“We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discoveries could have been made.”Albert Einstein
The history of science has long been dominated by western-oriented narratives in popular culture. We know how “science” came to be with the rise of the ancient Greek civilization: the birth of theories like geocentrism and the Archimedes screw. For example, the alarm clock, the more famous of their inventions, was believed to be invented by the Greek philosopher Plato. Later, however, science was widely believed to have entered a state of quiescence with the rise of Protestantism. The Renaissance followed these two periods with the rise of scientific heroes such as Galileo and Isaac Newton.
What is wrong with this narrative? To begin with, this picture does not account for the many scientific strides occurring in other parts of the world such as the Islamic Golden Age of science that was concurring with the so-called “Dark Ages” of the West and, more significantly, the developments and leaps that were taking place simultaneously in the Indian subcontinent during these periods.
The following chronology elaborates on the scientific progress in the subcontinent.
Ancient Indian Medicine
Ancient Indian physicians had highly advanced knowledge of the human body. A medical treatise called the Sushruta Samhita (6th century BCE) described 1120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants, a highly detailed study on anatomy, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources. Furthermore, the author Sushruta invented cataract surgery, pioneered plastic surgery, and helped develop rhinoplasty.
The Indus Valley Civilisation, founded in 3300 BCE, was one of the most sophisticated settlements in the subcontinent at the time. Refined irrigation, drainage, and sewerage systems are a testament to its sophistication. The Civilization was also home to skilled oceanographers and maritime engineers as demonstrated by the Lothal dock, located away from the primary current to avoid deposition of silt and evidence of the fact that they must have possessed advanced knowledge of tides and hydrography. They also had refined cosmological drawings that laid the basis for modern Indian cartography.
Middle Kingdoms: Gupta Empire
Fast forward to the Gupta Empire, in 476 BCE, when Aryabhata was born. He was one of the first people to propose the modern heliocentric theory. He suggested that the Earth was round and that it revolved around the Sun and also rotated on its axis — a stark contrast to the Ptolemaic geocentric theories of the Ancient Greeks. Furthermore, Aryabhata was also skilled in deducing solar and lunar eclipses and was able to predict the duration of the day and the distance between the Earth and the moon.
In the first millennium BCE, the Vaisheshika school of atomism was founded which propounded that the atom was indivisible and eternal and could not be created or destroyed. Also during that period, the Samarangana Sutradhara, a Sanskrit treatise, contained a chapter detailing the construction of mechanical contrivances (automata) such as mechanical bees and birds.
In addition to this, Wootz steel, crucible steel in the ancient world was used to make the famed Damascus swords of yore that could cleave heating black magnetite ores or a block of wood with the same ease. It was produced by the Tamils of the Chera Dynasty and was the finest steel of the ancient world, forged in the presence of carbon in a sealed clay crucible kept inside charcoal furnaces.
Late Medieval and Early Modern Period
Skipping ahead to the Late Medieval period, Nilakantha Somayaji of the Kerala school of astronomy and mathematics, revised Aryabhata’s elliptical model for the planets: Mercury and Venus. His equation of the center of these planets remained the most widely accepted model until the time of Johannes Kepler in the 17th century. Somayaji was also responsible for the first written description of the infinite series of pi.
As one of the most remarkable feats in metallurgy, the first seamless celestial globe was invented in Kashmir by Ali Kashmiri ibn Luqman during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Before these globes were rediscovered in the 1980s, modern metallurgists believed it was technically impossible to produce metal globes without any seams, even with advanced technology.
The Colonial Era saw a stagnation in the development of science and technology in the subcontinent. Technological developments were limited to inventions linked with warfare, like alterations made to war rockets and such.
The contributions of the subcontinent to modern-day science range from the value of pi to the foundation for modern-day astronomy i.e. the heliocentric theory. Great strides in modern medicine, mathematics, physics, and architecture are owed to the people of the subcontinent. Unfortunately, in the Postcolonial Era, states in the Subcontinent have experienced stagnation in terms of scientific development. Even so, their ancestors have left a profound legacy for them to inherit.