Custom Search

Authors clockwise from top left: B.Mahadevan, Vinayak Raj Bhat and Nagendra Pavana R.N
This book documents India’s rich heritage of knowledge

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.