Tuesday, 5 July 2011

India the Cradle of Language, Astronomy and Science

Whitefield, Bangalore. Click for large
India was preeminent at unveiling knowledge in the ancient world. The Sanskrit language, which is the mother of all languages, is the oldest, most systematic language in the world. Its numerous verb roots and affixes produce words that give precise expression to diverse ideas - from mythology and philosophy to science and mathematics, from poetry and prose to astronomy and anatomy.

Sanskrit's vast array of words gives it an incredible wealth of expression. There are 65 words for 'earth' and 70 for 'water' alone. By applying various suffixes, the word for 'water' can be multiplied into 280 words to describe specific types of rain.

'The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure - more perfect than Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either'.  Sir William Jones, British Orientalist (1746-1794)

The world's first university existed at Takshashila, in the north-west of ancient India, as early as 700 BC. The minmum entrance age was 16 and there were 10,500 students - not only Indians, but people from Arabia, China, Babylonia, Greece and Syria came to study. 68 streams of study were offered, including Vedic literature, logic, grammar, philosophy, medicine, surgery, archery, politics, military strategy, astronomy, astrology, accounting, commerce, documentation, music and dance.

In mathematics, India has always been pre-eminent, inventing the both zero and the decimal system. The earliest records of the zero in writing include an inscription on the Sankheda Copper Plate found in Gujarat dated 585-586 BC. The concept of 'zero' can also be found in Sanskrit texts of the 4th Century BC and is clearly explained in Pingala's Chandah Sutra of the 2nd Century BC. The Brahama-Phuta-Siddhanta of Brahamagupta (7th Century) also contains a lucid explanation of the zero. From here is is said to have been rendered into Arabic books around 770 AD which were then carried into Europe in the 8th Century.

'It was India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols (the Decimal System)....a profound and important idea which escaped the genius of Appolonius and Archimedes, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.' Pierre-Simon Laplace, French mathematician (1749-1827)

The highest prefix used for raising 10 to a power in today's mathematics is 'D' for 1030. As early as 100 BC, Indian mathematicians had specific names for numbers up to 1053. In the Anuyogdwara Sutra, written in 100 BC, one numeral is raised to 10140.

The word 'geometry' seems to have emerged from the Sanskrit word 'gyaamiti' meaning to measure the earth. And the word 'trigonometry' is similar to 'trikonamiti' meaning measuring triangular forms. Euclid is credited with the invention of geometry isn 300 BC but the concept of geometry emerged in India in 1000 BC from the practice of making fire altars in triangular and rectangular shapes.  The Surya Siddhantha treatise of the 4th Century describes detailed applications of trigonometry which were not introduced into Europe until the 16th Century.

The value of Pi was known in India by the 6th Century BC. It is given in the Sanskrit text Baudhayana Shulba Sutra as being approximately equal to 3. Aryanhatta in 499 BC calculated its value as 3.1416.  In 825 AD the Arabian mathematician Mohammed Ibna Musa affirmed: 'This value has been given by the Hindus'.

The Baudhayana Shulba Sutra shows that Pythagoras's famous theorem was in fact formulated by Baudhayana in the 6th century. He states: 'The area produced by the diagonal of a rectangle is equal to the area produced by it on two sides.'

1000 years before Copernicus published his theory of the revolution of the earth in 1543, Aryabhatta stated that the earth revolved around the sun. 'Just as a person traveling on a boat feels that the trees in the bank are moving, people on the earth feel that the sun is moving.' In his treatise Aryabhatteeyam, he states that the earth is round, it rotates on its axis, orbits the sun and is suspended in space. He further explains that lunar and solar eclipses occur by the interplay of the sun, moon and Earth.  

1200 years before Newton, the law of gravity was known to the Indian astronomer Bhaskaracharya. In his Surya Siddhanta he notes: 'Objects fall on Earth due to a force of attraction by the Earth. Therefore the Earth, planets, constellations, moon and sun are held in orbit due to this attraction'.

In Surya Siddhanta, Bhaskaracharya calculates the time taken for the earth to orbit the sun to nine decimal places. The difference between this measurement and a modern measurement is only 0.0002%

Indian astronomers had words for calculations of time as small as 34,000th of a second and as large as 4.32 billion years.

Shushruta, known as the Father of Surgery, practiced his skill as early as 600 BC. He used cheek skin to perform plastic surgery or reshape the nose, ears and lips with incredible results. Modern surgery acknowledges his contribution by referring to this method of rhinoplasty as the 'Indian Method'. The early surgeons had over 125 types of surgical instrument and were so advanced that they could cut a hair longitudinally. Shushruta describes the details of over 300 operations and 42 surgical processes. Ancient texts show that the Indians were among the first to perform amputations, caesarean and cranial surgery. They used medicated cotton pads to heal wounds.

'In India, I found a race of mortals living upon the earth but not adhereing to it, inhabiting cities but not being fixed to them, possessing everything but being possessed by nothing' Apollonius Tyanaeus (Greek traveller, 1st Century)

'If there is one place on the face of this earth where all the dream of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it in India'. Romain Rolland (French philosopher 1886 - 1944)

'The ancient civilization of India differs from those of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece in that its traditions have been preserved without break down to the present day.' Arthur Basham (Australian historian 1914-1986)

'In religion, India is the only millionaire....the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen it once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.' Mark Twain (1835-1910)

From the 'Understanding Hinduism' Exhibition at the Sri Swaminarayan Mandir in North London


  1. Wonderful post! I didn't know what an incredible language Sanskrit is. I have learned a great deal by reading this! No wonder I've always wanted to go to India. Thank you!

  2. Absolutely fascinating Herry. Obviously India is a serious gap in my knowledge which I shall have to fill