Some interesting facts about Indian contributions to science and technology. I found one fact simply hilarious — When Indian numbering system reached Europe, it took Europeans 500 years to accept the zero because the church considered it heresy! And these are the people who want to “civilize” us!
Rajiv Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation is currently running a project that will research and produce 20 volumes on the contribution of ancient and medieval India in the fields of science and technology.
By Rajiv Malhotra and Jay Patel
The depth and breadth of Indian science and technology is staggering, and this section gives just a glimpse into the genius of India’s scientists and engineers.
From complex Harappan towns to Delhi’s Qutub Minar, India’s indigenous technologies were very sophisticated. They included the design and planning of water supply, traffic flow, natural air conditioning, complex stone work, and construction engineering.
Most students learn about the ancient cities of the Middle East and China. How many have even a basic understanding of the world’s oldest and most advanced civilization – the Harappan or Indus-Sarasvati Valley Civilization in India? The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization was the world’s first to build planned towns with underground drainage, civil sanitation n, hydraulic engineering, and air-cooling architecture. While the other ancient civilizations of the world were small towns with one central complex, this civilization had the distinction of being spread across many towns, covering a region about half the size of Europe. Weights and linguistic symbols were standardized across this vast geography, for a period of over 1,000 years, from around 3,000 BCE to 1500 BCE. Oven-baked bricks were invented in India in approximately 4,000 BCE. Over 900 of the 1,500 known settlement sites discovered so far are in India.
Since the Indus-Sarasvati script is yet to be decoded, it remains a mystery as to how these people could have achieved such high levels of sophistication and uniformity in a dispersed complex and with no visible signs of centralized power.
For instance, all bricks in this civilization are of the ratio 1:2:4 regardless of their size, location or period of construction. There are many pioneering items of civil engineering, such as drainage systems for water (open and closed), irrigation systems, river dams, water storage tanks carved out of rock, moats, middle-class style homes with private bathrooms and drainage, and even a dockyard; there is evidence of stairs for multiple-storied buildings; many towns have separate citadels, upper and lower towns, and fortified sections; there are separate worker quarters near copper furnaces; granaries have ducts and platforms; and archeologists have found geometric compasses, linear scales made of ivory. Indians also pioneered many engineering tools for construction, surgery, warfare, etc. These included the hollow drill, the true saw, and the needle with the hole on its pointed end. (For further details, see the book summaries in later chapters.)
Given the importance of fresh water in India, it is no surprise that the technologies to manage water resources were highly advanced from Harappan times onwards. For example, in Gujarat, Chandragupta built the Sudarshan Lake in late 4th century BCE, and was later repaired in 150 BCE by his grandson. Bhopal’s Raja Bhoj Lake, built in 1014-1053, is so massive that it shows up in satellite images. The Vijayanagar Empire built such a large lake in 14th – 15th century CE that it has more construction material than the Great Wall of China. What some historians call the “Persian Wheel” is actually pre-Mughal and indigenous to India.
Scientists estimate there were 1.3 million man-made water lakes and ponds across India, some as large as 250 square miles. These are now being rediscovered using satellite imagery. These enabled rain water to be harvested and used for irrigation, drinking, etc. till the following year’s rainfall.
Indian textiles have been legendary since ancient times. The Greeks and Romans extensively imported textiles from India. Roman archives record official complaints about massive cash drainage due to these imports from India.
One of the earliest industries relocated from India to Britain was textiles and it became the first major success of the Industrial Revolution, with Britain replacing India as the world’s leading textile exporter. What is suppressed in the discourse about India and Europe is the fact that the technology, designs and even raw cotton were initially imported from India while, in parallel, India’s indigenous textile mills were outlawed by the British. India’s textile manufacturers were de-licensed, even tortured in some cases, over-taxed and regulated, to ‘civilize’ them into virtual extinction. Textiles and steel were the mainstays of the British Industrial Revolution. Both had their origins in India. The Ahmedabad textile museum is a great resource for scholarly material.
