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PRE-COLONIAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN THE THIRD WORLD*

by

Susantha Goonatilake

This present book takes a broad view of science. It defines science as not necessarily solely
coincident with the scientific practice of Europe and America today or in the 17th, 18th and 19th
Centuries, the time when the scientific revolution is said to have taken root in Europe. It defines
the scientific pursuit in a much wider sense, as the search for valid explanations of physical
reality. Physical reality is opposed to metaphysical 'reality' and encompasses the domain of the
material. Included in this search for physical reality are not only the physical sciences but also
the social sciences, in which man's interactions with man are studied.

This book recognizes that even in the Euro-American context, the sciences of the 17th, 18th,
19th and 20th Centuries have changed considerably, following changes in their definitions of
subject matter, methodologies and ruling paradigms, and that there is consequently no unique
definition of the scientific enterprise, the scientific method or the subject matter of the scientific
research.

I take the view that the search for valid knowledge of physical reality has existed in several
other areas of the world throughout history, not only in the classical civilizations of China, South
Asian and the Middle East (and later of medieval Europe) but also in smaller social entities -
even those at a tribal level. This view takes issue with that of many historians of science, who
believe that the scientific torch was primarily handed down from the Greeks, through the
Romans, medieval Europeans and the Arabs, to the post-Renaissance modern Europeans. A
strong view taken here is that 'No single, "scientific" trait can be shown to be a distinctive
Western trait, confined only to modern Western thought, nor does it obtain unqualifiedly
throughout modern Western countries.' (Yehuda 1977).

Every human grouping constructs its own map of physical reality, which it often tests against
the actual, perceived reality, specially when this is important for day-to-day physical survival.
Sometimes these maps are abstract, remote from the mundane physical world received by
everyday perception, and are highly elaborate in their presentation of nature. In such cases the
match between actual, mundane reality and the map often becomes remote. These conceptual
maps, appearing, say, in the form of myths, present interpretations of events far removed from
everyday experience and the immediately controllable world of early man.

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*REPRINTED FROM: Susantha Goonatilake, Aborted Discovery: Science and Creativity
in the Third World (Zed Books: London, 1984), pp. 1-21.

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These conceptual, myth-like constructs covered uncontrollable events, such as death,
thunder and lightning, and the rising and setting of the sun. Where such cognitive maps are
constructed on matters affecting everyday reality, that is, matters that are directly observed and
manipulated on a day-to-day basis by man, a closer match between reality and the mental
construct may be discerned. Thus in tribal lore, a close match between the conceptual map and
reality is maintained through the tribe's detailed knowledge about the behavior of animals and
the properties of plants.

In more sophisticated, literate, city cultures, such as those that emerged in West, South and
East Asia, there has been a continuous and valid search for physical knowledge from the dawn
of civilization. The results of this search were cumulative until the colonial period and yielded
vast storehouses of valid knowledge. Recent research has begun to unearth these and has
thus disproved the simplistic view that traces the development of science as a cumulative
process within only the Western context. Thus in the case of South Asia, the research of Bose,
Sen and Subarayyapa (1971), Rahman (1977), Alvares (1979) and Dharmapal (1971) point
unequivocally to this conclusion.

I have assumed as an approximate definition of science 'the search for explanations of


physical reality', meaning, in the case of the physical sciences, explanations of the reality which
is 'out there', manipulable by hand or by instruments, and separate from the mind. In the case
of the social sciences, the fact that the human observer intrudes upon and thus disturbs the field
of his observations has long been recognized. This definition of science was essentially derived
directly from the dichotomy of Descartes in the 17th Century; it influenced the development of
Western science till the first few decades of the 20th Century. Aspects of physical reality
described by modern science in quantum physics and relativity, however, transcend the simple
Cartesian dichotomy and question the simplistic separation of two worlds: the scientific observer
on the one hand, and the observed physical reality on the other. The questions that have been
raised by philosophers of modern science regarding such problems have similarities to those
raised in some of the classical intellectual enquiries in some of the major South Asian
knowledge systems. (For a Western interpretation of such parallels between modern physics
and Eastern thought, see Capra (1976). For an authoritative Soviet presentation of the problem
of observer and observed, but not its parallels with South Asian thought, see Omelyanovsky,
1979.

Therefore, although the major concern of this book will be physical reality narrowly defined in
Cartesian terms, it will extend its exploration, often implicitly, into other spheres of knowledge,
where problems of epistemology, ontology, and the nature of reality come into question, as in
the case of some of the questions raised in modern physics.

Defined in such broad terms, a formalized search for physical knowledge - as well as a
search for knowledge in general - has occurred in West, South and East Asia from very early
times. Specialized communities developed in each of these areas and devoted considerable
time to the search for this reality. Initially, such specialized communities of interpreters of
reality constituted priesthood. Their explanations and conceptual maps sometimes matched
reality in the case of certain 'mundane' experiences and facts (as in the case of calendar
keeping and astronomical observations in riverine agricultural communities); sometimes they did
not, as in the case of explanations of astronomical events such as eclipses. Explanations for
these phenomena took the form of imaginative constructs which today we categorize as
mythical, but in the epistemological framework of the time had meaning and internal

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consistency. Thus, explaining eclipses as the capture of the moon by Rahu was internally
consistent with the belief of Hindus and Buddhists that the heavens were peopled by
supernatural beings.

The aim of this chapter is to describe some of these cumulative maps of reality made by non-
European peoples before the colonial period, the bulk of my examination being on South Asia.
The chapter hopes to show that - in common with the cultures in Europe - there was a constant
and enduring search for valid knowledge. This search was accompanied by a constant test of
map against reality in the case of the mundane, material world, but by far less frequent tests in
the case of the distant and the esoteric. These large-order cognitive maps about the 'esoteric',
non-manipulable and distant reality of modern science, for example, the contending theories in
cosmology a few decades ago of constant creation and the Big Bang.

Often, after an initial map has been made and legitimized by those associated with the ruling
power structure of a society, it tends to continue to be believed for considerable periods of time
and also becomes congealed in rituals, priestly practices and sacred formulae. The persistence
of these beliefs is paralleled by modern legitimized theories, such as the Lamarckian views in
biology on the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which were believed even after being
proved to be inconsistent with the facts. But in spite of the persistence of legitimized
knowledge, passionately believed in and often rigidly imposed by the ruling power structure,
there have always been occasional breakthroughs and attempts at new views of reality. It is,
therefore, opportune to examine some of the conceptual maps that have been drawn in at least
one of the early civilizations and to trace the historical growth of these maps.

