Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Scientific Legacy

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Scientific Legacy

Article excerpt

IT has long been wrongly assumed that the idealistic-even mysticalpredilections of Indian thought must have hindered the objective observation and study of Nature. But a metaphysics which asserts that only the Infinite Divine has absolute reality can also accept the relative reality of the material world seen from a practical, empirical perspective.

The Indian tradition assumes that everything in the universe is significant to some degree, and hence deserves careful study. In recent years India's contribution to the positive sciences, such as engineering, metallurgy, chemistry and above all mathematics, astronomy and medicine, has gained wide recognition. Some writers have indulged in uncritical glorification of "ancient wisdom", which is supposed to have anticipated the most advanced research of modern science. But a more balanced estimate is gradually emerging.

Indian mathematics go back to the Vedic age, when the construction of arenas for sacrificial ritual demanded accurate measurements. Pride of place in Indian mathematics goes to Aryabhatta (late fifth century AD) who elaborated the decimal system which had been devised by his predecessors. Other famous names are those of Brahmagupta, Mahavira and Bhaskara (of the seventh, ninth and twelfth centuries respectively). They understood the significance of positive and negative quantities, solved many complex equations, and evolved methods of extracting square roots and cube roots.

They showed profound insight into the implications of zero (shunya) and of infinity. Bhaskara proved matheniatically that infinity, however divided, remains infinite-a truth which had been accepted on the metaphysical plane as early as the 6th century BC in the Upanishads.

The Arabs are widely believed to have adopted from the Indians the decimal system using the zero, and passed it on to European scientists. India thus provided indirectly the mathematical foundation without which many important advances in Western science and technology would not have been possible.

In the field of astonomy, Aryabhatta again emerges as a revolutionary genius. He determined the length of the solar year as 365.3596805 days, which is remarkably close to the modern estimate. …

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