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Hinduism, History of Science and Religion

Hinduism, History of Science and Religion

Hinduism is not the name of a particular religion in the narrow modern sense but it stands for a cultural tradition that developed over thousands of years on the South-Asian subcontinent, now embracing many different religions, such as Vais˔n˔avism, S´aivism, S´a¯ktism, and others. Hinduism comprises, besides rituals and festivities and detailed ethical regulations for individuals and communities, also the arts and sciences. Hinduism never knew the Western antagonism between philosophy and theology, nor does it have a history of warfare between science and religion. It was the highest aim of Hindus to find satyam, truth/reality, which could be approached in many ways and appear in many forms.

The well organized, publicly sponsored ancient Indian universities such as those at Taxila¯ and Na¯landa¯ (considered venerable institutions already at the time of Gautama the Buddha [late sixth and early fifth centuries b.c.e.]), with thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of students, taught not only the Veda (revealed scripture) and the Veda¯.gas (auxiliary disciplines), but also the "eighteen sciences." The basic curriculum included s´abda-vidya¯ (linguistics), S´ilpastha¯na-vidya¯ (arts and crafts), cikitsa-vidya¯ (medicine), hetu-vidya¯ (logic and dialectics), and adhya¯tma-vidya¯ (spirituality). Religion, while suffusing all life and activity, was not isolated from other subjects or given exclusive attention. The brahmins, the custodians of the sacred texts, were also the leading intellectuals who studied and taught secular subjects.


Hindu scriptures and thought

The Hindus called their most ancient and most venerated scripture Veda (from the verbal root vid-, to know). Vidya¯, from the same root, designated knowledge acquired in any subject (a medical doctor was called a Vaidya ), particularly that of the highest reality/truth taught by the Upanishads. The term s´a¯stra (from the root s´a¯s -, to order) became the most general designation for science (in the sense of French science or Italian scienza ): authoritative, systematic teaching, ranging from Dharma-s´a¯stra, the exposition of traditional law, and Artha-s´a¯stra, the teaching of statecraft and administration, to S¯ilpa-s´a¯stra, instruction in art and architecture, and Kṛṣi-s´a¯stra, the theory and practice of agriculture. A learned person carried the title of S´a¯stri¯, respected by the community regardless of the subject of his learning. Graduation was a "third birth": members of the three higher castes became dvijati (twiceborn) through upanayana (initiation), the s´a¯stri¯ degree made them trijati.

Traditional Indian thought is characterized by a holistic vision. Instead of breaking experience and reality up into isolated fragments, the Indian thinkers looked at the whole and reconciled tensions and seeming contradictions within overarching categories. Thus the poets of the Ṛgveda speak of vis´va-jyoti, cosmic light as the principle and source of everything, and of ṛta, the universal cosmic order connecting and directing all particular phenomena and events. The Upanishads organize the world by relating everything to the pañcabhu¯tas (five elements: earth, water, light, wind, ether) and identify in Brahman an all-embracing reality-principle. The name of the major deity of later Hinduism is Viṣṇu, the "all-pervading," whose body is the universe. Nature (prakṛti ) was never seen as mere object, but always as productive agent. The Hindu view of life found expression in the four puruṣa¯rthas : a person was to acquire wealth (artha ), enjoy life (ka¯ma ), practice morality and religion (dharma ), and seek final emancipation (mokṣa ) in appropriate balance. Religion was a natural part of the universally accepted order of things. Texts dealing with medicine contain religious regulations, and theological treatises also frequently refer to worldly matters. The study of Nya¯ya (logic and epistemology) was undertaken to achieve mokṣa (spiritual emancipation). The notion of atman was applied to humans, animals, and plants. Many Indian scientists show an interest in religious issues, and Hindu spiritual leaders frequently appeal to science to illustrate their instructions. They would never relegate science to pure reason and religion to pure faith and treat them as natural enemies, as is often done in the West.

