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History of Indian Science & Technology

“Fear of elitism did not, happily, deter Joseph Needham from writing his authoritative account of the history of science and technology in China, and to dismiss that work as elitist history would be a serious neglect of China’s past.

“A similar history of India’s science and technology has not yet been attempted, though many of the elements have been well discussed in particular studies. The absence of a general study like Needham’s is influenced by an attitudinal dichotomy. On the one hand, those who take a rather spiritual – even perhaps a religious – view of India’s history do not have a great interest in the analytical and scientific parts of India’s past, except to use it as a piece of propaganda about India’s greatness (as in the bloated account of what is imaginatively called ‘Vedic mathematics’, missing the really creative period in Indian mathematics by many centuries). On the other hand, many who oppose religious and communal politics, are particularly suspicious of what may even look like a ‘glorification’ of India’s past. The need for a work like Needham’s has remained unmet.”

[Amartya Sen, “On Interpreting India’s Past,” in “Nationalism, Democracy & Development, ed. S. Bose and A. Jalal, p. 32.]

Why we must do this project:

India’s historical contributions to science and technology are considerable, but are not well known. They have  been marginalized in the education system and in the media portrayals of India and its culture. There are many causes for this, including:

1. Colonial Indologists focused on India as a backward region in need of being civilized by the superior colonialists, and, hence, science and progressive activities were depicted as the exclusive domain of the Europeans. This justified what became known as the Civilizing Mission of colonialism.

2. After independence, many Indian intellectuals continued to use the framework according to which pre-colonial Indian society was designated as feudalistic, and hence, scholarship about it was done to highlight this aspect, at the expense of topics that would contradict this classification.

However, in the case of China, Joseph Needham, a leading scholar at Cambridge, made it his life’s work to document China’s history of science and technology in over 30 volumes. By the time he died at age 90, his works has transformed the study of China forever. The Needham Foundation has continued this monumental work after his death, and has been expanding the series with new volumes.

Today, every research library on China, and every major library on science and history, has the Needham collection as important reference works. Every serious China scholar has respect for this work, and its impact on the image of China has been extraordinary. This impact has also trickled down to the depictions in schools and the general media. No longer is it easy for anyone to denigrate Chinese civilization as being devoid of rational thought, scientific rigor, or the quest for indigenous progress.

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Why we must do this project

Status as of Summer 2003

Expense Plan


Examples of Indian History of Science and Technology

Unfortunately, this intellectual repositioning has not yet been achieved for India, which is still depicted based on the “caste, cows and curry” images too often. Indian culture is frequently depicted as being mystical in the sense of being irrational, and in lacking a sense of advancement in the material plane of society. Many Westernized Indians, who reproduce such notions, have often internalized these colonial stereotypes.

Therefore, it is often said that Indians’ excellent performance in the global economy as medical doctors, information technologists, financial experts, executives, and in other scientific and rational disciplines, must be the result of colonialism. However, this is untrue as evidenced by the following facts:

  • If colonialism or learning the colonizer’s language were the cause for becoming scientific minded, then why are most African, Latin American and many other Third World nations not able to develop in these areas as fast as India has done? The fact is that China’s and India’s development should be seen not as development but as re-development, meaning that these civilizations’ very fabrics have had the culture of advancement through rational thought for millennia, and they are now reviving their intellectual capabilities that had gone dormant and/or suppressed. This is quite different than the situations facing those cultures that might not have had similar traditions of advanced learning.
  • Al-Beruni, and other visitors from various countries, wrote centuries ago that Indian were among the leading medical practitioners, researchers and educators in the Middle East, China, Japan, and other parts of Asia. They enjoyed prestige and high reputations in many countries, as in evidenced by the manner in which they were treated. Indians spread mathematics, metallurgy, agriculture, medicine, shipping and trade, arts, language, culture, music, and many other things for several millennia. India was to pan-Asia what Greece was to Europe – the mother of civilization. This Indian influence on East and Southeast Asia is acknowledged by those societies today and is well-documented in their writings, unlike in the case of Europe and the Middle East where Indian sources are often erased and marginalized.
  • The sheer volume of scholarly materials that document Indian contributions to the world in these areas is vast but largely scattered and disorganized. However, experts in the field appreciate the magnitude of this contribution, but the average educated Indian or non-Indian does not.

