Science In India (A Historical Perspective)

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Item Code: NAJ097
Author: B. V. Subbarayappa
Publisher: Rupa Publication Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9788129120960
Pages: 622 (15 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 700 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


In the fascinating saga of ancient scientific ideas and techniques, Indian accomplishments hold an exalted position. India displayed its originality not only in mathematics and computational astronomy but also in holistic medicine, metallurgy and other fields. For reasons known and unknown, however, India did not develop a rational, methodological and verifiable matrix for ushering in modern science until the nineteenth century. But when modern science was finally introduced to India by the British, India did not view it as alien to its ethos. India welcomed it instead, and several bright Indian scientists scaled the peaks of excellence.


The main objective of SCIENCE IN INDIA is to present to the general reader a comprehensive narrative about the history of science in the country. Based on authentic sources and their in-depth study, this book deals with the origins, ramifications and achievements in traditional astronomy, mathematics, medicine and chemical practices, besides certain concepts related to the physical world as well as plant life. It also discusses the advent and growth of modern science till Independence, highlighting the seminal contributions of Indian scientists who won international acclaim. This is a historical and factual perspective on science in India, traversing a span of more than 5,000 years.


About the Author


B. Subbarayappa (MSc. PhD), a chemist turned historian and philosopher of science was the elected President (1998-2001) of the History of Science division of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (under ICSU. Paris)-the first non-Westerner to be elected. He is regarded as a pioneer in the studies of science in India and he has been devoted to these studies over the last five decades. He was the recipient of the Copernicus Medal from the Polish Academy of Sciences (1973) and has received the Karnataka State Award (2008). He has also been awarded by the National Academy of Sciences. India, of which he is an elected Fellow, and has an Honorary Doctorate (1999) from the University of Bologna.


He was Honorary Visiting Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Bangalore. He was also formerly Member Secretary, National Commission for History of Science in India and Director, Nehru Centre, Mumbai. He retired as Executive Secretary. Indian National Science Academy. New Delhi.


He is the author/editor of twenty books and over a hundred papers on the history of Indian science. science and society, and related themes.




The history of science, like history, owes its authenticity to the preserved records or visible, knowable sources. A historian of science is governed by them, as it were, in his analysis, interpretations and perspectives. There are mainly two kinds of sources for the history of science and technology in India- literary and archaeological. The wealth of scientific manuscripts (by and large in Sanskrit) and preserved in a number of repositories in and outside of India, is indeed impressive. They shed light on the scientific tradition in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, plants and the like, which have been fostered in India for over two millennia. However, there are not many manuscripts on technological aspects; practically none on metallurgy in which India had attained great heights, particularly in iron, steel and zinc, as evidenced by extensive archaeological data relating to them. It is amazing that, even though astronomers, mathematicians and medical men lived separately in far off places and in different centuries, they adopted the same scientific terminology and wrote their treatises more or less in the same style; likewise, the metallurgists and other technicians functioned and displayed their skills in the ancient and medieval periods.


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the methodology-centred modern science was introduced into India by the British colonial administration, Indians welcomed it because of their scientific tradition and contributed to its progress, specially in the twentieth century. The records of the East India Company and of the colonial government are reputed to be the best preserved records in the world, and they are valuable sources for evaluating the advent and growth of modem science in India.


The dedicated endeavours of several European scholars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and later of Indian savants, have led to valuable publications for understanding traditional sciences, besides the archival documents, for the evaluation of the historical development of modem science in India.


A historian of science in India now has a large repertory of source-materials-both primary and secondary including books and articles-and has the benefit of the wisdom of a great many scholars of yore. The author of this book is enormously indebted to all of them. The preparation of this book, intended for university students and enlightened general readers, would not have been possible but for their valuable publications bequeathed to us.


An attempt has been made in this book to present a historical perspective on science in India, from early times to Independence. Its Introductory Overview, the first chapter, is to provide the reader a bird's-eye view of the whole canvas of the book. The second chapter tries to delineate briefly the early scientific ideas and practices, especially those of the physical and plant world. Chapters 3-7 deal with traditional astronomy, mathematics, chemical practices and medicine. The eighth and last chapter discusses the development of modem science in India before Independence, with a brief account of its growth in the West so that it could serve as a background for understanding its nature and structure.


Science in India, whether traditional or modem, needs to be understood in the context of the developments in the contemporaneous cultures or regions, as well as its educational dimensions. This book also attempts to discuss briefly these aspects, besides the advent and growth of Islamic astronomy and medicine (Unani) in India.


It is my fond hope that this book will be found useful by all those who are interested in understanding our scientific tradition over the ages. My humble efforts will be amply rewarded if the book appeals to young students and induces them to undertake researches in this fascinating field.




The Indus Valley Civilization or the Harappa Culture as the archaeologists prefer to call it, was by far the largest of the three ancient civilizations, the other two being the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian. It flourished for well over 700 years (2600-1700 BCE) and lasted in a decadent phase for a couple of centuries more. This civilization was especially noted for its functional town planning, drainage system, public water bath, standardized bricks, copper-bronze technology, agricultural production and management. However, we are still in the dark about its thoughts on astronomy, mathematics, medicine and the like, since the so-called Indus script has not been deciphered so far.


