A group of scholars met in Bengaluru over the Republic Day weekend to discuss what ancient Indians really knew. But there was little talk of interplanetary vehicles or references to surgical methods of attaching elephant heads to human torsos. In fact, the conference at the Indian Institute of Science was organised with the purpose of showing that careful, scientific study must be applied to ancient Indian texts and to fight the more fantastical claims that have recently entered the debate about pre-modern Indian knowledge.

The Indian Science Congress in Mumbai this year ruffled feathers with its session on ancient science, especially with the presentation of a paper that claimed the existence of 200-foot aircraft in the time of the Vedas that could fly in any direction and also between planets.

“A lot of people really don't have historical understanding and started playing up figments of imagination,” said Rajan Gurukul, visiting faculty at the institute’s Centre for Contemporary Studies who organised the Bengaluru conference. “They said all that the west knew existed in the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharatha, and the Puranas. Now it has acquired a political dimension and you see the worst phase of it where people are talking about advanced plastic surgery, interplanetary aircraft and so on. We just wanted to show in the subcontinent in the past, by way of science and technology, what really existed.”

To this end Gurukul invited researchers who had been studying historical texts like the Vēdāngas, jyōtisāstra, gōḷavidya, gaṇita, vyākaraṇa to shed some light not only on the achievements of ancient Indians but also how they produced knowledge.

Great leaps

Historical studies establish that pre-modern inhabitants of the subcontinent used technology like pulleys to lift materials, irrigation systems and metallurgy. Much of their advances in astronomy and mathematics were driven by religion and the need to make panchangas ‒ almanacs of astronomical events that dictate most Hindu rituals. Under these compulsions, they more or less worked out the basic theorems of calculus. Presenting his study of ancient Indian astronomy, director of the Gandhi Centre of Science and Human Values Balachandra Rao spoke of the achievements of 16th century astronomers Nilakantha Somayaji and Ganesa Daivajna. The former contributed to the understanding of a heliocentric solar system and the latter to trigonometric methods for studying the movement of planets.

Many researchers believe that Indian science is getting divided into two camps – one that believes all good science came from the west and the other that believes that our forebears knew more than anyone else at any given time. As a result, there is little rational, scientific exploration of India’s past. Cardiac surgeon and Padma Vibhushan recipient MS Valiathan spent a career in biomedical research developing artificial heart valves, blood bags, oxygenerators, and vascular grafts. Fifteen years ago he decided to dive into the study of Ayurveda, particularly the legacy of 1st century physician Charaka. Valiathan’s study of the 120-chapter treatise Charaka Samhita has convinced him that it holds out promise that Ayurveda might have a scientific basis that requires study and measurement.

Modern tools

“There are a whole lot of physiological concepts in Ayurveda and even 50 years ago we could not investigate these because we had no tools like microbiology and immunology,” Valiathan said. “Rasayana is supposed to prevent memory loss. Now if DNA chain-breaks are measurable quantitatively with today’s tools and then we can investigate what happens if Rasayana is administered. We should do this kind of basic biological work and apply mechanistic, basic science to Ayurveda.”

Valiathan’s observed that the decline of Ayurveda occurred before the 5th century. The ingenious surgical techniques described Sushrutha, who lived in 600 BC, disappeared from mainstream medicine as those who worked with their hands were relegated to the lower strata of society. Rhinoplasty or plastic repair of the nose, delivering babies from complex labour, treating fractures and cataracts were all performed by people of lower castes who had no education or social mobility. Even so, Ayurveda has survived more than 2,000 years. “We must ask – how does it work? That is curiosity-driven, discovery-driven research,” Valiathan said.

Pythagoras theorem

Also conspicuous by its absence at the conference was any obligation to claim that India was the first to a discovery. PP Divakaran, mathematician retired professor of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, spoke of the "theory of the diagonal", more commonly known as Pythagoras theorem. Divakaran suggested that ancient scholars of the subcontinent like Baudhayana and the Babylonians could have arrived at the same theorem through different routes and described the result in different ways.

The Bengaluru conference wasn’t restricted to scientists but was a gathering of scholars of all kinds of ancient Indian knowledge – those studying the role of debate and doubt in Indian philosophy, knowledge production in early Tamil, and bodies of knowledge in Kathakali. Gurukul’s aim in gathering such scholars together was to explore the rules and properties what can be identified as serious knowledge. “In the field of philosophy and grammar the same rigour as mathematics was found in the pursuit of knowledge. I thought that it would be an ideal beginning to have a seminar on the principles of knowledge production in pre-modern India,” said Gurukul.

The next step is to bring out a publication about the careful, scientific study of ancient India. “We will make a text out of this, make a popular version of it and democratise it.”