Some Thoughts On Dr. Subhash Kak’s Article “Conflicting Narratives Of Indian Science”

That India is not renowned for its contributions to science in the deep past is a byproduct of its cultural image that has permeated most of its known existence and its own neglect to tell the world about it. Asian countries, in general, have been apathetic to advertise their achievements, compared to their Western counterparts. So, having been at the mercy of others to bring out their significant work, their place in history of science has suffered. Add to that their religion’s striking image, which has dwarfed their scientific presence in the annals of the world civilizations. If Hinduism would have had a less dominant presence in India, it might have been possible that Indian science would have been given due recognition.

That Indian science of antiquity had made significant contributions cannot be denied but its fadeout in the modern man’s awareness seems enigmatic, which includes Indians. Even though British Raj must have tried to keep Indians in its grip by keeping the greatness of their past in an umbral zone, besides using other subterfuges. But I think it accounts for only a small part of the problem. By controlling the curriculum of education in India alone British could not have obliterated its scientific achievements. They were unable to downplay the significance of Indian great works of Vedas and religious texts. It is the Indians themselves who have to be blamed for ignoring their scientific past. The chief reason for that is their out of proportion devotion to their religion, Hinduism. So, it is Hinduism that has dwarfed India’s science, not the British and other Western countries.

Indians have had a lot of time to mitigate their poor science-sensitive image but they have considered its resurrection by them disdainfully. No wonder the poor science-sensitive image has stuck. Also, Indians have not done much significant science work since antiquity, leaving out the last century, which signifies their retreat from their ancient cosmic search moorings. British Raj lasted just a hundred years, what happened between that and our hoary past? After the C.E. era how much scientific achievement was there in India? The super-intense octopus-hold of Hinduism over its people did not let their other achievements percolate to the surface, or let grow their new ambitions in the field.

Dr. Kak’s thesis of Babylonians having learnt significant science from India is speculative. Even though there was Indian presence among them, but how much ongoing development of Indian scientific knowledge was transferred to them, considering the impediment of gigantic distance between their place of emigration and their base camp. That factor alone could have hindered any significant transfer of knowledge between the two countries.

Within India itself, between antiquity and the seizure of power by British in India, vast tracts of time saw that the ancient Indian scientific thinking did not permeate to the common educated Indians. In the past religion has trumped science in India for the vast majority of its people. There have been great Indian scientific thinkers but they have been few and far between. Essentially, the soul of Indians has been religious and not scientific, even till today. This has nothing to do with their mental abilities but with their soul inclinations. Indian history is replete with foreign invasions having been given no or just token resistance, not because Indians were stupid but because they were preoccupied with the pursuit of the problem of the ultimate reality. Although modern Indians are changing, but through most of their history they have been single-tracked in their religious goals. Hinduism is a religion unlike any, it is a way of living, which rivals its religious aspirations. Hindus are very intelligent, highly disciplined, but singularly focused on their religious journey of life.

Hindus, especially the modern ones, have amply shown that they can excel in any intellectual arena, but only if they are challenged to do so. See what they have achieved in this country. They work hard, follow the vision of this country, and live with honor. If they were living in their motherland they would not have had such a creative life. So, even though the ancient Hindu ignored his environment, as he was so single-mindedly focused on his salvation, it is the creative environment of the modern times that can lure him to do other things, and do them well.

Cosmic consciousness, transcendent to a Hindus being, the Brahman concept, is the epitome of Hinduism. That cosmos has an intelligence is self-evident. These days it is fashionable to call cosmic intelligence cosmic consciousness. Can this cosmic consciousness reside in a human being? In other words can cosmic consciousness and human consciousness be the same phenomenon. It just cannot be so, because cosmos exists at such a colossal scale and in such epic complexity that there would have been no reason for nature to endow man with it. Nature is the simplest algorithm in universe based on cause and effect. Yes, man has some sprinkling of cosmic consciousness but it is reflected in his soul and not in his day to day living. We see flashes of it at times and see a manifestation of our universalness. Man could not have come thus far if he had only the cosmic consciousness helping him. There is another thing in him that helps him through his practical existence, that is his mind. Unlike cosmic consciousness mind is developmental. That is, it is evolutionary. That is why the ideas of the ancient and modern man differ in many practical things of life. Our ancient ideas on society, governance, survival, morality, etc. are different from the modern ideas on such things. Mind, in other words, is intellectuality. It depends on sense information, which is interpreted by ideas about things. These ideas, as was said earlier, have changed over eons. Newton’s ideas on space and time were changed by Einstein, based on both the conceptual as well experimental considerations. If man’s mind were all cosmic consciousness then the ancient and modern man’s ideas would have been the same. In the ancient times experimental verification of a theory was not considered important, as a visionary understanding of it was sufficient to call it a reality. But over thousands of years man realized that a visionary understanding was not sufficient criterion to get an ultimate understanding of reality. So, the mythological science changed to verifiable science, which would not contradict the known science, and would stand the test of time. Just because we cannot find the position and the momentum of an elementary particle at the same time does not mean they do not follow the laws of nature, even though man may never be able to find them. The idea that nature is run by laws and not by its moods is a faith that though cannot be proved is the bedrock of rational man.

