According to the celebrated American author of The Story of Civilization, Will Durant, “It is true that even across the Himalayan barrier, India has sent to the West such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system.
India was the mother of our race and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages. She was the mother of our philosophy, mother through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics, mother through Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity, mother through village communities of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.”
Despite India’s extraordinary civilisational achievements being well documented by respected Western scholars, accurate knowledge of the country’s history has seldom entered the public domain, most especially in Britain.
This blog post about an India that many of us know little about, lists the fifteen ground-breaking contributions that India has made to the lives that all of us lead today in Britain, and around the world.
“..India has sent to the West such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system. She was the mother of our philosophy..of much of our mathematics..of the ideals embodied in Christianity..of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.” Will Durant.
1. The Indian/Hindu Numeral System:
Few people are aware that the numbers that we all use today are an Indian invention. Often referred to as Arabic numerals, after the Arab traders who brought Indian mathematical concepts to the West, this path-breaking Indian invention replaced the cumbersome Roman numeral system in use in the West until then, and stands as one of the greatest human inventions of all time.
“We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made.” Albert Einstein.
The ingenious Indian system succeeded where the efforts of other great civilisations failed, and today underpins the foundation of modern mathematics and its infinite uses in our day-to-day lives.
Beyond the numeral system itself, a number of other critical mathematical principles also have their routes in India, whose scientific texts and discoveries were regularly studied by foreign scholars, from Greek philosophers to Arab mathematicians, and from British inventors to Nazi and Cold War era rocket and nuclear scientists.
2. Carburised Steel:
Ancient Indians were known pioneers in metallurgy, and had mastered the production of high quality steel more than two thousand years before the process was finally demystified (including through the scientific investigations of Michael Faraday) in Britain and Europe. The legendary Indian Wootz Steel was a source of astonishment to other great civilisations from Ancient Greece to Persia, and from Arabia to Ancient Rome. It was so advanced and prized that it was selected by King Porus as a gift over the gold and silver also offered to him by Alexander the Great.
The ancient Indian technique of making high quality steel today forms the basis of modern steel production for everything from the vehicles we travel in, to the cutlery we eat with. Barely seven decades after independence, India has again become a world leader in metallurgy and high quality steel production.
3. Contributions to Western Philosophy:
Historians are well aware that the Ancient Greeks and Romans were infatuated with India, just as our forefathers in Britain were during the early modern era. As much as the Ancient Greeks marvelled over Indian technology, town planning and state craft, they also actively sought new ideas and thoughts from India’s Vedic scriptures and philosophers, as well as by learning at ancient Indian universities such as Taxila and Nalanda.
Many scholars have pointed to significant Indian contributions to Ancient Greek philosophy, often portrayed as the foundation of human – and certainly Western – philosophy. In a thorough recent analysis in The Shape of Ancient Thought, American scholar Thomas McEvilley also details how Indian philosophy directly influenced key facets of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy.
“Is it not probable that the Brahmins were the first legislators of the earth, the first philosophers, the first theologians – The Greeks, before the time of Pythagoras, travelled into India for instruction.” Voltaire.
4. Clothing the world:
Another revolutionary Indian contribution was the development, production and use of cotton textiles for clothing. The Ancient Greeks were initially not even familiar with cotton, instead often wearing animal skins until the wars of Alexander the Great, during which they discovered and started using Indian garments, which essentially clothe all of us today.
“Hundreds of years before the Christian era, cotton textiles were woven in India with matchless skill, and their use spread to the Mediterranean countries.” The Columbia Encyclopedia.
For us in Britain, it is important to be aware that one of the pillars of our wealth as a modern nation, and a foundation of our industrial revolution, was directly derived from knowledge and experience of high quality textiles production and trade gained in India, as well as what many economic historians argue was the deliberate dismantling of India’s pioneering textiles industry. In his book The Political Economy of Imperialism, Dan Nadudere states that “It was by destroying the Indian textile industry that the British textile industry ever came up at all.”
For a broader understanding of an India that few of us are aware of, I would recommend watching the brilliant British historian Michael Wood’s The Story of India.
“If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions, I should point to India.” Max Mueller.
5. Ancient Democracy:
The ancient republic of Athens has long been considered the oldest non-tribal, organised democracy in the world. During the modern era, racially motivated European ‘historians’ distorted or simply re-wrote significant Indian and colonial historical achievements, from pettily changing the date of the life and death of the revered Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, to make it appear as if he lived after Pericles and Socrates, to omitting known references to the existence of ancient Indian republics, known as Gana-Sangha (equal assembly), or Gana-Rajya (equal government).
