Roots of Indian Science: Science in the Vedas – Part A

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Abstract:

Vedas are the oldest written scriptures in the world. The enormous volume of the Vedic literature was assiduously collected and preserved by British scholars during the British rule in India. In addition to spirituality and philosophy, Vedas contain an authentic account of contemporary Indian science in Vedic times. However, to understand the Vedic literature, a good knowledge of Sanskrit language is essential.

The sages in ancient India were well versed with various branches of science. The Vedas and other scriptures were taught to their disciples in the ashrams established by them. The Vedic hymns are replete with the principles and proof of the contemporary Indian scientific thought of those times. In this series of articles, we have attempted to present an account of contributions of India to science as deciphered from Vedas.


Introduction

Science, which was earlier called natural philosophy, explains natural phenomena and their causes. Indian science has its roots in the Vedas, dated to about 5000yr before present (BP) and was enriched further during the post-Vedic period in various branches of science, such as astronomy, mathematics, environment etc. It flourished during the historical period as a result of contact with the Greek and the Arab civilizations.

Indian science provided the impetus for the modern-day developments in science and technology in Europe and America. In the Vedic period science was written in the form of Sanskrit verses (shlokas) which are rather difficult to decode and understand by a common man not conversant with the Sanskrit language. Hence this handicap has resulted in many of the hidden scientific treasures not fully discovered/exploited.


Moreover, the study is mainly in the form of theoretical conceptualizations/ hypotheses that are not backed by relevant experiments. The effort of British scientists/philosophers is laudable in this context, who meticulously researched on the various Indian texts and published their findings which are now being used as our source of old Indian scientific thoughts.

In this first part of a series of two papers, we explore the various facets of science in India during the Vedic period, Indus valley civilization, and golden period of Sanskrit.

The Vedas:

The word ‘Veda’ in Sanskrit means “wisdom or knowledge”. Vedas are the oldest written texts on our planet today. They are believed to have been passed on from one generation to the next through oral tradition for over 100,000 years, and in the written form, between 6,000- 4,000 years BP.


It is believed that Vedas were not composed by man but were either taught directly by God to the sages or else they were revealed to the sages who were “mantradrashta” of the hymns. The Vedas were mainly compiled by Vyasa Krishna Dwaipayana around the time of Lord Krishna (1500 BC) [1].

There are four Vedas known as Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Each of these has an original text (Mantra) and a commentary portion (Brahmana). The Brahmana also has two portions, one interpreting the ritual and the other the philosophy. The portions interpreting the philosophy of the original texts constitute the Upanishads.

The appendices to the Veda are called Vedangas. Vedic literature refers to the whole of this vast group of literature. The entire Rigveda and most of Atharvaveda are in the form of hymns to the deities and the elements that constitute the universe.

Samaveda is in the form of verses that are to be recited and Yajurveda is largely in the form of short prose passages. Both Samaveda and Yajurveda deal with rituals rather than philosophy – especially Yajurveda. Rig Veda, the oldest of the four Vedas, was composed about 1500 BC. Rig Veda (often written together as ‘Rigveda’) means praise/verse of knowledge. It consists of 1,028 Vedic Sanskrit hymns and 10,600 verses in all, organized into ten books.

The earliest history of Indian science in India (Vedic period: 3000BC-1100 BC) is based on the Vedas and its six appendixes called Vedangas. There are six Vedangas, as shown in Table-1. These deal with various aspects of life and science [2, 3]. There are descriptions in the various Vedic books that tell us in detail about scientific ideas of that time. The Vedic period is followed by Mahajanapadas (1100BC-320BC), which is also called Golden Age of Sanskrit language [4]. These provide in-depth insight in to the Indian science of those times.

Table-1: Vedangas and their contents

Vedangas Description
Kalpa Performance of rituals based on geometry, mathematics and calendrics
Shiksha Phonetics
Chandas Metrical structures
Nirakta Etymology
Vyakaran Grammar
Jyotisha Astronomy and other cyclical phenomena.

