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October - November 2009

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India’s Scientific Contribution to World Civilisations prior to Industrial Revolution

by Dr V.V. Bedekar

India and China are World’s most ancient surviving civilizations today. Human desire to survive, communicate and progress is inseparable from its existence. This has given rise to everything we can imagine about our civilization. As we have achievements we have setbacks and failures. Every mistake teaches us something new and helps us to progress. Introspective and creative society finds out better answers and solutions and this process continues as if there is no final answer to the needs of the mundane world. This experience gets codified in its literature, architecture life style, law, sports, trade, fine and performing arts and into every conceivable creation of that civilization. Creation of nations is relatively modern though society or people having some moorings in a particular culture occupied some geographical location of the Earth. They traded not only in material goods but in ideas also.

Triumph of modernity compels us to believe that period of the past is a period of infancy lacking maturity of reasoning, objectivity and rationality required for progress. Further, all other branches of knowledge are put inferior to ‘Science and Technology’. Modernity and Modern science has become synonymous with ‘Western’ in all respects. Further when we think of Science we insist on universality or unity of science and epistemology to reach a particular conclusion. These assumptions are not only dangerous but they numb our inquiry apparatus toward earlier non-European civilizations. Unless and until we divorce ourself from this bias towards Modernity/Western, we hardly can give justice to the earlier civilizations. Science and its applications cannot be separated from the Culture of the civilization. No wonder for modern science you are expected to westernize your culture and life style.

So-called Copernican revolution is considered as the cornerstone of Modern Science which leads further to lndustrial revolution in the west This is true for the western science but insistence of pinning the beginning or creativity of Astronomy/mathermatics to that period creates earlier period or scientific achievements of earlier civilization opaque.

Corpernicus is credited for heliocentric view of the Universe. However, what we do not know is, was Copernicus original in his Heliocentric hypothesis? There is enough evidence now, to suggest that Copernicus borrowed this concept from earlier Arab astronomer Ibn-al-Shatir, whose book incorporated the theorem of another Arab astronomer, Nasir-al-din al Tusi, who lived three hundred years before Copernicus. Prof. Otto Neugebauer, of Brown University; Edward Kennedy, of the American University of Beirut; and George Saliba, of Columbia University; all reputed historians of Science, have reexamined and agreed, now endorse this possibility. School or college text books or for that matter knowledge books on mathematics are shy to requite this history of mathematics.

It may shock many; but the same is the case of invention of Calculus attributed to Newton and Leibniz. It is accepted by scholarship now that Maddhava, a 13th century Kerala mathematician has used these principles at least three centuries prior to Newton, which are also reflected in the text and commentaries of Kerala mathematicians of later centuries. Obviously there is resistance to accept the truth and all possible logic is used to protect Newton. Same is the story of Toxicology and Botany.

Many toxicological texts got translated into Arabic first from 7th to 10th century. These texts acknowledge the Indian source. Subsequent translations into Latin, in the 12th century onwards, however, did not care to acknowledge the Indian source.

Portuguese physician Garcia d’Orta (1501-1568) went to India in 1534 and remained there till his death. He wrote a book in Portuguese in 1563 whose translated title was ‘Colloquies on the Simples, Drugs and Materia Medica of India’. d’Orta’s scholarly information influenced various writers in Europe who borrowed d’Orta’s details on medicinal plants of India. In 1567 FInnish botanist L’Ecluse extracted essential information on the characteristics and properties of Indian medicinal plants and published an epitome in Latin.

Almost a hundred years after d’orta’s publication, another scholarly work on Indian Medicinal plants, specially from Southern India, was brought out by Dutch scholar Van Reede, titled Hortus Malabaricus in twelve volumes, from Amsterdam during 1686-1703. This work describes about 780 species of Indian plants with 794 illustrations. Reede also took extensive efforts to verify every plant. he consulted local vaidyas, traditional Ayurvedic practitioners and even Ezhava community of toddy tappers. Van Reede rejected earlier Arabic classification and nomenclature and even European knowledge, and strictly adhered to the local system of classification. Von Reede’s and other scholarly works on Indian medicinal plants and their classification system influenced and helped the great botanist Karl von Linne (Linnacus) for his binominal system of taxonomy which was published in 1735.

There are many such examples which need further research. The concept of science should transcend beyond conventional subjects, like physics, chemistry, biology or mathematics. They should embrace science of grammar, lexicography, logic, architecture, philosophy, law and justice, commerce, administration and management. Further, it should also include any other branches of knowledge available in the extant manuscripts or mentioned and elaborated in later available works. Many works are not available in original Sanskrit text, but are available as translations either in Chinese or Persian or Arabic. Such works should be included in this study.

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