Discussions and Debates on Indic Science

Discussions and Debates on Indic Science

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Indic Visions in an Age of Science by Varadaraja V. Raman
(New York, NY: Metanexus, 2011).


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In the previous five lectures I reflected on a variety of Indic visions that have interest and relevance to science as an intellectual enterprise. I referred to investigations in astronomy and mathematics in ancient India, to theories of cosmology, and to Indic views on mind and consciousness. I mentioned episodes from the lore which have uncanny parallels with some of the wonders of modern technology. And I discussed how Indian thinkers dealt with the questions relating to the sources and nature of knowledge. These become interesting and essential on our appraisal of the validity of scientific truths.

In this concluding lecture I propose to consider some aspects of the history of science in general terms, and then present some of the controversies relating to the appraisal of science in ancient as well as in modern India.


These topics are important for at least two reasons. First, we have come to realize that previously written histories were mostly ethnocentric. But since histories in the language which gained colonial dominance, namely English and French, are read by people from practically every country, Euro-centrism has come under severe attacks. Sino-centric, Islamic-centric, Nippo-centric and Indo-centric histories are relatively immune from such attacks because they don’t have a world-wide audience.

Secondly, in the present age, all cultures and civilizations are seeking to re-affirm their individuality and integrity. In no other field is this re-affirmation more important than in the field of science, where the colonizing West has been considerably more productive during the past four centuries. As a result of these, discussions of ancient science are enriched and colored: enriched by the revelation by scholarly probes about the scientific endeavors of the ancient world; and colored by a need–unconscious or overt–to establish priorities, even superiority, vis-a-vis Western science.

This brings us to the question of cultural sensitivity. A major achievement of the last century was consciousness raising at various levels, ranging from the evil implicit in racism and gender inequality to a proclamation of human rights for all the citizens of the world and respect for all cultures. This last element in enlightened behavior means that every culture has its intrinsic merits, and no culture is to be treated or described in derogatory terms by people who don’t belong to it.

It is often said that Western historians have consistently devalued the contributions of non-Western science. There is truth in this statement; however, in this context one must also recognize that Western scholars have brought to the world ancient science history. Interest in Chinese astronomy was initiated by European Jesuits like Antoine Gaubil  in the 17th century. But it took two more centuries before Biot published his history of Chinese astronomy. The pioneering work of de Saussure in the first decades of the twentieth century was also very important.

In 1821, thanks to Jean Francois Champollon and Thomas Young, Egyptian hieroglyphics were decoded, and the foundations of Egyptology were laid. Goerg Grotefend’s deciphering of cuneiform texts and Henry Rawilson’s work on Behistun inscriptions considerably increased our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

In the later part of the 18th century, and more so in the 19th, Orientalists like William James explored the intellectual legacies of India, paving the way for Indology. By the end of the nineteenth century it was realized that ancient Hindu thought was not confined to mythology and metaphysics, but extended to mathematics and the exact sciences as well. The decipherment of the Bakshali manuscripts by A. F. R. Hoernle revealed a host of arithmetical and algebraic problems in which Hindu mathematicians had been engaged. The French chemist Marcellin Berthelot wrote a treatise on ancient Hindu chemistry. Not all their assessments were correct, but they provided the foundations for the multicultural visions which enlighten humanity in our own times. 


Three kinds of errors could arise in our evaluation of scientific achievements. The first may be called temporal error. It consists in the impression that in scientific understanding our generation is somehow superior to previous ones. We see this in the 17th century, at the dawn of modern science. To Francis Bacon, for example, the ancients were immature. Medieval thinkers were wasting their time, he wrote, with “the borrowed light” from Aristotle. Rene Descartes declared there was little to be gained from a study of the ancients, who had been consistently wrong on all questions.

Cultural error attributes the capacity for science to particular cultures. Once the Chinese thought they alone did science, the Hindus thought likewise of themselves, as did the Greeks and the Arabs in their turn. Some European thinkers believed that science was essentially a Western capability, and that no science existed before Galilean-Newtonian science. This view is still there when one uses the epithet “Western” for modern science. Even within Western culture, some have held that clear thinking is essentially French; others that empirical skill is primarily British; yet others that true science requires the keen mind of the Aryan (Germanic) race.

Nostalgic error is of more recent vintage. It is the belief that some ancients were already aware of the latest findings of current science. It is based on the conviction that the holy books of one’s own religion embody truths revealed by higher powers to extraordinary individuals who were thus made aware of results of current science.


In considering the history of science it is good to remember that the scientific enterprise has four major components. These are:

(a) The motivation to explain and understand the world with its myriad phenomena is innate to human nature. At our earliest stages all normal infants are curious and try to comprehend the world around. The persistence of this urge in adult life creates science.

