Tharoor Explains His Tweets on Ancient Indian Science

Published: January 05, 2015 12:36 IST
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(Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

The unseemly controversy over ancient Indian science at the ongoing Indian Science Congress reflects poorly on all the parties involved, including the conference itself, which is now in its 102nd year without ever having discussed the ancient roots of our indisputable national scientific tradition till yesterday.

First, it reflects poorly on the traditionalists, who have turned revivalism into a form of revisionism with their outlandish claims of improbable Vedic accomplishments. The victory of Narendra Modi in the general elections this year has propelled a number of true believers of Hindutva into positions of unprecedented influence, including in such forums as the Indian Council for Historical Research, the University Grants Commission, and, it now seems, the programme committee of the Indian Science Congress, which scheduled a talk on "Vedic Aviation Technology" that elicited howls of protest from many delegates.

It has also given a licence to unqualified voices who gain in authority from their proximity to power - none more significant than the Prime Minister himself, who suggested in a speech at a hospital, no less, that Lord Ganesha's elephant head on a human body testified to ancient Indians' knowledge of plastic surgery. Such ideas, because they are patently absurd, except in the realm of metaphor, have embarrassed those who advance them, as well as those who cite them in support of broader, but equally unsubstantiated, claims to past scientific advances, from genetic science to cloning and inter-stellar travel. Petty chauvinism is always ugly, but never more so than in the field of science, where knowledge must be uncontaminated by ideology, superstition or irrational pride.

But the controversy also discredits the modernists who, in their contempt for such exaggerated and ludicrous claims, also dismiss the more reasonable propositions pointing to genuine Indian accomplishments by the ancients. As I pointed out on Twitter yesterday, it is not necessary to debunk the genuine accomplishments of ancient Indian science in order to mock the laughable assertions of the Hindutva brigade.

As I have been repeatedly saying, not everything from the government-sponsored right is necessarily wrong. A BJP government choosing to assert its pride in yoga and Ayurveda, and seeking to promote them internationally, is, to my mind, perfectly acceptable.

Not only are these extraordinary accomplishments of our civilization, but they have always been, and should remain, beyond partisan politics. It is only if the BJP promoted them in place of fulfilling its responsibility to provide conventional health care and life-saving modern allopathic medicines to the Indian people, that we need object on policy grounds.

Similarly, in asserting that ancient Indians anticipated Pythagoras, Dr Harsh Vardhan was not incorrect and should not have been ridiculed. In fact he could have added Newton, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo as well, every single one of whom had been beaten to their famous "discoveries" by an unknown and unsung Indian centuries earlier.

The Rig Veda asserted that gravitation held the universe together 24 centuries before the apple fell on Newton's head. The Siddhantas are amongst the world's earliest texts on astronomy and mathematics; the Surya Siddhanta, written about 400 A.D., includes a method for finding the times of planetary ascensions and eclipses. The notion of gravitation, or gurutvakarshan, is found in these early texts. Lost Discoveries, by the American writer Dick Teresi, a comprehensive study of the ancient non-Western foundations of modern science, spells it out clearly: "Two hundred years before Pythagoras," writes Teresi, "philosophers in northern India had understood that gravitation held the solar system together, and that therefore the sun, the most massive object, had to be at its centre."

Aryabhata was the first human being to explain, in 499 A.D., that the daily rotation of the earth on its axis is what accounted for the daily rising and setting of the sun (his ideas were so far in advance of his time that many later editors of his awe-inspiring "Aryabhatiya" altered the text to save his reputation from what they thought were serious errors). Aryabhata conceived of the elliptical orbits of the planets a thousand years before Kepler, in the West, came to the same conclusion (having assumed, like all Europeans, that planetary orbits were circular rather than elliptical). He even estimated the value of the year at 365 days, six hours, 12 minutes and 30 seconds; in this he was only a few minutes off (the correct figure is just under 365 days and six hours). The translation of the Aryabhatiya into Latin in the 13th Century taught Europeans a great deal; it also revealed to them that an Indian had known things that Europe would only learn of a millennium later.

The Vedic civilisation subscribed to the idea of a spherical earth at a time when everyone else, even the Greeks, assumed the earth was flat. By the Fifth Century A.D., Indians had calculated that the age of the earth was 4.3 billion years; as late as the 19th Century, English scientists believed the earth was a hundred million years old, and it is only in the late 20th Century that Western scientists have come to estimate the earth to be about 4.6 billion years old.

India invented modern numerals (known to the world as "Arabic" numerals because the West got them from the Arabs, who learned them from us!). It was an Indian who first conceived of the zero, shunya; the concept of nothingness, shunyata, integral to Hindu and Buddhist thinking, simply did not exist in the West. Modern mathematics would have impossible without the zero and the decimal system; just read a string of Roman numbers, which had no zeros, to understand their limitations.

Indian mathematicians invented negative numbers as well. The concept of infinite sets of rational numbers was understood by Jain thinkers in the Sixth Century B.C. Our forefathers can take credit for geometry, trigonometry, and calculus; the "Bakhshali manuscript", 70 leaves of bark dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era, reveals fractions, simultaneous equations, quadratic equations, geometric progressions and even calculations of profit and loss, with interest.

The Sulba Sutras, composed between 800 and 500 B.C., demonstrate that India had Pythagoras' theorem before the great Greek was born, and a way of getting the square root of 2 correct to five decimal places. (Vedic Indians solved square roots in order to build sacrificial altars of the proper size). The Kerala mathematician Nilakantha wrote sophisticated explanations of the irrationality of "pi" before the West had heard of the concept. The Vedanga Jyotisha, written around 500 B.C., declares: "Like the crest of a peacock, like the gem on the head of a snake, so is mathematics at the head of all knowledge." Our mathematicians were poets too!

Indian numbers probably arrived in the Arab world in 773 A.D. with the diplomatic mission sent by the Hindu ruler of Sind to the court of the Caliph al-Mansur. This gave rise to the famous arithmetical text of al-Khwarizmi, written around 820 A.D., which contains a detailed exposition of Indian mathematics, in particular the usefulness of the zero. It was al-Khwarizmi who is credited with the invention of algebra, though he properly credits Indians for it himself.

But the point is that, alas, we let this knowledge lapse. We had a glorious past; wallowing in it and debating it now will only saddle us with a contentious and unproductive present. We should take pride in what our forefathers did, but resolve to be inspired by them rather than rest on their laurels. We need to use the past as a springboard, not as a battlefield. Only then can we rise above it to create for ourselves a future worthy of our remarkable past.

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