Indian scientific discovery - The legacy

A frequently asked question on your trip abroad is - "Tell me more about India. Are there snake charmers? Do people walk on live coals?" Unbelievable as it is, you are stumped! You do want to correct them, but might hold back as you are not sure or not convincing enough. Many of us face this predicament; and to dispel these prejudices is a daunting task. So how do we go about it?

Being the brand ambassadors of the nation, what we project and tell the outside world assumes great importance. A better understanding of our country, culture and traditions would be good for a start.


There is the popular notion that science and technology has developed largely due to the Western world. In contrast, the development of science in India dates back to the origin of the Rig Veda, prior to 3100 BC. As Vedic science evolved, milestones in mathematics, astronomy, cosmology and medicine were reached.

From the concept of the zero to geometry, algebra and algorithms, Ancient India was the hub of scientific and technological innovations, especially in the field of mathematics. A method of graduated calculation existed from Vedic times circa 2000 BC. Binary numbers are not new to India.Pingala was believed to have used binary numbers to classify Vedic meter in 5 BC.


Aryabhatta was one of ancient India's greatest innovators and mathematicians. Born in 476 AD in Kerala, he studied in Nalanda University near Kusumaputra, now Patna. He gave the value of Pi - 3.1416, arriving at the most accurate value of the mathematical constant. He is also believed to have formulated tables in math, which later came to be called the "Tables of Sine". His method to find solutions for quadratic equations of the sort: ax2 - by2 = c was a ground breaking contribution.

Probably lesser known than Aryabhatta, but standing tall among the greats in this field is Brahmaguptha. With a sound background in astronomy, he set out to understand mathematics better. He devised the rules of operation for 'zero', namely: 
   - Addition or subtraction of zero from or to any quantity (either negative or      positive) has no effect. 
   - Product of any quantity with zero always gives zero 
   - Division of any number (positive or negative) by zero is infinity (He      also claimed that division of 0 by 0 is 0, but this was later proved      incorrect.) 
He went on to formulate rules for solving various types of equations such as ax + b = 0 and ax + bx + c = 0 and ways to add up a geometric series. He was the first to identify the difference between algebra and arithmetic and treated them as separate entities.


Bhaskara introduced the world to the concept of infinity (the concept that any term divided by zero is infinity and the sum of any term and infinity is infinity.) He was greatly influenced by Brahmaguptha. One of his most momentous contributions to the branch of algebra was the introduction of Chakrawal or the cyclic method for solving algebraic equations. (Now called the "inverse cyclic" method.) Bhaskara's work focused on important formulae and theorems in trigonometry and permutation and combination. He was also the originator of differential calculus. Concepts such as differential coefficient and the basic idea for the "Rolle's theorem" were touched by him. A renowned astronomer, his concept of Tatkalikagati or instantaneous motion has been applied by astronomers to determine the motion of planets accurately.


The universe, man and the creator have always intrigued philosophers and thinkers. One Indian philosopher who attempted to answer this question was Kanada. Coining the name parmanu (atom) for an indivisible particle of matter, he propounded the theory that everything is made up of parmanu, which cannot exist in a free state or be sensed through any human organs. It is eternal and indestructible. Kanada further advocated that there is an inherent urge within each parmanu to combine with another. Kanada believed that heat was responsible for chemical change and the properties of the parmanu changed on heating. All matter in the universe, according to Kanada, was formed due to the peculiar properties of the parmanu, the different varieties and the numerous ways in which they combined together with the action of heat.


Varahamihira's tryst with science was by chance. During a visit to Patna, he met the great mathematician and astronomer Aryabhatta. So impressed was he with both the scientist and astronomy that he too decided to take up a serious study of astronomy. Like Aryabhatta, he was one of the early scientists who believed that the earth was spherical in shape. He staunchly believed that there was a force that was keeping bodies stuck to the earth (One of the early theories on gravity!). Besides this, Varahamihira has made significant contributions in the fields of ecology, hydrology and geology. He was one of the early scientists who claimed that termites and plants could be indicators of the presence of underground water; a theory that is now gaining momentum now.


Researchers also draw a parallel between the Vedic theory of consciousness and those of quantum mechanics and neuroscience. Infact, the development of quantum mechanics by Schrodinger was largely inspired by the Vedanta.

The Pythagoras theorem was known to ancient Indians centuries before the Greeks, and is described in the Shatapatha Brahmana.

The rock art and ancient literature abound in Frontiers and theories that led to the development of science, leaving behind a rich legacy? to be drawn upon and further the cause of science and humanity.