Celebrating India’s contribution to the world of knowledge
Albert Einstein is said to have once said: “We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us to count, without which no valid scientific discovery could have been made”. While many of us may be familiar with the zero and its connection to India, it remains an unfortunate fact that India’s contribution, not only in mathematics but in many fields, sometimes remains unattributed and at others, not celebrated.
Our history as an independent nation is 75 years old, but our civilization is over 5,000 years old. Needless to say, India’s contribution and achievements are many and what better occasion than the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav commemorating 75 years of independence to launch a concentrated and focused effort in this direction.
“Dhara: an ode to Indian knowledge systems” is the flagship initiative of the Ministry of Culture in this direction. It is conceptualized as a series of lecture-demonstrations dedicated to specific areas of enquiry, highlighting India’s contribution and achievements in all areas. Dhara embodies this idea of a “continuous flow” of information and knowledge from one era to another, embraced, challenged and evolved over time so that we not only move to the next level of knowledge in various fields, but do it on the back of the discoveries and the deep understanding we already have.
Efforts related to topics related to the ancient past often generate polarizing responses due to a lack of credible and rigorous evidence. Our attempt to curate the program is mindful of the same, and systemic efforts are being made to bring in scholars of the highest caliber to add rigorous reasoning and scholarly credibility to these discussions. To put into perspective the richness of antiquity which has been crucial in the development of modern concepts, the following examples can be pondered.
It is impossible to imagine the advent of the modern world without the concepts of modern mathematics. But these concepts are not really modern. They were born in India centuries ago. For the modern world, it was the Greek mathematician Archimedes who produced the first known summation of an infinite series. However, it was used by Madhava (c 1400 CE) to find the approximate value of pi (p). The Arabic numeral system owes its origins to the Bakhshali manuscript, the earliest surviving reference of the Indian numeral system. This system was transmitted to the Arab world around 800 CE and was popularized by Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi and philosopher Al-Kindi. From the Arab world, it was transmitted to Europe around 1100 CE. It was Brahmagupta who established, as early as the 7th century CE, that “the product of a debt (negative number) and a fortune (positive number) is a debt (negative number)”. Similarly, whether it is the Fibonacci Series (ingenious work of Virahanka) or Pascal’s Triangle (Meru Prastara of Pingala), ancient India’s contribution to modernity
math was dominant and consistent.
Moving on to another complex field, that of space science, Carl Sagan, a renowned American astrophysicist, astronomer and astrobiologist, explained how the ancient cosmological ideas that were central to Hinduism form the basis of modern cosmology. He states: “The Hindu religion is the only faith devoted to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, if not infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. This is exactly what we call today the theory of the multiverse.
We all know that India was a center of commerce; little is mentioned that India is a manufacturing hub. Damascus swords, with a high carbon content of 1.5-2.0% and known to have the ability to cut even gauze handkerchiefs, were made from Wootz steel in India. Until the 19th century, Wootz steel swords and daggers were made in centers such as Lahore, Amritsar, Agra, Jaipur, Gwalior, Tanjore, Mysore and Golconda. Wootz steel with carbon nanotube structures continues to inspire researchers to this day. The manufacturing process was forcibly banned by the British in the mid-19th century; the art was lost. There are many such manufacturing capabilities that have disappeared or been repackaged by other companies as their own. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship program, Make in India, is a long overdue step towards reviving our local manufacturing capabilities.
One of the founding pillars of modern economics is the constant optimization of risk and return, the fundamental thought that drives differential interest rate theory. While some Western thought leaders forbade interest on loans (calling it a sin), ancient philosophers like Kautilya advocated interest rates that varied with risk. It is the Sukraniti treaty that explains the need to balance the issues of moral hazard and adverse selection between borrower and lender. It states that if the interest paid was more than twice the principal, only the principal amount will be refunded. The Sukraniti also insists on the need to consider a household and not an individual as the unit of analysis.
India’s rich heritage includes tangible assets like architecture and intangible assets like wealth of knowledge. Our efforts through “Dhara: An Ode to Indian Knowledge Systems” aim to spark these conversations and debates and ensure that our collective history of achievement does not remain forgotten in the folds of some withered manuscripts. At the Ministry of Culture, we remain committed to highlighting the myriad contributions of Indians in all fields and celebrating them as part of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav.
The author is Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Government of India