Arguably the first book on the subject, structured as a classroom tool
Introduction to Indian Knowledge System: Concepts and Applications: B.Mahadevan, Vinayak Raj Bhat and Nagendra Pavana R.N. (authors); PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd., Delhi; May 2022; Print: Rs 795; e-book: Rs 795; Publisher’s sales link
Reviewed by Anand Parthasarathy
This review has appeared in an edited form in the July 2022 issue of Science Reporter.
July 4, 2022: Most nations highlight their own achievements in all fields of enterprise , when it comes to educating their young people. They see no conflict between opening minds to a world view even while stressing their own heritage.
In India, especially when imparted in English, has largely drawn on western source material which has tended to overlook many significant innovations across a wide swath of fields and disciplines, which had had their roots in what is broadly called the indigenous or indic culture.
In my own short exposure to metallurgy as part of my engineering graduate course, I learned of the achievements of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, centred around Britain and the Ruhr in Germany, the world’s first iron bridge across the Severn river in the UK built in the mid 18th century and the Bessemer process of steel-making that dates to the 1840s. But I had no awareness that the technology of fabricating corrosion-resistant iron had been perfected in India by the 5th century CE ( formerly know as AD), of which an exemplar is the Iron Pillar in Delhi, still in existence, whose inscription dates it to the Gupta era and the reign of Vikramaditya ( 375-414 CE). (see illustration above)
In my telecommunications courses, I had to read all about Marconi’s work in wireless and the Nobel Prize-winning semiconductor work of Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain in the 1950s, but was unaware that Jagdish Chandra Bose’s work on microwaves was contemporaneous with Marconi and had earned him a patent from the US patent office as early as 1901, for his pioneering work on semiconductor diode.
Happily, students of the liberal arts, history and culture, have always had the opportunity to learn about and appreciate Indian contributions to be found in epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, Patanjali’s Yogasutras, Bharata’s Natyasastra on dance, Kautilya’s Arthasastra on economics, Sushruta’s Sushruta Samhita on medicine and surgery, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi on Sanskrit grammar….
To compile and document all such contributions by Indian brains, to knowledge in the arts, science and engineering, across a very wide time frame from Vedic times (generally accepted to be 5000- 3500 BCE) right up to the 17th century CE, in a single volume, is a challenging task. To do this with academic rigour and objectivity, while eschewing any temptation to cross the lakshman rekha between fact and mythology is doubly daunting. The three authors of this book have accomplished this task with style and distinction.
And they have gone a step further: creating chapter summaries, review questions, references and suggestions to trigger further interest, so that the book becomes a handy guide and text for students. This will prove timely: because the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), has recently included a mandatory non-credit course on Indian Knowledge Systems for all technical and engineering higher education in India from the new academic year. This book is the primary resource for such a course.
The book has three sections:
Part 1 introduces Indian Knowledge Systems, treating the vedic corpus, philosophical systems and wisdom through the ages. The four Vedas, their upavedas, the puranas and itihas (stories and anecdotes) ,dharma sastra (principles) were systematically organized into 14 major divisions of a knowledge framework, known as chaturdasa vidyasthana. In effect the oral tradition of the Vedas, already conceived of an overarching system of knowledge with multiple components.
Prof Nagendra Pavana explains that this is the rationale for titling the book ‘Indian Knowledge System” in the singular, rather than using the more common phrase, ‘knowledge systems’. In the vedic age they perceived all the knowledge, across disciplines , as constituents of a single whole, rather than a collection of disparate knowledge systems.
Rhythm was key to the oral tradition of those days—which led to the study of metre or chandas in poetic composition.The sage Pingalacharya in his work Chanda sastra around 300 BCE, introduces the concept of syllable: laghu ( L) and guru (G). Any poetic metre , he argued, was a combination of these two. Replace laghu with 1 and guru with 0 , it transforms into a sequence of ones and zeroes… which is the concept behind the binary system , computational mathematics – and digital computers. Pingala analysed a wide range of such combinatorial problems in poetic metre. Today we see the astounding similarity with modern binary tables.
The second part is titled ‘Foundational concepts for Science and Technology’. It covers areas like linguistics and the number systems. In the second century BCE Panini composed 3983 rules or sutras to accommodate all patterns and variations of the Sanskrit language. Language processing and word -generation were strictly rule-based. Panini employs many interesting data structures and computational elements that are echoed in modern computer systems, specifically in the area known as natural language processing (NLP)
The chapter on number systems, brings out the fascinating work of Bhaskaracharya in the 12 th century CE, in Sidddhanta –siromani, specifically the part titled lilavati, which anticipates the decimal system, by listing numbers from 1 to 1017
The third section will appeal to the book’s target audience: it is titled ‘ Science and Engineering ‘.It has a chapter on mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, and town planning.
The maths tradition on the subcontinent, goes back 5000 years and apart from the concept of zero, includes key contributions in geometry, arithmetic, the notion of negative numbers, algebra, calculus and trigonometry. Uniquely it was considered part and parcel of life. The authors write: “Indian mathematics is a seamless blend of poetry, literature, logic and mathematical thinking weaved into a single work”. Sutras and pithy verses were used to convey complex ideas and complex. Bhaskara (629 CE) in his commentary on Aryabhata’s exposition of the square of a number, provides an algorithm to find the square in the form of a verse in Sanskrit. The book analyses the verse and lays out the mathematical rigour in all its poetic elegance. The authors point to the Baudhayana-sulba-sutra circa 800 BCE, which lays out the properties of a right angled triangle in explicit detail. Pythagoras is generally credited with this theorem. The book states without comment that the Greek mathematician lived and presumably did his work between 570 and 495… some 300 years later.
As Prof S. Sadagopan, former director, IIIT-Bangalore, says in a perceptive foreword, the strength of the book is not in recalling the legacy of ancient India in yoga, ayurveda, economics (arthasastra) and the like, which, are pretty well documented, but in identifying lesser known but equally fascinating contributions : Narada’s Shilpasastra (architecture), Bhoja’s Yuktikalpataru (ship building), Rasa Ratna Samuccaya (metallurgy)…
Wootz Steel was a uniquely Indian process of making steel, dating back to 700 BCE, which was widely used in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions to manufacture swords. The word ‘Wootz’ is likely drawn from the Tamil ‘wook’, root word for urukku or alloy. Between 12th and17th centuries CE, lakhs of ‘Made-in-India’ wootz ingots were exported from the Coromandel coast to Persia, for making the renowned Damascus sword. The physical structures that make up heritage sites from the Nalanda University ( 5th- 12th century CE), Ajanta and Ellora ( 6th - 2nd century CE), Khajuraho (950-1050 CE) as well as the mighty south Indian temples of the Chola, Pandya and Pallava kings including Brihadeeswara or the Big Temple in Thanjavur ( 1003-1010 CE), represent marvels of architecture and civil engineering that challenge our understanding even today
The final section of the book deals with Humanities and Social Sciences, including governance, health and wellness. Thanks to the global recognition of the merits of ayurveda, ancient works like ashtanga hridayam , “the heart of the 8 branches ( of ayurveda)” dating back to 7th century CE, have received a new lease of life. The book is today, the root source of ayurvedic protocol especially for the Kerala school of the Science.
The authors have --depending on their areas of expertise - contribute to different portions of the book. Together they bring these ancient contributions alive. And by sticking rigorously to facts and authentic sources-- and avoiding any hint of hype, they have created what is unarguably a worthy testament to knowledge that spans centuries – and has the unique DNA of India.