Wakes and Humbler Heavens
An essay on India's contribution to the world in terms of basic sciences and
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.
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
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
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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