 

Vedas are universally acknowledged as the most precious Indian heritage. The Vedic hymns are full of statements, ideas and unusual images which contain fundamental truths of all sciences. Here, knowledge is couched in symbolic language and unless the symbols are decoded, the real purport of these mantras cannot be understood [5].

Friedrich Max Mueller (6 December 1823 – 28 October 1900) was German-born philologist and Orientalist

European scholars have made quite valuable study of the Vedas which is laudable [6]. Some of them like Max Muller (1823-1900) conducted research out of their regard for our scriptures. They took great pains to gather the old texts and published volume after volume incorporating their findings.

In 1845, Max Müller moved to Paris for studying Sanskrit language under Eugène Burnouf. It was Burnouf who encouraged him to publish the complete Rig Veda in Sanskrit, using manuscripts available in England.

He then moved to England in 1846 in order to study Sanskrit texts that were in the possession of the East India Company. He supported himself at first with creative writing; his novel German Love was quite popular in those days.

Max Müller’s connections with the East India Company and also with Sanskrit scholars based at Oxford University led to a career for him in Britain, where he eventually became a leading authoritative commentator on the culture of India, which Britain controlled as part of its empire.


This led to complex exchanges between Indian and British intellectuals, especially through Max Müller’s links with the Brahmo Samaj [7].

Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones (1746 – 1794), who was a judge of the Calcutta high court, started the Asiatic Society. The number of books published by this institution on Vedic subjects should evoke our appreciation.

With the help of the East India Company, Sir William published the Rigveda with the commentary of Sayana and also a number of other Hindu scriptures. Apart from Englishmen, Indologists from France, Germany and Russia have also made an outstanding contribution in this field. “The discovery of the Vedas of the Hindus is more significant than Columbus’s discovery of America,” thus exclaimed some Indologists exulting in their findings.

 

These foreign scholars discovered Vedic and Vedantic texts from various parts of the country. They translated the dharma-, grhya- and srauta – sutras. The Kundalini Tantra gained importance only after Arthur Avalon had written extensively on it.

A number of Western scholars also have contributed to studies of other aspects of our culture. It was because of the “Protection of Ancient Monuments Act” that came into effect during the tenure of Lord Curzon as viceroy of India that Hindu temples and other monuments were saved from vandalism. Fergusson took photographs of our artistic treasures (sculptures) and made them known to the world. Men like Cunningham, Sir John Marshall and Mortimer -Wheeler did notable work in Indian archaeology.

It was because of the hard work of Mackenizie who collected manuscripts from various parts of India from which we now know about many of our shastras. In fact, the department of epigraphy was started during the British rule in India.

There were indeed several negative aspects of the British rule in India but it was during this period that some good things were also done. However, the motives of many of those who had called themselves orientalists or Indologists were not above board. They wanted to reconstruct the history of India based on their own study of the Vedas and as part of this strategy they concocted the Aryan- Dravidian theory of races and sowed the seeds of hatred among the people of India.

Purporting to be rationalists, they misinterpreted, in an allegorical manner, what cannot be comprehended normally by our senses. In commenting on the Vedas they took the view that the sages were primitive men. Though some of them pretended to be impartial, their hidden intention in conducting research into our religious texts was to portray Hinduism in a poor light [7].

Indian Philosophers:

Indian scientists are generally regarded as philosophers rather than hardcore scientists by the western people. Only an expert in Sanskrit language would be able to explain the profound meaning and usage of Vedic hymns.

The western science is written in languages used by common man, namely English, French, German, Russian, Spanish etc., which are, therefore, easy to comprehend. Hence western science has become popular. Further, a scientific work involves experimentation in which use of instruments is common.

In Vedic science, such instruments were not used but the scientific principles/hypotheses are explained through Sanskrit verses or mathematical formulae expressed in words. Many of the famous western scientists have been aware of Vedic science and have quoted extensively from Vedic literature.

