Science & Technology in Ancient India

Blind Faith: Not a prerogative of religious mind

Someone wrote….

A friend of mine sent me the following article published by The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics. It is written by Dr. Jayant Narlikar who is a well known Indian Astrophysicist.

The author seems to be very skeptical about a positive answer to the question “Were our ancient ancestors scientifically advanced?”. He also seems to point towards the Sanskrit language as the culprit for this predicament. I personally don’t know much about Dr. Narlikar’s work but after reading one of the infinity foundation’s published volumes of “Contribution to History of Indian Science and technology series” I think the title question of the article can definitely be answered in the affirmative. One can tell for sure that a lot of sincere and painstaking work went into writing those volumes.

I am just wondering whether there is any substance in what Dr. Narlikar is saying. Can anyone kindly give his/her opinion?

My response:

1) Jayant Naralikar’s (JN) point about a given Sanskrit statement leading to multiple meanings (not always) is correct, however, his conclusion that therefore Sanskrit is not a suitable language for science is -well, his opinion.

(2) JN considers Ptolemy’s epicycles as a scientific theory. In its initial form, it might have appeared to be so, but NO, even from day one it was not a scientific theory. It required band aids (ad-hoc band aids) from day one and by the time of Copernicus, it had become a mammoth with more than 70 epicycles to describe positions of 5 planets.

The fact it was shown to be wrong has nothing to do with it being scientific or not scientific.

On the other hand, in Greek culture, long time before Ptolemy, one can see some good attempts at scientific theory making. I have in mind attempts of Thales, Anaximander, Xenophanes, etc.

Epicycles : It was very ingenious effort in empirical correlation. Of course epicycles are not new and not an invention of Ptolemy. Surya Siddhanta talks of epicycles – even of sophisticated kind – Pulsating epicycles that were 4x accurate than those of greek/Ptolemy epicycles (100 CE), and it can be shown (scientifically – in case someone wonders) that basis of Suryasiddhanta epicycles goes back to 5000 BCE, -7000 BCE.

These papers (Suryasiddhanta, pulsating epicycles and time frame of 5000 BCE-7000 BCE) are published in peer reviewed journals. Of course,nonsense of peer reviewed journal is another topic, but I would resist the temptation to comment.

(3) The fact JN gives example of ‘Epicycles’ as scientific theory is laughable, but even his descriptions of why work of Kepler or Newton is scientific is equally wrong. Kepler and Newton made many bold conjectures – proposed theories. Those theories that survived the corroboration of observed evidence, we know those theories today. They proposed many, which did not survive the corroboration and thus were discarded. Majority don’t know anything about them. JN seems to give the impression that the complex math is what justified it as scientific. That is not correct. And unless he sees an ancient manual, he is not willing to accept something as technology.

If you are curious- read my book ‘When did the Mahabharata War Happen? The Mystery of Arundhati’. It does not talk of technology during Mahabharata times, but based on interesting observations made during that time (stars, planets, comets, and much more), by inference, one must reach the conclusion that they had sophisticated technology – at a minimum – highly sophisticated telescopes – and method/process to document astronomy observations made over a long period of time.

(4) Also consider books by Dr. P V Vartak (originally written in Marathi and many of them are translated in English), some of the papers by Subhash Kak, John Playfair, Anil Narayanan.

(5) I am currently working on my second book -“The Historic Rama’ and again, while I have not found a technology manual, as demanded by JN, the astronomy evidence in it, when interpreted (Sanskrit was a boon here) leads to the conclusion that Indians were good observational astronomers for thousands of years and our epics or Veda/samhita/brahmans and Purana literature were means to store this info for posterity.
Unrelated to your question, but related to JN: In India, or at least in Maharashtra, JN is held as an accomplished astronomer. For a long time (more than 20 years) I am trying to find out what was his original contribution (I am aware that he worked with Fred Hoyle and about Steady State theory). I asked, out of genuine curiosity, this question to many, number of them know JN personally, and in last few months/years, I came across many from young generation who claimed that they were inspired by JN’s work. I also asked these individuals, from younger generation, what specific aspects of JN’s work inspired them’. So far I have heard ‘silence’ from all who I asked, for last 20 years.


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