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Ancient Indian Science: Dissecting Myth and RealityJodhpur architecture

A lot is said and debated about the contribution of ancient India in the field of science and technology. Many claims are made about the discoveries and inventions in the Vedic period, such as in surgery, aviation and atomic physics etc. Surely, archaeological materials like the old books, inscriptions and heritage buildings show us that our ancestors had made advances in architecture, sculpture, astrology, literature, music, philosophy and other fields. But nothing can be taken at face value. Each evidence needs to be studied or investigated carefully, and in the context of those times, before we can make any claims about the progress of ancient science. In order to help the reader understand our past better, we at Ektara bring you some links and resources to research material and write-ups available about the progress of science and technology in ancient India.

But before we proceed, a few things need to be kept in mind: (1) What we call ‘India’ today did not exist in the past with the present geographical boundaries and political identity. The definition of India kept changing over time.* Also, the region of India did not exist in isolation from other regions – there was a constant trans-migration of ideas, materials, knowhow, and technology from one region to another through trade, which allowed the progress of science and technology in India. So a particular ‘invention’ by an Indian (such as zero or decimal) may have been possible with an idea or knowhow coming from China or Arabia, or vice a versa. (2) Similarly, history must ideally be seen as a continuum in time without any fixed periods. For example, it is wrong to label any progress or event as ‘Hindu science’ or ‘Islamic invention’ etc. even if their contributors had a certain religious identity. (3) In the pre-modern India, the concept of ‘science’ was probably not as we understand it today from a western perspective. Scientific thinking, discoveries and inventions of the past were usually not detached from other aspects of life such as religion, superstition, social hierarchy, trade and art etc. In other words, what we may call a ‘scientist’ of the past could also have been an ironsmith, an astrologer, a poet and/or a trader among other things.

(4) Starting any large and long-term project or initiative (such as the construction of a temple, a bridge, or development of surgery tools, or writing of an epic) was not possible without the support or patronage of a king or people in power. One has to investigate the reasoning of why such as project or invention was sponsored, and who did it benefit etc. Also, in a country with a deep-rooted system of social hierarchy, it is possible that a particular invention benefited only the upper classes of Indian society and did not reach the masses. Similarly, an innovation made by an ordinary villager, however revolutionary it might have been, if not recognized by the ruling elite, would have probably not spread or survived beyond his own home, as it often happens even today. (5) It is also possible that a scientific idea or invention described in an old treatise was only an idea or wish, and not really tried out practically. Many of our ancient writers (as they were writing in praise of the rulers) use hyperbole and exaggerated claims about their times to please their patrons. Even if some surprising advances (such as in aviation or atomic sciences) were made in the past, why did they fail to survive and benefit the society to this day? There are many questions, and whatever claim we make today about the past has to be questioned and investigated using scientific methods of research and not believed (or boasted about) blindly. Let us start with some writings that we have found for you.

The following list will keep expanding and updating, although it is still not in a proper academic reference style. We have tried to feature the most authentic research that uses trustworthy sources. But, as is the tradition in professional history writing, one should not stop at consulting just these sources. Research into history is an unending process – there is always room for finding more knowledge and data which can either strengthen the present theory or completely contradict it. So please read/consult these and allow your appetite for knowledge to grow more. (And please actually READ them, not just download and be happy about it). You can also suggest to us some more interesting links and essays that are not featured here:

Some general sources on History of Indian Science:

Critique/coverage of the recent events:

(Last update: 12 Dec, 2015) Please report if you find any dead links. This site is constantly in progress.

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