According to the Vedas, only one-fourth of reality is accessible to the senses, which also include manas, instrumental reason. Supersensual reality revealed itself to the ṛṣ is, the composers of the Vedic su¯ktas. The Upanishads know an ascending correlation of subject/consciousness and object/reality: Only the lowest of four stages (ja¯garita ) concerns sense perception of material objects. The three higher levels of reality are intuited through meditative introspection, which culminates in the insight that a¯tman is Brahman: Spirit-self alone is supreme reality.

The central ritual of Vedic culture was the yajña (sacrifice of material objects according to fixed rules). Brahmin students had to train for many years to learn to perform yajña, which involved, besides the priest and the patron, the devas (the deities of earth, space, and heaven who were invited to attend). It was offered on altars built with specifically produced bricks arranged in a prescribed geometric pattern, performed at astronomically fixed times. The altar was conceived as symbol of the human body as well as of the universe: One text relates the 360 bricks of an altar to the 360 days of the year and the 360 bones in the human body. The building of altars of different configurations, and more so their change in shape and volume, as required in certain rituals, involved a sophisticated geometry. S´ulva-su¯tras (part of Kalpa-su¯tras, ritual texts) provided the rules for constructing a variety of shapes of altars and their permutations. They exhibit an algebraic geometry older and more advanced than early Egyptian, Babylonian, or Greek geometry. The exact timing of the performance of the sacrifices was accomplished by people conversant with the movement of the stars. Jyotiṣa, one of the six early Veda¯.gas (auxiliary sciences of the Veda), reveals a good deal of astronomical knowledge.

Study was mandatory for brahmins. They had to devote the first part of their lives up to age twenty-four to systematic training under the supervision of a guru. Later they had to practice sva¯dhya¯ya (study on their own.) While the study of the Vedas and the Veda¯·gas was reserved for brahmins, the study of the Upavedas was open to all higher castes. These comprise A¯yur-veda ("life-science," medicine), Dhanur-veda ("bow-science," martial arts), Gandharva-veda ("art-science," music and dancing), and Sta¯pathya-veda ("building science," architecture, sculpture, and painting). The universities, where these subjects were taught, attracted a large body of students from all over Asia. Reports from fourth and sixth century Chinese guest-students praise the physical amenities as well as the high standard of learning. In the eleventh century, after the Muslim invaders had already destroyed much of India's cultural infrastructure, the Muslim scholar-diplomat Al-Biruni spent a decade in India researching and documenting many aspects of traditional Indian science in his Al-Hind.

The practical sciences of Hindu India

Research in the history of Indian science is still in an early stage and much work remains to be done. New material is regularly published in the well established Indian Journal for the History of Science, Vedic Science, and other periodicals. In the following, elementary information is offered on some specific areas only. The dates for early Indian literature are still a matter of controversy; expert opinions often differ by thousands of years.


Astronomy. Astronomical knowledge of a fairly high order was required for the performance of Vedic yajñas. According to Subhash Kak, the structures both of the Ṛgveda text and the Vedic altars contain an "astronomical code," embodying precise and fairly accurate information about distances and revolutions of planets and more general astronomical data. The Ṛgveda has some astronomical markers that have been used for dating these texts to the fourth millenium b.c.e. From the Jyotiṣa Veda¯·ga (third century b.c.e.) onwards there is a rich Indian astronomical literature. Indians operated with various cycles of lunar and solar years and calculated cosmic cycles of 10,800 and 432,000 years. Their findings and theories are embodied in numerous siddha¯ntas, of which the most famous is the Su¯rya-siddha¯nta (fourth century c.e.). Indian astronomers calculated the duration of one kalpa (a cycle of the universe during which all the heavenly bodies return to their original positions) to be 4,320,000,000 years. Several Pura¯ṇas contain cosmogonic and cosmological sections utilizing astronomy, describing periodic creations and destructions of the universe, and also suggesting the existence of parallel universes. While the main purpose of the Pura¯ṇas is to recommend a specific path of salvation, this is always set into a cosmic context. Many popular stotras (hymns, prayers) recited at religious gatherings allude to cosmic events as well. One of the most interesting figures among Indian astronomers is Vara¯hamihira (fifth to sixth century c.e.), the author of the celebrated Pañcasiddha¯ntika amd of the Bṛhat-Saṃhita¯, which besides astronomical information teaches astrology and all kinds of occult arts.

