Indian History in Perspective – 4: India’s Enduring Contributions to Humanity

Final part of “Indian History in Perspective” focuses on some of the major contributions of Indians to humanity and world civilization.

In the previous part, we had talked about trans-oceanic international trade routes between India and eastern horn of Africa going back to almost 20,000 years, something which is at once mind-boggling, awe-inspiring and inspirational. We had talked about astronomy as an ancient discipline, the meticulous research done by ancient Indian astronomers and of calendars as old as 9000 years. In terms of the political scenario we had touched upon the different group of people who inhabited northern and central India, the spread of Indo-European language families out of India, and the importance of Vārṣāgira battle recorded in the Rig Veda, which suggests that Zarathustra lived closer to 2500 BCE rather than 600 BCE as western scholars would suggest. We had then touched upon the planned Sarasvati-Sindhu towns and the migration of Vedic Indians who would go on to become the rulers of the Mitanni kingdom of Iraq.

In this concluding essay we will continue our journey onwards from 2000 BCE to present day and touch upon some major historical events which have shaped our civilization. We will not be too fussy about exact dates as it creates unnecessary controversies. For example, the traditional date of Buddha is pre-1500 BCE (see Pandit Kota Venkatachalam “The Plot in Indian Chronology”) whereas the accepted western date is nearer to 500 BCE. There is also a traditional view, held by many, including the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Math in Puri, that there were at least two people with the name Buddha, one who is worshipped by Hindus as an avatar of Vishnu and the latter Buddha of Indo-Nepal region who founded the Buddhist faith [1].

To avoid such confusions, we will focus on some major achievements in the field of mathematics, science, linguistics, international trade and so on. We will also focus on some of the key political events, setbacks and challenges that we have faced in these last 4000 years, a time-period which is a short blip in India’s long glorious history.

Political History

Prior to 2000 BCE, India’s interaction with mainland Europe and other continents was quite limited, and the flow of people and knowledge was mainly from India to the outside world. India was divided into small states or janapadas, and eventually with the rising importance of consolidation this gave rise to the 16 Mahajanapadas with different political and administrative setup governed by dharma. Chandragupta Maurya established the first political Hindu Rajya spanning practically entire Indian subcontinent. Apart from this, in the southern part of India, dharma based civilization was prevalent, and as we have also shown earlier, the interaction between Sanskritic and Tamil culture has been going on from very ancient times, contrary to what the so-called Dravidianists would have us believe. As Koenraad Elst in his review of Dr Nagaswamy’s book “Tamil Nadu: the Land of the Vedas” writes [2]:

In the age well before Christ, Tamil rulers started inviting Brahmin communities to settle around their capitals and confer the prestige of Vedic civilization upon their dynasties. As soon as written history starts, we see magnates and rulers surrounding themselves with Vedic culture, witness e.g. the praise for the royal sacrifice Rājasūya Yāga performed by a Chola king, by the famous poetess Avvaiyār. (p.6) In inviting a Brahmin, Tamil magnates applied four criteria: (1) he studies the Vedas; (2) he is poor; (3) he has a large family; and (4) he is honest and righteous. (p.2)

Figure 1 Mahajanapadas

All this changed however with the rise of Christianity and Islam and their imperialistic and expansionist agenda, and over a period of 2000 years, Bharat first became Hindustan and finally became India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and more recently South Asia. The onslaught of Islam started around 8th century CE, but gained momentum only after the 10th century CE and went on till 17th century CE. Rizwan Salim describes the massive deterioration of Indian civilization during these 600 years under the Islamic doctrine of permanent warfare (jihad).

It is clear that India at the time when Muslim invaders turned towards it (8 to 11th century) was the earth’s richest region for its wealth in precious and semi-precious stones, gold and silver, religion and culture, and its fine arts and letters. Tenth century Hindustan was also too far advanced than its contemporaries in the East and the West for its achievements in the realms of speculative philosophy and scientific theorizing, mathematics and knowledge of nature’s workings. Hindus of the early medieval period were unquestionably superior in more things than the Chinese, the Persians (including the Sassanians), the Romans and the Byzantines of the immediate proceeding centuries. The followers of Siva and Vishnu on this subcontinent had created for themselves a society more mentally evolved-joyous and prosperous too-than had been realized by the Jews, Christians, and Muslim monotheists of the time. Medieval India, until the Islamic invaders destroyed it, was history’s most richly imaginative culture and one of the five most advanced civilizations of all times. [3]

