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Indian Foundations of Modern Science

Scholars see India and Greece as the two principal birthplaces of science. School textbooks tell us about Pythagoras, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, and Ptolemy, geometry of the Vedic altars, the invention of zero in India, Yoga psychology, and Indian technology of steel-making that went into the manufacture of the best swords. But if you take the trouble of reading scholarly books, articles and encyclopedias, you will find that in many ways the early Indian contributions are the more impressive for they include a deep theory of mind, Pāṇini’s astonishing Sanskrit grammar, binary numbers of Piṅgala, music theory, combinatorics, algebra, earliest astronomy, and the physics of Kaṇāda with its laws of motion.

Of these, Kaṇāda is the least known. He may not have presented his ideas as mathematical equations, but he attempted something that no physicist to date has dared to do: he advanced a system that includes space, time, matter, as well as observers. He also postulated four types of atoms, two with mass (that turn out to be like proton and electron) and two with little mass (like the modern neutrino and photon), and the idea of invariance. A thousand or more years after Kaṇāda, Āryabhaṭa postulated that earth rotated and advanced the basic idea of relativity of motion.

And then there is India’s imaginative literature, which includes the Epics, the Purāṇas and the Yoga Vāsiṣṭha (perhaps the greatest novel ever written), that speaks of time travel, airplanes, exoplanets (that is many solar-like systems), cloning of embryos, sex change, communication over distances, and weapons that can destroy everything. Some nationalists take these statements to mean the literal scientific truth, which claim is ridiculed by their political opponents who then use this broad brush to tar all Indian science.

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