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Indian Journal of History of Science, 33(3) t"998



(Received 9 June 1998; after revision 31 August 1998)

Discussions on the History of Science and Technology in India often uncritically conflate three separate notions into one. (i) techniques to deal with matter, (ii) techniques of thinking and generalization, and (iii) the universalizing model of western Science - though intimately related in real history. should be dealt with separately as analytical tools. This paper emphasizes the second notion, to trade the history in its proper epistemological and ontological perspective.

Keeping in mind the fragmentary nature of Indian society cutting across caste, class and other boundaries, the paper seeks to transcend the unitary model of 'Indian Science' based on elite thought worlds, to approach the rich heritage of the practitioners - the artisans, the doctors and the like.

Key words; Historiography, History, India, Knowledge, Science.

Histories are after all, (mental) constructs.' The histories of the Sciences are no exceptions. As such, notions of "Science and Technology" which these histories deploy are analytical constructs too. Yet they are often treated uncritically by the historian of Sciences. If analysed, at least three layers of meaning would emerge. Rather, we have discerned three of the many possible layers. Others might come up with alternative, more acute and accurate analyses.

(i) In discussions of the history of Science and Technology sometimes we take into consideration the techniques to deal with matter as measures of development in a society. This is the first meaning we are speaking of. Technologies of mineral extraction, empirical medicinal therapy and astronomical observations are examples. Specially while dealing with ancient civilisations where the other two layers are apparently not so well developed, this layer of meaning predominates in discussion. The s;ategory matter is dealt in this proposition in an uncritical common sense manner. One really cannot problemetise all the complexities in the short span of a paper like this.

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(ii) The second meaning would be at a more abstract level. We could call it techniques of generalisation and thinking. Theories regarding the nature of materials, astronomy or primitive medical theories as well as mathematics or linguistics would qualify. These generalizations in the ancient and medieval societies might not tally with modern theories in the respective fields. Mostly they would be part of larger world views encompassing religion and ethics. This paper would put stress on dealing with Science and Technology at this level of meaning.

At this juncture we could point out that the three levels of meaning we are talking about do not form water tight compartments. In the history of sciences they remain interlinked, they mingle with each other, they constitute each other. No technique of dealing with matter can exist without a (may be primordial) kind of theorisation regarding matter and methods. Both these layers in turn anticipate to some extent, the third meaning which we are about to discuss. Yet, as analytic tools, these three remain separate. Presence of a given technique does not presuppose knowledge of related materials as socially valid form of knowledge. More often than not. it is the other way round. Technologies exist for ages before being theorised.2 Sometimes, technologies exist without being socially used or accepted. The watermill in medieval Europe would be a case in point. It took almost a millenium after its appearance to come to social use.] This is specially applicable before the coming of the modern age, when know ledges were local, often parochial and not yet commoditised to the extent as now. This does not wholly negate the transmission of know ledges across social and geographical boundaries. It only stresses the

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(iii) Scientific thinking par se, in the model of Modern (Western) Science is [he commonest meaning of Science and Technology to be used in the history of Sciences, and the third in our enumeration. Emphasis is on the reduction of ancient or medieval scientific thinking to the mere anticipation of modern scientific thought. The degree of anticipation becomes the parameter of development of such thinking. This calls for a more detailed discussion. We recall the famous debate on the scientificity of Indian classical heritage between Meghnad Saha and Anilbaran Roy in the pages of Bharatbarsha in 1939-40, (not as famous as it should be in view of its importance in the history of Sciencesl.i Contrary to Saha's primary arguments, Roy claimed classical Vedic tradition to have anticipated certain results of modern science, specially relating to astronomy, the theory of evoultion and the theory of indeterminacy in the Physical Sciences. Saha came out thrashing Roy's propositions, pointing out the fallacy in equating random speculations with scientifically thought out



and experimentally verified results. An elaborate enumeration of astronomy and philosophical thought in ancient India accompanied his arguments. He ended in a vein of discarding Hindu's heaven, in favour of the scientist's hell. What seems significant is that for both Saha and Roy the point of contention is anticipation of results of modern science by ancient Hindu philosophy. Even as perceptive a man as Saha did not come out with views relating to the level of theorisation and general concepts - the Second level of meaning in our scheme, which could stretch the field of discussion beyond the simple good/ bad dichotomy. We could note here that in another essay. 'Science and Religion' (1937), he had pondered over the possibility of extending the field of knowledge to new territories of relationships with society and nature, by making religion more scientific. Recent references to this debate also put stress on the overwhelming rationality ofSaha' s position remaining blind to alternative explanations.

