A Historian’s Notes On How To Talk About Ancient Science – Indian or Not

To reduce the scientific enterprise to a battle for priority is to replace an intricate portrait with a gross caricature.

The Chaturbhuja temple, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: ptwo/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The Chaturbhuja temple, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: ptwo/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

This new and wide-ranging column will take as its basis a discussion of a book every month on the history of science and technology, and relate it to a theme of current relevance.

Was the first plastic surgeon an Indian? Did Indians invent the zero? Is it true that no country in history has experienced an Indian invasion? In The Sceptical Patriot (2014), Sidin Vadukut, journalist and writer, sets out ‘to find out which of a handful of the most popular, oft-repeated “India facts” [are] actually true.’ In particular, claims and counterclaims on the antiquity of various scientific ideas and their provenance in ancient India have become increasingly prominent in recent years, and have been discussed at length in the The Wire and other publications. While detailed academic research is essential to addressing these problems, Vadukut’s breezily written book (based largely on secondary research) has the potential to reach a wide audience, and makes a good case for the layperson approaching such themes with an open and questioning mind.

Let us take, for example, Vadukut’s charting of the story of the zero. He begins by quoting an inscription from the walls of the Chaturbhuja Temple in Gwalior, dating from the year 876 AD, which speaks of a town donating to a temple a plot of land ‘270 royal hastas in length and 187 hastas in breadth’ and making ‘a perpetual endowment to the effect … [of] 50 garlands of such market flowers as available at the particular season’. This was, for a long time, the oldest known text to use a circular symbol to denote the zero as a place-marker in a number in the decimal system. However, another inscription was subsequently found in a Cambodian temple (predating the Gwalior inscription), using a dot to signify zero in the number 605.

What is more, the Babylonians, as early as 700 BC, had used a different symbol for the same purpose—although they used a base-60 system of numbers. The Aryabhatiya, attributed to a mathematician named Aryabhata working in Kusumapura (modern-day Patna), contains references to the decimal system and another symbol (‘kha’) to signal a null place value. Crucially, its date is fixed (among other things, by looking at references to it in other texts) at around 500 AD. But it is Brahmagupta’s Brahma-Sphuta-Siddhanta, dating from c. 630 AD, that has the earliest known reference to the zero as a numeral with specific properties. For instance, ‘The sum of zero and a negative number is negative, the sum of a positive number and zero is positive, the sum of zero and zero is zero.’

Who, then, invented the zero? Was it the Babylonians, the Indians, the Cambodians or the Cambodians as part of a greater India? Vadukut concludes, reasonably, that the concept of zero as ‘nothingness’ probably arose in parallel in several civilisations; that a zero-type place-holder is first seen among the Babylonians; and that the earliest known texts to define the decimal system and the number-like properties of the zero came from the Indian subcontinent. Note the nuances, the stages, the possible mutual influences and the fact that ‘earliest known instance’ does not automatically imply ‘invention’.

So how does the layperson – neither scientist nor historian – evaluate statements on ancient science? Perhaps we can distil a few thumb rules from the various discussions.

First, we need to go to the relevant source text or artefact whenever possible. In order to do this, we have to rely on the work of professionals such as archaeologists and historical linguists who have found, dated, authenticated or produced accepted translations of these relics. How do we trust them? The same way we trust modern physicists or chemists: make sure their findings have been subjected to review by fellow professionals, whether at conferences or in specialist journals. As a recent report argued, one of the problems plaguing the history of science in India is that not enough professional historians write on the subject. Alternatively, as mathematician Manjul Bhargava has suggested, the layperson ought to learn the relevant classical languages so she can read the texts for herself.

It follows that we ought not to reject an argument purely because it comes from a historian who happens to have communist or Nehruvian, nationalist or internationalist, conservative or liberal leanings. Does the evidence adduced convince? Is the argument reasonable? These ought to be our concerns.

Second, the existence of an idea, a principle or a fantasy cannot lead us to conclude that the thing/technique imagined existed in reality. The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci are famous for their drawings of ‘flying machines’; nobody argues therefore that fifteenth-century Italians (though there was no such nation at the time) flew around in aeroplanes. So it takes more than a reference to an ‘anashva ratha’ (horseless chariot) to suggest that ancient India had cars, if by cars we mean anything like the internal-combustion-engine-driven vehicles of today.

A casual reliance on fragmentary textual evidence, shorn of context, will not do. To draw a literary analogy, consider Kipling’s famous refrain: ‘East is East and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet’. This is routinely trotted out as a claim that the hemispheres of the world are culturally incompatible. But look a couple of lines ahead: ‘But there is neither East nor West, Border nor Breed, nor Birth,/When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!’ Kipling, imperialist ideologue though he may have been, was trying to say something specific in these lines, and if we don’t look at the context, we miss the meaning.

Third, we must beware the methodological trap that historians call ‘presentism’ or ‘present-centredness’, which refers to taking a concept of today and ‘searching’ for it in the past. Take the Chanakya-as-management-guru industry. The text of the Arthashastra (although we don’t know if a single person wrote it, if that person was Chanakya, Chandragupta’s prime minister, or even if it dates from the Maurya emperor’s reign) has become a goldmine for those who want to read all sorts of modern management theories in it. Now it becomes a case of cherry-picking evidence to support whatever present-day construct we have in mind. This is not to say we can’t learn something from the text. But it needs to be read for what it is: a manual representing an idealised vision of kingship, administration and realpolitik at some point around two millennia ago.

Fourth, it is crucial how we pose questions of ‘invention’ and ‘discovery’. As hinted above, it might be more useful for us to talk of ‘the first known instance of…’ or ‘the first large-scale application of…’, which amount to different things. Historian Abbot Usher argued as far back as 1960 that the engines of James Watt and Thomas Newcomen were less inventions than perfections of an amalgam of techniques and theoretical knowledge that had been in their environment for a considerable while. Further, does it matter which nation (or, to put it more accurately, the geographical area corresponding to which modern nation) got to a particular idea first? Yes, to the extent that it acts as a corrective to the disproportionate emphasis, originating in the colonial era, on Europe as the source of most scientific knowledge.

But to swing to the other extreme is merely to replace imperial certainties with jingoistic pride. Is it really that difficult to believe, given a basic knowledge of humans and their societies, that fundamental concepts affecting everyday life (say the question of gravity) and basic mathematical relations (what we know as the Pythagoras theorem, for example) should have occurred independently in the minds of thinkers across the world? As recently as the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace each conceived of what we know as evolution; yet our need to identify a single discoverer has consigned Wallace to the margins of history.

The history of science is fascinating precisely because of the multiple perspectives it offers. The last several decades of research in this field have contributed to a sophisticated (though by no means undisputed) understanding of the nature of what we call science. It is an enterprise involving multiple alleyways rather than a single pathway to enlightenment; a process made up of episodic developments in theory rather than linear progress; a body of knowledge informed by entire societies and political contexts rather than heroic, isolated ‘great men’ in their laboratories. It is, ultimately, a quest to know the world, with all the brilliance, insights, ambiguities and limitations of a very human enterprise. To reduce it to a battle for priority is to replace an intricate portrait with a gross caricature.

Aparajith Ramnath is a historian of modern science, technology and business.