(b) Science rests on certain implicit assumptions, such as that there is an underlying order (like cause-effect relations) in the world, and that the complexities of the world can be understood by the human mind.

(c) Science is a systematic exploration of the world through a consensually agreed upon methodology. This includes detailed observation and careful experimentation, elaboration of concepts,  and formulation of hypotheses and theories.

      (d) Science consists of the information, insights, knowledge, and results from serious scientific
research. These form the bulk of scientific textbooks and encyclopedias. 

History shows that the urge to understand and explain the phenomenal world has always been there among all the peoples and cultures of the world.

The ancients offered a variety of explanations for natural phenomena and for the origin of the world. Sometimes these explanations were in terms of superior and invisible beings which caused things to happen. Sometimes they were in terms of non-anthropomorphic forces and principles. Then again, human beings have also been trying to harness matter and motion, water and fire, for their convenience and betterment. This is what technology is all about. Thus, understanding and explanation on the one hand (science), and the contrivance of useful devices and techniques (technology) on the other, have existed since time immemorial, though the two were unrelated in ancient times.

The scientific spirit is found in all cultures and peoples, though its expression and successful exploitation had varied in quantity from people to people, and from epoch to epoch. Also, material and cultural conditions foster or curb the expression of these capacities. This is the reason for the non-uniform growth of science (in time and in place) among the peoples of the world.


The achievements in thought and deed of the ancient civilizations of the world were quite impressive. In truth, we are descended, not just from apes, but from thinkers and philosophers, poets and artists, creators and investigators as well. The ancients not only invented wheels and pulleys, built towns and cities, constructed huge structures and buildings that have lasted for centuries, they also initiated writing and counting, formulated laws and ethics, and reflected on the origin of the universe.

But the science we are engaged in today is significantly different from the science of past ages in many ways. In content, methodology, and framework, it is not the same as ancient science. Most importantly, whereas modern science is essentially universal (resting on what Billy Grassie calls ‘Universal Reason’), ancient science was a function of culture and creed. It varied from region to region, from people to people. Also, ancient science was by and large human-centered. It regarded the world in terms of the human presence in it, it sought explanations that were analogous to the human experience, and often it had affiliations to specific religious traditions.

If science is not simply a body of useful information, but the effort of the human mind to interpret the world, then the paths by which we have reached our current knowledge become as relevant and interesting as the knowledge items themselves. Then too, the sheer changeability of scientific worldviews can temper arrogance and guard us from the illusion that we have finally arrived at all the right answers. One effect of the study of the history of science is to humble us in any excessive self-congratulation we may be tempted into in the context of our current scientific achievements.


Until India’s political independence from the British, most Indian scholars and intellectuals went along with the Western approach to the history of science in which one assumes that modern science was a crucial breakthrough from ancient science, and has led to some essentially new results and worldviews which were beyond the wildest imagination of ancient cultures.

But things have changed. Inspired by some post-modernist Western thinkers who challenged the hegemony of science in the world of rational inquiry, and in response to the cultural denigration of the non-West by Western thinkers of the colonial era, two new movements have gained strength in India, which have a good many sympathizers in the West. In some ways they oppose each other, in other ways they complement each other.

The first of these may be called the Dayananda school. It contends that ancient Hindus had come upon many of the modern scientific results by modes which are as yet beyond the comprehension or reach of the West, indeed of all so-called moderns.

The view springs from the belief that the Vedas and other sacred writings contain everything there is to know, including the calculus and computer science, perhaps even genetics and nuclear physics. In this context, it is only fair to point out that similar claims are made by culture-patriots in other traditions also. Thus one Jewish scholar has claimed that the Book of Genesis contains a coded version of the theory of relativity, while according to a Muslim scholar, the Holy Qur’an contains nuggets of modern physics.

A related conviction is that there existed sophisticated technology in ancient India. Episodes in the Hindu epics are quoted as proofs that ballistic missiles and flying machines were part of ancient Hindu technology. Already in the 19th century it was claimed that there were steam locomotives in ancient India. In the early decades of the 20th century, some pundits propagated the myth that the likes of Max Mueller stole away Vedic science which led to the re-discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics. More recently some have argued that there were probably nuclear weapons also in ancient India.

The thesis is that through yoga and meditation mystics became aware of the laws governing the p ysical world. Vedas and Upanishads are not just spiritual treasures, but they also contain, often in symbolic or coded forms, fundamental scientific truths.

The other school subscribes to the ‘Feyerabend-Foucault’ thesis. It has also received stimulus from the writings of the Palestinian scholar Edward Said who made his home in America. Inspired by such thinkers, a number of Indian scholars have joined the chorus whose refrain is that modern science is the clever concoction of colonizing Europe whose sole purpose was to exploit Africa and Asia the best it could, in every manner and through every means it could. In the process, the West consistently looked down upon the intellectual achievements and cultural creativity of the non-West.