Mathematics. Indian mathematics developed out of the requirements for the Vedic yajña. The Yajurveda knows terms for numbers up to 1012 (by comparison the highest number named by the Greeks was 104). Later on the Indians coined terms for numbers up to 1024 and 1053. Algebra, in spite of its Arabic name, is an Indian invention, and so are the zero and the decimal system, including the "Arabic" numerals. The names of some great Indian mathematicians and some particulars of their accomplishments are known. Thus A¯ryabhaṭa I (fifth century c.e.), a link in a long chain of unknown earlier master mathematicians, knew the rules for extracting square and cubic roots. He determined the value of π to four decimals and developed an alphabetical system for expressing numbers on the decimal place value model. His A¯ryabhaṭi¯aya was translated into Latin (from an Arabic translation) by a thirteenth century Italian mathematician. Brahmagupta (seventh century c.e.) formulated a thousand years before the great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (17071783) a theorem based on indeterminate equations. Bha¯skara II (twelfth century) is the author of the Siddha¯nta-́iromaṇi¯, a widely used text on algebra and geometry. Hindus have continued to show great aptitude for mathematics. Ramanujan (18871920), practically untutored, developed the most astounding mathematical theorems.


Medicine. The Atharva-veda, considered by some to be the oldest among the four Vedas, contains invocations relating to bodily and mental diseases. Its Upa-veda, the A¯yurveda (life-science) was cultivated systematically from early on. It was mainly oriented towards preventing diseases and healing through herbal remedies, but it also later developed other medical specialties. Good health was not only considered generally desirable, but also priced as a precondition for reaching spiritual fulfillment. Medicine as a charity was widely recommended and supported by the rulers. Two Indian medical handbooks, the result of centuries of development, became famous in the ancient world far beyond India: the Carakasaṃhita¯ and the Sus´ruta-saṃhita¯. They were later translated and utilized by the invading Muslims. Caraka deals mainly with general medicine and identifies hundreds of medical conditions for which mainly plant pharmaca are prescribed. Sus´ruta focuses on surgery, which by that time was already highly developed, with an array of specific surgical instruments. Indian surgeons were famous in the ancient world; their skills were especially appreciated by the wounded in the frequent wars. Hindus also called upon the divine physician of the gods Dhanvantari, "the one who removes arrows." The theory of A¯yurveda was based on the tri-doṣa theory, which is older than the similar Greek three-humours teaching, used for diagnosis as well as in the treatment of diseases. While the healthy body has a perfect balance of vata, pitta, and kapha, disease is a disturbance of that harmony, to be cured by re-establishing the right proportion.

A¯yurveda was also applied to animals and plants. There is an ancient Vṛkṣa¯yurveda, a handbook for professional gardeners, and a Ga¯va¯yurveda for veterinarians of cattle. Other texts deal with veterinary medicine relating to horses and elephants. Ancient India also had hospitals as well as animal clinics, and gos´ala¯s, places in which elderly cattle are tended, are still popular in some parts of India. A¯yurveda was the source of much of ancient Greek and Roman, as well as mediaeval Arabic, medical knowledge. The scientific value of Vyurvedic pharmacology is being recognized by major Western pharmaceutical companies who apply for world-wide patents on medicinal plants discovered and described by the ancient Indian Vaidyas.

Architecture. The ancient Indus civilization exhibits a high degree of architectural achievement. The well-laid out cities, the carefully built brick houses, the systems of drainage, and the large water tanks reveal the work of professional town-planners and builders. This tradition was continued and enhanced in later centuries, especially in connection with the building of temples to provide abodes for the deity. No village or town was deemed fit for human habitation if it did not possess a temple. Careful selection and preparation of the ground preceded the building activity proper. The edifice had to be constructed according to an elaborate set of rules that took into account not only structural engineering and quality of materials, but also circumstances of caste and religious affiliation. The Upaveda of Stha¯patya-vidya¯ was expanded into a professional Va¯stu- s´a¯stra and S´ilpa- s´a¯stra. Elaborate handbooks like the Ma¯nasa¯ra and the Mayamata provide detailed artistic and religious canons for the building of temples and the making of images. Temples and images of deities were consecrated only if they conformed to the standards established. The temple (maṇḍira ) was a visible symbol of the universe, showing the entire range of entities from the highest to the lowest. The image (mu¯rti ) was the very body of God, who descended into it for the purpose of receiving worship. Thousands of large and beautiful temples dot the landscape of India, and millions of images adorn maṇḍiras and homes.


