Bringing to Light India’s Contributions
to World CivilizationS
Dr. David Gray’s 8/19/00 speech at the Arya Samaj Mahasammelan in Hempstead, NY.
I was asked to come and give a brief talk concerning Indian contributions to world civilization, and I was asked to do so not because of any particular qualification on my part, for indeed my knowledge of India is far outweighed by my ignorance. Rather, I was asked to speak on account of my position, which is the director of a newly established foundation called the Educational Council on Indic traditions. The mission of our foundation is to improve the quality of education concerning India. Since this involves bringing greater attention to India’s numerous contributions in science, technology and the cultural arts, I may perhaps be qualified to say a few words on this topic.
I realize that in discussing the contributions of India here I’m preaching to the converted, since the importance of India’s cultural heritage was an a central message that, I believe, Dayananda Sarasvatiji himself taught in founding the Arya Samaj over one hundred years ago. Therefore, in order to avoid boring my audience with knowledge already well-known to them, I will keep the address brief, which is quite a challenge given India’s vast and venerable cultural history.
An important point that must be made is that India’s cultural heritage is not a dead relic, a curiosity of interest only to scholars and eccentrics. Rather, it is a complex of living traditions that continues to have important ramifications to this day and age. And while India is blessed with a very ancient cultural history, and is fortunate to have preserved what is now known to be the oldest uninterrupted transmission of essential knowledge, encapsulated in the Vedas, it continues to have an influence and importance in the world befitting its current position in the global economy.
Take for example the field of mathematics. European scholars had long considered Greece the birthplace of mathematics, and this in spite of the ancient Greeks’ own admission that they gained much of their knowledge from other civilizations, such as Egypt and Persia. Many developments that rightly belong elsewhere were thus falsely attributed to the Greeks, whose importance as preservers of other cultures’ innovations is as least as great as their importance as innovators per se.
A perfect example of this sort of misattribution involves the so-called Pythagorean theorem, the well-known theorem which was attributed to Pythagoras who lived around 500 B.C.E., but which was first proven in Greek sources in Euclid’s Geometry, written centuries later. What is not well understood is that this theorem was known to the authors of the Vedas, and was proved in Baudhayana’s Shulva Sutra, which was composed several centuries before Pythagoras, and which might have been a source for Greek geometry, transmitted via the Persians who traded both with the Greeks and the Indians.
Math was not the only science in which the ancient Indians excelled. Various sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, linguistics and grammar were considered to be Vedangas, literally limbs or branches of the Vedas, that is, the knowledge which was necessary for the proper performance of the Vedic rites. One thing we might point out here is that the division between religion and science is not applicable to the Vedic context, wherein the two are seen as natural and necessary complements. Indeed, the very word Veda, derived from the verbal root vid, ‘to know’, with alternative meanings of ‘to find or discover’ and ‘to be’, can be literally translated as most generally “knowledge,” or, more specifically, ‘science’, a word which is likewise derived from the Latin verb ‘scire,’ ‘to know’. The Vedas, in short, include everything that their authors, writing thousands of years ago, considered worth knowing.
Knowledge of mathematics, and geometry in particular, was necessary for the precise construction of the complex Vedic altars, and mathematics was thus one of the topics covered in the brahmanas. This knowledge was further elaborated in the kalpa sutras, which gave more detailed instructions concerning Vedic ritual. Several of these treat the topic of altar construction. The oldest and most complete of these is the previously mentioned Shulva Sutra of Baudhayana, which proved the Pythagorean theorem several centuries before Pythagoras.
The ancient Indians did not stop with geometry, but continued to develop advanced mathematical techniques. Aryabhata, for example, developed and solved in the fifth century C.E. complex algebraic and trigonometric problems which were neither conceived nor solved in Europe until over a thousand years later. The European developments, in turn, were dependent upon Indian works such as Aryabhata’s Aryabhatiya, which was transmitted by the Arabs to Europe, and translated into Latin in the thirteenth century. Such cultural debts of Europe to India are not widely acknowledged, not due to any lack on the part of Indian scholarship but rather due to a lack on the side of European scholars, who were blinded by the cultural chauvinism characteristic of the colonial period. This is a darkness from which the West is only now beginning to awake.
One might object that while India’s contributions to science in areas such as algebra and trigonometry are real, these contributions are ancient history, since the European tradition, while dependent on India at its root, has surpassed and supplanted the Indian mathematical traditions since the seventeenth century. In addressing this objection, there are a few things we might want to point out here. One point is that India’s ancient contributions go far beyond simply a hodgepodge of different mathematical and technological ideas. The very system of enumeration on which our math and science is based was developed in India. Most of you probably know that the so-called Arabic numerals were invented in India, but did you know that the place value system of enumeration on which our mathematics is based derives from the Indian Sanskritic system of enumeration, which has a distinct name for each power of ten up to the fifty-third power?
Georges Ifrah, in his book The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer, has commented that, quote
- By giving each power of ten an individual name, the Sanskrit system gave no special importance to any number. Thus the Sanskrit system is obviously superior to that of the Arabs (for whom the thousand was the limit), or the Greeks and Chinese (whose limit was ten thousand) and even to our own system (where the names thousand, million etc. continue to act as auxillary bases). Instead of naming the numbers in groups of three, four or eight orders of units, the Indians, from a very early date, expressed them taking the powers of ten and the names of the first nine units individually. In other words, to express a given number, one only had to place the name indicating the order of units between the name of the order of units immediately below it and the one immediately above it. That is exactly what is required in order to gain a precise idea of the place-value system, the rule being presented in a natural way and thus appearing self-explanatory. To put it plainly, the Sanskrit numeral system contained the very key to the discovery of the place-value system. (NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2000, p. 429) endquote
Sanskrit is in fact a very scientific and logical language, not only in its enumeration system, but in the very way that the language is structured, which is due to the work of a long lineage of scholars reaching back over 2500 years to Panini, if not earlier.
What is the import of these observations? In short, the information technology revolution which is currently sweeping the world owes a tremendous but rarely acknowledged debt to India and her ancient Vedic sciences. With this in mind, it should perhaps come as no surprise that India is currently such an important source of information technology experts, one on which the so-called “superpowers” such as America and China are increasingly reliant. These software experts are, often without realizing it, following in the footsteps of their Vedic forebears.
Math is only one area where India has made an essential and lasting contribution to world civilization. There are many other fields where, given the time, we could cite similar contributions, including language and linguistics, art and architecture, philosophy and logic, ritual and meditative technologies, and psychology and medicine. While it is not possible to list all of these contributions here, documenting these are in fact one of the central goals of the Educational Council on Indic Traditions, and we plan on doing so by several means, including the development of textbooks that will bring together a broad range of scholarship on Indic traditions.
Our mission, then, is to bring to light the contributions made by India in the past which continue to enliven and enlighten our world to this day. We see our mission as being not that of curators trying to preserve long-dead cultural fossils, but as agents for change, who seek to return India to the central position she deserves in our school curricula. In so doing we will have to combat the outdated and prejudiced view, deriving from the nearly blind, jaundiced eye of the colonialists, that Indian civilization lacks value in and of itself, and that India is in the need of rescue by a supposedly superior civilization. Such a view might have served the interests of the British colonialists, but its utility for the dark arts of colonial exploitation is not matched by any efficacy for education, where the dissemination of truth, and not ingrained prejudice, should be the goal of all of our endeavors.
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