Hindus discovered cosmic consciousness in man, though they may not have been the first to do that, but it is only a small part of man’s personality. Man’s personality is quite a bit shaped by the struggle of his survival in his long journey, and by the environment he lives in. Realization, though not an accurate one, that man’s personality is totally dictated by his cosmic consciousness, made Hindus neglect the study of his intellectual evolution. That is why Indian science did not keep up with its original brilliance. That is why in post-antiquity they did not have a Galileo, a Copernicus, a Newton, an Einstein. That is why Indian science never had as spectacular a rise as the Western science had. On the top of it Hindus were not good promoters of themselves, as the search of the ultimate reality was their supreme goal, for which they were willing to sacrifice worldly prizes.

The advent of Quantum Mechanics in the earlier to the middle part of the last century, which apart from the scientific verifiability of some of its parts, has given rise to a mythology. Like, an elementary particle, of its free-will, can be moving to other end of the universe and return back to this part of the universe, before it is observed. That the past and the present location of an elementary particle is indeterminable. Only an observation can determine its location, though without knowing its momentum simultaneously. Implying that at the ultimate physical level of the universe chaos reigns and therefore laws of physics cannot be formulated. Also, that cosmic reality only exists when it is observed. Before and after the observation we cannot tell what the particle is doing. Therefore, the derived dictum of Quantum Mechanics that it is the cosmic consciousness that creates physical reality. Spiritualists have seized upon this mindless state of knowledge and exultantly declared that it is the cosmic consciousness, which they say also resides in human brain, that creates matter, therefore, the cosmos. That is, mind and matter are the same thing. A corollary of this thesis is that human personality is all programmed. All human life is nothing but a pre-programmed process. Indian spiritualists, like Dr. Kak and Dr. Deepak Chopra, give Vedas the credit for this mind-boggling development. Unfortunately, this pushes Indian sciences image further down.

Suffern, New York; Original: 12.19.14; Revised: 1.2.15

Conflicting Narratives of Indian Science

Dr. Subhash Kak


Narratives of Indian science as related to logic, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy changed as colonial historians developed their view of Indian civilization. The standard view taught in school textbooks is that India did not have a scientific tradition and its astronomy, logic, geometry, medicine, and perhaps mathematics were obtained from the West. Influential Western scholars insisted that Indian astronomers did not make their observations and they had borrowed their tables from the Babylonians and the Greeks. Indian culture was viewed as emphasizing religion and mysticism (parÀvidyÀ) at the expense of the empirical (aparÀ) sciences. This view was rejected by scholars in India who claimed that the absurdity of the larger point was evident from the existence of the empirical science of medicine in India and that there were, in fact, a whole host of astronomical observations in Indian books. In recent years, the understanding of Indian mathematical and astronomical sciences has improved an example of which is the re-assessment of Indian mathematics. The view that India had no science is no longer held by scholars, but the process to get the textbook accounts corrected has turned out to be slow, especially in India.
The principal difficulty in the study of Indian science in India owes to the nomenclature “Hindu science” by which it is labeled causing it to be left out of educational curricula. It should be remembered that education is tightly controlled by the government and study of “communal” subjects is discouraged. History of science as a subject is generally not taught or researched in Indian universities and a few centers that do research on history of science are focused on British India or on modern science.
Indian academics from the quantitative sciences who have attempted a dialogue between Western sciences and VedÀnta and Yoga have a superficial knowledge of the Indian texts and little understanding of the material. Indian doctors who have studied yogÁs have not contributed to the bridging of the divide between the insights of Yoga and Tantra and that of neuroscience.
In this article we will first review current scholarly opinion on some scientific subjects related to physical and mathematical sciences. Indian epistemology is different from that of mainstream Western science for it privileges consciousness as an independent entity and this makes the Indian system much too radical for the materialists. Nevertheless, Indian ideas of cosmology and consciousness remain influential in many circles.
