research of the past two or three decades has shown that mathematical astronomy, geometry,
algebra and other science arose first in India. Everyone knows that the sign for zero was
invented in India about two thousand years ago. It is much less known that important
concepts like that of recursion, algebraic transformation, mathematical logic, abstract
language description, binary numbers, combinatory also arose in India several centuries
before their rediscovery in the West.
The Indian culture area
provides us extensive material, across a very broad time-span, to help us understand the
earliest history of ideas. The ancient Indian texts are layered in such a fashion that we
can see the gradual development of mathematical, physical, linguistic, and psychological
ideas. We find that the ancient Indians were greatly interested in mathematical methods in
geometry, astronomy, grammar, music and other fields. They were also interested in
cognitive science where they were so advanced that their insights may yet be useful to
The understanding of the chronological framework of the Indian
civilization has changed greatly in the last few years due to revolutionary discoveries in
art and archaeology.
The earliest Indic art is preserved on rocks in the paleolithic,
mesolithic and neolithic stages (40000 B.C.E. onwards) and the seals and the sculpture of
the Indus-Sarasvati phase which lasted from about 8000 B.C.E. to 1900 B.C.E. According to
Wakankar, the beginnings of the rock art have been traced to 40,000 years BP (before
present) in the decorated ostrich eggshells from Rajasthan, dated using radiocarbon
techniques. Subsequent phases have been determined using evolution of style and other
radiocarbon dates. The mesolithic period has been dated as 12000 to 6000 BP.
It has been found that there is significant continuity of motif in
the rock art and the later Indus-Sarasvati civilization indicating an unbroken link with
the paleolithic and the mesolithic cultures of India.
We see tessellations in the ancient rock art of India. It has been
argued that these designs occur at the lowest stratum of the rock paintings and if that is
accepted they belong to the upper paleolithic period. These designs are unique to India in
the ancient world. Tyagi has suggested that they may represent a ``trance experience.''
The basic feature of these tessellations is infinite repetition.
This repetition may occur for a basic pattern or, more abstractly, the lines extend
spatially in a manner so that a basic pattern is repeated in two directions. An
understanding of this abstract concept must have been a part of the thought system of the
artists. This is another continuity with the central place of the notion of infinite in
later Indian thought.
The abstract and the iconic elements in Indian rock art are
different from the more naturalistic ancient European cave paintings. There is also
difference in the nature of the community and state in the Western and the Indian
civilizations in the earliest urban phase. The West has monumental temples, tombs, palaces
whereas the society in India appears to have been governed by a sacred order.
One aspect of the Indian literary tradition, which is at least four
thousand years old, is its imagination. The epic Mahabharata mentions embryo
transplantation, multiple births from the same fetus, battle with extra-terrestrials who
are wearing air-tight suits, and weapons of mass-destruction. The Ramayana mentions air
travel. The Bhagavata Purana, a medieval encyclopaedic text, has episodes related to
different passage of time for different observers which is very similar to what happens in
the theory of relativity.
The notion of self in the Upanishads embodies a very subtle
understanding of observers and of reality. Yoga Vasishtha and Tripurarahasya present a
deep discussion of the nature of consciousness.
Puranic cosmology gives an age of the universe that is in close
agreement with the modern value. We find examples of accurate astronomical numbers in the
early texts. Perhaps, this accuracy was due to the knowledge of biological cycles that
reflect astronomical processes, such as menses according to the period of the moon. The
understanding of the outer was helped along by an understanding of the inner.
Although thousands of ancient Indian scientific
texts have been examined by modern scholars, many others lie languishing in libraries and
temple storerooms. Just what has been studied presents us a picture of astonishing
sophistication of Indian science in many fields.
Source: T.R.N. Rao and S. Kak Computing
Science in Ancient India USL Press, Lafayette 1998.
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