Experimentation on Rituals:

Scientific inventions are generally tested experimentally using instruments. The Vedic hymns containing principles of science, were, however, tested through religious rituals performed in daily life. As there were no instruments at that time to test them as is being done presently by performing relevant experiments in laboratories. The Dhanvantaris used to administer medicines to patients by listening to their oral description of the symptoms. The present-day doctors, in contrast, rely more on clinical reports of various tests done on machines.

Geometry and Mathematics:

Ancient Indians, who had specialized in a broad spectrum of sciences, valued mathematics with the same reverence. There is an evidence for this, from a work called Vedanga Jyotisha, which belongs to a period older than 1200 BC [8]. The Sulbha Sutras, Vedanga Jyotisha, Chandas Shastra, and Tantra deal with geometry and mathematics. Pingala’s Chhandahsutra shows counting of numbers in a binary manner.

Measurement of Area:

In mathematics, an area is a fundamental entity. It is a measure of two-dimensional space. The Satapatha Brahmana composed by Yajnavalkya (900BC) and Baudhayana Sulbha Sutras (700-400BC) are two sources of geometry which contain rules for ritualistic religious performances.

Circles of radius 1 unit when converted into a square with their side as 1.77 unit, are equal in area. This was known to Vedic- Indus valley civilization scholars. There was no application of geometry other than for ritualistic purposes, especially the construction of sacrificial fire altars.

Use of π:

In the Rigveda, a formula to find the area of a circle is mentioned showing that the Rishis knew of pi, approximating it to be equal to 22/7. It was used in the formula for finding the area of a circle [9].

Pythagoras Theorem:

The Śulbha Sūtras contain the earliest extant verbal expression for the Pythagoras Theorem in the form of triplet numbers such as (3, 4, 5), (5, 12, 13) as well as a statement of the this theorem for finding the sides of a square, which was, however, already known to the old Babylonians.

Set Theory:

An important landmark contribution of the Vedic period was the work of Sanskrit grammarian, Panini (520–460 BC). His work includes the use of Boolean logic, the null operator, context-free grammars, and also includes a precursor of the Backus–Naur form (used in the present day description programming languages).

Power of Ten:

In Yajurveda (1200–900 BCE), numbers as high as 1012 were mentioned in the various texts. For example, the mantra (sacrificial formula) at the end of the annahoma (“food-oblation rite”) performed during the Aśhvamedha Yagna, and chanted just before-, during-, and just after sunrise, invokes powers of ten from a hundred to a trillion.

Square and Square Roots:

Apastamba (600 BC) composed the Apastamba Sulbha Sutra, which contains a the method of squaring the area of a circle, considers the problem of dividing a segment into 7 equal parts, calculates the square root of 2 correctly to five decimal places, solves the general linear equation, and also contains a numerical proof of the Pythagoras theorem, using computation of area. The historian Albert Burk claims that this was the original proof of the theorem which Pythagoras copied when he visited India.

Sequence of Numbers (Arithmetic progression):

In the Chamakadyaya a mantra gives two sequences of numbers that are related by the formula as

Sequence -1: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17…31 (X)

Sequence-2:    4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28, 32, 36, 40, 44, 48 (Y)

If X and Y denote numbers in Sequence-1 and 2 respectively, these two sequences are related as

Xn + Xn+1 = Yn

For example, 1+3 =4, this is the first number in the second sequence.

Seidenberg, by examining the evidence in the Shatapatha Brahmana, showed that Indian geometry predates Greek geometry by several centuries. Seidenberg argues that the birth of geometry and mathematics had a ritualistic origin.

For example, the earth was represented by a circular altar and the heavens were represented by a square-shaped altar and the ritual consisted of converting the circle into a square with the same area. There we see the beginnings of geometry! [5].

In his famous paper on the origin of mathematics, Seidenberg (1978) concluded: “Old- Babylonia [1700 BC] got the theorem of Pythagoras from India or that both Old-Babylonia and India got it from a third source” [10].