Some Western intellectuals adopt a patronizing posture when they argue that respect must be shown to the non-West by allowing it to continue with its own versions of science. What is objectionable here is that they appropriate the modern scientific world view to their own culture, and relegate the pre-modern ones for ever to non-Western cultures. This is somewhat like a Hindu in the twelfth century who, while using the decimal system for himself, praises the Romans for their fascinating number system which uses the letters of the alphabet. The fact of the matter is, the decimal system is Hindu only in its origin, not in its appeal or applicability. This is equally true of modern science. Whether she is Hindu or Arab, Chinese or Nigerian, once she is introduced to it, a scientist becomes a member of an international community. At the intellectual and inquiring level of science, there is more in common between an Arab and a Norwegian physicist or between an Indonesian and Texan chemist, than there is between a twentieth century Frenchman and his peasant compatriot or his twelfth century ancestor.

These two forces, one claiming or proclaiming that the results and worldviews of the so-called Western science had already been discovered by ancient Indians, and the other rejecting Western science as no more than a cultural construct, are mutually incompatible. For, if the findings of modern science are simply local constructs with no universal content or validity, how could these have been independently discovered millennia ago in an altogether different culture? Therefore the groups are not always sympathetic to each other. Indeed, some of the writers who reject Western science and values have little respect for the modern-science-in-the-Vedas people.

Those who share the view that science is a trans-national enterprise of validity and value that could benefit all humankind reject the notion that science is a conspiracy intended to exploit people. More seriously, they would be concerned about such a myopic vision of science because, if adopted, it will only keep the Non-West for ever more in a state of relative backwardness in the field of creative and productive science.

A generation or two ago, the thesis of the non-universality of modern science did not exist. If it had been proposed, there would have been many Indian scientists who would have openly rejected such a thesis. But not so today. There are at least two reasons for this. One is that, as in the West, the vast majority of productive scientists in India are too engrossed in their various specialized disciplines to argue with philosophers, historians, and cultural commentators. The second is that any challenge to these ideas would be branded as a defense of Western hegemony, and worse still, as a servile voice of the enslaving West which has not only exploited the Non-West materially and economically, but continues to do so culturally by poisoning the minds of the young with notions of Western superiority.

A careful reading of the two theses reveals, as often happens when radical new positions are articulated, that there are grains of truth in them. It cannot be denied that when one studies the philosophical and metaphysical treatises of ancient India, fascinating and profound insights emerge. Many of these do have interesting parallels with some of the findings of fundamental physics, especially those relating to the subject-object interface and to the interconnectedness of entities in the universe. It is intriguing that at least some interpretations of quantum physics seem to resonate with certain Upanishadic aphorisms, and some number patters in Vedic hymns and alter construction seem to correspond to periodicities in the skies. However, from this to conclude that Vedic-Upanishadic thinkers knew all about vacuum fluctuations and the Big Bang may not be altogether acceptable on logical grounds alone.

Likewise, there is no question but that the West had engaged in a systematic exploitation and oppression of the non-West ever since its age of exploration began, as Islamic invaders had done in an earlier era. It is also true that there may be other modes by which different kinds of knowledge may be gathered. But from this to conclude that investigations in mathematics, explorations in astronomy, formulation of the theory of evolution, discoveries in geophysics, and all of science were just schemes by the colonizing West to perpetuate its hold on its colonies sounds far too naive, not to say absurd, to many thoughtful people, whether in the West or in the non-West.

One of the few articulate and fearless intellectuals who speaks out against various expressions of culture-instigated commentaries on science is Meera Nanda. In a series of articles and in a book she describes these intellectuals as prophets looking backwards. She is one of the few modern Hindu thinkers to recognize the dangers in these movements. As she put it,

“Any erosion of the dividing line between science and myth, between reasoned, evidence-based public knowledge and the spiritual knowledge accessible to yogic adepts, is bound to lead to a growth of obscurantism dressed up as science. It is time secular and self-proclaimed leftist intellectuals called off their romance with irrationalism and romanticism. It is time to draw clear boundaries between science and myth, and between the Left and the Right.”

Harsh words indeed. Whether one agreed with her views or not, it is good that different views and perspectives are heard and permitted in India, for great civilizations are known to have stagnated become warped and rotted when the dissenting voices are silenced and stifled.


Multiculturalism is a stage of historical awakening in which the peoples of the world are coming to recognize that all the cultures and civilizations of the human family, of the present as of the past, have their intrinsic value and beauty.