Logic and Grammar
The question of the origins of logic as a formal discipline is of special interest to the historian of physics since it represents a turning inward to examine the very nature of reasoning and the relationship between thought and reality. In the West, Aristotle (384-22 bce) is generally credited with the formalization of the tradition of logic and also with the development of early physics. In India, the †g-Veda itself in the hymn X.129 suggests the beginnings of the representation of reality in terms of various logical divisions that were later represented formally as the four circles of catuÈkoÇi: “A,” “not-A,” “A and not-A,” and “not A and not not-A.”
Causality as the basis of change was enshrined in the early philosophical system of the SÀÚkhya. According to PurÀõic accounts, MedhÀtithi Gautama and AkÈapÀda Gautama (or Gotama), which are perhaps two variant names for the same author of the early formal text on Indian logic, belonged to about 550 bce.
Philosophy and physics were considered part of the same intellectual enterprise until comparatively recent times. McEvilley in his The Shape of Ancient Thought (2001) does an excellent comparative analysis of Greek and Indian philosophy, stressing how there existed much interaction between the two cultural areas in very early times, but he argued that they evolved independently. Some scholars believe that the five part syllogism of Indian logic was derived from the three-part Aristotelian logic. On the other hand, there is an old tradition preserved by the Greeks and the Persians which presents the opposite view. According to it, Alexander was the intermediary who brought Indian logic to the Greeks and it was under this influence that the later Greek tradition emerged.
Another noteworthy contribution to logic was by the school of New Logic (Navya-NyÀya) of Bengal and Bihar. At its zenith during the time of RaghunÀtha (1475–1550), this school developed a methodology for precise semantic analysis of language. Its formulations are equivalent to mathematical logic.
PÀõini’s grammar (5th century bce) provides 4,000 rules that describe the Sanskrit of his day completely. This grammar is acknowledged to be one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time. The great variety of language mirrors, in many ways, the complexity of nature and, therefore, success in describing a language is as impressive as a complete theory of physics. It is remarkable that PÀõini set out to describe the entire grammar in terms of a finite number of rules. Scholars have shown that the grammar of PÀõini represents a universal grammatical and computing system. Binary numbers were known at the time of Piôgala’s ChandaÍœÀstra of about the fifth century bce and they were used to classify Vedic meters.
Indian geometry began very early in the Vedic period in altar problems as in the one where the circular altar (earth) is to be made equal in area to a square altar (heavens). Two aspects of the “Pythagoras” theorem are described in the texts by BaudhÀyana and others. The geometric problems are often presented with their algebraic counterparts. The solution to the planetary problems also led to the development of algebraic methods.
In the historical period, astronomical observatories were part of temple complexes where the king was consecrated. Such consecration served to confirm the king as foremost devotee of the chosen deity, who was taken to be the embodiment of time and the universe. For example, Udayagiri is an astronomical site connected with the Classical age of the Gupta dynasty (ce 320–500).
Indian Physics
In the Vedic world-view, the processes in the sky, on earth, and within the mind are connected. The Vedic seers insist that all rational descriptions of the universe lead to logical paradox. The one category transcending all oppositions is Brahman. Understanding the nature of consciousness is of paramount importance in this view but this does not mean that other sciences are ignored. Vedic ritual is a symbolic retelling of this world-view. Knowledge is classified in two ways: the lower or dual, and the higher or unified. The seemingly irreconcilable worlds of the material and the conscious are taken as aspects of the same transcendental reality.
The VaiœeÈika system considers nine classes of substances, some of which are non-atomic, some atomic, and others allpervasive. The non-atomic ground is provided by the three substances ether, space, and time, which are unitary and indestructible; a further four: earth, water, fire, and air are atomic composed of indivisible and indestructible atoms; self (Àtman), which is the eighth, is omnipresent and eternal; and, lastly, the ninth, is the mind (manas), which is also eternal but of atomic dimensions, that is, infinitely small. Indian physics is different from Western physics in the manner it considers mind to be a separate category.
The atoms combine to form different kinds of molecules that break up under the influence of heat. The molecules come to have different properties based on the influence of various potentials (tanmÀtras). Heat and light rays are taken to consist of very small particles of high velocity. The gravitational force is perceived as a wind. The other forces were mediated by atoms of one kind or the other.
The mystery of reality may be seen through the perspectives of language (because at its deepest level it embodies structures of consciousness) and logic (NyÀya), physical categories (VaiœeÈika), creation at the personal or the psychological level (SÀÚkhya), synthesis of experience (Yoga), structures of tradition (MÁmÀÚsÀ), and cosmology (VedÀnta). These are the six Darœanas of Indian philosophy. Each of these ways of seeing takes us to different kinds of paradox that prepares us for the intuitive leap to the next insight in the ladder of understanding.
