SAH MKK230027: Development of Philosophical Thought and Scientific Method in Ancient India

Contrary to the popular perception that Indian civilization has been largely concerned with the affairs of the spirit and “after-life”, India’s historical record suggests that some of the greatest Indian minds were much more concerned with developing philosophical paradigms that were grounded in reality. The premise that Indian philosophy is founded solely on mysticism and renunciation emanates from a colonial and orientalist world view that seeks to obfuscate a rich tradition of scientific thought and analysis in India.

Much of the evidence for how India’s ancient logicians and scientists developed their theories lies buried in polemical texts that are not normally thought of as scientific texts. While some of the treatises on mathematics, logic, grammar, and medicine have survived as such – many philosophical texts enunciating a rational and scientific world view can only be constructed from extended references found in philosophical texts and commentaries by Buddhist and Jain monks or Hindu scholars (usually Brahmins).

Although these documents are usually considered to lie within the domain of religious studies, it should be pointed out that many of these are in the form of extended polemics that are quite unlike the holy books of Christianity or Islam. These texts attempt to debate the value of the real-world versus the spiritual-world. They attempt to counter the theories of the atheists and other skeptics. But in their attempts to prove the primacy of a mystical soul or “Atman” – they often go to great lengths in describing competing rationalist and worldly philosophies rooted in a more realistic and more scientific perception of the world. Their extensive commentaries illustrate the popular methods of debate, of developing a hypothesis, of extending and elaborating theory, of furnishing proofs and counter-proofs.

It is also important to note that originally, the Buddhist world view was an essentially atheistic world view. The ancient Jains were agnostics, and within the broad stream of Hinduism – there were several heterodox currents that asserted a predominantly atheistic view. In that sense, these were not religions as we think of today since the modern understanding of religion presumes faith or belief in a super-natural entity.

That so many scholars from each of these philosophical schools felt the imperative to prove their extra-worldly theories using rationalist tools of deductive and inductive logic suggests that faith in a super-natural being could not have been taken for granted. This is borne out by the memoirs of Hieun Tsang (the Chinese chronicler who traveled extensively in India during the 7th C. AD) who describes the merchants of Benaras as being mostly “unbelievers”! He also wrote of intense polemics and debates amongst followers of different Buddhist sects.

Similiarly, there is other evidence that suggests that amongst the intellectuals of ancient India, atheism and skepticism must have been very powerful currents that required repeated and vigorous attempts at persuasion and change. Nevertheless, over centuries, the intellectual discords between the believers and non-believers became more and more muted. The advocates of mystic idealism prevailed over the skeptics, so that eventually, (at the popular level) each of these philosophies functioned as traditional religions with their pantheon of gods and goddesses enticing and lulling most into an intellectual stupor. But at no point were the advocates of “pure faith” ever powerful enough to completely extinguish the rationalist current that had so imbued Indian philosophy.

Early Rationalist Schools

One of the most ancient of India’s rationalist traditions is the “Lokayata”. Maligned and discredited by the evangelicals of mystical Buddhism and Vedantic Hinduism, their world view was sharply atheistic and scientific for their time. Unlike those who believed in reincarnation or an after-life, and in the indestructibility of the human soul – they refused to make artificial distinctions between body and mind. They saw the human mind as part and parcel of the human body – not as some separate entity that could have an independent existence from the human body. They acknowledged nothing but the material human body and the material universe around it. They rejected sacrificial gifts and offerings for the after-life as was common amongst followers of Brahmanical Hinduism during the time of Medhatithi in A.D 900 (a commentator on the writings of Manu who acknowledges that the Lokayatas were atheists or non-believers.)

For instance, they ridiculed the Brahmanical rituals of animal sacrifice: “If a beast slain in the Jyotistoma rite itself goes to heaven, Why then does not the sacrificer also offer his father?”

“If beings in heaven are gratified by our offerings made here, Then why not give the food down below to those who stand on the housetop?”

“If offerings produce gratification to beings who are dead, why make provisions for travellers when they start on a journey?”

“If he who departs from the body goes to another world, How is it that he comes not back again, restless for love of his kindred?”

The Lokayatas dismissed the Vedic priests and their Vedic mantras as nothing but a means of livelihood for those lacking in genuine physical or mental abilities. Instead, they gave primacy to human sense-perception, and through the application of the inferential process – they developed their theories of how the world worked.

One of the most notable aspects of the Lokayata belief system was their intuitive understanding of dialectics in nature. Many argued the mind-body separation as follows: Since the body is made up of things lacking consciousness – but the mind is a conscious entity – mind and body must necessarily be different – and consciousness must imply the existence of something else akin to the “soul”. The Lokayatas countered this by citing the example of fermentation – how an intoxicating drink could be produced from something that was not itself an intoxicant. In essence they had discovered the principle that the whole was greater than the sum of it’s parts. That physical and chemical processes could lead to dramatic changes in the properties of the substances combined. They were able to understand how special transformations could produce new qualities that were not evident in the constituent elements of the newly-created entity.

As keen observers of nature, they were probably amongst the first to understand the nature of different plants and herbs and their utility to human well-being. As such, it is likely that Indian medicine gradually evolved from the early scientific knowledge and understanding of the Lokayatas. Since the Lokayatas believed that consciousness emerged from the living human body, and ended with it’s death – it is more than likely that the widely prevalent Indian custom of cremating the dead also originated amongst them.

This is not to say that the Lokayatas’ understanding of the world was as elaborate and precise as that provided by today’s science. By the standards of the 20th century, some of their formulations could be  considered primitive and inadequate. That is only to be expected. Knowledge of science has expanded considerably since their times. But what is more important is that their world view was driven by a rational and scientific approach.

For instance, some later philosophical schools countered the Lokayata arguments concerning mind-body unity by bringing up the evidence of memory. Nyaya-Vaisesika philosophers like Jayanta and Udayana pointed out that the process of daily eating meant that the human body was constantly changing. The process of ageing also pointed to how the human body was ever-changing. Yet, an old person could remember in detail an incident from childhood. In other words – they tried to argue that memory was evidence of a human soul that existed beyond the mere physical body. Yet, we know today that memory is but a combination of proteins that can survive the length of human existence. There is both continuity and change in nature. The Lokayata world view howsoever sketchy and incomplete was not in contradiction with modern science.

If some of their characterizations required later revisions or refinement, or even corrections, it didn’t take away from their fundamentally scientific approach. Their inadequacies were a consequence of incomplete knowledge and the understandable inability to see all the complexities of nature that we are now able (through advanced scientific instruments and centuries of accumulated knowledge). Their errors did not, however, stem from stubborn faith or deliberate rejection of reality and real-world phenomenon.

In practice, (according to some historians) India’s ancient Tantric followers may have also had a largely rational world view, which sprang from a practical mindset and was impaired only by the limited amount of scientific knowledge available to humanity at that time. Critics of the tantrics dismissed them as sexually obsessed hedonists. But they failed to acknowledge that the early tantrics had an intuitive scientific streak and their understanding of sexual reproduction is probably what may have also impelled them to develop basic agricultural tools and other implements. In that sense, they were India’s early technologists.

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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