Linguistics. While India's medical doctors, architects, metallurgists, mathematicians, astronomers, and others were appreciated for their knowledge and skills in their fields, the pride of place in the world of brahminic knowledge always belonged to the study of the Word (va¯k ), which from early on was seen as embued with divine power. The brahmins who preserved and investigated the Word occupied the highest social rank. Sanskrit, the refined language of the Veda and of higher learning, was considered a gift of the gods.

The Sanskrit alphabet, in contrast to the chaotic alphabets used in Western languages, is based on a scientific system: All vowels are arranged in an orderly fashion according to acoustic principles. The consonants are organized in five classes (guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental, labial) and, in each of these, five varieties were distinguished (hard, hard-aspirate, soft, soft-aspirate, nasal). This system shows great ingenuity and a keen sense of observation and proved conducive to formulating general grammatical and phonetical laws. It was in place already by one thousand b.c.e. By six hundred b.c.e., Pa¯niṇi, a linguistic genius of the first order, systematised Sanskrit in his Aṣṭa¯dhya¯yi¯ by deriving all verbs and nouns from about eight hundred roots and formulating four thousand interconnected grammatical rulesan achievement unparalleled in any other language until the twenty-first century. Pa¯niṇi was followed by a long line of commentators, who continued his work: The best known is Patañjali, the author of the Maha¯-bha¯ṣya. Traditional Indian scholarship was based on memorizing enormous amounts of literature and transmitting it orally over thousands of years. In the process Indians developed very sophisticated mnemotechnical devices.

Ancient Indian theoretical sciences

Among the ṣaḍ-dars´anas, the traditional "six orthodox philosophical systems" of Hinduism, Sa¯ṁkhya stands out as possibly the oldest and certainly the most interesting in the religion and science context. It offers a general theory of evolution based on the interactive polarity of nature and matter (prakṛti ), and spirit and soul (puruṣa ). All reality is subsumed under five times five principles (tattvas ), originating from one substratum (pradha¯na ), covering all possible physical, biological, and psychological categories. Sa¯ṁkhya shows the interconnections between the various components of our world in order to unravel the evolutionary process (which is seen as the cause of all unhappiness and misery) and to return to the changeless bliss of spirit-existence. The twenty-five categories to which Sa¯mkhya reduces the manifold world became widely accepted in Hindu thought. The Yoga system of Patañjali is wholly based on it. The Pura¯ṇas also accept it as their philosophical basis, with one amendment: Prakṛti and puruṣa are overarched by i¯s´vara, a personal creator-maintainersavior God.

Vais´eṣika, another one of the six orthodox dars´anas, offers a theory of atomism more ancient than that of the Greek philosopher Democritus, and a detailed analysis of vis´eṣas, qualities and differences, after which the system is named. The Vais´eṣika-su¯tra describes the formation of physical bodies from atoms (aṇu ) through dyads (dvya¯ṇuka ) and triads (trya¯ṇuka ) in a strict cause-effect series. The positioning of the atoms determines the qualities of a body. Vais´eṣika also developed the notion of impetus, a concept that appeared in Western science only in the fourteenth century. In Vais´eṣika the relation of science to religion is less clear than in the case of Sa¯ṁkhya. However, the other dars´ana with which it has been paired, Nya¯ya, concerned with epistemology and logic, declares that such analysis is necessary for obtaining spiritual liberation.


