A glimpse of what the history of science would look like if it wasn’t opposed to the “H” word

Ancient Hindu science: its impact on the ancient and modern world. Alok Kumar. Jaico Publishing House. Pages 212. Rs 410.

There is a renewed interest in the non-Eurocentric historiography of science these days. Science historian Joseph Needham has emphasized the contribution of Chinese civilization to the global process and institution we call science today. Studies have also highlighted the contributions of Native Americans and Africans to science.

However, the ancient Chinese civilization is no longer a living civilization. It is now a Marxist-Maoist society that has been uprooted from its Taoist-Buddhist substrate. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party passed a resolution in 1927 that China was no longer an Asian nation.

African spiritual traditions exist on the periphery and are often demonized in popular culture.

Native Americans are no longer a civilizational alternative to the dominant Western civilization.

India, on the other hand, is a living nation still clinging to its civilizational roots, despite centuries of aggressive challenges. Thus, presenting the contribution of India, and therefore of Hindus, to the sciences is problematic unless it is presented as a kind of museum exhibition. India can be presented as a “wonder that was”, but not as a living continuity. In fact, there is a particular aversion to the “H” word – Hindu.

Professor Alok Kumar faces this bias and records it in the introduction itself:

Professor Kumar is a physicist, teaching at SUNY Oswego and his book on ancient Hindu science is important for both students of Indian culture and students of the history of science.

The chapter ‘building blocks of science‘ brings together two important aspects of the Hindu worldview: inner happiness and the pursuit of truth. These two intersect at a vital point. The Hindus have understood this. Writes the physics professor:

The author rightly draws a parallel between this fundamental Hindu value and Einstein’s famous statement:

The importance of this book must be understood by the reader both in its intrinsic value and also in the larger context of the battle for narratives. For example, I had the misfortune to read the following line in a book, published by a very prestigious publishing house, concerning the discovery of zero:

The reader should forgive the reviewer for going from the sublime to the obscenely ridiculous, but the above passage was written by an academic who is regularly quoted by historians of a particular mainstream school in India and the academic also regularly honors televised debates when he is not testifying against India in human rights commissions in the United States. This is the norm of the discourse of the historiography of science with regard to ancient India.

Now read what Professor Alok Kumar writes:

One can now understand the value and importance of the book in the larger context of narrative construction as well as in terms of its intrinsic value.

The chapter on mathematics also contains a section on how Indian ideas traveled to Europe and fertilized the mathematical conceptions of late medieval Christianity. Thus, the Hindu contribution to the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, especially in terms of fundamental mathematical ideas, from Hindu numerals to the Madhava series of Kerala mathematicians, is a subject that should be studied by historians and highlighted. in our history books.

In the chapter on astronomy again, the book brings out a stimulating picture. The way Hindu astronomers combine beautiful poetic examples with their findings deserves study by modern popular science writers:

Instead of giving hindsight interpretations, the author gives proof of the claims through the statements of non-Indian scholars like Strabo and Al-Biruni. Its very important. In the chapter on physics also, it is under the authority of Al-Biruni that the author notes the following:

The chapter on biology deserves some attention here. Hindus are quite comfortable with evolution as a people. Pew polls often point to the fact that Hindus and Buddhists are the largest religious groups that don’t find evolution uncomfortable. At the same time, the author makes an important point that “ancient Hindus systematically studied various forms of life and noticed interdependencies and commonalities between them‘ (p. 218).

Although Hindus have a strong conceptual notion of natural evolution due to the Sankhya Darshana, the book is silent on this vital subject.

The book deals in detail with the work of Acharya JC Bose. The concept of plant soul was also part of pre-Christian Western philosophy and it existed in some way in the peripheral memories of Western thought, even during medieval and late Christianity. However, it was Charles Darwin who, together with his son Francis Darwin, came up with what was then (and perhaps even now) a bold hypothesis – the root brain hypothesis.

Bose, while a student in England, definitely came into contact with Francis Darwin as a teacher. While British physiologists and botanists had mental blocks exploring the cognitive abilities of plants as forming a continuum with the mental life we ​​see in the animal kingdom, Bose had no such mental inhibitions. Vedanta provided him with the sense of unity and Darwinian science reinforced the Vedantic view.

Bose actually openly expressed this Vedantic view of non-duality. This is then the importance of Bose. One can be sure that later editions of the book will have added chapters/sections on evolution and ecology.

The book also deals with the global impact of the natural philosophical conceptions of Hindus. The chapter has two sections. One deals with the ancient period and the other with the modern period. The latter again has two sections – one dealing with transcendental motion and the other with the impact on modern physics. The focus is on Erwin Schrödinger. And rightly so.

The book ends with a moving appeal to the reader:

This is indeed as important as the rest of the book and carries a vital message for young students of the history of science and also for educators. Understanding as well as highlighting the Hindu contribution is important as it is a constructive and corrective measure. This is not a way to claim cultural superiority. Nor is it a claim of religious chauvinism. Instead, it will make science a more universal, inclusive human enterprise that belongs to all of humanity.