Sacred architecture in many cultures replicates conceptions of the universe. The cathedral is a representation of the heavens of the Christian cosmos. In India, it was concluded using elementary measurements that the relative distance to the sun and the moon from the earth is approximately 108 times their respective diameters. The diameter of the sun is likewise approximately 108 times the diameter of the earth, and this fact could have been established from the relative durations of the solar and lunar eclipses.
The number 108, taken as a fundamental measure of the universe, was used in ritual and sacred geometry. Each god and goddess was given 108 names; the number of dance poses in the NÀÇyaœÀstra, an ancient text on theater, dance, and music, was taken to be 108, as was the number of beads in the rosary. The Hindu temple had the circumference to the measure of 180 (half of the number of days in the year) and its axis had the measure of 54 (half the number 108). The body, breath, and consciousness were taken to be equivalent on the cosmic plane to the earth, the space, and the sun, respectively.
Western astronomy begins with the Babylonians. There are intriguing similarities between Babylonian and Indian systems of astronomy. The similarities between the two systems include: the use of 30 divisions of the lunar month; the 360 divisions of the civil year; the 360 divisions of the circle; the length of the year; and the solar zodiac. Some have wondered if the Babylonian planetary tables might have played a role in the theories of the siddhÀntas.
It is important to note that the key ideas found in the Babylonian astronomy of 700 bce are already present in the Vedic texts, which even by the most conservative reckoning are older than that period. Furthermore, the solar zodiac (rÀœis) was used in Vedic India and there exists a plausible derivation of the symbols of the solar zodiac from the deities of the segments. In view of the attested presence of the Indic people in the Mesopotamian region prior to 700 bce, it is likely that if at all the two astronomies influenced each other; the dependence is of the Babylonian on the Indian. It is of course quite possible that the Babylonian innovations emerged independent of the earlier Indic methods.
The Indic presence in West Asia goes back to the second millennium bce in the ruling elites of the Hittites and the Mitanni in Turkey and Syria, and the Kassites in Mesopotamia. The Mitanni were joined in marriage to the Egyptian pharaohs during the second half of the second millennium and they appear to have influenced that region as well. The Ugaritic list 33 gods just like the count of Vedic gods.
Although the Kassites vanished from the scene by the close of the millennium, Indic groups remained in the general area for centuries, sustaining their culture by links through trade. Thus Sargon defeats one Bagdatti of Uisdis in 716 bce. The name Bagdatti (Skt. Bhagadatta) is Indic and it cannot be Iranian because of the double ‘t’. The Indo-Aryan presence in West Asia persisted until the time of the Persian kings like Darius and Xerxes. It is attested by the famous daiva inscription in which Xerxes (ruled 486-65 bce) proclaims his suppression of the rebellion by the daiva worshipers of west Iran.
These Indic groups most likely served as intermediaries for the transmission of ideas of Vedic astronomy to the Babylonians and other groups in West Asia. Since we can clearly see a gap of several centuries in the adoption of certain ideas, one can determine the direction of transmission. The starting point of astronomical studies is the conception of the wheel of time of 360 parts. It permeates Vedic writing and belongs to second millennium or the third millennium bce or even earlier, and we see it used in Babylon only in the second part of first millennium bce. Recent archaeological discoveries show that the SarasvatÁ River ceased reaching the sea before 3000 bce and dried up in the sands of the Western desert around 1900 bce, but this river is praised as going from the mountain to the sea in the †g-Veda. This is consistent with astronomical evidence indicating third millennium epoch for the †g-Veda.
The discovery of an astronomical code in the organization of the †g-Veda is relevant for the understanding of Vedic astronomy. The archaeological finds of the HaÃappan era also establish that there was a long tradition of astronomical observation in India. An amulet seal from RehmÀn ÷herÁ (2400 bce) shows a pair of scorpions on one side and two antelopes on the other. It has been argued that this seal represents the opposition of the Orion (M¦gaœiras, or antelope head) and the Scorpio (RohiõÁ) nakÈatras and, therefore, the nakÈatra system is very old.
There exists another relationship between Orion and RohiõÁ, this time the name of alpha Tauri, Aldebaran. The famous Vedic myth of PrajÀpati as Orion, as personification of the year, desiring his daughter (RohiõÁ) (for example Aitareya BrÀhmaõa 3.33) represents the age when the beginning of the year shifted from Orion to RohiõÁ. For this transgression, Rudra (Sirius, M¦gavyÀdha) cuts off PrajÀpati’s head. It has been suggested that the arrow near the head of one of the antelopes represents the decapitation of Orion, and this seems a very reasonable interpretation of the iconography of the seal.