South Asian Knowledge, Science and Technology

In the following pages I attempt a thumbnail sketch of the development of science in South Asia
principally, with brief notes on its development in other contexts. For my raw material I will rely
largely on well-known works that have appeared recently - e within the last decade - and have
given rise to a revisionist view of the history of science. In South Asia, as in other civilizations,
codified, formal, physical knowledge preceded the Indus riverine civilizations.

Thus Stone Age man, living before the emergence of cities in the sub-continent, had access
to a vast array of valid knowledge about nature. This lore was of such quantity and quality that
studies on similar contemporary hunter and gatherer peoples suggest that 'if all their knowledge
about their land and its resources were recorded and published, it would make up a library of
thousands of volumes' (Pfeiffer 1969). Such a complex corpus of oral knowledge could not
have been acquired and retained without a highly developed system of classification and
codification of the individual items of knowledge.

Our major interest here, however, is not in the examination of this treasure - house of oral
knowledge at the tribal level, but in the study of the development of formalized systems of
knowledge from the city culture period onwards, i.e. from the period of the Indus civilization.
Existing archaeological remains provide enough evidence to reconstruct the major outlines of
the socio-economic context of this culture as well as its scientific and technological
achievements.

The Indus economy was based on irrigated agriculture, with commercial links providing
additional inputs into the economy. Ideographs from the civilization indicate the presence of the
harrow, which was adequate for cultivation of soft soil, but do not indicate the existence of the
plough (Kosambi 1970 p. 52). The flood area was used for agriculture but was augmented by

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areas irrigated by dams. The civilization produced such crops as wheat and barley, bananas,
melons and peas. The river was used for transport of these and other produce for ultimate
storage in the city and for use by its different social strata. The area also cultivated cotton (Lal
1975 p. 17). A religious system reminiscent of some of the later beliefs of the Indian sub-
continent - like Siva worship - can be deduced from representations on seals. The architecture
of the city was well developed, with buildings laid out systematically and a surprisingly modern
drainage system.

The technology of the Indus civilization was based on bronze and, to a certain extent, stone
tools. The bronze objects included those for domestic use such as the knife, saw, sickle, chisel,
celt, razor, pin, tweezer and fish hook. Weaponry included the bronze spear, arrowhead and
short sword (ibid. p. 17). An interesting feature of the civilization was a well-planned city based
on kiln-burnt bricks. The two major cities, Mohenjodaro and Harappa, have almost identical
layouts, which hardly changed till the end of the civilization. Both cities had a fortified citadel
protected by walls 40 feet wide at the base and 35 feet high. There were buildings within the
citadel, while the town extended around it for about a square mile. The town planning illustrates
a high degree of uniformity and standardization, the streets themselves being on a grid basis
and workers' houses being in blocks. Occupational groups, such as brick makers, potters and
metal workers, were housed in special workshops, the buildings had a fine sewerage system
and there were tanks and bathing places. Some of the richer houses had walls seven feet
thick, indicating that they rose to several storeys. In the entire architecture, however, there is an
absence of decorations, mosaics, moulded figures in buildings and decorated doorways.

A mother-goddess cult having religious associations with fertility is indicated by terracotta


figurines found in the sites (Kosambi 1970 p. 68). The other belief systems known to the
civilization can also be deduced from the seals found in the cities. One such seal, depicting a
man in a meditative pose suggests strongly that practices of the yoga type were known by the
civilization. This indicates a strong familiarity with body processes and an awareness of some
of the causal relationships in the human physiology of both the voluntary and the involuntary
muscular system (although very possibly expressed in a 'mystical' and non-mechanistic
language).

The presence of a horned, three-faced figure on several seals is reminiscent of the


conception of Siva in the form of the Lord of Animals, Pasupati. The occurrence of lingas and
yonis suggests the existence of the prototypes of later Saivite cults. There is evidence of the
worship of trees. The belief in a future life is indicated in burial practices in which the dead
person was burried with artefacts used for eating and drinking in the present life (Lal 1975 p.
18).

Pottery was of a very high standard, and terracotta figures displayed great vigour and
originality. The figure of a bearded man, assumed to be a scribe, indicates a strong aesthetic
standard, the inward-looking eyes suggesting the reflective and meditative moods of later South
Asian sculptures. The small, bronze female figure, assumed to be a dancing girl, foreshadows
the subtle Trivanka sculptures of the historic period. The seals discovered suggest a mastery in
carving stealite and show a sensitivity to detail, as in the depiction of the bull. A man depicted
in a potsherd was dressed essentially in a dhoti and shawl which suggest today's attire in South
Asian villages. The womenfolk wore ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets, girdles and anklets. The
children had terracotta dolls and played hop-scotch and marbles.

The uniformity of construction and the controlled size of bricks in the buildings point to an
awareness of weights and measures. Studies of the meteorology of the civilization indicate
decimal divisions of length (Winter 1975 pp. 141-2), which also suggest an ability to perform the
simple arithmetical calculations necessary for the maintenance of the extensive commercial
links of the area. Wheel-turned pottery with a standardized size also indicates an ability to

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manufacture according to specification.

The Indus civilization was associated with a particular system of production using flood
irrigation and bronze technology. This system produced a sufficient agricultural surplus to
support a small high-consumption elite in a highly stratified society, in addition to a considerable
population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits, such as traders, craftsmen, scribes and priests.

The civilization had interregional contacts with, for example, the Sumerian civilization.
However, some of the cultural manifestations of the Indus civilization were a result of mainly
internal developments such as yoga-type religious practices, Siva-like gods, and the Trivanka
sculpture. The particular configuration of forces of production, production relations and culture
of the Indus civilization was to make its mark on the subsequent society and culture of the South
Asian region. This mark had an identity of its own and differed in significant details from the
culture of many of the contemporary civilizations such as the Sumerian and the Egyptian.