There are many opportunities that such a project would present, including the following:

  • There needs to be an overhaul to the assessment of Indians’ intellectual potential. Are we meant to be a nation dependent on importing technology and intellectual property (as we have been told for so long)? Or are we meant to be a nation of exporters of technology and intellectual property, as The Infinity Foundation believes to be the case? The implications to the planning for nation building are staggering. The vision here it to correct the portrayal of Indian civilization’s history, in the academic disciplines of History of Science, History of Ideas, World History, anthropology and culture. India’s scientific heritage, besides its philosophical and cultural legacy, needs to be properly understood, in order to give its own people a better sense of their place in history. The aim is not inspired by chauvinism, but to understand the genius of Indian civilization better, so as to inspire the future trajectory of India.
  • Many Traditional Knowledge Systems are relevant to economic planning today, because they are eco-friendly, sustainable, labor rather than capital intensive, and are more available to the masses. This should be done in parallel with the top down ‘modern’ scientific development. For example:
    •  Water is one of the most serious problems of India and many other parts of the world. There was an ancient Indian system of ‘talabs’ (water tanks) in every village. They were designed to collect the maximum amount of rainwater, and to store this for use in irrigation and for drinking until the next rainfall. It was a part of the village panchayat governance to maintain and administer these. Villagers could manage when there was no rain. However, under colonialization, village governance was subverted or abandoned, since the goal of the rulers was to maximize tax collection through a network of British appointed “district collectors” with draconian powers. As native social structures were abandoned, many talabs went into disuse or misuse. Today, satellite pictures have shown that there were at one time as many as 1.2 million such talabs in India. Some of these were massive man-made lakes. This indigenous system was far superior to the modern massive dams being developed, that are centrally managed and ecological disasters in many cases. In parts of Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, these old talabs have been found and revived, and in many such villages there is no loner any scarcity of water.
    •  Indians were the first to develop steel, and the famous Delhi Iron Pillar is the longest rust-free sample of steel in the world, having lasted fourteen centuries with no rust at all. For long-term storage, such as for nuclear hazard waste, leading metallurgists are researching to understand the old processes for possible use in the future.
    •  Many healing systems from non-Western sources, including Indian medical systems, are now being revived with great success. These complement modern medicine. Besides physical healing systems, such as Ayurveda, there is growing interest in the Indian Systems of Mind-Management, including various forms of yoga and meditation, and these have taken root in the West in the form of stress management, motivation training, health management, and so forth.
    •  Less than 5% of the known Classical Indian texts (in Sanskrit, Tamil, etc.) have ever been translated. What might be the insights and knowledge systems of our ancestors that lie hidden in these? A high potential field could be the rediscovery and further developments of traditional systems of Indian mathematics. The science and technology multi-volume series would also spark an overall interest in the study of Indian texts, with the same seriousness with which Classical Greek texts are studied.
  • Besides the above internal reasons, there are also many reasons related to the importance of external image projection by a civilization, such as:
    • Every new immigrant group in USA has had to define itself in the eyes of the American mainstream, though a process of education about its history, culture, values, and special strengths. Indian Americans’ self-esteem and identities are now being negotiated in this regard. However, the defining qualities about India have too often been negative.
    • India’s outsourcing and ability to attract investments is also dependent on unstated, and often unconscious, impressions that the general public has about India as a place to do business with. This is linked to the impressions people have about Indian culture.
    • Since India sees itself as a global power, or at least a regional power, it must also embark upon the intellectual repositioning of its brand – away from being seen as the center of human rights abuses, naked sadhus, exotic/erotic and weird people. There is no better place to start than via its long track record in science and technology.

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What makes this project unique:

Since colonial Indology and world history have become institutionalized over many decades, many of the reference works and popularly used texts are in drastic need of being rewritten. The availability of properly written new reference works for scholars would alter the historical assessment of India.

This project entails several multi-volume series of works, each of which would have long shelf lives, and would be of considerable leverage in the educational system at various levels. Some of these volumes do not depend on major original work, but would largely identify, validate and compile pre-existing academic works, and bring them to modern standards.

There are many important ways by which this project differs from a few other attempts that might appear similar to a non-expert in this field:

  1. The Government of India started a multi-volume project, but it has focused on philosophy mainly and not on practical science or technology. Furthermore, being government driven, it is not marketing oriented in its packaging or distribution. It is seldom referenced by textbook authors and rarely found in libraries.
  2. Some writers have tended to exaggerate claims of Indian scientific accomplishments, by stretching statements written in classical texts. Based on such textual references, for which there is no physical evidence as of now, they have concluded that there was space travel in the Mahabharata, along with nukes, intergalactic missiles, and just about every modern hi-tech item. This has justifiably earned them the term “chauvinists,” and the entire activity of writing about Indian science has become discredited, thanks to them. IF considers it very important to distance itself from such discredited scholarship. This is why the series being described here is being built on solid academic scholarship only, and not on wild extrapolations. IF believes that researching unsubstantiated claims about old knowledge has its place, but that facts must be separated from unproven hypotheses. Therefore, IF’s project does not include Puranas as scientific sources. There is no reason to cloud the issue: The volume and quality of Indian science, that is widely accepted by authorities in the field worldwide, is very impressive and deserves to be properly documents before any speculations are mixed in to dilute its credibility. To accomplish this, IF’s project involves rigorous peer reviews of each manuscript. There is a high quality editorial board of international eminence. Scholars will only rely upon reference works that are very credible and have gone through rigorous peer reviews and due diligence.
  3. Many works do not make an impact because of poor distribution. The scholars seem unconcerned about the marketing aspects, because it is more important for them to claim the academic achievement on their resumes. IF is planning widespread distribution of its works, because the project’s success depends upon actual usage in the mainstream, and not simply by decorating a few research libraries. To achieve this impact, IF has studied the process, which disseminates knowledge about such topics into the mainstream school curricula, college courses, and mass media. This is documented in the diagram. IF is expecting to do the following as part of this goal:

    a. Teacher training workshops on the use of these books

    b. Academic seminars to popularize them among scholars

    c. Games and contests among science and general knowledge students based on the books

    d. Inexpensive editions that could be donated to libraries widely across India and other developing societies – the next generation should be exposed to more than mere “Western” science.

    e. Documentaries based on the material in the books.

    f. The goal is to give these reference works a very long-term shelf life.

  4. The books must be of very high quality, beyond just the factual content. This means we plan to engage professional copyeditors, layout artists, get detailed indexes, and eventually put the material on CD-ROM/DVD with pictures & music.
  5. Just like other successful references, the series must have new editions every few years to keep it current and expanding. To achieve this, the project would like to become financially self-sufficient such that revenues are used to continue the work indefinitely, just as is done by major reference publishers. New titles, regular conferences and other activities would keep this ever fresh in the minds of educators.
  6. In parallel with the multi-volume approach with scholarly rigor, there will also be a single volume simple and popular level Encyclopedia of Indian Science and Technology. This would be an easy reference, and would suffice for many casual users and students. However, the backup in the complete set would be a necessary foundation in order to make the encyclopedia statements credible.
  7. Once there is a solid foundation on India, we hope to collaborate with other traditions – such as Chinese, Arabic, African – to start to globalize the humanities in a true sense, and to expand out of the “Western” dominated education system.

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Status as of Summer 2003:

A new web site for the project is being launched. It shall have two levels of access: one for the general public to give information about the subject and also to inform about the status of the project; the second more privileged access for those involved in executing the project, to review drafts and exchange discussions on technical matters.

The advisory board is being revamped and expanded.

Each volume has an approximate gestation period of 2 years from the time when the grant letter is signed with the scholar. Each volume has its own schedule and timetable, depending on the particular subject. Some require more original research, even field data gathering, while others are mainly a matter of library research to compile existing materials and to validate them.

Every publishing house we have explored this with has expressed great interest to the “The Needham Project for India.” They feel that this is a daunting task, and have commended IF for starting it. We have avoided signing any contracts with any publisher as of now.

The project needs to upgrade its overall project management from the US end, so as to organize peer reviewers, various oversight boards, copyeditors, and to further the discussions with publishers.

It is also anticipated that once the first volume is out, many funding agencies would want to participate in the further development.

The following volumes have already been commissioned as part of this IF project:

1.      Ancient Iron Technology - Vibha Tripathi

2.      Traditional Indian Concepts of Time - CK Raju

3.      Traditional Indian Textile Technology - Charu Smita Gupta

4.      Ancient Zinc Technology in India - JS Kharakwal

5.      Harappan Architecture & Civil Engineering - JP Joshi

6.      Traditional Hydraulics & Water Management - R. Hooja

7.      The Delhi Iron Pillar – Balasubramaniam.

The following are ideas for further volumes, for which scholars are being identified, negotiations held, and which could be started once the funding becomes available:

1.      Traditional Forestry & Ecology Management

2.      The Harappan Technology and its Legacy

3.      Traditional Herbal Medicinal Systems

4.      Ancient Ship Building & Navigation

5.      Early Agriculture

6.      Early Animal Husbandry

7.      Early Glass Technology and Gemstones

8.      Chalcolithic Technology

9.      Traditional Indian Martial Arts 

10. Sociology of History of Science

11. History of Indian Astronomy

12. Tribal Technology

13. History of Indian Mathematics

14. Science & Technology in Ancient India (1000 BC – 500AD)

This is a tentative list that is evolving on a regular basis.