Iron and Steel:
Iron is found in countries neighboring India, leading European scholars to assume that it came from outside India. Given the similarities between the Vedas and Avesta (a Zoroastrian text), some saw this as supporting the theory of diffusion of iron and Vedas into India from the outside. Refuting this, Vibha Tripathi finds that iron in India is much older. (See details in a subsequent chapter.) Cemeteries in present-day Baluchistan have iron objects. The earlier iron found in Middle Eastern archeological sites was essentially meteorite material sculptured as rock/stone carvings, and was not metallurgically processed at all. Since iron can be a by-product of copper technology, this could be its likely origin in India because copper was a well-known technology in many parts of ancient India. A smelting furnace dated 800 BCE is found in Naikund (Maharashtra), India. Recent discoveries reveal that iron was known in the Ganga valley in mid second millennium BCE. In the mid-first millennium BCE, the Indian wootz steel was very popular in Persian courts for making swords.
Rust-free steel was an Indian invention, and remained an Indian skill for centuries. Delhi’s famous iron pillar, dated 402 CE, is considered a metallurgical marvel and shows minimal signs of rust. The famous Damascus steel swords, now displayed in museums across Europe, were made from Indian steel imported by Europeans. The acclaimed Sheffield steel in UK was Indian crucible steel. The best brains of European science worked for decades to learn to reverse-engineer how Indians made crucible steel, and in this process, modern alloy design and physical metallurgy was developed in Europe. (For details see later chapters with book summaries.)
Indian industry was dealt a death blow by the colonial masters who banned the production and manufacture of iron and steel at several places in India, fearing their use in making swords and other arms. In addition, they also ensured India would depend upon iron and steel imported from Europe.
Another important Indian contribution to metallurgy was in the isolation, distillation and use of zinc. From natural sources, zinc content in alloys such as brass can go no higher than 28 per cent. These primitive alloys with less than 28 per cent zinc were prevalent in many parts of the world before India. However, to increase the zinc content beyond this threshold, one must first separate the zinc into 100 per cent pure form and then mix the pure zinc back into an alloy. A major breakthrough in the history of metallurgy was India’s discovery of zinc distillation whereby the metal was vaporized and then condensed back into pure metal.
Brass in Taxashila has been dated from third century BCE to fifth century CE. A vase from Taxashila is of particular interest because of its 34.34 per cent zinc content and has been dated to the third century BCE (Marshall 1951: 567-568). Recently two brass bangles belonging to the Kushana period have been discovered from Senuwar (Uttar Pradesh, India). They are also made of metallic zinc as they have 35 per cent zinc content (Singh 2004: 594). Experts are unsure if this zinc was made by distillation process.
There is evidence of zinc ore mining at Zawar in Rajasthan from the fifth century BCE, but unfortunately there is lack of evidence of regular production of metallic zinc until the eighth century CE. The earliest confirmed evidence of zinc smelting by distillation is dated back to 840 +110 from Zawar (Craddock et al. 1985, 1989). This is the earliest date for zinc smelting and production of metallic zinc by distillation process anywhere in the world.
Europeans learnt it for the first time in 1743, when know-how was transferred from India. Until then, India had been exporting pure zinc for centuries on an industrial scale. At archeological sites in Rajasthan, retorts used for the distillation are found in very large numbers even today.
Once zinc had become separated into a pure metal, alloys could be made with the required zinc component to provide the required properties. For instance, strength and durability increase with higher zinc component. Also, copper alloys look like gold when the zinc component is higher than 28 per cent. Most early brass objects found in other countries had less than 10 per cent zinc component, and, therefore, these were not based on zinc distillation technology.
Alloys that exceed 10 per cent zinc are found earliest in Taxashila in the fourth century BCE. However, while Taxashila was distilling and manufacturing zinc on a small scale, it was in Zawar, Rajasthan, where this first became industrialized on a large scale. Zinc mines have been found in Dariba (11th century BCE), Agucha (sixth century BCE) and Zawar (fifth century BCE). These mines have pots and other manufacturing tools of these dates, but the mining could be even older. (See further details in later chapters.)
Three important items are now proven about the history of zinc metallurgy: (i) zinc distillation and metallurgical usage was pioneered in India; (ii) industrial scale production was pioneered in Rajasthan; (iii) England transferred the technology of zinc from India in 1736. British metallurgy documents do not mention zinc at all prior to this transfer.