It must be kept in mind that there never was any Muslim empire in India, but rather small to medium sized kingdoms based out of Delhi, Deccan, Bengal and so on, who faced continuous resistance by even small Hindu kings and warlords. For example, in 1033 CE, during the battle of Bahraich (near Lucknow), Suhaldev the eldest son of King Mordhwaj of Shravasti killed the Islamic general Salar Masud Ghazni and defeated his army of more than 100,000 men. After this there was no Muslim invasion for the next 160 years. In 1671 CE during the Battle of Saraighat, the Ahom Kingdom led by Lachit Borphukan defeated the Islamic Mughal army and prevented the Islamic takeover of Assam. Odisha never came under Muslim rule for any significant length of time.

The Karnataka based Vijaynagar kingdom was much greater in size than the so-called Mughal kingdom at its peak. On the western flank the rise of the Hindu-Maratha principality under Shivaji, Sambhaji and Rajaram posed a serious threat to the Islamic kings and weakened them significantly. By 18th century, by which time Islam had become a spent force, the Hindus already weak after centuries of attacks, became easy victims of European colonialists and Christian missionary groups.

More than the Islamic invaders themselves, the greater threat in India was always the doctrine of jihad (which most Hindus don’t understand even today) and the sheer barbarity and inhumanity of the Arab, Afghan and Turk warlords and invaders. The wanton destruction of villages, towns, razing of temples, destruction of idols, mass execution of Brahmins, genocides of whole towns, rape and assault on women, enslavement and children, loot of wealth and burning of universities like Nalanda, all commanded and sanctioned by religions, was something India had never witnessed before the rise of Abrahamic faiths. Despite these unimaginably brutal circumstances, India continued to excel in science, maths, grammar and arts, and well into 18th century continued producing top quality research based on indigenous Dharmic systems and epistemology,  till the British drove the final nail in the coffin and systematically destroyed and disrupted indigenous Sanskrit/ local language based education, and instead introduced English based education intended only “to create a narrow class of interpreters between the governors and the governed”. As Shashi Tharoor points out [4]:

It was clear from their budgeting that they were not going to invest money in educating Indians. Will Durant, the American historian in the 1930s, noted that the entire budget of British India for education amounted to less than half the high school budget of the state of New York in 1930 … They brought in just enough English to serve their purposes to give them a class of clerks.

After 200 years of exploitative British rule where the British administrators destroyed native education system, indigenous healthcare systems, wiped out native industries like handlooms, imposed punitive taxes, created the caste system, caused genocides of full tribes by labeling them criminals (thugee for example) and causing famines (like the Bengal famine), India was plunged into illiteracy, poverty and general backwardness, from which it is still recovering after almost 70 years of having gotten rid of the last colonizers. The India today is but a pale shadow of the Hindustan of the 18th century which itself was but a pale shadow of the Bharat that flourished 1000 years ago.

Let us now look at some of India’s enduring contribution to humanity.

Numbers, Geometry and Calculus

One of the greatest and most monumental achievements of humans has been to figure out how to count easily, effectively and efficiently. We take the decimal number system for granted. We take the zero for granted. We can use our fingers to add two numbers. We can quickly take a pen and paper and find out the product of two large number using digit multiplication, shift and add. But this was not always the case. Europeans, till around 15th century in some parts of Western Europe, were still using the notoriously unscientific Roman number system, where multiplying two numbers, say LXXIII and XXXVII would take people 2-3 days, and people would typically use a primitive device known as an abacus.

Figure 2 Europeans used Abacus well into 15th century because they couldn’t understand decimal numbers (Base 10)

The result for those interested is MMDCCI, and I would request the readers to please attempt the calculations, without conversion to decimal, and share in the comments section how much time it took you. Since India had been using decimal place value system from ancient times, a typical Indian could do the same calculation of 73 X 37 = 2701 in a matter of minutes.

From very early times, we find that Hindus had a very good sense of decimal number system and zero. For example in Yajur Veda we already find example of large numbers to the tune of 10^12 (parardha). The Greeks and Romans, using as they were an unscientific number system, could never cross 10,000. In fact the later Buddhist work Lalitavistara, talks about 10^53 (1 followed by 53 zeroes) called tallakshana. So we must immediately dispel two myths, about India’s contribution being only zero and superiority of Greco-Roman mathematics.

