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This article was first published 8 years ago  » News » 'For 1,400 years India led the world in science'

'For 1,400 years India led the world in science'

Last updated on: December 15, 2020 12:56 IST
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'Indian science was perhaps more rational than the European science of the time.'
'Nobody tried or convicted Aryabhata just because he said Rahu-Ketu is nonsense.'
'Some Indians take the extreme view that everything was known to our ancients, but others go to the opposite extreme and consider everything Indian was superstition and rubbish.'


Professor Roddam Narasimha was closely associated with aerospace technology development in India, at both technical and policy-making levels.

Between 1977 and 1979, he was the Chief Project Coordinator at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and led a joint HAL-NAL-IISc team carrying out early conceptual studies of the Light Combat Aircraft.

Under his leadership, the National Aerospace Laboratories made the first parallel computer in the country in 1986 and fabricated and flew the first fibre glass aircraft in the country.

As a member of then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's Scientific Advisory Council he was instrumental in establishing a major parallel computing initiative in the country.

Dr Narasimha, below, left, was widely honoured for his research work as well as his scientific leadership.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Foreign Associate of both the US National Academy of Engineering and the US National Academy of Sciences. He was also an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has been a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

In India his distinctions include the Bhatnagar Prize, the Gujarmal Modi Award, the Ramanujan Award, the Aryabhata Award, and the Padma Bhushan.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg as far as his many achievements are concerned.

In this interview with Shivanand Kanavi for, Professor Narasimha, who pased into the ages on December 14, 2020, discusses how India once led the world in the fields of science and maths and how the West overtook India on these fronts.

This interview was first published on January 25, 2016.

Was all Indic science rational?

No, we have already talked about Brahmagupta, for example.

However, I gradually came to the conclusion that classical Indic science was indeed generally rational, but it was rationality of a different kind; and it did have conflicts with mythology.

We must however remember that, although Newton is generally seen as rational about his science, he did not consider it as important as what he secretly wrote about theology. Not many know or remember that.

Around that time and later in Europe, the possible existence of great ancient civilisations in Asia and Africa became a serious issue as estimates of their age were approaching the Biblical date of Creation.

If you compared the views expressed in Europe during the so called Dark Ages there (before the Renaissance), Indian science was perhaps more rational than the European science of the time.

Nobody tried or convicted Aryabhata just because he said Rahu-Ketu is nonsense. At the same time Brahmagupta's criticism did not affect his reputation as a brilliant scientist.

Both of them, I believe, were computational positivists, so their other views seem to have been seen as secondary, lost in the indifference of traditional Indic tolerance of different views.

So how long did this classical science last, and when and why did it end?

Some 20 years ago, I came across Joseph Needham, a distinguished British scientist who had studied Chinese science and technology in great depth and also wrote a bit on the side about Indic science.

He concluded that as the West got to know more about Eastern science, the question that demanded an answer was why neither China nor India gave birth to modern science, despite the fact that they were ahead of the West in science and technology for 1,400 years (say 200 CE to 1600 CE).

Why was modern science born in Pisa and not in Patna or Peking, Needham asked.

It was the first time that I had seen a distinguished Western scholar acknowledge so readily that India and China had earlier been ahead for 1,400 years. This question is not much discussed in India.

Some Indians take the extreme view that everything was known to our ancients, but others go to the opposite extreme and consider everything Indian was superstition and rubbish (an imperial British view typified by Macaulay's comment about how one shelf of good European books was worth the whole literature of India and Arabia).

It slowly became clear to me that both sides were wrong: The history of science is not linear -- it is chequered.

The European Dark Ages were anything but dark in India. Our Dark Ages have been the last several centuries.

A study of European opinion in the 15th, 16th centuries leads to the conclusion that Europe was becoming aware at that time that the East had been ahead of them. They had encountered the more advanced Arabs during the crusades, Indian numerals and algebra in the 16th, 17th centuries, Chinese technologies in between and they began to see advances in Asia which they did not know about.

If you read Francis Bacon, you will see that he recognised the power of new inventions like the printing press, the nautical compass and gun powder (all from China, as we now know) -- inventions that had changed the world more than any empire, sect or star, he said, and then there was sugar, which came from India.

He was dazzled by them, just as I was dazzled by all the things that the West had done when I first went to the US.

