Historical Background of Indian Science
Until the 1800s, traditional knowledge generated large-scale economic productivity for Indians. It was the thriving Indian economy that attracted so many waves of invaders, culminating with the British. Traditionally, India was one of the richest regions in the world, and most Indians were neither ‘backward’ nor uneducated or poor. Some historians have recently begun to demonstrate that it was economic drainage, oppression, social re-engineering at the hands of colonizers that made millions of ‘new poor’ over the past few centuries. This explanation yields a radically different reading of the poverty in India today. Upon acknowledging India’s traditional knowledge systems, one is forced to discard accounts of its history that essentialize its poverty and related social evils. The depth and breadth of Indian science and technology is staggering.
Major Historical Science and Technological Innovations in India
Iron and Steel:
Iron is found in countries neighboring India, leading European scholars to assume that it came from outside India. Given the similarities between the Vedas and Avesta (a Zoroastrian text), some saw this as supporting the theory of diffusion of iron and Vedas into India from the outside. Iron in India is much older. Cemeteries in present-day Baluchistan have iron objects. The earlier iron found in Middle Eastern archeological sites was essentially meteorite material sculptured as rock/stone carvings, and was not metallurgically processed at all. Since iron can be a by-product of copper technology, this could be its likely origin in India because copper was a well-known technology in many parts of ancient India. Recent discoveries reveal that iron was known in the Ganga valley in mid second millennium BCE. In the mid-first millennium BCE, the Indian wootz steel was very popular in Persian courts for making swords.
Rust-free steel was an Indian invention, and remained an Indian skill for centuries. Delhi’s famous iron pillar, dated 402 CE, is considered a metallurgical marvel and shows minimal signs of rust.
Indian industry was dealt a death blow by the colonial masters who banned the production and manufacture of iron and steel at several places in India, fearing their use in making swords and other arms. In addition, they also ensured India would depend upon iron and steel imported from Europe.
Another important Indian contribution to metallurgy was in the isolation, distillation and use of zinc. From natural sources, zinc content in alloys such as brass can go no higher than 28 per cent.
However, to increase the zinc content beyond this threshold, one must first separate the zinc into 100 per cent pure form and then mix the pure zinc back into an alloy. A major breakthrough in the history of metallurgy was India’s discovery of zinc distillation whereby the metal was vaporized and then condensed back into pure metal.
Brass in Taxashila has been dated from third century BCE to fifth century CE. A vase from Taxashila is of particular interest because of its 34.34 per cent zinc content and has been dated to the third century BCE (Marshall 1951: 567-568). Recently two brass bangles belonging to the Kushana period have been discovered from Senuwar (Uttar Pradesh, India). They are also made of metallic zinc as they have 35 per cent zinc content (Singh 2004: 594). Experts are unsure if this zinc was made by distillation process.
There is evidence of zinc ore mining at Zawar in Rajasthan from the fifth century BCE, but unfortunately there is lack of evidence of regular production of metallic zinc until the eighth century CE. This is the earliest date for zinc smelting and production of metallic zinc by distillation process anywhere in the world.
From complex Harappan towns to Delhi’s Qutub Minar, India’s indigenous technologies were very sophisticated. They included the design and planning of water supply, traffic flow, natural air conditioning, complex stone work, and construction engineering.
The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization was the world’s first to build planned towns with underground drainage, civil sanitation and hydraulic engineering, and air-cooling architecture. While the other ancient civilizations of the world were small towns with one central complex, this civilization had the distinction of being spread across many towns, covering a region about half the size of Europe. Weights and linguistic symbols were standardized across this vast geography, for a period of over 1,000 years, from around 3,000 BCE to 1500 BCE. Oven-baked bricks were invented in India in approximately 4,000 BCE.
Given the importance of fresh water in India, it is no surprise that the technologies to manage water resources were highly advanced from Harappan times onwards. For example, in Gujarat, Chandragupta built the Sudarshan Lake in the late 4th century BCE, and it was later repaired in 150 BCE by his grandson. The Vijayanagar Empire built such a large lake in the 14th – 15th century CE that it has more construction material than the Great Wall of China. What some historians call the “Persian Wheel” is actually pre-Mughal and is indigenous to India.
Scientists estimate there were 1.3 million man-made water lakes and ponds across India, some as large as 250 square miles. These are now being rediscovered using satellite imagery. These enabled rain water to be harvested and used for irrigation, drinking, etc. till the following year’s rainfall.
Indian textiles have been legendary since ancient times. The Greeks and Romans extensively imported textiles from India. Roman archives record official complaints about massive cash drainage due to these imports from India.
One of the earliest industries relocated from India to Britain was textiles and it became the first major success of the Industrial Revolution, with Britain replacing India as the world’s leading textile exporter. What is suppressed in the discourse about India and Europe is the fact that the technology, designs and even raw cotton were initially imported from India while, in parallel, India’s indigenous textile mills were outlawed by the British. India’s textile manufacturers were de-licensed, even tortured in some cases, over-taxed and regulated, to ‘civilize’ them into virtual extinction. Textiles and steel were the mainstays of the British Industrial Revolution. Both had their origins in India. The Ahmedabad textile museum is a great resource for scholarly material.
Shipping and Shipbuilding:
Shipbuilding was one of India’s major export industries until the British dismantled it and formally banned it. Medieval Arab sailors purchased their boats in India. The Portuguese also continued to get their boats from India and not Europe. Some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated ships were built in India and China.
The compass and other navigation tools were already in use in the Indian Ocean long before Europe. (“Nav” is the Sanskrit word for boat, and is the root word in “navigation” and “navy”.) Using their expertise in the science of seafaring, Indians participated in the earliest-known ocean-based trading system.
Contrary to European portrayals that Indians knew only coastal navigation, deep-sea shipping had existed in India as Indian ships had been sailing to islands such as the Andamans, Lakshdweep and Maldives around 2,000 years ago.
Kautilya describes the times that are good and bad for seafaring. There is also extensive archival material on the Indian Ocean trade in Greek, Roman, and Southeast Asian sources.
Many interesting findings have recently come out about the way forests and trees were managed by each village and how a careful method was applied to harvest medicines, firewood and building material in accordance with natural renewal rates. There is now a database being built of ‘sacred groves’ across India. Once again, it’s a story of an economic asset falling into disuse and abuse because of the dismantling of local governance and disrespect for traditional systems.
Furthermore, when scholars try to explain India’s current ecological disasters, they seldom mention the large-scale logging of Indian timber by the British in order to fund the two world wars and various other industrial programs of the empire.
Indian farmers developed non-chemical, eco-friendly pesticides and fertilizers that have modern applications. These traditional pesticides have been recently revived in India with excellent results, replacing Union Carbide’s products in certain markets. Crop rotation and soil technology that has been passed down for thousands of years are traditional practices which India pioneered.
Historically, India’s agricultural production was large and sustained a huge population compared to other parts of the world. Surpluses were stored for use in a drought year. But the British turned this industry into a cash cow, exporting very large amounts of grain even during food shortages. This caused tens of millions of Indians to die of starvation in the 19th century.
Indians developed many important concepts including the base-ten decimal system, now in global use, and crucial trigonometry and algebra formulae. They made several astronomical discoveries. Diverse schools of logic and philosophy proliferated.
Mathematical thought was intertwined with linguistics. India’s Panini is acknowledged as the founder of linguistics, and his Sanskrit grammar is still the most complete and sophisticated of any language in the world.