Vedic Period

The Vedic period represented the next phase of the South Asian cultural and intellectual search;
there is more direct evidence of it in the form of literature. This era begins in the 15th Century
BC and coincides with the arrival of essentially nomadic barbarian tribes, the Aryans, who had
access to the horse and chariot and a surprising facility with their language. The earliest
evidence of the Aryans is in the Vedas. Though nomadic barbarians initially, they gradually
spread eastwards and helped form new communities based on agriculture. In this they were
assisted by their mobility given then by their horses and light-spoked vehicles (in contrast to
the Indus Valley spokeless wheel), and this was an important factor in the spread of their
influence. By the time they spread eastwards they also had access to the plough, a more
efficient tool than the harrow of the Indus civilization. The Vedas provide detailed insights into
the scientific knowledge of the era, scientific knowledge which covered, among other areas,
astronomy, mathematics and botany.

The Rig-Vedic astronomy laid emphasis on observations of the moon and the nakshatra
system, based on the lunar months, contrasted with the Babylonian zodiac which was solar
(ibid, p. 574). The priests associated with the Vedic culture were required to perform sacrifices
at auspicious times and therefore had to develop calendars. A system of days, months and
years emerged. The imaginative thinking of the time gave rise to speculative conceptual
systems that described a cosmic cycle - the mahayuga - with a period of 12,000 divine years
equivalent to 360 solar years, that is 4,320,000 years. It was said that on this great cycle the
cosmos turned itself (ibid. p. 575).

The Vedic period possessed mathematical knowledge of a relatively high order, including a
knowledge of numbers up to 1012. (The Greeks by the 4th Century BC could count only up to
104 (ibid. p. 575). Basic arithmetical operations were also known, including those of addition,
subtraction and multiplication, as well as some fractions. Practical geometry was used, and the
Pythagoras theorem in a practical form was known (ibid. pp. 143-4). It is noteworthy that the
triangular array formed by the binomial coefficients (referred to as Pascal's triangle, which did
not appear in Europe until the 16th Century AD) was known in India at this time in the form of
meruprastara, a piramidal expansion of the number of combinations of one, two, etc. syllables
formed of short and long sounds (ibid. p. 576). The civilization also had a knowledge of
medicines which was later to be developed into the more systematic Ayurveda. This latter
knowledge encompassed careful observation of the physical body and its behavior. It also
constituted knowledge of the practical workings of the voluntary and involuntary muscular
system learnt through yoga-type practices.

A systematic knowledge of plants and animals existed along with a developed system of

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classification (ibid. pp. 376-8). The Vedic farmers were aware of the possibility of improving the
fertility of the soil by rotation of crops, a process that developed in the West very much later
(ibid. p. 353). As the Vedic civilization merged with the new urban culture developing in the
Gangetic plain, new concepts began to develop. In about the 6th Century BC, the Gangetic
plain yielded a flowering of thought and an intense curiosity about the ultimate fate of mankind,
his place in the universe, and the nature of the universe. Wandering mendicants (reminiscent of
the wandering scholars of medieval Europe) gathered in bands and engaged in intense
discussion and debate, expressing sometimes radically differing views.

The Buddhist canon describes the so-called 62 heretical thought systems (heretical, that is,
in comparison with Buddhist thought); this indicates the variety of philosophical and intellectual
views of the period. Some of the better-known views of this era are those associated with the
Upanishads, the Charvakas, Jains, Ajivikas and the Buddha. The Charvakas preached a
philosophy of materialism in which no higher entity or soul existed, happiness and its opposite
being reached only through material means. The Charvakas felt that consciousness was only
an epi-phenomenon of the physical, and as no soul existed, man in his everyday life merely
responded to physical and psychological stimuli. The Charvakas believed that direct
perceptions were the only true means of knowledge and, according to Chattopadhyaya (1976),
they were the precursors of a thoroughgoing school of materialism. The Charvakas did not
believe in karma or rebirth and had no rituals.

By the time of the early Upanishads, an explanatory system which attempted a holistic
description of nature appeared in the form of the pancha bhutas. These five elements, prthvi,
ap, tejas, vayu and akasa (earth, water, heat, air and 'emptiness' respectively) provide a
paradigmatic background, as it were, for the systematic interpretation of the material world.
With such a broad theoretical construct, this system permeated many later South Asian schools
of thought and became a component of some of the major philosophical systems of later times.
Thus the Sankhya, Nyaya and Vaisesika schools recognize the pancha bhutas, while the
Jain, Buddhist and Charvaka systems recognize only four elements (ibid. p. 573). It should be
noted that in the Greek tradition, too, a doctrine of five elements, earth, water, air, fire and
ether, which probably developed later than the South Asian version, provided an underpinning
of the Aristotelian view of the physical world. In Ayurveda too, the five bhutas are an
explanatory factor, as, for example, in descriptions of the human body, and the categorization of
foodstuffs (ibid. pp. 455-65).

The thought of the time around the 6th Century BC had a speculative content, but there was
also an emphasis on matters that in modern parlance could only be called science. This
speculation was sometimes directed towards goals, as is indicated by some of the well-known
admonitions of the Buddha against undirected, idle speculation. Some of the thinking of the
time contributed significantly to a knowledge of psychology and theories of perception, Western
parallels to which are found only in more recent centuries. Systems of atomism were known in
several philosophical schools, and causality and systems of logic were also developed. The
rules of language as codified by Panini constituted a significant scientific contribution. One of
the formalized systems of knowledge of the physical world was Ayurveda, and although its
surviving classical texts, the Charaka and Susruta, date from the early Christian era, many of
the ideas and practices within them were in vogue much earlier. It is useful to sketch briefly
some of the main features of this essentially physical science to indicate the flavour of an
important body of knowledge of the time.