Shipping and Shipbuilding:
Shipbuilding was one of India’s major export industries until the British dismantled it and formally banned it. Medieval Arab sailors purchased their boats in India. The Portuguese also continued to get their boats from India and not Europe. Some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated ships were built in India and China.
The compass and other navigation tools were already in use in the Indian Ocean long before Europe. (“Nav” is the Sanskrit word for boat, and is the root word in “navigation” and “navy”.) Using their expertise in the science of seafaring, Indians participated in the earliest-known ocean-based trading system.
Few people know that an Indian naval pilot, named Kanha, was hired by Vasco da Gama to captain his ships and take him to India. Some of Europe’s acclaimed “discoveries” in navigation were in fact appropriations of a well-established thriving trade system in the Indian Ocean. Contrary to European portrayals that Indians knew only coastal navigation, deep-sea shipping had existed in India as Indian ships had been sailing to islands such as the Andamans, Lakshdweep and Maldives around 2,000 years ago. Kautilya describes the times that are good and bad for seafaring. There is also extensive archival material on the Indian Ocean trade in Greek, Roman, and Southeast Asian sources.
Many interesting findings have recently come out about the way forests and trees were managed by each village and how a careful method was applied to harvest medicines, firewood and building material in accordance with natural renewal rates. There is now a database being built of ‘sacred groves’ across India. Once again, it’s a story of an economic asset falling into disuse and abuse because of the dismantling of local governance and disrespect for traditional systems.
Furthermore, when scholars try to explain India’s current ecological disasters, they seldom mention the large-scale logging of Indian timber by the British in order to fund the two world wars and various other industrial programs of the empire.
Indian farmers developed non-chemical, eco-friendly pesticides and fertilizers that have modern applications. These traditional pesticides have been recently revived in India with excellent results, replacing Union Carbide’s products in certain markets. Crop rotation and soil technology that has been passed down for thousands of years are traditional practices which India pioneered.
Historically, India’s agricultural production was large and sustained a huge population compared to other parts of the world. Surpluses were stored for use in a drought year. But the British turned this industry into a cash cow, exporting very large amounts of grain even during food shortages. This caused tens of millions of Indians to die of starvation in the 19th century.
Much re-legitimizing of traditional Indian medicine has already started, thanks in part to many Western labs and scientists. Many multinationals no longer denigrate traditional medicine and have in fact been trying to secure patents on Indian medicine without acknowledging the source. Traditional medicine is now a well-known and respected field.
Prof. C.K Raju, a renowned scholar, has researched the “clash of epistemologies” that occurred in European ideas about numbers. When Europeans started to import Indian ideas about mathematics, what had been natural to Indian thinkers for a long time was very hard for Europeans to accept. He divides this into three periods:
The first math war in Europe was from 10th to 16th centuries, during which time it took Europe 500 years to accept the zero, because the Church considered it to be heresy.
The second math war was over the Indian concept of indivisibles, which led to the theory of real numbers and infinitesimals, paving the way for the development of calculus. This war lasted three centuries, from the 17th to 19th centuries.
The third math war is now under way and is between computational math (Indian algorithmic approach) and formal math (Western approach).
Additionally, Indians developed many important concepts including the base-ten decimal system, now in global use, and crucial trigonometry and algebra formulae. They made several astronomical discoveries. Diverse schools of logic and philosophy proliferated.
Mathematical thought was intertwined with linguistics. India’s Panini is acknowledged as the founder of linguistics, and his Sanskrit grammar is still the most complete and sophisticated of any language in the world.
Besides the above examples of Indian contributions to the origins of the so-called “Western” science, there is another category of traditional knowledge called non-literate folk science. Western science as a whole has condemned and ignored anything that it did not either appropriate or develop, by branding it as magic and superstition. However, in countries such as India, which boast of cultural continuity, ancient traditions survive with a rich legacy of folk science.
In North America and Australia, where original populations have been largely decimated, such continuity of folk tradition was disrupted. In Western nations with large colonies in the Old and New Worlds, such knowledge systems were looked down upon once they had been successfully plundered. The process of contrasting Western science with folk knowledge systems has led to the imposition of contrived hegemonic categories.