Expense Plan:

There are many cost items per volume, including:

  • Fee to the author fee
  • Fee to the peer reviewer
  • Fee to the copyeditors

There are also expenses that are for the entire project, and not per volume, such as:

  • Expenses for editorial/advisory board members
  • Travel expenses for regular project meetings to review status, cross-examine each other’s progress, etc.
    • There was one major seminar as part of this project at Binsar (Uttarchancal Pradesh) in 2002, featuring around 40 papers on Indian Traditional Knowledge Systems. This served to broaden the base on understanding, networking with scholars, and identification of authors and topics.
    • Another seminar of this project was held at The India International Center, Delhi, in January 2003, involving the team of authors working on the books.
    • A meeting of the project members is planned for December 2003, in Delhi.
  • Prof. D. P. Agrawal, the overall project coordinator located in India, has been paid an annual fee to identify scholars and topics, facilitate negotiations, review the work, and give overall guidance, besides writing his own content for the web site.

Sponsored accounts are not be burdened with any project fee to Infinity Foundation, for its management oversight or to cover its overhead, because these are already covered by IF’s own internal budget.

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Is this anti-western?

No. In fact, it is in everyone’s best interest that there should be a true globalization of the education system, in which all cultures’ contributions and merits are celebrated. This would build greater harmony, and would be consistent with the multicultural trajectory of USA.

Is this chauvinistic? Is it pro-Hindu or ‘saffron’?

Indian science is not about any religion. It is equally the heritage of every Indian regardless of faith, or lack thereof. Just as Newtonian laws are not Christian, and Einstein’s relativity theory is not a Jewish science, so also, the scientific discoveries of Indians are independent of their faiths.

Is this backward looking and not progressive? Is it anti-modernity?

Just as Europe used Classical Greek thought to get out of their Dark Ages into Modernity, so also Indians could use their Classics to move forward. This would complement modern knowledge and not replace it.

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Examples of Indian History of Science and Technology:

Most students have learnt about the ancient cities of the Middle East and China. But how many people know even the basic facts about the ancient Indus-Sarasvati Valley Civilization in India, one of the oldest and most advanced anywhere in the world? For instance, did you know that over 800 of the 1100 known sites discovered so far are in India? While the other ancient civilizations of the world were small towns with one central complex, this civilization had the distinction of being spread across many towns and covered a region about half the size of present-day Europe. Its towns were planned in ways that would impress modern architects. Weights, coins, bricks and linguistic symbols were standardized across this vast geography and for a period of over two thousand years, from around 4,000 BCE to around 2,000 BCE.

Since their script has not yet been decoded, one of the unsolved mysteries is how such a high degree of sophistication and uniformity could have been achieved and maintained, in a dispersed complex that has no visible signs of centralized power. For instance, all bricks in this civilization are of the ratio 1:2:4 regardless of their size, location or period of construction. There are many pioneering items of civil engineering, such as: drainage systems for water (open and closed), irrigation systems, river dams, water storage tanks cut out of rock, moats, middle-class style homes with private bathrooms and drainage, and even a dockyard. There is evidence of stairs for multiple-storied buildings. Many towns have separate citadels, upper and lower towns, and fortified sections. There are separate worker quarters near copper furnaces. Granaries have ducts and platforms. Archeologists have found geometric compasses, linear scales made of ivory, plumb bob and other instruments.

Given the importance of fresh water in India, the technology to manage water resources have been highly advanced from Harappan times onwards. For example, in Gujerat, Chandragupta built the Sudarshan Lake in late 4th BCE, and it was repaired in 150 CE by his grandson. The Raja Bhoj Lake built in 1014-1053 is so massive that still shows up in satellite images. Vijayanagar Empire’s 14th  to15th CE lake used more volume of construction material than even the Great Wall of China. What historians have called the “Persian Wheel” is actually pre-Mughal and indigenous.

Iron is found in countries neighboring India, and, hence, European scholars have assumed it to be from there. There is a 1320 BCE iron pillar in Turkey with Vedic devas/devis. Given the similarities between the Vedas and Avesta (Zoroastrian text), this fact seemed to support the theory of diffusion of iron and Vedas into India. Refuting the above, Vibha Tripathi finds that iron in India is much earlier. Cemeteries in present-day Baluchistan have iron objects. The earlier iron found in the Middle East archeological sites was meteorite material sculptured as rock/stone carvings, and was not metallurgically processed at all. Also, iron could be a by-product of copper technology, and this could be its likely origin in India, because copper was a well-known technology in many parts of India. A smelting furnace dated 800 BCE is found in Naikund, India. The Deogarh temple in India (600 CE) has hundreds of iron objects. Delhi’s famous iron pillar, dated 410 CE, is considered a metallurgical marvel.