  1. India taught the world how to count and gave them the full package deal of decimal number system and zero as placeholder.
  2. Ancient Greeks and Romans, and even latter Europeans well up to 15th century were extremely poor in Mathematics, and most of the stories of European advances in maths, astronomy etc. must be treated with a pinch of salt.

If Europeans were so poor in maths and basic counting till 15th century, how did Newton and Leibniz suddenly “invent” calculus within a few years of each other in the 17th century? It must be remembered that it was during the 15th-16th century when the Portuguese colonial expedition to India was in full swing that a large number of Indian texts were translated and brought back to Europe. Another route was the transmission of Indian texts on mathematics and science via Arab countries to Europe where they were translated into Latin and other European languages, just as Europe was emerging out of its dark ages.

India on the other hand had a millennia old track record of mathematical development starting from basic enumeration, abstract algebraic formulations in Sulba Sutras, to the works of Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, Bhaskara all the way to differential and integral calculations of the Kerala school of mathematics. Unbiased and impartial scholars of mathematics have no problems in accepting the fact that it was the Hindu mathematicians who gave the world what is today known as calculus, the bedrock of modern engineering mathematics and rocket science, something which Newton and Leibniz appropriated without acknowledgement [5].

Not only calculus, Seidenberg who is considered the greatest historian of mathematics, clearly states that geometry as a discipline originated from a society resembling Vedic society [6]. For more on ancient mathematics please refer to the seminal text “Hindu Mathematics” by Datta and Singh (1938) and to the works of C.K. Raju, who systematically dismantles the myth of western mathematical superiority. See also M.D. Srinivas and Ram Subramanian’s works for understanding the tremendous achievement of Hindu mathematicians and astronomers.

Linguistics

Panini was a brilliant scholar and grammarian who lived around 10th century BCE or earlier, although western sources place him around 5th century BCE. Panini’s treatise on Sanskrit grammar called Ashtadhyayi deals with advanced linguistic concepts like context-sensitive rules, zero-morpheme, meta-languages etc., which Western linguists were able to appreciate as late as 20th-21st century. The entire field of modern day linguistics traces its origin to the west’s “discovery” of Sanskrit and Sanskrit grammar in the 18th century.

Figure 3

In fact, it was after Europe’s interaction with India that European languages came up with structured grammars of their own languages modeled on Paninian grammar. Noam Chomsky is considered one of the foremost American linguist and cognitive scientist with tremendous contribution to the field of computer science and language processing. In his paper “Evidence of Hindu Religion on the Theory of Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar”, Koot Van Wyk traces the appropriation, mostly with acknowledgement, of Panini’s grammatical concepts by many western linguists over the last 200 years and he discusses the influence of Panini on an entire lineage of Western linguists including Jacob Grimm, Rasmus Rask, Bopp, Whitney, Schlegel, Humboldt, Saussure, Bloomfield, Staal and Chomsky. [7] As Rajiv Malhotra points out:

A key figure in this East-West influence was Saussure, a Professor of Sanskrit in Geneva, and an ardent scholar of Panini. He later moved to Sorbonne, where he taught the famous lecture series on linguistics. The notes from this series were compiled later by his students into the published work that is still regarded as the “origin” of Structuralism. But it is amazing that this published work by his students did not even mention Panini or Sanskrit or any Indic works at all! What a blackout! [8]

For more on Indian knowledge systems and Paninian traditions, please refer to the works of Prof Kapil Kapoor.

Ecology

In Abrahamic faiths like Christianity, Islam and Judaism, man is the center of the universe and everything else is for use of man. We have seen how this this world view has panned out over the centuries in terms of environmental degradation, destruction of bio-diversity, extinction of animals and birds, deforestation and global warming. Hindu thought, on the other hand since the earliest times, being based on Dharmic principles of sustainability, and reverence for environment and bio-diversity, has shaped how Hindus viewed the world around them. Whether it is the sacredness of the heavens and earth as an integral unity (dyavaprithivi), or deification or rivers like Ganga, Sarasvati and Yamuna, or sacredness of vahanas of God like mouse, tiger and so on, or sacredness of mountains, trees, animals and rocks for puja, or the sacredness of the cow, Hindu India promoted environmental consciousness and preservation through a scared ecology or what is today known as “spiritual ecology.”