From the sands of Mesopotamia which was one of the cradles of human civilization to the spiritual empire of India which probed into the mysteries of human consciousness, from the Chinese sense of harmony with the world and the imposing majesty of the pyramids to the once vibrant richness of Mayan and Aztec civilizations, there is a magnificent range of thoughts and accomplishments, of insights and frameworks which have breathed life and feeling in a wide spectrum of human cultures. Through these expressions, the human spirit forged many particular ways of recognizing and reckoning the world, giving meaning to human existence, and achieving an impressive variety of material and moral ends. There is glory in the myriad expressions of art and music, in poetry and philosophy, in myth and creativity.

Even as every biological species must be protected from extinction, every language and tradition which has evolved over the centuries and millennia, deserves to be nurtured and respected. Each one of them needs to be studied and understood, preserved and respected, for the further enrichment of one and all. Multiculturalism may thus be looked upon as a call to recognize the variety and splendor in humanity’s heritage.

The genesis of modern multiculturalism, however, has a negative side. Multiculturalism is a reflection of and a reaction to the gradual removal, after more than four centuries, of the dominance of Western nations in the affairs of the world. Aside from erasing some ancient cultures, in every region of the world where Western Man made his appearance since the close of the fifteenth century, he exploited the natural resources, subjugated the peoples, introduced his new-found technology, and (consciously or unwittingly) initiated them into his world views. His victims were angered by his subjugation, hated him for his exploitation, benefited in some ways from his technology, and didn’t know whether to thank or condemn him for the world views he ushered in.

When Western Man intruded into their lands, the peoples of Asia, Africa, and the New World were not without language or culture. Over the centuries they had created art and music, propounded philosophy and poetry, contrived crafts and inventions which, though not as well known beyond their own borders, were no less mature and significant than their coeval European counterparts. They had also evolved their science and technology. Not simply the ancient Greeks, but Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, Hindus, Mayans, Arabs, Africans, and Aztecs, all had inquired in the nature of things, and they all had formulated their own theories about life and the material world.

If the freedom movements in the colonies of Asia and Africa were provoked by the physical violations of Western Man into the rest of the world, the demand for multiculturalism is a rebellion against his intellectual arrogance.


The material foundations of ancient civilization were craftsmanship and ingenious devices. The intellectual foundations of ancient civilizations were religion and mythology. Their norms and values rested largely on traditions and sacred texts. On the other hand, the material basis of modern civilization is sophisticated technology, deriving from complex physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Its intellectual foundations are closely linked to the modern scientific world view. Its values and norms have evolved primarily from eighteenth century European Enlightenment.

Modern civilization is not better than ancient ones by any absolute standard, any more than that the ancient ones were intrinsically superior. But the major insights and material elements of the modern world arose in the Western cultural framework. Its impact manifests itself in different ways in the current multicultural discussions.


In this context, non-Western peoples face a serious predicament: To accept modern science and its off-shoots of technology and secular liberalism seems to be equivalent to embracing Western culture. Yet, even anti-Western cultural chauvinists have to rely on telephones and airplanes, vaccines and pipelines, computers and much more of Western vintage to survive and compete in the modern world.

In Western societies, on the other hand, there has been a gradual awakening that Europeans have committed outrageous moral transgressions and grievous intellectual errors in recent centuries: The moral transgression lay in their ruthless appropriation of lands and minerals that belonged to others and the infliction of political domination over them. Their intellectual blunders related to the arrogant conclusion to the effect that the conquered peoples were without culture or civilization of consequence. Thanks to a number of sensitive and enlightened scholars, the cultural superiority assumed by Europeans of earlier centuries has been revealed to be base and baseless.


It is true that modern science and modern enlightenment arose in the European cultural matrix, just as writing first began in Sumeria, gunpowder in China, the notion of the zero arose in the Hindu world, etc. But science and enlightenment are ultimately no more European or Western than zero is intrinsically Hindu. Indeed, the identification of modern science and Enlightenment with Western culture is one of the major conceptual blunders of our times. The explanatory dimensions of pre-modern scientific cultures need not be preserved. Even within Western culture demands to cling on to pre-scientific models of the world persist in many quarters. Such longings for the past need to be replaced for a saner and better-informed humankind. Many moral elements in ancient cultures deserved to be preserved, because they carry the weight of traditions, and embody the wisdom of the ages. However, those practices and beliefs which are at odds with the best values of the modern age must be relegated to the pages of ancient history.


The aesthetic dimension of culture infuses civilization with charm and color, beauty, splendor and delight. Every generation takes pride in its cultural heritage for this is what distinguishes it as a unique flower in the bouquet that is humanity’s collective cultural heritage. These differences must be preserved because they represent the best creative expressions of the human family. Each new generation contributes to it, for the aesthetic dimension is like a stupendous structure to which one continually adds new rooms. It is this dimension of cultures that must be preserved, cultivated, and shared by a l of us.</