Binary Numbers:

Barend van Nooten (1993) has shown that binary numbers were known at the time of Pingala’s work “Chhandahshastra. Pingala lived around the early first century BC and used binary numbers to classify Vedic meters. The knowledge of binary numbers indicates a profound understanding of arithmetic. A binary representation requires the use of only two symbols, rather than the ten numbers required in the usual decimal representation, and it has now become the basis of information stored in terms of sequences of 0s and 1s in modern-day computers.

Shri Yantra:

Shri Yantra (SY) comes from medieval sources; some scholars have seen the antecedents of the yantra in Book 10 of the Atharvaveda. It consists of nine triangles inscribed within a circle which leads to the formation of 43 smaller triangles. Whatever be the antiquity of this design, it is certain that the yantra was made both on flat and curved surfaces during the Middle Ages. The drawing of the triangles on the curved surfaces implies the existence of knowledge that the sum of the three angles of such a triangle exceeds 1800.

The question that John Barrow, a physicist and historian of science, has asked is whether these shapes require an intimate knowledge of non-Euclidean geometry in India several centuries before its systematic study was done in Europe.

It is possible that the yantras were made by craftsmen who had no appreciation of their mathematical properties. But scholars have argued that the intricacy involved in the construction of this yantra indeed requires some amount of mathematical knowledge.

Concepts of Space, Time and Matter:

Yoga-Vashishtha (YV) is an ancient Indian text, with over 29,000 verses, traditionally attributed to Valmiki, author of the epic Ramayana which is over two thousand years old. But a close scrutiny of the text indicates that it was authored or compiled later. It has been dated variously as early as the sixth century AD or as late as the 13th or the 14th century AD.

Some authors have dated it to about the sixth century AD on the basis that one of its verses appears to have been taken from one of Kalidasa’s plays, considering Kalidasa to have lived around the fifth century AD. The generally accepted date of Kalidasa is 50 BC. However, new arguments support the earlier date so that the estimates regarding the age of YV are further muddled [11].

The most interesting passages of YV, from a scientific point of view, relate to the description of the nature of space, time, matter, and consciousness. It should be emphasized that the ideas propounded in YV do not stand in isolation. Similar ideas are found in other Vedic texts as well.

At its deepest level the Vedic concept is to view reality in a holistic manner; at the next level, one may speak of the dichotomy between mind and matter. Ideas similar to those found in YV are also encountered in Puranas and Tantric literature.

Veena and Resonance:

Ravana, the main villain of epic Ramayana, was a devotee of Lord Shiva (Mahadev). His wish was to build a house for Lord Shiva at Mt. Kailash in the Himalaya. In deference to the request of Parvathi (wife of Mahadev), he agreed to build the house for which he sought the help of his cousin Brahaspathi who donated huge quantities of gold to Ravana for building the house. Ravana transported this gold to Kailash by playing his veena. The resonant sound of veena caused floatation of the gold pieces into the air which followed Ravana and he finally took it to Kailash from which he built a house for Mahadev. The power of resonant sound produced by veena is exemplified in this anecdote.

Environmental Science:

In the Vedic period, students lived in their guru’s ashram, each one performing a specific set of household chores, in addition to receiving education and ideology. These gurukuls or ashrams were located away from cities towns and villages. Since they lived in the natural environment, students, as well as their gurus, were concerned about its conservation. They protected trees and worshipped them as Vriksha Devta (tree god), the forest covers as Van Devta (forest god) and the rivers as sources of pristine life-giving water.

The ancient people also cared for wildlife. Terms and titles such as Nag Devta (snake god), Kamdhenu (the cow that fulfils one’s desires) and Kalpavriksha (the wish-fulfilling tree) symbolized the benefits that accrued to human beings from nature and their respect for wildlife. Thus pantheism or animism, by whatever name we may call it, eventually point to the concept of ecological balance and conservation of nature.