However today in India we follow the western model of unrestrained resource utilization, having forgotten our ecological roots. On the other hand, the west has tapped into our Indic ecological civilizational assets and developed what has today become a hot field of study in the West. As Michel Danino points out [9]:

…other movements have tried to move on to a “spiritual” view of nature, inspired by a wide range of perspectives from Thoreau’s Walden to Rudolf Steiner to the British biochemist James Lovelock’s well-known Gaia theory, in which the earth is seen as a conscious superorganism — not unlike (for its philosophical aspect alone) the ancient Indian view of the planet as Bhu or Prithvi. Since then, environmental thinkers, such as Arne Naess, Henryk Skolimowski, David Suzuki and many more, have called for a “deep ecology”, “ecosophy”, “spiritual ecology” or “spiritual environmentalism”.

Globalization and International Trade

Globalization is a big deal today, and in India, as many have pointed out, we think that to be globalized we must become westernized and give up our Dharmic way of life. However Westernization is only one (and a rather weak one at that) form of globalization, and India historically had been a pioneer in Dharmic globalization spreading all the way from Central Asia to South East Asia. This globalization was neither based on unbridled consumerism nor on colonial domination and exploitation, nor on imperialistic ambitions but rather on the spread of culture without violence. Noted historian A.L. Basham observes [10]:

By the fifth century CE, Indianized states, that is to say states organized along the traditional lines of Indian political theory and following the Buddhist or Hindu religions, had established themselves in many regions of Burma, Thailand, Indo-China, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Figure 4 Temples acted like venture capitalists and provided seed funding

By 650 CE, huge corporate guilds / multi-national corporations based on Hindu principles developed and operated out of southern India, conducting international trade and commerce based on Dharmic principles.  For more than 600 years they conducted flourishing trade generating immense wealth and prosperity. They were typically provided seed money or funding by the Hindu temples, which played the same role as modern day banks [11]. Thus not only were temples merely religious and educational institutes, they contributed to the entrepreneurial development of India and played the role of venture capitalists. With the large scale destruction of temples by invading Muslim warlords and tyrants starting from 8th century CE, India lost its religious, social, educational and banking system.

Concluding Remarks

With this we come to the end of the series Indian History in Perspective. As we had pointed out in the first part, school text books on India typically focus on the political history especially of the last 1000 years and focus more on Mughal kingdom and British rule, rather than giving a well-rounded history starting from ancient times. The result of such flawed education has been that Indian children either end up hating India or are indifferent to her past glory and miserable plight after 1500 years of savage invasions and being ruled by alien cultures.

In this series we have thus attempted to present a sweeping canvas of Indian history from ancient times to present day in terms of migration patterns, society, culture, science, technology, mathematics, agriculture and spirituality, in a way which is at once uplifting, exciting and inspiring. Starting from the Narmada man who lived on the banks of Narmada River 300,000 years ago, to migration of people out of India 50,000 years ago to populate the world, to planned townships of Sarasvati-Sindhu civilization, to the mythical Aryan-Dravidian divide, we have covered a lot of ground. We also took a slight detour to understand the evolution of secularism in India as it is an important topic in itself. We ended the series by focusing on some of the major contributions of Indians to humanity and world civilization.

References

[1] http://www.jagran.com/bihar/aurangabad-shankaracharya-said-bhagwan-buddha-and-gautam-buddha-were-different-persons-14167888.html

[2] https://bharatabharati.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/the-tamil-veda-koenraad-elst/

[3] http://tarekfatah.com/what-islamic-invaders-really-did-to-india/

[4] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2017/03/22/to-give-the-british-credit-for-things-that-were-never-intended-to-benefit-india-is-a-mistake-shashi-tharoor/

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaodCGDjqzs

[6] http://www.ias.ac.in/article/fulltext/reso/007/04/0004-0019

[7] http://research.avondale.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1115&context=theo_papers

[8] https://rajivmalhotra.com/library/articles/geopolitics-sanskrit-phobia/

[9] http://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2016/dec/05/indias-own-sacred-ecology-1545655–2.html

[10] A Cultural History of India, 1975

[11] The Ocean of Churn, Sanjeev Sanyal

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Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is an Independent Management Consultant associated with the Education and Agriculture Sector. He has a keen interest in Indian history from a civilizational perspective, Hindu science and technology and in Tantra Shastra. He has authored three books “The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam”, “Ashoka the Ungreat” and “Legendary Mughal Kings” and is based out of Kolkata.