It is likely then that many constellations were named in the third millennium bce or earlier. This would explain why the named constellations in the †g-Veda and the BrÀhmaõas, such as the ¦kÈas (the Great Bear and the Little Bear), the two divine dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor), the twin asses (in Cancer), the goat (Capricornus) and the heavenly boat (Argo Navis), are the same as in Europe. Other constellations described parallel mythical events: PrajÀpati as Orion upon his beheading; Osiris as Orion when he is killed by Seth.
It was held by some that the SiddhÀntic astronomy of °ryabhaÇa to be based mainly on mathematical ideas that originated in Babylon and Greece. This view was inspired, in part, by the fact that two of the five pre-°ryabhaÇa siddhÀntas in VarÀhamihira’s PaðcasiddhÀntikÀ (PS), namely Romaka and Paulisa, appear to be connected to the West through the names Rome and Paul. But the planetary model of these early siddhÀntas is basically an extension of the theory of the orbits of the sun and the moon in the VedÀôga JyotiÈa. Furthermore, the compilation of the PaðcasiddhÀntikÀ occurred after °ryabhaÇa and so the question of the gradual development of ideas can hardly be answered by examining it.
Scholars who suggest that °ryabhaÇa and other Indian astronomers borrowed mathematical techniques and observations from Greek and Babylonian astronomy use Almagest, the twelfth-century Arabic version of Ptolemy’s astronomical text of which the original Greek text is lost, for comparison. This late Arabic text which was later translated back into Greek is bound to have an accretion of Islamic material, which is especially true of the sections concerning star locations that were given much attention by Islamic astronomers. As a point of comparison, the SÂrya SiddhÀnta of which we have a summary from sixth century by VarÀhamihira is quite different from the later version that has come down to us.
In the revisionist view of Indian astronomy, elements of the Indian texts of the first millennium ce are taken to be borrowed from a text that dates only from twelfth century ce. Critics see this is as example of the Eurocentric view that asserts science arose only in Greece and Europe, with the Babylonians credited with accurate observations, and any novel scientific models encountered outside of this region are taken to be borrowed from the Greeks. If evidence in the larger Greek world for a specific scientific activity is lacking then the presence of it outside that region is termed a remnant of Greco-Babylonian science. Such material is gathered together in what is called “recovery of Greco-Babylonian science.”
The second-millennium text VedÀôga JyotiÈa of Lagadha went beyond the earlier calendrical astronomy to develop a theory for the mean motions of the sun and the moon. This marked the beginnings of the application of mathematics to the motions of the heavenly bodies. An epicycle theory was used to explain planetary motions. Later theories consider the motion of the planets with respect to the sun, which in turn is seen to go around the earth.
Histories of Indian Astronomy
The early Western studies of Indian texts duly noted the astronomical references to early epochs going back to three or four thousand bce. As the Indian astronomical texts were studied it was discovered that the Indian methods were different from those used in other civilizations. The French astronomer M. Jean Sylvain Bailly in his classic Traité de l’Astronomie Indienne et Orientale (1787) described the methods of the SÂrya SiddhÀnta and other texts and expressed his view that Indian astronomy was very ancient. Struck by the elegance and simplicity of its rules and its archaic features, Bailly believed that astronomy had originated in India and it was later transmitted to the Chaldeans in Babylon and to the Greeks.
As against this, John Bentley in 1799 in a study in the Asiatick Researches suggested that the parameters of the SÂrya SiddhÀnta were correct for ce 1091. But Bentley was criticized for failing to notice that the SÂrya SiddhÀnta had been revised using bÁja corrections, and therefore his arguments did not negate the central thesis of Bailly.
In the next several decades Indian astronomy became a contested subject. Part of the difficulty arose from a misunderstanding of the Indian system due to the unfamiliar structure of its luni–solar system. Later, it became a hostage to the ideas that the Vedic people had come as invaders to India around 1500 bce, and that Indians were other-worldly and uninterested in science and they lacked the tradition of observational astronomy until the medieval times. The inconvenient astronomical dates were brushed aside as untrustworthy. It was argued that astronomical references in the texts either belonged to recent undatable layers or were late interpolations.
