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Of Cosmic Wakes and Humbler Heavens
An essay on India's contribution to the world in terms of basic sciences and spirituality
By Gopal Venkatesan

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk, or milky way,
Yet simple nature to his hope has given,
Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heaven.

Alexander Pope

India's contribution to the world, in general, is manifold. Over the centuries she has shared generously all her treasures (material and otherwise) with her guests - travelers, missionaries, traders and conquerors - without distinction, expecting little in return, in the spirit of this verse from the Upanishads - "the cow drinks water and gives milk." Yet her pivotal role in the history of civilization has been overlooked, forgotten and misinterpreted. The "Father of History," Heredotus (ca. 500 B.C.), at a time when Buddhism was holding its sway across the length and breadth of India, mentions India as being a land where people killed and ate their enfeebled parents to save the trouble of caring for them in their old age! Today, to many Westerners, India is nothing more than a nondescript part of the East with elephants, snake charmers and the Taj Mahal. Alexander Pope, in the above excerpt from his poem An Essay on Man may have been addressing either the Indian of the East or of the West. Regardless he summarizes quite nicely the popular view of the West towards the people of India. Using two phrases from the poem as my theme, I hope to give, in this essay, a brief introduction to certain key contributions through which India has influenced the world.

His soul proud science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk, or milky way

India, over the centuries, has been far ahead of the West in many basic sciences. An appreciable part of this knowledge has been disseminated around the world over the course of time and survive even today with their source being grossly misinterpreted.

In my opinion, the most important contribution that India has made to the world in the basic sciences is the decimal number system and the so-called Arabic numerals that can be seen on the rock edicts of Ashoka (ca. 250 B. C.) found all over India. It is worthwhile to note that the simplicity of the decimal system in associating the value of a number with an absolute value as well as a value by position escaped the genius of men like Archimedes and Apollonius (try writing the current year 1997 in Roman numerals!).

Less than four hundred years ago Johannes Kepler infuriated the Church by proving the earth was not the center of the universe. He formulated quantitatively the elliptical orbit of the earth around the sun. This fact was known in India to a group of astrologers/astronomers known as the Siddhantas before the Christian era. The implications of this fact are very profound. First of all, to work with elliptic equations requires a mastery of simple algebraic equations, but for algebra to work the existence of negative numbers and the concept of the number zero has to be understood. Invention of negative numbers and the concept of zero lays the basic foundation of abstract mathematics, which is the mathematics beyond simple manipulations of positive numbers that can be easily interpretable as counting experiments in the real world. In fact, from Vedic mathematical texts available it is clear that the properties and behavior of numbers were clearly understood from ancient times. Aryabhatta (ca. 400 B.C.), after whom India's first satellite is named, discusses in verse mathematical concepts such as quadratic equations, sines, cosines and the value of zero. He explained eclipses, solstices and equinoxes, announced the sphericity of the earth and its diurnal revolution on its axis. Indeterminate equations of the second degree were solved (unknown in Europe until Euler's work a thousand years later) and the square root of two was computed as early as the eighth century in India.

Contributions in the basic sciences were not limited to mathematics alone. Indians were masters of calcination, distillation, sublimation and preparation of metallic salts, compounds and alloys. For example, the art of tempering steel was practices to near perfection. The secret of manufacturing these "Damascus blades" was offered to Alexander the Great in place of gold and silver. To this day an iron pillar dated to be at least 1800 years old stands close to the Qutub Minar. Its purity has prevented it from rusting over the centuries, a level of perfection that cannot be emulated even with today's technology. The magnetic field of the earth was discovered in India at least 2500 years ago and records exist as early as the first century of Indian ships navigating the seas using a compass made of an iron "fish" floating in a vessel of oil. Vachaspati (ca. 150 B.C.), like Newton did almost 1500 years later, interpreted light as composed of minute particles emitted by substances and striking the eye. Brahmagupta (ca. 300 B.C.) wrote about the gravitational force of the earth - "the earth owing to its force, draws all things to itself." Nagarjuna (ca. 160 A. D.) devoted a whole volume to the properties of mercury. The design of stringed musical instruments, wherein the pitch of the note varies inversely as the length of the string between the point of attachment and the point of touch, was quantitatively known in the second century. Anticipating Weismann 2400 years earlier, Atreya (500 B. C.) deducted the basic tenet of genetics and wrote that the parental seed is independent of the parent's body, and contains in itself in miniature the whole parental organism.

Yet simple nature to his hope has given,
Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heaven

Humble heavens, a heaven within one's reach, can be more appealing than an undefined paradise in an after-life beyond comprehension. Can heaven be within one's reach before death? Can paradise be a place on earth? Various Indian philosophies have expounded over the centuries that questions such as these can be answered in the affirmative. Some such schools of philosophical thought, in my opinion, are futuristic even by today's standards. The doctrine of the Upanishads is my favorite philosophy in this context and I will touch upon it briefly.

The Upanishads have no parallel in the history of thought. They propound a philosophy of life, that does not touch the realms of divine intervention or salvation. In the words of Shri Aurobindo who wrote a commentary on the Upanishads,

"The Upanishads are the supreme work of the Indian mind, and that it should be so, that the highest self-expression of its genius, its sublimest poetry, its greatest creation of the thought and word should be not a literary or poetical masterpiece of the ordinary kind, but a large flood of spiritual revelation of this direct and profound character, is a significant fact, evidence of a unique mentality and unusual turn of spirit."

Proposed, nurtured and promulgated in the first few centuries of the early Christian era by individuals drawn from all levels of society, it attempts to apply abstract truth to practical life.

In this body, in this town of the Spirit, there is a little house shaped like a lotus and in that house there is a little space. There is as much in that little space within the heart as there is in the whole world outside. Heaven, earth, fire, wind, sun, moon, lightning, stars; whatever is and whatever is not, everything is there ... What lies in that space does not decay when the body decays, nor does it fall when the body falls. That space is the home of the Spirit. Every desire is there. Self is there, beyond decay and death; sin and sorrow, hunger and thirst; His aim truth; His will truth.

from the Chhandogya Upanishad

In time the world will progress enough to embrace its philosophy in an undiluted form.

Another poet, Walt Whitman, comes much closer to the truth.

The nest of languages, the bequeather of poems
The race of old
Florid with blood, pensive, rapt with musings, hot with passion,
Sultry with perfume,
with ample and flowering garments,
With sunburnt visage,
with intense soul and glittering eyes
The Race of Brahma comes!

In India there is a word - "Dharma," which has no equivalent in English. It is too difficult to translate. Dharma loosely means Code of Duty - Duty towards God, Duty towards others in one's family, Duty towards society, Duty towards birds and animals, every living thing, Duty to give without expecting anything in return. It also means love for all creation. India has preached this message of love for over fifty centuries.

In writing this article, I have borrowed generously from the information in Chaman Lal's book India, mother of us all, and also from a quotation by Annie Besant on the word Dharma.
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