Roots of India’s Scientific Success
The vast “Science in India” exhibition in London offers a fascinating insight into the way
India’s long history of scientific, mathematical and technological achievement has cross-
fertilised Islamic and European development.
The Festival of India now underway in Britain includes an exhibition, “Science in India”,
at the London Science museum. This covers all aspects o Indian scientific and
technological development, from the prehistoric to the present.
The exhibition is arranged in three parts, covering three main periods into which Indian
history is roughly divided for convenience; the Hindu, the Muslim and the post-colonial
The use of the word “Hindu” to describe the first period is something of a misnomer for
the period covers everything from the Indus Valley civilization (2,500BCE) to the period
of the14th century CE. Civilisation and scientific endeavour, however, go back to the
remotest periods of Indian history.
The Indus Valley civilization provides evidence of town planning on a geometric basis.
Surveying, sanitation and drainage, and standardized systems of weights and measures
were also well developed during this period. Already copper and bronze objects were
produced by both closed casting and lost wax processes. Circular and true saws, as well
as tubular drills, were all in use.
By 1,500 BCE Indians had started to make considerable progress in mathematics,
particularly algebra and trigonometry. Here the concept of zero as well as the decimal
system developed – inventions essential to the eventual emergence of modern
technology. Later astronomy progressed and by the 5th century CE, Aryahbata I had
propounded the theory that earth rotated around an axis and had calculated the period of
the earth’s rotation. Indian astrologers paved the way in working out planetary positions
and movements, equinoxes, solstices, and so on. Indian surgeons were famous for their
operations on the eye, nose, gall bladder, even the brain.
Partly due to the Gnostic secretiveness of the Indian attitude to knowledge, this
information was either lost or remained in suspended animation for some centuries until
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the arrival of the Muslims. In the case of Indian mathematical texts, for example, which
one would imagine to be a principal glory of early India, the earliest known text goes
back only to the 6th century CE, while the majority of Indian scientific manuscripts
belong to the Muslim period of influence in India. There are some 10,000 manuscripts in
Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian preserved from the Muslim period.
As early as the 8th and 9th centuries, the important Sanskrit treatises had been translated
into Arabic and, thanks to the important role the Arabs played as carriers of culture from
East to West, these were to influence European thought. In fact the so-called Arabic
system of numerals, which now the internationally accepted system was really Indian,
transported and popularized by the Arabs.
Working in the opposite direction, it was thanks to Muslim influence that the ancient
Greek system of medicine was introduced into India. Known by the name of Unani
Tibba this is now accepted as the traditional Indian medical system. Modern research
and development into this system is currently being supported by the Indian government
in an unusual project to marry the old and the new.
The Muslim period in India is perhaps best known for its application of science to
mechanical and military matters. The Emperor Akhbar was so eager for knowledge on
these fronts that his Roman Catholic visitors claimed that, “he tried to learn everything at
once, like a hungry man trying to swallow his food at a single gulp.” One result was that
at the end of the 16th century, it was in India that the heaviest guns in the world were
Apart from developing military technology, the Muslims introduced the arts of printing,
horology and certain aspects of astronomy form China, though such interests were not
substantially or systematically followed up until Raja Jai Singh built the great
observatories at Delhi and Jaipur in the 18th century.
The third, or post-British period, covered in the exhibition sees India progressing by
stages into the nuclear club, the space race and into the region of Antarctic exploration.
Results have been impressive. Nowadays India is the largest exporter of nuclear isotopes
fro medical purposes and is an increasingly active exporter of technology and industrial
products to Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Latin America, Europe and Britain. Indian
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transnational companies now function in 26 countries on projects ranging from
electronics to precision tools and from paint to paper products. Muslim countries where
India is active in a consultative or administrative capacity include Algeria, Egypt, Iraq,
Libya, Nigeria, Syria and Tanzania.
Visitors to the London Science Museum will come away with a fresh impression of
Indian contributions to the field of science and technology over the years. Even if the
immediate impulse for India’s burgeoning industrial growth can be recognized as
influenced by the West, the roots of that success are clearly seen to go much further back
into its Islamic and Hindu periods of history.
The exhibition itself is occasionally confusing in terms of layout. Captions to objects
are sometimes far removed from the objects themselves, while the arrangements inside
the display cases take some sorting out. Nevertheless, one does manage to get the feel of
an essentially innovative approach to scientific challenges, whether past or present, and
of growing Indian confidence in tackling several of its own most pressing problems.
Indian technology, old and new: satellite (above) and the age-old style of bullock cart.
Arabia: The Islamic World Review / June 1982
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