Presidential address to the
Symposium on Ancient Indian Scientific Knowledge.
I am delighted to be here today in the midst
of so many luminaries and under the benign divine presence of the most
respected sage that ever walked on Earth in the twentieth century. The
The Ancientness of Indian knowledge goes back
not just to a few centuries or even a
few millenia, but it goes back to several yugas, where each yuga is itself
several hundreds of millenia. The words ‘Scientific Knowledge’ may prompt you
to think that we are talking of the Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology
that we now know of from our contacts with the western world. There is a
mistaken impression in some quarters that science and scientific knowledge are
the prerogatives of only the past few centuries of history. It is not so. From
time immemorial all knowledge in
adhIhi bhagavo brahmeti .... sa tapas taptvA.
The disciple is enjoined to investigate the
cause of all causes by doing tapas that is, one-pointed self-negating
concentration, a spiritual travail for which ancient
Punareva --- pitaramupasasAra>
The disciple proceeds from the obvious and the outer to the deeper and inward principles one by one: from matter to life, from life to mind, from mind to intelligence, and finally from intelligence to bliss;
From anna to prANa, from prANa to manas, from manas to vijnAna and from vijnAna to Ananda.
This spirit of enquiry is the sum and substance of all quest in ancient times. Whether the object of enquiry was spiritual or not, the method always incorporated this spirit of relentless enquiry and experiment. This is why I call all ancient Indian knowledge scientific.
In the beginning no distinction was made between the so-called spiritual pursuit and the secular pursuit of material knowledge. But even in later times when such a distinction was made, the spirit of scientific enquiry continued. Whether it was the magnum opus of the 6th century B.C.E., namely, the ashTAdhyAyI of Panini the Grammarian, or the Vaiseshika sUtras of Kanada (of about the same time) about the atomic theory of matter or the vast treasures of Jain literature (around the 2nd century B.C.E.) on Infinity and the law of indices, or Pingala’s Chandas-shAstra of the 1st century B.C.E. talking about Vedic metres, or it was Vedanga jyotisha, or the Sulva-sutras of Bodhayana and Apastambha (7th and 8th centuries B.C.E.), or the AryabhatIya of Aryabhata, or the conceiving of the Shriyantra that goes back to even the atharvaveda, or the Surya-siddhanta of Varahamihira of the 6th century C.E., or the Brahmasphuta-siddhanta of Brahmagupta of the 7th century C.E., or the Rasa-ratnAkara of Nagarjuna of the 10th century, or the Siddhanta Siromani of Bhaskara of the 12th century -- whatever it was, the scientific quest continued.
In spite of the significant and voluminous contributions of the Greeks to Number Theory, Geometry and Mensuration, the credit of inventing a practically useful notation for writing and communicating with numbers goes back to the Hindu school of thinkers of the first century B.C.E. It is again an amazing fact that long before these notations were used, probably even before the time of the Mahabharata, Samskrit literature had already been using unique word names for powers of 10. Listen to a passage from Krishna Yajur Veda (4th Khanda, 4th Prashna): This is a prayer and a wish for the wealth of cows to abound in large numbers, like millions and millions.
sahasrAyatvemAme agna ishTakA dhenavassantv ekA ca shatamca sahasramcAyutamca niyutamcaprayutamcArbudamca nyarbudamca samudrashca madhyamcAntashca parArdhashcemAme agna ishTakA dhenavassantu.
The counting of cows here goes by hundreds, thousands, and thousands and millions of hundreds. The actual sequence of powers of ten has a word for each power of ten upto the seventeenth, though not all of this is used in that passage just quoted. The actual sequence as defined in books of Mathematics like Leelavati is:
Eka, shata, sahasra, ayuta, laksha, prayuta, koti, arbuda, abja, kharva, nikharva, mahapadma, shankha, jaladhi, antya, madhya, parArdha.
Here parArdha is 10 to the power of 17. It is the number of human years in one half of Brahma’s life. The very fact that these words are picked and used in the veda itself shows how ancient the concept is. These names have been freely used both in literary and scientific writings from the mahAbhArata times onward.
I dare not invade into the topic of the first
speaker today, Prof. M.S. Rangachari. But having enjoyed all my life the charms
and beauties of Mathematics I cannot resist the temptation of quickly and briefly summarizing for you the greatness
of our ancients in the Mathematical field.
The number zero, one of the most
significant inventions, is the subtle
gift of the Hindus of antiquity to mankind.. To it must be credited the enormous usefulness of its counterpart,
the place value system of expressing all numbers with just ten symbols. And to
these two concepts we owe all the arithmetic and mathematics. The mathematical
climate among the Hindus, was congenial for the invention of zero and for its
use as the null-value in all facets of calculation. Then there is Vedic
Mathematics which has caught the rapt attention of the whole world as a
pedagogical short-cut to manipulatory mathematics. Among the Sulba sutras, the Bodhayana
Sutras (800 - 600 B.C.) contains among other things a general
statement of the Pythagorean theorem, an approximation procedure for obtaining square roots and a number of geometric
constructions that include an approximate squaring the circle, and
construction of rectilinear shapes whose area was equal to the sum or
difference of areas of other shapes. To the Jaina thinkers must be given the credit of being the first, in the chronology of scientific
thinking, to have recognised that all
infinities were not the same. They also
were aware of the Theory of indices. The Bakshali manuscript has the unique
distinction of having, for the first time, in the entire history of Ancient
Indian mathematics, the subject matter organised in the sequence: a rule; a
relevant example in word form; the same in notational form; the solution and
finally the demonstration or the proof.. It was from here the Rule of Three
was taken to
Not only in Mathematics but in other fields
also the ancients of
I congratulate every one of the experts who are going to share with us today their findings on this interesting topic of Ancient Indian Scientific Knowledge. I am glad I have this opportunity and responsibility to listen to all of them. And I look forward to a thought-provoking symposium. In the process I expect to learn a lot from them. Thank you.