N. Sivin, discussing Chinese Science and emphasising the futility of teleological questions like the (7) absence of Scientific revolution in China, offers the case of Shen Kua( 1031-1095 AD), one ofthe most versatile figures in the history of Chinese science. He describes Shen Kua's understandings as "ways that did intimately associate what today would be considered scientific with what would be called grossly superstitious so the distinction between Science, proto-science, pseudo-science, and non-science simply gets in the way of understanding the articulation of (his) thought ......... (he) devoted about as much space in his memoirs to stories that involve strange happenings. predestination, prognostication, and divination, as to accounts that we would relate to science and technology". In this context. Sivin concludes - "what finally united the sciences, ...... was the universal system of knowledge uniting intellection, imagination. and intuition - of which they constituted only a part ... sometimes to look at the sciences alone is to look too closely."

Sivin's argument here brings out one salient feature of our own position. When we reconstruct the thought-worlds of the past, we do that through the grid of the paradigms of today' s thinking. That does not necessarily lead to the value-judgement of past achievements with modern yardsticks.

To digress a little, elements of modern science was present in ancient and medieval Indian Scientific thinking to a great extent. The works of Debiprosad Chattopadhyay ' have brought this out poignantly. Elements of rational materialism have been unearthed from the utterings ofUddalaka - Aruni in the Upanishads to the Lokayata Philosophers. From the Ayurveda texts to the Tantrika heritage - matter being given priority to spirit - elements of such materialist thinking have been found. Rasendra Chintamani by Ramachandra and Rasa-Prakasa-Sudhakara by Yasadhara of the medieval age were quoted by P.c. Roy and referred by D.P. Chattapodhyay for their stress on experiments and observation as basis of knowledge. Two points are to be remembered in this respect.



(i) Presence of 'elements' of modern Science in certain texts does not indicate their appreciation and / or important role in society. Rather, this might be symptomatic of a lack of social acceptance. This would shift our attention to social factors in the development or change in Science and Technology.'

(ii) To recall Sivin's analysis, this unearthing of scientific elements may well be the result of our own inability to place them in proper perspective. The systems of know ledge comprising of these elements along with the other proto/pseudo/ non-scientific categories have their own dynamics. That would rather be the object of our interest. In tum, this might deepen our insight into the system of knowledge which we inhabit, bringing out the specificities of its own dynamics.

All this time, we have never stated our own definition of modern science. We will not define it in detail. Probably out of incompetence. Only certain of the characteristics will be enumerated, some of which might have been indicated in our discussion before. As a form of knowledge, natural philosophy, Science, is singular. It allows progressive sharpening and correction, but not plurality. Quantification is important and Mathematics is the Queen of Sciences. Reproducibility under controlled conditions is another hallmark. This enables it to accurate prediction. Science involves a unique 'economy of effort'. As a whole, it is in search of facts - facts that are public, verifiable, morally neutral, invariant with social position of observer, immune from supernatural interference like that of GodY

With these in mind, we now address another notion which remains problematic in the present paradigm of the history of sciences in India. We invoke the fragmentary nature of society cutting across caste, class and other boundaries. Unlike the dominant western discourse of 'Science', the discourse of science in India would likely be fragmentary, localised. More often than not, it would refuse unitary universalistic orderings. This is true not only with the techniques to deal with matter - our first level of meaning - but also at the second level, at the level of systems of knowledge, the techniques of generalisation and thinking. The present habit of equating the dominant Sanskritic mode of thinking with 'Indian knowledge' reflects our bias to construction of unitary systems of knowledge vis-a-vis fragmentary approaches. This is not to discard all sorts of generalization in histrory. Our attempt is to indicate limitations of and the risks associated with an over-emphsis on universal, general trends at the cost of the particular, the fragments of history. The reductionism inherent in the process leads to coercivenesses. We do not posit pure, authentic 'parts' against a 'pure' unity, for the parts are inconceivable without the whole and vice versa. We only try to shift the emphasis of the discussion from the whole to the parts. '0

