Recently I had a choice to make. In my final year of engineering, I was offered a range of subject specialisations from which I had to select one. On the list I found a subject, which many others appeared to have overlooked. Titled 'Traditional Indian Science and Technology', the name caught my attention and aroused my curiosity. I began to wonder about its relevance and application in today's age. To my surprise, this course opened a whole new world for me. I thought I had dived into a pool, but it turned out to be an ocean of knowledge! For past few months, I have been studying this subject religiously. So here I am, sharing my experience.
Bharatvarsha is the land of knowledge and culture. Visit any village of my country and you will find some very old useful practice being performed there that defies logic. For instance, try out the medical treatment that your grandmother gives for migraine. India, through ages has been the magical land of knowledge. The land that has given birth to teachers like the sage Chanakya, who was successful in stopping the invasion of Alexander the Great. Imagine the power that one brain possessed to stop the great warrior who captured the great kingdoms of Persia and Egypt.
The western education system is based on the concept of ‘Vidya’. Vidya is attained by attaching one’s mind to the senses; namely sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Let me introduce you to the concept of ‘Jnana’. For ages, Indians acquired knowledge by the attainment of jnana. In India gaining of knowledge was phrased as the ‘realization of truth’. Worthy people realized the truth because they could handle it! They went into deep meditation in search of answers to questions that troubled them. Each of these sages was a ‘Buddha’, seeking answers to his questions. Jnana could only be attained by detaching one’s mind from senses and searching within. The ancient Indian mathematicians, astrologers, architects, surgeons were all sages. They spent years meditating in search of Jnana.
Coming back to mathematics in India, let me make a bold claim. Indians did not just discover zero, they actually discovered mathematics! When the rest of the world was a herd of nomads fighting each other, the subcontinent of Bharatwarsha chanted with vedic mantras. Knowledge flowed like a river in my country.
Indian mathematics dates back to the 28th century BC, when mathematicians of the Indus valley civilization used a decimal system of weights and measures. By 18th century BC, Indian mathematicians were discussing the concept of infinity. The Yajur veda states that “if you remove a part from infinity or add a part to infinity, what remains is infinity.” The Jain text Surya Prajinapti defines five kinds of infinity - an infinite line beginning from an endpoint, an infinite line stretching in both the directions, an infinite plane, an infinite universe, and the infinity of time. Indians discovered zero and infinity, and everything within.
Geometry was never far behind. Astronomy in ancient India was a direct derivation of geometry. The 13th century BC sage Lagadha used geometry to write a book of rules on the movement of the sun and moon. In 8th century BC, sage Baudhayana introduced the concept of quadratic equations, and calculated the square root of two. In the 3rd century BC, Sage Pingalacharya used zero for the first time, and represented it with a dot. He also presented a description of a binary numeral system without which computers would be non-existent today! Sage Aryabhatta introduced trigonometry, among many other things. He also gave a value of p accurate to four decimal places, and obtained whole number solutions to linear equations. This method is followed to this day date by mathematicians across the world. It was us who devised calculus, theory, probability theory, complex numbers, logarithm and algebra. I will stop here. The list though, is endless.
No wonder then, that the greatest mathematicians across the world have rightfully recognized India’s huge contribution. Albert Einstein once said, “We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.” That is the beauty, the pride of being an Indian.
So, by the time the world started rediscovering mathematics, India had reached the zenith of knowledge. In fact, most of the rediscovery in the Middle Ages happened the “[ctrl + C] way” as we were open to sharing knowledge. It is unfortunate that India’s contribution to mathematics never received full acknowledgment in modern history, and that much of them were attributed to their Western counterparts. This mass plagiarism went unrecognized due to Euro centrism. What is more unfortunate is that even we, the sons and daughters of the same land, have bought into this rewriting of history.