India when one talks about our glorious scientific heritage and discoveries, it is dubbed as ‘reactionary,’ ‘fundamentalist’. Your comments?
That is the nature of our pseudo-secular environment and we will have to learn to live with it, concentrate on our work and, I am sure, their minds will be changed in due course of time. I must also share my own experience. I often talk about the scientific heritage of India and have not been dubbed as reactionary or fundamentalist. My success in academia demonstrates that this is not always the case.