Dr Alok Kumar is a professor of Physics at the State University of New York at Oswego. He completed his PhD at Kanpur University. He has been the National President of the American Chapter of the Indian Physics Association during 1995-97 and President of Sigma Xi (Oswego Chapter) during 1995-96. He has authored more than 60 scientific publications in Atomic Physics, Chemical Physics, History of Science, and Science Education including the groundbreaking works Science of Ancient Hindus and A History of Science in World Cultures. His next significant work is titled Ancient Hindu Science: Its Transmission and Impact on World Cultures will be available in May 2018 in India.
He was awarded the President Award for Creative and Scholarly Activity or Research, SUNY Oswego. In an interview to Organiser Correspondent Prashanth Vaidyaraj, Dr Alok Kumar provides rare insights into sciences of ancient Hindus and answers a wide range of questions on modern and traditional sciences, his work and research. Excerpts:
While most Indian students today are aware of the contribution of ancient Greeks to modern science, exact contributions of ancient Indian scientists are largely unknown. Can you please briefly mention the major contributions of ancient Indians to modern sciences?
Modern science and medicine would be unrecognisable, and far more primitive, without the immense contribution of the ancient Hindus. They invented everyday essentials such as our base-ten number system, with place-value notations, and zero as a numeral. The ancient Hindus also developed a sophisticated system of medicine with its mind-body approach known as Ayurveda; detailed anatomical and surgical knowledge of the human body, including cataract surgery and the so-called plastic surgery; metallurgical methods of extraction and purification of metals, including the so-called Damascus blade; knowledge of various constellations and planetary motions that was good enough to assign motion to the Earth; and the science of self-improvement popularly known as yoga. My book, Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, covers these topics in detail.
Just imagine the modern world without the mathematical revolution of the ancient Hindus. The scientific revolution during the European Renaissance was a result of this mathematical revolution that has its origin in India. For example, we write numbers using the Hindu numerals. The uniqueness of this system lies in the fact that the position of a numeral qualifies its magnitude. Tens, hundreds, or thousands are not represented by different signs; they are represented by using digits in different positions. Notice that the one is in the second place in 10 (ten), in the third place in 100 (hundred), and in the fourth place in 1,000 (thousand). Also, zero as a numeral with no magnitude and simply a location occupier was an enormous philosophical and scientific triumph. Calculations in the absence of Hindu place-value-notation, where we write eleven as one and one, are quite difficult to perform. This is the reason that the Greek, Roman, and other numeral systems were discarded even in their own lands. For example in the Roman system, eleven is written as ten and one (XI). It is quite difficult and slow process to perform mathematical operation in this Roman system. This is the reason that Copernicus discarded the Roman mathematical system and used the Hindu system in his book. He provided the rationale of this move; it was done to perform calculations at a much faster rate. The Hindu system is so advanced and, yet, so simple that children are taught to write eleven as one and one (11), written side-by-side, from their earliest period when they also learn their native alphabet.
In modern perspective, just imagine reading the values of various stocks in a newspaper. In a quick scan, you can recognise easily that 1089 is greater than 951. All you need to see is that the first number has four digits while the second number has only three. This is enough for a quick comparison. In contrast, in the Roman numerals, XC (90) is five times more in magnitude than XVIII (18). This is not easy to figure out in a quick glance. Also, mathematical operations of multiplication, division, addition and subtraction become much simpler in a place-value notation.
Similar examples related to Trigonometry, Algebra, plastic surgery, body-mind system of Ayurveda, and metallurgical skills of the Hindus can also be cited, and are provided in my book, Sciences of the Ancient Hindus.
It is said that ancient Indians had detailed knowledge of metallurgical methods of extraction and purification of metals, including making of the Damascus blade. Our surgical sciences too were advanced. How can we resurrect the original methods and gain from it to make better products in the future?
Yes, the surgical tools of Sushruta, the person who explained the so-called plastic surgery during the pre-Christian era, could dissect a hair longitudinally. Similarly, King Poros, after losing the battle with Alexander the Great, and receiving the gift of life from Alexander, was deeply in gratitude. Alexander not only bestowed life to him, but Porus also received his kingdom back. Porus wanted to give precious gifts to Alexander to demonstrate his gratitude. Along with other items, Porus gave 6000 pounds of steel to Alexander. The best steel in Persia (Iran) was called foulade Hind, meaning steel of Hind. We can resurrect original methods, improve on these methods, and produce better products only by first documenting our history in India. This is the starting point and we have not done that as yet. My book, Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, is not the final answer on this issue. It simply provides a new beginning to these efforts.
The history of science that is taught in India, does not consider ancient traditional sciences worthy of the modern syllabus. Rationalists ask for evidence for origin of our achievements. Do we have concrete evidence to prove the achievements of our ancient scientists? If yes, are they acceptable to modern sciences?
