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India's schoolbook histories

By Subhash Kak
August 22, 2003 15:29 IST
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Living as we do in the multicultural age, it is not fashionable to speak of the soul of a nation. But by examining a nation's achievements, one can form an idea of the moving spirit behind its history.

A strong ideological position or cultural prejudice may make a person denigrate achievements in the fields of art or philosophy. Thus early nineteenth century English historians, unable to judge Indian sculpture using Western canon with its notion of progress, dismissed Indian art.

India's contributions to science, technology and crafts are well documented, if not widely known. For example, before the British arrived, Indians had a system of inoculation against smallpox; year-old live smallpox matter was used, and it was very effective. Tikadars would fan out into the country before the smallpox season in the winter. The British doctor J Z Holwell wrote a book in 1767 describing the system and how it was safe. European medicine did not have any treatment against this disease at that time.

Inoculation against smallpox using cowpox was demonstrated by Edward Jenner in 1798 and it became a part of Western medicine by 1840. No sooner did that happen that the British in India banned the older method of vaccination, without making certain that sufficient number of inoculators in the new technique existed. Smallpox in India became a greater scourge than before.

India's technology was flourishing before the British. It has been estimated that India's share of world trade in 1800 was about 20 percent (equal to America's share of world trade in 2000). The historian Ruttonjee Wadia says that ships built at Mumbai in its heyday were 'vastly superior to anything built anywhere else in the world.' According to Dharampal, there were 10,000 iron and steel furnaces operating in the eighteenth century India.

The story of the destruction of India's textile industry by the British is too well known to need repeating. The British became masters of India at a very opportune time. First, they cut off India's export markets. Soon the innovations of the dawning industrial revolution gave their products a cost advantage that became permanent in the absence of new investments to upgrade Indian factories.

As India became de-industrialised, it turned into a huge monopoly market for British products. British Raj made token investments in science and technology. In 1920, India's scientific services had a total of 213 scientists of whom 195 were British!

But this story of India's economic decline (and the loss of memory of its previous condition) is a complex one. Here, I would like to speak of scientific progress alone, a unique measure of a culture that can be appreciated by all, even those whose ideology or experience of art and aesthetics is different.

Suppose you were offered a history of the English without reference to Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell or of the Americans without mention of Edison, Michelson, or Feynman, you would say it overlooks the real genius of these nations. Youth in these countries brought up without the stories of these masters would not be quite English or American in spirit.

Given this, why is it that Indian schools leave out mention of India's great scientists from its textbooks? Most readers of this column will have heard only one or two names of the greatest Indian scientists and mathematicians: Lagadha, Baudhayana, Panini, Pingala, Aryabhata, Bhaskara, Madhava, Nilakantha, whose ideas have shaped the world.

Who are these people? Lagadha wrote the first astronomical text in 1300 BC. Baudhayana (800 BC) gave the 'Pythagoras theorem' centuries before the Greek. Panini (400 century BC) has been called the greatest genius who ever lived: his grammar of the Sanskrit language is exhaustive and yet it uses only 4,000 computer program-like rules. Pingala (400 BC) invented the binary number system (counting by 0s and 1s) that, 2,500 years later, turned out to be basic to computer operations.

The astronomers Aryabhata and Bhaskara may be familiar to some from the eponymous spacecrafts of the Indian Space Organization. Aryabhata (500 AD) took the earth to spin on its axis and he described the planet periods with reference to the sun. He also took the solar system to be several hundred million miles across. In all of these things he was ahead of the rest of the world by more than a thousand years. Bhaskara (12th century) was a brilliant mathematician.

The last two names belong to the amazing Kerala school of mathematics and astronomy. Mâdhava (c 1340-1425) and Nîlakantha (c 1444-1545), who made fundamental contributions to power series, calculus and astronomy, are amongst the greatest scientists who have ever lived. Their invention of calculus came two hundred years before Newton and Leibnitz.

Three British historians have recently suggested that Kerala mathematics may have provided key ideas for the scientific revolution in Europe. The need for clocks to keep accurate time on ships became of critical importance after the colonisation of America. There were significant financial rewards for new navigation techniques. These historians argue that information was sought from India due to the prestige of the eleventh century Arabic translations of Indian navigational methods. They suggest that Jesuit missionaries were the intermediaries in the diffusion of Kerala mathematical ideas into Europe.

The only rational explanation for leaving out mention of India's great scientists from schoolbooks appears either to be bureaucratic sloth in the centralised textbook writing agency or the internalisation by Indians of the ideology of British colonialists who justified the Empire on the ground that India had a lot of religion but no science, thus being incapable of self-rule.

Macaulay's programme to estrange Indians from their culture has been so successful that most textbook authors are not even aware of the Kerala school, or of Pingala and Panini's scientific contributions. Many who are passionate in their love for India are so misguided by the prestige of the Orientalist narratives that they believe that Madhava and Nilakantha are fictional characters, product of a conspiracy to create an imagined greatness for ancient India.

To me, India represents the spirit of excellence and pursuit of beauty and truth in art and science. There is nothing parochial about this idea; it is inspiring, and it helps us find our common ground with all humanity. Our schools must celebrate this spirit and remembering great masters is a part of the process. Making peace with the past will make it easier to move on with the business of creating a great future for everyone.

External Link:

Ian Pearce's history of Indian mathematics

Subhash Kak, professor at Louisiana State University, will contribute a monthly column to

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Subhash Kak