The Aryan myth is, till date, a much contested field of Indian historiography. The debate is so charged with politics, with emotions of origin, identity and collective aspirations, and facts are so sparse, it is near impossible to deal with it in a balanced



manner. We would only refer to two articles from both of which we take parts of our argument and finally come uR with our own. In the present field of contestation, we take the side of Arun Kr. Biswas I to a large extent. That "(1) the Rgvedic civilization may be regarded as autochthonous unless it is proven otherwise, (2) the dubious paradigm of the Aryan invasion or intrusion into Iran and India, any time during the pre-historic past, is far from proven ..... ", we perfectly agree with 12 . Yet, we feel the whole field of contestation to be sterile. To quote a recent article by Romila Thapar. 13 "The insistence on differentiating betwen the alien/foreign and the indigeneous is historically untenable

for earlier times Indigenous and foreign as notions are. neither permanent nor

unchanging nor transparent. The identities of the indigene and the alien are constantly mutated throughout history. 'It is more pertinent to analyse the major historical processes of early times, namely, the emergence of dominant groups - the aryas, and the subordination of others referred to as Shudras and Dasas". Biswas himself refers to the prolonged civil war between the Harappan people and the Rgvedic people, endowed with definite cultural and socio-economic differences. He speaks of the differences in the religious beliefs, that is, their different belief systems. We extend this argument towards a more fragmentary approach, in search of different knowledge systems which interact at different levels, some of them giving rise to the dominant Sanskritic mode of thought, of course with gaps of contestations here and there. A great many others exist outside, at the margins of the dominant knowledge system. All this interact with each other (and in tum with the modem science and technology when it appears in the Indian scene).

The process of interaction, though continuous, would have some moments of intensifications, moments of leaps, which would help us identify their specific characteristics. Only a detailed meticulous analysis in this vein could give clue to a solution to the problem we now attack - the problem of decline of science and technology from some time at about the second half of the first millenium AD.

The statement of the problem in this form presupposes a progessi vist outlook, often associated with the third layer of meaning we have enumerated. Our stress being on the second layer, does not preclude progress in science in the sense of subsequent step depending upon the preceding one. It is value neutral in that it does not evaluate earlier science by the measure of modern developments. It situates the knowledge of science and technology within the totality of the knowledge system of the epoch, and tries to trace the paradigm shifts in the vein of Thomas Kuhn. 14 The paradigm shifts mayor may not be seen as approaching more correct levels of truth. That question we do not deal with in this paper. We humbly point out certain alternative ways that may enrich our insight into the subject. 15 That there was dearth of new theorisations in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, medicine, the physical sciences in India, almost everyone agrees. Instead, there was the enumeration and commentaries of earlier theories, barring a few exceptional individuals like Bhaskar (12th century AD).



Our first point is, this does not indicate a lack of techniques to deal with matter. To the contrary, the techniques continued and developed till very recent dates. Zinc and iron metullargy were leaders in the world. 16 A recent article by Andre Gunder Frank 17 provocatively argues that Indian technology and Industry, held much higher place vis-a-vis Europe till 18th Century. So much so that a positive balance of trade persisted in favour of India.

The above fact should shift our attention from the hitherto much discussed elite Sanskritic traditions of know ledge to the neglected, fragmentary yet effective know ledge of the artisans (though at a less mediate level). We quote Prof. A.K. Biswas when he

speaks of our " legitimate pride in the indigeneous industries and traditions in

pre-modem India", and points out that " the bulk of the credit goes to the

indomitable artisans representing so many, castes, religions, languages and subcultures. They exhibited gallant and persistent craftsmanship. Their vitality was sustained through centuries and could not be extinguished either by the Hindu obscurantism, Muslim fundamentalism or the British colonialism. 18

Discussions in medieval science and technology centres around the changes in the dominent ethos, value-systems and knowledge systems exemplified by the interaction of Hindu Sanskritic traditions with social upheavals, mobilities, invasions of the Muslims, etc. The degree to which these affected the flow of life and knowledge systems of the practitioners of material culture is to be investigated. The earlier notion of static Asiatic Society unchanged by political upheavals has been replaced by models of dynamic change. But the changes are yet sought after in the variations of the unitary elite thought-worlds. Discussions abound in whether the Vedantic tradition itself or the effect of Muslim invasions on that tradition, or both together are responsible for lack of dynamism in theorisation. Time has come to question and analyse the effect of this lack of elite theorisation on the everyday practices of and Theories of Technology. The status of texts like Rasendracintamani (earlier referred to in this article) or certain Ayurvedic and Tantric texts that stresses on material culture, experimentation and observation, are to be explored. In the established traditions of know ledge they might reside as esoteric subalterns, yet in every day practices and knowledge systems of the common people they might have a greater hold. In the context of medieval societies, this disjunction between really existing and recorded status of knowledge would be a strong probability as transmission of knowledge was much slower than modern world, specially between different social strata. 19This is not a simple shift of focus to the 'tribal cultures'. Of course, that is one of the areas we want to highlight. More important, we emphasize the experience and practices of everyday life that elides canonization into standardized elite conceptions of the world.

