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India’s Scientific and Technical Traditions

Several profoundly complex societies today are measured by only one yardstick: development. The western societies are considered “developed” countries and the rest are euphemistically called “developing countires”, if they are not totally “undeveloped”. Today with the world grappling with climate change caused principally by the ill effects of “modern development”, in what sense can one assess the so-called developing countries within the parameteres of a single development model?

Claude Alvares sketches the broad contours of India’s scientific and technical capabilities prior to the arrival of the colonialists. He discusses the philosophies of Science of that time and examines how the ideas in circulation then were fairly elaborate, detail, intellectually satisfying and above all practical in their approaches to the primary issues of an economy based on permanance and non-negotiable quests for meaning in life.

The very word “development” was first used in its present meaning only around 1950, and the word “scientist” first appeared in circulation in 1833 and became well-established only in the twentieth century. Most of the words that we use nowadays in discussions – “traditional,” “early modern,” “modern,” etc., are all loaded terms, or what you may today call “branded” labels. I have tried to side-step them with the belief that we should go beyond these categories altogether. All human history cannot be squeezed into neat Eurocentric boxes - like primitive, ancient, dark ages, medieval, modern, etc. These are not universal or inevitable categories.

The discussion on these issues has remained largely Eurocentric. It has been mostly led and dominated by European scholars, though academics from outside Europe have also been drawn in to add their own hypothesis. I have, therefore, tried to take a different angle to understand the evolution of science and progress in India.

Looked at without the Eurocentric lenses of development, the technical solutions of pre-colonial India appear to be designed explicitly to flow with Nature’s cycles. These scientific and technical traditions enabled a great degree of dynamism, of which there is considerable evidence even today. In fact, had it not been for the rude and intentional disruption that commenced circa 1600 (with the advent of Europeans in India), Indian society was perhaps well on its way to a development scenario that sustainability theorists today promote as necessary for a planet increasingly disabled by the crisis of climate change.

Science and Technology

Much of the scientific and technological discoveries by nonwestern societies have been sidelined or are unacknowledged by the west. And western style education which now prevails in most countries including India, continues to ignore discoveries not made by the west. Take for example calculus it appears in the 16th century in Europe as part of the Newtonian “revolution”; but as Prof. C.K. Raju has shown, it was perfected in India between the 5th and 15th century. Or take the example of moveable type for printing which was invented and already in use in China 200 years before Gutenberg.

How do we place the so-called “Copernican Revolution” in the history of world science when we know that the heliocentric hypothesis was already proposed by Aryabhata several centuries earlier; and the theory that the earth is flat had been discussed and rejected by Lalla, Bhaskara and others much before the Europeans came to propose these as new and revolutionary hypotheses?

These classifications of traditional or modern may not be useful as analytical tools, but we will make grave errors by giving them unwarranted ontological status. The problem with dealing with this period (500-800AD) is that almost all its events continue to be seen within the “discovery” framework associated with the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco-da-Gama. I am not denying that the Europeans are entitled to a European perspective on their discoveries. There is no need, however, to continue to retain theEuropean framework for a global perspective on these issues and events. For example, how do we evaluate the voyages of Cheng Ho in 1422 ? And how do we assess the Indian Ocean trade in the fifteenth (and earlier) centuries? Compared to these early explorers and traders, the trade inaugurated by Vasco-da-Gama may in fact be considered insignificant?

The existing discovery framework needs to be replaced by a different framework that looks at Indian society from the 15th-18th century as a functioning society operating within its own terms of reference, its own preoccupations. This necessarily means a more comprehensive understanding of its various features than we have today and it would include an understanding of the technical capacity of the society, its knowledge base, its readiness and capacity to respond to market demands and several other related features including systems of medicine and education, theories of language and aesthetics, etc.

Now a days we talk glibly of the “knowledge economy”, even when we know that for several hundred years none of the societies under discussion functioned without knowledge and without technical capacity. They were true “knowledge economies,” not pre-knowledge economies. I would therefore like to spend time in this presentation demonstrating the remarkable complexity of this society and show that it would be difficult, indeed foolhardy, to compare it with activities, including technical developments, which followed some other chronology elsewhere.