In its philosophical approach, Ayurveda depended on philosophies such as Sankhya, yoga


and Vaisesika. According to Chattopadhyaya (1977 pp. 127-9), Ayurveda was a thoroughgoing
scientific discipline with a realistic approach to nature. Life was seen as a coming into being
and passing out of existence because of inherent laws in nature (ibid. p. 126). The Ayurvedic
system was holistic, disease being explained as owing to imbalances in various attributes. The
four central concepts underlying Ayurveda as stated in the Charaka Sanhitha are disease, the

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cause of disease, the manner of removing disease, and the introduction of health; in short, a
systematic approach to the problem of health. The doctrine of pancha bhutas is cited in order to
describe the manner in which food is digested and absorbed into the body. So that man could
live longer, there were also systems aimed at rejuvenating and building up resistance to
disease. There were theories of bone therapy and treatment of the nervous system. An
effective smallpox vaccination also existed (Alvares), a surprising, but well-documented fact.
The ancient Indian pharmacopoeia was very substantial and consisted of products of animal,
vegetable and mineral origin. Of the large variety of drugs used, mention should be made of
the oil of the chaulmugra tree, a specific treatment for leprosy which is still the basis for its
treatment today (Basham 1953, p. 500).

One of the most highly developed aspects of Ayurveda was surgery, with the celebrated
Susruta dividing surgery into incision, excision, scarification, puncturing, exploration,
extraction, evacuation and suturing. The instruments used in surgery by the early centuries of
the Christian era included 101 varieties of blunt instrument and 20 kinds of sharp instrument
(Bose et al. 1971 p. 581). Painstaking details were given of how the instruments were to be
made. Practical training in surgery was obtained by practice on the skins of deer, goats or
sheep, puncturing distended bags, dead cattle, meat, lotus plants and Jack fruits. Surgery
included treatment of cataracts, laparotomy, lithotomy and plastic operations (ibid.). The
surgeons valued absolute cleanliness in surgery as well as the healing qualities of fresh air and
light (Basham 1953 p. 500).

The major Ayurvedic texts, the Charaka, Susruta, Astanga and other commentaries,
comprise a very large store of codified knowledge. It has been noted that the Charaka Sanhitha
alone is three times the size of the entire surviving medical literature of ancient Greece
(Chattopadhyaya 1977 p. 20). These texts describe the history, general principles and
theoretical basis of medical science and various treatments. They also record debates and
disputes among the practitioners about various points in medicine (ibid.). The Ayurvedic
system, as Chattopadhyaya has noted, represents a naturalistic view of the causes of disease
and is materialist in essence.

During the later periods, until about the 13th Century AD, Ayurveda continued to develop
further, the major names of Charaka, Susruta and Atreya formalizing the accumulated
knowledge. Chemicals now began to be used in medicine, in addition to herbs, which gave an
impetus to the development of proto-chemistry.

There are references in even the earliest texts to attempts to prolong life by chemical means.
Thus the Atharvaveda (8th Century BC) describes the use of gold to preserve life, while
Buddhist texts from the 2nd to the 5th Century AD discuss the transmutation of base metal
to gold by the use of vegetable juices and mineral matter (Winter 1975 pp. 28-31). Later,
the Tantric-influenced that a yoga describes techniques of prolonging life. The use of mercury
and other chemical substances, such as mica and sulphur, were subsequently considered
essential for the preparation of the elixir of life. This rasa vidya developed a systematic
knowledge, several texts appearing from the 1st millennium onwards (Bose et al. pp. 322-3). It
appears, therefore, that in several respects chemical substances to cure diseases were used
by the rasavadins very much earlier than by the earliest Western iatro chemists, such as
Paracelsus. Increasing interest in these enquiries gave rise to techniques for the chemical
manipulation and purification of metals. The South Asians' concern with alchemy at the time, it
should be noted was primarily in the Ayurvedic search for longer life and not in the conversion of
base metal into gold.

In technology, the post-vedic period was aware of glass manufacture, high-level pottery
manufacture, the use of iron, and the development of irrigation schemes. The high degree of
development of metallurgy is attested by the well-known rustless iron pillar of Delhi and the
ability to make large metal castings, e for statues. South Asian metal products were known and

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valued in the Roman Empire and the Middle East (ibid. p. 498).

In civil engineering, significant strides were made in building techniques and irrigation works.
Vast masonry structures in the form of stupas were constructed across the sub-continent in
the immediate pre-Christian and post-Christian centuries, some of them as high as the
pyramids of Egypt. Special mention should be made of the extensive hydraulic system that
developed in the southern part of the region, e in the Sri Lankan dry zone. Here, large rivers
were dammed, and vast reservoirs constructed and interconnected with long canals. In its
working of modern electrical power grids which ensure the optimization of the system as a
whole.

In the following centuries, these nascent systems of formalized thought on science and
technology became deeper and more developed and were differentiated into various subject
areas. Many different branches of science emerged and became codified in scientific and
technical texts. Thus mathematicians and astronomers such as Aryabhata I, Bhaskara I,
Brahmagupta, Mahavira, Aryabhata II, Munjala, Sripati, Sridhara and Bhaskara II compiled
well-known technical texts.

One of the greatest of these figures, Aryabhata I, knew how to calculate square and cube
roots, and knew the properties of triangles, circles, spheres, arithmetical progression,
summation of series and the rule for solving indeterminate equations of the first order. He gave
a value for correct to four decimal places and knew the values of 24 sines. He also developed
an alphabetical system for defining numbers on the decimal place-value system (Bose et al. p.
584). By the 6th Century AD the concept of zero had been firmly established and place notation
of numbers so widely recognized as to appear even in inscriptions (Basham 1953 p. 495).
Bhaskara I was aware of the solutions to indeterminate equations of the first degree and
provided precise rules for the calculation of the area of a cyclic quadrilateral, the volume of a
prism and the length of the two diagonals of a cyclic quadrilateral. He also dealt with
indeterminate equations of the second degree. The view has been expressed that Bhaskara
came very close to evolving a differential system of calculus, but was not successful because
the idea of limit was yet to be conceived (ibid. p. 586). By the 8th Century, mathematics had
developed to such an extent that the Arabs of the time deemed it the "Indian art" (Hindisat)
(Basham 1953 p. 496).

Astronomy developed from the ancient ideas of cosmology, such as the mahayuga concept
and gave rise to several important texts, the Siddhantas. One such work, the Suryasiddhanta
dealt with trigonometrical functions, sine tables, equinoxes, solstices, meridians, the
measurement of time, planetary movements, eclipses, measurements of and calculations about
the sun and the moon, formalization of the calendar and the use of astronomical instruments
(Bose et al. p. 586). Some of these ideas were derived from Greek sources while some were
essentially South Asian. The first major astronomer Aryabhata I developed a theory of the
rotation of the earth and of epicycles while Brahmagupta refuted Aryabhata's theories on the
rotation of the earth. Bhaskara II further developed theories about the evolution of planets by
epicyclic-eccentric motions (ibid. pp. 92-124).