The second point, following Sivin, is the importance of trying to understand the elements of modem science in the medieval world in their proper perspective.



'Observation' in Rasasiistra or materialism in Lokayata philosophies should be placed in the perspective when the prevailing thought systems did not work with the matter/ spirit or rational/irrational dichotomies. Certain historians have, of late, shown how our understanding of 'other' thought systems can be deepened when the seeming irrationality in them are taken into account along with the rational elements. Deepesh Chakraborty's brilliant monograph on Jute-Mill workers in Bengal would be a case in point.20 Of course we know that those insights will always be tainted by the colours of our own paradigms. But it would also make us a bit more conscious of the limits ofthat paradigm and the way it is affected by that 'other' consciousness of our own past.

At another level, lack of a material culture does not itself signify an inhibiting effect on the development of science. Much abnegated debates of European scholasticism like that concerning the number of angels able to dance at the tip of a needle, or that in our own tradition of the oil and the container, could develop abstract logical thinking per se. Though shifting attention away from the material world, they can sharpen the power of abstraction and logistics much needed for ushering in of scientific thought, even at the third layer of meaning.

In the present terrain of debate, another important factor enumerated is the foreign invasions which swept down from the north-west. We intend to question the emphasis. In our paradigm, the stress would be on the fragmentary knowledges of the artisans, the medical practitioner and the like. Muslim and other invasions, mostly affecting a small part in the north-western end of the sub-continent, at times impinging to Eastern and southern portions, were not confronted by only a unitary solid block of Hindu knowledge system. The unitary vedantic thought, as far as it was developed, definitely underwent a setback. More important was the destruction of great educational centres like Odantapuri. The changes in the plurality of smaller knowledge systems were mediated by these changes in the dominant one. To this extent, via the mediations do the effect of the invasions interest us. As such, the inhibiting effects of the Vedantic system itself should also be taken into account.

There are many other important problems in the history of science and technology in India, of which, perhaps the most significant is the change in our understanding of the world with the coming of the Europeans and confrontations with their knowledge system, the modern scientific world-view. Whether India could develop such and outlook on its own is a moot question, may be a sterile one. That this world view had its elements in all the developed civilisations of ancient and medieval world, has been established by now. But the exact configuration it gained during its formation in Western Europe is unique and often tainted with unhappy associations of dominance and power, is also quite clear. As such, the desirability of such a change can be questioned. In fact, questions are coming up.21 Our approach to the history of sciences can very well be applied to these and to the host of other problems. We intend to do that



in separate occasions. In this paper we are more concerned with the approach to history rather than the subject-matter of history. To recall a distinction between "a philosophy of experience, of sense and of subject and a philosophy of knowledge, of rationality and of concept",22 our emphasis here is on the second.

To conclude, we advocate a non-unitary, fragmentary appraoch for the perusal of the history of science and technology in India. The fragments would cut accross caste, class, regional and social boundaries with emphasis on the subaltern levels. That would itself lead us to treat elements of thought (Scientific or un-scientific) in their correct perspective, as parts of thought systems. Electric enumeration of inhibiting/promoting factors should give way to tracing of the internal dynamics of systems of thought and society and their interactions. Again, this is not to derogate the importance of such enumerations, but to underline the need to transcend them for a more mature and fruitful analysis. In our discussions, we have kept the analysis of social factors to a minimum. This does not mean, we don't think them to be important. Only we wish to deal with then

in a separate paper?) Marc Block once reflected, " no set of privileged causal

waves exist, no ordered consistently and universally determining facts as opposed to perpetual epiphenomena, on the contrary, any society, like any mind, is born of constant interaction. True realism in history is the knowledge that human reality is multifarious" Y We present this humble, fragmentary note to that multiverse of history.


