Science and Technology in Ancient India

16-05-2024

09:05 AM

GS III

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Science and Technology

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Prelims: General Science

Mains: Achievements of Indians in Science & Technology; Indigenization of Technology and Developing New Technology.

In Ancient India not only great accomplishments were achieved in the fields of art and architecture, literature, philosophy etc., but many natural and pure sciences also flourished and registered remarkable growth and development. In the realm of astronomy, mathematics, biological, and medical science ancient Indians made various breakthroughs.

The earliest-known dockyard, which could berth and service ships, was situated at Lothal. Indian metallurgy was very advanced. The Mehrauli iron pillar of Delhi is seven metres high and has never rusted, is a testimony to that technology.

Contribution of Ancient India to Modern Science

India has been contributing to the fields of science and technology since ancient times. Even today, what we term as ‘traditional knowledge’ is actually based on scientific reasoning. Technology is today defined as applied science, but early humans developed technologies such as stone-working, agriculture, animal husbandry, pottery, metallurgy, textile manufacturing, woodcarving, boat-making, and sailing.

  • The first stone tools in the Indian subcontinent go back more than two million years. 
  • The Neolithic revolution saw the development of agriculture in parts of the Indus and the Ganges valleys, which in turn triggered the need for pots, water management, metal tools, transport, etc.
  • Metallurgy brought about significant changes in human society as it gave rise to an entirely new range of weapons, tools, and implements.

Metallurgy

Metallurgy may be defined as the extraction, purification, alloying, and application of metals. Mehrgarh in Baluchistan provides the first evidence of metal in the Indian subcontinent.

  • Wootz steel: Wootz steel, first produced in South India around 300 BCE, was created by carburising iron under controlled conditions.

 

Wootz_steelwootz steel

  • The products made of this Indian steel came to be known as Damascus swords.
  • Wootz steel is primarily iron containing a high proportion of carbon (1.0-1.9%).
  • It also spurred developments in modern metallographic studies and also qualifies as an advanced material in modern terminology since such steel are shown to exhibit super-plastic properties.
  • Iron Pillar of Delhi: It consists of about six tons of wrought iron. The rust-resistant quality is chiefly due to the presence of phosphorus in the iron and this element, together with iron and oxygen from the air, contributes to the formation of a thin protective passive coating on the surface, which gets reconstituted if damaged by scratching.

iron pillar of delhi

  • Lost Wax Technique: It was invented more than 5,000 years ago to create the finest level of detail in sculpting.
  • It is a metal casting technique in which hot metal is poured into a wax model that is 'lost' during the process.
  • Example: The iconic “Dancing Girl” bronze sculpture, in Mohenjo-daro, was created using the lost wax technique.

dancing girl

Chemistry

  • Rasaratna Samuchaya: Vagbhaṭa in his Rasaratna Samuccaya gives a systematic exposition of the principal metals in a well-known text of alchemy.
    • Each metal‘s properties and medicinal uses are clearly brought out within the alchemical framework of the times.
  • Rasashaastra : It literally means the “Science of Mercury”.
    • It is a specialized branch of Ayurveda dealing mainly with materials which are known as ‘Rasa dravyaas’.
    • Its evolution is traced to the Sage Nagarjuna.
    • Naagaarjuna proclaimed that the objective of the science of mercury is not limited to Alchemy (Dhaatuvaada) but also to maintain health and strengthen the body for achieving Mukti i.e. ultimate salvation.
  • The Ramayan and the Mahabharata mention weapons with arrowheads coated with a variety of chemicals, indicating their knowledge of Alchemy.
  • Kanad's atomic theory was the very first atomic theory ever proposed.

Medicine

  • Ayurveda: Ayurveda is a science of life that emphasizes a holistic approach to health and personalized medicine.
    • The ancient schools of Hindu Philosophical teachings known as Vaisheshika and the school of logic known as Nyaya laid the groundwork for Ayurveda.
    • According to Ayurveda all objects in the universe including the human body are composed of five basic elements (Panchamahabhutas) namely, Akash, Vayu, Agni, Jala and Prithvi.
  • Siddha:The Siddha system of Medicine, provides preventive, promotive, curative, rejuvenating and rehabilitative health care by adopting a scientific and holistic approach.
    • The Siddha system is believed to have evolved from 10000 - 4000 B.C.
      • With its Dravidian origin, was attributed to the reputed Siddhas, who were supposed to have evolved many life-prolonging compositions, rich in mineral medicines.
    • The Siddha system uses many preparations of plant and mineral origin in powder form, prepared through various procedures including calcination.
  • Yoga: It was developed as an allied science of Ayurveda for healing without medicine at the physical and mental levels.
    • The credit for systematically presenting this goes to Patanjali.
  • Veterinary Science: There is evidence of the existence of veterinary hospitals and dis- pensaries under the Mauryan Empire.
    • Veterinarians were called salihotriya, after the famous horse medicine authority Salihotra, in ancient times.