Speculation about the ultimate constituents of matter led to atomic theories which were
developed from early times by schools such as the Nyaya-vaisesikas, the Buddhists and the
Jains. Some of these schools attempted to explain the qualities of substances in terms of
particular quantitative combinations of atoms. Modern atomic theory dates from speculations
made from about the 17th Century, nearly one and a half millennia after the earlier Greek
tradition of atomism. South Asian atomic theories, however, have had a continuous, unbroken
tradition, the Vaisesika atomic system, for example, continuing until the 18th Century.

In acoustics, another branch of what we today call physics, important discoveries were
made, also based on experiment. Here the phonetic tradition incorporated both in the 'correct'

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recitation of religious texts and in Panini's linguistic analysis helped developed systems capable
of distinguishing musical tones far more finely than contemporary systems elsewhere. In the
pre-Christian era, the octave had been divided into 22 quartertones and their proportions
measured with high accuracy. It was also known that overtones, which varied with different
instruments, were responsible for differences of timbre (Basham 1953 p. 498).

To explain motion, the Vaisesikas developed an impetus theory of motion of a body.


Classical texts used this theory to describe the motion of such bodies as javelins, arrows and
pestles (Bose et al. p. 590). In the West an impetus theory describing motions of projectiles
made its appearance only in the 14th Century. In the biological sciences, classification of
plants and animals was attempted, with detailed descriptions of plant and animal life. Such
classifications were based, for instance, on the manner of reproduction - whether sexual or
asexual - and some of the texts give descriptions of plant morphology and physiology and
detailed descriptions of the process of germination (ibid. pp. 379-80). Agricultural practices
were well developed, and texts devoted to agriculture and horticulture became standard works
(ibid. p. 592). There were also medical texts that described the pathology of plants as well as
animals, and there are documented instances of physicians who, by the 4th Century, made
routine surgical operations on animals - as for example Buddhadasa of Sri Lanka.

Logic and epistemology and other essential underpinnings of scientific reasoning also
developed because of the deep interest in philosophy and the traditions of debate. The Nyaya
sutras of the early Christian era together with those produced by Buddhists and Jains
constituted the basic texts on logic. The means to reliable knowledge - pramana - was an
important field of study in this tradition. In logic, the ability to recognize false arguments, by, for
example, reductio ad absurdum, dilemma, circular argument and infinite regression, was known.
Indian logic covered many of the areas treated by Greek sources. In addition, they introduced
other categories and concepts not covered by the narrower Greek tradition, such as those of the
epistemological relativity of Jain logic (Basham 1953 p. 502).

Science developed so continuously that Said al-Andalusi, one of the prominent Arab
commentators and historians of science of the 11th Century, called South Asia the leading
centre of contemporary science in the world. That the sciences continued to develop from this
period is attested by the work of Rahman (1975) and Dharmapal (1971); there was no break
corresponding to the European Middle Ages. In subsequent centuries, India became a centre
of the Arab-Persian tradition which was a partial synthesis of earlier South Asian knowledge
with Greek science and technology. From the 14th Century e, the centre of this tradition shifted
from Baghdad to Spain and then to Persia and Central Asia and finally to India (Rahman 1975
p. 3).

Rahman has documented how, at the beginning of the European advances in science and
technology, the 16th-Century Shirazi (1583-88) in the court of Akbar invented a wagon mill, a
machine for cleaning gun barrels, a portable cannon, a 17-band cannon and a travelling bath
(ibid. p. 55). The fact that knowledge, even in the late 16th Century, was not yet colonial or
dependent on a dominant external centre is indicated by the fact that Shirazi drew his
knowledge confidently from a variety of sources, Indian, Greek, Zoroastrian, Arab and Persian.

Emperor Jehangir (1605-27) kept diaries which give details about his capacities of
observation and his methods of obtaining knowledge. The diaries show that the resulting
knowledge was not dissimilar to that being gathered in Europe at the time after the Voyages of
Discovery. 'The knowledge of science and technology in India and Europe of the late 16th and
early 17th Century compare favorably. The major differences may be not in the state of
knowledge, but in the state of organization and activity' (ibid. p. 66).

Rahman (1975) has compiled a bibliography of Indian works from the 8th to the 19th
Centuries, and this shows a vigorous and continuous growth in science throughout the

9
'medieval' period. Rahman has worked on an extensive bibliography covering the medieval
period and comprising about 10,000 source materials; this number alone indicates the extent of
work done and the depth of scientific development during this period. His study gives a
perspective on the indigenous development of science and technology and the relative
emphasis given to different disciplines in the different centuries. The major developments were
in the fields of astronomy, medicine and mathematics, although a significant range of other
scientific and technological subjects were also covered (ibid. p. 4). Although nearly 65% of the
manuscripts are undated, which could distort any conclusions about the relative growth of
science in different centuries, an examination of the list indicates significant changes through
the centuries.

Rahman's study indicates that from the 8th to the 17th Century there was a steady growth of
scientific output, the number of manuscripts varying from 26 in the 8th Century and 63 in the 9th
Century to 275 in the 15th, 485 in the 16th and 704 in the 17th Century. The two significant
areas of large, consistent growth through the centuries are medicine and astronomy, with totals
of over 4,959 and 2,963 manuscripts respectively. Next comes mathematics with a total of 538
manuscripts, and chemistry with 307.

This steady growth is interrupted in the 18th Century, however, when only 463 manuscripts
were produced, compared to 704 in the 17th Century. The drop continues in the 19th Century
with only 402 manuscripts produced. It should be noted that more documents would have
tended to get lost in the earlier centuries than in more recent times, so that the abrupt decrease
in the number of new manuscripts in recent centuries assumes greater significance.

Science developed in this later period too, though largely within the conceptual grooves dug
by earlier scientific commentators of the region. This steady development was, however, less
dramatic than the massive scientific explosion in the West which began in the 17th Century.