I will briefly discuss mathematics, agriculture, astronomy, industry, etc., within the context of a society that had evolved competent, in most cases, optimal solutions to problems it faced, and then show how all these features indicated that this society could not be labeled as unmistakably “traditional” or “early modern” or even “modern” because none of these categories would be able to describe it in all its complexity. The traditionalists might argue that the tradition was modern since it has not been jettisoned in modern times; the early modernist might argue that some of these ideas were nothing but prototypes of modern ideas. So where does that lead us, except to caution us that looking at non-European societies through the frame work of Europe’s experience would do great violence to our understanding of this societal or civilisational experience.

I am not denying that the Europeans are entitled to a European perspective on their discoveries. There is no need, however, to continue to retain the European framework for a global perspective on these issues and events.

I have already made a reference to the calculus: Prof. Raju has shown that much of the basic algorithms that began to be understood in Europe only in the 16th century were already mastered by Indians more than ten centuries earlier. In India, the precise trigonometric values provided by the calculus were required for an agricultural society dependent on accurately predicting the monsoon. These precise calculations were also critical for navigation. Prof. Raju has pointed out that the very term “algorithm” is from the name Al Khawarizmi who translated the basic mathematical texts from India into Arabic, from where they were further translated into Latin and Greek.

But besides obvious competence displayed in inventing thecalculus, there are other fairly impressive but little known skills that passed from India to Europe within the same period. The work of Donald Lach, “Asia in the Making of Europe” is often a referral point. But even Lach is not comprehensive enough, since he could not conceivably have accessed all available sources. Certainly he had no access to the materials painstakingly accumulated by Dharampal.

If we take the case of agricultural biodiversity in India, one example alone will suffice, and it deals with biodiversity in rice. Adivasis and peasant farmers were admittedly responsible for the creation and maintenance of some of 300,000 varieties of rice. This is a phenomenal figure and does indicate a very high level of understanding of seed selection and breeding techniques. The art of breeding rice varieties is a dynamic process. Dr. Richharia – himself a leading rice breeder – found he had to revise his opinion about Adivasis’ knowledge of science when he tried out certain seeds which he had procured from these farmers, but which he was unable to reproduce.

None of the so called “saline” varieties of rice were created by modern science; they were bred by farmers in coastal belts. In fact, the International Rice Research Institute has produced, after 50 years of research, only two major successes, IR8 and IR36. This can be compared with the hundreds of varieties generated by India’s peasant and tribal communities, and the hundreds of different uses of these varieties

The ability to work with seeds was matched by other competencies. There are several reports of agricultural specialists from Alexander Walker to Albert Howard – who came to teach Indian farmers how to farm, but retired after conceding that they had very little to teach and most often, a lot to learn. Dharampal’s Chengalpattu data taken from British records indicates that output of field crops in that region was higher than that associated with the best of the so-called green revolution practices used today.

Large-scale, meticulously planned irrigation systems enabled people to transport and store water in very large quantities (examples: Rajasthan, Pune) and the system of tank irrigation (for example, in Karnataka) was so well designed that when engineers proposed to increase the number of tanks, they found there were no more locations available to build new tanks: the existing tanks had adequate arrangements to collect all the rainfall that fell on the ground in the area.

Indian water harvesting systems were designed to deal with the monsoon, that is, to collect rain where it fell, precisely like a Mumbai housewife knows exactly how to collect as much water from her tapwithin an hour every morning from when the public water supply starts and before it shuts. Modern irrigation systems built on the technology of dams are never sustainable, since they dam the run off instead of harvesting it. In fact, the forests that harvest and store the water are destroyed in the reservoirs of dams. Since catchment areas are denuded, the life of the dam is considerably reduced. In the tank system, the silt accumulated in tanks was removed and used to fertilize agricultural lands.

Those working in the field of botany and with plants will know that Garcia de Orta faithfully recorded local knowledge of a huge variety of plants that were being used in India for medicinal purposes, and this was thereafter transmitted by him to Europe. The knowledge he collected was circulated in the form of the Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simple drugs and medicinal substances of India”), published in Goa in 1563. His understanding and systematic collection of this vast indigenous knowledge of plants is sometimes misunderstood and it is claimed that he discovered the various medical uses of these plants himself!

What about more basic things like food? In fact, from the point of view of nutritious food and the wide variety of recipes available, especially the widespread expertise in making breads and fermented foods, as far as food and preparation of food was (and is) concerned, India and China were indeed both advanced civilizations which Europe would take several centuries to match. It is an undisputed fact that the variety in Chinese and Indian cuisine still excites and dominates the palates of the planet.