In its historical matrix, science in India has two facets: one, traditional astronomy, mathematics, medicine and the physical worldview, the origins of which can be traced to the Vedic and the post - Vedic period; and two, the advent and growth of modern science in India. In the ancient and medieval periods up to the nineteenth century, India witnessed remarkable achievements in computational astronomy, mathematics, medicinal as well as surgical practices and metallurgy. Some of them, like the adoption of the decimal place-value system using only nine digits and zero, certain surgical practices like rhinoplasty, zinc metallurgy, iron macro-technology, and the production of high quality steel, had no parallels elsewhere then. Besides, Indian mathematical achievements were of high order.


The Rgveda had set the tone: 'Let noble thoughts come from everywhere unhindered and overflowing'-and thus open-mindedness characterized our scientific heritage. In the ancient and medieval periods, Indian scientific and technical achievements were due to both endogenous intellectual efforts and exogenous influences, but much more of the former. Among the exogenous influences, special mention needs to be made of the Hellenistic geocentric planetary astronomy-along with its epicyclic and eccentric methods, which are still a debatable issue-and its concept of, and naming of the seven days of the week after planets; Graeco-Arabic or Unani medicine; Chinese Taoist ideas and practices which provided seed ideas for the Rasasastra and for Siddha medicine; paper production and pyrotechnics.


Although the recording tradition was not the forte of India, which preferred oral transmissions for a long time, the large number of scientific and related manuscripts, especially from the thirteenth century onwards, preserved in various repositories in and outside of India, speak volumes about the scientific activities fostered by Indian savants over the centuries-and these are of great value to the understanding of our scientific tradition.


Such a tradition knew no barriers of religion or region. Thus, when modem science (it was called Western science then) was introduced into India, largely by the British, in the nineteenth century and in the colonial period, Indian intellectuals and even the common people did not think of it as an intangible intruder; instead, they welcomed it. In the twentieth century, several Indian scientific pioneers emerged, including a Nobel Laureate in physics, who won international acclaim. In addition, the freedom movement was also a source of inspiration to them. The charismatic leader Jawaharlal Nehru was a votary of science, and the scientific attitude or 'temper' as he called it, even before India attained Independence. Under his leadership, modem science and technology took rapid strides for the betterment of the poverty-stricken masses of the country.


It is significant that, even in the modem scientific milieu, traditional sciences have not taken a back seat. For traditional astronomy coexists with modem astronomy in India; likewise, traditional medicine and technology.


In this book, Professor B.V. Subbarayappa has brought out in a lucid fashion the various facets of the developments in science and technology in an exceedingly comprehensive manner. He has brought to bear his extraordinary scholarship in delving into the details of Indian contributions to astronomy, mathematics, material sciences and the various aspects of the medical systems over millennia. A striking and unique aspect of his presentation relates to the coherent structuring of the evolution of ideas and knowledge in different epochs in each of the topics-which demands the highest level of versatility and familiarity with the related details of these fundamental and applied sciences. The way Prof. Subbarayappa has, for example, dealt with the presentation and discussions in the chapter on mathematics- starting from the Vedic period through succeeding centuries, going through Aryabhata I, to contributions in mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, followed by the growth of the Kerala School in the fourteenth to nineteenth century-really highlights this versatility. Further, he goes on to critically appraise the Indian contributions in these fields, in the context of the influences from Greece, Islamic traditions, along with the links with Chinese contributions. A similar trait can be seen in the discussions related to astronomy, chemical techniques and alchemy, Ayurveda and other medical systems like Siddha and Unani.


In the last chapter, 'The New Entrant: Modem Science in India', Prof. Subbarayappa has broadly outlined the developments in science during the Renaissance in Europe, going through a chronological sequence of developments and covering the works of such titans as Galileo, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. He further traces the developments in nineteenth-century sciences including atomic theory, the emergence of the periodic table, the seminal contributions made in electromagnetics, developments in biology including evolutionary theories followed by the more modem theories such as quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity. The corresponding Indian developments, starting from the seventeenth century to the initiation of the major scientific endeavours of Jawaharlal Nehru also help to update the reader on the continuing march of science and its relationship to society.


On the whole, it is the most comprehensive account of the historic march of science in our country that I have come across. Prof. Subbarayappa's narration emphasizes the pride of position that India enjoyed in developing and contributing ideas and enlightenment for the welfare of humankind over millennia. I am sure this book-which has a host of unique information that Prof. Subbarayappa has carefully included-will not only serve the purpose of providing a comprehensive account of the great contributions that have emerged from this continent since time immemorial, but will also trigger fresh ideas and research in new directions for those who are interested in pursuing scientific endeavours. As expected, this work will certainly be an outstanding contribution to the scientific heritage of this country for all times to come.











An Introductory Overview



Early Scientific Ideas and Practices



Astronomy: Its Computational and Other Dimensions



Mathematics: Approach and Achievements



Chemical Techniques and Alchemical Practices



Ayurveda: A Holistic Medical System



Other Medical Systems: Siddha and Unani



The New Entrant: Modem Science In India



Further Reading






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