A Vedic conference has stirred the pot of ancient Indian scientific achievement yet again. Speaking at the ‘International Conference to Re-establish Vedic India’ held in Delhi over the past weekend, former Indian Space Research Organisation chairman Madhavan Nair declared that 5th century scholar Aryabhata knew about gravitational force before Isaac Newton discovered it more than a millennium later.

Aryabhata was indeed a remarkable astronomer with many ideas that formed the basis of our modern understanding of the universe. He postulated that the apparent daily rotation of the sky was actually due to the rotation of the earth. This hypothesis was rejected by later Indian and western astronomers until the emergence of modern heliocentric theory.

But it is doubtful whether Aryabhata postulated gravity as the universal, quantifiable force between two objects that we now know it to be. “In his treatise Aryabhatiya, he says that all particles cling to the surface of the earth but he does not mention an attractive force,” said S Balachandra Rao, director of the Gandhi Center for Science and Human Values in Bengaluru. Rao has been studying texts of ancient Indian astronomers for 20 years. “Aryabhata did us credit but we can’t claim that he discovered gravity,” Rao added.

Scientific discoveries are not made in a day and even Newton accepted that he saw further “by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Aryabhata might have been one such giant. Brahmagupta, a 7th century astronomer, was another. "Brahmagupta postulated correctly that  there is an attraction towards the centre of the earth," said Roddam Narasimha, professor of engineering mechanics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. "But he did not say that it was an inverse square law. He did not make a universal principle of it. He did not use the principle to predict orbits of planets."

Bhaskaracharya II, who lived in the 12th century, also mentioned something like gravity. But there were many steps to be taken between the observations of the Indian astronomers to the work of the English physicist. 

Displays of empty pride

Aryabhata referred to a spherical earth drawing things to it on all sides. He did it poetically by likening the earth to the florets of the spherical kadamba flower. “[Indian astronomers] used this argument to justify the concept of a self-sustaining spherical earth which did not need to be supported from the 'bottom' by Sesha or elephants or any other cosmological underpinnings, and which also would not be subject to beings falling off the ‘bottom’ of it,” said Kim Plofker, assistant professor of mathematics at Union College in New York, in an email to Scroll. Plofker has researched Sanskrit texts, including Aryabhata’s work, for the origins of mathematics in India.  

“Aryabhata didn't propose heliocentrism or any quantitative law of gravitational attraction, so I don't think it makes sense to claim that he, or any other pre-modern scientist, "discovered gravity" in any sense meaningful for the modern physical concept of gravity,” Plofker said. 

Rao added, "Newton is respected for the discovery because of quantification for the amount of gravitation."

Newton gave the world a mathematical formula for gravity as the inverse square of the distance between two objects. He said everything in the universe attracts every other thing with this force, which was also responsible for the motion of the planets around the sun, the moon around the earth, the tide of the Thames and for any apple that may fall on a person's head.

According to a Facebook page set up for the Vedic conference, its aim is to create “a unique environment to proclaim the power of Veda and its scientific application in various aspects of life”. While Nair made claims about Aryabhata and gravity, Union Minister for Science and Technology Harsh Vardhan said that the Vedas referred to inoculation against small pox in an era long before Edward Jenner discovered the vaccine in 1798. If that is the case, then it was unfortunate indeed that the disease claimed so many lives till Jenner’s vaccine was used to eliminate it from most of the world.

HS Mukunda, aerospace scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, questions the need to race backwards to reclaim scientific discovery. “The fact that gravity has an impact on life not only for terrestrial beings but also extra-terrestrial objects like the moon and we can make predictions of them is important enough that I don’t have to keep saying 'Newton or Aryabhata told me so’,” he said.  

Mukunda and his colleagues at the IISc examined and debunked the Vaimanika Sastra, a text which claimed to show that ancient Indians made trans-continental and inter-planetary aircraft. Mukunda believes that ancient science that has value for modern society should be pursued. “If it has no value then it is only good for pride and often that is empty pride,” he added.

The question of who was first to a discovery is extremely important in the world of Western science, Narasimha points out. "We India are, in fact, squeamish about making any claims, he said. "But at the same time we sometimes make exaggerated and wrong claims. What is needed in the history of Indian science now is to be clear as what was done first and was what not done first to the extent possible."