Bacon blamed the Greeks for the sad state of European knowledge. He called them a set of quacks and charlatans; his criticisms of Plato and Aristotle were scathing. Europe had taken the wrong path and had to change.

It is almost like what some Indians began to say in the 19th and 20th centuries as our classical epistemology collapsed: 'All that we have learnt is worthless.'

As one begins to analyse classical Indic and European texts, it becomes clear that, deep down, at a fundamental level, it is all really about how one acquires reliable new knowledge, ie about epistemology.

In the 17th century, Newton almost implemented what Bacon had said. What changed at that time? The standard Western answer is mathematicisation of science, but that characterisation is misleading. It depends on what you mean by mathematicisation. Surely one cannot say that ancient Greeks and Indians were not mathematical?

Actually, what happened in the 16th, 17th centuries was that the meaning of mathematics changed. Till then, it was geometry and Euclid in Europe (borrowed back, incidentally, from the Arabs and their Arabic translations from the Greek a few centuries earlier).

After the 16th century it began to include numbers and algebra, both of which had come from India. Algebra or beeja-ganita had developed into a 'new maths' and was transmitted to Europe through creative Arabs and Persians; and the trajectory of that diffusion can now be traced fairly well.

The word algebra started getting used in Europe in the 15th, 16th centuries and slowly grew in usage, even as the use of the word geometry declined. Indeed, the new mathematics even affected geometry, leading to what we now call analytical geometry.

Thus what really happened in Europe then was the algebraisation of mathematics and (a little later) of the exact sciences like physics.

As renowned mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl said, Europe moved away from Greek ideas to follow a path that had originated in India, where the concept of number had been considered logically prior to the concept of geometry.

I believe this was a strong factor in the revival of science in Europe.

Bacon's formula of knowledge = power (in contrast to the Indic equation knowledge = salvation) translated to growing power over the East. The European languages did not have a word for algebra at the time so they took over the Arabic word al jabr, just as we too have taken over television, radio, etc, from English.

Descartes once referred to algebra as 'barbarous': It was clearly not a direct Greek or European legacy. Francis Bacon realised that much new knowledge had come from outside the European culture area -- presumably the East.

What is the concept of beeja and ganita, which you have spoken of recently as 'Indic concepts that changed the world'?

Professor Roddam NarasimhaGanita is literally reckoning, counting and manipulating numbers; gan is 'to count' in Sanskrit. In the West a mathematician was, and was called, a 'geometer' for long; and in India a mathematician was a gan aka, a numerist.

India was number-centric.

Bhaskara said beeja-ganita (algebra) is avyakta-ganita, ie ganita with unmanifest (unknown) quantities which need to be found out from the data available and so made to become vyakta, 'known.'

That unknown, the hidden, is beeja.

Thus computing with the unknown so that it becomes known is beeja ganita, which went as algebra to Europe through the Arabs (who made their own creative contributions).

It appears as if the modern scientific revolution in Europe was a response to the inventions, both mathematical and technological, that went from the East through the Arabs. These inventions dazzled the Europeans, just as their inventions in turn dazzled us 200 or 300 years later.

So what was the difference between Europe and India in the way science was done?

Neelakantha, a 15th-16th century mathematician-philosopher from Kerala, explicitly tells us how to do science. I had been trying to infer from Aryabhata and Bhaskara what their attitude towards science and mathematics might have been and then I came to know about the Kerala school and Neelakantha's Jyotirmimamsa (which unfortunately has not yet been translated into English).

He actually talks about epistemology, ie the science of knowledge-making, and describes what methods lead to the generation of valid, reliable and belief-worthy knowledge. Neelakantha's views throw light on where Indians and Westerners differed in their epistemology.

Indic methodology was primarily based on observation, experience (pratyaksha, anubhava), inference and skill (anumana, yukti). The Greek conception was based on deductive two-valued (yes or no type) Aristotelian logic, often following from stated axioms considered 'true' or self-evident (typified by Euclid).

In the 15th-6th centuries, a fusion seems to have started taking place between the two in Europe. Though Indians were in touch with the Greeks, at least since the times of Alexander, they only borrowed some tools from them, but did not accept their philosophy or ideology.