But Ebenezer Burgess, the translator of the SÂrya SiddhÀnta, writing in 1860, maintained that the evidence, although not conclusive, pointed to the Indians being the original inventors or discoverers of: (i) the lunar and solar divisions of the zodiac, (ii) the primitive theory of epicycles, (iii) astrology, and (iv) names of the planets after gods.
The view that early Indian astronomy may represent lost Babylonian or Greek inspired systems creates many difficulties, anticipated more than 100 years earlier by Burgess, including the incongruity of the epochs involved. This only thing that one can do is to lump all the Indian texts that are prior to 500 bce together into a mass of uniform material, as has been proposed by some scholars. But such a theory is considered absurd by Vedic scholars.
The VedÀôga JyotiÈa is a late Vedic text, whose internal evidence points to the second millennium bce. Although Œaôkara BÀlak¦Èõa DÁkÈita’s BhÀratÁya JyotiÈa, published in the closing years of the nineteenth century, contained enough arguments against looking for any foreign basis to the VedÀôga JyotiÈa, the issue was reopened in the 1960s. The idea that India did not have a tradition of observational astronomy was refuted convincingly by Billard. In his book on Indian astronomy, he showed that the parameters used in the various siddhÀntas actually belonged to the period at which they were created giving lie to the notion that they were based on some old tables transmitted from Mesopotamia or Greece. For the pre-siddhÀntic period, the discovery of the astronomy of the †g-Veda establishes that the Indians were making careful observations in the Vedic period as well.
Sociology of Public Discourse
This current phase of globalization has some parallels with the earlier globalization unleashed by the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century, and the spread of colonialism. But ultimately, more than the knowledge of science and technology, the British Raj was based on its superiority of organization and control of the public discourse and education. The East India Company used several stratagems to annex Indian territories, such as the doctrine of lapse for rulers who died without male heirs. The idea of British superiority, drummed into the students at school, was used to keep out Indians from the superior positions in law, medicine, science, and administration until 1910.
The British used Western science, “and astronomy in particular, to reinforce social dominance.” Bayly quotes further from a 1844 article that asserts that the “mechanical apparatus in one of our great factories was as superior to the rude implements of the Bengal spinners and weavers as modern algebra was to the cumbrous diction of the medieval astronomer, Brahmagupta.”
The fundamental shortcoming of India’s centralized system of education compared to the non-centralized Western one explains the persistence of old attitudes. If we consider the representations of Indian culture as a struggle between the hegemonic West with its imperialist moorings and India, with its lived experience that is at odds with the Western narratives, the upper hand remains with the West.
A tightly controlled centralized system is like a blind elephant, since the persons at the top cannot have the resources to process all the information being generated. (As an aside, such information overload is the reason that the Soviet Union collapsed because no economist, howsoever competent and patriotic, could have the capacity to deal with the massive information of the marketplace to set rational prices for the goods produced in the government factories.) If there is a lesson here, it is that fully autonomous and even private universities must emerge to provide the necessary churning that leads to reform.
Academic institutional power is now used by the Western academy to foster its constructs of India. Just a few West-based journals control intellectual output in Indian studies, directly or indirectly, promoting ideas that support Western interests. Indian academic scholars, wishing to partake of Western material comforts, are part of the bandwagon of this critique.
It is amusing, but not surprising, that the fiercest opposition to reform in education comes from the academy in India. Indian curriculum remains West-centric. Take, for example, °yurveda, for which a few years ago the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine decided to establish an Ayurvedic Center of Collaborative Research to study medicine as it is practised in India. It is hard to imagine that the Indian medical establishment would approve of such a center in a mainstream medical college. Or consider the long battle that had to be fought for years to establish a Sanskrit department at Jawaharlal Nehru University, or how there is no required teaching of the history of Indian science and technology at the Indian Institutes of Technology, or the history of Indian business at the Indian Institutes of Management.
In a new stage in the economy of the knowledge industry, there is now a direct recruitment by Western universities of scholars of Indian origin who have internalized Western constructs. In this sense, it may not be a loss. On the other hand, the graduate of the India university who stayed back to teach in India may not have known Indian texts in original (since he does not know Indian languages), and he may have simply adopted Western theories, but by living in India there was always the possibility of absorbing Indian culture by osmosis, perhaps from the office clerk or the barber. The Indian professor in the West will not have the opportunity for this learning of India by living it.
India’s contributions to science, technology and crafts are well documented, if not widely known. For example, before the British arrived, Indians had a system of inoculation against smallpox; year-old live smallpox matter was used, and it was very effective. ×ÁkÀdÀrs would fan out into the country before the smallpox season in the winter. The British doctor J.Z. Holwell wrote a book in 1767 describing the system and how it was safe. European medicine did not have any treatment against this disease at that time.
