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A Brief History of Indian Science

To consider the history of Indian science, one must first know why most educated people know little about it. The reasons go back to the disastrous nature of the British Raj, which it is estimated cost India $45 trillion dollars of wealth, and led to the destruction of native industry and education systems. The literacy rate in India on the British watch declined from an estimated 70% to just 12% with a near-complete loss of memory of its previous condition. Britain also foisted false narratives of history on India. The curricula that were introduced in school and college were not linked to India’s own scholarly tradition so much so that Indians came to believe India had no tradition of science.

India was the world’s leading nation in science before the Middle Ages. Sa’id al-Andalusi, who, in 1068 in Muslim Spain, wrote Ṭabaqāt al-ʼUmam (Categories of Nations) to assess the sciences of different nations, says that the sciences, particularly mathematics and astronomy, are most advanced in India (calling it the first nation). Indian technology was flourishing before the arrival of the British. Economists aver that India’s share of the world economy in 1800 was nearly 25 percent and by the time the British left it had shrunk to about 2 percent.

Ship building required the most advanced skills in the pre-industrial revolution age, and Abraham Parsons, a British traveler, described India’s prowess in this field in1775 thus: “Ships built at Bombay are not only as strong, but as handsome, are as well finished as ships built in any part of Europe; the timber and plank, of which they are built, so far exceeds any in Europe for durability.”

In some ways Indian shipbuilding technology was ahead of the European, for in the assessment by historian Dieter Schlingloff : “The ancient Indian merchant ships differed from the Roman merchant ships in one respect, namely in their multiple masts. While in the entire European area the ships only possessed a single mainsail (and at best a fore-and-aft sail) right up to the late Middle Ages, in India two, and later three sails were common. Of course, the home territory of the Indian seafarers was not an inland sea like the Mediterranean, but the Indian Ocean. Hence they developed a sophisticated system of sails which in number of sails was only matched and surpassed by the explorers’ ships of the I5th century.


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