In the same vein, the history of the ancient Indian republic of Vaishali, which dates back to 600 BCE – almost a century before the institution of Athenian republican democracy – was also ‘adjusted’ to support colonial propaganda of the day. Ironically, Ancient Greece itself demonstrated significant respect and attraction towards India and its achievements, but the legacy of modern-era colonial propaganda in this and many other facets of our collective history, remain with us to this day.
“Through such chronological manipulations, the threat that the Indian past presents to the Greek miracle [as postulated by European supremacists] is defused by chronology.” Thomas McEvilley.
Another completely distinct and more widely known ancient form of Indian democracy is the localised ‘panchayat’ system, which literally means an ‘assembly of five’ wise and respected elders. Unlike ancient Indian city and state-level republics, panchayats started as a form of localised grassroots democracy more than three thousand years ago, have survived the rise and fall of repeated conquests and empires, and are still a central feature of India’s modern democratic apparatus.
“India was the mother of..village communities of self-government and democracy.” Will Durant.
6. Water on the Moon:
One of Independent India’s most notable contributions to modern space exploration occurred between 2008 and 2009, with Chandrayaan-1, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) first dedicated lunar mission.
ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) carried both ISRO and NASA instruments, of which the Indian ‘Moon Impact Probe’ first detected the presence of lunar water. This was achieved three months before NASA’s ‘Moon Mineralogy Mapper’ (also part of Chandrayaan-1) made the same breakthrough, to which the discovery of lunar water is often attributed.
“We want to thank ISRO for making the discovery possible. The moon till now was thought to be a very dry surface with lot of rocks.” Jim Green, NASA Director.
7. Einstein’s Quantum Statistics:
The scientifically advanced Germans have long been considered to be some of the world’s most ardent Indologists.
“It [The Upanishads] is the most satisfying and elevating reading which is possible in the world; it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.” Arthur Schopenhauer.
Prominent German genii from Albert Einstein to the Nazi scientists and inventors who later migrated to the United States or USSR, were eager students of Indian texts such as the remarkably advanced Upanishads. Such texts were often referenced during the 20th Century race to create nuclear technology, space rockets, jet engines and even mind control technologies, all of which are examined in India’s ancient texts.
“India – the land of Vedas, the remarkable works contain not only religious ideas for a perfect life, but also facts which science has proved true. Electricity, radium, electronics, airship, all were known to the seers who founded the Vedas.” Wheeler Wilcox.
Like many Indian inventors before him, the 20th Century Bengali scientist Satyendra Nath Bose is one of modern science’s unheralded heroes. His work provided the foundations for quantum statistics, which were later endorsed, developed and published by Einstein; the 2001 Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to German and US scientists for their study of condensates, which was in fact first conducted by – and even named after – Bose; the widely covered ‘God Particle’, the Higgs-Boson, is deservedly known to be attributed to Peter Higgs, the British genius behind the Higgs particle. The other, less well known half of the Higgs-Boson is named yet again after Bose, for his ground-breaking contributions to particle physics.
8. Radio/Wireless Communication:
Guglielmo Marconi has for long been credited as the inventor of wireless radio communication. He subsequently received the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.
The first public demonstration of the use of radio waves for communication, however, was made by an Indian scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose. Bose first demonstrated the use of radio in Calcutta, in 1895, two years before a similar demonstration by Marconi in England. More than a century after the feat, Bose has been belatedly credited for his achievement.
Bose’s revolutionary demonstration forms the foundation of the technology used in mobile telephony, radars, satellite communication, radios, television broadcast, WiFi, remote controls and countless other applications that play a central role in our daily lives.
“The inventor (J.C. Bose) has transmitted signals to a distance of nearly a mile and herein lies the first and obvious and exceedingly valuable application of this new theoretical marvel.” The Daily Chronicle, England, 1896.
9. The ‘Zero’ (0):
Little needs to be written about the ‘zero’, one of the most important inventions of all time. This mathematical digit and concept also has a direct link to the ancient philosophy of ‘nothingness’, and is one of many examples of the intermeshing of science and mathematics with spirituality and philosophy in ancient India.
“In the whole history of mathematics, there has been no more revolutionary step than the one which India made when they invented zero.” Lancelot Hogben.
Other critical branches of mathematics such as Calculus, attributed to Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, were developed to an almost identical formula by Indian mathematicians, hundreds of years before Newton & Leibniz’s findings. Similarly, the Pythagorean-theorem had been developed in India a century before an almost identical revelation in Greece.