Inoculation against smallpox using cowpox was demonstrated by Edward Jenner in 1798 and it became a part of Western medicine by 1840. No sooner did that happen that the British in India banned the older method of vaccination, without making certain that sufficient number of inoculators in the new technique existed. Smallpox in India became a greater scourge than before.
India’s technology was flourishing before the British. It has been estimated that India’s share of world trade in 1800 was about 20 per cent (equal to America’s share of world trade in 2000). The ships built at Mumbai in its heyday were amongst the best in the world. According to Dharampal, there were 10,000 iron and steel furnaces operating in the eighteenthcentury India.
The story of the destruction of India’s textile industry by the British is too well known to need repeating. The British became masters of India at a very opportune time. First, they cut off India’s export markets. Soon the innovations of the dawning industrial revolution gave their products a cost advantage that became permanent in the absence of new investments to upgrade Indian factories. As India became de-industrialized, it turned into a huge monopoly market for British products. British Raj made token investments in science and technology. In 1920, India’s scientific services had a total of 213 scientists of whom 195 were British.
But this story of India’s economic decline (and the loss of memory of its previous condition) is a complex one. Suppose you were offered a history of the English without reference to Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell or of the Americans without mention of Edison, Michelson, or Feynman, you would say it overlooks the real genius of these nations. Youth in these countries brought up without the stories of these masters would not be quite English or American in spirit. Given this, why is it that Indian schools leave out mention of India’s scientists from its textbooks? Most educated Indians have heard only one or two names of the greatest Indian scientists and mathematicians: Lagadha, BaudhÀyana, PÀõini, Piôgala, °ryabhaÇa, BhÀskara, MÀdhava, and NÁlakaõÇha.
The last two names belong to the Kerala school of mathematics and astronomy. MÀdhava (c. 1340–1425) and NÁlakaõÇha (c. 1444–1545), who made fundamental contributions to power series, calculus and astronomy. Their invention of calculus came 200 years before Newton and Leibnitz.
Historians of mathematics have recently suggested that Kerala mathematics may have provided key ideas for the scientific revolution in Europe. The need for clocks to keep accurate time on ships became of critical importance after the colonization of America. There were significant financial rewards for new navigation techniques. These historians argue that information was sought from India due to the prestige of the eleventh-century Arabic translations of Indian navigational methods. They suggest that Jesuit missionaries were the intermediaries in the diffusion of Kerala mathematical ideas into Europe.
The doctrine of the three constituent qualities – sattva, rajas, and tamas – plays an important role in the SÀÚkhya physics and metaphysics. In its undeveloped state, cosmic matter has these qualities in equilibrium. As the world evolves, one or the other of these become preponderant in different objects or beings, giving specific character to each.
The recursive Vedic world-view requires that the universe itself go through cycles of creation and destruction. This view became a part of the astronomical framework and ultimately very long cycles of billions of years were assumed. Indian evolution takes the life forms to evolve into an increasingly complex system until the end of the cycle. The categories of SÀÚkhya operate at the level of the individual as well. Life mirrors the entire creation cycle and cognition mirrors a lifehistory. Cosmological speculations led to the belief in a universe that goes through cycles of creation and destruction with a period of 8.64 billion years. Three kinds of motion are alluded to in the Vedic books: these are the translational motion, sound, and light which are taken to be “equivalent” to earth, air, and sky. The fourth motion is assigned to consciousness; and this is considered to be infinite in speed.
It is most interesting that the books in this Indian tradition speak about the relativity of time and space in a variety of ways. Universes defined recursively are described in the famous episode of Indra and the ants in Brahmavaivarta PurÀõa 4.47.100-60, the MahÀbhÀrata 12.187, and elsewhere. These flights of imagination are to be traced to more than a straightforward generalization of the motions of the planets into a cyclic universe. They must be viewed in the background of an amazingly sophisticated tradition of cognitive and analytical thought.
The MahÀbhÀrata has a very interesting passage (12.233), virtually identical with the corresponding material in the Yoga-VÀsiÈÇha, which describes the dissolution of the world. Briefly, it is stated how a dozen suns burn up the earth, and how elements get transmuted until space itself collapses into wind (one of the elements). Ultimately, everything enters into primeval consciousness.
If one leaves out the often incongruous commentary on these ideas which were strange to him, we find al-Biruni in his encyclopaedic book on India written in 1030 speaking of essentially the same ideas. Here are two little extracts:
The Hindus have divided duration into two periods, a period of motion, which has been determined as time, and a period of rest, which can only be determined in an imaginary way according to the analogy of that which has first been determined, the period of motion. The Hindus hold the eternity of the Creator to be determinable, not measurable, since it is infinite.
