ANCIENT INDIA’S CONTRIBUTION TO SCIENCE
India has always been known for its spiritual wisdom. However, not many are aware that ancient India also had a very sophisticated scientific temperament with great many contributions made to the field of science, technology, medicine and astronomy.
With India making new progress in the cutting edge field of science and technology, a look at its past will amaze what our ancestors knew and discovered at a point of time when people in most places in the world were still living in primitive ignorance.
The most popular and well-known contribution of India is the concept of zero as developed by Aryabhatta. In the Ganita Sara Samgraha, written in 850 A.D., Mahaviracharya, the greatest Jain mathematician mentions the significance of zero.
Brahmagupta had solved the Pellian equation in the fifth century and a hundred years later, Aryabhatta calculated the most accurate value of the mathematical constant, Pi, in the Gitikapada. The Bakhsali manuscript, written sometime in the third or fourth century B.C., is an exclusively mathematical text that presents rules and solutions to geometric, algebraic and arithmetical problems with illustrated examples. In the 290 B.C., Bhadrabahu solved the Pythagorean Theorem in Kapasutras. Vedic mathematics existed as a simple method for solving complex mathematical calculations.
Though mathematics in India truly blossomed in astronomy, it was also developed as an integral part of trade and commerce even before the Vedic period. Bhaskara’s book Lilavati explains common rules of science and applies them to questions on interest, baiter, combinations and permutations. The excavations at Harrapan and Mohenjadaro reveal the existence of the binary system and the decimal system in their measurements.
Ancient India was very ritualistic. It is believed that these rituals had scientific significance and that Vedic cosmology, evolved out of it. The practice of havan or fire worship in different shaped havan kund or alter was all based on astronomical and calendar calculations. The practice of rituals was based on a detailed study of the skies and the element of time.
Astronomy developed as a result of such study. Surya Siddhanta by Latadeva and Brahmagupta’s Brahama Siddhanta belonging to 628 A.D. are some of the oldest astronomical texts available in India. Astronomy was applied in rectifying the calendar, estimating chronological epochs and calculating eclipses.
Some experts believe that gravity was actually discovered first in India by Bhaskara who in his book Siddhanta Siromani mentioned a force of attraction quite similar to gravity. Indian astronomers hold the distinction of having divided the year into 12 months and six seasons. Latadeva in his book Surya Siddhanta mentions the earth’s axis calling it sumeru. Even instruments to measure positions of celestial bodies have been found from historical sites.
The discovery of metal statues dating back to the Indus Valley civilization speaks of an advanced knowledge of metallurgy. Jewelry, vessels, coins and seals made of bronze and copper makes it evident that ancient India was aware of the use of metal. In the treatise Rasaratnakar, one finds mention of zinc being made for the first time sometime in the 50 B.C. in the modern state of Rajasthan. In Atharva Veda and Yajur Veda we find the word ayas mentioned several times. It is believed that the word denotes iron. Similarly, nishkas were gold coins that were in use during the Vedic times. In Maiiusmiriti, Manu gives a detailed procedure of estimating the value of a coin. The Chola bronze coins of 800 to 1400 A.D. show great mastery in the usage of metal as money.
Metallurgy was closely related to Chemistry. The most famous ancient book available in Chemistry is that of Charak Samhita that containes details on how to prepare sulfuric acid, nitric acid, the oxide of copper, iron, lead, tin and zinc, the sulphate of copper, zinc and iron, and the carbonates of lead and iron. Chemistry was used in developing medicine and even weapons. It is believed that the weapons mentioned in the epics Ramayan and Mahabharat were actually products of chemical inventions.
The study of Ayurveda is also another ancient science. It is believed to have a divine origin having being taught by Brahma, the creator of Universe to various stages. The two principle ancient Ayurvedic physicians were Bharadwaja and Deodas Dhanwantari. Dhanawantri’s student Susruta holds the distinction of being the founder of modern day surgery. It was Ayurveda that made amazing discoveries like the number of bones existing in a human body being equal to the number of days in a year.
Closely connected to Chemistry and Medicine, the study of Botany too did not lag behind in ancient times. During Vedic times plants and vegetables had been classified into classes, orders, genus and species as can be understood from the hymns mentioned in the Yajurveda. The study of plants formed an important part for Ayurveda students.
Though ancient India tried to explain all natural phenomena through religion and symbols and incorporated into the daily lives of people through rituals and spiritual beliefs, the studies developed by them actually portray a deep scientific understanding of all things around us.