Astronomy and Space

  • Vedanga Jyotisa: It is the earliest astronomical text attributed to Maharishi Lagadha dating back to the 6th century BCE.
    • It is part of the Vedangas, and it covers a wide range of topics, including the phases of the Moon, the solar and lunar calendars, and the positions of the planets.
  • Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur constructed five astronomical observatories in northern India (New Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura and Varanasi).
    • The observatories, or "Jantar Mantars" incorporate multiple buildings of unique form, each with a specialized function for astronomical measurement.

jantar mantar delhi

Aeronautics

  • Mysorean Rocket: Rockets or ‘fire-arrows’ are noted to have been in use in Europe way back in the 15th century itself. However, rockets developed during Tipu Sultan's reign, known as Mysorean rockets, were far more advanced, "primarily due to the use of iron tubes for holding the propellant."
    • These rockets used a special type of gunpowder, which produced a fierce bursting, odour, and smoke, as well as a terrifying noise.

Mathematics

  • Shulba Sutras:  Baudhyana is credited with the writing of the earliest Sulba sutras which are appendices to the Vedas performing the role of manuals enunciating rules for the construction of Vedic altars (site preparation for Vedic sacrifices).
    • They throw light on various significant mathematical formulae, including the value of ‘pi’ and giving a version of the Pythagoras.
  • Arithmetic: Most of the standard results in basic arithmetic were of Indian origin like the decimal system, place-value, zero, square, and cubic-roots.
    • Aryabhata I, invented a system of expressing numbers using consonants and vowels, which was based on the decimal place value principle.
  • Trigonometry: It evolved as an essential component of astronomy. Most astronomical texts include reasonably accurate sine tables to facilitate quick calculations of astronomical elements.
    • Brahmagupta, Bhaskara I, and others provided formulas for calculating the sine of any angle without using a table.

Ancient Indian Scientists

In ancient India great luminaries cultivated sciences with their personal curiosity under active royal patronization. Following are some notable Indian scholars:

Science and Technology in Ancient India

Baudhayana (800 BCE- 740 BCE)

baudhayana

 

- Baudhayana was the mathematician, is also known as the ‘Father of Geometry’.

- He was a great scholar of philosophy, religion, mathematics, and language.

- Books: Shulba Sutra and Shrauta Sutra.

- He is considered one of the first to discover the value of ‘pi’.

- Baudhayana Theorem: This is considered an earlier statement of the Pythagorean theorem. 

Sushrutha 

sushrutha

 

- Sushrutha is recognized as the ‘Father of Plastic Surgery’.

- He was a surgeon and philosopher who compiled a monumental treatise on surgery, ‘Susrutasamhita’.

- India was the first place where rhinoplasty (developed by Sushrutha) was invented and used. 

- He took surgery in ancient India to admirable heights and that era was later regarded as the Golden Age of Surgery

- Contribution:

  • His Samdamsa yantras were the first forms of the modern surgeon's spring forceps and dissection and dressing forceps.
  • Classified bones and their reaction to injuries.
  • Recognized diabetes and defined it as Medhumeha.
  • First person to do an autopsy.

Kanada 

kanada

 

- Kanada was the first proponent of the 'atomic theory' and stated that the atom is indivisible and the world is made up of atoms.

- He also added that there are varieties of atoms that are as different as the different classes of substances.

- In 200 BCE, he wrote about gravity, and in Vaishesika Sutras he describes the Laws of Motion.

- He founded the Vaisheshika school of Indian philosophy, which embodied the oldest forms of Indian science.

Charaka

charaka

 

- Charaka is known as the “Father of Ayurveda”. 

- He appears to have been a pioneer in the "prevention is better than cure" philosophy.

- He wrote Charak Samhita (treatise on ayurveda) the description of a large number of diseases, causes and their treatment.

- He described the Fundamentals of Genetics andwas the first physician who stated the concepts of digestion, metabolism, and immunity.

Aryabhatta (476-550 CE)

aryabhatta

 

- Aryabhatta was mathematician-astronomers

- Books:

  • Aryabhatiya (mathematics and astronomy) 
  • Arya-siddhanta (astronomical computations).