I. This sentence does not need much elaboration. For a very simple, elementary introduction, we may refer to E.H. Carrs, What is History? Lawrence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy would be a satirical exposition of the impossibility of any history other than that affected by the choice of moments at least, by the author.

2. For detailed discussions, a number of articles in the anthology Techniques to Technology edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Pietro Redondi, may be referred to (Orient Longman) specially, Introduction by P. Redonondi, Technical Transformations as a problem of Collective Psychology (Marc Bloch), Medieval Inventions (Bloch), Reflections on the History of Technology (Lucien Febvre).

3. Ibid; The Advent and Triumph of the Watermill (Bloch).

4. A startling example of transmission and interdependance of techniques would be Alvapes' observation " ....... iron-one mined in south-eastern Africa, was forged in South-Western India, fashioned in Persia and Arabia, to end up as the weapons and chain mail of the Savacens as they faced the Crusadens'' (P. 41, 'Decolonizlng History' Claude Alvanes.1991 edition).

5. Meg/mad Rachana Sankalan (Bengali) ed: Shantimoy Chatterjee (Orient Longman).

6. Why the Scientific Revolution did not take place in China - Or didn 't it ~ - N. Sivin (The Edward H. Hume Lecture, Yale University, 1982).

7. Debiprosad Chattopadhyay - Lokayata. Science and Society in Ancient India. History of Science and Technology in Ancient India - Vol. I and Vol. II.



8. For a brief, summary discussion of the social factors, the 'Foreword' by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, to the book Techniques to Technology may be referred to. We find his views inadequate but helpful.

9. In outlining this sketch of our views, on the subject we have borrowed heavily from N.

Sivin op. cit. and Science and Western Domination by Kurt Mendelssohn (1976, Thames and Hudson, London).

10. Of late, anthropologists and sociologists have drawn our attention to the problem of constructing unitary, authentic identities and emphasized the contingent, fragmentary. shifting nature ofthe identities that are the 'objects' of their knowledge. Out of vast range of Literature, we may refer to "Local Knowledge"(Clifford Geertz. 1983). In the Indian context. see "Critical Events"(Yeena Das, 1995).

II. Arun Kumar Biswas. "The Aryan Myth". in Historical Archaeology ofIndia (ed: Amita Roy and Samir Mukherjee - Books and Books, New Delhi, 1990).

12. Ibid and Sulekha Biswas and Arun Kumar Biswas, 'History of Science in India: In the search of a Paradigm" Indian Journal of History of Science. 1989.

13. Romila Thapar, "The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics" in Social Scientist (Jan-March 1996).

14. Thomas Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" - (1962).

15. For similar discussions in the European context. with a variety of opinions mostly different from our view, the reader is referred to Techniques to Technology opcit, and 'The History of Sciences" (ed: P. Redondi and P.Y.Y. Pillai).

16. Arun Kumar Biswas, Minerals and Metals in Ancient India - See the 'Resume' for summary discussion.

17. Andre Gunder Frank, "India in the world economy, 1400-1750" (Economic and Political Weekly - July 27, 1996).

18. The concluding remarks in A.K. Biswas, Minerals and Metals in Medieval India (I Oth- 18th centuries) (Type script Pg. 83).

19. In the article mentioned in Note 16. Prof. Biswas Comments on the meagreness of basic scientific knowledge "exchanged between medieval India and outside world", We extend the statement to the different regions in the Geographical territory of today 's. India and the differing strata of society. We think the unitary paradigm in which Prof. Biswas works, has blinded him to this extension of his argument.

20. Dipesh Chakraborty. Rethinking Working Class History- (OUP).

21. Science. Hegemony and Violence ed : Ashis Nandy. (OUP 1990). For a more balanced. brief, precise statement, see Dipesh Chakraborty, "Radical Histories. Enlightenment Rationalism and Subaltern Studies" in EPW April 8, 1995,

22, Introduction by Michel Foucault to the book 011 the Normal and the Pathological by Georges Canguilhern.

23. An interesting effort to trace the ontology of the Scientific method to its social roots is to be found in "Scientific Method as Social Praxis: towards resolving the tension between Reason and Relativism" by Sukumar Muralidharan in Social Scientist (July-August 1996).

24. Marc Bloch, "Technology and Social Revolution: Reflections of a Historian". in 'Techniques to Technology", ibid.