All modern syllabi in the history of science do consider ancient traditional sciences of the Greeks. It is only the non-Western contributions that are missing. Yes, we do have evidence from the non-Western scholars that is as good as we have for Pythagoras, Thales, Democritus, and Socrates, to name a few from the Greek tradition. The works of Aryabhata, Kanada, Varahmihir, Brahmgupta, Charaka, and Susruta are certainly par excellence. In my book, Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, I made special efforts to avoid the ridicule of many such rationalists and focused on the ancient and medieval accounts of the Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, Arabian, and European literature to get information about Hindu science and technology. As mentioned above, the mosaic that emerges from these foreign documents corroborates what my parents told me when I was a child. India did have a prime past. Since such studies of the ancient and medieval foreign literature that deal with ancient India are almost non-existent, modern science texts still do not recognise Indian contributions in a coherent way. My book provides a new beginning to the issue. I have not received any specific criticism of my assertions from other scholars. With time, I assume that the contents of my book, Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, will become a mainstream knowledge. My other book, A History of Science in World Cultures: Voices of Knowledge, is the next step in assimilating cultural contributions of various civilisations that are acceptable to modern science.
Today both theoretical and practical sciences are on the path of achieving new breakthroughs. Yet, the ultimate aim of science remains unknown. Can ancient sciences, especially ancient Indian sciences, provide any clues as to where science is headed?
The connection between religion and science in Hindu literature is an interesting, and perhaps unexpected, variation from the Western model. The sciences of the ancient Hindus were an essential and integral part of their religion, as it was for the Mayans, Arabs, and Egyptians. The disciplines of Astronomy, Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Yoga, and Medicine were all practiced to meet the needs of religion, as well as to fulfill natural curiosity.
Narada, in Chandogya Upanishad, considers Astronomy and Mathematics relevant to achieve liberation (Moksha). Aryabhata, in his book Aryabhatiya, considers Astronomy, Mathematics, Physics and other sciences crucial to know about the Supreme Being. Since science was a prescription to moksa, it became imperative for scientists to find true knowledge. Thus, science could grow independently and scientists could investigate whatever they deemed fit. This led Al-Mas`udi (d. 957 AD), an Islamic historian during the tenth century, to write that science and technology were established without the aid of religious prophets in India. It was the logic, intuition, and experience of diligent observers (rishis) that contributed to the domain of science. Al-Mas`udi considered India as the land of “virtue and wisdom.”
Your previous book, ‘Sciences of the Ancient Hindus’, has a very bold description on Amazon. It says, “Modern science and medicine would be unrecognisable without the immense contribution of the ancient Hindus.” You have already listed our contributions above but how do modern scientists the world over view this claim? Who are the prominent scientists who concur with this and in which area?
The knowledge I have shared in my book, Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, is quite new to the mainstream academia. Therefore, it is premature to summarise its impact. However, scientists who have read the book are convinced of the validity of my assertions. I am receiving positive input from my fellow historians of science. In the past, several other scientists, including Robert Oppenheimer (father of atom bomb), Erwin Schrodinger (Noble Laureate in Physics), and Brian Josephson (Noble Laureate in Physics), who studied the ancient Hindu literature, have shared similar opinions. My book, Sciences of the Ancient Hindus, does provide a large number of such corroborating statements from other noted scholars.
‘Sciences of the Ancient Hindus’ is a subject that has been neglected for long and is deemed controversial in main stream academia and media here. Any attempt to introduce our ancient sciences in school syllabus is opposed as it is deemed as ‘saffronisation’. In this scenario, please let us know how your work could be taken forward so that it becomes a part of science education and also public knowledge.
Unfortunately, this is the nature of our pseudo-secular environment in India these days. We should not label studies of ancient sciences as “saffronisation.” Instead people in India should ask this question: Is it true? If yes, we must include sciences of the ancient Hindus in academia to train our future generations to know about their heritage. It is done in the Western education too; it is done in most cultures. India is an exception in this respect that we have not done this so far.
The history of science is not the history of events; it is the history of culture, intents, and a history of human minds. It tells us how various cultures recognised issues that they found crucial and resolved them. Such knowledge is important in dealing with the unknown future we deal with. Knowing what we were in the past helps us to understand what we are in the present, and how we will be in the future. If you don’t know your history, then you are like a limb that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. Further, all countries celebrate their great heroes, including the great scientific and mathematical minds of the past and present. Greece had Aristotle and Socrates, Italy had Galileo and Leonardo Fibonacci, England had Maxell and Newton, France had Laplace and Fourier, and India had Kanada and Aryabhata, showing that the greatest minds of the ancient Hindus could be a match for the world’s best scientists and mathematicians. Just imagine erasing the name of Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato from the current philosophy texts because it is an old past and, therefore, irrelevant! I am using this argument since some rationalists in India use this against the sciences of the ancient Hindus. Will it be just and fair? The answer is a clear and emphatic “no”. This is exactly the case when we ignore our own heroes in India unjustly.
Even in the West, just a thousand years ago, India was considered as the leader in science and technology. The first popular history of science book with a global view was written in Spain during the eleventh-century Muslim Spain by Said al-Andalusi. He ranked different civilisations based on their excellence in science and technology. In his ranking, India was defined as number one. It is this knowledge of Europe that got distorted during the colonial period of Europe unjustly and needs to be revised.
In the context of teaching and learning, avoiding our own heroes is detrimental to the learning process. Celebration and recognition of our heroes in all disciplines serves as glue for a stable society. For this reason, most societies document their own histories.