Steel was an Indian invention, and remained an Indian specialty for centuries. The famous Damascus steel swords, now found in museums across Europe, were made from Indian imported steel. The famous Sheffield steel in UK was really Indian crucible steel. The best brains of European science worked for decades to learn to reverse engineer how Indians made crucible steel, and in this process metallurgy was developed in Europe.

(Some of the important findings of iron technology in India would require a post-doctoral researcher, but this is beyond the project’s current funding limitations.)

Another important Indian contribution to metallurgy was in the isolation, distillation and use of zinc. From natural sources, zinc content in alloys such as brass can go no higher than 28%. To increase the zinc content beyond this threshold, one must first separate the zinc by distillation, and then mix the pure zinc back into an alloy. The older method of less than 28% was prevalent in many parts of the world before India. But a major metallurgical breakthrough was India's discovery of zinc distillation, whereby the metal was vaporized and then condensed back into pure metal. This happened as early as 400 BCE, and remained unknown outside India for a long time. The first time it was learnt from India by Europeans was in England, in the 1700s. Until then, India was exporting zinc for centuries on an industrial scale. At archeological sites in Rajasthan, retorts used for the distillation are found in very large numbers even today.

Once zinc had become separated into a pure metal, alloys could be made with whatever zinc component would provide the required properties. For instance, strength and durability increase with higher zinc component. Also, copper alloys look like gold when the zinc is higher than 28%. Most early brass objects found in other countries had less than 10% zinc component, and, therefore, these were not based on zinc distillation technology.

For the first time, zinc components that exceed 10% are found in Taxila, in 400 BCE. However, while Taxila was distilling and manufacturing zinc on small scale, it was Jawar, Rajasthan where this first became industrialized on a large scale. Zinc mines have been found in Dariba (11th century BCE), Agucha 6th century BCE) and Jawar in 5th century BCE). These mines have pots and other objects of these dates, but the mining could be even older.


Three important items are proven in this volume on zinc: (i) zinc distillation and metallurgical usage was pioneered in India; (ii) industrial scale production was pioneered in Rajasthan; (iii) England transferred the technology of zinc from India in 1736. British metallurgy documents do not mention zinc at all prior to this transfer. Yet, today Eurocentric accounts of history state that Indians did not have industrial production of zinc.

Indian textiles have been legendary since ancient times. The Greeks and Romans recorded extensive import of high quality textiles from India that were considered prestigious items in those days. One of the first items to be successfully manufactured by England to start the Industrial Revolution of Europe was textiles, and the technology, designs and even raw cotton, were imported from India, while, in parallel, India’s indigenous textile mills were outlawed by the British. (Textiles, along with steel, were the mainstay of the Industrial Revolution – both had their origins in India.) The Ahmedabad textile museum is a great resource for scholarly material that needs to be organized and presented systematically.

Prof. Raju has researched the “clash of epistemologies” that occurred in European ideas about numbers: When Europeans started to import Indian ideas about mathematics, what had been natural to Indian thinkers for a long time was very hard for Europe to accept. He divides this into three periods:

  1. The first math war in Europe was from 10th to 16th centuries. The zero took 500 years to be accepted in Europe, because it was considered to be heresy at first.
  2. The second math war was over the Indian concept of indivisibles, which led to the theory of real numbers and infinitesimals, paving the way for the development of calculus. This war lasted three centuries, from 17th century to 19th century. (Both #1 and #2 are examples of U-Turns at work..)
  3. The third math war is over computational versus formal math and has now started.

Few people know that an Indian naval pilot, named Kanha, was hired by Vasco da Gama to take him to India. Contrary to European portrayals that Indians knew only coastal navigation, deep-sea shipping had existed in India. Indian ships had been sailing to islands such as the Andamans, Lakshdweep and Maldives, around 2,000 years ago. Kautiliya's shastras describe the times that are good and bad for seafaring. In the medieval period, Arab sailors purchased their boats in India. The Portuguese also continued to get their boats from India, and not from Europe. Shipbuilding and exporting was a major Indian industry, until the British banned it. There is extensive archival material on the Indian Ocean trade in Greek, Roman, and Southeast Asian sources.


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