From about the 18th Century, the new legitimized science and technology emanating from
the West had begun to take a strong hold on South Asia, on account of both the Western
dynamism and fast growth and the increasing plausibility of its system for explaining the
physical world. In addition, with the advent of the Western colonial incursion in the sub-
continent, the earlier, South Asian scientific system and tradition now began to be suppressed
and undermined.

South Asia was one of the classical civilization with a continuity of historical
documentation and interpretation from the earliest times; we therefore have a relatively detailed
picture of its science and achievements. The other Asian cultural area of similar importance is
China, and the development of Chinese science has been documented extensively by
Needham in his series of monumental works.

Other parts of the present-day Third World, namely Africa and the Americas, also developed
- to a greater or lesser degree - organic, indigenous systems of perceiving, codifying and
testing reality. In the case of Africa, good documentation exists for the civilizations associated
with the Nile Valley, as well as with the Mediterranean area.

In the case of the Americas, archaeology has provided an abundance of detailed illustrative
material which shows a distinct regional flavor in scientific, technological and other cultural
developments.

This New World civilization had had a relatively autonomous development over a period of
10,000 years, and so showed facets distinct from the Old World cultures. In responding to the
different physical environments of the Americas, men in the New World domesticated different
types of plants and animals from those of the Old World. Significantly, in their encounter with
the environment, they failed to develop such technological artefacts well known in the Old

10
World, as the wheel and the plough. In this sense their civilization was unique and differs a
great deal from those of the other parts of the world.

Thus the Incas developed terraced agriculture and possessed a very extensive system
of well-built, though narrow, roads, dotted at intervals with rest houses (Clark 1977 pp. 442-3).
They knew of the equal arm balance, mortarless masonry, the plumb bob, metal working, the
construction and management of large-scale irrigation systems, and extensive road and
communication systems. They developed a system of measures and weights (land
measurement was required for taxes), the Incas' system of measures being based on the parts
of the human body. In comparison with the Old World, however, there were significant 'gaps'
in the Inca civilization's technology; it did not possess iron, the plough or the wheel.

The Mayas developed astronomy and mathematics. They used a positional system in
mathematics, as well as the zero. The Mayas' proficiency in calendars is indicated by their
calculation of the solar year. This calendar system was more accurate than European systems
until at least the middle of the 16th Century when the Gregorian leap year system was
introduced. These achievements were only possible with accurate astronomical observations
made from high temples with rudimentary instruments (ibid. p. 258). The Mayas made
observations of Venus and their knowledge of its synodical revolution reached a high degree of
accuracy. They were also aware of other stars and constellations and they probably used the
North Star for navigation.

In this sketchy and brief description of the development of civilizations and their associated
science and technology, I wanted to draw out a few significant features. These may be
traced in much greater detail in the South Asian tradition, because of its extensive literature,
than in the Americas, for example; yet the available evidence from the Americas and other
areas such as China and West Asia also supports the general thesis that science and
technology developed autonomously within distinct regional cultural boundaries (albeit in the
case of the Old World with some inputs across these boundaries).

Within these cultures, here was a continuity in the broad perception of what constituted
physical reality and a sustained development in the corresponding world-view. Often broad
world-views and broad perceptions of reality embraced many phenomena to provide a total
universe of meaning on what constituted physical reality.

Some Pre-Colonial Paradigms and World Views

I have taken a broad definition of science in this chapter, namely the search for valid
knowledge of material reality, embracing both the physical and the social sciences. In the pre-
colonial period, knowledge in the non-European world encompassed knowledge systems of two
kinds: firstly, of physical elements that may be manipulated by means and instruments available
at the time; secondly, the mental maps and knowledge systems that man constructed about
phenomena outside the realm of the immediately manipulable. The latter include such subjects
as the nature and structure of the moon, the nature of light, the nature of the earth below one's
feet and of awe-inspiring phenomena such as thunder and lightning. Being an animal which
constructs meanings in the presence of uncertainty and is therefore constantly in search of
explanation, man has always created conceptual frameworks that explain these distant,
uncontrollable phenomena.

The uncontrollable is not left as a gap in man's mental map: its nature is constructed and
fitted into man's mind, and given a dynamic form. These mental constructs are often projections
and magnifications of the everyday manipulable reality that man is aware of. And so man
explains natural phenomena such as thunder and lightning, eclipses and rain, by drawing

11
metaphors from the objects and phenomena surrounding him in everyday life. These
explanations are often larger-scale versions of his everyday reality, the unknown explained by
gods and demons and by mythical beasts modelled on observable heroic or demonic characters
or on characteristics of known beasts.

These metaphors and theoretical constructs formed by early man are in some essential
senses similar to the metaphors and
constructs that modern scientists build to explain phenomena beyond their reach. Thus, for
example, the physical and chemical characteristics of the planets in the solar system posited
by scientists (before the recent series of planetary probes examined them in more detail) were
obtained essentially by projecting known characteristics of the earth on to the then observable
data about the planets. Thus, there is a permanence in man's constant attempt to construct
meaning out of his reality, which ranges from the time of the early cultures to the tightly
structured field of today's sciences.

I hope in this section to explore some of the basic mental constructs that were evolved in
the pre-colonial world, and I also hope to show that they were systematic constructs, which in
many ways indicated a rational approach to reality (within the limits in which that reality could
be tested). I will limit my field of enquiry - because of my own limitations - to the world-views
and concepts of the physical world developed in South Asia. For my presentation I shall
draw largely on the work of Subarayappa (1971) and Chattopadhyaya (1956). I will also
limit myself to the scientific discoveries in the South Asian region of the pre-Christian and
immediate post-Christian era to illustrate the richness of its scientific exploration and enquiry.

Subarayappa notes that early enquiries into the nature of physical reality often attempted
'the plausible explanation of the maximum of phenomena by the minimum postulates' (1971,
p. 445) - in short, the general problem of One in Many (ibid.). These attempts combined
with man's inability to manipulate and measure beyond his immediate physical world gave rise
to several conceptual schemes of a speculative kind.

In India, the Rigveda Sanhitha, the oldest literature of the period, gives the first monistic
principle as water, all the rest being derived from water, perhaps in reflection of the importance
of water in the early agricultural civilization. Later, by the time of the Upanishads, this concept
of the one element of water has given way to the doctrine of the five elements. The central
feature here is an attempt to express known phenomena in terms of the interplay of a few
elements: a theoretical approach quite consonant with the attempts of modern science.

