January 14 is Makara Sankranti, and it is celebrated all over the country and wherever Indian culture has spread. It is known as Bihu in Assam, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Uttarayan in Uttar Pradesh, Shishur Saenkraat in Kashmir, Songkran in Thailand, Thingyan in Myanmar, Mohan Songkran in Cambodia and so on. On this day, the sun, the source of life on earth, transits into Capricorn and moves into the northern hemisphere. The knowledge of this astronomical feat is as old as the Indian civilisation.
Indian astronomy has a long history and was a Vedanga, an auxiliary discipline associated with the study of the Vedas, dating back to 1,500 BCE or earlier. Varahamihira, Aryabhata, Bhaskara, Brahmagupta and others were astronomers who even mention their scientific instruments. Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur constructed five Jantar Mantars in New Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura and Varanasi. They give us a good idea of the early scientific tools.
India produced great scientists and mathematicians. Baudhayana in 800 BCE calculated the value of pi and discovered what is now known as the Pythagoras' theorem. Pythagoras lived in sixth century BCE Greece; and the third century CE sophist Philostratus says that Pythagoras studied under Hindu sages or gymnosophists in India. Brahmagupta lived in seventh century Ujjain and wrote several books on mathematics and astronomy. India was the source of the number system, now called the Arabic numerals because the Arabs took it everywhere. This number system is a feat of genius. It enables all numbers to be expressed with just ten symbols—the numbers 1 through 9 and the symbol for zero.
Without this key, we would have a separate word for each number and be hopelessly confused. It is this brilliant Indian numeral system that makes mathematics, modern accounting, business deals and computer technology possible; from Wall Street to the space programme, modern civilisation depends on this number system. Brahmagupta was the first to discuss zero as a number and established the basic mathematical rules for it. He did a lot of work in geometry, trigonometry and discovered new theorems. He also explained how to find cubes, cube roots, squares and square roots.
Fifty years before the Italian mathematician Fibonacci wrote about the number sequence, now known as the Fibonacci numbers, a sage named Hemchandra wrote about this sequence, but even he was not the first Indian to do so. An earlier Indian mathematician named Gopala had also studied these numbers. And several earlier Indian mathematicians also knew about them.
In 500 CE, Aryabhata, and later Brahmagupta understood that the earth is round. They talked about gravity, saying that it is the nature of the earth to attract objects, causing them to fall towards the ground.
Bhaskaracharya wrote about arithmetic, geometry, algebra and calculus. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz are given credit for being the first to introduce calculus, but Bhaskaracharya had written about it 500 years earlier.
Bhaskaracharya had calculated the time taken for the earth to travel around the sun: 365.2588 days. The modern measurement is 365.25636, a difference of just 3.5 minutes. He did not work with instruments or computers. He knew that the earth travels around the sun at a time when the West did not; when people thought the sun revolved around the earth.
But it was not in mathematics alone that Indians flourished. Sushruta was a great surgeon who used 125 different surgical instruments and herbal sprays before an operation to prevent sepsis. His greatest contribution was in the fields of plastic surgery and cataract removal. When the British arrived, they learned these sciences from Indian doctors, cut off their fingers so that the Indians could never practise again, and introduced plastic and cataract surgery in British medical colleges as their invention. Charaka wrote about herbal treatments that Indians are just rediscovering. In 300 BCE, Patanjali codified the Yoga sutras. In 200 BCE, Kanada wrote about gravity and that the universe is made up of atoms. Nagarjuna was a great metallurgist and chemist. The list is endless.
Indian science and technology began at Mehrgarh (now in Pakistan) and continued throughout the country’s history. People developed different systems of agriculture, irrigation, canals and water storage systems, including artificial lakes, by 3,000 BCE. Cotton was cultivated by 5,000–4,000 BCE. They farmed with animal-drawn ploughs in the Indus Civilisation in 2,500 BCE. The people of the Indus-Sarasvati region used weights and measures. Large numbers are used in the Vedas.
The earliest-known dock in the world, which could berth and service ships, was situated at Lothal in Gujarat. Indian metallurgy was very advanced. Steel was made in India from 500 BCE. King Porus gifted Alexander a steel sword in 326 BCE. The iron pillar located in Delhi is seven metres high and has never rusted. Over 5,000 years ago, there were dentists in the Indus-Sarasvati region. A modern scientist who was looking at the teeth of people who had died there long ago found that ancient dentists had drilled teeth as far back as 9,000 years ago.
Young people should be taught about the scientific and mathematical achievements of India.
But it should be scientific, logical and truthful. Unfortunately, even centres of higher learning are claiming the impossible. We do not need to resort to falsehoods to establish our scientific prowess. The truth is sufficiently amazing. What we can be sure of is that India played a central role in all that is known today of mathematics and many sciences, and our civilisation discovered these concepts several millennia before they were known in Europe.
Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai
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