- Contribution in Mathematics:

  • The mathematical part of the Aryabhatiya covers arithmetic, algebra, plane trigonometry, and spherical trigonometry.
  • Zero, according to Aryabhatta, was not only a numeral but also a symbol and a concept.

- Contribution to Astronomy:

  • He believed that the earth was rotating and also gave a scientific explanation for the occurrence of eclipses as opposed to the prevailing ideas that Rahu and Ketu caused eclipses.
  • The discovery of zero enabled Aryabhatta to calculate the exact distance between the Earth and the moon.
Aryabhata II 

- Aryabhata II was a mathematician and astronomer. 

- Books: The Mahasiddhanta or Aryasiddhanta, is an astronomical compendium based on the orthodox tradition of Smṛtis.

  • Detailed derivations cover planetary longitudes, solar and lunar eclipses, eclipse projections, lunar crescents, and more etc.

- He played a vital role in constructing a sine table, which was accurate up to five decimal places.

Brahmagupta (598-668 CE)

brahmagupta

 

- Brahmagupta, a most accomplished mathematician, was responsible for creating good mathematics in the form of geometrical theorems and number theory.

He was the first to introduce zero as a digit.

- He was believed to be a court astronomer to emperor Vyaghramukha (Chavda Dynasty).

- Notable work: Bahmasphutasiddhanta (theory of “the opening of the universe”), Khandakhadyaka (astronomical calculations).

Bhaskara I

- Bhaskara I, was a mathematician and astronomer (7th century CE)

- Contribution to Mathematics:

  • His greatest contributions lie in the realms of calculus and trigonometry.
  • He developed innovative methods and algorithms that simplified the process of finding solutions.

- Books:

  • “Aryabhatiya Bhashya” covers a wide range of topics, including arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.
  • Laghubhaskariya and the Mahabhaskariya which follow Aryabhata’s system of astronomy.

Varahamihiri (505–587 CE)

varahamihiri

 

- Varahamihira was a renowned astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer.

- Notable works:

  • Brihat Samhita (comprehensive work on astronomy, astrology, architecture, gemology, agriculture, mathematics, and gemology).
  • He wrote about chief aspects of Jyotisha (astrology) like horoscopy.
  • He was the first to state Panchasiddhantika (book on mathematical astronomy) that the ayanamsa (precession of the equinoxes) lasted for 50.32 seconds. 

- He first described gravity as an attractive “Force”, which binds various things together. 

Bhaskara II/ Bhaskaracharya

- Bhaskara II was an Indian astronomer and mathematician (12th CE century)

- Notable works: 

  • Siddhanta Shiromani (It contains the essence of ancient Indian astronomy and mathematics).
  • He was aware of the precession of equinoxes.
    • He accurately calculated the apparent orbital periods of the Sun and orbital periods of Mercury, Venus, and Mars.

Nagarjuna

nagarjuna

 

- He was a chemist and an alchemist.

- Notable works:

  • Rasaratnakara {It deals with preparing rasa (liquids, mainly mercury)}. It is a literary piece on alchemy composed around 7th-8th century CE.
  • Alchemy is an old study of changing basic substances (such as metals) to other substances.
  • Rashrudaya, Rasendramangal, Arogyamanjari, Kakshaputatantra, Yogasara, Yogasataka, and Uttaratantra (preparation of medicinal drugs).

- He for the first time, not only enunciated cementation processes but also propounded zinc production by a distillation technique. 

- His efforts were focused on transforming base metals into gold. 

FAQs on Science and Technology in Ancient India

How did science and technology develop during the Vedic period?

In the Vedic period, Chandogya Upanishad mentions the science of numbers, known as "ganita," which encompassed astronomy, arithmetic, and algebra. Vedic literature also includes six treatises on Vedic geometry from the six Vedic schools.

Who were the ancient Indian Scientists and Mathematicians?

Some well-known ancient Indian mathematicians include Baudhayan, Aryabhatta, Brahmgupta, Bhaskaracharya, and Mahaviracharya. Some well-known scientists include Kanad, Varahamihira, and Nagarjuna.

What was the golden age of science in ancient India?

Given the significant advances made in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, science, philosophy, and religion during the Gupta Empire, the time between the fourth and sixth centuries CE are referred to as the Golden Age of science in India.

What is Alchemy?

Alchemy is an ancient practice shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Its practitioners mainly sought to turn lead into gold.