After having rubbished Greek philosophy, Francis Bacon went on to invent a kind of hybrid that combined experience, observation (in particular through experimentation) with inference of axioms. Axioms thus ceased to be self-evident truths and became instead tentative inferences.

This method began to be used with Newton and led to what has spectacularly become the global enterprise of 'modern' science.

In his great work Principia Mathematica Philosphiae Naturalis (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) -- perhaps the biggest ever game-changer in the world of science -- Newton starts like Euclid in the first book, stating and discussing three 'axiom' (his three laws of motion); the rest is full of theorems, lemmas, QED, etc.

In the third book he changes gear, introduces numbers from observations and inferences from them in the light of the axioms and results of Books I and II.

Book III (of Principia-Ed) seems to me, partly Indic in style, because of the use of inference: QIE (what may be inferred) often replaces the Euclidean QED (what had to be demonstrated).

Newton presumably realised that the third book is not in the Greek spirit, so he inserts a short prefatory note on 'The Rules of Philosophical Reasoning' before embarking on Book III, where he justifies his new procedure.

He sets out and explains four (new) rules, which have very little to do with the Greeks. But there are also curious commonalities between India and Europe.

Calculus was thought to be a purely European invention (as we are taught at school even now) associated with the names of Newton and Leibnitz, but it was not. Many important parts of it, at least, were known in Indian ganita centuries earlier. This included the infinite series, for example, of the Taylor-Mclaurin type, second-order difference schemes, the idea of limits and so on.

Correspondingly, it cannot be said that Archimedes (or some other Greek) started science (compare Bacon); nor did it all start in India, for some little science must have been there even at very early times.

There were different contributions from different cultures. Ideas did travel (both ways), but not all of them were accepted along their way by local cultures.

For example Indians borrowed the idea of epicycles from the Greeks, but used it very differently: The smaller circle moving along the circumference of the bigger one could keep changing its diameter.

This would have shocked the Greeks because for them it would spoil the symmetry and beauty of a model based on just circles.

To the Indians, however, the resulting kinky ellipse-like curve was computationally simpler and more efficient.

It was the sort of thing that Bhaskara said would bring aananda to the ganakas!

Indians never really took to Euclid till it came out of Macaulay's bookshelf into the educational system he prescribed for India in the 19th century. In the Indic Nyaya system of knowledge creation (although it makes no reference to the Greeks), the method of hypothesis to conclusion based on (deductive) logic is frowned upon, because the basis for taking the hypothesis as a given truth could not be justified.

You have to compare it with or base it on observation. This is where Bacon made his leap, coupling hypothesis and inference.

Pratyaksha (observation, including experiment) was the number one pramaana (source of valid knowledge) in all schools of Indian philosophy; it was universally accepted. This must have been one of the few things that all of them agreed on!

The second was anumaana (inference), accepted by every school except the Lokaayatas. As Neelakantha says, knowledge arises pratyakshena anumaanena -- from observation and from inference.

What about the aagamic pramaana?

After getting an interesting mathematical result, Neelakantha says etatsarvamyukti-moolam, natuaagama-moolam: all of this (comes) from intelligent reasoning, not from the aagamas. Such a statement could not have been safely made in the Europe of his time (1500 CE).

Aagama can also be taken as existing accumulated knowledge rather than scriptural, an important if not decisive source of knowledge.

The aagamas were indeed accepted as a third pramaana in some Indic philosophical systems.

What you mention is close to what the Saamkhya philosophers call aapta vacana (the word of the trustworthy), which they accept as the third pramaana after pratyaksha and anumaana, but they make it clear that Vedic knowledge is not privileged, because it is also essentially human in origin, so potentially fallible like any human work.

In Nireeshwara Saamkhya they say there is no evidence (pramaana-abhaava) for God. Of course, they don't say that there is no God, only that there is no evidence for it.

Classical Indic scientists rarely appealed to scriptural knowledge in their science; however many of them, including Neelakantha, were also very accomplished Vedic scholars.

In general, the great scientists (Charaka, Bhaaskara) had respect for Saamkhya thinking. How can you say all this was not rational?

The history of ideas, it seems to me, is chequered, and that makes it fascinating -- more fascinating than that of kings and battles.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

Author and journalist Shivanand Kanavi, former VP, Tata Consultancy Services, tweets @shivanandkanavi and blogs at

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