“The study of mathematics in the West has long been characterized by a certain ethnocentric bias, a bias which most often manifests not in explicit racism, but in a tendency toward undermining or eliding the real contributions made by non-Western civilizations. The debt owed by the West to other civilizations, and to India in particular, go back to the earliest epoch of the “Western” scientific tradition, the age of the classical Greeks, and continued up until the dawn of the modern era, the renaissance, when Europe was awakening from its dark ages…
Due to the legacy of colonialism, the exploitation of which was ideologically justified through a doctrine of racial superiority, the contributions of non-European civilizations were often ignored, or, as George Ghevarughese Joseph argued, even distorted, in that they were often misattributed as European.” Dr. David Gray.
10. Complex Hydraulic Engineering:
Since the time of the Indus Valley civilisation over 5,000 years ago, and until the onset of the European colonial era in the recent past, India had created and sustained a vast and highly advanced network of canals, along with intricate irrigation, water management and sewage systems. These sewage systems were so advanced that they were designed to automatically self-clear systems blockages, as well as account for smell and odour. The world’s first flush toilets were also in use in India over 3,000 years ago, and were a feature of most homes in the Indus Valley Civilisation – the largest ancient civilisation in the world.
According to American author of historical revisionism, David Hatcher Childress, ancient India’s plumbing-sewage systems were so sophisticated that they are still superior to those of many developing countries today. Large public baths were also in existence in the Indus Valley Civilisation, thousands of years before the creation of similar Roman baths.
“A wonder to modern-day researchers, the cities [were] highly developed and advanced. A remarkable early example of city planning.” David Hatcher Childress.
A system of canals similar to those created by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 19th Century – although infinitely larger and more complex – existed in India for thousands of years, and was the lifeblood of what was, for the majority of recorded human history until the colonial era, the world’s largest economy.
Edmund Burke, a prominent British supporter of American revolutionaries and the philosophical father of the modern Conservative party, repeatedly condemned the damage that British dominion had done to India, and specifically pointed to the callous ruination of painstakingly built Indian reservoir systems which had succeeded for thousands of years in keeping dry regions fertile, and India’s people self sufficient, nourished, and prosperous.
“In the happier times of India, a number almost incredible of reservoirs have been made in chosen places throughout the whole country. There cannot be in the Carnatic and Tanjore [alone] fewer than ten thousand of these reservoirs of the larger and middling dimensions.” Edmund Burke.
From an advanced understanding of the human nervous system, muscles and organs, to the use of vaccination techniques; from an almost infinite collection of naturally sourced drugs to the employment of holistic preventative medicine; and from a focus on fortifying immunity to mastery of the concepts of digestion and metabolism, ancient Indians have shaped the very foundations of modern medicine and healthcare.
“Indian medicine dealt with the whole area of the science. Much attention was devoted to hygiene, to the regimen of the body, and to diet.
Arabic medicine was founded on the translations from the Sanskrit treatise, made by command of the Kaliphs of Baghdad, 750-960 AD. European medicine, down to the 17th Century, was based upon the Arabic; and the name of the Indian physician Charaka repeatedly occurs in the Latin translations.” Sir William Hunter, British Historian.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, many of the herbs and spices used in Indian cuisine were not merely added to preserve or flavour food, but instead to effortless combine preventative medicine with everyday sustenance. According to the timeless Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda, it is actually considered irresponsible and representative of a poor lifestyle to even have to resort to medicine, with preventative natural medicine, i.e. herbs and spices, ingested through daily meals being the preferred option. More than 2,000 years ago, the principal contributor to Ayurveda articulated:
“It is more important to prevent the occurrence of disease than to seek a cure.” Acharya Charaka, the ‘Father of Medicine’.
12. Surgery: The concepts, operative methodologies and specialised tools of surgery that were used in India more than 2,000 years ago and first postulated during an even earlier Vedic period, and are still being developed in 21st Century Europe.
From plastic surgery that is similar in technique and approach to its modern manifestations, to highly developed midwifery, and from usage of anaesthesia to the employment of advanced childcare techniques, these much studied ancient Indian skills again form the foundation of much of our modern knowledge of surgery.
Under the Buddhist Emperor Asoka, ancient India also built a vast network of animal hospitals in which specialised veterinary surgery was also common.
“The surgery of the ancient Indian physicians was bold and skilful. A special branch of surgery was dedicated to rhinoplasty or operations for improving deformed ears, noses and forming new ones, which European surgeons have borrowed.” Sir William Hunter.
13. Religious Tolerance: Whilst Buddhism has historically sought to seek converts through peaceful persuasion, and whilst Indian religions do accept conversions to their faith, none of India’s indigenous faiths have a history of forceful conversions, and are instead identified by their pluralistic nature.
“It is an undoubted fact that in India, religions and philosophical thinkers were able to enjoy perfect, nearly absolute freedom for a long period. The freedom of thought in ancient India was so considerable as to find no parallel in the West before the most recent age.” Max Weber, German Sociologist.