Spiritual sciences

Among the prescribed subjects of the ancient Indian university curriculum was adhya¯tma-vidya¯, the science relating to spirit. As the most important level of reality, Brahman was the subject of the highest science, employing personal experience (anubha¯va), a coherent epistemology (yukti ), and the exegesis of revealed utterances (s´ruti or s´abda ). The Upanishads mention thirty-two vidya¯s, paths leading to the goal of all science: "One who knows Brahman becomes Brahman. " The ideas of the Upanishads were further developed into the systematics of Veda¯nta philosophy laid down mainly in commentaries (bha¯syas ) on the Brahma-su¯tras ascribed to Ba¯dara¯yaṇa (second century b.c.e.). Beginning with S´a.kara (eighth century c.e.), through Ra¯ma¯nuja (eleventh century) to Madhva (thirteenth century), the greatest minds of India have endeavored to cultivate science that concerns itself with the eternal reality of the spirit. Yoga too, in the form in which it was systematized by Patañjali (Ra¯ja-yoga ) is proceeding scientifically by analyzing the world of experience in terms suitable to spiritual enlightenment and describing experiential steps to be taken to find enlightenment.

India's spiritual fame in the West is of long standing. During the fourth century b.c.e., Alexander the Great, intrigued by the proverbial wisdom of the brahmins, sought out the company of what the Greeks called gymnosophists on his Indian expedition (eventually replacing his mentor Aristotle by Kálanos, an Indian sage). Six centuries later, the philosopher Plotinus joined the expedition of Emperor Gordian in order to meet the famed Indian sages. No less a modern Western scientist than Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (18871961), who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1933, has paid tribute to that "other" science: "The subject of every science is always the spirit and there is only that much true science in every endeavour as it contains spirit" (p. 495).


India and scientific technological progress

Glazed pottery appeared in Mohenjo Daro fifteen hundred years earlier than in Greece. Indian steel was so famous three-thousand years ago that the ancient Persians were eager to obtain swords from India. Indian silk and cotton fabrics were among the most prized imports of ancient Rome. The famous Iron Pillar in Delhi, almost eight meters high and weighing more than six tons, has weathered more than fifteen hundred monsoons without showing a trace of rust. Amazing engineering feats were displayed in the construction of numerous temples of huge dimensions. The capstone of the Bṛhadi¯s´vara temple of Tanjavur, weighing eighty tons, was moved up to a height of sixty-five meters in the eleventh century. The skills of ancient Indian craftsmen, who created innumerable tools and works of art from ivory, wood, metal, and stone, show a broad based technical culture that had few equals in its time.

Many of the intellectual or practical achievements later ascribed to the Babylonians, the Greeks, or the Arabs had originated in India. India was the envy and the marvel of the ancient world before it fell victim to Muslim invaders, who massively disrupted its cultural, scientific, and religious traditions. The British who succeeded them encountered a weak, backward, fragmented, and demoralized India. Together with machine-made fabric, British India imported Western education and with it a hitherto unknown tension between culture and religion. Modern science and technology were touted as an accomplishment of Christian Europe and seen as the most effective instruments in overcoming superstitious Hinduism. Ram Mohan Roy, an early Hindu reformer, believed in the possibility of harmonizing Hinduism with modern Western science and the teachings of Christ. He founded English-language schools in which modern Western scientific knowledge was taught. Swami Dayanand Saraswati asserted that the ancient Hindus had known the principles of Western science long ago, had anticipated some of the technological marvels like steam-engines and airplanes, and did not need a new religion. He founded a traditional Gurukula with Sanskrit medium and only traditional Indian subjects. By the late twenty-first century, there are thousands of Indian scientists with a Hindu background. Most do not see a conflict between their religion and their science, but some do notice a difference in orientation. Some have been led to astounding discoveries through the application of ancient Hindu insights to new fields of enquiry. Thus the biologist Jagdish Chandra Bose (18601937) used the Upanishadic idea of the universal a¯tman to conduct groundbreaking research in plant physiology. The traditional Hindu holistic and personalistic orientation could serve as a necessary corrective to mainstream Western science with its Cartesian legacy of an impersonal mechanistic worldview and a purely pragmatic, analytic approach to nature.


See also Astronomy; Medicine; Spirituality

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klaus k. klostermaier

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