...we are dealing with a civilization that can hardly be dubbed as traditional, early modern or modern simply because several of its features in fact reflected an economy of permanence which could be pursued as long as human beings survive on the planet.

Several skills like the manufacture of textiles could not have developed in Europe without close study and import of Indian textile making procedures by English and European traders. In fact, English colonial masters in some areas had to cut off the thumbs of local weavers in order to kill the local industry.

We know that the knowledge of natural dyes was widespread here. Today, after a relatively short and disastrous courtship with chemical dyes, natural dyes are returning under the garb of promoting sustainable industry. This very clearly indicates that some features of the Indian economy ought never to have been changed in the first place. The intellectual traditions that were still very vibrant at this time were intensely preoccupied with theories of aesthetics, architecture and grammar. For example,the cultural arts and their gharanas (including the various classical schools of dance) maintained their ability to reproduce the expertise, innovating when circumstances required.

Psychological theories and therapies, still in use today because of their obvious therapeutic worth, were passed on without much damage. One of the most important demonstrations of dynamism is the maintenance by eminent teachers and spiritual men and women of the system of commentaries which sought to reinterpret various scriptural texts in the light of contemporary experience. The Bhakti movement is not the sole instance of vitality. All these are not signs of what is generally dubbed a “traditional” society.

One of the most outstanding of accomplishments, for example, is the medical skill of plastic surgeons. The art of plastic surgery was a routine medical procedure in the Pune region and fairly detailed reports of the operations were noted by British surgeons before they were copied, adopted and adapted in Europe. The transmission of knowledge is very clearly documented and is without any doubt whatsoever. The art of plastic surgery developed in India due to a peculiar social custom. Men found guilty of marital infidelity were subject to the punishment of having their nose cut off. Indian surgeons met the resultant demand for rehabilitation by developing the skill of rhinoplasty, which when literally translated means, “the art of reconstructing noses” Those who think that the period from 15th-18th century was largely passive or stagnant – whatever image this may conjure – will have a difficult time explaining the speed with which India accepted a whole series of new crops including potatoes, chilli, tomatoes and cashew that came from South America. The ready adoption does not indicate the presence of a moribund or static society stuck to its civilisational habits from which it was not inclined to move. There is little doubt then that we are dealing with a civilization that can hardly be dubbed as traditional, early modern or modern simply because several of its features in fact reflected an economyof permanence which could be pursued as long as human beings survive on the planet.

Much of this work of discovery was triggered by the research of the late Dharampal, who though not an historian, eventually forced historians to take stock of his findings. The point of this presentation is not simply to highlight the various competencies that people in India continued to display from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries (considered as the pre-modern era), though it is appalling that not even a very elementary knowledge of these facts are known even among educated folk. There is no doubt that this is because our academic life has been submerged and soaked in Eurocentric perceptions of social history for more than two hundered years now. Also, most of our historians are from the discipline of humanities, with little or no engineering, scientific or technical backgrounds; and the general impression that has gained disproportionate credence is that whatever good has come to this country in the form of serviceable ideas, has come exclusively from the West. This has had a severe impact on the self-esteem of Indians because of the impression created that the modernity enjoyed by us today is borrowed and not our own; whereas in actual fact, it is quite apparent that much of modernity would not exist if India (and China, Egypt, Arabia and Persia) had it not existed and provided the foundations for the advances of the West.

I am glad to hear at this conference that there are western writers like Jack Goody and Martin Bernal who have been working on similar themes. My grouse remains that this work has to be done and acknowledged first by Indian scholars who have for far too long continued to blindly accept the western view of modernity and work within its categories. This presentation is an invitation to this august audience to re-think the frameworks that rule and burden our intellectual work. Certainly, we did not have a vast period like the dark ages in Europe; and in almost other countries (outside the west), ideas and innovation moved people with relentless force. In fact, it may actually be hazarded that our “dark ages” are only just beginning, ever since our intellectual elites including our planners decided to ignore history and instead place this huge billion plus civilisation under the self-destructive development path chosen by the West.

(Adapted from Paper presented at the Conference on Multiple Trajectories of Early Asian Modernities, 16-17 December 2011 Varanasi)