The distinction between elite and folk science was non-existent in ancient times. India’s advanced metallurgy and civil engineering was researched and practiced by artisan guilds. Western science seldom realized that non-literate folk science preserves the wisdom gained through millennia of experience and direct observation, and has been transmitted by word of mouth.
For instance, modern scientists have humbly admitted that the ecological management practiced today by the tribes of India’s Northeast is far superior to anything they could teach them. A good example is the use of alder (Alnus nepalensis), which has been cultivated in the jhum (shifting cultivation) fields by the Khonoma farmers in Nagaland for centuries. It has multiple usages for the farmers, since it is a nitrogen-fixing tree and helps to retain the soil fertility. Its leaves are used as fodder and fertilizer, and it is also utilized as timber. One could cite numerous such examples.
The vast majority of modern medicines patented by Western pharmaceutical firms are based on tropical plants. The most common method to select candidates for detailed testing has been for Western firms to scout tropical societies, seek out established “folk” remedies and subject these to testing by “Western science”. In many cases, patents owned by multinationals are largely for isolating the active ingredients in a lab and going through rigorous protocols of testing and patent filing. While this is an important and expensive task that deserves credit, these are seldom truly independent discoveries from scratch. Never has the society that has discovered them through centuries of empirical trial and error received any recognition, much less any share of royalty.
Colin Scott writes: “With the upsurge of multidisciplinary interest in ‘traditional ecological knowledge’, models explicitly held by indigenous people in areas as diverse as forestry, fisheries, and physical geography are being paid increasing attention by Western scientists, who have in some cases established extremely productive long-term dialogues with local experts. The idea that local experts are often better informed than their Western peers is at last receiving significant acknowledgment beyond the boundaries of anthropology.”
Myths and legends sometimes represent the attempts of our ancestors to explain the scientific observations they made about the world around them and transmitted these to the future. They chose different models to interpret the observations, but the observations were empirical. Theorizing the possible role of myths, Scott writes: “The complementarity of the literal and the figurative helps us to realize that the distinction between myth and science is not structural, but procedural … Myths in a broader, paradigmatic sense are condensed expressions of root metaphors that reflect the genius of particular knowledge traditions … Numerous studies have found that the “anthropomorphic” paradigms of egalitarian hunters and horticulturalists not only generate practical knowledge consistent with the insights of scientific ecology, but simultaneously cultivate an ethic of environmental responsibility that for western societies has proven elusive.”
Despite these acknowledgments, in too many cases Western scholars reduce India’s experts to “native informants” who are seen located below the glass ceiling: the pandit as native informant to the Western Sanskritist; the poor woman in Rajasthan as native informant to the Western feminist seeking to cure her of her native tradition; the herbal farmer as native informant to the Western pharmaceutical firm appropriating medicines for patents. Given their poverty in modern times, these ‘native informants’ dish out whatever the Western scholar expects to hear in order to fit his/her thesis, because in return they receive rewards. Rarely have Western scholars acknowledged India’s knowledge bearers as equal partners. The obsession to make ‘original’ discoveries and to put one’s name on publications has exacerbated the tendency to appropriate with one hand, while denigrating the source with other hand. This deserves to be called ‘academic arson’.
Relationship with Inner Sciences:
India’s inner sciences of mind and consciousness are simultaneously (a) being appropriated by the West and (b) being depicted as anti-progressive and irrational. In fact, inner and outer realms of inquiry are often viewed as opposites that can, at best, be balanced but not unified. This falsely assumes that the inner sciences make a person and society less productive, creative, and competitive in the outer realm. However, contradicting this, India’s inner sciences and outer development coexisted in a mutually symbiotic relationship.
A strong inner science will definitely strengthen the outer science since it is the inner world which provides the inspiration, creativity, and knowledge that is necessary in the development of a sound outer science. A strong outer science allows the freedom for the exploration of the inner science. Without the use of technology of some form, man will be forced to dwell in his lower nature to satisfy his basic needs of survival.
The divorce of ‘religion’ and science is a strictly Western construct due to the dogmatic and rigid nature of the Abrahamic religions. History-centric religions (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are often not compatible with the human tendency towards freedom of thought, intellectual originality, and non-conformity of thought which are necessary in scientific innovation. The tradition of spiritual experimentation in India, however, is compatible with the material and intellectual experimentation required by science.