It is interesting to note that compassion and reverence for life are among the basic tenets of Jainism. The term Ahimsa (a = non, himsa = violence), is rooted in positive actions which are directly related to environmental issues. Ahimsa ought to be practised not only towards human beings but towards all life-forms including animals and plants. By not killing or destroying plants or animals, one can help to maintain the ecological balance of the earth.

The Vedic view on the environment is amply reflected in a verse of the Atharvaveda where the three coverings of our surroundings are referred to as Chandamsi: ‘Wisely utilize three elements variously which are varied, visible and full of qualities.’ These are water, air and plants or herbs which exist in the world from its very beginning. They are called as “Chandamsi”(meaning ‘coverings available everywhere) .[10]. It proves that seers of the Vedic period had knowledge of the basic elements of our environment.

Astronomy:

Astronomy is one of the six Vedangas, subsidiary sciences of the Vedas; the other ones being phonetics, rituals, etymology, grammar and metrics. The beginnings of these sciences are traced to the earliest parts of the Vedic literature, but the Vedangas have come down to us in late forms in the aphoristic sutra style. The construction of altars and the performance of rituals and kalpa were based on astronomy from which we have valuable astronomical information contained in the Sulbhasutras, which are a part of the Kalpasutras. Two old names for astronomy are ‘jyotisha’ – the science of light, and ‘nakshatra vidya’ – the science of stars. Vedanga Jyotisha, is the earliest extant manual describing motions of the sun and the moon. This will be dealt with in more detail in our forthcoming Part-B of this paper.

Conclusion (Part A):

The Vedic literature provides use of science in ritualistic performances, particularly the construction of altars. Use of mathematics, knowledge of geometry and astronomy, planetary motions, awareness of the environment and its protection, knowledge of the functioning of human body, and remedies for various diseases characterize Vedic science. The Vedic hymns contain the essence of scientific thought of those times. However, to decode them properly, a good understanding of Sanskrit language is essential.

To be concluded…

References:

[1] Subhamoy Das with and Manoj Sadasivan, What are Vedas? A Brief Introduction

[2] Subhash C. Kak, Science in Ancient India, Louisiana State University Baton Rouge, LA-70803-5901, USA, November 15, 2005.

[3] R. Sridhar and N.K. Mattoo (eds.), A portrait of India, AIA: New York, 1997, Pages 399-420.

[4] Fasale M K, A study of early Vedic age in India, Journal of Arts and Culture, Vol-3, Issue-3, 2012, Pages 129-132.

[5] Shashi Tiwari, Origin of Environmental Science from Vedas

[6] Western Vedic research, Hindu Dharma the Vedas http://www.kamakoti.org/hindudharma/part5/chap8.htm

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_M%C3%BCller

[8] V.Krishna Murthy, Glimpses of Vedic Geometry http://www.serveveda.org/documents/glimpses_of_vedic_geometry.pdf

[9] Krishna Maheshwari, Mathematics of Vedas http://www.hindupedia.com/en/Mathematics_of_the_Vedas

[10] Subhash C Kak, Astronomy of the Satapatha Brahmana, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Louisiana State University, USA, Indian Journal of History of Science Vol 28(1), 1993, Page-15.

[11] Amartya Kumar Dutta, Mathematics in Ancient India: An overview, Resonance, April 2002, Page-3.

Views expressed are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of League of India or of any of its partners.

This article was first published in the journal ‘Laboratory Experiments‘, published by Kamaljeeth Instrumentation and Service Unit, Bengaluru, India.

Jeethendra Kumar P K

A PhD in physics, Dr Jeethendra Kumar P K worked as a physics lecturer at Mangalore University for eight years. He is the founder of a physics instrument manufacturing company (1990) and Lab Experiments journal (2001), Bengaluru, India.

Prabhakar Sharma

Dr Prabhakar Sharma, Scientist (Retd.), is Ex-Head of the Academic Servies, Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, India.


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