The Indian physical concepts were also integrated with 'religious' philosophical and
psychological systems so that a unified view of the world was presented. Such unified
attempts are seen in such varied systems as those of the various orthodox groups, of the
Buddhists and of the Jains as well as those of the thoroughly materialistic Charvakas.

To construct an evolutionary scheme of the various physical concepts in the South Asian
context and their theoretical underpinnings over periods of millennia would be extremely
valuable. Although, as Subarayappa notes, present historical research is not sufficiently
advanced for us to make such a detailed comparison (p. 451), a broad historical outline of
the major concepts and viewpoints is possible. Subarayappa has provided such an outline
(pp. 452-3), which I use in the discussion below.

According to the major concepts of the Vedic period, the physical, as well as the non-
physical world (i.e. gods, demons, etc.), is governed by a universal cosmic law known as rta.
This universal law governed the gods, as well as what we would classify as natural phenomena
such as the changes from day into night and season to season and the flow of water: 'The
Vedic people had the instinctive conviction in the natural order. They thought of the
external world as an ordered whole and that its dynamic or changing phenomena were

12
regulated by rta' (ibid. p. 454).

Among the important speculative concepts included in the Vedic literature were those
dealing with energy, motion and the primordial stuff of which the universe is composed, namely
water (ibid. p. 455). These universal conceptions give rise to the pancha bhutas of prthvi, ap,
tajas, vayu and akasa (earth, water, fire, air and ether, 'the non material ubiquitous
substance'). With these five elements, which represented an evolution from the concept of the
one element of water, Vedic literature attempted to bring an essential order into the
description of reality (ibid.). The doctrine of the five elements pervaded all strands of South
Asian thought and explanatory systems.

The doctrine was accepted as an integral component in the six orthodox systems, as well
as in the Sankhya Nyaya and the Vaisesika. Views such as those of the Jains, the Buddhists
and the materialist Charvakas recognized only the first four of the elements, without akasa.
These concepts also pervaded the main, purely scientific systems, for example those of the
Ayurveda. Thus the Susruta Sanhitha declares 'Five forms of matter exist in everything in the
world, because of their mutual interrelation, because of their mutual interdependence and
because of their interpenetration' (Chattopadhyaya 1976 p. 62). Thus everything in nature is
created out of matter in all its five forms. The Charaka Sanhitha gives details of the workings
of the pancha bhutas in medicine as follows (in a translation by Chattopadhyaya):

Matter (predominantly in its earth-form (prthiva) goes to the making of everything in


the body which is gross firm, solid, heavy, rough and hard - as, for example, nails,
bones, teeth, flesh, skin, faces, hairs on the head and on face and other parts of
the body and tendons. From this are also made odour and the olfac-tory sense...
Matter (pre-dominantly) in its water-form (apya) goes to the making of everything
in the body which is liquid, mobile, slow, unctuous, soft and viscid - as, for
example, ('organic sap' (rasa) blood, fat, mucus, bile, urine, sweat, etc. From this
are also made taste and the gustatory sense...

Matter (predominantly) in its fire-form (agnaya) goes to the making of everything


in the body that is of the nature of bile (pitta), heat and lustre. From this are also
made colour and the visual sense...

Matter (predominantly) in its air-form (vayuvija) goes to the making of everything


in the body that is of the nature of inhalation and exhalation, opening and closing
of the eyes, contraction and extension, movement, impelling, holding, etc. From it
are also made touch and the cutaneous sense...

Matter (predominantly) in its akasa-form (antariksa) goes to the making of


everything in the body that is of the nature of porosity and sound-producing as well
as the channels within the body, both gross and minute. From it are also made
sound and auditory sense. (Chat-topadhyaya 1977 pp. 70-1).

This was a particular interpretation of the five elements by the medical tradition. The
Vaisesika and Nyaya systems had their own assessments and interpretations of the five
elements, as did also the Buddhists and the Jains (Subarayappa pp. 459-61).

Another unifying concept in most South Asian systems was atomism. Atoms are defined
as the primordial stuff of the universe in the writings of the Nyaya Vaisesika, the Jains and
the Buddhists, although the detailed concepts vary significantly from one system to the other.

Thus in the Nyaya Vaisesika system the first four elements, earth, water, fire and air, are
considered to have atomic properties, being indivisible and indestructible and possessing no

13
magnitude. The atoms are regarded as spherical, and the four different types of atoms have
different attributes. Thus odour is associated with atoms of earth, touch with those of air, taste
with those of water and colour with those of fire. The Nyaya Vaisesika atoms are in constant
motion and they are capable of combination to form dyads. A triad is formed of the
combination of three dyads. The Nyaya Vaisesika concept of the atom provides, in terms
of its own internal logic, a rational explanation for qualitative differences between physical
substance, attributing them to different combinations of atoms.

The atomism of the Jains differed significantly from the Nyaya Vaisesika. The Jains
believed that all atoms were identical and that their different combination gave rise to
differences in the properties of the different elements. The combination of two or more atoms
produce molecules, which, unlike the single atom, are capable of change. The atoms combine
because of inherent qualities such as attraction and repulsion (ibid. p. 467). Each atom is
considered, in the Jain system, to have the qualities of taste, odour, colour and touch. The
atom, according to this system, is sometimes active and sometimes not. It sometimes revolves
in a regular or irregular way and it sometimes vibrates. It moves in space in a straight line,
and certain Jain texts describe in detail vibrations of atoms (ibid. p. 468).

The Buddhists defined the atom, on the other hand, as invisible, inaudible, intangible
and unanalysable (ibid. p. 469). Atoms were thought to be constantly undergoing change.
The Buddhists tend to picture atoms not as particles, but as bundles of forces and energy.
Thus an earthly atom is associated with repulsion and the watery atom with attraction (ibid.).
Different physical bodies have different elements and so are perceived differently. Some
Buddhist schools considered atoms not only as the smallest objects occupying space but 'also
as occupying the minutest possible duration of time, coming into being and vanishing
almost in an instant, only to be succeeded by another atom, caused by the first.'