Ironically, Hinduism and Buddhism have still succeeded spectacularly in spreading their message from India to vast swathes of the Far East, Indonesia to Japan, and from Thailand to China.
“India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border”. Hu Shih, Philosopher & Former Chinese Ambassador to the United States.
This non-proselytising disposition is central to the broader religious tolerance that defines Indian culture, as well as the avowedly secular character of modern India (in India, ‘secular’ means tolerant of all religions, as opposed to the European definition of non-religious). The current Prime Minister of a predominantly Hindu nation of 1.2 billion people, for instance, is from the minority Sikh community, which forms only 2% of the population; India’s Chief of the Air Staff is a Christian (2.3%); the three most prominent film stars in India’s iconic film industry – and the revered recent President of India, Professor A.P.J. Abdul Kalam – are all Muslims (14.6%); one of the world’s most prominent businessmen, Rata Tata, is an Indian Parsi (0.006%).
Historically, India has also been a long-standing refuge for persecuted minorities, with Zoroastrian Iranians (referred to as Parsis) and Jewish communities in particular having fled other parts of the world to make India a home when other major powers pursued systematic campaigns of discrimination and anti-Semitism, if not outright persecution, against them.
“The Bene Israel flourished for 2,400 years in a tolerant land that has never known anti-Semitism, and were successful in all aspects of the socio-economic and cultural life of the people of the region.” Avotaynu (the Jewish genealogical magazine).
More a civilisational contribution than a ‘discovery’, the active promotion of kindness and strict nonviolence as a rudiment of life spans the entirety of India’s known history, from the ancient concepts of ‘Ahimsa’, to Mahatma Gandhi’s policy of ‘Satyagraha’ (insistence on truth). It forms a core of the Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh traditions, encompasses words as well as physical actions, and extends beyond humans to animals and the environment.
Unlike most great powers, past and present, India is unique in its long-standing history of not having precipitated military invasions of foreign territories. This is in spite of India having been the world’s most pre-eminent economic power for the majority of recorded human history.
15. Gender Equality: Another civilisational contribution, India, by the deplorably low standards of mankind, and of men in particular, yet again set early standards for humanity in the advancement of the rights of women.
Gender equality was a cornerstone of ancient Hindu texts and life, with women possessing joint ownership of property rights with men, and, inconceivably for the time, being allowed to divorce. The ancient institution of ‘Swayamvara’ was a practice whereby a potential bride chose a husband from a congregation of suitors whose aim was to win her over. ‘Swayam’ in Sanskrit means self and ‘vara’ means choice or desire.
The ancient Kama Sutra is a highly evolved (even by today’s standards) guide to harmonious relationships, family life, love, intimacy and gracious co-existence. Contrary to popular Western perceptions of the text being a ‘sex manual’, the Kama Sutra also postulates physical, spiritual and mental equality between both sexes, and is derived from one of the core pillars of Hindu philosophy, ‘kama’, which means enjoyment or passion. It was written during the era of barbarian invasions in Europe, and approximately 1,500 years before similar wisdom became freely acceptable in modern Britain.
My own faith, Sikhism, insists that any person irrespective of age or gender can lead prayer, community activity or even an entire army based on merit alone. Consequently, Guru Harkrishan became the eighth Guru of Sikhism as a five year old child, and many young girls and boys have been known to conduct prayers at Sikh temples.
A number of matriarchal communities, in which descent and inheritance is traced through maternal lineage, have existed in India for thousands of years. Matrilineal communities in modern India include the Nair, Bunt and Khasi communities. Khasi women are still known to marry multiple husbands, which has resulted in a male rights movement amongst Khasi men.
Threats to the relatively advanced rights of women in India initially came during the later Vedic age via texts such as the Smritis, which encouraged misogyny. They were further embedded through the imposition of seclusive policies such as the ‘pardah’ (veil) imposed by the Moghuls, and were additionally entrenched by the imposition of Victorian value systems and policies during colonial rule, which led to a rapid and marked decline in the status of Indian women in the modern era. I have often stated that the re-emergence of 21st Century India will not and cannot be complete by virtue of economic success or scientific prowess alone, but instead through the re-assertion of the primacy of women throughout Indian society, as per the best traditions of a much stifled indigenous culture.
“India of the Vedas entertained a respect for women amounting to worship. Here is a civilization, which places the woman on a level with the man and gives her an equal place in the family and in society.” Louis Jaccoliot, French Author.
*Abhaey Singh is the Chairman of Kauzala, and the President of the Indian Debating Union. He is best known for his talks on India, and his popular rap video ‘Talk It Out – Debaters’ Rhapsody‘ which promotes civilised debate.