They do not, by the word creation, understand a formation of something out of nothing. They mean by creation only the working with a piece of clay, working out various combinations and figures in it, and making such arrangements with it as will lead to certain ends and aims which are potentially in it.
This was a framework consisting of innumerable worlds (solar systems), where time and space were continuous, matter was atomic, and consciousness was atomic, yet derived from an all-pervasive unity. The material atoms were defined by their subtle form (tanmÀtra) visualized as a potential, from which emerged the gross atoms. A central notion in this system was that all descriptions of reality are circumscribed by paradox.
Cosmology and Consciousness
There are two essential parts to understanding the universe: its representation in terms of material objects, and the manner in which this representation changes with time. In philosophy, these are the positions of two different schools, one believing that reality is being, and the other that it is becoming.
The conception of the cosmos, consisting of the material universe and observers, has been shaped by ideas that belong to these two opposite schools. Its conception as being is associated with materialism, while that of becoming is associated with idealism. In the materialist view, mental experience is emergent on the material ground and contents of the mind are secondary to the physical world. Conversely, in the idealist position consciousness has primacy.
The question of consciousness is connected to the relationship between brain and mind. Reductionism considers them to be identical – with mind representing the sum total of the activity in the brain – at a suitable higher level of representation. Opposed to this is the view that although mind requires a physical structure, it ends up transcending that structure.
Just as there exists the outer cosmos – the physical universe – there also exists the corresponding inner cosmos of the mind. The mind processes signals coming into the brain to obtain its understandings in the domains of seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting using its store of memories. But a cognitive act is an active process where the selectivity of the sensors and the accompanying processing in the brain is organized based on the expectation of the cognitive task and on effort, will, and intention. Intelligence is a result of the workings of numerous active cognitive agents.
The structure of the inner cosmos belongs to the domain of psychology, but it is fair to assume that at some level it mirrors the outer cosmos. The inner cosmos is physically located in the brain. But we cannot speak of where in the brain the perceiving self resides, because that would amount to a homunculus argument. Thus the conscious self can neither be localized to a single cell, nor assumed to be distributed over the entire brain or a part of it. We cannot speak of where the self is, but rather how the self obtains knowledge. Since the self is associated with the brain it has the brain as the lens through which it perceives the world. Our knowledge, therefore, is tied up to the very nature of the neurophysiologic structure of the brain. We make sense of the world for we are already biologically programmed to do so and we have innate capacity for it. This idea is expressed in the slogan that the outer is mirrored in the inner. In an elaboration of this idea it is assumed that patterns seen in the outer world characterize the inner world as well. This is essentially the Indian view and as evident it provides a bridge between materialism and idealism.
The ŒrÁ Cakra (also called ŒrÁ Yantra) is an iconic representation of the Indian approach to consciousness. According to the Vedic view, reality, which is unitary at the transcendental level, is projected into experience that is characterized by duality and paradox. We thus have duality associated with body and consciousness, being and becoming, greed and altruism, fate and freedom. The gods bridge such duality in the field of imagination and also collectively in society: ViÈõu is the deity of moral law, whereas Œiva is Universal Consciousness. Conversely, the projection into processes of time and change is through the agency of the Goddess. Consciousness (PuruÈa) and Nature (Prak¦ti) are opposite sides of the same coin.
The educational system created by the British in India in the nineteenth century was to estrange Indians from their culture so that they could rule India effectively. This program has been so successful that most textbook authors are not even aware of the Kerala School, or of Piôgala’s and PÀõini’s scientific contributions. Many who are passionate in their love for India are so misguided by the prestige of the Orientalist narratives that they believe that MÀdhava and NÁlakaõÇha are fictional characters, product of a conspiracy to create an imagined greatness for ancient India.The discussion of the Kerala School was minimized in many Western books on Indian astronomy.
Indian texts present a recursive cosmology in which material world and sentient beings both have a part. The material part of this cosmology is entirely governed by physical law and sentient beings are taken to be free. Working within this framework, Indian seers and scholars developed several remarkable insights into the nature of reality as well as specific advances in the mathematical and empirical sciences. This framework included material on the nature of intuition itself.
The materialist who reads these texts is repelled by the postulation of consciousness as an independent entity. For a convinced materialist, Indian cosmology is a trap from which young should be protected. This is the reason why the ideological left, which dominates education and the media, takes a hard line agai

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