It is clearly seen from this brief sketch that the South Asian views of the atom were very
sophisticated. Though based on speculation - as were all atomic theories till the 19th Century -
they helped provide imaginative and subtle explanations as to how the black box of physical
reality operated.*

It should be noted that this explanation of the motion of objects refers to space only. It
does not have time as a variable and does not involve a quantitative reference framework.
The core South Asian impetus concept dates from the Vaisesika period, that is, circa the 7th
Century BC; it developed into a recognizable form by the 5th Century AD (ibid.). An
impetus theory appears in Europe only in the 14th Century.

---------------
*In this respect, these exercises are similar to attempts made by modern physicists to
make imaginative constructs of how the directly unobservable sub-atomic world function. In
this, they are aided by more direct physical information regarding the 'black box' of atomic
structure (for example, they can shoot high energy particles at atoms and study the
fragments) than were their South Asian predecessors. However, the most interesting results
obtained in particle physics are in practice rarely reproducible because the most sought-
after collisions are virtually by definition very rare and also because of the very cost of
experimental facilities. Modern physicists, too, have to reach out for imaginative mental
constructions to fill in the blanks left by experimental evidence. Present mental
constructions in the sub-atomic field include such strange elements as the yet-to-be
discovered quarks (with 'charm' and 'colour'); tachyons, hypothetical particles that go faster
than light, and particles that go backwards in time. These mental constructs existing in a
sub-discipline now have intellectual guide posts such as the physicist Gellmann's saying
'anything which is possible is compulsory' (in atomic physics).

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In the pancha bhutas concept, akasa occupies a non-material place. Together with akasa,
space and time are non-material elements of the physical world which are important in the
South Asian system.

All material substances are considered to have direct contact with akasa, which may be
considered to be a continuum of infinite size (ibid. p. 476). Akasa has the five qualities of
'number, dimension, distinctness, conjunction and disjunction'. These qualities are also
possessed by space and time.

The Nyaya Vaisesika perceives space as the fundamental base for the designation of the
different notions of directions such as East, West, North and South. Space in this scheme is
regarded as all-pervasive, indestructible and unitary. Bodies are recognized as occupying
separate positions because of the presence of space. Distance is not considered as part of
space, but is viewed as relative to an observer. Space is not considered to be a simple
container in which physical bodies exist, but an objective reality with specific qualities. Qualities
such as nearness and remoteness, assume the existence of a given frame of reference such as
an observer, who is a necessary condition (ibid. p. 476).

Time, like space, was considered a root cause in the creation, persistence and destruction of
material bodies. In the Nyaya Vaisesika, it was held that time places events in a chronological
order; the past, present and future existed only in reference to present time and therefore
time was considered in terms of its action (ibid. p. 477).

The Jains, on the other hand, held the view that time is non-conscious, lacking tangible
form, without motion, and eternal. Empirical reality, such as the present, past and future, is
considered only in reference to given events which bring change; this was the concept of
relative time (ibid.). The Jains had, in addition, a deeper concept of time, a nominal time which
underlay this simpler phenomenal concept of time. However, unlike the Nyaya Vaisesika, the
Jains did not feel that time was unitary and all-pervading. They viewed time in correspondence
with specific human experience. They also had an atomic concept of time, limits of time being
considered discrete. In contrast to both the Jain and Nyaya Vaisesika concepts of time, the
Buddhists appeared to deny the existence of time as an objective reality.

Other physical concepts, such as heat, light, and sound, have also been dealt with in the
South Asian tradition. In the Nyaya Vaisesika system, heat and light are explained in terms of
one of the pancha bhutas, namely fire (tejas). Tejas, being material, is assumed to be eternal
in its atomic form and non-eternal in its aggregated form. Explanation of this element tejas in
relation to heat are given, for example, in the explanation of why a freshly-made pot hardens on
exposure to heat. It is held that the element tejas is in rapid movement and causes changes
within the atomic level (ibid. p. 478). Another view holds that when the pot is heated, the fire
element penetrates the system with such great force that it sets into motion the earth atoms
(one of the constituent elements of the pancha bhutas). This results in the destruction of the
earlier structure; a new alignment of atoms takes place while the fire is applied, and on
cooling a final realignment results, the pot being left in a new physical state. The Nyaya
Vaisesika attempts explanations of transformations on the basis of fire-atoms, which they use,
for example, to explain the production of milk by cows eating grass and the manufacture of milk
products such as curd and cream.

The element tejas (fire) is also a principle of sight, having qualities such as colour and
touch. It is held that light rays issue from the eye and apprehend objects in a manner similar to
a ray of light from a lamp apprehending an object. It is held that the tejas from the eye spreads
out in ever widening circles so as to apprehend objects of different sizes. While the heat and
light are supposed to be the result of tejas, sound is considered to be the result of akasa.
Sound in the Nyaya Vaisesika system is divided into modulated and articulated, sound and

15
noise (ibid. p. 481). One of the Vaisesika explanations holds that the production of sound is
similar to the production of a sequence of water ripples. The rippled wave motions occupy
successive points in akasa. Thus, the result of the first sound is to cause the second one,
after which the first one gets destroyed. The second one now causes the third and itself gets
destroyed, and so on till the end result of the chain is received by the ear. This means that
the first sound, as well as all the intervening waves, are not heard, but only the final one that
strikes the ear. It is also held that sound is a result of vibrations: for example, when a drum is
struck by a stick, vibrations emanate (ibid. p. 482).

In contrast to some of the Vaisesika exponents, the Jains believed that sound was not an
attribute of akasa, but a modification of matter. Aggregates of atoms impinge on one another
producing sound, which is now made overt and travels to the ear.

In the above discussion, I have isolated some key conceptual elements used to describe
physical reality in the South Asian region. The concepts I have isolated for discussion arose in
the early period - that is, roughly from the mid pre-Christian millennium to the mid post-
Christian millennium. These key concepts deal with the constituents of physical matter in
the form of elements, atoms and molecules; the nature of space, time and motion; the creation
of sound, odour, taste and colour and so on. Not all the explanations given here would be
accepted by today's science (neither would those of any other major early scientific tradition
such as those of the Greeks). Yet what stands out is that the search for descriptions of
physical reality was serious rich and sophisticated. In such areas as theories concerning
elements, atoms and concepts of time, the variety and texture of possibilities explored are
much richer than, for example, those in the Greek tradition.

*****

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