SAH MKK 230027: The Age of Science and Reason

But even amongst those Indian philosophers who accepted the separation of mind and body and argued for the existence of the soul, there was considerable dedication to the scientific method and to developing the principles of deductive and inductive logic. From 1000 B.C to the 4th C A.D (also described as India’s rationalistic period) treatises in astronomy, mathematics, logic, medicine and linguistics were produced. The philosophers of the Sankhya school, the Nyaya-Vaisesika schools and early Jain and Buddhist scholars made substantial contributions to the growth of science and learning. Advances in the applied sciences like metallurgy, textile production and dyeing were also made.

In particular, the rational period produced some of the most fascinating series of debates on what constitutes the “scientific method”: How does one separate our sensory perceptions from dreams and hallucinations? When does an observation of reality become accepted as fact, and as scientific truth? How should the principles of inductive and deductive logic be developed and applied? How does one evaluate a hypothesis for it’s scientific merit? What is a valid inference? What constitutes a scientific proof?

These and other questions were attacked with an unexpected intellectual vigour. As keen observers of nature and the human body, India’s early scientist/philosophers studied human sensory organs, analyzed dreams, memory and consciousness. The best of them understood dialectics in nature – they understood change, both in quantitative and qualitative terms – they even posited a proto-type of the modern atomic theory. It was this rational foundation that led to the flowering of Indian civilization.

This is borne out by the testaments of important Greek scientists and philosophers of that period. Pythagoras – the Greek mathematician and philosopher who lived in the 6th C B.C was familiar with the Upanishads and learnt his basic geometry from the Sulva Sutras. (The famous Pythagoras theorem is actually a restatement of a result already known and recorded by earlier Indian mathematicians). Later, Herodotus (father of Greek history) was to write that the Indians were the greatest nation of the age. Megasthenes – who travelled extensively through India in the 4th C. B.C also left extensive accounts that paint India in highly favorable light (for that period).

Intellectual contacts between ancient Greece and India were not insignificant. Scientific exchanges between Greece and India were mutually beneficial and helped in the development of the sciences in both nations. By the 6th C. A.D, with the help of ancient Greek and Indian texts, and through their own ingenuity, Indian astronomers made significant discoveries about planetary motion. An Indian astronomer – Aryabhata, was to become the first to describe the earth as a sphere that rotated on it’s own axis. He further postulated that it was the earth that rotated around the sun and correctly described how solar and lunar eclipses occurred.

Because astronomy required extremely complicated mathematical equations, ancient Indians also made significant advances in mathematics. Differential equations – the basis of modern calculus were in all likelihood an Indian invention (something essential in modeling planetary motions). Indian mathematicians were also the first to invent the concept of abstract infinite numbers – numbers that can only be represented through abstract mathematical formulations such as infinite series – geometric or arithmetic. They also seemed to be familiar with polynomial equations (again essential in advanced astronomy) and were the inventors of the modern numeral system (referred to as the Arabic numeral system in Europe).

The use of the decimal system and the concept of zero was essential in facilitating large astronomical calculation and allowed such 7th C mathematicians as Brahmagupta to estimate the earth’s circumferance at about 23,000 miles – (not too far off from the current calculation). It also enabled Indian astronomers to provide fairly accurate longitudes of important places in India.

The science of Ayurveda – (the ancient Indian system of healing) blossomed in this period. Medical practitioners took up the dissection of corpses, practised surgery, developed popular nutritional guides, and wrote out codes for medical procedures and patient care and diagnosis. Chemical processes associated with the dying of textiles and extraction of metals were studied and documented. The use of mordants (in dyeing) and catalysts (in metal-extraction/purification) was discovered.

The scientific ethos also had it’s impact on the arts and literature. Painting and sculpture flourished even as there were advances in social infrastructure. Universities were set up with dormitories and meeting halls. In addition, according to the Chinese traveller, Hieun Tsang, roads were built with well-marked signposts. Shade trees were planted. Inns and hospitals dotted national highways so as to facilitate travel and trade.

India’s rational age was thus a period of tremendous intellectual ferment and vitality. It was a period of scientific discovery and technological innovation. Accompanied by challenges to caste discrimination and rigidity and religious obscurantism – it was also a period of great social upheaval that eventually led to society becoming more democratic, allowing greater social interaction between members of different castes and expanding opportunities for social mobility amongst the population. Social ethics drew considerable attention in this period. Rules of engagement during war were constructed so as to eliminate non-military casualties and destruction of pasture-land, crop-land or orchards. The notion of chivalry in war was popularized – it meant not attacking fleeing or injured soldiers. It also required warring armies to provide safe passage to women, children, the elderly and other non-combatants.

The rational period thus saw progress on several fronts. Not only did it create an enduring foundation for India’s civilization to develop and mature – it has also had it’s impact on the growth of other civilizations. In fact, India’s rational period served as a vital link in the long and varied chain of human progress. Although colonial history has attempted to usurp this collective heritage of the planet and make it exclusively euro-centric, it is important to note that fundamental and important discoveries in science and innovations in technology have come from many different parts of the globe, albeit at different times and stages of world civilization. India made significant contributions in this regard. If India is to fully recover from the depredations of colonial rule, it is imperative that we don’t forget the achievements of this inspiring epoch.


K. Damodaran: Indian Thought, A Critical Survey

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya: Lokayata: A study in Ancient Indian Materialism

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya: In Defence of Materialism in Ancient India

R. C. Dutt: A History of Civilization in Ancient India

Studies in the History of Science in India (Anthology edited by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya)


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